How to Learn Japanese

Note: Lest I come off as if i were trying to sound like an expert, I should mention here that my Japanese is not great. I am not fluent in Japanese, but I am fluid in using Japanese to the degree I understand it. My Japanese language skills are exactly as good as they need to be in order to do what I need to do – no better, no worse. My responses are written from the perspective of someone with no desire to be possess native-level Japanese skills.

G initiated this discussion with the following:

I find there are quite a few US Taido students who go on to study/learn Japanese, my son included. Not only do they learn Japanese, but they seem to learn it with ease and correct pronunciation. Since you are an educator, I was wondering about your thoughts on early exposure to Japanese, through Taido, and the ability to learn Japanese. Do you think your early exposure to Japanese aided in your desire and/or ability to learn the language?

Here was my initial reply:

That’s pretty interesting, G. To me, this is a very, very rich topic. Coincidentally, I have been tossing around some related article ideas lately, so your timing is good. At least, your timing is good from the perspective that I have done enough recent thinking about this to give you a too-long response.

“I find there are quite a few US Taido students who go on to study/learn Japanese, my son included.”

Hey, that’s great (and how old is your son now, anyway? And, what do his studies entail?). Actually, I didn’t know it was so common. When I was in junior high, only Uchida Sensei and John Okochi spoke any Japanese, and neither of them really had to study it. One guy who tested for black belt with my father also studied some Japanese for Taido purposes, though I don’t know if he ever got any good at it.

In 1993, I joined the us team to the first world Taido championships in Tokyo. It was great, and I came back with new love for Taido and the desire to return to Japan someday. I found out that Dekalb County’s M-to-M program offered Japanese classes and signed up. During my junior year, I spent mornings at Towers High studying two hours of Japanese a day. I learned how to make some simple statements and ask questions, but not in any kind of conversational style. However, I was able to help out Shukumine and his assistants when they visited the next year.

At that time, I was the only Taido student in America who was studying any Japanese whatsoever. The next year, two others (Bryan Sparks and David Issa) did the same program I had, but to my knowledge, they were the last Taido students to do so.

So when you say that “quite a few” Taido students study some Japanese, I am impressed and surprised. As far as I was aware, only a few had studied Japanese in university (Heather and Chad Gilmartin, Bryan, Chris Healy, Musashi Uchida [I think]). I know that Mitsuaki and Seiji have learned some by virtue of living with their father, and Musashi has spent some time in Japan. I also know that Brendan picked up some Japanese words, but no grammar.

I have always been complemented on my pronunciation by everyone except Ogura Sensei, who refuses to admit that I am capable of doing anything right. I always chalk this up to having heard Japanese for most of my life. Instead of studying the grammar and then trying to speak the language, I heard the sounds, learned some phrases, and then figured out how the grammar works. I would imagine that anyone who spends a lot of time listening to a language will be able to pick up the rudiments easily.

However, this only seems to be true for those students who do so from a young age. I say this because, none of the over-30 set in American Taido can pronounce even the technique names with anything approaching proper pronunciation (which is not to say it matters – after all, they do not live in Japan…). I don’t want to sound elitist when I say this – I’m just stating what I believe to be a fact. The Japanese and American-English syllabry are very different. This is confirmed by listening to Japanese adults speak English – even those with very good conversational skills have a hard time pronouncing certain words properly.

Of all those mentioned above who studied Japanese, the only ones with any real conversational ability and decent pronunciation are the ones who have spent time in Japan: David Issa, Heather Gilmartin, Musashi Uchida, me, and (to a lesser degree) Chris. Perhaps Corey Myers will also return to America this summer with some chatting skills. I think this is a very important point to take notice of. I don’t believe it is possible to attain beyond basic proficiency in any language unless you use it often.

Everyone in Japan studies six years of English by the time they graduate high school, and very few people here can speak English at all. Since they study so much English, and their language even includes thousands of words borrowed from English, it seems ironic that so few people can use English with much success.

Being an English teacher, I am often asked by Japanese people this question: what is wrong with English education in Japan? My answer is always the same: the students live in Japan.

Most Japanese people are born, go to school, work, live, and die within a short radius. They may travel as far as Australia or Hawaii on vacation, but then tend to do so in large groups of other Japanese people. They seem to have no interest in experiencing anything outside of their neighborhoods. Maybe I’m cynical, but regardless, most of my students will never be good at English because they have absolutely no reason to be good at English. They live in rural Japan, and probably always will. That is not a powerful motivating factor when it comes study time. Not only that, they have nobody with whom to practice besides their teachers.

That’s the key point – practice is more important than study. I studied a good bit of Japanese in college, but, when I came over here at age twenty to spend a couple of months in the tea-farming areas around Mt. Fuji, I quickly learned that I could barely communicate. I realized that this was because I had almost no practice in using what I had learned. However, my skills increased dramatically, and after two months, I returned to Atlanta able to speak a good deal of Japanese.

