Making the Jump from Intermediate to Advanced Japanese
Recently, a reader posed an interesting question:
I’ve done the entire Pimsleur system, gone half way through Rosetta Stone, through RTK1, taken up an SRS, spent countless hours listening to Japanese audio, watching untranslated Japanese TV, trying to read sentences, and I feel I have very little to show for it.
I’ve read that people who are good at identifying patterns are also good at learning language. This is interesting because I suck at identifying patterns. Consequently, whenever watching/listening to something in Japanese, my brain seems to think it would be a better idea to start thinking about English things rather than listening closely.
I was wondering, how did you go from having a promising beginning to being fluent? You once mentioned that about 90% of people who say they’re going to learn Japanese eventually give up. What I’d like to know is how you got past that point, and became a part of the 10% that make it all the way through.
Everyone Needs a Hobby
This was interesting because I was sitting in the park a few months ago, at night, drinking beer. What can I say, it’s a hobby of mine. I believe some snacks were also involved. And while I was enjoying a relaxing midnight picnic, a guy sat down on the bench next to mine. This was surprising for two reasons. The first was that there were actually two benches anywhere in Japan. It’s freaking hard to find a seat in this country sometimes, honestly. The second is because, well, some strange dude was sitting next to me in the dark. That’s pretty obvious, I guess.
“English teacher?” he asked in English. He didn’t look Japanese, but still, Ken Seeroi takes no chances.
“Yeah,” I replied in Japanese. I don’t care who you are, I speak Japanese at you, regardless. “How ’bout you?”
“I’m studying Japanese,” he said in Japanese.
“Where you from?
“Really?” I said. “Want some snacks?”
“Great,” he said. Then, “Man, are these salty.
“Yeah, but they go well with beer. I mean, if you had one. Anyway, why’re you in Japan?
“I actually wanted to go to the U.S.,” he said, “but I couldn’t get accepted to university, so I came here. After I’m done with language school, I’ll start college.”
Underground Japanese Language Schools
Okay, let me stop at this point and explain what’s going on, other than two random dudes sitting in the park at night, which I guess is weird enough anyway. But hey, you know, it’s Japan.
The thing is, there are two types of language schools in Japan: the ones you’ll find if you google for them in English, and the faceless, almost underground ones you won’t. I know this because I happened to be dating a Japanese teacher at the time who worked at one of these hidden schools. Now, I know what you’re thinking: what are the chances that Ken Seeroi would be dating a Japanese teacher at one of these schools? And the answer is, Eh, pretty good actually, considering I was dating about eight girls at the time. That really improves one’s odds.
As a result, I’d met dozens of students like the park guy, and heard their stories, as well as the stories of the teachers. They were a far cry from the well-lit Japanese schools targeted at Westerners, with students all looking like an American Apparel ad, coming to study “at their own pace.” Gaijin with money attend schools with cheerful staff who arrange izakaya parties and “authentic Japanese experience” field trips to see kimonos, or flower arranging, or pottery making. Stuff like that. In their spare time, students hang out in Irish bars chatting up Japanese folks who mostly want to speak English anyway.
The Real Japanese Learners
But there are scores, if not hundreds, of schools that Westerners never see. They advertise heavily overseas, in countries like India, China, Korea, and Nepal. Students there take classes all day, five days a week, then work nights in convenience stores, net cafes, and izakaya, taking orders and washing dishes for parties of Western language school students, after which they come home to small, cheap apartments, cook dinner, and do tons of homework. They don’t hang out in Irish bars. Japanese girls don’t dig them. They are, simply, immigrants. They endure poor treatment and discrimination, and they’re not in love with Japan, nor is Japan with them. It’s just a place with an opportunity to go to school, and maybe start a better life. They’ve never heard of RTK or SRS or AJATT. The only acronym they know is STFUAS. And they become good at Japanese, pretty quickly.
