Nebulous Goals

This is a long one.

Getting involved in something that lends itself easily to nebulous goals is a tricky business. I've been learning Japanese for 6 years now, and my overarching goal (perhaps like many who learn languages) is pretty nebulous: it's "learn the language to the extent that I can have fluid conversations with people and I can enjoy content in Japanese" (or, to put it in a more concise form: "get good").

The problem with this is that measuring progress is pretty difficult. I could technically quantify my progress by taking a language test like the JLPT (which quantifies Japanese ability on a scale of five levels, with level N5 being the lowest and N1 being the highest), but the difference in ability between each level is significant, and during the day-to-day grind it's easy to get lost in the rumination of, "Am I improving? It doesn't feel like it."

This process is exacerbated by the amount of ways I've tried studying throughout the years. When I first started learning, I spent a week or two learning hiragana and katakana (the two syllabaries of Japanese) and then moved on to a textbook called, "Genki," which was heavily recommended to me and taught some basic grammar and vocabulary. After spending some time with Genki, I created an account on Memrise (a flashcard app) and started learning the words that show up in the N5 level of the JLPT. I had no intention of taking the JLPT, but the words present in the N5 level are supposed to be commonly used, so I figure that was a good list to study. There are around 800 words in the N5 list, so learning the words on that list and finishing Genki took me a few months. After I finished, I felt I was ready to take on the world so I bought the first volume of a manga in Japanese called Yotsuba, and... I struggled. A lot. I could barely read anything; it was like all of that work over the past few months had prepared me for nothing. Sure, I could pick out N5 words that I had learned here and there, but I couldn't understand an entire sentence much less the story; I didn't feel like I had really "read" anything.

Feeling like I wasted $25 on Yotsuba and shipping (and whatever I paid for Genki), I reluctantly admitted that I probably wasn't good enough to read it, and put it down. Driven by the sunk cost fallacy, I doubled down on my efforts and started the next textbook in the Genki series: Genki 2. This textbook had harder grammar and more vocabulary, which, I was told, would help take me to N4(!) of the JLPT. I found further discussion online that said Yotsuba requires an N4 level, so I figured I'd surely be able to read manga after finishing this textbook. Fast forward a few months, I finish Genki 2 and return to Yotsuba and... I still struggled. I struggled less than I had the last time, though, which was a nice change of pace. I noticed that I could understand the grammar that I was reading, but not the vocabulary, so I thought to myself, "I'll just look at a dictionary and look up what I don't know!"

That was a mistake. I read the first chapter by looking up every word I didn't know, and it took me 2 hours to read. Again, I didn't even feel like I had really "read" anything; this time I felt like I had plugged it into Google Translate. This wasn't sustainable, and I was getting discouraged again. By this point, I had spent a year on Japanese and didn't feel like I had much to show for it. The frustration was further compounded when I found out my friend, whom I had originally started learning Japanese with, was already talking to people. I felt like I had not only failed to learn anything, but I had fallen behind in some made-up race.

My friend, with whom I often talked about learning strategies, told me he had been using an app called HelloTalk to talk to people. HelloTalk is an app where you enter your native language and your target language (in my case, Japanese), and the app shows you a list of people that you can chat with who are native speakers of your target language and who are learning your native language. This was the first time I ever saw something like this, and I immediately signed up and wanted to give it a try, forgetting the fact that I could barely read an easy manga. He told me he had plans to skype with a woman he was talking to that was learning English, and asked if I wanted to join. A week later we printed out a verb conjugation cheat sheet, went down into my basement, fired up Skype, and called her up. This was the first time I had tried talking to someone in Japanese, so I was extremely nervous and let him do most of the talking, but I did manage to mumble a, "hajimemashite" and some other words that were amateurly strung together. When in doubt we spoke in English, because her English was better than our Japanese. The conversation was probably 80% English and lasted around half an hour. By the end I was ecstatic, though; I had made friends in other countries before through online games, but I hadn't spoken to someone who lived in Japan before in this capacity. I thanked my friend for bringing me along for the ride, and I decided I wanted to try this, "HelloTalk" thing out on my own, too.

I signed up for the app, put down my Japanese level as "beginner," typed up a poorly-worded profile, and waited for people to talk to me because I was too scared to reach out to anyone first. In a month I met one woman who I texted with, and who had to gently correct me as I spoke like a cross between "Mary," a character from the Genki textbook, and an anime protagonist. I forget most of what we talked about back then, but I do remember that I learned what a language exchange would be like, and I learned a lot of grammar and vocabulary that wasn't in Genki or my N5 deck. The conversation petered-out after a few weeks (a sadly common occurrence on HelloTalk), and I wasn't able to meet too many other people around then, but talking to her made me want to learn more Japanese so I could talk to more people. I had finished Genki 2 by this point, so I took to the internet to read more grammar guides online, and started the N4 vocabulary course on Memrise.

A few weeks later, my friend introduced me to someone new on HelloTalk; someone I'm still friends with to this day (and that went on to become his wife). Talking with her was completely different than talking to the other person I had talked to. This new person spoke using the "casual" way of speaking right off the bat (whereas some conversations languish in "polite" Japanese until the end of time), which I had only learned about for a few pages in Genki. She was also a beginner in English, which made for some very interesting conversations. I started talking to her a lot, but our conversations were almost entirely in Japanese and involved a liberal use of Google Translate on my part to try to express some of the things I wanted to say. I wish I still had the chat logs from back then; I think it'd be akin to looking back at old code and thinking, "What was I thinking??"

