We Need To Learn Japanese

keep-calm-and-ganbatte-kudasai-4Or, as they say it in Japan: 日本語をもっと勉強したいです (Nihongo wo motto benkyo shitai desu).*

Brett and I know that if, in a few years, we are going to be living in Japan for three months each year we need to start studying Japanese now. Brett doesn’t speak any Japanese other than a few words, and my Japanese has moved far beyond the rusty stage. I can read the kana ‘alphabets,’ tell time, introduce myself, count money, read some signs and a few characters, say “please,” “thank you,” and “excuse me,” and do some basic ordering in a restaurant but that’s about it. I can understand some of what’s being said to me by picking out different words, but I cannot carry on a conversation or even reply to most questions other than nodding my head and saying thank you. Most of the time in Japan I feel like everyone but me is able to read and converse in a secret code.

During our stays Brett and I will need to be able to shop for food, buy tickets and other items, and get ourselves around town and such on our own. On my last two trips to Japan my son or my daughter-in-law took care of most of the Japanese, but we don’t want to have to depend on them so much in the future. Japanese is also not a language we are going to “pick up” while we are living there. It is one of four of the most difficult languages for English speakers to learn (the others are Chinese, Korean, and Arabic) and even an intermediate level can take years of study.

I have been busy the last few weeks investigating what would be the best ways for each us to learn on our own. There are no classes here on the island other than through the community college, and neither of us wants to do that. We are also at completely different ability levels: Brett is a true beginner, but I studied Japanese for three years in college, so feel I could start in again closer to an intermediate level (after a review of the basics at the beginning level).

The current big question is whether we should go with books or do it online with something like Rosetta Stone. My instincts as a language teacher tell me that Brett might benefit from Rosetta Stone, at least initially, and that I would do well with a text and work books, with Rosetta Stone as a back-up. Rosetta Stone also offers the opportunity to practice with a native speaker. The big downside is the cost – RS is not cheap. For both of us though, motivation will be key – Japanese is intensely difficult and I worry about getting discouraged or giving up before we have a chance to use what we learn. Finding a good fit between resources and our learning styles will be key in either of us having any chance of success.

We will probably take Japanese classes while we are living there to help us along, but for now will start slowly on our own beginning this fall. So, in the next few weeks we’ll have to make a decision, with a goal of getting started when the girls go back to school in August. Books or online? I still don’t know.

But . . . 頑張って(gambatte) to us! (Gambatte roughly translates as ‘good luck’ but is closer to ‘I know you can do this’).

*(I was a bit surprised that I could actually still read the Japanese writing without help. My son provided it for me though – I wasn’t sure enough to do it on my own).


12 thoughts on “We Need To Learn Japanese

  1. Check out duolingo. I don’t know if they have Japanese but I’ve had that recommended highly for other languages. Before buying do spend a bunch of time looking online for free resources. Especially for a true beginner there is a LOT. Also look into your local library. Ours has the first levels of RS available online for free. It’s not the whole program but would be a start and then if you bought it you’d be doing so with a practical knowledge of what it was like to work with.


    1. Thanks for the suggestions! I did check out duolingo, but they don’t offer Japanese :-(. I also checked our local library and the Portland library (I’m still a member) to see if it or another online program was available through them, at least a beginning level but they don’t have anything. I’m familiar with RS because we used it in our English program. It’s OK for a start, but feel it needs to be supplemented as you progress. I have found other Japanese language applications online, but none of them are very good on their own. I’m still deciding what to do, although RS Japanese is available for a very good price right now ($209 for Levels 1-3).


    1. Craigslist is very small here, but I did check and one person is selling a set at a good price. BUT . . . Brett is very hesitant about buying discs/software from a stranger.


  2. Hi
    I took French in high school and college. At one point I could read French but not speak it, and as time has gone by without using the knowledge I have completely lost it. I also took a course on Japan at the local community college. 1 semester was Japanese customs and history and the 2nd semester was Japanese language. It is an incredibly difficult language to learn and one semester was not enough to make a dent. About the only thing I have left is being able to count to five and say good morning.

    I am amazed that you can read Japanese.

    The only thing I can suggest is to try and find a local group that gets together to speak Japanese, kind of like a book club. That would be unlikely where I live but Hawaii has a large Japanese community so you might have better luck. You can also check with the people who offer Japanese language courses and see if they know of any groups. It always helps to be able to practice what you are learning.

    Not too long ago Sam’s Club had the Rosetta series on sale for $250.00 instead of the usual $450. You might try checking with Costco to see if you can get it cheaper.

