(Re)learning Japanese

Reflecting on my language learning journey as an adult, from Japanese to nothing to Spanish to nothing to Japanese

Back then

I studied Japanese in college, which was, at this point, 10-14 years ago. Wow! The main reason I did that was I loved Japanese culture and media. It has been easy to maintain that interest all this time, but my language skills have waned considerably since.

Learning Spanish as an adult

I did spend about a year intensively (re)learning Spanish – which, like many U.S. students, I learned poorly in high school – and that was fun and effective as an adult. I even got to practice those skills in real life when visiting the Yucatan in Mexico, Cusco and Maccu Pichu in Peru, and Andalusia in Spain. However, my main motivation to learn Spanish, which had to do with family, got lost over time. I neither developed much interest in Spanish-speaking media and culture, with a few exceptions.

Japanese is still with me

Japanese, on the other hand, is an interest I developed on my own and continue to foster. For listening, while I've always consumed Japanese spoken media as much as possible in the original Japanese, I always have needed subtitles. As for reading, even as an A-student in school, I could barely get past poems and short stories – there is just too much kanji and vocabulary out there! (And now my reading is almost abysmal.) For all-around immersion, it was fun to be exposed to all things Japan and somewhat survive on basic language skills when studying abroad back in the day. Spiritually, I still find myself coming back to Zen Buddhism, and chanting the Heart Sutra in Japanese is a level of nostalgia and meaning for me that is difficult to describe.

But in the future, hopefully soon when it is safe again, I would love to go back to Japan – with my partner – and feel somewhat independent language-wise. I also want to appreciate the media I consume at a deeper level, and I still keep in touch with some friends who are either native speakers or are also Japanese language learners.

Beginning again

After finding out that a teammate at my new job (circa February 2022) has been learning Japanese in earnest, and that he and other coworkers try to practice together once a week for lunch... along with a sale that was advertised to me for affordable Japanese coaching sessions, I spontaneously decided to do the same once more.

While I'm sad to have lost some Spanish over time (the second time), I gained a lot of experience and insight into effectively learning a language. As a Spanish learner, I became more generally interested in effective language learning materials. I've carried those learnings with me to jumpstart my second go-around with Japanese. One of the materials I ran across was stuff from a Kickerstartered company called Fluent Forever. This company created (yet another) language learning app that centers on partially automating SRS (spaced repititon system) with predefined vocabulary and grammar sets, couched in realistic sentences, with  memorable pictures customized by the user. It also includes pronunciation lessons, and maybe more (?). In late February or early March, Fluent Forever ran a sale for a new coaching program, which included Japanese.

I did something similar with Spanish (via the Accelerated Spanish program), and, as many language learning materials will tell you, speaking as early and as regularly as possible truly accelerated my language learning. I figured I should do the same with Japanese if I wanted to get serious again.

What I love about coaching sessions is

  1. they are 1:1 so I get all the attention I need for both speaking and listening;
  2. if the coach is good, they are skilled in both your target language and your native language, so they can answer difficult language learning questions for you as they arise;
  3. if the coach is good, they are skilled at scaffolding their vocabulary and grammar to your level;
  4. as 1:1 sessions, I get to intimately bond with another person from a different culture (and, in the virtual setting, from across the world);
  5. in a coach-student relationship, my learning is prioritized; as opposed to a peer-peer language exchange, where both parties' learning should be balanced; and
  6. regularly scheduled sessions help keep me accountable.

What is especially innovative about the Fluent Forever coaching programming is that they pair the coaching material developed between the coach and student with the material they put into their mobile app for students to continue reviewing over time.

Yeah, I could create my own flashcards with Anki for free, and I've done that before, but at this point that is just too much effort for me! I also have more disposable income in my life to afford a lot of time saving.

A month later

As for vocabulary and some grammar in my working memory, I am probably still not quite where I was in my fourth year of studying Japanese as a student in college; but as for basic speaking and listening, maybe I am close (?).

I try to consume some form of Japanese media in Japanese at least once a day.

Two weeks ago I decided to supplement my Fluent Forever materials with Duolingo, perhaps the most popular language learning app out there other than Pimsleur. I am annoyed that there is a lot of tedious translating exercises, which I learned aren't that useful when learning a language. I am also annoyed that the predefined lessons just don't quite match with my nuanced level in Japanese. But overall I think the pros have outweighed the cons. A lot of the predefined lessons still help me practice listening skills and expose me to new useful vocabulary – all with a super cute interface.

At some point I will muster the courage to join my coworkers for weekly language practice. It should be a super informal thing, but I'm just shy...

At some point I will also try to get a language exchange partner, but again, shy.

The cost $$

When I did my Spanish coaching in 2017, that was $3,500 for 1 year of coaching.

For my current Japanese coaching and the FF app, the first month was $145 + $10. For following months, it'll be $280-290.

Therefore, they both cost about the same, factoring in time.

End goals? How long will I last?

I mentioned that, at some point in the near future, I would like to go back to Japan, with my partner, and have some confidence in being an independent tourist.

Would it be possible for me to watch something in Japanese and almost fully understand it without subtitles? Or read a children's manga in Japanese without too much dictionary lookup? I will focus on speaking and listening overall, but reading and writing are never bad at which to get better.

I learned, too, from a former coworker, that there is value in just picking a hobby and sticking with it for a long time to see where it takes you and develops. A great hobby to pick that is also practical and mentally demanding is, well, learning another language.

Maybe I can muster the courage to also speak with my other Japanese-fluent friends, in Japanese, once more...

But for now, I'm focusing on just getting better each week, so I can have more interesting conversations with my coach.

We will see how long I last. I hope Japanese is one of those hobbies I can stick with for years to come.