Learning Japanese – the Real Question

Whenever I talk about my Japanese studies with others, invariably I will get the question, “Why Japanese?” or “What are you going to do with Japanese?” These questions often put me on edge a little, and often bring out a bit of defensiveness in me, I have to admit.

On the other hand, as frustrating as these questions from others may be, I think that they are good questions to ask oneself. These questions are actually sub-questions to what I have come to think of as the real question. The real question in my eyes is: what relationship do you want with Japanese?

vlcsnap-2015-11-16-00h05m29s711If a language is to be more than a school subject, one is going to develop a relationship with the language. I took two years of French in high school, because I had heard that most colleges required two years of a foreign language for admission. French was a school subject for me.  I was a good student in high school, and I did well in most of my school subjects, including French. I did nothing with French beyond what was required in school, though, and I remember very little of French beyond “bon jour.” I never developed any relationship with French.

For those of us learning Japanese in the present day, we are blessed and cursed with a huge amount of random information and advice. There are treasures to be sure, but sorting through what is useful and what is not a job in and of itself. With Japanese, in particular, it can be even more overwhelming because one must start from scratch. While Japanese is not an inherently difficult language, it is nothing like English, or any other language for that matter. While linguists are in disagreement as to whether or not Japanese is a language isolate, the only language that one might know that is even remotely like it is perhaps Korean, which is still not very close. This means that unlike European languages, one must begin with Japanese from ground zero, which can be a huge task. Much of the advice and information out there concerns shortcuts to make this task smaller.

I think that pondering the relationship one is looking for with Japanese is really helpful in sorting through all of the information available, particularly with respect to any shortcuts one may wish to take.

This question has come to mind because I recently started studying two other languages, Swedish and Spanish.  My family is from Sweden, and I still have many relatives in Sweden. Some of the relatives came for my grandmother’s ninetieth birthday party, and I had a hard time explaining why I was immersed in studying Japanese when I could not even speak Swedish. I also saw how happy my grandmother was speaking Swedish…much happier than she ever was speaking English. About a month after the party, my grandmother passed. I want to maintain contact with my Swedish relatives, now that my connection through my grandmother is gone, and I want to read the books my grandmother left that were written about her home town, Billesholm.

With respect to Spanish, my goals are even more limited. I have a dear friend who lives in Mexico, who I plan on visiting in less than a month. I want to know enough Spanish in order to get back and forth to her house, to go to the store, and to order in restaurants. I also have a lovely book with beautiful pictures in Spanish about traditional textiles that was given to me by a friend a couple of years ago, which has commentary I might someday like to be able to read, but that is a very low priority.

With each of these languages, I have clear and limited goals about what I am looking to be able to do, which guides my studies. I am looking for a completely different relationship with Japanese. I want Japanese to be my default language, the language I use when I do not have to use a different language. I want Japanese to be my second mother tongue. Actually, more than this, if possible I would like it to replace English as the language that I think in. Why, when I live in the U.S., and I am likely to be living in the U.S. in the foreseeable future? Well, to put it simply, I like myself better in Japanese than I do in English. It is a spiritual journey for me. I am trying to raise myself in Japanese. I do not have a limited goal or objective; I want Japanese to be the central language of my life.

There is a rather famous website, “Fluent in 3 Months,” which raises the hackles of some Japanese learners and learners of other languages. Yet, when reading this site, the author rather clearly states his goals. He is a world traveler. He choose the time frame of 3 months because that was the average length of time of a travel visa. His aim is to learn a lot of languages so that he can enjoy his stay in many countries and be able to speak to the locals. There is nothing wrong with this goal, and it sounds like it could be a lot of fun. In order to achieve his goals, he takes many shortcuts, which are perfectly appropriate for his goals. For Swedish and Spanish, I might look at some of his advice (I recently looked there for advice on how to roll my r’s, for example, which one must do in both Swedish and Spanish); however, for Japanese, I probably would not, because my goals with Japanese are much, much different.

