Ever since I found out about anime in 2007 I wanted to learn Japanese. Unfortunately, I could only start it almost ten years later. A lot of people start learning new languages late in life for several different reasons. Some do it for professional matters, others because they want to explore a different culture fully and others just because they love challenges. For this last part I may assure you: learning a new language once you are older is something extremely challenging, something that if you don’t put all your heart into it, simply won’t happen. But just because it is tricky, it doesn’t mean it will be painful or even impossible. Learning a new language is one of the most rewarding experiences I have come across in my life. I know I haven’t done much yet but beginning to learn Japanese only two years ago changed my perception about a lot in life. It not only led me to learn so much more than a language, but made me capable of better understanding a culture and its intrinsic mysteries, besides leading me to meet new wonderful people. This is why I want to share some tips on how to study a new language and keep your focus.
The first tip is rather basic but really important to keep in mind: make sure you like it. You don’t need to breathe the language or anything like that but make sure that the sound of it makes you feel comfortable. Upon studying linguistics in college, I found out that some languages sound bad to us simply because of the way the words are created by our phonetic system. And there is no way around this: some languages will sound bad to you and therefore, as a grown up, it may be really complicated to change the way your mind perceives it. You can always try the shock treatment and just listen to it every day until you are accustomed to the resonances. Nevertheless, I would say that if you dislike it, don’t marry it expecting to one day love it.
My next tip is related to something I believe in. As much as you try to learn a language by your own, there will come a time when you simply can’t get more out of it. I know a lot of extremely motivated people, me included, that tried to learn Japanese on their own through websites and YouTube. It never worked, even though these are undoubtedly great ways of enhancing your studies. Having deadlines, having to follow someone else’s study rate is complicated and for those who hate school this may be dreadful to think of. However, you can only push yourself further by relying on a commitment, not only to yourself, but also to others. In a classroom you will find two kind of lifters: a teacher that can listen to you, correct you in the moment and also give you a schedule to study by. The other is your colleagues. They will help you, but most of all, as humans, they will challenge you constantly by being present as your friendly competition, because believe me, as time passes by you will feel the need to be the best. They will also provide you with their own insight into the language, which may be different from yours, therefore enriching your studies. Moreover, they can be great partners to work on your orality. I find that speaking in a different language with your colleges in front of people that don’t understand one word of what you’re talking about always come as some kind of a rather twisted but amusing victory.
The third tip is one of the most important ones to me personally, since I struggle deeply with memorizing. I love Japanese, I listen to it every day, I go to classes and have some apps on my smartphone to help. However, I always felt that memorizing all of the new vocabulary was as tricky as it can get. That was when I decided to start two different types of journals, which I wish I had done since the very beginning. The first one is the vocabulary journal. I keep it organized according to my lessons, which in this case follow the “Minna no Nihongo” textbook. I took all of the vocabulary of those lessons and wrote it in a small journal, one that is possible for me to carry around easily. I also created a simple colour scheme with highlights: yellow for verbs, pink for adjectives and blue for interrogative words. All those who are not marked are the nouns. This way, I can easily open the journal at any time and use it to find a word within seconds when I’m trying to remember a word or need it for an assignment. More than that, every time I am in the cafeteria queue, on a train or even when my other professors interrupt the class and start talking with other students I can take out my journal and try to memorize the words.
The second journal is something I believe to be optional but still very helpful. Since you have the vocabulary, it is equally important to use it. Therefore, in this second journal I write phrases. Sometimes just random ones I get from textbooks or from the internet, which I find important due to their structure. Other times and more frequently, I try doing a daily record. In language classes you may use many phrases but usually those aren’t ones you created yourself. This is why I believe it is vital to try and think of the language as what it really is: a way of communicating feelings. Sometimes I just write simple phrases such as “Today I walked my dog and it was fun”. It can be incredibly simple but it will help with speaking the language more naturally. Also, it is a great method for keeping your thoughts private. At least where I live, only a handful of people could decipher the higarana, katakana and kanji I use when writing in Japanese and therefore the unbelievable information that I went to walk my dog is forever protected! But bad jokes aside, try doing it since the beginning in order for your brain to get accustomed to creating phrases in a more efficient way.
The fourth tip is regarding the deep understanding of a language. You really can’t do it unless you know the culture it is associated with. I said before that you don’t need to breathe the language to know it and that is true. You can know how to speak, read and even write in a different language without this knowledge. However, it will be more like being in a factory, repeating the same process again and again, not feeling much of it. Reading about the culture, following native speakers on social media or even watching movies or listening to some music in the language you’re studying will make you feel much closer to it, thus making the process of learning a lot more fun and natural. This is actually the regular process of learning our native language as we grow up so why should it work differently when we are older? Besides, as grownups there is already a lot that seems to lose magic by being mandatory, so whether it’s learning a new language, having a new job or even cleaning the house, you might as well try to get the best out of it.
As a final tip: most of all, don’t forget to give yourself freedom to dislike parts of this process. Kanji nearly drove me insane at one point. Ultimately, I accepted it as a part of the language I love and therefore just something I need to put more time into, while still disliking it. I actually believe this goes the same, not just towards learning a new language (or something new in general), but with every challenge you may come across in life as a roadblock in the way of achieving your goals. Dislike it, accept it and work harder on it! It will be worth it in the end, as the reward will be much bigger than the hardship!
Ganbatte everyone! (Good luck!)
Article by Ana Isabel Dias Ferreira.
Ana is a 27 year old student living in Portugal. She has a bachelor’s degree in Nutritional Sciences and in Languages, Literatures and Cultures in both Portuguese and English. She is currently enrolled in a master’s degree in Multimedia. She has been studying Japanese for two years and has always ambitioned to study Japanese in Japan, which she will do in July at a University in Tokyo. She also published a book in 2015 called “Botões Jovens”. Her dream is to become a writer in several areas, such as literature but also for games, movies and others. As she love to study she also aspires to never stop learning new things and share my love for it. She has an Instagram account where she occasionally shares motivation to study and where she will also be sharing her experiences in Japan @anaisaboo.