After having a Japanese girlfriend stay at my house for a few months and making another trip over here the next year, I was damn-near proficient at basic conversation. Then I broke up with the girlfriend and didn’t speak Japanese at all for five years. I forgot everything.

I like to give Japanese people the example of exchange students. They study so much English in school that, when they spend a few months in another country like America, their abilities increase very rapidly. Many Japanese exchange students develop a fair amount of fluency within a year of living in America. David Issa attained reasonable fluency within a year of living in Japan because he combined daily study with daily practice.

After a few months living in the countryside, I realized that I already knew all the Japanese I would ever need, so I quit studying. After all, I could fill out insurance forms, order food at restaurants, and chat up girls. I could also have long, philosophical (drunk) conversations about Taido. What more did I need? For me, that’s enough, because I don’t plan on going native, and I don’t plan on using Japanese for any particular career goals. But if I had continued my studies, I am pretty sure that I would be essentially fluent in Japanese now, rather than simply functionally bilingual.

So, to me, it’s the interest that creates the ability to learn Japanese (or anything else). Taido was the spark of that interest in my case, and I believe that my youth was one factor that allowed Taido to be more than a simple recreational hobby to me. Once you have interest, it’s very important to get in at least as much time practicing as you spend studying. Taido can help provide opportunities for this too. Without having made friends in Japan through Taido, I would not have been able to spend several long vacations over here practicing.

Other comments on this thread are listed below…

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7 thoughts on “How to Learn Japanese”

  1. I took Japanese for a semester at GaTech, which has a pretty decent Japanese program set up. Unfortunately, it was my senior semester, so that was all that I had, but I do think taking taido was an influence on signing up for the class. I’m not sure how advertised the program is at Tech, but maybe letting the Tech taido students who are still in classes know about it might encourage them to take it or at least let them know that it’s there.

  2. that’s kind of funny to me, because japanese was the second course i signed up for at tech – right after physics. i took two full years of japanese at tech and an intensive summer course. while i thought the texts were awful, and the teaching methods bordered on rote, i was able to get a lot out of the class because i was using what i learned for practical purposes.

    that first year of japanese is what allowed me to hook up with mutsumi during the ’96 international meet and get invited to visit her family in japan. it’s also what allowed me to get hired by dentsu to do various projects during the olympics. writing letters to mutsumi and talking with the visiting japanese staff was the practice that helped my japanese skills take off during the summer course and following year of regular studying.

    after that, i transfered to georgia state. though the japanese program there wasn’t very good, i still took classes. the teacher recognized that i was traveling to japan and hanging out with japanese friends, so i wasn’t required to do too many assignments, since they were below my level. basically, i ended up getting a gpa boost and tutoring from the instructor. if only i hadn’t given up studying during my dark period, i wouldn’t have had to start over when i moved here in 2003.

    i would love someday to have a large enough university taido program that we could set up an exchange of sorts with japanese university taido students – even if not an official school program. i’m thinking of maybe a two-week swap for two students twice a year during spring and summer vacations. this would allow cultural/linguistic exchange as well as taido exchange. i’m pretty sure i could get takers from japan; but i’d need more students on the american side to show some concrete interest before i pitched it to any of the clubs here.

    in the meantime, it would be cool if we (at tech) could, as a club, somehow encourage students to take japanese courses if they were so inclined. then we would have even stronger motivation to arrange international taido events.

    however, i’ve had an open invite to anyone who wanted to visit going for three years now. only chris healy and joshua gargus (and my parents) came to see me. perhaps our club culture hasn’t yet evolved to the point that students are ready to avail themselves of all the opportunities taido has to offer them (ie, perhaps they are only interested in the immediate, personal benefits of practice – not the potential benefits of participating in creating an international taido community). in an environment where you assume a limit of four years to your experience, this is an understandable, if challenging, reality.

  3. “quite a few” You listed 6 people who studied Japanese at University above. Later you mentioned Corey and Brandon. Trini (can’t remember her last name) went to a Japanese primary school in Atlanta and is fluent in Japanese, English, and Spanish. Also, there are more Japanese kids taking Taido than there were 6 years ago when John Edgar started. He will be 11 this July. It was so great at the Tournament last summer to see our US Taido kids translating for each other bringing the english speakers and Japanese speakers together. They all take classes together and they talk while they are lining up to get their stickers, or on the sidewalk waiting for class to talk. John Edgar surprised a couple of Japanese kids the other day when they were playing in the parking lot and John Edgar asked why they were telling each other to “die”. So when I say quite a few, if you look at the percentage of people who started Taido as children, and went on to attain their black belt, quite a few of them also studied Japanese.

    As for John Edgar’s learning of Japanese, he is being privately tutored by Yuka. She is in Atlanta through the Honbu studying and assistant teaching at Georgia Perimeter College. Her father runs a Taido school on Okinawa but I am not sure which one. He only works with her an hour each week, but she is focusing on conversational Japanese and also teaching him how to write. I may increase the time and frequency during the summer. I am hoping he will be able to do a live abroad program in high school and/or college.

