Sorry I’ve been so quiet recently; I spent most of my evenings for about three weeks playing Mass Effect. (Which I quite recommend, incidentally.) But I’m done now, so I finally have a bit of time to get back to blogging. (And to catch up with reading the things.)

I’m a third of a way through my Japanese textbook now: I’ve finished ten of the thirty chapters. Which is, I believe, farther than I made it through the book when I was in grad school, and I’m showing no signs of losing track of grammar / vocabulary, so my strategy of not forcing my way through the chapters before I’m comfortable with them is working.

Having said that, it’s been slower going than I thought: it would seem that it’s taken me about six and a half months to make it as far as I have. Which suggests that I have a bit more than a year to go before I’m through the textbook, which is a little disenheartening: I’d have hoped it would only take a year total to go through the book. And, actually, the situation might be worse than that: I breezed through some of the first chapters, while these days it takes me three weeks to go through a chapter, or more if I get sick or go on vacation or am particularly busy. So I probably have more than 60 weeks ahead of me.

Or maybe not. I’ve been getting exposed to bits and pieces of grammar through other sources; I actually don’t believe that the difficulty curve is really going to increase, and in fact I’m on track to finish Chapter 11 in two weeks instead of three weeks. Still, even at two weeks each, I have 40 weeks ahead of me, and in practice I don’t see how I could possibly have less than a year left, unless I find other techniques that significantly speed up my learning.

That’s fine, I guess; I’m in this for the long haul, and if the outcome of all of this is that in five or even ten years from now I’m reasonably comfortable reading a range of Japanese materials and not embarrassed speaking the language, that would be a win: I hope to have that enrich my life for another three decades or so after that. Still, I might as well take this as an opportunity to review my approach. Is there anything I could be doing better?

Well, one question is: better for what? What’s my goal? To learn Japanese, of course, but how do I define having learned Japanese, and what’s the goal that underlies it? (There’s no end of other things I could be learning, after all.)

The answer isn’t as obvious as it once was. When I thought about doing this in grad school, I had some pretty good answers: learn Japanese = be able to read Japanese, and I had some specific ways in which I’d like to use that skill. There are a lot more go books in Japanese than in English; also, I’d been really impressed by the literary fiction that I’d read translated into English, and I was pretty sure that there’s a lot more where that came from. And then I started getting into comics and video games; again, there was a lot of good stuff that hadn’t been translated into English.

A decade later, though, none of those motivations holds water very well. I don’t spend much time playing go these days, I can’t even keep up with the go literature in English any more, and if I wanted to get back into the game, one obvious way to make time would be to give up learning Japanese. Reading literary fiction is a noble goal, but getting to a level where I can enjoy doing that isn’t easy; even reading French literature is enough of a strain that I don’t do it very often, I can’t think of the last time I read literary fiction in German, and realistically it seems unlikely that I’ll end up learning Japanese as well as I know German. Manga and video games are more realistic goals, but the importance of learning Japanese to delve into those areas is much less than it was not very long ago: I’ve been astounded at how much stuff has been translated into English over the last decade.

Still, enough of my entertainment comes from Japanese sources that I think I have a good case for learning the language on those grounds. And I’d like to visit the country pretty soon; we’re not going this year (Paris again), but I very much hope we’ll go there in 2009 or 2010, and if that goes at all well, I hope that will be the first trip out of many.

The truth is, though, I’m not sure either appreciate cultural artifacts or visiting the country is the real reason why I want to learn the language: I think I just like the idea of learning Japanese. Or maybe the idea of knowing Japanese, I’m not sure. I just like knowing something about different languages, and I’m pretty fascinated by the writing system. So maybe the trip itself is the goal, instead of any putative destination.

I don’t want to go too far down that path, though: it’s easy to use that as an excuse to avoid testing myself (in either the written or spoken arena), and that won’t do me any good: I don’t want to be able to just do textbook exercises or recite lists of vocabulary (even if I enjoy the latter rather more than is healthy), I really do want to know the language at a deeper level. In fact, I’ve gotten far enough that I should start testing myself more seriously soon; more thoughts on that in a later blog post.

So am I doing a good job of meeting my goals? Honestly, I’m not sure. I’m sure I’d make faster progress if I were taking lessons with a native speaker. That would cost money, but probably not enough to be a big deal; it would also cost time away from the house, which is a bigger deal. (Though it’s not like my present approach doesn’t have any time cost – I’m probably putting in about five or six hours a week.) I certainly plan to take lessons at some point, the question is when.

So what would trigger that? One trigger would be if I were going to be in a situation where I’d need to speak the language; when it gets to a year or so before I’m planning to travel to Japan, I’ll want to seriously think about taking lessons. Another trigger would be if I’m finding evidence that book learning isn’t doing a good enough job; hopefully I’ll start trying to read some real books soon, and that will give me more information about the extent to which having outside help would be useful. And a third trigger would be if I see myself avoiding to an unhealthy extent figuring out how well I’ve learned the language: if I do that, I’d need to face my fears.

There are also other tools that I could consider using (and paying money for) other than lessons, e.g. the Learning Center at JapanesePod101. For now, I’m not worrying about that; I doubt that would be a better use of my time than going through a textbook would, though it’s something to think about once I’m done with the textbook.

Something to think about. For now, I guess I should be happy with the real progress that I’ve made; I’ve got a lot of work ahead of me, I don’t want to stay on autopilot, but I know more than I did half a year ago, and that’s worth being proud of.

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