My 2 Biggest Mistakes Learning Japanese

Once you’ve gained a certain level of proficiency in a skill, do you ever look back on yourself as a beginner and regret old inefficient habits? I regret cutting a lot of corners when I first got into Japanese. While looking back and thinking about how I can get study Japanese differently in the future, I remembered my worst mistakes and thought I should share them with you.

I spent my first year addicted to flashcards:

How I learn Japanese now is a result of several years worth of trial and error since I first began in high school. My first year of studying Japanese was nothing but drilling vocabulary (no example sentences of course, just the word written in kanji and the translation on the back) from community made flashcards on memrise (a website I don’t recommend). With every new card my arbitrary “word count” grew, and so did my ego. I wanted studying Japanese to be punctuated with quantifiable progress, and my flashcard addiction reinforced that naive way of thinking about my skills. My deck of vocabulary ballooned to over 1,500 by the end of that first year. It doesn’t take a linguist to figure out that practicing vocabulary without any output won’t get you any closer to speaking a language. But boy did that big box full of flashcards make me feel good. I couldn’t read, use the words I’d learned, or comprehend speech. But, my cards! I loved them.

I think if you had asked me why I relied on that method at the time, I would respond that living in rural Maine, I had no one to practice speaking with in Japanese, and my beginner status barred me from doing any proper reading. This would be nothing but a shoddy excuse of course. There are apps like Tandem and HiNative that make connecting with native speakers interested in finding a penpal just as easy as responding to a Twitter post or liking a post on Instagram. And textbooks like the famous Genki series provide readings appropriate to one’s reading level.

Then I went  to an expensive language school:

After high school I didn’t know what to do with myself. I’d developed a serious anxiety disorder that culminated in me dropping out of most of my classes. As one can imagine, I was not in a good position to continue on to university. After a few months of rest, I decided to move to Japan and commute to a language school for foreigners. I don’t regret the time I spent in Kyoto. I made a lot of friends and passed the N3 and N2 while I was there. It fixed a lot of my bad habits: being too shy to speak, relying on flashcards and not having a goal in mind with my Japanese. It took the extreme route of moving to Japan and learning how bad my Japanese really was in order to fix my habits. However, Japanese language schools are very expensive (approximately $6,000 a year) and cannot teach you Japanese at a pace faster than dedicated self study. Unless they are necessary in order for you to acquire a visa, I wouldn’t recommend them. If you are in high school or university you are much better off taking a year abroad. If you are out of school you may be able to qualify for a working holiday visa. My reasoning for why I needed to go at the time was merely being desperate to get to Japan. I can’t help but groan thinking about all the other ways I could have used that money.

Although I’ve incorporated much more listening, reading, and practical examples of vocabulary in my study, I’m not ashamed to admit that maintaining my speaking ability is an uphill battle. I carve out times to Skype my Japanese friends on a weekly basis just to keep myself from forgetting how to converse. The good news is that once you do reach the coveted N1 level of reading and listening comprehension, finding music, movies and content to enjoy passively becomes a breeze. Listen passively to audio becomes a viable method to maintaining your comprehension.

I think these sort of articles are helpful because I can see a bit of myself in reading about others admitted bad practices. Even the most diligent and well-rounded foreign speaker of a language is likely to find places they can improve upon after a little bit of self analysis. I certainly don’t think my current strategy is the best either. In hindsight, having inefficient studying habits is far better than the alternative of never studying in the first place.

How do you stay current with your skills? How often are you taking yourself out of your comfort zone? I think once you get consistent, the good habits you build become a strong foundation for picking up other skills later in life.

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