A while ago, someone asked me what it’s like in the beginning. What it was like for me when starting on this journey to becoming one with Japanese. It’s a great question, and I think the answer will be valuable, so here are some points I thought up.
1. It’s scary
When starting out Japanese, the idea itself is intimidating. You see a wallful of kanji, and it’s intimidating. You see a pageful of Japanese, and it’s intimidating. You hear real Japanese, and it’s intimidating. After all, how are you supposed to learn all that? No WAY! No WAY! It’s too much, it’s too scary. If I just read a lot then in the near future I’ll be able to do that? To understand that? Pull the other one! Well, you will.
2. You only understand a little
I say to watch TV and movies, listen to music, eat food, hang out with people, all in Japanese. But, yeah, you won’t understand a lot of it. But that’s why you have to expose yourself to it. Because I guarantee you will pick up one word. Now, look up that word. Get an example sentence with that word in it. OK, back to TV. Pick up another word. Get an example sentence of with that word in it. OK, back to TV. ‘Nother word. ‘Nother sentence. Back to TV. Repeat…You see where this is going? What’s that, you picked up a phrase? A sentence? A scene? You go on, building, growing, increasing until the situation inverts such that eventually you’re no longer looking up the one and only word you do understand, you’re looking up the one and only word you don’t understand.
No matter how complex and impossible it may seem, remember that there are a finite number of words used in Japanese. It’s spoken daily by a finite number of human beings who learned it in a finite time with finite resources using their finite energy, just like you. You may have far to go, but it’s far from impossible. It may take time, but since you’re going to be spending the time anyway, you might as well spend it learning Japanese.
Using authentic materials — that is, materials created by and for native speakers of Japanese, is hard work. But it’s a good gauge of where you are, and it can actually be really motivating; it’s a living reminder of what you’re shooting for. To make the things easier, I would suggest you do two things.
a. Initially, do use materials intended for learners of Japanese, but always have real Japanese in your immersion environment, and start to gradually wean yourself off Japanese-English materials as soon as you can.
b. No matter what your level, always feel free to use and enjoy materials that were originally in your native/base language, but have been translated into Japanese by pros. Hollywood movies are a great example. Watch American movies and TV shows dubbed into Japanese. Right now, I’m big into Princeton Break, I mean, Prison Break. Wentworth Earl Miller III is my new favorite action hero. And like Crystal Kay, he is, in fact, black.
3. Failure is the mother of success
This is true of both input (reading, understanding) and output (writing, speaking). You’re going to “fail”. A lot. “Fail” is a strong word, but it’s the only short one I could think up. Every time you don’t know what something means or how to say it, we call it a “failure”. You recover from this failure by either inferring what could be meant, restating/rewording yourself, consulting a person or dictionary for the correct way to say something, or some combination thereof. And after each of these “failures”, you make sure to enter it into your SRS, so that you’ll remember it. The next time you are in a similar situation, you will not “succeed”; eventually you’ll increase your successes and reduce your failures to a point that you can be called fluent.
4. The Exam Effect
Another thing I will add is this: once in a while, when you look up a new word in order to understand a sentence, you may still be standing there not knowing what the sentence means even though you know what every individual word in the sentence means. No matter. Learn example sentences that use that word where you DO know what the sentence means. Some time later, you will come back to the original sentence, and you will understand it completely, and you’ll wonder what all the fuss was about.
I don’t really know why this is. Maybe there’s just some background knowledge of the underlying linguistic logic of Japanese that’s lacking. It’s like when you’re taking an exam, and you read a question and you’re completely stumped (like, “WTF? This is gibberish; there goes my GPA”) and you skip over the question, but then you come back to it later, and it makes perfect sense, you answer it instantly, your GPA is saved and you get to keep your scholarship. The only difference is that, in the case of a Japanese sentence, the time will be on the order of weeks rather than hours.
5. Work Now, Payoff Later
Let me be frank. Mining for sentences is fun, but it’s intense and it can get tiring.
Payoff comes later. That’s why it matters to much that you enjoy your study materials, because you will be using and reusing them so brutally. You’re going to watch Independence Day a lot, and you’re going to wear out the “pause” button on your remote. You’re going to keep pausing it and mining the subtitles for new words. So if Independence Day bores you, your life will start sucking. Conversely, if it doesn’t, then things are good, and you can keep pausing and mining for hours on end.
Because you work so hard on the material, you don’t get to sit back and relax with it as much. This does take out some of the enjoyment. Not a lot, just a tiny deduction because you’re exerting yourself so much. So make sure you watch and listen to things you really, really enjoy, in order that you don’t feel that much of an enjoyment deduction.
This is not at all to say that work in the beginning sucks; it’s fun; it is fun. But the true reward comes later—days, weeks and months down the line when you’re doing something else and you again hit that word you had learned a while ago and that you’ve been diligently reviewing in your SRS, and you know exactly what that word means because you learnt it and you know it and it’s yours, and not only do you know what it means, but you know its reading too. Or you see a joke or a reference that you wouldn’t have understood if you hadn’t stopped and learned something a while ago. Or you’re sitting down, reading Japanese emails and you understand every word because you used to sentence-mine emails. THAT’S when the payoff comes—you get to coast (at least in some areas) because you had been revving up your engine so hard; you get to slide down the hill because you worked so hard to push your mental sled up it in the first place.
Let me give you a concrete personal example. The first time I read Neon Genesis Evangelion, I didn’t get to enjoy it that much. It was fun, but I wasn’t all curled up on a designer beanbag engrossed in the adventures of Rei and Shinji; I’d be walking to class or sitting up at my desk, highlighter in hand, circling words that I needed to look up or phrases that I wanted to remember; it was more like plowing a field than surfing. But months later, the second time through, I actually read it like a book; I lived the dream — poring through volume upon volume of Japanese text, unencumbered, enjoying it for enjoyment’s sake, on a beanbag. The payoff had come but it took a while.
The payoff will come for you, too. Just keep on keeping on. Now, if you’ll excuse me, Stargate SG-1 needs me to watch it…and laugh at Teal’c’s comically deep Japanese voice.