Language Travel Logs: Japanese 2018

19 Sep 2018

7 minute read

One dream I have always had since I started learning languages is to be able to go to another country and use that language to communicate. This August I had the first opportunity to do that during a 2 week trip to Japan. In this post, I will outline the preparation I did before going, where I was able to use it when I was there, and evaluate my success.


Before starting university in 2014, I knew absolutely no Japanese. In fact, the only foreign language I knew was a little bit of French. Starting from absolutely nothing, my history of learning Japanese is the following:

  1. 2014-09 to 2016-08: learn a lot of Chinese, including simplified characters. Although Chinese is a different language than Japanese, both languages use Chinese characters, and there is a lot of shared vocabulary between the two languages. So, I count it as progress towards learning Japanese.
  2. 2016-02 to 2016-04: used flashcards to learn Hiragana/Katakana, the “alphabet” of Japanese1. Started to look through Tae Kim’s guide to Japanese2, stopping after learning the usage of the particles “wa” and “ga”
  3. 2017-01 to 2017-04: Finish reading Tae Kim’s grammar book. I memorized all the sentences in the book (in retrospect this wasn’t a very efficient learning method). However, I feel that the memorization did make a lot of the grammar sink into my head, so I didn’t have as much difficulty making sentences later on. After April, I stopped studying completely.
  4. 2017-01 to 2017-09: Learned traditional Chinese characters (for Chinese). However, this helped my Japanese a lot because Japanese Kanji are more similar to traditional characters than simplified characters.
  5. 2018-01 to 2018-08: start to watch a lot more anime to practice listening to Japanese. Specifically, I found that the website animelon was very helpful, since you can watch anime with both English and Japanese subtitles at the same time, so you can pause it and figure out what the characters were saying. Best part is that it is free!
  6. 2018-06 to 2018-08: Started doing a lot of Japanese vocabulary flashcards. I learned about 2000 words in this time, according to Anki, however the actual number is probably less, since many of those words were loanwords from English that I didn’t really need to learn. According to my Anki decks, when going to Japan, I had spent:
    • 70 hours studying my Japanese decks
    • 27 hours studying traditional characters
    • 156 hours studying simplified characters Of course, outside of Anki I probably spent a lot more time than this, but this gives a lower bound for the time doing “traditional studying” (as opposed to watching content or reading books).

Trip to Japan

I was in Japan for 2 weeks at the end of August3. During this time, I tried to use Japanese as much as possible. Most of my interactions with Japanese people were from talking to service people. I tried to talk to every waiter, cashier, and ticket booth worker in Japanese. However, these conversations tended to be very simple. For example:

Obviously it doesn’t take much skill to have this kind of conversation. However, I was able to ask a few more complicated things to people:

That being said, I also had a lot of failures, such as:


I was slightly disappointed with my level of Japanese on the trip. I think this was because I had studied so much vocabulary, but often found myself unable to form a medium-difficulty sentence (like the police box one above). I think it would have helped significantly if I had chosen to do some language exchanges beforehand.

One thing I was relatively pleased with was my listening comprehension ability. Obviously I was unable to understand people talking quickly about complicated things (such as train announcers, commercials, and random people talking on the street), but I was usually able to understand what people said when they spoke to me directly. I think this came from watching anime, which gave me a lot of listening practice.

I think that in the future, if I learn languages for travelling again, I should focus more on learning essential phrases instead of trying to get a very large vocabulary. This will make it easier for me to have the low-level conversations I had with service people already, but require a lot less effort than what I did.


Overall, I think this is a summary of my progress:

Future Plans

My next visits will likely be Korea/China, in summer 2019. I feel pretty confident about using Chinese, but for Korean, I want to reach a basic-intermediate level (around B1), with the ability to confidently handle everyday situations. So far, I think MangoLanguages (which I get for free from my local library) is a good resource for learning basic phrases for daily life. I will try to finish their Korean course before going there; something I wish I did for Japanese before going to Japan.

  1. technically, it is a syllabary not an alphabet. 

  2. this is an excellent guide to learning Japanese. I really like his explanations. Best of all, it is free! (I don’t believe you should have to pay to learn a language) 

  3. if you are planning a trip, note that August in Japan is really hot and humid. Also there are typhoons, which I got to experience. 

  4. the Japanese police are super polite, and seemed really eager to help. This is very different from Canadian/American police, who generally tend to sound a bit annoyed when you ask them things.