Traveling Japan: Learning Japanese

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Japanese was one of those languages that I’ve always sort of known but never fully mastered. One of my grandmothers was a Japanese language teacher in Taiwan and grew up in the era of Japanese colonialism. Both she and my grandfather told me they spoke Japanese more fluently than any other language, which makes sense since they grew up formally schooled in the language.

I’ve also watched my share of Japanese anime for over two decades now, which means I learned to say some pretty useless things in Japanese, such as “I am a Vampire Princess.”

In any case, it always seemed like a waste to not try to obtain some decent level of proficiency in the language, and a trip to Japan was the perfect reason to really get cracking on this long delayed goal.

Since I couldn’t really afford (in terms of time) to take a formal Japanese language class at the local community college or anything like that, I turned to my trusty Audible account and transformed every commute into a Japanese lesson.

I started with the Pimsleur series, which is very drill and repetition based. Each lesson has a dialogue that is repeated twice at the beginning of the lesson, and the time in between is interspersed with pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar, explanations, and dialogue response situations. What’s learned before is returned to in a cyclic manner in later lessons to refresh and solidify what you learn. For example, you might learn how to say “train” in lesson 3, and out of the blue in lesson 7, they’ll ask you “How do you say ‘train’?”

For Pimsleur, there are 3 phases or courses you can run through, with each phase containing 30×30-minute lessons, all adding up to a total of almost 50 hours of instruction and practice.

Pimsleur Japanese Phase 1
Pimsleur Japanese Phase 2
Pimsleur Japanese Phase 3

Each of these phases can run pretty pricy as audiobooks go, being about $120 each. But if you calculate how much it would cost to take the course at a college, it’s quite a good deal in that respect. Also, I have an Audible subscription membership where I pay about $15 a month and get a credit that I can use to purchase books. A Pimsleur language phase of 30 lessons is 5 credits, so I essentially only paid about $75 for each one using my credits. The only hard thing is saving up 5 months worth of credits, but there are opportunities here and there to purchase extra credits, so I was able to snatch up all 3 phases of Japanese last year alone. It actually worked out well, because I would spend a few months on one set of 30 lessons before moving on to the next one. Nevertheless, currently, I’ve been saving up my monthly audible credits for future purchases of Pimsleur courses for Korean and Spanish.

The Pimsleur program is good for solidifying basics. Even though I’ve been told my pronunciation is pretty legit, I found pronunciation one of the toughest parts of picking up Japanese because I would just get tongue tied over the simple task of emitting the sounds in sequence. If you’ve got very little exposure to Japanese, be patient with yourself in just getting used to making those sounds. Making the sounds of a new language require building up actual physical muscles, so it’s not just a mental game.

After working through all 90 lessons, I had only scratched the surface of the basics even though it was a good foundation. I wanted more courses than just 3, even with supplementing with anime and Japanese dramas. So I found the Japanese podcast series, which was also available on Audible. This series is actually available free online, but when I tried signing up for the account, I didn’t really feel like putting in all my contact info plus credit cards and the such into yet another website, so I decided to just purchase them through Audible, since they were only about $5 each and would be more convenient to access through my Audible account

Japanese Beginner (Level 4)
Japanese Intermediate (Level 7)
Japanese Lower Intermediate (Level 6)
Japanese Upper Intermediate (Level 8)
Japanese Advanced (Level 9)

This series throws a lot at you from the get go, and I wouldn’t recommend starting with this as a beginner. Even after going through all 90 Pimsleur drill lessons, I got lost even in the beginner level of these podcasts. I don’t think this is a indication that the Pimsleur program is no good, more that Japanese Podcast assumes the learner knows a lot of basic Japanese to start with and just throws you into dialogues with a sort of sink or swim approach. I also felt like they chattered a little too much, but I got used to that afterwards and eventually found it helpful in providing more cultural context for the language.

