Learning Japanese After Chinese

Ever since coming back to America from studying/working/生活ing in Taiwan, I’ve been looking to move to a new country where I don’t know the local language. I’m super excited to announce that I’ve been selected to become an ALT with the JET Program in Japan!

This is going to be a big challenge for me because when I came to Taiwan last year I was already conversationally fluent in Chinese, but when I step foot in Japan my Japanese level will be really really low. I try not to see this as frightening, but as a unique opportunity to learn and make new mistakes. I’m still engaging with the Chinese language just about everyday for some extra work I’m doing right now, but my energy has mostly been going towards learning Japanese these past few weeks in my quarantined boredom.

What I thought Japanese would be like

Having already learned thousands of Chinese characters I come into learning Japanese with a seemingly large advantage. Theoretically, my knowledge of traditional Chinese characters has me even better prepared. All I have to do is learn the kana and I’m basically fluent!

If only it were that easy…

The reality of the situation, I’m finding, is a little complicated. While I may recognize a lot of kanji and think I already know the meaning, I turn out to be incorrect more often than not. A common example used to demonstrate this is 勉强, a two character compound than means “avoid” in Chinese, but in Japanese means “study”, instead. It’s almost like forgetting the Chinese meaning of characters when studying Japanese is actually more helpful.

That being said, I think the advantage of simply being familiar with looking at and memorizing characters is very useful. Just like how I got better at learning Chinese characters the more I already knew simply because I was used to looking at them, the same can be applied to learning Japanese kanji after having studied Chinese.

As you probably know, Japanese writing has something like an alphabet in the kana.

Disclaimer: I should say that coming into my Japanese studies I kind of already knew how to read hiragana and katakana from attempting to study Japanese as a small weeb child many years ago.

I am still very slow to read Japanese simply due to my unfamiliarity with the kana but that will just take time.

Resources I’m using

I’m studying Japanese using pretty much the same methods I used to learned Chinese. The main difference is that I don’t have a Japanese teacher, or any time in the classroom. This brings its own set of challenges which I will discuss. But first, I want to outline what I’m using to study and how I’m doing it.

When I was preparing to take the HSK a few years ago I used Quizlet to learn the test vocabulary with flashcards sets I found. That approach has proven results for me, so to learn Japanese vocabulary I’m using a Quizlet set of the Japanese HSK equivalent, the JLPT. The JLPT is split into five different levels so I’m starting with a set of the lowest level vocabulary, JLPT 5. The first thing I noticed was that the beginning levels have much more vocabulary than the HSK ones. Something I find kind of annoying is that there’s no official list of vocabulary for each level like there is for the HSK. This means each JLPT vocab set I find is different albeit marginally. In the end, it makes no difference if the lists are official or not because beginner vocab is beginner vocab at the end of the day. Even if the sets have different amounts of vocabulary I’m still going to learn them all eventually so who cares. I was feeling myself so I chose one of the larger sets on Quizlet with 732 cards which you can also use here. When I study I use the learn feature for 30 minutes and then just flip through the entire deck for 30 minutes. I do that everyday and it’s been great so far.

I also did the promoted Memrise course for Japanese 0 and 1 to get a feel for how sentences are made and to learn how to use certain things like particles and verb conjugations. What I’m not doing is explicitly sitting down to study grammar. The reason why I do this is because grammar is just patterns in the language, and those patterns can be picked up solely through input easier than you might think. I’m also not studying Japanese grammar to avoid learning it in English. Comparisons of Japanese to English that you often find in grammar explanations are, in my opinion, detrimental to the learner because nothing ever maps on exactly. I’m trying to get out of the “translate-everything-in-my-head-first” mindset as quickly as possible so I think this really helps. Even though Chinese and Japanese sentences are formed in very different ways, there are many grammatical concepts in Japanese that are derivative of Chinese ones so I’m finding that without much explanation I can pick up on how to use some aspects of the language pretty quickly.

The third major component of my Japanese studies is controversial. I’m actively choosing to consume content made by non-native Japanese speakers.

I found when I first started studying Chinese that watching videos made by foreigners was very useful in the beginning. I also remember when I first watched the videos made by 拂菻坊 how inspired to learn Chinese I felt. Even though his Chinese isn’t as perfect as a native speaker’s, he speaks much more simply which is very important to the beginner. In the first few weeks of learning Chinese I also discovered the Taiwanese tv show “二分之一強” which is a panel show consisting of Chinese speaking foreigners. I liked watching this because the subtitles shown were corrected by native speakers so I could see what mistakes people were making and what the proper way to say something was. There are Japanese shows like this as well that I plan on watching when I get the chance.

As convenient as content like that is for beginners, moving on to content made by and for native speakers should be a priority. I’m currently watching a handful of Japanese Youtubers as well as サンエン台湾, a Youtube channel consisting of a Taiwanese girl who speaks Japanese and a rotating cast of Japanese Youtubers. I think this is the most ideal form of content for the learner because it is conversational dialogue rather than a monologue, or vlog style of video. Monologue videos are still good practice, but I find the language level used to be too simple, and the overall premise of talking to oneself is not very applicable to how I need to use the language.

Challenges of learning without a teacher

When I started learning Chinese in college I was learning from a teacher three times a week. This has a couple of important benefits including the ability to learn correct pronunciation quickly, the discipline and accountability of showing up to class and doing homework, and the corrections given to students for written papers and homework answers. For my own studies, writing practice is not a priority, but pronunciation is certainly one of the most critical aspects of language learning. The key to overcoming these challenges by yourself is to be disciplined enough to know where you’re slacking. Doing things beyond what would even be asked of you in a classroom setting can help with this. For example, I recently heard of someone memorizing speeches in their target language. I believe this could be great for pronunciation practice. When I studied Chinese I worked on memorizing a few Chinese rap songs and I think that definitely helped my speaking facility. Doing things like this that are outside the normal study routine will keep you improving and avoiding plateaus.

Some other observations

The more you spend time with a language the easier it becomes. That much is obvious. However, it is clear how much I’ve lost touch with how mentally draining and frustrating learning a new language can be. As learners, we have to respect our own physical limitations, for they are unavoidable. We only have so much energy in a day to apply to language learning. Doing something like spending five hours in one day learning new words will only discourage you tomorrow when you have to review them. It is a marathon not a sprint, after all.

Since language learning is so mentally taxing you have to be responsible enough to take care of your mental health and energy levels. Getting enough sleep will greatly benefit your ability to retain information. Like rest days are important to growing muscle mass when you workout, sleeping is important for learning a language.

Do I think knowing Chinese is helping me to learn Japanese faster? Yes, I do think I am learning Japanese faster than I learned Chinese. But is it because I know Chinese specifically, or is it simply just because I’ve studied another language to fluency? This I cannot say for certain.

In the end, the speed at which you learn is really only limited by your motivation to study.

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