Improve My Japanese
February 13, 2005 5:06 AM   Subscribe

For those of you fluent in Japanese, I'd like to hear your best advice on the subject. I've studied for about 4 years, and have been living in Japan for nearly a year, but despite this, achieving true "fluency" still seems like an insurmountable task. Although I am conversationally fluent, at times I become incredibly frustrated. How long do you think it takes to become fluent? And now for the oh-so-impossible question: what should I do to speed up the process? Advice, experiences, suggestions would be welcome from any students of foreign language.
posted by dead_ to Writing & Language (9 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
The bad news for language learners is that there have been a few studies to suggest that after a certain point, you get diminishing returns and reach a "steady state" of conversational-but-not-quite-full-fluency. My own experience with learning French and Japanese is that, after I've attained conversational fluency, any efforts to increase my skill are met with resistance and total lack of motivation, because I can't really convince myself that my present skill isn't good enough.

My shot in the dark from a linguistic perspective (I am not a professional linguist) is that your brain builds up a mental representation of the grammar that isn't right, but isn't so wrong that it meets with many counterexamples. So it would make sense to pay a lot of attention to what you read and hear to figure out, are you hearing sentences that you wouldn't produce? What's going on in these sentences? This isn't easy, but it would probably help to find someone you can count on to correct your grammar even for small things. (Five years in, I was still saying "mada ~nakatta" for "I haven't done X yet" until someone corrected me, saying that it was "mada ~te inai").

Japanese bookstores sell a bunch of "improve your Japanese skills" books for native speakers. You might want to check these out.

If lack of vocabulary and kanji are a problem, probably the only solution is to read widely and force yourself to look things up.

More bad news: studies also suggest that pronunciation is the one thing that second language learners don't seem to be able to manage if they start learning after the teen years.
posted by Jeanne at 7:10 AM on February 13, 2005

One way to increase fluency is to isolate yourself from any other languages (and that includes English).

Live in Japanese, think in Japanese, start writing a diary in Japanese, watch Japanese TV, read Japanese books, magazines, make Japanese friends with whom you only speak Japanese. Count your change in Japanese, say your prayers in Japanese...

ALL of your actions, thoughts and dialogue should be in Japanese. From the very general, to the very private. No slipping back to English.

Only visit web sites that are in Japanese. No more MetaFilter!

Give yourself a timeline for this - I'd suggest six months to a year. You will find your fluency increases because you have no other language to fall back on.

And watch your progress soar. You are in a 'plateau' phase right now, and it's time to take a bit of a drastic measure to take you to the next level of fluency.

I learned English very late in life (in my 20s) and that's the tack that I took. It was hard, I had headaches, I wanted to default back to French on several occasions, I broke the spine of my pocket dictionary, but in the end I achieved the fluency that I wanted.
posted by seawallrunner at 8:46 AM on February 13, 2005

I lived in Japan from about 1986 to 1994, and got noticeably better at Japanese around the two-year mark. After that, not so much. The big thing I saw keeping people from getting better (well, English-speakers, at least) was other gaijin. Stay away from 'em. Hang out with Japanese people only, work for a Japanese company (and not doing English translation or interpretation or teaching or whatever). Read Japanese newspapers and novels. Watch Japanese news.
You might have an easier time with this immersion if you move to a small, backwater town. If there are still places where kids point and stare at gaijin, that's what you're looking for.
Good luck; email in profile if you have other questions.
posted by spacewrench at 10:24 AM on February 13, 2005

seawallrunner: I realize this is a bit off-topic, but you speak English very well for someone who learned it as a second language. Had you not told me, I would have had no idea that it wasn't your native tongue.
posted by Handcoding at 12:24 PM on February 13, 2005

If feasible, a Japanese lover should produce miracles.
posted by mischief at 12:46 PM on February 13, 2005

dead_, I've been studying Japanese for the past six years in high school and college, including two and a half years of taking it daily. I have wondered about the same thing that you are asking -- and I wonder about it constantly since I am currently a Japanese major in college, and what happens in my life after I graduate may depend heavily on my Japanese ability.