    Good luck to Brett.


    1. I wrote my master’s thesis on the difficulty of learning Japanese as an adult. It’s an incredibly difficult language to learn not only because of the writing system, but because of how social hierarchies and your place in them determine which form of the language you use.

      I would have taken more than three years, but the program at the university I attended for my M.A. was awful and it ended up being all I could do to get through the two years I spent in the Japanese program there for my degree (at least I got a thesis topic out of it!). I remember absolutely NOTHING from the time I spent in those classes.

      Rosetta Stone has the Japanese series on sale now for $209 so we may go ahead and order it. I’m going to check first at Costco to see if they have it at the same or better price. I’m pretty sure we can find somewhere here for conversation practice; I just have to do some more digging around.


  3. I just returned from my first trip to Japan and can understand how difficult it would be to try to live there without speaking the language. Very few people I came across spoke English, and I was in mostly touristy areas and was taking a guided tour. It really was the first country I’ve been to where English was not widely spoken in tourist areas. The only Japanese I know is from when I took karate so I know how to count to 20 (which came in handy a few times) and a few phrases the tour guide taught us.

    Just curious, how did your son learn to speak Japanese? I’m VERY impressed you can read Japanese writing! It looks impossible to me.


    1. There is w-a-y more English available now in Japan than there was when we lived there (’80-’83 and ’89-’92), and when I went in ’71 as a college student, but it still isn’t very much. But, even with the English available now it’s still intimidating to be there when you can’t read most of the signs, or understand what people are saying. There are major improvements now in the amount of English, and more on the way for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

      The writing is difficult, to put it mildly. Figuring out the kana though opens a lot of doors, but learning kanji is a LOT of work and takes a long time (it does for native speakers as well). I learned many of the characters I know from reading road signs and place names – lots of repetition and reinforcement.

      When we lived in Japan, our son didn’t want to learn Japanese! He figured he was never going back again, so why bother? But, when we returned to the U.S., he wanted to read manga (comics) and decided to teach himself. He does have a natural language ability, but took classes in high school and kept up his own studies and by the time he was a senior he knew more than the Japanese teacher, who was not a native speaker (that’s all changed now though – his high school is now the high school for the Japanese language magnet program). He majored in Japanese studies in college, did a year abroad in Japan his junior year, and has just kept up with it. He has taken on various jobs that require Japanese (i.e. translation, embassy) in order to improve his skills, and uses it every day at work (and at home with his wife, although he only speaks English to their son, who is also bilingual).


      1. That’s very interesting. The tour guide (a native of Japan) told us that English is taught in schools now starting in 6th grade and there were times when children would come up to us and ask us to practice with them. It was so cute! The tour guide also told us about the kana and kanji and taught us some basic kanji.

        I agree about feeling intimidated by not being able to read signs. Even trying to figure out restaurant menus was a challenge and we picked items based on pictures. It was a completely new experience for me. I’ve been to Italy but I know enough Italian to get by so I never felt intimidated there, but I felt so ‘foreign’ in Japan. I loved the country though and hope to go back someday. I was also struck by the total lack of racial diversity. I live in a part of the US that is very racially diverse, so that was also a new experience for me.

        The tour guide said it is very difficult to live in Japan if you were not born there or have Japanese ancestry. Will you have to get a special visa to live there for 3 months?

        Your son’s perseverance is impressive! He stuck with it for so many years and it’s paid off for him. It sounds like you have a good base of knowledge to build on so you’ll be ok, but poor Brett! I took a basic Japanese course at a local community college about 10 years ago and unfortunately remember nothing since I didn’t keep up with it, but I find learning languages on my own to be more effective anyway. You said you found Rosetta Stone at Costco so that sounds like a good plan. I also saw some language software by a company called Instant Immersion at Costco, but I haven’t tried it so I don’t know if it’s any good. It was very cheap (around $20 or so) when I saw it a few months ago.


      2. U.S. citizens can stay up to 90 days within a 365 day period without a visa – after that it gets difficult. So, we’ll only stay for 90 days!


  4. checked Amanzon and they currently have Rosetta Stone Japanese levels 1 – 3 for $179.00. Don’t know how that compares with the site you were looking at but you can have a look


    1. The RS download for Mac on Amazon is $169 for Levels 1-3, so think we will go with that! Glad you wrote though – the price wasn’t as good the other day. Brett is going to have to study up on the kana though before he can start as the whole program is in kana.


Comments are closed.