Starting Over (Again): The Road to Learning Japanese

By Cindy Caraturo

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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Cindy Caraturo

Continual student of the Japanese language and valiant attempter at novel (and article!) writing. Enjoys when it's softly raining outside and is an avid drinker of quali-tea. Also thinks she is amusing. Take that for what you will. (⌒▽⌒)

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  1. Great article.
    Can 100% relate to the failing part.
    I’m studying Japanese on my own using Wanikani and Human Japanese.
    I also have the Genki books but they seem to intimidating to use.
    After Human Japanese I do plan to go through Genki as it is recommended everywhere 🙂

    1. Thank you very much! I’m glad I’m not alone in the failing department. What would you say your troubles have been with your studies?

      Awesome, another Wanikani user! What level are you? Before I took the JLPT, I went onto a forum post about study partners and did Genki exercises with someone over Skype. Maybe you can see if anyone else on there wants to study together? I think it helps with the intimidation if you have someone to talk to about anything you don’t understand (and you better retain the things you explain to others).

      What would you say your language goals are with Japanese? I’ve been thinking about becoming a translator, so I end up putting a lot of pressure on myself sometimes. (Well, maybe most of the time…)

      1. The most troubles I’m having are with remembering everything. During study I usually understand how to use it and apply it. But when I need to recall something from a couple of lessons ago I can’t and need to look it up again to make it all come back, which is demotivating. And with Wanikani reviews it’s as if I can only focus on the one’s I got wrong (again and again and again …).

        But I don’t know what I would do with Wanikani. It’s great and I’m now level 12 so I still have a long way to go. What level are you?
        Joining a study group or something like that has crossed my mind but I think its “safer” to go at it alone for now. I don’t want to hold others back if I’m going to slow or fall behind if others are faster. (And then there is the fact that I’m not that sociable which is also a reason which holds me back from studying together with others). But after I have learned the absolute basics of Japanese grammar I might consider checking for a study group.

        My goals are not that awesome as yours, being a translator you could work for Crunchyroll and see the anime before anyone else sees it ^_^. I have set my goal to being able to read Japanese .e.g Manga, Games or Japanese subtitled Anime. Being able to watch Anime without subtitles is a dream but not for now. I might set it as a stretch goal once I can read Japanese (sort of decent enough). I’m also studying it to learn more about Japan in general. And lastly show myself that I can do it despite the fact that languages is my weakest skill. (Math is by far way easier, fewer things you need to memorize for example).

        1. I know that feeling; I also forget past grammar points after a while of not using them. What I’ve done in the past (and should really start doing again) is keep a running list of grammar points I’ve learned. I have a Lang-8 account, and there was a time when I wanted to write entries every week and practice both new and old grammar (yet another thing I should get back into). As for the Wanikani reviews, I COMPLETELY understand. If I don’t get at least 90% right (or if I get just one wrong), I just shake my head and think, “Cindy…”

          I’m level 30 right now, but I’m soooo far behind on reviews. (As of now, I’m at 797…) I’m not the most sociable person, either, but I really wanted to practice both speaking and listening. We would aim for 1 chapter a week, so maybe when you’re ready, you can see if both you and your partner can work out some kind of schedule like that? You could also do more than 1 day a week; maybe a day for going over the material and another for practice.

          Haha, your goals are perfectly fine! I don’t think I always wanted to be a translator. I really got into Japanese culture because of the music, so I just wanted to be able to understand what people were singing about without looking up translated lyrics. Still not quite there yet, but someday…

  2. You can do it! Believe in me! Believe in me who believes in you! xD
    On a serious note, this makes me notice that i’ve just been super lazy compared to what this article shows me i should atleast be doing to study japanese. Guess it’s time to try harder

    1. Haha, I’ll do my best to believe! 😀

      It’s not always about how much you do; I tried doing a lot of different things to learn the language, but I still had plenty of trouble. Learning to push past difficulties is hard. I lose motivation quite easily, especially when it seems like I’m not able to remember things correctly (grammar, vocabulary, etc.). If you are looking to add something to your study routine, though, I’d definitely recommend Lang-8; you write whatever you want in the language you’re studying, and native speakers correct it for you. You can also correct other people’s writing, as well.

