Advice to JETs on Learning Japanese

I recently spoke to an outbound JET and was reminded of my own experience on the program (Mie-ken, 2000-2002). I gave him some tips on learning the language and then realized that my advice might be useful to other JETs as well. I hope that by publishing this advice I can help participants on the JET program make progress in their study of the language.

My main advice is:

  1. Hire a professional Japanese teacher
  2. Use a flashcard program

Additionally I recommend:

  1. Passing a proficiency exam
  2. Trying Remembering the Kanji

The rest of this article explains how these points have helped me in my own studies of the language, both while in Japan and after.

Hire a Professional Japanese Teacher

When I arrived in Japan I did not know Japanese. I also did not know how to learn Japanese. My fellow Assistant Language Teachers (ALTs) recommended that I self study with a textbook between classes that I was teaching. They also placed a premium on learning kanji, and used the number of kanji someone knew as a yardstick for their overall proficiency with the language.

I followed this advice for about a year and then signed up for an intensive three week class at a Japanese school. Before classes began I took a placement exam and was placed in the beginner class. This placement bothered me, though, because I had been self studying for a year. Shouldn’t I at least be in the intermediate class? When I mentioned this to my teacher she invited me to discuss it with her – in Japanese.

This shocked me for two reasons. The first was that I had never had a conversation like that in Japanese before. As an ALT most of my discussions with Japanese people were in English. Speaking in Japanese at work could even be considered a breach of etiquette, since my job was to speak in English. This meant that, by and large, my time speaking Japanese was limited to things like asking for directions and ordering food in a restaurant. Until that point, no one had asked me to defend an opinion, or persuade them to take a course of action, in Japanese.

The second surprise was that I couldn’t do it. All the kanji I had learned and times I had asked for directions did not prepare me the moment when someone would patiently wait for me to add more detail to an answer.

That moment was 15 years ago, but I remember it like it was yesterday. I learned a lot during those three weeks. But what I remember most is that moment, when I realized how much a professional Japanese teacher had to teach me.

Luckily, you no longer need to visit an intensive language school to get access to a professional Japanese teacher. You can simply take lessons online. I have taken lessons at both iTalki and the Japanese Online Institute (JOI) and can recommend them both based on my personal experience. What really surprises me is how cheap they are. At the time of this writing trial lessons on iTalki are as low as $5 for 30 minutes. And JOI offers a trial of three 50-minute lessons for $9.

I recommend finding a professional teacher that works for you and taking weekly lessons.

Use a Flashcard Program

Like most JETs, when I came back home I had less opportunities to use Japanese. Eventually my Japanese atrophied.

I only began studying it again last year. I was originally hesitant, and thought that it might not possible to learn outside of Japan. It turns out that I wrong. In fact, due to the development of flashcard apps I am now finding it easier to increase my Japanese vocabulary than when I lived in Japan.

The program I use is Anki. My favorite feature of Anki is its use of spaced repetition. In short, each day Anki decides which flashcards I should review that day. It does this by keeping track of my performance on each card. The better my performance on a card, the less often I need to review it. This allows me to minimize the number of reviews I do each day. Note that in addition to using Anki for vocabulary, you can also use it for grammar. For example, you can have a card where one side is a sentence in English, and the other side has the Japanese translation of that sentence.

An additional benefit of Anki is its mobile app. Because of this I can review flashcards while commuting to work or waiting on line in a store.

Lastly, many people like Anki because of its shared deck feature. For example, it’s possible that someone has already created a deck with the vocabulary from a textbook that you are using. If so, you can easily import that deck into your copy of Anki.

Last year I attended the annual Japan.R conference in Tokyo and gave a 30 minute presentation in Japanese on work I had done on statistical software. I did a lot to prepare for the talk, but the foundation of my preparation was weekly lessons with a professional teacher and daily usage of Anki.

Pass a Proficiency Test

Studying a foreign language is a long process and it helps to have some milestones along the way. To help with this I recommend taking the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT). The test is offered twice a year in Japan and has five levels: N5 is the easiest and N1 is the hardest. Oftentimes N2 and N1 are required for working in a Japanese language environment. Many JETs arrive in Japan speaking very little Japanese and do not use Japanese after leaving the program in a year or two. Because of this, I recommend focusing on the easier levels of the exam. I personally found signing up for the exam to be motivating.

When I was in Japan I was aware of the JLPT, but did not have a good idea of how the levels corresponded to real world skills. Here are some links to help with that:

  1. Official JLPT Can-do List. Results of a survey of people who passed each level of the JLPT. They were asked questions such as “Can you write a simple self-introduction in Japanese?” and “Can you understand definitions in Japanese-Japanese dictionaries?”
  2. Summary of Linguistic Competence. This is how the test organizers describe what it means to pass each level of the exam.

The JLPT is a pass/fail exam, and each level has a very low pass rate.  You can see the pass rates on past exams by clicking the “details” button on this page. I am not sure why the pass rates are so low, but I wish that they were higher. I suspect that if more students worked with professional teachers then the pass rates would indeed be higher. A teacher can both help you select a passable level and help you to prepare for it. For many professional Japanese teachers, preparing students to pass the JLPT is a large portion of their business.

In my case I took my first JLPT exam last December (literally the day after I gave my presentation). I took the N4 and passed. Many people told me that N4 would be too easy for me and encouraged me to take the N3 instead. They were wrong. In particular, I found the grammar section to be extremely challenging.

I left the test realizing that if I wanted to improve my Japanese I should focus more on grammar. In that sense, the feedback from the exam was invaluable.

Try Remembering the Kanji

I mentioned earlier that, in retrospect, I spent too much time learning kanji in my first year. I still believe that. However, I do wish that I had discovered James Heisig’s book Remembering the Kanji earlier in my studies. The introduction to the book, which is available online, is a great read in and of itself.

The core of his system is to assign a keyword to each kanji, and exploit that fact that many kanji are built as combinations of other kanji. You can then easily (at least sometimes) make stories for the keyword of each kanji based on the keywords of the primitives. Once you have a story based on the primitives, it becomes very easy to write the character from memory. He does this for each of the 2,136 kanji in the joyo kanji list.

While I generally like the system, I do wish that he wrote a companion version that did this for just the kanji relevant for the various JLPT levels. As it turns out, people have done this online at the Japanese language forum koohii; they call it “RtK Lite”.

Conclusion

The JET program presents a unique situation for learning Japanese. Many people are placed in rural locations in Japan for 1-3 years with no prior knowledge of Japanese and no access to professional Japanese teachers. Their jobs require them to speak English and, even outside of work, many people will encourage them to speak English. Additionally, many JETs will not use Japanese after leaving the program.

As a result of this many JETs leave Japan having attained a lower level of proficiency with the language than they would have liked. I hope that the above advice helps JETs to attain whatever level of proficiency they aspire to.

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