Shortly before meeting her, my friend and I had started planning a two-week trip to Japan for later that year. As we talked to her more, we started telling her about our plans and keeping her in the loop. Our trip would start in Tokyo for a night and take us down to Hiroshima for 2 days, then up to Osaka for 3 days, Kyoto for 3 days, and back to Tokyo for 6 days. Our friend lived in an area around Tokyo, so we made plans to see her the night we arrived as well as our second pass to Tokyo. We also made plans to meet with several other people my friend had been talking to in Hiroshima, Osaka, Kyoto, and in Tokyo, so we had people to meet up with almost everyday.

Fast-forward to the date of the trip. Our plane rides to Japan were uneventful, and after a 2 hour wait through customs and an adventure in trying to figure out how trains worked, we walked up the stairs from the subway and out onto the streets of Tokyo. Despite stepping out into a relatively quiet part of Ginza at night, in an area where there weren't too many tall buildings, it felt like climbing the stairs of the New York subway and into Rockefeller Center for the first time. I had been traveling through airports and airplanes and subways for so long and it suddenly just opened up.

We met up with our friend right after getting out of the subway station, but I quickly learned that talking for real was an apples-to-oranges comparison to the texting I had been doing with her for the past 6 months. Between staring at the surrounds in awe and being out of breath from carrying my overstuffed suitcase up 4 flights of stairs to get out of the subway, I could barely say anything in English let alone in Japanese. Just like the first time we had talked on Skype nearly a year earlier, I let my friend do most of the talking.

We went to the hotel room we reserved to put our suitcases down. My friend went into the bathroom, and despite me desperately trying to think of something to say, I couldn't make any conversation in Japanese. I might be overexaggerating, but I've come to believe that was a turning-point in my Japanese learning journey; that was one of the times where I truly realized how it feels to have a language barrier, and I wanted to overcome it. I was in a new country, we flew halfway around the world to get there, I had the incredible opportunity to jump off the train and hang out with someone who lives there, and I felt utterly unprepared.

In terms of my Japanese-speaking, the rest of the trip went similarly to that first night. The second night at a bookstore I said, "good evening" to the cashiers when they asked if I wanted a book cover (the word for book cover is "kabaa", and the word for good evening is "konbanwa", which sounded pretty similar to my untrained ears), and got a hearty chuckle out of both of them. I relied on my friend to do most of the talking, although five of the nine people we met up with spoke English, which made for some nice conversation. I did try to speak Japanese more, and despite making a few mistakes and continuing to be timid I was able to get some things across and we had a wonderful time. That was the farthest I've been away from home, so there was some anxiety involved (there were a few cases where my friend had a hard time speaking, too, which makes me think speaking another language is just dang hard), but that was one of the best trips I've taken in my life and I filled up a notebook with new words and grammar that I learned while I was there.

This is skipping a lot of history, but my Japanese eventually did improve in a noticeable way. Our friend who we met up with the first night in Tokyo ended up coming to America; first on an exchange program (she actually went to America while we were still in Japan, and the roles were reversed when we guided her through the subway system of a large American city from halfway across the world), then on trips, and now she lives here. I also went back to Japan 3 years later with several other friends, and it was then my turn to be the person that spoke Japanese. I even managed to mail a package for my friend by communicating to the Post Office staff entirely in Japanese, which was a big step for me at the time.

I still don't feel like I know Japanese, and part of that is because I don't; I'm far from fluent. But between then and now, my entire learning style has shifted, and I think that's a testament to how much I've learned between then and now. I don't do nearly as much textbook learning as I did when I started; the only textbook I'm working on right now is an N3(!!) textbook as part of a 1-on-1 Japanese lesson that I have once a week. I still use HelloTalk, but I'm currently talking to 6 people and I'm a little bit behind on replying because of Thanksgiving. I still talk to the friend I met all those years ago (in Japanese and English); we've been talking online recently, but before the pandemic, there was a time we spent an hour talking in Japanese over coffee.

What's more, though... I finished that damn volume of Yotsuba.

And that's how I like to spend my time studying, nowadays. I like to read manga; I like to watch anime, J-drama, and youtube videos; I like to play games; I like to talk to people. I'm currently going for more of an immersion-based approach to language learning, and I'm having a really good time. It's intimidating, and I have to put up with ambiguity, and I sometimes still feel like I'm just using Google Translate because of the amount I plug into my dictionary app (I'm trying to limit myself!), but I'm having fun, and I'm going at my own pace.

My overall goal is the same: to "get good". I'm trying to use that as a beacon to guide my efforts, though, instead of a metric against which I measure every action I take. Lately I've been reading, "The Practicing Mind" by Thomas M. Sterner, and in it he talks about paying more attention to the process instead of getting swept up in goals, which is exactly what I've been trying to do. I'm hoping if I keep my head down, set small and actionable goals, and focus on the process of learning Japanese instead of focusing so much on my nebulous, overarching goal that someday I might come up for air and realize that I'm good enough to read volume 2 of Yotsuba.

(...but really I haven't read volume 2 because I've been reading other things)


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