Over the past few weeks I’ve been doing my best to get a head start on learning some Japanese for our upcoming move. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t really get started quite so early (after all, we’re not moving until August), but I am a little bit nervous about not being able to read anything in Japanese right when we arrive. And, given the fact that I’ve shown basically no aptitude for picking up Thai over the past three years, I figured a super-early head start might be a good idea.

Learning Japanese

So, during the last week of our semester break, I opened up one of my Christmas presents: a set of flashcards. Though I was wary about this “old school” method of learning the Japanese characters, they were a gift from my husband, so I wanted to at least give it a shot. Amazingly (and so completely unexpectedly), I basically learned the simplest set of characters, katakana, in one afternoon, and then, on the next day, I learned the entire second set of characters, hiragana.

As I mentioned above, I am certainly no expert at languages, so this was quite a pleasant surprise. I definitely did not expect to be able to read the syllabic alphabets in a weekend. And, clearly, neither did Alex, since he began eyeing me with suspicion and perhaps a touch of wonder as if he was wondering who this genius was, and what she’d done with his wife.

If I had been handed a list of all these characters without any context except their meaning, and told to memorize them, I’d have given up after five or ten. So what made the task of quickly memorizing over a hundred completely unknown symbols so easy?

I think the most important factor in the flashcards’ success was the links they encouraged my brain to build between these new characters and pictures of things I recognized – my prior visual knowledge. Each flashcard has a single character paired with a cartoon picture that represents that character. The cartoon pictures usually echo the shape of their character as well as hint at the sound the character makes (you can see ki as a picture of a key above).

This kind of mnemonic device is something we’re all familiar with (“K for Kangaroo” with the animal posing in the shape of the letter, etc.), but this experience really highlighted the difference that these mental anchors can make. With the pictures, I learned over 100 characters in a very short time – and without them, I probably wouldn’t have managed a tenth as many.

Another factor was probably the speaking, the reinforcement that the flash cards encouraged between the visual form of the characters and their sound. We were constantly repeating the sounds as I looked at the pictures, and together they stuck in my head. Needless to say, simply staring quietly at a list of characters would have been a much less effective learning method for me.

Similarly, flashcards have a primitive interactivity that makes them different from looking at a page, and a little bit more like a game. There is a challenging task – guessing the identity of the character on each card before flipping them over – and the random element that shuffling the cards adds, the moment of uncertainty between the guess and the moment the card’s turned over – I think all of these mildly game-like elements helped the process succeed.

Maybe this is always how people learn Japanese, but those visual clues were so perfectly matched to each sound, and made each character completely individual in my mind, that it really was a breeze to identify them all. In fact, later that afternoon we went out for dinner and I spent most of the meal proudly reading the menu items written in Japanese out loud to Alex (who had already memorized the characters).

All of these elements are also integral parts of Rosetta Stone, the next step in my Japanese language learning adventure. It’s amazing how quickly I have begun to learn basic grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation, just through the introduction and repetition of pictures, target-language words and sounds.

Rosetta Stone

It is absolutely fascinating to me that I can’t specifically identify exactly what the purpose of each lesson is, but as I move through the stages I seem to just “know” new words, phrases and grammar. There is no point where the program tells you what you’re about to learn, there’s no English, and there’s really no directions. You just kind of figure it out as you go, listening, matching and repeating.  As a teacher, it’s seems quite odd to me that I could so quickly go through the process of learning something new, yet have absolutely no idea what I’m learning as it’s happening – suddenly things just start to “sound right” even though I really have no idea why.

The combination of media, the specific progression of lessons, and the challenge of “passing” a unit, make for an astoundingly effective language-learning experience. I want to “play” because it’s fun, challenging at just the right level, completely engaging, and I experience success immediately.

When I think about a technology-rich experience, clicking away at multiple-choice questions alone doesn’t immediately come to mind, but clearly, if it’s done well, like Rosetta Stone, it can be extremely powerful. What if we could make all of our classes this engaging, this customized, and this effective all the time?

Learning Japanese

In addition to my flashcards (now I’m moving on to kanji) and Rosetta Stone, I’ve also been taking advantage of the wealth of free iPhone applications dedicated to learning Japanese. None of these programs really have the combination of features of the flashcards or Rosetta Stone, so I don’t think I would have been as successful if I had started with just these applications. But now that I have a foundation to work from, these are great for frequent practice (on the bus back and forth to work, waiting in line, on the plane, etc).

Of course, the most important factor in all of this learning is my own personal motivation and the fact that it’s relevant to my life, right now. I certainly haven’t bothered learning any other random languages over the last five years, but now that I actually want to learn Japanese, I’m going to learn Japanese. It’s a good reminder of how important context, authenticity and motivation is in the classroom.

Final Thoughts

Going through this experience has helped me reflect on what the future of education might possibly look like. This experience has been specifically tailored to my personal needs, organized by myself, conducted at my own pace, available whenever I’m ready to learn, and ideally matched to my exact learning goals. What if we could make all of our classes this engaging, this customized, and this effective all the time?

Have you ever learned a foreign language? What was the experience like for you? What made it effective (or not)?

