If you were around last summer you might have noticed my 2 month intensive Spanish language acquisition project.  I spent 2 months (actually it ended up being more like 6 weeks) intensively learning Spanish.

Well, as intensively as I could while traveling and working full time, that is.  But I was able to get to a decent level at the 1 month mark, which you can see in this video.  (At least decent for never having spoken or studied Spanish before).

So, as you can tell from the title of this blog, I’m about to do something similar with Japanese.

Upcoming Travel Plans

Recently my wife and I decided to join my mom in a trip to the “old country” and the three of us will be going to Japan to visit family and share that part of my heritage and upbringing with Ruhi.

For the first week or so my mom will be with us, but after that Ruhi and I will venture off on our own with a Japan Rail Pass and explore parts of Western Honshu and Kyushu (and maybe Shikoku — we’re still figuring out the specifics), which should be pretty fun.

However, I realized that my Japanese language skills are SUPER rusty.  In fact, I haven’t actively tried to speak or study Japanese since before I moved to China in 2005.  Now, when I try to speak Japanese it usually comes out in Chinese first and I have to make a major mental shift to move back to Nihongo.

So, I’m giving myself another 2 month intensive language project.  As of today it is almost exactly 8 weeks before we’ll be setting our feet down at the Fukuoka airport so I’m going to be spending this time really trying to bring back my dusty Japanese language skills.

So, I have a few things going for me which are to my advantage.

Japanese Language Bonus Points

First, I’ve spoken Japanese before.  In fact, before moving to China (when I couldn’t speak Chinese yet) my Japanese was at a higher level than my current Chinese is.  So, it’s definitely buried deep in my brain somewhere.  Much easier than being a complete beginner like I was with Spanish.

Second, I’ve been to Japan before, which means I know what sort of situations I’m most likely to be in.  In fact, I’ve travelled to many of the same places on Kyushu and Honshu before, so I am at least somewhat familiar with the lay of the land.  That reduces the amount of stress too.

Third, I am familiar with a lot of good online resources for studying Japanese.  From my previous studies (albeit 10 years ago) many of the online websites are even more fleshed out now, and I can revisit many of those materials to brush up.  Plus, there are even more out there now, so that will help as well.

So, what exactly is my plan to bring back my Japanese from the graveyard of lost languages?  I have a four-pronged approach in these 8 weeks:

Prong 1: Think In Japanese

The most important thing for me is to get my brain back to fluidly creating Japanese so that when I open my mouth it is the first thing that pops out (as opposed to Chinese).  So, I will be spending a LOT of time thinking in Japanese as much as I can.

What are you talking about?” you might be asking, “How can you make yourself think in a language?

Well, I sort of picked up this trick when I was focusing on Spanish.  I found that, as I went about my day, if I thought through things in Spanish instead of English it became much easier to produce the language naturally.

For example, if I’m cooking something, instead of thinking “Hmm … where is the hamburger meat?“, I will instead think the same thing in Japanese: “じゃあ。。。ハンバーガー肉はどこでしょうか?”

You know how they say that you know you’re fluent in a language when you start to dream in it?  Well, you can think of this as a sort of “dream training”.  I’m “day dreaming” in a language, which is the first part of this approach.

Prong 2: Speak Japanese As Much As Possible

So, as I’m going through my day, I will speak to myself in Japanese.  Heck, I already mumble to myself all the time anyway, why not do it in Japanese?

I will also be scheduling sessions with online Japanese language partners and tutors, as well as trying to find as many Japanese speakers as I can.  I know of 2 on the island, but we get a lot of tourists too, so I’m going to be on the lookout for them and chat them up whenever possible.

And, when in doubt, I’ll give my mom a call on the phone and try to talk to her in Japanese too. 😉

Prong 3: High Frequency Vocabulary

I will be using flash cards to drill high frequency vocabulary in Japanese.  It will probably be a combination of Memrise and Anki, but I’ll settle on the specifics in the next day or two.

I’m also still debating about how much kanji (Chinese characters used in Japanese) will play a part in my review, because I’m working to build functional conversation skills, rather than reading and writing skills.

