Japanese is a beautiful language. I'm not a linguist so I can't explain the concepts very well, but there is an art to its ambiguity and its freedom of expression. It's also a classified as a Category IV language ("super-hard languages") by the US State department, meaning it is "exceptionally difficult for native English speakers" so it's not just something you pick up over a weekend.

I started learning this language independently during my first year of college. At that time, I was really frustrated about one thing in particular; that one thing was Anime. I was really mad about subtitles, because I had to rely on someone else to assure me that these translations were accurate, which is not something you can always guarantee with the rag-tag nature of fansubbing groups. Sure, things are better than they were in the 90s, but fansubbing has always been a dying profession because nobody is going to pay for your work and it can be taxing / unfulfilling to do it on the side.

From this frustration grew my resolve to learn Japanese (spoken and written) by the time I exited college, so I started grinding out hiragana / katakana and picked up an Anki deck and never looked back. Eventually I started reading raw manga and even translated a few things myself, siphoning new words I learned from the books I was reading into my Anki deck and practicing them over and over and over.

This year I hope to take the JLPT for N1 fluency. Japanese fluency (not just "conversational" fluency, but a healthy technical / vocational vocabulary too) has been a long-term goal of mine, and having a certification to cement this achievement is not just important to me but also in giving meaning to my credibility as a Japanese speaker to my employer. Eventually I would like to use this skill in the workplace, but I have not yet seen many opportunities to do so.

Although I had started learning the language before I studied in Japan, I really only started learning at a decent pace when I took a semester at Sophia University in Tōkyō. There I took my first actual Japanese language course (I'd avoided the ones at my home university) and just by virtue of living there I reinforced those concepts throughout the day. I much prefer being immersed in that environment, it is so much easier to learn when you're thinking, speaking and dreaming Japanese every single day.

If my major in college were more aligned with language learning or fluency I would have dropped out instantly and enrolled in a school abroad. Even now, I sometimes regret not having pushed this further or extending my study-abroad to a full year, but I know I would have slipped farther behind in my degree studies than I was already, as my semester in Tōkyō did not add any engineering credits to my transcript. My hope now is to work my way into a role which lets me both satisfy the advancement of my career as a software engineer in the datacenter and permits me time to practice and nurture my Japanese skill, hopefully in the same context.

The Method

It can be really intimidating to pick up a new language but with enough resolve and the right amount of determination, time is the only thing that can stand in your way! I'm going to tell you how I started learning and how I'm continuing to learn Japanese but this is in no way meant to be prescriptive.

Even before I began learning the language I was inspired to look more into it by watching a ton of Nama Sensei's Fucking Japanese Lessons. Namasensei is one of the whitest people I've ever seen speak Japanese but the really cool thing to me was that he made it all the way to Japan and was teaching English there at the time. That was very motivational for me, because even if the lessons were not very rich in content or even if his handwriting was atrocious his enthusiasm has stuck with me ever since and I sometimes still go back and watch a few lessons from time to time.

When I decided to approach this language, though, the first thing I did was to learn hiragana and then katakana. Notably, I used RealKana for this task and consequently memorized both alphabets in a few weeks. I practiced writing them by memory as I was learning them, I felt this helped my retention and production. Learning the alphabet is a non-neogitable first step, though, as knowing how to write even basic things is requisite to advancing in any language. In many languages which anglophones may be familiar with this is mostly taken for granted, however a theme of learning this language is that easy things are hard and hard things take some time to get used to.

[... more to come here]