[Long post] A serious note on my learning journey thus far…


More on passive learning.

I’ll start this post with saying I haven’t been completely honest with those of you might have been following the blog over the last year. When I said that living in Japan was difficult, I was really down playing it. My studies of Japanese created an interesting love/hate relationship as I tried to enjoy this pursuit, while attempting to properly adjust and accept certain aspects of Japanese culture.

There is a reason that many people come to Japan and leave jaded or disillusioned. An aspect of the culture most people don’t explain to you is not just the different levels of politeness when speaking, or interesting tid bits about Japanese history. What hits a lot of people pretty hard is the idea that you are an outsider, ocassionally “unwanted”  and this is a generally accepted truism. In reality, most people don’t care about this. But say, if you work at an English school and each day you work hard and no one has any desire to speak to you or interact with you, and this is considered “normal” it can be extremely isolating. Add to that no language skills and an infant reading level and for some people (like me) it  can get a more than just a little  frustrating.

I’ve thought about different ways to approach how I feel in these situations. To try and speak more, engage my Japanese peers on a day to day basis, but I have no impetus. My desire to learn and speak Japanese has nothing to do with my present occupation. However, it is the very fact that I am surrounded by native speakers on a daily basis that I know I have been subconsciously connecting the dots. When I am in work mode I am generally a quiet person, which allows me to fit in reasonably well with my busy colleagues. During classes, I hear students chatting natively day in and out. In the staff room it’s the same. I hear everyone talking rapidly around me. I have discovered that in my silence, in my non-speaking time of the day… I have been absorbing and learning Japanese without studying grammar, knowing verbs, tenses or conjugations.

This is what has lead to my recent series of “eureka” style posts. When I say I do not study these things, I don’t. I mean, I might occasionally have to chat Japanese at a party once a week, or ask for change at the bus stop or something, but generally I don’t speak any Japanese. I don’t read much Japanese in the “real reading “ sense either. It is passive… stuff I see on the train, stuff I see on books and billboards, etc. I tend to analyze these occasionally, if I notice Kanji I know, but that’s it.

I own a collection of American movies with Japanese audio and subs that I bought on the cheap, but I rarely watch them. I don’t SRS anymore really, and I haven’t played any video games in Japanese other than Street Fighter Four. My Heisig studies have been extremely stop and start. I am at 1200 now, but I have only done 100 Kanji in the last three weeks, and most of that was in one day when I had a lot of free time and I felt reasonably clear headed.

As I kept traveling up and down through my moods about living here, and trying to remain positive about learning, I thought about two things in particular, our ideas of learning. I figured there are only two main ways we learn:

systematic learning ( packaged routes to language acquisition; Rosetta, AJATT, Pimsleur etc )

non-linear learning ( neonatal absorption of data, listening, connecting without grammar books, etc)

I sort of touched on this when I wrote about your learning DNA. In our own minds, we have learning constructs and systems we believe are the ways to acquire new data. We set timelines, deadlines and hopes into a perceived ability-of-speaking to systematic approach-usage ratio. Basically you buy Rosetta Stone, expect to become reasonably proficient after using it, and get angry, disappointed or feel worthless for even tryin if it doesn’t work so well.

I am no different. Like I’ve said many a time, I had a specific plan, a linear path to becoming 上手(じょうず) as the Japanese say, but it crashed and burned because of my problems adjusting to the society. So what happened? How was I learning stuff anyways with limited exposure? This is what I don’t completely understand, but shows me that I have more in me than I realized.

During most weeks, I don’t speak much. My silence at school extends to my at home life. Call it an effect of Japan. I come home from work, I probably watch Dexter or a movie, then I sleep.  This silences extends until the next day, when I wake up, go to work in my all Japanese atmosphere. The way I have been learning recently has lead me to think that I have place myself in a sort of neonatal state.

A neonate is a newborn baby. Neonates are fascinating because this is the time when a human’s basic software kicks in. Babies are on auto before they learn to figure anything out. They cry when they are hungry, they giggle when they feel pleasure, they sleep they eat. They also begin to assess language at a rapid pace. A baby cannot speak because its mouth muscles are not ready for language. It has not been exposed enough to the idea of “speaking a language” and therefore has no need for it. Babies, for a long period, exist primarily in a state of silence, listening, listening, listening. Eventually, they connect language and ideas together, start noticing patterns in grammar and learn to self-define. It allows its mother and father to know it recognizes them by speaking their names in their native tongue. After more months of absorbing, listening, giggling and eating, the baby begins to speak.

I feel that I placed myself in a sort of Neonatal state over the last two years here in Japan. I technically have only been here a year and nine months as I write this, but I like to round things off. For many months as a teacher, I was completely silent at work. This was brutal for me, not being able to speak or communicate. I almost left because of the pressure of this “silence”, me sitting in either the actual silence of the staffroom, or the silence of illiteracy.