19 thoughts on “Learning Japanese

  1. Nice post. I like flash cards too, though I can never settle on a system. I started using Anki, but then I just switched over to http://www.smart.fm, as it’s nice to defer the scheduling and planning part to them. Rosetta Stone looks interesting though. May have to give that a try sometime as well.

    1. Rick,

      Thanks for the links! A few more I can add to my arsenal of Japanese strategies! You will love Rosetta Stone. It’s expensive, but absolutely amazing.

  2. Hi Kim,
    LOVE the post it is “Genki” and so real. A few highlights from an ESL teacher:
    First, you are super MOTIVATED. You are getting ready for a move and thinking forward, and your learning is RELEVANT to be part of Japan and its culture. Second, you are so motivated that you SEARCH, STRIVE and CHALLENGE yourself to make meaning out of the resources at hand. Flash cards prove that old school strategies are still pertinent with today’s 21st Century learners, as well are the QUALITY interactive computer programs. YOU know yourself as a learner and INTRINSICALLY chase the desire to know….the need to understand…to PLAY…are all part of a real learning experience for a real reason. And third, what i really like, is the fact that your husband gave you cards, proving you have a SUPPORT SYSTEM already in place, which is that safe feeling environment for a learner….keep on keeping on Kim! How do you say “Fantastico!” in Japanese?

    1. Thanks Susi! I so appreciate the positive feedback and hearing your expert perspective on the process of learning another language. I haven’t really made an effort to learn one in about 5 years, so it’s all pretty exciting to me at the moment!

  3. Wouldn’t that engaging/customized/effective option be wonderful! But the very nature of our school systems ie kids starting around five and moving through until 17 or so, makes it impossible some of the time. I think the best teachers can do is to keep those features at eye level and try for them as often as possible.

    I learnt French and German at High School, and did some follow-up study at university. Most of it was rote learning which was easy for me, and I enjoyed it. How much more satisfying it is for me now , though, with all the wonderful resources that are available to language learners! With all the engaging multimedia options, my accent in particular has improved.
    .-= Susan Stephenson, the Book Chook´s last blog ..Get Ready for Chinese New Year =-.

    1. Susan,

      I totally agree that our school system is not set up for this type of individualized learning. Perhaps that will end up being it’s downfall…

      I couldn’t agree more about all of the multimedia options available – actually being able to hear and see native speakers (while most likely most effective when I’m in country in Japan) is so much more helpful and relevant than just reading the words myself.

  4. Hi Kim,

    Good for you! You’ll pick so much up once you get here. You’ll love it here. We should certainly get together. Steve’s at the embassy, and I”ll be teaching at Seisen. Hope to catch up sometime. Congrats! So much going on here, such pleasant weather, such an excellent metro system.

    Jenny (wife of Hi-tech Hall)

    1. Jenny,

      I can’t wait! Alex and I are just so excited for Japan! We will definitely be in touch once we’re in Yokohama. I’m sure we’ll be spending lots of time in Tokyo, it’s just so energizing and exciting! Congrats on your new job too! That’s great news!

    1. Congratulations on your new blog! You’re going to love the connections that blogging brings!

    1. Thanks Amanda! We’re pretty darn excited already! Hope to catch up with you in person sometime soon :)

  5. Way to go on tackling Japanese before your move! I think Rosetta Stone is one of the best programs out there, and your post is a good reminder that a variety of activities that engage different intelligences is often more effective than just a single approach.

    Although I took Spanish through college, I didn’t become fluent until I lived in Central America while in the Peace Corps. It helped me to practice thinking in the foreign language, as much as possible. The more you repeat phrases to yourself, the more automatic they become when speaking.

    Good luck and keep practicing!

    1. Paige,

      Thinking in a foreign language is definitely the mark of reaching some sort of fluency! I remember when I did my study abroad in Italy and started dreaming in Italian – such a great moment waking up after an entirely Italian dream! The only part I don’t like is moving from country to country, often the newer language seems to take over the older one. Living in Germany really pushed my Italian to the back of my mind, and I’m guessing learning all the Japanese is going to push German right back there with the Italian!

  6. Congratulations on the new gig, Kim. You will love Japan! I’m envious of your learning the language like you are. I was pretty illiterate during my 2 years homeported at Yokosuka Naval Station. Somehow, being on a US military base insulates you from full immersion into the culture.

    Have you thought about using YouTube to practice your skills? You could view lots of native speakers & try to understand, and also if you’re really brave you could record yourself for a critique and historical record of your improvement.

    1. Thanks Bill!

      I absolutely love the idea of using YouTube to practice Japanese! What a great idea! Thanks for sharing! If I get the nerve up to post some of my own videos, I’ll be sure to post them here too :)

  7. Hi Kim!

    Great work on learning Japanese! Personally I’d shiver having to learn the symbols – and I’m a guy who LOVES languages, go figure :)

    I think Susi has it down to a T: motivation is the most important when learning a language. Sure there are good systems and less effective ones, but with the right motivation any system will work.

    Only wish I’d had the drive to learn the langugae prior to moving abroad – would have saved a lot of time gesticulating once I’d got here :D

    1. @Martin,

      Japanese is tough, but it helps that it feels a bit like a puzzle and there’s such a reward when you figure out the symbols and can make a word you understand! It was never quite as rewarding when I was learning Spanish, German or Italian – maybe because I expected to be able to learn it quickly/easily…

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