How I turned Japanese learning into an alternative art education

Two months ago I took one my dreams seriously. It happened while doing sketches for the seashell art photobook project when I realized how influenced I am by the Japanese aesthetics. I’ve been interested in Japanese arts and crafts for years but since I couldn’t read, write or speak Japanese this was always a second-hand experience. That dream I mentioned was becoming fluent in Japanese and ever since I started learning this language with its strange word order, grammar and writing systems, I got to think differently about a bunch of ideas and probably great things will emerge from this experience.

It was in college when I first dabbled into learning Japanese and since then I started and quit many, many times. I also made a couple of mistakes.

The first and worst mistake that I did was not taking my goal seriously. The consequence was that I didn’t personalize my learning. For example, I tried learning Japanese by speaking it first and it didn’t stick since I am a bookworm and I prefer to read. I found out about this approach from Benny Lewis (Fluent in 3 Months) and I’m sure it worked well for him, but it didn’t work for me as my motivation to learn Japanese was different. Another example is that I tried to learn its 3 writing systems one at a time through handwriting. The latter is an approach that is mentioned in just about any Japanese language textbook or mobile app with drawing quizzes. I used to write each hiragana syllable time and time again and by next week I would forget everything as if I didn’t even study at all.

The second mistake was that I didn’t learn it through a multisensory experience. I didn’t learn like a child. I didn’t combine images, audio, video and immediate feedback. Instead, I tried to learn it like an adult with grammar lessons and lots of handwriting practice and it got boring.

And since it got boring, I made a third mistake in that I wasn’t consistent enough. I wanted fast results to get to the fun part (Japanese art books) and I didn’t get them.

If you happen to learn Japanese or any other language, the following resources may give you plenty of ideas on avoiding making the same mistakes as I did. None of them is enough on its own but each of the ones I recommend has its merits. As a polymath, I tend to always look for tips and hacks and I am willing to try just about any learning tool but in order to progress with Japanese I intentionally introduced one resource at a time.

I started with Duolingo because as crazy as it sounds, I read somewhere that Duolingo had an Esperanto course (yes, Esperanto!) and I was curious to see how Japanese would be taught there. I also wanted to start with a mobile app that included sounds, images, multiple choice tests and Duolingo fit into that. There are a couple of things I got from this app:
1. I got over my fear to use all the 3 writing systems that Japanese has. I was basically never given a chance to start with hiragana, katakana or kanji. I was simply introduced lesson by lesson to Japanese words and sentences.
2. I got used to the strange order in which the Japanese place words in a sentence. I didn’t always understand why a word I thought I knew was slightly different or why a particle was placed in a certain spot and not another but it worked. Lesson by lesson I developed an intuition on how I should build a sentence in Japanese.
3. It helped me greatly with motivation. Apart from receiving daily email reminders to get back to Japanese, Duolingo has a virtual currency called lingots. For the Japanese course specifically, there aren’t many things I can spend lingots on but I can place a bet by buying a streak wager where I spend 5 lingots and I can earn double that if I don’t miss on my goal every day for a week. Buying that streak wager every week helped me build a daily habit of practicing Japanese.

I kept my streak on Duolingo but as days got by, I wanted to try something else. What I lacked most was some kind of multiple-choice quiz to learn kanji. Out of all the Japanese learning apps that I tried, I liked JA Sensei most. Japanese learning turned into a game here as well. In the beginning, I used it for its hiragana, katakana and kanji quizzes. The app includes around 2,000 kanji which are used in elementary and secondary schools in Japan. Those quizzes can test either recognition or writing. I didn’t use the latter because I’m not interested in handwriting in Japanese. I barely handwrite in English or Romanian.

Although I used this app mainly for its writing system quizzes, I also started doing lessons there. Grammar is well explained and there are some interesting culture bits as well. I like that it uses a spaced repetition system so items that I don’t know well are reviewed more often. If I don’t have time for a new lesson, I’ll simply open this app and start reviewing kanji, kana or vocabulary. Since reviewing is more important for learning than simply engulfing new words and concepts, the app also rewards the former with more points. Another thing that I like about this app is that its multiple grammar sheets are annotated depending on the JLPT level and so is my score depending on how many points I earn. Right now I could care less about JLPT testing but if I decide to register for this exam which is held only once per year where I live, it’s good to know which level I’m at.

Days passed and I was making some progress with Duolingo and JA Sensei but I had to challenge myself even more 🙂 I’ve noticed on Duolingo that I could also earn some points if I played games with Japanese words but I only received them if I typed in Japanese. That was a problem I solved by downloading the Google Japanese keyboard. It wasn’t easy to learn how to type – after some time, I realized I started from hiragana only and then the keyboard would display katakana and kanji suggestions so that the words on the screen would be displayed properly. The more I typed in Japanese, the more frequently those kanji I previously used would be displayed.

Learning how to type in Japanese served me well as I got back to italki, an app where I could do free language exchanges, get my writing corrected as well as sign up for lessons with native Japanese people. I already did the latter and it was more affordable than I expected. There are two types of teachers there: people with credentials and experience in teaching a foreign language and natives with whom you can do conversation. I chose the latter and it was awesome and awkward at the same time. It was awesome to speak with a Japanese person without traveling all the way to Japan and it was awkward to find enough words to make up intelligible sentences. Nevertheless, I won’t quit. I will probably continue such lessons once every two weeks. It’s good for trying things outside my comfort zone and I may also remember words better if I communicate in real time with a person.

And since visual art and traditional crafts are what drawn me towards learning Japanese in the first place, I make extensive use of the Japanese keyboard plus the Jisho dictionary to search for specific Japanese keywords on Pinterest. This way I not only improve my vocabulary but the images I find there makes it more likely to remember those concepts and retrieve them later on.

All this progress was nice and encouraging but there was still no sight of Japanese books on the horizon. During my trip to Japan I bought a couple of bilingual Japanese-English books which I haven’t touched yet. I don’t understand most kanji there and searching for the meaning of a kanji in print would take me too much time. I thought there must be a more efficient solution to be able to read whatever text I want with what little Japanese I know and there is one as long as I stick to digital texts for the time being.

Any Japanese text is manageable with some furigana display (for unknown kanji) and with a good Japanese-English dictionary. I couldn’t make these work on my ebook reader (yet), but I found a good app instead: the Michiko app. With it I can import texts from files on my phone, from Aozora Bunko (a Japanese digital library of public domain texts) and from the clipboard. I especially appreciate the latter to read articles from Wikipedia and blogs on topics of interest. It can display rōmaji only, rōmaji with hiragana, kanji with furigana and it’s also available for languages other than English. Besides, it has a text to speech option.

I now reached a point where I make daily use of Japanese and for the first time in my life, I think I’m on the right path to become fluent in it. This doesn’t mean I don’t look for additional hacks to learn it even faster. If you know of any such resource for learning Japanese or learning a foreign language in general, I’d love to hear it!

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