My battle with learning a foreign language

This month marks the third year that I’ve been studying Japanese independently, and looking back it’s almost embarrassing how bad I used to be at it. My knowledge of the rules of grammar, verbs and other nuances of the Japanese language has improved by a lot in three years’ time, although I still have a long, long way to go. Also, along the way I learned how to read and write fluently in hiragana and katakana, which was a fairly large accomplishment in my opinion, considering how long I had gone barely knowing how to read and having no clue how to write them. My knowledge of kanji is still minimal, making it by far my biggest challenge in reaching fluency.

With this knowledge of the Japanese language that I’ve gained over the years, it’s become clear that I could not have picked a language more different from English to learn. Not only are the writing systems radically different and not comparable to one another at all, the rules are grammar are also almost exact opposites to each other. As a native English speaker, learning Japanese seemed at first like a daunting and Herculean task. However, it’s actually very interesting. Spoken Japanese itself is not nearly as hard as some people report, and verb conjugation can be learned rather quickly as it’s all rather formulaic and irregular verbs are few. (Much unlike Spanish or the language I’m learning in school, French, which is ridden with irregularities and pitfalls. It was jarring, at first, to encounter all these little traps after studying a language in which verbs are one of the easier aspects.)

Undoubtedly, though, there were some parts of Japanese that took me a while to get used to. For example, the use of particles to mark different parts of speech such as the topic, subject, object, location, and direction of verbs. It’s a bit tedious to have to memorize the different between these particles, such as wa (は) as the topic marker and ga (が) as the subject marker, but it’s largely impossible to communicate effectively in Japanese without knowing how to use them properly. 

It was also fascinating to learn that Japanese has pairs of transitive and intransitive verbs that use the same kanji but have slightly different meanings. Take for example the verbs nokoru (残る), intransitive, which means “to remain”, and nokosu (残す), transitive, which means “to save; to leave behind”. The use of these verbs in context varies slightly – for example, Omoide dake ga nokotte imasu (思い出だけが残っています), “Only memories remain.” and Hon wo te-buru no ue ni nokoshita (本をテーブルの上に残した), “I left the book on top of the table.”

It’s nice to see that, after three years, I have this much knowledge to go on and hopefully be able to communicate at least conversationally in this language which I’m so passionate about. Hopefully though, this summer I’ll be able to start seeing a tutor and learn even more. My ultimate goal is to pass at least one level of JLPT before actually going to Japan, which I definitely plan on doing sometime during the future.

For those of you who are in the process of learning or are considering learning a new language, the only advice I can give you is to jump in head-first and really make a commitment to learning in whatever way you can. I started out by listening to Japanese music. Some people take classes. Others watch movies in the language of their choice. Whatever works for you, do it. Language learning is long, often difficult, sometimes tedious and frustrating, but always rewarding.


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