Moving to a new country is full of many difficulties that you need to overcome. I’ve already spoken at length about the arse-ache involved in getting a mobile phone and moving house, and many other things so don’t worry, it’s not another rant about anything like that!
This time, I will be talking about my attempts at mastering Japanese and the different ways I have gone about it in my time in Tokyo so far. Just a small disclaimer: by ‘mastering’, I actually mean ‘figure out how to know if I’m on the right train and if my students are slagging me off’; I’m not expecting to be fluent any time soon.
So far, I have tried three different ways to learn the language; in this post I will be providing a semi-comprehensive review of each.
When I decided to come to Japan, I was still living in Liverpool and had about six weeks to kill whilst waiting for my departure. I initially considered getting a few one-on-one Japanese lessons in Liverpool, but decided the £30-per-hour fee could be better spent elsewhere – namely, at the pub and at gigs.
Looking for a cheaper alternative, I took to Twitter and was recommended a number of apps, with Duolingo and Memrise being mentioned the most.
The fact Duolingo didn’t have a Japanese course at the time made my decision rather easy: Memrise it was! I downloaded the app, grabbed a notebook and started jotting down all sorts of new words with the kind of enthusiasm you only get from the first day of a new fad.
I figured ‘Introduction to Japanese’ would be the best place to start, and when I was introduced to the phrase ‘nama biiru’ within 10 minutes of downloading the app I knew I was on to something good. It seems the developers of this content had their priorities well and truly in line with mine. It does also teach you some rather unimportant vocabulary for a beginner, such as…
In terms of the actual learning methods, I found Memrise to do exactly what its name suggests. You are gradually introduced to a number of words and phrases, and then practice recognising them by reading, listening and also get to practice typing them in Hiragana, Katakana and Romaji. The ‘Introduction to Japanese’ course also teaches you the Hiragana alphabet, whilst there are other courses for Katakana and Kanji too which can be incredibly troublesome for a first-timer in Japan.
Once you have learnt new vocabulary, the app detects the stuff you haven’t reviewed in a while and selects this for your review sessions, meaning that you’re constantly learning new material whilst keeping the old stuff fresh in your memory, which I thought was a great touch.
Verdict: All in all I would say Memrise is a good way to supplement your learning and learn new, random bits of vocabulary, but I wouldn’t use it as your primary source of Japanese teaching. You’re not going to master the language simply by learning phrases and vocabulary, however it is handy to have as a time-burner on the train going to work. It’s free too, so you have nothing to lose. Definitely download.
City Hall lessons
One of the first things we were told in our work training period was that it would be a good idea to enrol on some incredibly cheap Japanese lessons at our local City Hall. These classes are put on by local volunteers and take place once a week for a minimal cost. I enrolled at the Nerima City Hall for ¥500 per month, and I’ve since been told that my classes were expensive which I find very hard to believe!
Depending on your level, you are assigned a volunteer who helps you through a number of texts, worksheets and conversations (depending on your requirements). I often saw people sat at tables in groups of three or four, but I always had my tutor to myself for the entire session. I’m under no illusions that this was to do with anything other than the fact I barely understood a single word, but it was nice to have some private tuition regardless!
After my second lesson, I was advised to purchase the textbook ‘Minno No Nihongo’ for beginners, which I duly ordered off Amazon for a cool ¥3000.
So I had the book and the cheap lessons on the doorstep, what else could I possibly need?
Motivation, that’s what.
Believe it or not, when you’re teaching languages five days of the week, it’s apparently difficult to motivate yourself to go out on your day off and sit in another classroom for two hours. I found myself making excuse after excuse to convince both myself and my teacher that I was unable to attend the lesson. You try letting a volunteer down with a lie through gritted teeth – it’s like kicking a puppy. In the end, I gave up after just four lessons!
Verdict: If you have the motivation to go to class on your days off, then this is a good, cheap option. My experience was hindered by the fact that there were a million and one things I’d rather do on my days off. I have friends who have attended similar classes and find them very useful. I also gained a hell of a lot of respect for my students due to this experience, so it wasn’t completely wasted!
It may be ever so slightly hypocritical of me to whinge about having no motivation, then go on to say that the study method that has worked best for me is self-study, but oh well.
After getting a month’s free trial to JapanesePod101.com I cracked on with the ‘Absolute Beginner’ level and noticed quickly that I was expanding my vocabulary and learning at a much faster pace than I had been with my two previous attempts. I started out with the ‘Survival Phrases’ series, which is kind of aimed more at visitors who will be in Japan for the short-term, but nevertheless I saw no harm in learning how to communicate in restaurants, train stations and various other situations.
The good things is that each level has a number of different seasons, all of which seem to have a slightly different focus. At ‘Absolute Beginner’ there are seasons that focus on situational language as well as seasons that have a much bigger focus on grammar. My personal favourite is the ‘Nihongo Dojo’ series, which is one of the more grammar-heavy courses. It introduces a number of characters with an ongoing story over 50 episodes so and every lesson sees the presenters break down and explain the key vocabulary and sentence structures throughout.
Talking of which, the presenters themselves are something of a mixed bag. The main anchor on a lot of episodes is the founder, New Yorker Peter Galante, who has a habit of making really shit jokes that even your dad would cringe at. I’m sure he’s a lovely guy, and he’s really not that annoying but he does take some getting used to. A quick search of his name into Google will find many more scathing reviews, but I don’t find him to be all that bad.
It’s the Japanese presenters and voice actors who really steal the show though. Special shout outs to Yoshi and Takase, who form ‘The Nagasaki Connection’ and have great rapport which makes their lessons instantly the most enjoyable. Takase in particular has a voice that I would marry tomorrow, if marrying voices was such a thing. An honourable mention also goes to Naomi-sensei, who wrote and presented the Nihongo Dojo series which, as I mentioned above, I found the most useful.
Perhaps the best thing about JapanesePod101 is that I can listen to it on the go. As I’ve now signed up for a year-long membership, I’m able to listen to the 10-15 minute long podcasts on the train to work and then access the lesson notes, vocabulary lists and everything else in the learning centre when I have a spare 10 minutes to read and write everything up. This way, I’m learning but it isn’t taking up too much of my free time. Winner!
Verdict: If, like me, you don’t quite have the motivation to actually attend classes, then JapanesePod101 is a great alternative. You can learn at your own pace and the thousands of lessons available means you’ll eventually find a series that works for you. It does have its downsides; many people find some of the hosts irritating, and you don’t have a teacher on hand to answer any instant questions you may have. With that said, you can leave a comment on the site and a member of the JPod team will get back to you with feedback on any questions you may have. It’s not the cheapest option, but with year-long memberships starting at $60USD it’s hardly going to break the bank either.
And with that, it’s time to say またね!