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:
- 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.
- 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”
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
- 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:
- Cashier: Dozo! (welcome!)
- Me: Konnichiwa! (good day)
- Cashier: Konnichiwa! (good day) [proceeds to scan items]
- Cashier: [some number] en desu (this many yen)
- Me: [hands cashier money]
- Cashier: Arigatou gozaimasu! (thanks)
- Me: Arigatou gozaimasu! (thanks)
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:
- When buying a dessert, I told the cashier that I have a nut allergy, and asked them to read the ingredients to make sure it didn’t have nuts in it. However, I did a lot of research asking how to say this because obviously my allergies are very important for me, so that doesn’t make this as impressive as it might normally be.
- At Tsujiki fish market, I bought raw shrimp from one of the vendors who spoke no English at all. I asked if it was raw, and he said yes (I had to look up the word for raw though). I asked him how one eats a raw shrimp, so he ripped the tails off and gave it to us.
- I saw a vendor at the fish market with the character 鲸, which means whale. I asked if what he was serving was really whale, and he said yes (I had to look up the word for whale).
- My friend lost his wallet, so I was able to go to the police station and tell them that he lost his wallet4. I had to look up the word for wallet though.
- I was able to ask a waiter in a restaurant with no English menu what the most popular dish was. He pointed to a particular soba dish, and so I told him we all wanted that.
- I was able to ask various stores if they had merchandise for specific animes (it was for a friend, I swear).
That being said, I also had a lot of failures, such as:
- In one of the police boxes, when the policeman said “You don’t need to come asking about the wallet, we will just call you”, I was almost completely unable to say “We are tourists, and don’t have a phone number. The last police box we visited told us just to come back to a police box to ask about the status instead of waiting for a call”. Instead, he had to put me on the phone with an English-speaking colleague.
- A few times asking for directions, I got completely lost when the other person spoke, especially if the destination was more than a few turns away.
- After Typhoon Jebi caused a lot of damage to the Kansai region, I had a really difficult time reading the websites of various attractions to check whether they were closed due to typhoon damages. Most of the time the announcements were never made on the English version of the websites, and the Japanese was written in a very polite and verbose manner, so I couldn’t tell if it said “open” or “not open”.
- When we were at an arcade using the “UFO Catcher” machines (the ones where you grab a prize with a crappy claw), my friend and I took too long to press the button, so it timed out and reset, so we lost our dollar. I tried to explain this to the owner of the shop, but he completely didn’t understand what I meant (even when I used Google Translate!). It felt pretty embarrassing.
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:
- Did extensive preparation for trip to Japan
- Most interactions ok, however there were some notable failures
- Should have practiced speaking more
- For future trips, I should spend more time learning essential phrases
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.
technically, it is a syllabary not an alphabet. ↩
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) ↩
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. ↩
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. ↩