A Year In Language Learning


Hello! It’s now been just over a year since my last post about Focus & Determination. The journey continues, but I think there have been many changes, milestones, and victories since last December. There’s a bit to cover since it’s essentially an entire year in language learning, but just in case, I have a summary / tldr version down below.

I knew if I wanted to make progress, and stop feeling stuck, I needed to take on something like never before, something on a larger scale than I ever had. The initial project that I decided on was to learn vocabulary and grammar from native subs for the entire TV series of 日本人の知らない日本語 (The Japanese That The Japanese Don’t Know). I chose this show because it’s something I’d seen before, so I’m familiar with it and know it’s relevant to my interests. This was not unlike Judith Meyer’s understanding your favorite TV show project. To add some additional meaning, it also follows a class of foreign students learning Japanese, with foreign actors speaking the language for extra motivation.

Whereas before I had only tackled a single episode of any TV show at a time (which usually took long enough to be considered a project in itself) I wanted to jump ahead by leaps and bounds. Even with such a big undertaking, I knew I wasn’t going to come out with a complete understanding of Japanese. However, I also knew it would be impossible to come out of this project without a massive level-up, which is thankfully what happened.

Though there were a few sprints, especially towards the end, but it was the consistent effort over time that got me through such a big change in scope for a language project. During this time, I became less concerned with doing a lot of flashcard reviews beyond a modest baseline, and was more concerned with getting through the material using one of my favorite tools, Learning With Texts. In a future post, I’d love to outline my approach for taking on such a big collection of material like this.

Some elements of this, especially going through the text in LWT, were part of “project nights” that involved getting together with friends and making progress in whatever creative/learning endeavors we were pursuing. A way of hanging out while also doing the thing.

After finishing the series a few months later, there was a break just shy of a month as I attempted to get caught up to reviewing this wealth of new material in Anki

After this, around mid-March, I spent quite a few months going back to sentence-based study Source material was a little more freestyle, coming from news sites, anime scripts, grammar points, or extra example sentences from any of the above. (Things like Yuri On Ice, Chuunibyou, and Famitsu come to mind.) This freestyle-sentence method continued until the beginning of September 2018, at which point I finally started mixing in cards that tested me on kanji readings, which I had not been doing for the project before this. By this time, I think I needed to get back to covering this element so I could tackle more materials without furigana or some other means to get the reading of the character.

Starting in the autumn back-to-school season, I did do a bunch of speaking sessions on italki, and even found a great tutor to use consistently for them, with a progression of things to work on. Though output wasn’t the focus for this project overall, it was a useful addition that helped me notice some grammar. This is also where I started adding some cloze cards based on things we went over on the italki sessions. I do intend to pick back up that activity in the future before travelling to the country eventually.

As the end of this past year in language learning began to roll around, I wanted to try one more thing. This time going full circle back to LWT, using the native subs from first episode of Terrace House: Aloha State.  Like before, this was also a show I had already seen. Because it involves real daily conversation, thanks to the native subs I can understand a fair bit of it. This made for a great way to try to aim for really understanding what’s being said vs just seeing how much new vocabulary I can rack up.

It’s not that I had enough vocabulary to understand everything at this point, but rather that with an Anki deck of what was now thousands of cards for Japanese, I felt like I could tackle new types and levels of material that I couldn’t before. This was becoming a better measurement of progress, rather than simply the amount of flashcards in the deck. This was the change that finally made me feel like I’d made some significant progress after this year-long mission.

If I had to summarize what I can do/enjoy now versus a year ago, it would be:

  • Reading manga and being able to actually understand what’s going on for the most part. There are of course expectations depending on the subject matter (slice of life vs philosophical sci-fi… many nuances are still beyond me.)
  • Watching TV shows with and understanding the plot enough to get hooked on binge-watching. One key factor here is it helps a LOT if there are native subs to go along with it. Thank you Netflix! Not only does it help with the listening part, but knowing kanji meanings, even if you don’t know the word meaning/reading, can also go a long way for understanding.
  • Playing games in Japanese without giving it a second thought. This is still one of the hardest of my activities, especially because unlike some other forms of media, not understanding a few words can make the difference for things like not knowing where to go next, making the desired choices, etc. But still, for games I’ve learned to live with this ambiguity and make the plunge into setting it to Japanese whenever possible.

To be realistic, there is still a lot I can’t do… yet:

  • Read novels. I’ve made a few attempts with a few different source materials with  various methods, but it’s always been just too beyond my level to tackle before now, especially due to the lack of any other visual queues that manga, TV, or games would have. This is definitely something I want to tackle in the new year, as being able to read novels in Japanese would very much be a crowning achievement for me.
  • Things with a lot of nuances and abstract concepts. Though I can usually avoid being totally lost on a lot of types of media at this point, anything with a lot of nuances, scientific, or philosophical content still goes over my head.
  • Many TV shows without native subs. Without a written version and being able to use my knowledge of kanji meanings, my understanding of TV shows without native subs is much more limited. The visual queues do help a lot, but I really feel that native subs were key for getting me into the range of understanding to be able to enjoy TV shows. Without them, this is much more difficult.
  • Since podcasts have no other queues beyond the spoken words, it can be difficult if not impossible to get enough understanding to enjoy them at this point. Something else to strive for!

To turn these shortcomings into a positive, now I know what I can move onto in this next level. In other words, rather than see the above as failures, I see the fact that I can now dare to tackle them as my next mission to be a great success.

As with a lot of other things one may aim to improve, the progress is so gradual that it can often feel like you haven’t moved forward. But when I think back to where I was in my Japanese at this time last year, I realize I really have made a lot of progress.

In the initial日本人の知らない日本語 phase, it started late 2017, and continued up until wrapping up the last episode through LWT a few months later a bit before spring 2018. For the easily measurable results, that project alone represented 27% of my entire deck, which at the time spanned over 4 years!

In the year since that previous post was written, I have added over 2660 cards to Anki. At present, this makes up a staggering 54% of the entire deck, which goes back as far as November 2013. Over half the content in 1/5 of the timespan… not bad!

As someone whose method is very much underpinned by input and an SRS, it’s amazing to me how Anki is not only a great learning tool, but also how it can tell the story of your language learning journey.

The tldr bullet list version of my past year in language learning:

  • Using a combination of source material (TV show scripts, news, blogs, light novels, italki session notes, etc.) with various tools and formats (LWT, Anki, sentences, cloze, kanji readings) I went through a large amount of new vocabulary and grammar—as much in this past year as the 4 previous ones before that combined.
  • Manga, TV shows with native subs, video games, and news/blogs have become easier, to the point of being able to get a lot more understanding and enjoyment from them versus last year.
  • Approaching the materials from different angles showed me there’s pros and cons in each method, but also value in all of them. Still, if I had to pick one tool that is the most effective with the best bang for the buck (or best results for the time), it would have to be LWT when combined with Anki. Afterall, I came full circle with the pair, both starting and ending this project with it.
  • Things like light novels, most TV shows without native subs, and podcasts are still beyond my current level. However, they also represent the things to tackle on this new, next level.

Reflecting on this past year, I know there is still a long way to go, but I also feel like I have come a long way too. More than ever before. I’m feeling a certain amount of freedom when it comes to my Japanese studies now, and feeling able to tackle materials I couldn’t before. I have a few different ideas for language learning in 2019, which I’ll be thinking on the rest of this month. Here’s to the new journey! See you in 2019!

About Delenir

Nova Scotian language learner and all-around geek.
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