Learning Japanese

Cliff Kwok, in a comment to my blog, asks about my experience in learning Japanese. Cliff has read my book in Chinese and would like to know more about how I learned Japanese in 6 months.

I learned Japanese in Japan. I had a very preliminary exposure to Japanese in Hong Kong before moving to Japan, while still in Hong Kong in 1970. For about two months I exchanged English and Japanese lessons over Chinese lunches twice a week with a Chinese speaking Japanese diplomat, Mr. Ohara. (The next time I saw Mr. Ohara he was on television interpreting for Japanese Prime Minister Sato on his visit to China in 1972). I also bought some books and tapes on Japanese but the texts were very poor. Essentially I arrived in Japan without any significant knowledge of Japanese.

However, I knew Chinese characters. The most important decision was my determination to pull out all stops and devote myself to learning Japanese during the first 6 months of my stay. I cannot repeat enough that attitude is 70% of the battle in language learning.

I was working full time at the Canadian Embassy so I had to spend my free time listening to and reading Japanese. I just did a lot of it. As soon as I was able to say a few things in Japanese I would use it whenever I had a chance. However, mostly it was constant listening and reading that started to condition my brain to Japanese.

I worked hard on pronunciation. Japanese was now my fourth language, and in a way my sixth, since I had spoken little bits of European languages while hitch-hiking in Europe. As a result I had a range of sounds in my brain that was much wider than the average monolingual student attempting Japanese. Japanese pronunciation was not difficult.

There were difficulties. The words all sounded the same. Some of the structures were completely new and strange to me. I had to learn two new writing systems, Hiragana and Katakana. The meanings of some of the Chinese characters were different from Chinese, and they all had at least two different pronunciations. But as in all language learning, only exposure can overcome the strangeness of a new language. You grow accustomed to what at first seems difficult only through constant input overload. As usual I ignored any attempt to analyze or explain the structure of Japanese. I just observed how the language worked, how the words related to each other, and I imitated.

I was not fluent after 6 months, but certainly able to communicate in many situations. If language learning is a journey, and it is, there is no destination. You will not achieve perfection. However, you can constantly improve. It is most important that you enjoy the journey. I did. I enjoyed learning Japanese. I still do. I still listen and read Japanese. I still try to add new phrases and words to my usable vocabulary. I try to make my Japanese effective for the purposes for which I use it. That does not include the latest slang nor erudite expressions.

Excerpts of my book in English,Chinese, French, German, Italian, Korean, and Spanish are available at www.thelinguist.com. The book can also be bought at the site.

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