The general format of the lessons is a dialogue at the beginning and end with extended vocabulary and language discussion in the middle. There’s almost no drilling and barely any time to try to say the words yourself unless you stop and rewind the track continuously (which of course I can’t do while driving). Some tracks are just all the dialogue repeated and combined so you get a lot of exposure to listening to Japanese being spoken.

The sink or swim approach of this series, though, pairs up quite well with the Pimsleur drills in that the drills give you that foundation and the Japanese Podcast’s overwhelming dialogue puts you in a richer language environment, so I highly recommend anyone else looking to learn Japanese on their commutes to also start with Pimsleur and then move on to the Japanese Podcast program afterwards.

I’ve just been listening through all the lessons and then plan to go back and listen to them all again when I’m done. They come with pdfs, so that will be helpful to work through when I have time to actually sit down at a desk and study.

Having the trip to Japan looming over me also really helped to motivate me to keep working through the lessons knowing that the “final” test would be straight up immersion and survival in the language–a true sink or swim situation.

In my preparation for actually going to Japan, I especially focused on numbers, time, money exchange, and directions both because I had a lot of trouble with them and because I figured they would be the most practical vocabulary for basic survival.

By the time I finally was on my way to the Land of the Rising Sun, I had finished all the Pimsleur series and was starting through the Japanese Podcast series, planning to continue listening to them as I traveled.

So how did I do when I was finally there?

Pretty miserably. Often, I found that when I was on the spot and trying to say something, I could only bark out single words instead of complete sentences.

Nevertheless, the whole endeavor was not a total loss. I was often pleasantly surprised at what I was able to understand, and I was especially happy with how my numbers, time, and directions came in handy at the most crucial moments. I was so relieved when I understood the train ticket guy explaining to us what time our train would be and so on.

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Also, those single words I was barking out actually got us somewhere. For instance, we were at the Ghibli Museum trying to get to the garden on the roof but couldn’t find our way up there. As we tried to ask one of the staff there, she had no idea what we were asking until I remembered one of my vocabulary, the Japanese word for garden. I asked, “Niwa?” Her eyes lit up with understanding and she promptly pointed us directly to the rooftop garden. “Where is the garden?” is actually a pretty simple sentence that I know (Niwa wa doko desu ka?), but I think in the moment of panic, I was reduced to sub-caveman language skills.

Of course, as each day passed in Japan, I moved more from one word barking to phrases, and finally to a complete sentence.

My shining moment came was we were at a train station that had multiple lines going out, and the entrance to a local line was different from the entrance to a larger Japan Railway line that we needed to get to Ueno in the Tokyo area, but of course, we didn’t know that. We ended up at the entrance of the local line, and I walked up to the information booth and asked, “I’d like to go to Ueno (Ueno e ikitaindesuga).” Not only was it a complete sentence, it was culturally nuanced to be less assertive. Had to do a victory dance after that one.

Aside from just immersion and practical need to use the language, there was a lot in Japan that helped with the language learning process. For one, there were public announcements repeating continuously at the train stations and in all the trains, which for me was like a 3-D contextualized audio book of sorts. I found a helpful blog that explained what was being said on those announcements. Hearing them again and again really drilled them into my head.

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Next, a lot of the streets and signs had roman letters, and the arrival/departure signs at train stations were flashing back and forth between Japanese and English in a sort of live flash card fashion. I hadn’t focused on reading and writing Japanese, but my Chinese background allowed me to decipher a lot of the Chinese character kanji and start to recognize some of the Japanese phonetic characters. It wasn’t long until I was able to figure out which Japanese characters spelled out train names like Nozomi and Hikari.

