I want to expand on the idea of Learner Stories and provide a series of articles, or rather case studies, of people who have reached a high level of proficiency in Japanese. Why? To make people depressed over how much better those high achievers are? No - the exact opposite. I want to highlight language learning role-models so that people reading this blog, anyone from Japanese learning neophytes to veterans, can learn and benefit from other peoples' experiences. While it is trite to say "The only way to get better at Japanese is by using Japanese" it is also very true. True but oh-so-very dry. Bone dry. I think that reading about exactly how people achieved high levels of proficiency puts meat on the bones of this truism.
Reading the accounts of people with high proficiency in Japanese will:
1. Show you what levels of achievement are possible. (Adults can achieve near-native fluency!)
2. Expose you to new techniques, or ways of thinking about Japanese. Anyone who reads Tae Kim's account below has no excuse for saying (cue whiney voice) "but you have to live in Japan to get good at Japanese!"
3. Give you a motivational kick in the arse - "Wow - compared to A-san I am a lazy bastard - maybe I should get up 30 minutes earlier each day and study."
4. Inspire you. There will always be people better than you - so don't let it get you down - let it pick you up.
Let's start the ball rolling - name, rank and serial number:
Tae Kim. Tae is my first name. Kim is my last.
Where do you hail from?
I was born in Korea and moved to the States when I was six. After that I moved around a bunch, mostly around the East Coast.
How long have you been studying Japanese?
I started at the beginning of my sophomore year in college, which was the Fall of 2000. My goodness, over 5 years have passed already!
Why did you start learning
Japanese (and not say, French)?
Strangely enough, it was to fulfill my second language graduation requirement. Spanish totally killed me in High School (all those irregular verb conjugations!) so I was more interested in Asian Languages. It was either Chinese or Japanese and I thought I liked how Japanese sounded better.
Tell us about any classes/formal
schooling you have had.
3 years in college including a term of study at Waseda.
What books - textbooks or otherwise have you
I started out with the Nakama textbook for my class. I also read "An Integrated Approach to Intermediate Japanese" during my summer vacation. It was better than Nakama but the grammar explanations were not very good. The textbooks were better than nothing but I have yet to find a really good textbook that I can truly recommend. I haven't really looked at teaching materials since then.
What resources other than books
have you found useful?
Jim Breen's EDICT dictionary was indispensible for my studies for a long time. I probably looked up over thousands of words on it. Nowadays there are all sorts of cool online resources, which is kind of unfair to us old folk. In any case, a good dictionary is essential (and also totally unavailable in US bookstores). I now use a Casio EX-word electronic dictionary. Other than that, finding material that is interesting and not unreasonably difficult for your level is important.
do you work/what do you do?
I am working in HR at Hitachi developing HR web applications.
How much Japanese do you use at work?
Everybody I work with is Japanese so I do all the development work in Japanese such as writing/reading specs, writing bug reports, etc. Unfortunately, any task that involves English usually comes to me because I'm the only native English speaker in our department.
Do you have a personal routine
Not so much nowadays. When I was really gung ho studying Japanese, I made Japanese as much a part of my life as possible. Fortunately, a lot of students from Japan were studying at my school so I made a lot of Japanese friends, got involved in the Japanese club activities and asked a lot of questions. Eventually, it came to the point where I just naturally spent at least an hour speaking Japanese every day due to the environment I managed to create for myself. I also tinkered with Japanese on the computer a lot such as installing the Japanese version of IE. I also tried to read as much Japanese as I could. I probably used the EDICT dictionary almost every day. In short, I tried to surround myself in a Japanese environment even though I wasn't in Japan.
Major achievement in Japanese?
Well, I passed into the highest Japanese level for my off-campus study at Waseda after only two years of study. The class was hardcore and I was the only one who had never been to Japan before. I mean some of these kids were practically Japanese! I was like, "Hello? Why are you in this program?"
I also passed 1-kyu for the JLPT last year (first try) but I don't think that's that big of a deal.
Most embarrassing Japanese
Nothing that sticks in my mind but I've certainly made tons of mistakes along the way.
Oh, I recall one partically embarrassing moment when I introduced myself by saying, キムさんです。A classic error.
What advice to people starting out
Finding a good teacher is probably the most important for people just starting out. Doesn't have to be a professional teacher, just somebody who knows his stuff, can explains things easily, and is geniunly interested in helping you learn.
Also, make learning Japanese as fun as possible. The best way to do this is to find Japanese people you truly enjoy spending time with. If this isn't possible, find material that really interests you whether it's novels, comics,games, art, technology, whatever. Anyway, you should find something that will motivate you to truly enjoy learning Japanese. Also, ask lots of questions and DON'T ARGUE. Just absorb as much information as possible, keep an open mind, and use your own judgement in deciding what is correct. And be HAPPY when somebody corrects you since he or she is giving you an opportunity to improve yourself. I don't care if they correct you every other word or even syllable. Ask for more details, study up, and try again.
Finally, don't think in English. Some English thoughts can never be expressed in Japanese and vice versa. Learn the Japanese way of thinking and forget how you would say it in English. For example, you can't say, "I miss you" in Japanese. You just can't. Get over it and learn to say something else.
What advice to people who want to move from intermediate to advanced proficiency?
I think the first few steps into Japanese are the most difficult. Once you reach intermediate level, it's only a matter of grinding your way through vocab (an endless battle). Find interesting material, read, read, and read some more. And speak with Japanese people as much as possible. And always remember to enjoy yourself!
Top 5 tips for studying Japanese.
1. Meet Japanese people who will speak to you in Japanese or at least to the extent of your abilities.
2. Don't argue, just listen, ask questions, and enjoy being corrected.
3. Read as much as possible with a good dictionary and don't waste time flipping through a paper dictionary if possible.
4. Study kanji on your own along with the vocabulary. Don't wait for your teacher to spoon feed them to you. It will take far too long.
5. Enjoy yourself and include Japanese into your daily life as much as possible.
other languages do you speak?
Korean (very badly)
Why did you write the Grammar Guide and how long did it take?
I used to hang around the about.com Japanese forum during college. I think I have a little over a thousand posts there. I started the guide because I was tired of answering the same questions over and over. I have been working on the guide on and off for over 4 years now but the bulk of it was written in the first three years I think. You can see a very old and broken version of it here:
Obviously, it has been greatly improved over the years.
Is language a
skill, in other words is Chomsky full of crap?
Language is definitely a skill like riding a bicycle. Think about it, do you speak languages like you do math problems? It's not a cognitive process at all. I don't care how smart you are, without practice, you'll never become good at a language.
Hope that answers your questions.