  4. well, running the numbers, i find 17 people who may be able to introduce themselves and order mcdonald’s in japanese out of the 44 who earned a first degree black belt under the age of thirty. about half of those could probably go on to have a fairly interesting conversation in japanese. i agree with you that that’s significant as a percentage, though those with the greatest linguistic skills are no longer practicing. (and for the record, i have no idea if corey has studied at all, and have only heard brendan speak a few scattered nouns and verbs.)

    i must have missed the kids doing translating at the tournament. perhaps since i was so busy as an “official” translator (among other things), running around and ironing out communication difficulties, i underestimated the collective japanese level at the honbu dojo. i’m glad to be incorrect about such things. thanks for keeping me informed.

    so did your son get a good explanation about the “shine! shine!” the kids say when playing? i thought it was odd the first time i heard it too. japanese kids are funny. at least they seem to drop the “kancho” when they head stateside. that’s one thing i certainly won’t miss about teaching primary school over here.

    so yuka is his teacher? that’s cool – she’s sweet. actually her father is the above-mentioned ogura sensei (i guess i should give him a visit again soon). he lives in saitama, not okinawa, where he used to be the head instructor for the daito bunka taido club, which used to be one of the best clubs in the country. it sounds as if she is teaching well, as conversation and phonetic alphabet are the first two things i would teach a student of japanese. kanji and grammar after about a year of weekly lessons. this is assuming dilligent practice of points covered in-session.

    i hope your son (and many other people) gets to do some kind of exchange too. in fact, i believe that a year spent living in a foreign culture should be a pre-req for citizenship. (but i’ll spare you my politics right now.) if i can ever be of any assistance, let me know.

  5. i got an email a few days ago that reminded me of some good language-learning advice i had neglected to mention above. here are a few tips:

    watch anime. i especially recommend akira and spirited away, though legend of the overfiend (urostukudoji) may better satisfy your needs for mutant rape and such. i hate animation, but i’ve watched my fair share of it for educational purposes.

    watch japanese movies. takeshi kitano is pretty popular right now, so his movies should be easy to find. there’s lots of other good stuff too – check out the old kurosawa flicks. first, watch them a couple of times with subtitles. then turn them off after you have the gist of the plot.

    listen to j-pop. some of it is pure crap, but learning the cheese lyrics will help you out with the next tip.

    get a japanese girlfriend (or boyfriend). the perennial language-learning advice – it has worked wonders for me. do not underestimate the power of this one. at the very minimum, try to make close friends with people who speak the language you want to learn.

    label stuff. i never did this one, but i have a friend who wrote the names of everything around her house in japanese on index cards or post-its. when she grabbed the refrigerator door handle, she would have to look at the sign that said “reizouko”. apparently, it helped her attain a fair level of vocabulary in a short time.

    label stuff 2. i didn’t do this either, but in typing out the above, i just got an idea for something i probably should have done. instead of writing the name of the object on your notes, write what you do to/with the object. verbs are much more transferable than object nominals. write “osu” on the side of the door you push and “hiku” on the side you pull. label your pen with “kaku” and your beer with “nomu”.

    go to a real japanese restaurant. i don’t mean benihana. go where japanese people go. eavesdrop. try to order in japanese. tell the servers that you are studying, and they will very likely help you out, unless they’re really busy. ask them how to order your favorite food in japanese. better yet, sit at the sushi bar, and have the chef tell you the japanese names for everything he gives you (this is usually a great way to get a few pieces of sushi on the house too, by the way).

  6. Hi Andy, I’m truly sorry I missed out on visiting you. I guess I didn’t realize that you were serious. I heard you mention it once but I didn’t know if that was being polite or a serious invitation. I didn’t want to feel like I was inviting myself.

    I think an exchange to Japan is a great idea. I would love to participate if that ever gets set up. Being over 30, I seriously doubt I’ll develop much in Japanese speaking skills. In the past few months, especially as my promotion to sho dan was coming up, I have considered trying to audit a Japanese class as a graduate student at Emory. I actually checked on the class yesterday but it must be filled up because the beginning class is not listed anymore. I think part of my motivation for wanting to take Japanese is because as a serious taido student, I would like to have a little more knowledge of Japan and the language. Plus since I’m sure I am guilty of slaughtering even the pronunciations of the techniques, knowing a little more of the language may help, especially as I help teach. Does Dekalb County still offer classes and is it open to adults?

  7. i think understanding japanese can be helpful in learning taido theory, as it stands now. however, i seriously hope that we can someday have a taido that is not married to any specific culture. i believe that taido is relevant to every culture, so the dependence on a particular social framework is something i feel holds taido back. it is very possible to understand taido without knowing the japanese.

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