One area that this comes into play strongly is whether to and how one goes about learning kanji.  One of the most popular methods of learning kanji is the Heisig method, outlined in the book, Remembering the Kanji. It is a method designed to help one quickly learn the kanji, often before one learns any Japanese. It is designed as a shortcut to put the learner in the position of a Chinese native learning Japanese, who already knows the meaning of the kanji (and how to write them). Whether or not this is a good method, it does not fit with what I am trying to do with Japanese, which is to raise myself in it. I do not want to go into Japanese from the standpoint of a Chinese learner, but as much as I can from the standpoint of a Japanese child.

This being the case, I am going about learning kanji using the organic method as discussed on this site. In addition to that, I am learning how to write kanji. For me, learning to write feels like an important part of my Japanese upbringing. I am doing it slowly, though, using workbooks for Japanese children. I am now finishing up a 2nd grade kanji workbook, and I will be starting a 3rd grade workbook soon. Interestingly though, with the exception of one or two kanji, I already was able to recognize the meaning and some of the readings for all of the kanji at that level. I think that this is closer to the position of Japanese children who are likely exposed to the kanji in their lives before they learn them in school. Is this a better method than RTK? Well, for me it is, I think, because of the relationship I want with Japanese. It is much slower, to be sure, but I think it is building the foundation for a deeper relationship with Japanese than RTK could give me.

The question of the relationship one wants with Japanese is a personal one, and there is not a right or wrong answer. It is an important one, though, which has many practical implications.

2 thoughts on “Learning Japanese – the Real Question

  1. I think this is absolutely right.

    On this site, most of what we write is based around the idea of having a particular relationship with Japanese: That of making Japanese our “second mothertongue”. We want as far as possible to fully immerse ourselves in it and to “grow up” in Japanese. What we have discovered and are passing on is based on that approach.

    That is not to say that some of our techniques won’t work for other kinds of learner. But the approach as a whole is based on that full embrace of Japanese.

    I didn’t use this approach for other languages I have some small facility in, and I still wouldn’t even knowing what I now know about learning Japanese (although I would use some of the tips and tricks on this site).

    And that is precisely because my relationship with those languages is different. I don’t want to fully immerse myself and give a sizeable portion of my heart and my life to French or German. To Japanese I do. That makes a big difference in my whole approach to studying it.

    This is really the difference between what I call “learning a language” and “learning about a language”. Alternatively one might call it the difference between truly “acquiring” a language and merely “learning” it.

    If later I want to learn about a new language or improve an old one, I will a) do it through the medium of Japanese, and b) use more conventional non-immersion methods. This is because I simply don’t want to give the full-commitment necessary for immersion to any other language.

    When you say that learning kanji organically is slower than the Heisig method, I would comment that yes, in terms of actually acquiring kanji (alone) in large quantities it is slower. But in terms of the whole quest of acquiring Japanese it is not slower. If you eat all your rice before you touch the rest of your dinner, of course you will finish the rice faster than other people. But you likely won’t finish the whole dinner any faster.

    And also, I would say that it isn’t the natural way to eat your dinner or acquire a language. Coming to know kanji over time, as part of a whole living language seems to me much better.

    But, as you say, that is precisely because of my relationship to Japanese, which is a second-mother-tongue organic immersion approach.

    1. In keeping with your dinner analogy, it seems that this might be how one would go about things if one really did not like kanji.

      To my embarrassment, I still have a bit of sukikirai, particularly around vegetables. I am getting better about this, but it is still an issue. One of the things that I often do is to eat my vegetables first to get them out of the way, so that I can enjoy the rest of my meal.

      For myself, I really love kanji. They are beautiful and meaningful. They are so much more interesting than roman characters. I have no desire to get them out of the way quickly. I want to savor them, meditate upon them, and understand them as well as possible. They are my favorite part of the meal, and I want to enjoy the taste of as long as possible!

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