Though you may see English everywhere in Japan, it’s a good idea to master some basics before you arrive. Trust me! Learn how to understand basic answers, too. Asking a question with no chance of understanding the answer is stupid.
Know the Basics
I arrived in Japan with a group of NOVA hires in Ōsaka. When I went to a restaurant with my group, I was the only one that could order in Japanese. My experience was completely different from the others because I could actually converse with the waitress. A simple “I just got to Japan yesterday” and “I’m from Canada” got me into a friendly conversation with the waitress. For the other NOVAs, they pointed and said “kudasai.” It ended there for them.
It was a job… Its biggest merit was networking. I got to meet English speakers from around the world, and of course getting to know my customers, native Japanese (toddlers to senior citizens) was a great cultural experience, too. The biggest problem with this job though, was that Japanese was strictly prohibited, and teaching beginner level English for eight hours a day was detrimental to my English. This was not what I was hoping for.
I did not study for it, but I did take a few mock tests before the test date. I was confident to pass, but just in case, I took the day before off to get as much sleep as I could. After a year of living in Japan, I easily passed the third level of the JLPT, now N3, in winter 2006. My studying and lessons in Canada were the reason I passed. Study hard before you get here and everything will go smoother for you than the newbies.
Escape the Bubble
I had applied and was hired for a position as an Assistant English Teacher (AET) through a dispatch company about six months before NOVA declared bankruptcy. I had resigned just in the nick of time, and with my new job, some Japanese was necessary.
Even though I was an English teacher, once I started working in a Japanese public high school, students began talking to me in Japanese all the time. I responded in English, but hearing the Japanese was much better than always conversing in beginner English at my previous workplace. I was learning slang that Japanese my age (mid 20s) didn’t know.
But on a completely different Japanese level, the morning meetings (uchi awase) in the staff room were probably the most motivating for me. With the students, I could usually understand about 75% of what they were saying; but in the staff room, I could understand no more than 25%. I really wanted to know what they were talking about. I listened intently every day, but didn’t notice any progress in my ability.
After eight months at this school, I took a position at a middle school in a little town outside of Nagoya. Here, I was told, Japanese will be necessary. At this school, not only did I have to do various speeches in Japanese to the students and staff, but I also “became” responsible for translation and interpretation of different school events. To this day, I engage in conversation daily with Japanese staff.
The N3 in winter 2006 had an “ethnically” diverse group of people taking the test. The N2, which I took in winter 2008, was mainly speakers of Mandarin-Chinese at my test site. I spoke (in Japanese) with a Chinese national after the test. His listening and speaking ability was not on par with mine (uncoincidently, he found the listening section of the test very difficult). But, I was envious when he said the reading section of the test was too easy. Though I was confident I passed, I knew I wouldn’t be in the top percentile because I had skimmed through the reading section, guessing the answers for many questions without reading the passages. Months later I received the test results—I passed with a 261/400 (65%).
Though many people say having a “partner” in your target language is the best way to learn, this is completely false with Japanese. Japanese men and women talk very differently, so only homosexuals will benefit here. As a heterosexual male, learning masculine Japanese to better appeal to not only women, but also to the people of Japan in general, was a motivator for me. I enjoy being able to confidently converse in Japanese with my girlfriend in public. However, for me, Japanese male influences were much more significant than female (for learning Japanese).
Don’t expect your partner to teach you Japanese. You should be learning by trying to immerse into society.
Watch a lot. Often. It’s better than textbooks and classes combined. Dramas, variety, NHK and realistic TV shows are better than most anime (to teach you real Japanese).
Like I said earlier, I did not think I was improving my Japanese. But after meeting some old (Japanese) friends that I didn’t see for a few years, they were in shock. They explained, “Before your Japanese was good, but now your Japanese is Japanese!” Though I knew they were just being generous with compliments, I really felt that our range of conversation had grown wider. Being comfortable with a variety of topics in your target language is a great feeling. Exposure, ideally immersion, is the best way to become a native-like speaker (but you already knew this). As my Japanese ability grew, I started to notice more errors and “cultural faux pas” that other “foreigners” (gasp) made.
When you reach the point of making phone calls in Japanese, and after you tell the person (on the other line) your name and they’re surprised “You’re a foreigner?!” Give yourself a pat on the back.
Though I’m approaching spoken fluency on some topics in Japanese, reading and writing is another battle. For native speakers of Romance or Germanic languages, Japanese will take you at least four times longer to learn than a language of your language group (I read this long ago; link me to the study if you find it). Yes, cultural differences are a factor, but more difficult is Japanese reading and writing.
Want to leap over this hurdle? Sick and tired of not being able to read books on topics of interest? Frustrated by forgetting how to write kanji you previously learned? Bored to death with learning by rote memorization? Work smarter! I think the Heisig method works better than most other kanji resources for foreign learners.
I created my own mnemonics. I haven’t studied, nor reviewed the mnemonics I created, but I have retained a surprising amount thanks to the power of my imagination. I’m looking forward to reviewing and mastering them when I return to my Japanese studies. (I’m currently on a study break. I worked on RtK1 for at least an hour every day for eight months.)
I hope to one day speak in Japanese intelligently like an academic, yet professionally like a business person using keigo. To achieve this, I will continue to immerse myself by passively observing—and participating—in unfamiliar Japanese scenarios. And, I will do my best to remain studious!