About three or four months into teaching, I started noticing I was hearing words. I wrote a blog post about it, The Evolution of Sound, on my other site, Jamaican in Japan. Again, during this time I was suffering from major culture shock and had no desire to do any rigorous studies in the language. This was probably my first little spark, when I started to see I was hearing words and not just noise. Then I hopped on the AJATT wagon at the end of 2009, excited by the promise of a person who became fluent in only two years. But the aforementioned culture shock made “massive input” extremely difficult, and I found I was getting so stressed I had to stop. I knew the method would work, but I found it impossible to go “all Japanese” at that point.

Time passed and I existed in more and more silence, occasionally getting tidbits of learning here and there. Most of the basics I learned were from a book,  Making out in Japanese and I built on them. My Japanese was bar Japanese, rough and dirty. As time passed and I ended up moving to Tokyo because I couldn’t deal with the tiny city I was in before, I entered another silence, the silence of a big city. This might seem strange, but it’s me.

Now I had more foreigners to see and hang with, more parties to get wasted at, more places to go. Again, I didn’t speak much Japanese. The social scene was tough, and I tired of crashing and burning with my social life and language pursuits. Every now and then, I would start and stop Heisig, do SRSing for a few days and maybe have a conversation or two with a Japanese person… but nothing major.

All I’ve been doing lately is just… living in Japan I guess, but something is clicking. When I have to speak Japanese now, I am surprised by how comfortable I feel speaking it. My spoken Japanese is ok, but I find that because I have these long gaps where I do not hear or speak any English it is probably the ultimate form of immersion. I stopped at a bar on my way home recently, to scout it for an episode of my web series. It’s a bar filled with every game system ever made. You can drink, play games, an drink. It’s pretty sweet. The staff spoke no English, but I noticed that going in there, I had no trouble communicating. I didn’t feel “weird about speaking” even though I got stuck a few times. The lady asked me some light questions about the video games I’m playing now, what kind of games I like, and if I wanted to drink something. I told her I was okay for the moment, but I live nearby. I also mentioned that I have a web series and I’d like to make a video. Then she said she’d ask the store owner later, and told me to call back to confirm. This entire conversation was in Japanese, and again, it was a revelation.

I have no idea who reads my blog, or what people think, but for me, living this odd, stressed out life in Japan juxtaposed with my desires to speak and read this language, doing what I did yesterday is major.

For the first time in six months, a few days ago I picked up a grammar book. Flipping through it, I noticed I had a grasp of many concepts in there, I just needed to practice more. In my delinquency, I had still developed a base understanding of the language. Despite not really doing stuff properly, I am MUCH closer to my goal of reading. I was flipping through a Golgo 13 manga at a 7-11 this morning, and I could follow most of what was reading. I didn’t get stuck until page three, and I had been reading Kanji throughout.  At that point, I knew that I was closer.

The first time I read a manga book of any kind was in late December 2009. I remember this because I was invited to a Christmas dinner by a kind woman who assisted me when I needed help in the city I used to live in. I shared a meal with her and her children. That evening, I tried to read a manga about a famous police officer. I couldn’t read ANY Kanji at the time, but I could recognize a few from my Heisig studies. The woman’s son, was happy to explain to me some of the Japanese, as he wanted to practice his English. (his mother is fluent). I took me about thirty minutes with his assistance to really get through the first few pages, because I had so many grammatical questions and there were so many words I didn’t know. On that day, I only learned one Kanji which I never forgot, the Kanji for place, 所。I only learned how to write it a few days ago from Heisig. Since that day I didn’t look at, or read any manga until I bought Death Note and a few other manga maybe eight weeks ago.

The point is, I can see my linguistic evolution in my year of “bad studying” and it is quite significant. I know with a little work, and even a touch more focus, I will be reading Manga and magazines in only a few months time. I will achieve the goal of being able to read Japanese. Speaking and reading are quite connected, so I’m not worried about my speaking ability anymore. I find that just reading a lot has been helping me saying more than normal. My favourite new word is 宇宙 space.

僕のお気に宇宙映画は、コンタクトだ。 – my favourite space movie is Contact.

This has been my longest post I think, but I really wanted to just detail the fact that my journey has really been more negative than positive in terms of a “systematic approach”, this blog has been more about “keeping it up”, or “keeping the faith” as it were. 700 Kanji to go is still quite a bit, but I’m pretty amped about testing out some new systems so I can start learning vocabulary on a massive scale. I will also be pitching some writing ideas when I start making sentences.

So what have I been doing recently?


Well, I started tweeting in Japanese more for one, and following a lot more Japanese twitterfolk. This allows me to read bite sized bits of Japanese several times a day. Some people tweet about technology or music, and I’m starting to learn common words this way.


I’ve only had two Skype conversations with my language exchange buddy, but when I crawl out of my self-imposed hole of isolation, I’ll be doing more of this. But I have started type-chatting in Japanese online occasionally as well.


I try and write a few sentences each day. This is usually when I’m idle, and I try to express a thought in Japanese that is a step above childish. What I know is the more I read the easier this will become. So I need to just read more before puzzling how to say common phrases I haven’t seen yet.


