CHICAGO – You can’t think too hard about your Japanese study process. Reflecting on what you’re doing (whether you’re using the right textbooks, have the right dictionaries, are signed up for the right online services; whether you’re studying with the right teacher or at the right university) is less important than actually doing the work of studying itself.
When I was an intermediate and advanced student and I found myself falling into this trap of thinking too much, I usually doubled down on whatever I was doing. I increased my JLPT (Japanese-Language Proficiency Test) study pace to five 文法 (bunpō, grammar) patterns a day instead of three. Or read three pages of a novel each day instead of two. Or went out for coffee with Japanese friends three days a week instead of one. This was relatively effective for me.
However, for students still early in their studies, I think it can be helpful to do more regular audits of your study process to ensure that you’re not biting off more than you can chew, and to see what strategies have been effective for others that perhaps you, too, can adopt.
This is what motivated me to start the “How to Japanese Podcast,” which I launched last month. I’ve interviewed five translators and five other individuals working with Japanese — altogether five men and five women — and I’m releasing a first season of episodes once a week for 10 weeks. I’m curious to know more about how people attained fluency and how they have translated those language skills into success in the job market in Japan and around the world.
Selecting the right difficulty level can be critical earlier on in your studies. After a few years of study, novel and manga translator Emily Balistrieri read Natsume Soseki’s “坊ちゃん” (“Botchan”) for her first novel.
“It was a nightmare,” she says. “It was so hard.” But she got through the novel, originally published in 1906, page by page. “Once you do that, almost anything else is (a breeze).”
Game translator Daniel McCalla and attorney Brian Caster are two of the most voracious readers I know, and they took the opposite approach: I was shocked that both of them used graded readers — shocked only because it made so much sense and I was so angry that I hadn’t used them in my own studies.
Graded readers are books with simplified sentences and vocabulary designed for a certain level of student. The Japanese word you should look for is レベル別 (reberu-betsu, by level), which should be printed on the cover. These books will give you a satisfying sense of velocity as you turn the pages as well as the thrill of completion when you finish, not to mention the pleasure of actually understanding what you’re reading.
McCalla recommends the “日本語多読ライブラリー” (“Nihongo Tadoku Raiburarī”) series of books from NPO Tadoku Supporters (tadoku.org).
Another thing that impressed me was the dedication of everyone I interviewed. These are all people who made personal commitments to the language.
Translator Arline Lyons expanded her translation practice to include life sciences as well as 日本酒 (nihonshu, sake) by studying and earning certificates, but also committing to those areas.
“The specialization into biology and life sciences went along with a commitment to work in that area,” she says, “and so I didn’t have to separately study the terminology: I was getting the terminology as I worked.”
The Japan Times’ own Shaun McKenna has met with his Japanese teacher each Saturday for lessons for 13 consecutive years, a substantial commitment.
Some of the people I talked to surprised me by what they committed not to do.
I would have bet money that Adam Evanko, the Monster Hunter guru who runs the Gaijin Hunter YouTube channel, learned the language by playing games, but he actually stopped playing video games for his first two to three years living in Japan. His reasoning makes sense: “I wanted to take away anything that I knew would be a distraction (from studying).”
Looking at the podcast in its entirety, which will run through November, my biggest takeaway is that you have to put yourself out there when learning the language and when looking for work. Talk to people, make friends, use the language, read books, listen to music, watch TV — language is interactive.
Ultimately, though, your path to fluency will be unique. Borrow techniques here and there, but do what feels right for you, and as long as you’re dedicating the time, you’ll be speaking Japanese sooner than you realize no matter what approach you take.
Check out Daniel Morales’ podcast at howtojaponese.com/podcast.