What 20 Years of Japanese Study taught me

Reflections on my learning of Japanese

I started studying Japanese in 2002, my first year of high school in New Zealand. I didn’t have to try that hard to pick things up, the language sort of just flowed into my brain. But that could simply be put down to the pace at which we did things. Back then I was learning one Hiragana character per class. Ten years later I would be learning 20 or so Kanji in one day, but that’s a story for another time.

Put simply, I felt that I had the knack for learning Japanese, something many other people seem to struggle with. I may have had yet another added advantage, as Māori, a compulsory subject in NZ, is a very similar sounding lanugage to Japanese (some words, like puku meaning belly, are almost exactly the same, manpuku is the Japanese word for being full, with puku meaning stomach). This meant I had a basis for the sound system right there, and all that is left is the Tsu sound, and the ‘r’ sound that they have in Maori anyway (although the ‘k’ and ‘h’ sounds in Japanese are different, also ‘fu’ and ’n’).

I can distinctly remember my teacher telling us that in Japanese an equal emphasis is placed on each syllable. Many native English speakers seem to struggle with this simple part of Japanese, and are unable to or struggle with distinguishing between short and long vowel sounds. This is a very important part of picking up Japanese that is definitely worth practicing. I think I remember these well as I make a point of it when remembering the Kanji (one word that always trips me up is Jusho, a word I learned very early in my Japanese journey).

I also think the NZ approach to learning Japanese is right on the money. Or at least it was when I was a student. The focus is rightly on communication, something that goes right over the heads of many Japanese people who focus almost exclusively on memorizing vocabulary and grammar points. No wonder people get bored and lose interest.

Our Japanese teachers also kept things fresh by giving us the chance to practice Japanese in rather authentic situations, or as realistic as you can get in a classroom. This I think is the key to successful language acquisition, practice of the language in authentic situations (once you’ve learned the grammar and vocabulary you need, or sometimes before, as the situation points out gaps in your knowledge).

Then my learning of Japanese was further boosted in 2006. That year we went to Japan for a two-week class trip. Put simply, this trip changed my life. From that point on, I knew for certain that I wanted to live in Japan. My motivation went through the roof, so much so I would spend my spare time studying the language, even during other classes, practicing kanji and vocabulary where people would normally doodle in the margins.

From then on, I spent every moment I could getting every chance I could to practice Japanese. It’s the main reason why I went to International Pacific University (IPU, but at the time it was IPC). This included a six-month stint at IPU’s sister university, the conveniently-named IPU in Okayama (環太平洋大学 in Japanese though).

And then I got on JET, and actually moved here. I kept studying religiously until I got N1, the highest mark on the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, in 2012.

Since then I’ve been using Japanese pretty much every day, and I no longer do formal study of the language, but actually use it by speaking and reading to keep it up.

20 years after first starting, I can’t remember a time not knowing Japanese. Learning this language has been infinitely beneficial for my life. I’m so grateful for all the opportunities I had to learn it along the way, and all the support I’ve had too.

It wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t necessarily difficult either. Just time-consuming, I guess. 20 (well, 21) years and counting…

Now for the next 20 years! And onwards!

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