Breaking into Advanced Japanese
So how do you go from intermediate to advanced Japanese? Let me illustrate that with a simple story about two guys named Phillip and, uh, Ben LeRoi. See, Ben bought a gym membership and worked out three times a week, using a program that included free weights, machines, and resistance bands. He drank protein shakes and creatine powder, logged his performance, and spent a lot of time looking in the mirror wondering why his lats weren’t more defined. At least, I think those were lats. Whatever. Phillip, by contrast, got busted for pot and went to prison for a year. And when he came out, Phillip was huge. A year before, they’d both been two skinny dudes, and now Phillip was a monster and Ben was just full of protein shakes.
“Jesus, Phil,” Ben said. “What the hell happened to, like, your body?
“Push-ups,” he said. “Nothing else to do. Jail’s boring.”
Now, if you looked at a gym membership like a bet—like, out of 100 people who buy memberships, how many end up looking great?—it wouldn’t be a very good wager, since 90% of the people don’t come out looking any better than they did going in. But prison? Man, a lot of those dudes are pretty huge. They don’t have special machines or muscle-building diets. They just work out, all day. Prison’s the place you want to be.
So, honestly, your problem isn’t pattern recognition, or SRS methodology, or your language filter, or your intake of Omega-3 fatty acid. It’s just that you need to study way effing more. Everyone who studies Japanese is in the same boat, struggling to make progress. It’s a hard freaking language.
But before you get your sister to lock you in a shed with a stack of textbooks and slide pizzas under the door for the next few years, there’s one more thing you should consider.
The Lying Game
You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. That’s some straight-up Word of God for you. So realize there’s a whole internet of people enthusiastically writing about this or that mnemonic method, and how many cards they enter into Anki, and how magical their learning program is. They’re all excited about their hobby. But those aren’t the droids you’re looking for. You’d be better off listening to convicts, immigrants, and all the people who aren’t writing about studying Japanese because they’re locked in sheds.
At the same time, there’s the constant noise about how easy it is. Learning Japanese is easy. You can do it in 18 months. Or three months. Or just make up some random number. There’s an entire industry of people lying to you. Actually, that sounds kind of bad. Let’s just say, “spreading untruths.” There, much better.
But I was also lying when I said that 90% of the people give up. That number factored in all those folks from China and India studying their asses off. (Sorry, I was just trying to be encouraging.) For Westerners, the real number is more like 99%. Once you see how massive the task actually is, and that there’s no miracle method, and that it takes a long time, Poof, you’re out like a genie.
Forget a Better Mousetrap, Build a Mouse-Proof House
But the answer isn’t just Work Harder. You need a completely much better method.
Thanks to the magic of the internet, we now have a forum in which everyone can share their own expert method. So helpful, that internet, what with the Google and all. And the common thread is: “Self-Study! You can learn better on your own!” Which is awesome, because really, who wants to do things the old-fashioned way? Learn language from people? How very 1985 of you.
There’s kind of two ways to do everything, right? Just say right. Like, if you wanted to take a road trip. Maybe go see the Grand Canyon or something. Now, you could go online and find a bunch of people who’d love to tell you how to build your own car from bailing wire and recycled tin cans, for free. And you could do that and it’d be fun. You’d spend a couple of years soldering and stapling together your very own Fard or Hondo and drive its five wheels and three headlights all the way to the Grand Canyon on a gallon of corn oil. Or you could just go buy a freaking real car.
What I’m trying to say is, you shouldn’t listen to anyone about studying Japanese. Not Tim, or Benny, or Khatz, or me. (Whoa, just kidding about me.) Because when you really want to get something done, you hire a professional. Which bring us to Ken Seeroi’s Golden Rule for Studying Japanese and Pretty Much Everything Else:
Don’t screw around.
That’s it. If building a car is your hobby, great. But if it’s a trip you want to take, then freaking pedal your Schwinn down to Honda and buy a Civic, because they’ve already perfected that shit. I mean, I guess you could start assembling a 747 in your backyard too. Just think how much you’d save on airfare to Japan.
