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Starting Over (Again): The Road to Learning Japanese

Is learning Japanese hard? Yes, but battling your failures while you learn is even harder.


Learning a language is hard. For me, learning Japanese (at least, trying to) has been one of my biggest struggles. Most of the time, it’s not even the material; I’m constantly fighting myself when it comes to mind games and psyching myself out. The real kicker? It seems like I’ve been doing this for years.

That First Taste

I first started learning Japanese back in high school. My mom bought a small set that included a lesson book, dictionary, and CDs. It admittedly wasn’t the best set (there wasn’t really a decent writing section, and the dictionary was fully in romaji, the latin alphabet). Needless to say, I didn’t use the set all that much. My high school work became a more pressing matter for me, anyway. So, I continued enjoying Japanese media like most of us foreigners: either through translations, or living in ignorance of what things meant (when it came to music, at least).

Diving into the Language

Sophomore year in college saw my first real foray into the Japanese language. I passed my first class with flying colors. At the same time, I was getting ready to transfer to a school with a less-harrowing commute. I looked into the textbook they used to prepare for taking a placement exam. At my first college, we used Japanese: The Spoken (and Written) Language. My new school, however, used Genki. Elementary 1 also covered the first 8 chapters. Essentially, while I may have been a star pupil, we actually covered very little compared to the other school.

Starting Over (Again): The Road to Learning Japanese
My college textbooks. I ended up liking Genki more. I became sort of invested in the characters, like Takeshi and Mary, that appear throughout.

That left me to self-study the first 8 chapters so I could take Elementary 2 and avoid retaking Elementary 1. The test, of course, was designed to find the best placement for everyone, so I couldn’t really gauge my success. While I ended up placing into Elementary 2, I soon realized that I was at a disadvantage. The students who took Elementary 1 had a different experience learning the material: namely, they had a teacher who could explain grammar points and quiz them in various ways. I also felt like my listening skills weren’t that sharp. When it came to the final, I had to speak with a partner and resolve a problem. I needed to reject the first suggestion, but I could accept the second one. Along with that, the professor wrote out one or two suggestions that wouldn’t work. I couldn’t think of a response to one of his suggestions, and we weren’t able to resolve the problem. I felt absolutely horrible.

My Biggest Weakness

This brings up one of the biggest challenges I’ve had to face learning Japanese: the fear of failure. I hate to fail; most people do. However, it goes beyond that for me: I become extremely embarrassed if I make a mistake. Any mistake. Even a speck of a mistake. I avoided participating in class for the whole of my college career, and I also don’t like asking for help. I have it in my head that if I ask for help, it’s an admittance that I couldn’t figure something out, which equals a failure. Many a time I’d pretend to know what someone was saying, when maybe I only understood half of it. I’ve responded to so many things with “hai,” (“yes”) hoping that they didn’t ask for information beyond a confirmation.

Starting Over (Again): The Road to Learning Japanese
All the dark red rectangles are for studying. I was so organized with all of my goals and time! And yet…

So, obviously, I know what my weaknesses are. I have trouble understanding spoken Japanese, and because I’m scared of making mistakes, I’m also not great at speaking. I just need to come up with a strategy to solve those, right? Technically, yes. Over the years, I’ve come up with strategy after strategy to solve my language problems. I’ve made study schedule after study schedule and downloaded app after app. I’ve looked into podcasts, websites, textbooks, the works. And yet, here I am, in Japan, barely able to speak basic Japanese. Why?

Starting Over (Again): The Road to Learning Japanese
This is probably the deadliest combo to my motivation to study. So. Much. Vocab.

I think it boils down to motivation. Every failure I’ve encountered deflated what motivates me to learn the language. Stopped doing flashcards so now you have hundreds to get through? Motivation drops. Keep using the wrong particles and can’t understand why? Motivation goes down again. Decided to take the JLPT and ended up not passing? Motivation plummets. These all hurt me, including the last one: I missed passing N3 by three points, and I seriously considered quitting then and there. Why was I doing this? I felt like I kept reviewing the same things over and over because I couldn’t stick to any of the schedules I made. Since I didn’t review past material, I’d have to go back to my Genki textbooks all the time when a grammar point I couldn’t remember popped up while I practiced reading. I was stuck in the intermediate level, and I felt that my learning piqued. I wasn’t going to get any further.

Problem Solved?

I wish I could say that I magically solved everything and mastered the language, but I still haven’t. I still feel stuck in a loop. I’m using Tobira, and since purchasing it however many months ago, I have yet to move past Chapter 1. I made a study schedule at work the other day, and I’ve already fallen behind. I’m in the JET Program, and one of the perks is that, if you pass the N3 level of the JLPT while you’re here, JET will reimburse you the registration fee. If there ever was a great opportunity to study hard and pass, this is it. And yet, here I am, writing about my troubles with the language instead of studying it. So, what do I do? How do I get that drive, that motivation I had when I first said, “Yes, this is the language I want to learn. This is what’s going to fulfill me”?

Starting Over (Again): The Road to Learning Japanese
Will Tobira finally be my gateway out of this intermediate nightmare? So far, no, though I can’t really blame that on the series…

I could say the things I initially said when I began my language-learning journey: “I want to be able to read manga in Japanese and watch anime without subtitles. I want to play old untranslated video games. It’d be awesome if I became a translator someday.” Yes, I could say those things again, but that’s not going to work. Those desires haven’t changed, but they aren’t enough to light a fire under my butt and get me going. Ultimately, the only thing that’s going to help me is to work. Hard. If I really want to learn Japanese, I have to put in the time, and I have to use the time I put in wisely. I could spend 3 hours studying, but if I only did flashcards, I’m not being efficient. I have to be more active when it comes to what I learn: don’t just read over some grammar, write a few practice sentences, and call it a day. Be outgoing and join a study group (scary, I know, but I can’t let my shyness get in the way). Try using Japanese whenever possible. Don’t take the easy way out and have Google translate any Japanese websites; take the time and try to read it. Keep track of past grammar and use it regularly. Most of all, don’t be afraid to fail. Now that I’m an ALT (Assistant Language Teacher), I come across many kids who are embarrassed to speak in English because they think they aren’t good at it. If I make an effort to move past my embarrassment and try to use Japanese, even if I make a ton of mistakes, then maybe they won’t be afraid to try using English. There are always going to be things you forget and have to remind yourself of; heck, I forget English words that I use all the time sometimes. But if I shy away from the hard work and just study at irregular intervals like before, then the odds of failing will always be high. Ultimately, what’s worse: failing at saying something correctly, or having the chance to really learn a language from a culture you love and never using it to your advantage?

Starting Over (Again): The Road to Learning Japanese
My current schedule, which I’m already behind on. But, maybe it’s not the end of the world.

I can do all of that, but if it becomes a burden to me, then I’ve also lost the fun of learning. I can’t get my passion back if all I see is work. Balance is key (as it is for most things in life). I know I want to pass the JLPT, but I don’t want to burn myself out preparing for it. Yeah, I might have to take it three or four times before I pass, and yeah, that’ll cost more money, but am I only studying to pass a test? No. I study because I want to engage and understand Japanese media and Japanese people. Those things are fun for me; so why can’t I use my study time for a little bit of fun, too? If balance really is key, then I can find a way to enjoy myself and still learn grammar and vocabulary. I’ll try my best to stick to my schedule, but if I fall behind a bit (or even quite a bit), it’s okay. There’s still time to get back on track. Failing to have fun is no longer an option.


Have you attempted to learn Japanese? What have been your biggest obstacles? Were you able to overcome them? How? Let us know your language learning stories in the comment section below!

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