How not to learn Japanese

24 Feb


I’ve been learning Japanese, with little real success, for years. It’s often said that language learners ‘plateau’ at the intermediate to upper-intermediate level. I can’t say whether that’s the case for me as I’ve never been there. My perfect opportunity for learning Japanese came when I was living and working in Osaka, but I was far too busy having fun. An elderly Japanese lady at a volunteer centre kindly taught me the two phonemic alphabets, katakana and hiragna (resorting to the use of children’s alphabet bricks and mild corporal punishment), then any language I needed for survival – ordering beer, identifying words for raw, grilled and fried, and finding out where trains were going – I picked up from friends and acquaintances.

It was only when I came back to the UK that I started studying the language. I couldn’t find a suitable class, so I bought some books and quickly discovered that many books for learning Japanese are, for want of a better word, crap. I started with ‘Japanese for Busy People’. It felt like a journey back to the 1970s. To be fair, the books do cover the essential grammar and vocabulary you need, but the edition I had was just so uninspiring, centering around the dullard businessman Mr Smith (Smith-san) as he plods from one situation to the next, sucking all the joy out of learning a language. (Quick caveat here, this series of books has been revised since I was using them, so perhaps they’re a little more accessible now?)


Having given up on ‘Busy People’ I then moved on to an entirely Japanese text book – no English rubrics or explanations of grammar points – ‘Minna no Nihongo’. I think there are bilingual versions available, but the version I had was Japanese throughout, and whilst I struggled, I did at least feel I was making some progress. However, even more than the ‘Busy People’, ‘Minna no Nihongo’ was dull: very few illustrations, dense text and clumsy layout. Having initially embraced the challenge, after a few months I simply lost interest.


And that’s when I started to explore options beyond books. I began with ‘My Japanese Coach’, a fun game / learning tool available for the Nintendo DS (and possibly other devices) that helps you to build up vocabulary, practise writing Japanese characters, including kanji, and even goes some way to helping you understand sentence structure and grammar. I found it immediately accessible, but it was an academic light-weight. The kind of tool you could make use of to supplement your learning, but nowhere near comprehensive enough to really help anyone master a language, and completely lacking any kind of use as reference material. I still go back to it now and again to practise writing kanji. Unlike elderly Japanese ladies, it can’t administer slaps to the back of my hand if I get the stroke order of the characters wrong, but it does at least mark my work.


And then we move on to apps and online learning. Our future is mobile, apparently, and although I’m far too tight to spend any real money on apps, I have downloaded a few ‘learn Japanese’ apps on my smartphone, and have made some half-hearted attempts at playing around with Memrise (the best free online resource I’ve found so far).


However, as with the Nintendo DS, it always feels like these digital resources are providing little more than a bit of vocabulary practice. So, now I’m back to books and I’m currently embracing ‘Nihongo Challenge’, working towards a Japanese proficiency test with three different books that focus on kanji, grammar and vocabulary / reading. This series seems comprehensive, well structured and accessible, and finally I feel like I’m making some progress. But because of the books or because I now have an achievable goal of a proficiency test to work towards?

nihongo challenge

Deep down I know that the key to learning a language isn’t really about picking the right book or mobile app, it’s about embracing the language and the culture around it. Immersing yourself in it at every opportunity and having the motivation to learn. It’s what I consider to be the ‘Danny Choo’ approach. An East London boy done good, Danny has written about his discovery of Japan – including his language learning journey – on his Culture Japan site. It’s a sad, yet ultimately inspiring and fascintating story, well worth reading.

Interestingly, Danny is now himself starting to branch out into ‘fun educational’ products (fuducational?), with Moekana flashcards.


And if he were to ever release a mobile app for learning Japanese, that’s something I’d probably invest in. Ultimately though, as Danny himself has proved, with real desire anything is possible and a determined person will find a way to learn a language no matter what resources they have (or don’t have) available to them. I’ve got the books, I’ve got the apps, what I really need is the passion and the motivation.


One Response to “How not to learn Japanese”

  1. Mkrtcho February 25, 2013 at 1:08 pm #

    Something funny about me, my teacher said “you are weird, because you memorize kanji much better than kana!”. I can’t remember kana very well, don’t understand why I can’t memorize those. 🙂

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