Independent Japanese Study
People attending this conference are clearly interested in knowing the language, but their passion often fades or is subordinated to various other interests. So, I first want to convince the ALTs that Japanese is worth knowing by explaining the various ways it is useful in our position. Then, I will inform them about various methods of study. Finally, I will discuss the finer points of “learning through immersion,” which is often praised but often underutilized and misunderstood.
Credentials: I started studying Japanese in July 2008. After four months in the program, without ever taking a class, I scored 53% on Level 2 of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, which requires 600 hours of study according to the Japan Foundation. I was 7% short of passing but better than many people who majored in Japanese in college. My Japanese is normal enough that I can go entire days at school without consulting a dictionary. As of now, I can recognize all 2000 of the kanji for literacy, and I will take the Level 1 test, the highest test of fluency for foreigners, in July.
I. Why learn Japanese?
1. This job is the best possible way to learn Japanese. Japanese education in foreign countries, in my experience, is fairly weak. Without knowing the language, the only job one can hope for in Japan is as a teacher, and this is the best teaching job.
2. Besides teaching, Japanese is the only discipline you’re being trained in here, and since most of you are not certified teachers, you can’t leverage this job into a salaried position in the States anyway. If you want your time in the program to make a meaningful contribution to your resume years from now, you’ll have to study.
3. The entire world is in a recession. The current administration is multiplying our debt to stop it, but the responsibility for paying it off lies with us. Our generation also will face heavy pension burdens from our parents. You can’t spend your whole time here partying, not when the road ahead of us is so difficult.
4. The English ability of most Japanese people is rather basic. If you want to have deep and meaningful relationships with your students, teachers, and administrators, you have to learn their language, since you’re the one who has the time to study. The more you learn, the more fun you will have with others.
5. Many things won’t be communicated to you because other teachers are often too busy with their own responsibilities (which are greater than yours) to translate. This includes the time and location of scheduled school events, problems that students are having at home or with each other, and sometimes even what’s happening next in class. If you learn more of the language, you will be a less of a burden, and you can contribute more to your community.
6. Driving and traveling are much easier when you can read maps and ask people for directions. Also, the more you learn, the better you can understand the historical sites you’ll be visiting, and you can even get something out of live performances.
7. The same goes for doing errands and partying. The ability to read signs for restaurants and so forth makes it much easier to plan events.
8. Japan has the second-largest economy in the world, but there are relatively few Japanese-English bilinguals, especially compared to the large number of second-generation Chinese and Korean-Americans in the States. So you’re gaining a fairly rare skill.
9. Kanji are also used in China, so learning to read them will give you an edge there, too.
10. Japanese is a great language. It’s ancient and sophisticated, and I for one never tire of learning new synonyms, proverbs, figures of speech, and so on. Thanks to terrible corporate translations (Engrish.com), the people here can seem wild and inscrutable, but the more you understand, the more reasonable things look.
11. Because ALTs aren’t responsible for grading or taking care of homeroom classes, they typically have more down time than the other teachers. However, it’s important in Japanese society to always look busy when you’re at work. Studying will take care of that for you.
12. Credibility. English and Japanese are extremely different, but this means that English is as difficult to learn for Japanese as Japanese is for us. If your Japanese is notably behind your students’ English, it gives the impression that you’re not working as hard as they are. If you bridge the gap, you’ll show your students they can, too.
13. Improving your teaching. I’m a huge fan of teaching English only in English, but high school and college entrance exams require complex grammar and heavy memorization rather than speaking and writing ability, and because I only see my elementary school classes once a month, I don’t have time to develop that system. Culture and grammar in particular are difficult to communicate in simple English. The more quickly you can explain them, the more your students can understand about your way of life, and the sooner you can continue with the rest of your lesson.
14. More respect for your intelligence. Some people will judge you by how well you speak their native language. Sometimes your students will gang up and make fun of you in Japanese because you can’t understand them. It isn’t fair, because their English is so poor, but that’s life. The more fluent you are, the more respect you will receive.
15. Self-expression: the way we talk, think, and make jokes is integral to our personalities. Until you can communicate, you may feel that no one else in your town really understands you.
II. How can I learn Japanese?
1. Many cities have private Japanese tutors. Ask the more experienced ALTs if they know any.
2. There are also classes for adults, such as YMCA classes in preparation for the Japanese Language Proficiency Test.
3. The Japanese Language Proficiency Test is the test for foreigners, and I recommend taking it every time it’s offered so that you have hard deadlines to motivate you. Japan is a very test-oriented society, so your co-workers should be quite supportive of you studying for this purpose.
4. If you are studying by yourself, there are various free websites, and of course many books, devoted to learning Japanese. I’ve included some links.
