The luckiest Japanese language students begin their studies at birth, possibly even earlier. The rest of us start somewhere else along the way, either on the streets or in a classroom. The streets are a rough teacher, but they can be rewarding as well. Classroom instruction may seem like a better option, but you have just as much chance of ending up ashi wo sukuwareta (足をすくわれた, having your legs pulled out from under you) as you do out on the streets, immersed in life in Japan.

I ended up feeling this way because of dōshi (動詞, verbs), just a few weeks into my initial study. I can't fault my teachers completely — they insisted that we start with masu-kei (ます形, masu-form) and master it. So I learned shimasu (します, do), nomimasu (飲みます, drink), tabemasu (食べます, eat), and their negative equivalents, shimasen (しません, don't do), nomimasen (飲みません, don't drink), and tabemasen (食べません, don't eat).

You've probably realized by now where masu-kei got its name: Every verb ends with masu or masen (or mashita and masendeshita for past tense). This felt reasonable enough. I had studied Spanish in high school and was used to conjugation charts with up to five different verb forms for every tense. Now there were just two for present and two for past. So I went about my studies.