Learning a language is always a process, especially one that can be as difficult as Japanese. I’ve been studying Japanese for eight years, and I still feel like I have so much to learn.

How I Learned Japanese

How It Started learning Japanese

I started learning Japanese when I was in high school. My school offered Spanish, French, and ASL, so I took Spanish. I was interested in learning other languages though, so when my friend bought a book to learn hiragana, I asked if I could borrow it when she was done. 

I spent a few months learning Japanese on my own, and I managed to get down hiragana, katakana, a few kanji, and some basic phrases (pretty much just “konnichi wa” and such). 

When I started university, I decided to take First-Year Japanese and see how it went. At this point, I was an engineering student, and I decided I wanted to learn Japanese and German. I started with Japanese because if it was too hard for me, I could always switch to German (and yeah, that never happened). 

A Change of Scenery

After finishing my first year, I got the opportunity to move to Japan for about a year and a half, working as a volunteer with my church. Before I left, I had a two month crash course in Japanese, but I already felt pretty solid with my beginner-level Japanese from university

The problem was, I ended up living in the Kansai region. So all my Japanese preparation was pretty useless, and I couldn’t understand anything. But it ended up working out just fine.

A large portion of my volunteer work was teaching English and community service, so I was speaking Japanese all day, every day (except during the actual English classes). I moved around a lot, living in Hyogo, Shiga, Tottori, and Wakayama Prefectures. Most of my roommates were American, but I did live with Japanese people as well. 

My Version of “Fun”

When I came back, I kept studying Japanese on my own. I switched my major to Music Education because I had so much fun teaching in Japan. That didn’t last either. 

I was still on the fence with my major, so my dad recommended I take a fun class that had nothing to do with it. I ended up picking a class that filled a general requirement and sealed my fate. I picked Japanese Literature in Translation: Eighth through Sixteenth Centuries because yes, that is fun in my mind.

My class talked all about Japanese aesthetics and literary themes and boy, was I on board with literally all of it. We even read The Tale of Genji and it still didn’t scare me off. The next semester I signed up for the next class, which covered the Seventeenth through Nineteenth Centuries, and that’s when I made up my mind. 

I talked to some friends who were majoring in Asian Studies, and decided to switch to that, emphasizing in Japan Studies. My new major required me to take Japanese language courses, as well as courses in history, political science, literature, art, culture, and pretty much everything to do with Japan. 

So I hopped back into language classes, skipping to Third-Year Japanese because of my previous experience living in Japan. I took conversation, and grammar classes with some top-tier professors. One of my professors was actually recognized by the Emperor for work he had done with modern Japanese literature. 

Once I finished my required classes, I still took advanced Japanese classes for fun, and to fill out my schedule in my last semester. I even ended up taking Classical Japanese. Of my own free will and choice. It was awesome. 

I also took a few Chinese classes, which actually helped with my writing ability.

What I Do Now

Besides studying in school, I actively look for opportunities to use my Japanese. My husband and a lot of my friends speak Japanese, so I try to practice with them pretty regularly. I also have a lot of Japanese friends, and I still ask them for help with my language. 

My last three jobs have given me the chance to use my language skills, mostly because I’m willing to speak to the Japanese people I run into. This helps me keep up my speaking ability.

I also listen to Japanese music, watch shows in Japanese, and read books in Japanese to try to keep up my listening and reading skills. Writing articles explaining grammar helps too, because most of the time I’ll look through my grammar books and do some online research to make sure my writing is accurate. 

How to motivate

The most important factors in my experience of learning Japanese were my initiative in high school and my consistent effort since then. You don’t have to have the best professors, high level university courses, or the opportunity to live in Japan for an extended period of time to learn Japanese. You just have to want to learn it and put the time in.

My whole career is being shaped by my interest in and dedication to learning about Japan. If you really want to do something, you can find the drive to do it. You might not be like me, enthusiastically learning about subtle themes in Japanese literature, but motivation and work will still help you as you learn Japanese

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