Learning the Japanese language: Surviving Nihon, Go!
Recently, I had the chance to share my experiences of learning Japanese and the Japanese way when a professor from the University of Fukui invited me to talk with his students. In my talk, I intended to share the following:
- Learning how Japanese people do things
- Learning the Japanese way of learning things in school
- Learning the Japanese language to overcome the challenges
I focused mainly on learning the Japanese language in my conversation with the students.
Learning the Japanese language: Surviving Nihon, Go!
I came to Japan with practically zero formal education in the Japanese language. In my first six months at the University of Fukui, I completed the introductory integrated grammar course and learned a hundred Kanjis. When I began my internship at Fuzoku Elementary School, I could not continue taking Japanese classes. However, I was determined to learn Japanese because most of the discussions and conversations in my graduate program were in Japanese. The lessons I followed in Fuzoku Elementary School were also conducted in the language.
I self-studied and read Japanese language books in my free time, such as Minna No Nihongo II, which I finished after a year, and Tobira, an intermediate-level textbook in the second year. I also read Japanese grammar textbooks to be familiarized with grammatical structures linguistically.
Learning Japanese through textbooks
The みんなの日本語 (Minna no Nihongo) textbooks are useful resource materials in learning the language. The book introduces new vocabulary words and grammatical forms every chapter and some basic expressions that you can use in conversations. It is also paired with a workbook that you can use to assess and practice what you have just learned in class. The workbook comes with a CD, which contains audio files that you can listen to to be familiar with the conversational Japanese language.
As a linguist, I also analyze the Japanese language (e.g., how words and sentences are formed and what pattern each form follows). It gives me a deeper appreciation and understanding of the language.
Using technology, e.g., mobile applications, Google Chrome extensions
Nowadays, there are a lot of mobile applications that are handy and can speed up learning a language. Below are some of the applications that help me learn Japanese.
- Writing ひらがな (Hiragana) and カタカナ (Katakana) mobile applications. These applications help you remember how to write the characters. They also come with mnemonics and pictures that enable you to remember better. They also have proficiency assessment tests so you can assess your learning.
- Google Translate Handwriting Mode. This mode of Google Translate and Shirabe Jisho is handy in identifying the reading of a Kanji character. It allows you to draw on your screen and provides suggestions.
- Yomiwa/Imiwa? or Shirabe Jisho. Such applications function as a dictionary, and can you provide the different meanings of a Japanese character. It also shows you the proper strokes of writing a Kanji character.
Learning through reading Japanese texts
While studying, I realized that I could not apply the traditional way of memorizing grammatical structures and vocabulary in learning the Japanese language. The Japanese language is considered one of the most challenging languages to learn, and its multiple writing systems did not make it easier. Kanji characters, specifically, have different readings and meanings depending on their usage that you cannot possibly memorize. However, I could familiarize myself with and learn Kanji characters when I read them inside a text.
Moreover, even though I became familiar with the structures and patterns, I could not understand them unless I used them or heard them being used in a conversation. It would seem that I learn better intuitively and learn best when I do it with others.
I learn when I make sense of how and what I learn. In the case of the Japanese language, I finally understand a specific pattern when I know which context I could use it and when I deconstruct its components, e.g., doer of the action, affected entity, form of the verb). It finally makes sense to me why others used “Sumanai” instead of “Sumimasen” in informal contexts. Telling me the form to be used differs from personally discovering how and why the form becomes like that.
Translating elementary textbooks (Kyoukasho Honyaku Project)
Participating in a translation project of Prof Yoko Kuwabara helped me acquire a better understanding of the language. The Textbook Translation Project translates the text of Japanese language textbooks into children’s languages to support the learning of children with foreign roots. We hope that everyone who supports children’s learning can use the translated materials so that they can develop both their native language and Japanese and so that they can enjoy their Japanese classes at school.
From October 2020 to February 2022, I translated texts from Grade 1 and Grade 2 elementary and high school textbooks from Japanese to Tagalog and English. Among the text I translated were:
- Hana no Michi
- Ichinensei no uta
- Umi no kakurenbo
- Omusubi kororin
- Tanpopo no chie
- Doubutsuen no juui
- Makura no shoshi
- Tsuredzure no gusa
- Heiki monogatari
- Taketori monogatari
Participating in a reading experiment
Aside from translating Japanese textbooks, I also participated in Prof Kuwabara-sensei’s reading research. As I could not participate in her class anymore, Prof Kuwabara invited me to have a one-on-one reading session with her once a week. Her research aimed to investigate my reading comprehension and the process of how I read a Japanese text and translate it into English. For our session, I decided to read a newsletter written by a professor of the University of Fukui, who was also affiliated with the compulsory education school.
At first, before the reading session, I familiarized myself with Kanji characters that I did not know. I used an electronic dictionary (Shirabe Jisho) to look for the reading and its meaning. Then I wrote down the hiragana/furigana on top and the English equivalent at the bottom of the Kanji characters. Knowing the Kanji gave me an idea of the gist of the sentence, a paragraph, and the whole section. However, translating it into English was another story, the most challenging part.
Reading the newsletter, which was way beyond my Japanese language proficiency, I have become familiar with more Japanese grammatical structures and gradually improved my reading skills. It also enriched my Japanese vocabulary, especially Kanji. Before, my mind stopped when I encountered unknown Kanji characters and lost the motivation to read them independently.
Learning with students in a Japanese classroom
Being immersed in a Japanese-speaking environment upgraded my Japanese language skills. Perhaps, it was fate that I was assigned to a Grade 1 class because I was able to learn the language with them. They were also the perfect speaking and listening partners as they were still acquiring the language and used simple words and sentences. It was also the ideal environment for me to learn how the teaching and learning process takes place as I could follow the lesson and their discussion regardless of my Japanese proficiency level.
As a beginner, I did not have much confidence in my conversational skills in Japanese. But later on, as I have acquired more vocabulary and learned different forms and sentence structures, I have begun to converse with my fellow international students in Japanese. Even though I still make many mistakes and forget the correct form, speaking Japanese is a practical way to immerse yourself and assess if you, indeed, have learned the language.