It’s currently September 2020, which means that I’ve been studying Japanese for over 4 years now. Woah.
I started studying it in August of 2016 simply because I had too much free time on my hands and I was interested in the Japanese gaming industry. I didn’t really think too much of Anime or Japanese culture, I just found myself in my room one night writing hiragana characters in my notebook over and over and over and over and over and over and over again until their pronunciation stuck with me and I was able to read them in an instant.
The first year of learning a language makes you feel like a toddler all over again. You have limited resources that you can use to accurately express yourself and you can spend up to 10 seconds trying to read one particular word. And like babies, we use our tiny underdeveloped vocabularies to deliver convoluted ways of saying things that native speakers can express in 4 words or less. It’s a very frustrating stage of learning a language and can leave you feeling discouraged.
It’s amazing when I look back at my Japanese language skills from only 2 years ago and compare them to my skills now. While I’m certainly nowhere near fluent, I can speak at a basic conversational level where I can express my thoughts and have them understood and I can (usually) understand what other people are trying to say. Had I actually been living in Japan for these last 4 years, I think my language skills would have developed much faster, but alas, I’m stuck here in America where the most I can hope for is long-distance communication between Japanese friends and exposing myself to cultural influences.
Being self-taught, I was at a bit of a disadvantage for resources compared to someone who might have taken a college course on the language. I definitely would not be anywhere nearly as proficient as I am now without making Japanese friends or constantly grinding on practice material. I highly recommend watching Ken Shimura’s Daijoubuda on YouTube. It comes with Japanese subtitles so it’s great for improving your listening comprehension.
So, being proficient enough to understand everyday casual Japanese, where are my weak points right now? I’d say I have a fairly good grasp on grammar; despite being almost completely backwards from English, I rarely ever stutter to comprehend the difference word orders and even the more colloquial patterns where they intentionally leave sentences incomplete. My biggest struggle at the moment is probably just vocabulary.
Japanese has 3 different systems of writing: Hiragana, Katakana and Kanji. While Hiragana and Katakana are both entirely phonetic and easy to read at the beginner level, Kanji refers to the special characters borrowed from the Chinese language and they all have up to 2, 3 or sometimes even 5 different pronunciations depending on the context. This can be a big obstacle in expanding your vocabulary, and honestly the concept of Kanji in general is a huge turn-off for newcomers.
It’s not usually a wise idea to rely on Google Translate to expand your vocabulary, considering that it makes too many assumptions about the context and only gives you a translation without an explanation. I personally use a site called Jisho.org. “Jisho” is Japanese for “Dictionary” and that’s exactly what this site is. It will give you a list of all possible Japanese words that could match your input, along with definitions that explain their subtle difference, and an indicator of how common that word is.
Unfortunately, opening up a web browser all the time and then going to “jisho.org” and typing stuff in English every time I’m stuck in the middle of a sentence is a bit of an inconvenience for me. I recently developed a simple Python script that interacts with Jisho’s public API, meaning that all I have to do now is open up a terminal and type in whatever word I need to know. And it doesn’t tell me anything more than what I need. Just the pronunciation of the Kanji, the definition of the word and whether or not it’s common.
It’s also great for inputting Japanese words and getting a more in-depth translation, along with a pronunciation.
Here’s a github link. https://github.com/GavynBryan/QuickJapanese Although it’s incredibly easy to code one for yourself. I’ll find this quite useful when I’m on Japanese internet chatrooms and I’m lost on how to read a kanji. I think I’m going to go study some more Japanese. Maybe I’ll get back to you guys in 4 more years and we’ll how much I’ve improved since. 🙂