      I believe in you, too! Ganbatte!

  3. I made the mistake of taking in in University….even in the beginner course the native speaking teachers assumed too much and moved WAY too fast. I was good with listening comprehension and speaking. But the writing…my heavens (on the upside, my regular handwriting looks like hieroglyphics anyway….).

    I’m curious, though: have you tried the program by Rosetta Stone?

    1. Haha, everyone talks too fast for me (unless they can tell I have know idea what they just said). I never ended up using Rosetta Stone. It’s an expensive program, and unlike other languages in their catalogue, it only has 3 levels rather than 5. My mom wanted to buy it for me, but at that point I was already working my way through intermediate-level material, so it seemed like a waste of money on her part.

      What methods have you used? Are you still studying Japanese?

  4. I’m currently using Human Japanese to practice on my own, and although failure isn’t necessarily an obstacle of mine, I still find it hard to get motivated sometimes.
    For the most part I don’t have too much difficulty with remembering most of what I learn. I think that’s because I try to expose myself to the language as much as possible (even if that mostly consists of listening to Japanese music and watching anime with English subtitles…). Listening to the characters speak and picking up on words that I know has made a huge impact on my listening and understanding skills.

    Nonetheless, I am FAR from being a master of Japanese and I will continue to work hard to achieve my goal.

    1. Ah, Human Japanese! I remember looking into that some time ago, but I had already learned quite a bit by that point, so I didn’t end up using it. How is it as a learning tool?

      I think I do too much “passive” listening when it comes to anime and music. Do you use a more active approach? Listening continues to be my biggest weakness…

      Good luck with your studies!

      1. I LOVE Human Japanese as a learning tool, though I do think that it’s not for everyone. The app is basically a textbook with reviews and quizes at the end of the chapters. One aspect I really love about it, though, is that it explains seemingly complex and scary grammar by comparing to our own in English. Because of that, I feel that I am able to relate and remember more of what I learn about the language.

        Although it is extremely easy to read and gives lots of insight into Japanese grammar and culture, I wouldn’t recommend this for someone who doesn’t learn well by just reading. Sure, there are readings by native speakers throughout, but the majority of the app is text. That will evidently not appeal to all.

        As far as my listening skills go, I am the same as you. I am WAY too “passive”, and tend to justify my excessive anime watching with my ambition to learn Japanese…
        Nonetheless, I do believe that I’m doing better by doing it than not. I also enjoy watching Japanese YouTubers and vloggers that help me to improve.

        Thank you, and good luck to you as well!

  5. Personally I am relearning the language after having three years back in high school using the adventures in Japanese books all three years. I took both beginner Japanese courses at my local community college passed them with flying colors. I was using WaniKani until a few months ago when my subscription ended with about 150 or so items to burn.

    What I lack is speaking skills, remembering vocabulary how to use particles etc is simple for me. Even though I speak English natively I don’t talk that much in English. I do practice writing in Japanese almost everyday. I’ve used Genki both 1 & 2, human Japanese (intermediate), Living Language Japanese, a bunch of other books for verbs, grammar and one book on how to speak Japanese. I also use different online resources like JapanesePod101, Japanese With Yuta (he does beginner lessons), Japanese Ammo with Misa, Japanese with Hanako (she does weekly lessons on Saturdays live on YouTube), I use as my dictionary online. As for mobile apps, i-Sokki, imawa?, HelloTalk, HiNative, and a few others that I can’t remember right now. I use iTalki as well.

    1. You started in high school? Was it a language taught at your school, or did you just learn it on your own? I tried to study it on my own in high school, but…well, too much going on for me to make much headway. For WaniKani, are you saying you had 150 more items to burn and you’d be totally finished? That’s awesome! I’d be interested in your experiences with iTalki, since you said speaking was one of your weaknesses.

      Have you taken the JLPT? I’m curious as to what level you’d place your Japanese skills (upper-intermediate, advanced, etc.).