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.

Book excerpt: Phrases

The Importance of Phrases

The principles of Chinese grammar are different from English. I deliberately ignored explanations of the theory of Chinese grammar because these theoretical explanations made no sense to me. Instead, I just accepted the various structural patterns of sentences in Chinese as normal. I knew that with enough exposure they would start to seem natural to me. I found it easier to learn the structure of a new language from frequent exposure to phrase patterns rather than trying to understand abstract grammatical explanations of that structure. I realized in studying Chinese, a language so different from my own, that the fundamental component I had to learn was not the word, but the phrase. Language skill consists of spontaneously being able to use prefabricated phrases and phrase patterns that are natural to the native speaker and need to become natural to the learner.

Phrases are the best models of correct practice in a language. Certain words naturally belong together in a way that the learner cannot anticipate but can only try to get used to. When words are combined in the natural phrases of the language they achieve force and clarity. It is not grammar and words that need to be learned, so much as phrases. New vocabulary is more easily learned together with the phrases where it is found, and even pronunciation should be learned in the form of phrases. Phrases, however, cannot be easily learned from lists. Rather it is when the same phrases are?? frequently encountered in?? audio and written contexts and then systematically studied and used that you are able to retain them.

Book excerpt: interesting content

Once you reach the intermediate stage you face the longest and most demanding part of your task. You now want to achieve breakthrough to fluency. You need to move from being able to say a few things in a limited social setting to being able to use the language as a practical means of communication in a variety of situations that you do not control. To do this requires a commitment to reading and listening to a great deal of language content. If the content is interesting you will enjoy the learning process and do well. Artificial dialogues and uninteresting ???learner??? content soon outlive their usefulness. Fortunately I was able to move to meaningful content quite soon in my study of Chinese.

The first novel I attempted to read without the help of a word list was Lao She???s novel?? ???Rickshaw Boy???, a human and sympathetic description of life in Beiping, without the bitterness that I found in the writings of Lu Xun and others. It took a long time to finish the book but I felt very satisfied when I completed it. There were many words that I did not know. Mostly I avoided looking them up in a dictionary so that I could enjoy the book.

There comes a point in language learning when you have to read a full length book in the new language. In most language learning programs the learner is conditioned to deal only with short excerpts. Completing a full length book is like climbing a mountain. Nowadays, with electronic texts, it has become much easier to struggle through authentic material, look up the meaning using dictionary software, and save words and phrases for systematic learning


and Vocabulary Growth

Intermediate readers can be useful as long as you are interested in the content. Unfortunately most learners are not given much choice….

After about four months, I read only authentic Chinese content, mostly using readers which had specially prepared vocabulary lists. The subjects varied, from history to politics to literature. Suddenly a fascinating world opened up to me in the original language. The wonderful Yale-in-China series, ???Readings in Contemporary Chinese Literature??? offered a wide range of essays, plays, political commentary, and short stories by leading writers, thinkers and political figures of early 20th century China.

Book excerpt: Creating your own language world

Exploring Languages at Home

Without going outside, you may know the whole world.
Without looking through the window,
you may see the ways of heaven.
?? ???? ???? ???? ???? ?? ??? Laozi

It is always easiest to learn a language when you are living in a society that speaks that language if you take advantage of the opportunities that surround you. However, a new language in the real world can be difficult to understand. People may talk too quickly or use words that even the intermediate non-native speaker does not understand. You may feel hesitant in certain situations because you are not fluent. This can be stressful.

In these cases I have always found it useful to create my own world of language, a world of meaningful language content for me to listen to or read without pressure. Until I mastered Japanese, and even as I was living and working in Japanese, I still sought out advanced Japanese readers with meaningful content and vocabulary lists to read. I also listened repetitively to interesting tapes to gain greater confidence in using certain phrases and words.

I still listen to interesting material in languages that I speak fluently. I take advantage of time that is available while driving or exercising or doing chores around the house. There is an increasing availability of high quality audio books which can be easily enjoyed using the latest in portable listening technology.

