Now that I’ve finished my book queue, my next major queue to work through is my backlog of JapanesePod101 episodes. I first subscribed to that podcast just a few months after it started, but it took me several months after that to start really paying attention to it; by the time I got hooked, I was way behind.

It’s a remarkable podcast. Daily Japanese lessons, presented in such a way that reminds me of the recommendations from the late lamented Creating Passionate Users blog. From the beginning, it was all focused on the users. Some of that was straightforward (but not so common) community-building stuff – in the early months, they had a news post every Sunday, and it was full of expressions of gratitude for all the reviews, sounding sincerely thankful and amazed at how well it was going. (I haven’t participated in their forums, but they sound like lively places, too.) But the content itself was all focused on what users, too: rather than talking about how clever they are, they were focused right from the beginning on how, when you go to Japan, you’ll be able to find your way around and talk to people. And done in a style full of personality and, as far as I can tell, honest expressions of themselves: I’m sure it would drive some people crazy, but if it works for you, it’s great.

And it worked for me. I’d flirted with learning Japanese before, so some of the lesson series (Survival Phrases) were easy for me. (Though even those I wasn’t bored by, and if I were actually traveling to Japan, I’m sure lots of the specific topics would be very useful.) The Beginner series was just right for me, though: I had to pay attention to it almost from the first episodes if I wanted to understand everything, and I would finish each lesson by listening to the opening dialogue over again to make sure I got it all. (And once every few weeks I’d have to listen to an entire lesson twice, because of something I missed.) I’d gradually learn more stuff as the weeks went by; about 150 episodes of that series later, I’m still feeling that it’s a great level for me, still providing an appropriate challenge level.

The Intermediate series started out too hard for me, and continues that way, but I still like listening to it just to get the sound of the language in my ears. (And they recently commented that the early Intermediate lessons are easier in some ways than the current Beginner lessons; I went back and listened and, you know, they’re mostly right! Wow!) There’s other nice stuff, too, like Japanese Culture Class episodes once every week or two.

So it’s a great mix of stuff: lessons for a range of levels, and I enjoy even the levels that aren’t targeted at me. Actually, I’m glad that they’re not all targeted at me: I would simply be unable to keep up with seven lessons a week at the Beginner level. For one thing, I’m pretty sure I’d burn out: I have enough experience with learning stuff that I know that, if I push myself hard, it’s a lot of fun for about three months and then I just run into a brick wall. And, for another thing, the Beginner lessons demand enough concentration that I can’t listen to them while driving, so I basically only listen to them when jogging or grocery shopping, which I don’t do every day. (In contrast, the lessons that are either easier or harder are fine while driving, though I’ve gotten in the habit of pairing one Beginner lesson with one other type of lesson every time I jog, and so rarely listen to anything in the car.)

Unfortunately, it took several months for me to realize how much I liked it, and several more months for me to work up to a reliable schedule. With a daily podcast, you can fall behind really fast; I’m pretty sure I was more than a year behind at some point. I’ve been catching up since; I’m up to the middle of last November, and my current pace has me going at about 5/3 real time without signs of burning out. My goal now is to be completely caught up a year from now; I’ll check back next summer and let you know how it’s gone!

My fondness for the podcast is actually forcing one rather tough decision on me. A year ago, I thought about what to do next; two main contenders were learning Japanese and learning Ruby. I decided to do the latter (though hardly single-mindedly), and I still have quite a lot in that vein that I want to do. Having said that, I’ve been devoting enough time to Japanese as well that it would be a bit of a shame to lose that, and I’m afraid that, without some effort to consolidate my knowledge, it will get rather less satisfying soon.

Let me be clear: I don’t consider myself to really be learning Japanese now. I’m listening to podcast episodes and being exposed to new vocabulary and grammatical structures in such a way that, at the end of each episode, I can listen to the dialogue at the start and feel that I understand it. But I couldn’t typically engage in a similar dialogue myself, or feel confident that I’ve really mastered the grammar involved. It’s the difference between responding to cues in context after a reminder and really knowing something, and it’s not the fault of the podcast: that’s all you can hope from 10 or 15 minutes a day without study outside of the podcast. (Their website provides tools for that study, should you choose to use them and to pay money.)

And I’m afraid that, as the grammar gets more complex, it will become more obvious to me that I really don’t know the material, and will be harder and harder to get as much out of the episodes. In fact, my gaps are already starting to be painful: I’ve just gotten to the part where they introduced the Lower Intermediate lessons, and the dialogue in the lesson notes is in kana instead of romaji. I can puzzle out kana just fine, but I can’t read it with anything like the fluency with which I can read Roman characters; that’s exactly the sort of thing that I should be able to learn how to do if I just take time to practice it and that would help me a lot in providing a solid foundation for other sorts of learning.

And I’m sure there are a lot of basic vocabulary and grammatical structures that would similarly repay a bit more concerted study. I don’t necessarily want to immediately memorize everything new in each Beginner lesson, but it would help if I had the material from, say, six months earlier down pat. If I could do that, I think I really would be on the path to learning Japanese.

So I’m starting to think that it’s time to break out my old textbook, start writing down vocabulary flash cards, and get to work. Or maybe buy a new textbook – one of my coworkers was greatly amused by the “for Today” part of the title, and somehow my showing him the insert explaining that, in this modern world of 1988, color televisions are a standard appliance in Japanese households, didn’t convince him of its modernity. But I think it’s pretty well written, so I’m planning to stick to it – after all, I have JapanesePod101 to explain modern vocabulary to me, so I won’t be left in the dark if I hear a hip Japanese person referring to the governor of California as “Shuwa-chan”. Figuring out how to budget time for that is not going to be easy; I think it can be done, but I want to think it over for a bit before committing. I suppose, though, there is one bright side to this lack of time: when I flirted with learning Japanese in grad school, I was unsuccessful largely because I took it too fast and burned out; time pressures should do a good job of preventing that from happening this time, I hope.

I’ll let you know how it all turns out a year from now, when I’ve finished off this queue.

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