Studying Nihongo

I’ll be the first to admit that I started the 2016-2017 academic butthurt. Not only had I missed my provisional Cambridge offer but I turned down my 2018 place at Exeter University in order to start earlier in Leicester.

My attitude began to shift when at the Freshers fair in the first week of term someone got my attention from the Languages department stand. For some background, my University has a number of exchange agreements with foreign Universities and various courses offer a year abroad between year 2 and 3 of the degree. A University in Japan was one of the available options for my course and as luck would have it, Japan is one of the countries I have a deep desire to visit. But I don’t know the language and I have anxiety over going for a long period to a country completely nonfluent as the duration of the visit would necessitate interactions with the locals whose grasp of English may be limited or perhaps completely non-existent. The frustration of not being able to communicate effectively would likely wreak heavily with my fragile psyche.

She asked me whether I was interested in learning another Language. I mentioned that I had a passing familiarity with Spanish as I’d studied it in High School. I answered the question with very little gusto.  I’d already read through the available literature on the course I was embarking on and I knew that they didn’t have a language credit system. I quickly explained that I wasn’t studying a modern foreign language but she smiled and explained that the language department have evening and weekend classes open to everyone, non-language undergraduates and the general public alike, in a number of languages. With Japan on my mind, I asked whether Japanese was offered and was relieved and excited to find out that it was.

Being able to go to Japan and gain some competancy in the language before embarking for the year abroad set forth a blaze of pride for the University within me.

I enrolled in the Fast Track level 1 and began taking 4 hour long classes every Saturday. I found the lessons mentally taxing and tiring after the weeks of lectures but they were certainly informative. I quickly learnt facts that I hadn’t encountered before despite being a fan of some Japanese media for years such as the fact that Japanese has 3 alphabets (2 phonetic and 1 logographic) and that there are various levels of honorific speech within the language.

I missed a week of lessons due to a cold and didn’t return to class the following week as I was anxious about being behind. I tried in vain to catch up and I would have failed to attend the following week had I not bumped into a student from the class. She was a friendly and unexpected face who kindly inquired about my continue absence. I explained myself and she encouraged me to come along that Saturday. We also agreed to try to meet up weekly to get some conversation practice. I came along that Saturday but unfortunately I was greeted by a lengthy facebook message upon my return home accusing me of being too forward and inappropriate. I was taken aback. I considered the actions she referenced but didn’t and still don’t feel that I’d done anything wrong. However, I didn’t want to make her feel uncomfortable. I felt anxious about causing further unintentional offence and I didn’t feel comfortable being in a class with a person who felt ill towards me. For those reasons, I never returned.

I embarked upon the same course the following term. It wasn’t fast-track so although the same textbook was used, the pace was leisurely as each lesson was about half the length of a fast-track one. I knew much of the initial material so the first few weeks felt fairly simple but as the weeks went by the vocabulary we were expected to know readily increased rapidly and I found that I was struggling to participate in the conversation practice with the others on the table without staring at my notebook for the Japanese translation despite finding the grammar points easy enough to understand.

Surprise, surprise I ended up quitting that class also. Though this time there were no offended classmates involved thankfully. Instead, exam revision got the better of me and I decided that my degree had to take priority. When my exams were over, 3 weeks had gone by and I couldn’t face being so behind. It’s been over a month since then and I’ve thought long and hard about how to approach learning the language. And I’ve settled upon a mixture of self study and tutoring over the summer and until I join in with the language classes at my University when they rebegin. Either at the second half of the first level or with the beginning of the second.

I see now, in retrospect, that I shouldn’t have quit the first class. The fellow student, while being entitled to her feelings, should have had no bearing on my education. And it’s insufficient to simply attend language classes – a lot of time has to spent between on memorisation and practice.


My failings and research have led me to the following.

  1. Space repetition – We all know that repetition aids memorisation but spaced repetition is a learning technique based upon the effect known in psychology as the spacing effect.  Essentially spaced repetition systems bring up the facts well learnt less frequently than those that the user struggles with. Two popular ones are Anki and Memrise.
    • Anki is very powerful. There is a program for the desktop as well as an app and users have full control over the decks they build as wells as ones downloaded from the internet.
    • Memrise also has the capacity for users to create their own courses however as far as I know, it’s impossible for users to customise the courses that others have created. But there’s a great variety of courses available, ones created by members of the public as well as official ones created by the Memrise team. I prefer Memrise as the user interface is simpler to use and have used it to mesmerise hiragana. I’m currently using it to memorise katakana and plan to use one of the courses in the near future that’s used to help users memorise the vocabulary in the textbook that University uses for the first level of Japanese.
  2. Innovativelanguage – This company has a selection sites for learning various language. The URLs tend to be in the form so for example, I use Japanesepod101 for Japanese. And it has a selection of video lessons, audio lessons and podcasts and also various text resources on web page and pdf format. There is also an app which I’ve been using to follow the Nihongo Dojo series. It isn’t sufficient in isolation but is good exposure to spoken Japanese and the lesson creators are good at introducing the listeners to Japanese which is more realistic than what’s written in formal textbooks. As well as language lessons there are podcasts on culture and daily life which will be of interest to anyone that actually wants to visit the country.
  3. Exchange apps – With Japanese being spoken primary in Japan which is about 10 thousand km away it can be hard finding a native to speak to. And so it may be worth checking out a language exchange website like wespeke  or an application like Tandem. You can correct each other’s speech, ask questions about the countries where you live and potentially start a friendship.

There are of course tons of other things I’ll discover upon my path to fluency but armed with the tools at my disposal, I think I can make some real progress!


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