Language Learning: Can you learn Japanese better in Japan?

 In Travel Tips

Last week was the start of an exciting series on the blog called Language Learning. Over the summer I will be talking to other travelers and researching the best way to learn Italian for our upcoming trip to Europe this fall. You can expect a few tips, resources, guest posts and interviews every Monday. This week Jessie at Wandering Educators shares her experience learning Japanese at home and abroad. 

At age 18, with a summer exchange trip to Japan under my belt, I headed off to Michigan State University to study international business (specifically, Japanese international business). You see, I’d loved living the cultural differences in Japan, and thought that working in corporate Japan was the path for me. You can guess my language learning path – I took 1+ years of Japanese at MSU – and it wasn’t at all like I thought it would be, based on my experience of speaking basic Japanese, in Japan.

The little bit (sukoshi) of daily Japanese I’d learned on my previous trip seemed so far away – not what we were learning in class at all. We rarely spoke Japanese. We diagrammed sentences (STOPV – subject, time, object, place, verb). The class was packed with difficult grammar, and even more difficult kanji (each kanji can have 3-6 meanings, depending on the kanji that surround it) – and hiragana and katakana, of course, but those are the easy written alphabets to learn. There was time (hours each week!) spent in the language lab, listening to tapes and talking back to said tapes. The honorific tenses didn’t make sense to me.

I was becoming disenchanted with the language. The language classes didn’t have the magic of being there, of learning the words while I could see the objects, of listening to multiple speakers and learning how to address them correctly.

Luckily, I was offered an opportunity to work in Japan for a year, during my sophomore year of college. I arranged for extra credit classes so I could keep up with my classmates. My Japanese teacher gave me some assignments I thought I’d never be able to complete – serious topics, written in Japanese. I headed over to Japan, and immediately started soaking in the language. It was glorious, exhilarating, and a far cry from the workbooks and language labs.

While many Japanese want to practice their English with you, it’s a good idea to take turns. And, of course, many people don’t speak English there, or have learned English in the written form, vs. the conversational. So at work (an international exchange company), I asked everyone to speak to me in Japanese, if at all possible. My host families spoke mainly Japanese to me. I spoke Japanese to shopkeepers, waitresses, train conductors, people on the street, booksellers, and passersby. Within a few weeks, I was fluent in Japanese. Each week, I learned more – by making mistakes, building my vocabulary piece by visual piece, eating and playing and seeing my way through learning a language in depth. By the end of my time there, I not only wrote the extra credit essays in Japanese, but with research done in Japanese (and before the internet!), by myself.

What did I take from this? You can study all you want – and you SHOULD. But there’s nothing like being there, seeing your vocabulary in real life, speaking to natives, learning tenses and honorifics first-hand, to really learn the flow and nuances of a language. I think it’s time I learned French…

Dr. Jessie Voigts is the Publisher of Wandering Educators, a travel library for people curious about the world. She also founded the Family Travel Bloggers Association, and the Youth Travel Blogging Mentorship Program. You can usually find her family by water – anywhere in the world.

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    This is really amazing, I spend 2 weeks learning Chinese and I gave up