5. Learning through media is a classic method. However, media is made with a native speaker, not a foreign student, in mind, so the learning curve for something you’ve never seen or read before is very steep. It’s better if you’re watching a movie or playing a game that you’ve already experienced in translation. That way, you know what’s being said because you’ve seen it before, and instead you’re learning how to say it. One of my favorite study methods is to find songs on YouTube and lyrics on Google, then read along while translating with an online dictionary.
6. Social Activities: Many teachers hate books and prefer to learn through social activities. I think this is just fine! To each his own! One of the teachers in my town learned in bars and onsens, and not only did he make hundreds of friends, but also he became fluent in the local dialect. One particular social setting some people like is karaoke, because it’s fun but also challenges reading ability. Does drinking improve your Japanese? It doesn’t help me, but other people swear by it! Perhaps it depends on the person.
7. “How would a person with my skill level sound in English?” is something I think about a great deal.
8. Setting Goals: the two questions you should ask yourself every week is “What do I want to be able to communicate?” “Can I do that yet?” This is a better measuring stick than whatever certification you have or classes you’ve taken. It’s also more productive than comparing yourself to other teachers.
III. Learning through Immersion
1. Think about all the ways we use language. Most things we need to communicate, we communicate with words. Foreign language teachers rely heavily on textbooks because there is nothing in their environment they can use for teaching. You, however, have the material you need all around you – in the teachers’ room, in the street, even written on the appliances in your kitchen, and that Japanese is more vibrant than what you’ll find in books.
2. Most of us don’t have any certification to teach or teach English, but we have perfect grammar and spelling because we’ve been practicing the language in our daily lives for over 20 years. We intuitively know what the language is “supposed” to sound like. You have to reach this same level with Japanese. Learn the words and grammar. Then practice it enough that you have a “voice.”
3. Have your eyes and ears open at all times. Every minute you’re too exhausted or lost in your thoughts to pay attention to your environment, whether you’re standing next to an advertisement on a train or overhearing conversations in the teachers’ room, is a minute lost. You have to learn the language not just in the context of books but also through drinking parties, TV commercials, instruction manuals, and the like so that you have a sense of what word is the correct one to use.
4. Don’t zone out on something because you understand it already. There is never material that is “too easy.” If you can read everything on a sign, you can read it faster. If you can communicate something, you can communicate it better.
5. For me, learning to read quickly is the most difficult thing. There’s a huge gap between knowing hiragana and katakana and being as comfortable with them as I am with Western letters. Maybe I’ll get there, but the more I look at them the better.
6. You can improve your pronunciation and intonation without understanding what you’re hearing and indeed without paying attention to it at all. Just run some Japanese music, or a television program, in the background while you’re doing something else. Slowly the language will sound less strange to you.
7. Everyone in the office is a native speaker who can help you, although some kanji and vocabulary are too esoteric for even them.
8. People you meet can practice speaking and listening with you all day long, but reading and writing are something you have to learn and drill yourself.
9. How much time you want to spend with other foreign teachers is another thing to consider. As nice as they may be, and as good of travel partners as they may be, you’ll be speaking English and thinking in English with them.
10. When you hear English, you can try to translate it to Japanese in your head.
11. Because Japanese people are very polite, they will rarely correct your Japanese, and they’ll always tell you that you speak very well. However, sometimes they’ll unconsciously correct things you say, so you can learn that way.
12. Be careful about directly translating words and phrases because sometimes things are understood in a different context than they are in America. For example, “Samugachi” is a word we don’t have in English. It means “having a tendency to get cold.” “Natsukashii” is translated as “nostalgic,” but this word doesn’t describe the mood; it applies to things that cause one to feel nostaglic. “Ganbatte” is notoriously difficult to translate. The Japanese will say it’s “Fight!” but I think the closest analogue “push yourself.”
First 13 Japanese words: おはようございます、こんにちは、こんばんは、よろしくお願いします、下さい、ありがとうございます、いただきます、ごちそうさまでした、すむません、ごめんなさい、おつかれさまでした、ちょっと、がんばって (presented in hiragana and Romaji)
First Homework Assignment: Learn a one-paragraph self-introduction as well as the names of your favorite foods in both Japan and your home country.
Second Homework Assignment: Learn how to write your name in katakana and your address in kanji.
Third Homework Assignment: Learn an expression in the local dialect and the names of your schools, teachers, and students.
Conclusion: “Yes we can!” I always say this to my students when they complain that English is difficult. By learning their own language, I make it seem possible. Now I bring the same message to you: Japanese is difficult, but if 8-year olds can speak and write it, so can we. This job should never be easy or boring.