Of course, knowing Kanji will help with my vocabulary and ability to get around, but if learning the Kanji of words means I will know 50% as many essential words by the time I get to Japan it may or may not be worth it.  Just something I have to think about.  At the end of the day I’ll probably do a combination of vocabulary and Kanji study.

Prong 4: Lots and Lots of Listening

Earlier today I had my first session with an iTalki tutor in Japanese and he said that my grammar and use of particles in Japanese was good.  He also said my pronunciation was very easy to understand.  His suggestion was that, aside from getting used to speaking and thinking more in Japanese, I should watch a lot of TV shows and movies in Japanese.

Holy cow!   I just discovered a viable reason to get caught up with Naruto Shippuden! 😉

The other part of his suggestion was to pause the show or program after each thing is said and try to repeat it.  So, play one thing … pause … repeat it … resume … etc.  It makes watching TV shows longer, but I think that is okay since the purpose of watching isn’t entertainment but education and practice.

Similar to that was my original method for using TV shows to improve language study, derived from a method that Jennifer Wang originally shared with me during her time in China back in 2003-ish.

How to watch TV for language learning

Basically this method entails watching a TV show in a gradual sequence of more challenging language settings.  Here are the details, in case you might want to use this in your own language study:

Round 1: All English

The first time you watch the episode, use English dubbing and subtitles so that you understand the context of everything being said.  Just watch so that you know what is going on and get a gist of the story.

Round 2: Listen Japanese, Read English

The second time you watch the exact same episode you change the dubbing to Japanese (or your target language) but keep the subtitles in English, listening for the melody of the language and picking up whatever words you can and trying to determine the others by watching for them in the subtitles.

Round 3: Vocabulary List

Then the third time you watch do the same thing but this time write down key words that you find being repeated throughout the episode.  For example, in Full Metal Alchemist you may hear them say 錬金術 (れんきんじゅつ, or renkinjutsu) a lot.  Based on the subtitles you figure out that that word means “Alchemy” and so you jot that one down.  After a 20 minute anime episode you should have about a dozen words that stand out.

Round 4 (and 5): Japanese Subtitles

The fourth time you watch the episode, this time you change the subtitles to Japanese and see how well you can follow along with what you’re hearing (which you’ve heard several times by now) and what you’re reading.  The purpose of this is to get your eyes used to scanning Japanese text at the same rate it is spoken, which is the same rate a Japanese person (or in this case, an adolescent child) would be able to read.  Optionally, you can add another viewing with the subtitles, but that’s only if you’re heavily focused on advancing your reading skills.  Since I’m focusing on speaking and listening, I would go straight to the next one.

Final Round: No Subtitles

Finally, the last time you watch the episode, you turn off the subtitles, and just listen to what is being said.  By now you should be so well versed in this episode that you can practically say things right along with the characters.  As a bonus you can repeat this step again, but only if you really want to prove a point. 😉

Again, all of these steps are with the exact same episode.  The emphasis on this again is that you are not watching for entertainment, but are watching for education, which requires you to look at this in a totally different way.

Naturally, this method words best for shorter TV shows.  That is why anime episodes work well.  If Japan had the half-hour sit com thing going I would recommend that, but besides anime the only other type of shows I’m familiar with are the hour-long dramas.  They’re great, but watching one of those 6 times in a row is basically a full time job.


Another important thing to factor in to a language study program is to make yourself accountable for the goals you have set.  That is why I have posted this on my blog and have started sharing it with some of my friends.  It is why I will be posting videos of my language practice sessions with tutors on Skype.

The more I put this project in the public eye the more likely I am to follow through with it.

So, as I progress forward with this endeavor I will be sure to post updates on my progress.  In fact, I will be posting up my first online Skype call from earlier today where I kept lapsing in to Chinese with my Japanese tutor.  Its a good thing that guy actually knows Chinese because it ended up helping the situation. lol.  But, by the end, I could feel my Japanese skills starting to slowly peek out from around the corner of my mind.

So, you can look forward to that soon, as well as other videos where I’ll be practicing my Japanese (or lack of Japanese).

In the meantime, if you have any questions about my study methods (or suggestions on other ways to go about it) chime in on the comments below.  I’d love to hear what you have to say! 🙂