By Ben Soonthornwacharin
One upside of social distancing and working from home is that extra time you can put towards learning a language. Downloads of language apps like Duolingo and Babbel have skyrocketed since the outbreak of coronavirus (COVID-19). Duolingo has seen a 200% increase in downloads this month. But you don’t even need an app; pick up that old textbook and get started again, with some tips to achieve fluency.
It took me seven hours to remember the first hiragana characters: a, i, u, e, and o, when I first started learning Japanese. I almost gave up, and thought I’d never be able to hold a conversation, let alone read and write kanji.
Fast forward to today, and I can hold daily conversations and participate in business meetings in Japanese. The most important step is to start with the right mindset (and don’t give up).
It’s a marathon, not a sprint
Sorry, but you won’t become fluent in a new language without putting in the time. This is true for Japanese, which is one of the hardest languages to learn according to the USA’s Foreign Service Department ranking, requiring more than 2,200 hours of classroom time to get proficient. For comparison, Spanish only needs 550 to 600 hours.
Start with “hello”
Studying from a textbook will give you the basic grammar and vocabulary, but practice is what will make you fluent. If you already live in Japan, you have the right environment to practice constantly. Start by saying “hello” and “thank you” to your neighbors or the staff at your local convenience store. It doesn’t seem like much, but it will give you the confidence to say more, and it’ll snowball from there.
Dive into pop culture
Immerse yourself in Japanese: movies, music and TV allow for exposure to the language without feeling like you’re studying. Japan has a rich pop culture scene. I started listening to music, from Utada Hikaru to more recent favorites such as Official HIGE DANdism. You’ll find something you like – then you can sing those songs at karaoke.
I like a good drama, so I watched movies like Confession (Kokuhaku) (2010) and Like Father, Like Son (Soshite Chichi ni Naru) (2013). Both have gripping storylines. By watching Japanese dramas (on Netflix or TV) or movies or listening to music in Japanese, you’re regularly exposed to the language and will develop an ear for the sounds and intonation.
This might sound a bit scary at first, but create a Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook account where you post exclusively in Japanese. Don’t be embarrassed if it’s not perfect; at first, you may not be able to say a lot, but after a while, you will be able to express yourself more naturally, and you’ll have the motivation to learn more.
The good thing is that you’ll also be able to expose yourself to the Japanese used on social media and be able to practice reading as well. After all, every little bit helps. By using social media in Japanese, you can also pick up some useful text slang, like ググる (guguru; to Google something) and 笑 (warau; to laugh or LOL). And in this time of social distancing, you can use テレワーク (telewaku; work from home).