Know the Basics
I arrived in Japan with a group of NOVA hires in Osaka. When I went to a restaurant with my group, I was the only one that could order. My experience in Japan would be completely different from them. I could already speak basic Japanese. I was conversing with the waitress. I told her “I just got to Japan yesterday” and “I’m from Canada.” I was still excited about being in a new country. She giggle while welcoming us to Japan. She asked me where I wanted to visit in Osaka. I told I was here for training for my new job, and I didn’t have any time for sightseeing. The others were wide-eyed. They had no idea what the waitress and I were talking about.
I got to meet different instructors from all over the world. I got exposed to a wide range of Japanese people, too. It was a great cultural experience. The biggest problem with the job was instructors speaking Japanese was strictly prohibited. Another was, I felt teaching beginner level English (without being able to explain in Japanese when necessary) was detrimental to my own English. My English was deteriorating and my Japanese was stagnating.
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. Learning masculine Japanese to better appeal to Japanese people was a motivator for me. I took notice of how cool Japanese men my age spoke. I was careful not to pick up any of the speaking habits of the girls around me.
Don’t expect your partner to teach you Japanese. You should be learning by trying to immerse into society.
It was winter 2006. I was confident to pass, but just in case, I took the day before off to get as much sleep as I possible. I wanted to be well rested for the test. After a year of living in Japan, and having studied so hard while in Canada, I easily passed the third level of the JLPT.
Escape the Bubble
I got tired of NOVA. I started applying for new work. I applied for a position as an Assistant English Teacher and was hired to work at a high school. Six months later, NOVA declared bankruptcy and many of the instructors didn’t get their final salaries. I was also lucky because my new job required some Japanese. It was even in the interview process.
Once I started working at the high school, I started hearing Japanese all day. Students began talking to me in Japanese, too. Teachers of the English department told always respond in English, and encouraged students to use English with me, but it didn’t always happen that way.
I was learning slang from the high schoolers that Japanese people my age didn’t know. The staff room meetings were my new goal. I usually understood 75% of what the students were saying. In the staff room, it was 25% on a good day. I really wanted to know what they were talking about. I listened intently every day but didn’t notice any improvement.
Eight months later, I had to change schools because Nagoya city makes their foreign teachers change every year. This was a new dispatch law, and I wanted to stay at the same school for longer, rather than having to change every year. I took a position at a middle school outside of Nagoya. Here, I was told, Japanese will be necessary. I had to occasionally do speeches in Japanese, but I also was responsible for translation and interpretation of different school events, e.g, with the sister city exchange program.
My N3 exam in winter 2006 had an ethnically diverse group of people. My exam at the winter 2008 N2 JLPT was like Chinatown. I was confident I passed, but I knew I wouldn’t be in the top percentile. I skimmed through the reading section, guessing the answers for many questions without even reading the passages. Months later, I received the results—I passed with a 261/400 (65 per cent).
Watch a lot and often do so. It’s better than textbooks and classes combined. Dramas, variety, NHK, and realistic TV shows are better than most anime. They’ll teach you real Japanese.
I thought my Japanese wasn’t improving, but reuniting with some old Japanese friends made me reflect. I hadn’t seen them for a few years. They were in shock. They explained, “Before your Japanese was good, but now your Japanese is Japanese!” I was so happy to hear that. I felt that our conversation range had grown wider. I was comfortable with a variety of topics we spoke about. It wasn’t tiring either. As my Japanese ability grew, I started to notice more errors and cultural faux pas that other foreigners did.
I’m confident with speaking, but reading and writing are still a challenge. I was sick of not being able to read real books. I was frustrated with writing kanji. I kept forgetting them. Rote memorization was boring and I didn’t want to waste any more paper on it. There had to be a smarter way. I found Heisig. I think his method works better than others for foreign learners.
I created my own mnemonics and retained a surprising amount. Making really funny, shocking, or visual mnemonics was the key to easy memorization for me. I worked on Heisig’s RtK1 for at least an hour every day for eight months.)
I hope to one day speak intelligently like an academic in Japanese. I’d like to be able to use keigo like a business professional, too. I think being able to write Japanese essays by hand is beyond my reach. This would take another ten years of serious writing practice and study. I don’t think I’m ready for such a commitment. I’ll continue to read every day, even if only for a little, about a variety of topics. I enjoy reading in Japanese and will continue to improve.