Japanese on tape - my fortuitous beginning
I think that I started learning Japanese in the best possible way.
I started in the 2-3 months just prior to moving to Japan. Without any really good reason or any idea what I was getting myself into, I had applied and gotten hired for a job with the now-defunct NOVA chain of English conversation schools. I thought I should get started learning Japanese, but with no real idea where to get started, I went down to the local Barnes & Noble and looked through the slim offerings available there.
What I ended up buying was a tape set entitled “Learn in Your Car Japanese”. The course followed a simple formula: a reader would say something in Japanese, stop, and then another voice would read the translation. It started out with simple words: “ginkou” (bank). Then it would build the words up into short phrases: “Ginkou wa doko desu ka?” (Where’s the bank?). As the course progressed, the phrases got longer and demonstrated some simple grammatical principles like forming the past tense or turning a statement into a question.
Some of the words and phrases weren’t ideal. It taught some words that I later got laughed at for using because they were so old and out-of-date. It also made the error that a lot of lower-quality Japanese learning materials make of emphasizing the pronouns for “I”, “he”, “she”, etc. that are not often used in authentic Japanese.
However, I think that beginning my instruction in this way was the best thing I could have done for my Japanese learning progress for the following reasons:
- I learned the sound of the words before I ever saw them spelled out. This was absolutely instrumental in developing good pronunciation. When I first began to learn, I was just copying the sounds I heard. I was driving around with the tape playing in my car, so I didn’t have anything written to refer to. It was only after I had learned the phrases well that I saw how they were written.
Seeing a written representation of a word or sentence skews your brain’s interpretation of what you’re hearing. Doubly so if it's written in English letters. Not seeing that, I repeated exactly what I heard, and was often surprised later when I saw how the phrase was represented in writing.
- I learned grammar through example. The lessons didn’t explain anything about the grammar of Japanese. Rather, they demonstrated simple grammar principles by presenting sentences that differed in one element. While my justification for this claim will need to be covered in a separate post, I believe that memorization of examples is the correct way to learn grammar. Memorization of a set of grammar rules might help someone to ace a written test, but it doesn’t sink in deep enough to be able to produce in the heat of the moment.
- I could play it over and over. The format was crucial to the success of my early studies. The tapes were easy to stick in my car radio and play for a few minutes, or for an entire road trip. It was something I could stand to listen to again and again. Some other audio programs that I have used since were not nearly as good in terms of reusability because they had elements became annoying on repeat listens, like long explanations in English or “quiz” sections that I would memorize the answers to. A simple list of useful words and phrases doesn’t start to get boring until I’ve really memorized everything on the list. And the ability to listen over and over again is essential to reinforce long-term learning.