Moving forward with the cherry blossoms

I believe that I could write a book on how not to learn a language, but I am still gathering primary research.

The viral coronavirus has caused the cancellation of many things including school, the Cherry Blossom festival, and my Japanese class. Nevertheless, this virus won’t stop the cherry blossoms from blossoming next week.

My Japanese studies must also go on. After casually reading my favourite books for Japanese study over the last few weeks, I finally gave iTalki another shot.

My experience with this language tutoring website had previously ranged from ‘poor’ to ‘okay.’ After some awkward trial lessons with a handful of community tutors and professional teachers in years past, I came very close to buying a multi-lesson package from a humorous Japanese lady on the site a couple of years ago. I deposited nearly $100 on the site and… let it sit there. It just so happened that at that time, a mentor of mine told me to get a teacher to kick my ass. And the teacher had to be male.

Why, you ask? Men and women speak differently in Japanese, and a man should not speak like a woman. He even gave an example of a corporate executive who embarrassingly spoke like a girl in Japanese, and did the impersonation.

The trouble is, generally, men tend to gravitate to women, and the reverse is also true. So it is easy to fall into the trap of chatting with the opposite sex and repeating what they say. Actually, you cannot simply repeat what you hear in order to learn Japanese for 2 sociolinguistic reasons:

  1. Men and women speak differently
  2. Honorifics

Honorifics remind me of when I was learning Korean as an English teacher. I starting learning casual Korean but then sensed being rude to the school managers. So I switched to learning formal Korean and then was inappropriately too respectful when I spoke to my elementary students.

Admittedly, my lesson requests and expectations have been unusual (avoided textbooks) and have changed with the wind. This time around, I have a hodgepodge of grandiose Japanese goals but tend to offer up the Japanese Language Proficiency Test – Level N4 as a realistic primary goal.

Today’s shot-in-the-dark trial lesson with a professional teacher turned out to be my most positive 30 minutes on the site. As it happened, I realized that the whole ‘lesson’ was going to be a gauge of my current ability, as per the usual trial lesson. Conveniently, he and many other teachers are familiar with and tend to use the Minna no Nihongo books. While I would love to use the book series as kindling one day, they are the popular tool of choice. During the paid call, dust swirled in my apartment as I scoured my shelves for my 3 books: Beginner 1, Beginner 2, and Intermediate 1.

My new sensei quickly honed in on my progress with these books and uncovered some guilt that I had buried. As I have written about previously, my volunteer Japanese class skims and skips through these books with little coordination between any teacher and the organizers. As a quick latest recap, our level E class finished off last year with Beginner 2 book’s lesson 47 (of 50) followed by the start of level F class this year at lesson 10 of the Intermediate 1 book. That’s 12 lessons skipped. I decided to forego all of those skipped lessons, to go with the flow and structure of the school and become accustomed to the status of reaching the top-level F class. I quickly found that these classes were actually not very helpful for me. I was getting more value from the bike ride to class than the class itself. The weekly trek was more of a beacon, calling for change, and just became part of my exercise routine.

Sensei gave me homework. I have to complete the tests at the back of Beginner 1 and 2 and share the results with him. That means that the opportunity to not swallow my pride is hanging in the balance of my test results. If I pass, I will appropriately continue working with Intermediate 1. If I fail, we will go back and fill in the blanks of my education to date.

Further, he excavated another foregone conclusion of mine. Kanji. I had tried WaniKani flashcards ages ago to quickly recognize kanji, and then moved onto the more flexible Anki kanji flashcards, followed by full-sentence flashcards after that. While these likely helped in my spotty Japanese education, I, like a lizard, sacrificed my tail of time (and money) as I escaped certain death. Death by flashcard. I am not a lizard, but that was a convenient analogy. While flashcards are idolized and the spaced repetition system (SRS) is praised as the Holy Grail of language learning technology, they are a false god. SRS is short-term hurdle jumping but long-term Chinese water torture. The flashcard tsunami drove me to put down the phone and look elsewhere.

With optimism, I opted to observe kanji in their natural habitat. It was to be a kind of osmosis; by reading volumes of native content leveraging tools like Manabi Reader (picked up the phone again) and Japanese IO to get the kanji readings, I could plow through material and eventually become familiar with two thousand kanji, give or take. This would allow me to jump to any medium. Newspapers, TV, Netflix. Anything, and everything.

Sensei quashed this fantasy immediately: “if you do not learn kanji properly, you will not pass the JLPT.” He followed this with his recommended kanji practice and testing books. 

To date, the vast majority of people whom I have met who have learned another language, learned it in university or from a full-time language school. The exceptions to this are few and far between.

Once again, I am fueled with optimism. One-on-one tutoring must trump any school, for a fraction of the cost. A cost that will hopefully pay for itself, in time.

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