Usually on the weekend, I try and watch a movie or two in Japanese. I don’t always do this, but I might pop in Kill Bill, Matrix Reloaded or another movie and have it playing in the background while I’m doing something else. I can’t say I’ve picked up massive vocab doing this, but it helps with stacking up listening to native-level expressions. When I start speaking more maybe they will connect, I dunno. I can never forget

大統領パンチ?  (you punched the president?) – Independence Day

まだまだ! (more, more!) – Agent smith, Matrix Reloaded

and there are others… but like I said…. I dunno… it must all connect in some way. I cannot puzzle it or understand it, but if I’ve been making reasonable headway like this, then I’m sure anyone else can do it, especially if they are more consistent than I am.

I will be reporting on whatever new things I try, including the “Massive Context Cloze Deletion” system that seems to be all the rage now on AJATT.  Apparently it has replaced the 10,000 sentence method (which sounds good to me) and this is also why I am hurrying to finish Heisig and get into the business of reading.

I shall keep going….

ciao till next time.


About marcusbird

Writer, Designer, Filmmaker
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8 Responses to [Long post] A serious note on my learning journey thus far…

  1. james says:

    Hey seems like it must suck with the whole culture shock thing you experienced, but it also sounds like you’re improving with your Japanese which is always good. I’ve only ever learnt Japanese at school and on my own, in Australia which kinda sucks, but hopefully I can go to Japan one day.

    I like AJATT and his method, and once raced through heisig finishing all of the kanji within a month. Needless to say I got burnt out but continued studying as I had to for high school. I also think that Heisig’s method is helpful but shouldn’t be the only kanji learning resource one uses in my opinion, there are so many other things you can do at the same time and so many programs and resources out there.

    You probably seem way more proficient than me at Japanese having lived there, but if you ever want help (of what little I have to offer) I can try 😛

    Anyway cool blog overall, just discovered it today.

  2. marcusbird says:

    Thanks for the comment man. Yes, I have to say that culture shock really shut down a lot of my desires to learn the language. In terms of raw proficiency, i’m not anywhere where I want to be yet, but I’m almost done Heisig and I’m starting to look at the best systems for learning Onyomi and Kunyomi. I’m thinking i’ll start with Cloze Deletions http://bit.ly/9gtc5m while working on regular sentence mining. I think my learning DNA is one where I learn a lot of patterns and stuff from reading, so I really want to get into the reading and try and work on chatting more. I’m actually not 100% AJATT in terms of my approach, not technically anyways. I’d rather learn readings in context than study them individually, which is why starting and stopping Heisig has caused issues for me. But I shall press on!
    Will be posting vids and stuff soon, so thanks again for the comment!

  3. james says:

    Haha no problem, I recommend reading text whenever you want to if you can, regardless of finishing heisig. It’s difficult but rewarding, and if you have trouble rikai chan can save you if it’s on the net 😛 looking forward to more stuff !

  4. marcusbird says:

    I do read, i’m not really in that limbo. Weird. someone told me about Rikaichan for the first time yesterday. If only I had known this months ago…. oh well


  5. Paul Nogas says:

    hey Marcus!
    I just came to share some news.
    1) I just finished Heisig! I’ve made some posts talking a bit about it.
    2) I’m going to be living in Ashikaga-shi, Tochigi-ken(足利市, 栃木県) which is about 2 hours from Tokyo. So I’ll likely be doing many weekend trips to the big city. Maybe I can buy you a drink sometime as thanks for the help (unless that seems creepy).
    3) Merry Christmas!

    It looks like you’ve made some long posts since the last time I’ve checked as well. I’ll read them and comment later. But I’ll likely be very busy with family/friends over the holidays, packing/preparing for the flight, then 2 weeks of training in Nagoya so it might not be for a while.

    -take care

    • marcusbird says:

      Paul thanks for the comment. It’s funny, i’m in an airport now waiting on an early flight back home. Long layover. Thanks for reading. Glad you finished Heisig man! For some reason it’s been hard for me to finish, but not really because of Heisig itself (as you can obviously see from the blogs). But I feel pretty determined to get a grasp on the language now because i’m getting a little better conversationally, I can read way more than I used to (without really being consistent or gung ho)… so i’m doing some SRSing, practicing with Tae Kim’s guide to grammar decks and think I will be fiddling with a few of the higher levels of Rosetta stone for vocab.

      Good luck on coming to Japan! Sound like its something you really want, I believe you will enjoy it immensely.

      matta ne

  6. Paul Nogas says:

    the whole story of the bar/arcade was cool to hear and is a very strong sign of how you are likely being too hard on yourself. I’ll probably have to learn to be able to have that sort of a conversation soon as I start to make videos. (or I can always obnoxiously film without asking)

    “I didn’t get stuck until page three, and I had been reading Kanji throughout. At that point, I knew that I was closer.”凄い!

    although the “journey has really been more negative than positive in terms of a “systematic approach”” hopefully the journey itself has been more postive than negative. At the very least you now know a bit more about another culture and yourself.

    • marcusbird says:

      Yeah man… when you are doing this intense solo study with no feedback I found that you can really skew your goals and what not. I think I wrote a post about operating with less judgement and not worrying so much about numbers and percentages, but just getting through enough.

      As for the journey, I dunno man. Sometimes Japanese culture is annoying, sometimes its cool and most of the time its neither here nor there. How much you can communicate affects these things on different levels as well, but life goes on eh?

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