If you are "conversationally fluent" (you should probably clarify whether that means you can handle everyday situations without much trouble, or could handle working at a company answering a phone in Japanese, or whether you actually sound like a native), then you are well on your way. Moreover, if you can *think* in Japanese, you will find it easier and easier. As a native English speaker, the biggest obstacle I've found to becoming fluent in Japanese is simply getting used to syntax. (Sentence order in Japanese is Subject-Object-Verb, while in English it is Subject-Verb-Object.) Mastering that is really a matter of repetition: being able to construct sentences, on the fly if possible, that sound natural.

I couldn't find a link, but the State Department says that Japanese (and Arabic, Chinese, and Korean) are the hardest languages to learn, and tend to take twice as long to master as European languages do. It's somewhat irritating to see people studying Spanish or German who are essentially fluent after only four years or so -- and that's without immersion. But you get over it soon enough, I suppose. Though I will admit that learning kanji has given me hesitation at times...

So how long does it take to learn Japanese? Good question. I'm currently in a third-level class which meets four hours a week. The last two years, though, I was in classes for seven hours a week. That, plus homework, and general on-my-own study (watching TV, reading, etc.) probably comes out to around 20 hours a week of Japanese language study. But, I've found, the more one studies the more used to using the language one becomes -- so 20 hours a week two years ago is not as much as 20 hours a week is now.

Immersion, I think, is the most helpful thing you can do to learn Japanese more rapidly. If you're in college, study abroad; if you've graduated, try JET (and go to the middle of nowhere as spacewrench suggested) or work in Japan. Whatever you do, try to engage people as much as possible in addition to studying on your own. Also, watch television, listen to the radio, browse Japanese websites, and the like.

How long it will take you to get to the fluency level you prefer depends on lots of factors, including innate ability. Some folks can pick up a language rapidly, some take years to master the basics. Just keep in mind that learning a language -- especially Japanese -- is something you do for the long term, and it can't be rushed. You can go teach English at a little grade school in Shikoku, never see another foreigner for months, and live a Japanese lifestyle -- but you have to be persistent and able to get yourself through frustrating slumps.

And work on your pronunciation, as Jeanne recommends. Simply *sounding* fluent helps your self-confidence in the beginning.

Hope this helps you, or at least encourages you not to despair ;-)
posted by armage at 4:19 PM on February 13, 2005 [1 favorite]

music music music. any kind, any style, get the cd, and get the words and read along and learn it and then sing along. you'll learn phrases that are new to you, words, etc. and you'll be amazed at how phrases will just..'be there' in your mind cause you've sung them so much, and later when you need a word, sometimes you're brain will notice it's in the song and you just have to mentally hum a few bars...
posted by nile_red at 11:02 PM on February 13, 2005

I've learned three other languages besides my mother tongue, and yes, there is a slump after you learn the conversational tone.
Once immersed, the one big thing that never fails to get me over that slump is to actively work on the language. Work on how you express yourself, enrich your vocabulary and use it everyday, play with sentence structure, add imagery and depth. One trick is to attend academic conferences that incorporate technical vocabulary. Every time I encounter a new word, I scribble it down on a piece of paper. Count, and talk to yourself in the language (admonish yourself, give yourself prep talks). Read essays and high-brow newspapers, not novels.
In a nutshell: pay attention to the language.
posted by ruelle at 11:08 PM on February 13, 2005

Very interesting. I'm a beginning student of Japanese - I've studied it for a year and a half but only 2 hours a week in class, which I don't feel is enough for me to make much progress. So my Japanese is very basic. Interesting to see the challenges I'll face in the future! Quite honestly I am just amazed that I can read hiragana, this set of squiggles that 18 months ago was completely incomprehensible to me, even if I don't always know what the word means.
posted by corvine at 6:08 AM on February 14, 2005

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