Learning Japanese at 50: Small Steps to Fruition

My decision to learn Japanese was a gradual one and based on that whole series of problems I had learning Tibetan and Chinese.  I felt like I had a toe hold into the language, a means of finding common ground.  I grabbed some apps to learn the Hiragana, Kanji, and Katakana.  As I mentioned before, the apps helped drill the sound and meaning of the characters and words.  I started with hiragana and very quickly mastered the entire set of hjiragana, about 46, in about 2 days!  Accomplishment!  Success!  Victory!  Let’s move on to Katakana….Katakana is another writing system used for foreign loan words from all over.  Similar to the hiragana, the Katakana has sharp edges and visually shows the reader that these loans words are clearly NOT as elegant at the native language.  Two days later 100% success!  Woot!  What’s next!?

Writing!  I’m going to write down the hiragana and katakana! I downloaded forms for writing Japanese script, followed some of the rules for writing, and then began writing everything I remembered.  In just a few months I would be conversant!

That’s when, as some folks say, the rubber meets the road.  I sat down at a desk in my classroom between classes and started to write what I remembered….a few, a VERY few number of characters came to mind….but I could NOT remember them all, nor could I remember most…in fact, I could not associate sounds with characters in the vast majority of cases.

I immediately went back to the apps and ACED the study again.  What was up?  Why couldn’t I write the characters I knew from sight?  What was happening here?  I played around with this problem for a while.  When I was in school, I had a photographic memory; I could take a mental picture of a reading or a math problem and remember exactly what it looked like or remember the words precisely. The problem was I could not remember how to SOLVE the problem…I only remembered the formula…not the function.  Visually, I could recall the sounds and characters in the app but could not write the characters on paper.  What was this all about?

I’m not a neuroscientist, obviously, but even I could see that I had to come up with another way of learning the character systems.

On Twitter I saw an article that talked about ways to learn a language when you are older.  In a nutshell, learning a language when you are older requires many different modalities: ways of learning.  A learner cannot take one or two approaches; the learner has to use every available option to be successful at understanding concepts in a another tongue.  Kill and drill, learning through repetition, was one way; another was exposing yourself to many other sources for the language.

So, I grabbed some Japanese music, downloaded lyrics in hiragana and romanji, and began to just listen.  Have you ever changed your iTunes account settings to listen to music from another country?  It’s really wonderful.  I switched my iTunes account to Japan; used another email address to associate the account, and then listened to clips of songs in every genre of Japanese music.  Much of it, on iTunes, is J-Pop, a kind of manicured, stylized sound consistent across groups, musicians, and singers.  Backing strings, many ballad-like compositions. I wondered if one person wrote songs for these groups?

Then I stumbled on one band: Kobukuro.  These two men sang together on the streets of Tokyo, were discovered, and became a sensation.  I bought an iTunes gift card from a Japanese vendor and downloaded an album….the songs were catchy, and, when the layers of strings were stripped away, the voices and music was fantastic.  I listened over and over again to tsubomi.  At first, the song sounded like a jumble of words, especially when the singer moved faster during the chorus.  In certain moments, I felt like I would never understand the individual words…there was one point in which I felt like I would never “get” the language.

Here is the first stanza in kanji and hiragana:

涙 こぼしても



だから あなたの涙を僕は知らない

In romanji:

Namida koboshitemo

ase ni mamireta egao no naka ja

daremo kizuite wa kurenai

dakara anata no namida wo boku wa shiranai


When your tears fall, they merely blend into your smile covered in sweat,
that nobody will be able to notice.
For this reason, I do not ever know about your tears.

Yep. I listened over and over again…I mimicked the words, I sang the song, in Japanese, out loud…I copied the sounds.  And it to me; layers.  In my mind, I reasoned, I’m laying down the layers of sound as a way to integrate the language into my mind so that I wouldn’t be thrown off by some peculiar vocalization.  I could hear the words even though I did not know what they meant or were.  I’m not sure when the song started to lock into my long term memory, but ehen it did, I could sing without the song playing.  I really felt a sense of accomplishment.  I heard each word sung in the song…something that is hard when listening to English language songs…all of those songs that people (like me) mishear the lyrics: forever when my daughters listened to Miley Cyrus “Wrecking Ball”  I thought the lyric was, “I came in like a Rainbow….”  Imagine my surprise when I figured out the “wrecking ball”…not quite the same tone.

The other thing I started to notice about my learning was my mind maxing out; basically reaching the point of saturation.  I realized that in some moments I could not learn anything more.  I noticed the moment when my mind went blank and could not absorb more information.  I started to recognize the signs: my eyes starting to blur, my mind distracted, my attention span short.  Depending on the day, my attention was sometimes long (an hour and a  ½) or short (20 minutes)…sometimes I could not even start the practice.

I kept poking around for some obvious way to increase retention.  The kill and drill sometimes worked, but most often I remembered ideas based on context; reading a word over and over in a lesson.  Like hajimemashite; a kind of greeting….”Hi, my name is” kind of greeting.

In that process of searching for a method to my madness, I decided to take the plunge and purchase an online account for Rosetta Stone.  The language program has taken its fair share of hits over methodology and I can see the various difficulties in using just this one approach.

The thing that Rosetta Stone did, however, is help me jump right into learning the language.  It felt good to remember words and ideas using their system of the language and pictures without supporting English prompts…the system IS emersive.  The problem I encountered was in some places, I could not figure out what they wanted me to learn….seriously, sometimes the sentences and pictures did not match up.  Where to go? How to find the path?

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