It has been clear for a while that I would benefit from Japanese lessons: I’ve been getting a lot out of self-study (with assistance from books and JapanesePod101), but that self study means that I’ve never been in a situation where I actually had to produce Japanese. Which isn’t the end of the world—there’s nothing at all wrong with focusing on reading, and you can certainly make a case that I’ll find myself more frequently in situations where I want to read or listen to Japanese than situations where I want to speak it. Still, it is a lack, and a lack that I’d been feeling more and more.
The obvious solution to this lack is to take Japanese lessons. I hadn’t done that for two reasons: one is that it costs money, and the other is that it takes time. (Japanese in general is taking up more and more of my time, and not always in productive ways: over the last few months, I’ve been spending too much time reviewing vocabulary, to the extent that I’m now thinking that, in retrospect, adding a bit of Chinese to the mix was a mistake.) But with the upcoming trip to Japan, I now have a concrete situation where being able to speak Japanese would be useful and where I can’t fool myself that reviewing vocabulary alone is a good idea; so I asked around, found a teacher, and now I’m taking Japanese lessons on Saturday mornings.
It’s only been three weeks so far, but my initial reaction is: this was clearly a good idea. I wasn’t fooling myself that I really have learned a fair amount over the years; but that learning isn’t always showing itself in ways that are productive when it comes to speaking. Over and over again, my teacher would ask me something, and I would know that it’s a word that I would recognize if I saw it in Japanese, but I couldn’t come up with it myself. (My memorization practice has almost exclusively gone in the Japanese-to-English direction rather than the English-to-Japanese direction.) And the same thing would happen with grammar.
So I have a lot of learning to do. (And I also have to get over my own fear of saying the wrong thing, but that at least I am conscious of and can deal with.) But I think the learning is coming along reasonably quickly: my teacher seems to think that I’m doing a good job, and I can feel the words and knowledge shaking loose in my brain and rearranging themselves in more productive ways. Who knows how well I’ll be able to speak Japanese in April, and it will certainly be a completely different (and much less comfortable) experience than traveling to France or Germany, but we’ll be able to do well enough.
It is still a time cost, and one that’s more noticeable given how much time I’m wanting to spend on guitar during the weekends these days. So right now I’m not committing to continuing to take lessons after I get back from Japan. Having said that, I’m tentatively thinking that I’ll stick with the lessons for a while, quite possibly a long while: I’m getting benefits that way that I’m not going to get any other way. (Unless I do something like move to Japan for a few months!) It will help my reading, too, I’m fairly sure: as I move beyond bilingual editions or comics that I have English-language copies of, I imagine it will be useful to have somebody whom I can ask questions to about phrases that confuse me. And speaking practice will potentially give me access to better understanding of written Japanese, because I’ll be able to see more of the choices involved in crafting a sentence.
So, for now, I’m taking this as a sign that I should get more serious about studying Japanese, and that I should shift the balance of how I’m studying. I’m adding in lessons, and a greater amount of English-to-Japanese practice; I’m dialing down memorization practice, being more comfortable with looking up words but not adding them to the list to memorize. (On which note, I’ve finally finished memorizing the 1981 version of the Joyo Kanji list, though it will be a little over half a year before I’ve learned the extra 196 characters that were added in the 2010 revision.) And I should spend more time reading—for now, I’m freeing up a bit of time on weekends by moving one bit of reading practice (Hikaru no Go) from weekends to Wednesdays, except that I enjoy reading that enough that I’m still reading it on weekends, I’m just now reading two chapters a week! (I also discovered last week that there’s a new edition of Hikaru no Go which is much nicer to read: larger pages, better quality paper and printing, and occasional sections are even in color.)
And I’m also getting comfortable with thinking that there’s a good chance that Japanese is the last language I’m going to seriously study. One reason why I started studying Japanese is that I wanted to show that I could still learn languages; not that I was worried, but, well, it had been maybe 15 years at the time since the last time I’d started learning a language. Now, though, I really don’t spend much time at all thinking about that sort of thing: I’m confident that I can learn things (languages, instruments, whatever) if I spend the time on them, but I also have a quite good idea of what that time cost is, and of what the tradeoffs are when compromising on that learning.
So, for me right now: the tradeoffs are such that I’d rather dive in more deeply, and do it right. And one aspect of getting older and having a good number of self-directed multi-year learning projects under my belt is that I’m comfortable with the thought that doing it right is potentially not just a multi-year process but a multi-decade process. (At least given that I’m not throwing myself into this completely: I’m still a dilettante, I’m just, well, a committed dilettante.) I’m not wedded to that thought, and it wouldn’t shock me if, a decade from now, I decided that, say, focusing on Chinese was the right thing to do. (Heck, maybe I’ll even get religious as I get older and go back to Pali!) But I’m also quite comfortable with a possibility space where my current interests carry forward for quite some time.
This post has not been revised since publication.