In situations where you are studying a new language away from the native speaking environment, it becomes essential to create this personal language world. This is what I have done in


over the last twenty years as I sought to improve my knowledge of languages that I had been exposed to earlier but could not speak.

A World Apart

When I lived in

Hong Kong

I was not in a Mandarin speaking environment, but I listened to and read a limited number of texts: history and cultural books, modern literature, and tapes of comic dialogues. These became like old friends and provided the core of the vocabulary and phrasing that I needed to use in my communication.

Communicating with this imaginary world was easier than communicating with the real world, since it was readily available and under my control. This friendly world of my own exploration was a great source of strength in preparation for the real test of communicating with native speakers.

In 1512, Niccolo Machiavelli was briefly imprisoned and tortured by the Medici family, then withdrew to a simple country house outside


. During the day he talked and played cards with the local people, but at night he changed into formal clothes and withdrew into his study. There he communicated with the ancient historians through books, and wrote one of the classics of Western literature, The Prince. Machiavelli is an example of how we can communicate with a culture through reading or listening, even if we do not have daily personal contact with the people.

While living in


well past the age of forty, I was able to make great advances on the learning I had begun in German, Swedish and Italian. I had some previous exposure, but certainly did not have fluency or confidence. For each language I had to commit myself to a concentrated period of listening to comprehensible audio material and reading texts with vocabulary lists.

At my home, I have at least fifty readers for German, Italian, Spanish, and Swedish. I purchased these readers because they all have vocabulary lists so that I could avoid using dictionaries. Unfortunately much of the content of these readers was uninteresting to me, but it was the only content that I could find.

What I was only able to do through great effort is made easier and more effective today. Using modern technology, vast amounts of content can be turned into accessible learning material. You can seek out content that is of interest to you, and learn the language from it. The independent learner is more independent than ever before.

The Linguist book: Excerpt

I am going to post a few random excerpts from my book over the next few days. This book is entitled ” The Linguist, A Personal Guide to Language Learning.” The book is available in print form in English and Chinese and in e-book version in French, Japanese, Korean and Spanish.

Fish traps exist to capture fish.?? ???? ???? ??
Once you’ve got the fish you can forget the trap.?? ???? ???? ??
Rabbit snares exist to capture rabbits. ?? ???? ???? ???? ??
Once you’ve got the rabbit you can forget the snare.?? ??
Words exist to capture meaning. ?? ???? ??
Once you’ve got the meaning, you can forget the words.?? ???? ???? ???? ??
Where can I find a man who has forgotten words? ?? ???? ??
I’d like to have a word with him!?? ???? ????
??? Zhuangzi, 4th century BC


Just Communicate

Our ancestors created language in order to communicate. What a glorious invention. The ability to express our thoughts through language is what distinguishes us from animals. These great ancestors of ours did not have grammar or perfection in mind when they developed the first language, just the desire to get their meaning across. It may seem obvious, but to become a successful linguist you have to want to communicate in another language. People who are good at learning another language have a goal in mind, to communicate. That means to get to know people of another culture, not just to learn the rules of a new language as an academic subject .Unfortunately the emphasis on second language education in our school systems has caused many language learners to lose sight of this essential reason for language learning. In my own case, it was only when I became motivated to connect with a new culture and people that I was on my way to becoming a linguist.

Not all people are interested in meeting people of another culture and language. My wife Carmen and I were recently on holiday in California. When swimming in the hotel pool we heard the unmistakable sounds of people speaking Canadian English. There were two couples from Ottawa staying at the same resort. We joined them for a drink that evening. Interestingly both the wives spoke French and Spanish as well as English, but one of the husbands, an apparently successful businessman, was adamant that learning to speak languages was unnecessary. To him the important thing was to have good ideas. ???You can always find a translator??? he maintained.

I argued with him that human achievement, including business success, depended on communication. No matter how brilliant an idea, it needs to be communicated effectively in order to influence people. Surveys of employers consistently show the ability to communicate to be the most sought after characteristic in new employees. But remembering Zhuangzi I did not try too hard to enlighten this man. Obviously learning languages was not in his nature.??