LadiesGamers learning japanese

Learning Japanese #4: Elena’s Journey

With many of our favorite games hailing from Japan, it should be no surprise that some of our writers have attempted to learn Japanese. Being one of the Top Five most difficult languages for native English speakers (according to the U.S. Foreign Service Institute), it’s also no surprise that we have struggled with this language at some point. In this series on “Learning Japanese,” we share about why and how we learned Japanese.

Elena’s Journey: The Textbook Way

In college I discovered the fun of learning foreign languages. I started with French, but eventually abandoned it for Japanese because a guy I liked was learning Japanese. (Also, French was hard to pronounce and I was too embarrassed to speak it—something I regret now. Use it or lose it!)

The guy I liked taught me with pencil and paper: “My name is . . .” “I am a . . .” He recommended a textbook called Japanese Demystified, which I enjoyed using.

We got married several years later.

But loooong before that: after dating briefly we broke up for two years, during which I found that my interest in Japanese had not waned. So I took two semesters of Japanese in college, using the Genki textbook. After graduating, I attended several months of night class at a language school near my workplace.

I had many Japanese friends in college, and two were my housemates. They inspired me to visit Japan some day, maybe even work there. It wasn’t games, anime, or manga that drew me but curiosity about Japanese society. I wanted to know more about the beauty of Japan as well as its dark side.

Skritter, a great app for learning kanji characters.

I motivated myself to learn Japanese by signing up for the JLPT exams (the Japanese Language Proficiency Tests, graded N5 to N1). I had always been a good test-taker, and learning grammar in a systematic way from books was a method that worked well for me.

Besides books, I used a very helpful kanji-learning app called Skritter (available for Chinese as well). Skritter was probably the single best thing I spent money on. Because it had consequences for missing a day of learning, I rarely skipped a day!

I didn’t use manga or anime as they didn’t interest me then. But I did buy a Japanese copy of Ni no Kuni for the Nintendo DS—and it was way too difficult!

Studying in Japan, still the textbook way

To fast-forward the story (because it’s too long), in 2016 my husband and I moved to Japan for his work as an English teacher, while I continued my freelance business part-time. By then, we had passed the N3 and N4 levels of JLPT, respectively. But we could hardly carry on a proper conversation. Since neither of our jobs forced us to learn Japanese, we had to motivate ourselves to study and practice conversing intentionally.

Living in Japan definitely helps a person to improve in the language, and it offers the chance to progress rapidly. But significant improvement isn’t guaranteed, especially if you aren’t in circumstances that force you to use Japanese.

Doing things by the book. My textbooks from a three-month period of language school.

So while in Japan, I used my usual methods of textbook learning, kanji study through Skritter, JLPT exams, and added the following: chatting with Japanese people; writing them text messages in Japanese; doing short translations for friends; reading children’s books, including picture books; watching shows with English subtitles.

I didn’t play games often in Japanese because I have a terrible compulsion to look up every word, and gaming is supposed to be my relaxation time. Anyway, what I wanted to achieve most with better Japanese was actually to read adult-level books rather than to play games. Still, after all that studying I was glad to find that I could at last play Ni no Kuni! Though, unfortunately, by then I had enjoyed too many open-world Western RPGs with great quality-of-life features. Dear old Ni no Kuni was . . . well, old. (A lovely JRPG, nonetheless.)

I also attended language school briefly, which improved my listening but not my speaking ability. I took three months of class, which was all I could afford but was satisfied with that period of time.

Not studying but still learning

Snorlax, dozing in front of a Japanese hospital, wants to learn language while sleeping.

When I was pregnant with our first child in 2019, I lost all mood and energy to work on language learning (or do anything at all, including gaming!). I gave up studying for the JLPT N1 because of that.

Still, going frequently to a Japanese hospital kept me in touch with Japanese. I picked up medical words relating to pregnancy and childbirth (you would too, if you were faced with something as momentous as a creature growing in your body and were forced to talk about it in Japanese!). I was also lucky to have older housewife friends who took turns to accompany me to the hospital as my interpreters/drivers. They were my husband’s English students, and while waiting 3 to 4 hours for my appointments we practiced speaking in both languages.

Now that I have a baby, I’ve decided that learning Japanese isn’t a high priority this season. But I would like, in the future, to devote time to it again. It would be cool if I could easily read contemporary Japanese novels or even become a translator.

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