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This was at least my fifth time in Japan (it’s on the way to Taiwan from Los Angeles, so my family stopped by there quite a bit), and I remember becoming terrified of speaking any Japanese in Japan because I once said a simple thank you “arigato” to a customs inspector at the airport and the man launched into what sounded like a tirade of Japanese, apparently thinking I was fluent. Embarrassed, I had to shake my head and speak English to show him I didn’t know what he was saying and felt bad he had taken the trouble to say so much and have it all been done for naught.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been told my pronunciation is quite accurate by a lot of native speakers. Even our guide at Fuji mountain on this trip, who spoke excellent English, told me my Japanese pronunciation was more accurate than his, since he had a local accent. I imagine this is probably due to the fact that my grandparents spoke to me in Japanese so much in my early childhood that it got hardwired in there.

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So I wasn’t just “shy” about using my Japanese, I was literally afraid of saying anything in Japanese since people would start speaking to me completely in Japanese after that. Nevertheless, I had to practice to learn the language, and as expected, people did start speaking to me as if I was a native speaker everytime I opened my mouth. That wasn’t the worst part though. When they realized I didn’t quite understand everything they said, they would give me this look like “Are you an idiot?” and seemed very annoyed at me.

I guess I can understand what they’re experiencing. If someone came up to me and said “Where is the restroom?” in American English and then proceeded to not understand my directions, I would think there was something wrong with that person too.

Finally, I figured out a way to approach things that worked well for everyone. I began to start every conversation with “Do you understand English? (Ego ga wakarimasu ka?)” Nine times out of ten, they would say “a little (sukoshi)”, which was fine with me, because I wanted to practice my Japanese, but starting with that question clearly established that I wasn’t a native speaker, and everything went a whole lot smoother after that. I stopped getting the “Are you an idiot?” look from people.

I didn’t really need to learn Japanese to get by in Japan, but I was pleased with how much Japanese I was able to pick up both from my studies before and from actually being there. However, in terms of getting some level of proficiency, I’d give myself a failing grade. As a result, I’ve actually been continuing my studies of Japanese, working through the rest of the Japanese podcast series, and I’m going to work on learning the writing system, which shouldn’t be too impossible to do on my own since I already know Chinese, and I’ve heard that Chinese kanji is the hardest part of Japanese reading and writing. Next time I go back to Japan, my goal is to be able to communicate comfortably in complete sentences right off the bat.

Overall, trying to learn Japanese has made me very nostalgic about the time when I was studying Chinese in Taiwan back in college. I find it really intellectually challenging, and there’s a sort of active meditation in it, where I’m forced to be mindful of actions I usually take for granted, as the simplest tasks become a total challenge for me. I was constantly forced to be very aware of the here and now at almost every moment there.

The challenge was good, but exhausting too. I was surprised when I touched back down in LAX how relieved I was when the immigration inspector spoke English to me. I had to keep myself from blurting out loud, “Thank goodness you speak my language!” For a couple weeks after, though, I found myself having to stop myself from trying to communicate in Japanese, as I went into a Rite Aide and almost asked one of the workers, “Sumimasen…(Excuse me…).” [Side note: I didn’t feel this way on my trips to Taiwan as much, since I use Mandarin and Taiwanese on an almost daily basis in Los Angeles, so it was like more of the same.]

In the meantime, I will share what travel knowledge I gathered from my trip to Japan in this new travelogue series, and hopefully it will be of some use to you. Japan is definitely a lot of fun to visit and travel.

For those of you not interested in picking up the language just to enjoy everything that Japan has to offer, there’s always Google Translate, which you can download to your mobile devices and use even without internet connection. You can type in English, and it will show the translated text which you can hold up to whoever you’re talking to for them to read. I had to resort to this a few times.

Those of you with T-mobile will find the international adaptiveness of T-mobile service extremely convenient. I highly recommend that service for frequent international travelers. You can use your phone to call US or in Japan, and you’ve got satellite internet everywhere you go.

Next up, public transportation in Japan.

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About tinabot

Tinabot is a writer, teacher, and ninja. She and her students write and publish their work. Her debut teen kung fu romance novel The Legend of Phoenix Mountain is available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
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