How to Learn Japanese the Hardest Way Possible
If you ask anybody, they’ll say, Ken Seeroi? He’s that dude who’s always studying Japanese. Actually, they’d probably say, He’s that fool with the beer leaning against the bar trying to pick up chicks. Whatever. When it comes to Japanese, I’ve done everything. Pimleur, Rosetta Stone, JapanesePod 101, killed my sensei in a duel. All that stuff. According to Anki, I reviewed 34,000 flashcards last year. That, plus several NHK News stories and 15 sentences with new vocabulary every day, for over 10 years. That’s in addition to living in Japan, watching Japanese TV, working in a Japanese environment, and hanging out with people (okay, chicks) who don’t speak English.
And here’s the bad news . . .
I’m now just about at an intermediate stage. Because being able to read and converse are the basics for starting to learn the language.
Despite being fluent in Japanese, I still find myself baffled by tons of things I can’t understand, see posters that make no sense, and walk into the ladies’ dressing room at the onsen. Hey, it was a mistake. I have a pattern recognition problem. Don’t hate on the handicapped, lady.
How to Learn Japanese the Easiest Way Possible
So after a decade of mostly self-study, I feel pretty good about telling you, Yeah, don’t do that. What you really want to do is enroll in a Japanese language school, in Japan, like the Yamasa Institute. They’re professionals. Teaching people Japanese is what they do. And don’t go twice a week for six months like it’s some hobby. Go full-time, like my friend Amelia: five days a week for two years. She made it, and it didn’t take her a decade. Every day plus homework and stay away from Irish bars, and you’ll be there.
But Language School is Expensive!
Yeah, so’s everything. Cars, clothes, snowboards, your i-Whatever. You gotta decide, is this something you really want to do? If it is, then don’t screw around. Go to school and get it done. If not, then there’s 99 other people you can share your experience with. Sorry for the tough love, but you know, I work in the school system here. When young Takeshi has a problem paying attention in class, Ms. Fukuyama doesn’t sit him down and say, Gee Takeshi, what seems to be the problem? Is there anything you’d like to share with me? Instead, Fukuyama-sensei takes off her shoe and beats Takeshi in the face repeatedly until Takeshi realizes the error of his ways and agrees to shut up and focus. Saw that last week, and I was like, Hmm, good to know. Did not know that “shoe” was an educational tool.
Where to go From Here
So how do you improve your Japanese? Never fear. When all else fails, Ken Seeroi is the man with the plan. Maybe not always a good plan, but hey, at least some plan. So here you go:
1. My first advice is, Take a chill. Step back and acknowledge that maybe this is a bigger undertaking than you thought it was. Dig on the fact that there’s no “easy method,” no secret you can purchase, or magic beans you can eat. Mushrooms, yes; beans, no.
2. Don’t go all crazy and start studying harder, or more. Do not convince someone to lock you in a shed. And certainly don’t create some “immersive environment” where you surround yourself with Japanese all the time. That’s like a patented method for burning out and becoming one of the 99%, while simultaneously alienating all your friends and inviting your family to stage an intervention.
3. Instead, get a part-time job washing dishes for a sushi restaurant and save 200 dollars a week for a year. And quit buying stuff you don’t need. Like I could save thousands of dollars a year just by not buying coffee and beer. I mean, theoretically. Let’s not get all crazy—a guy’s gotta survive after all.
4. Meanwhile, absolutely, continue your self-study, but decide upon a course of learning that’s smart and realistic. Learn 10 new words a day. Work your way through a textbook. Take notes and review them. Set a daily schedule, and then stick with it—all that basic, unglamorous stuff. And eat fish. Lots of fish. Yeah, that’ll help.
5. Don’t waste time. Don’t watch movies you don’t understand. Don’t change your operating system to Japanese. Quit screwing around. Actually study, instead of reading about studying. Work hard, and it’ll pay off.
6. And then after a year, when your maneki neko bank is full, enroll in a Japanese language institute, one of the nice ones. That way, even if your Japanese sucks, eh, maybe you can at least make some cool pottery. You can probably become a full-on pottery master in 18 months. I’m pretty sure.