How I taught myself Japanese (and a few other languages)

Recently my friend asked me what were some of the ways I taught myself Japanese. I did a post on resources and added a resource page to my menu, but perhaps some of you would like to hear the story of how I got into learning the language on my own.

As it usually does, this story starts with a bored and lonely teenager. I didn’t have much interest in my classes outside of theatre and English, and my school, being tiny as it was, didn’t exactly have a diverse population. I played video games or searched around on YouTube after school, and I wrote a lot of Harry Potter fanfiction.

One fateful morning I was clicking around on the “related videos” sidebar on YouTube and it brought me to a world I had never known before. That world was filled with men in cat costumes (Balloons – DBSK/Tohoshinki) and then coordinated dance routines (NEWS – Cherish). I was in love. I fell down the rabbit hole and eventually by the end of the week, I knew all the members of NEWS names.

DBSK – Balloons PV This was the video that started it all

As a proud new fangirl, I had a lot to learn, and I decided that learning Japanese would be a great way to understand more of what my new loves were saying. I watched dramas and learned about Japanese culture and language, and I found the language beautiful. I realized that my childhood loves (Pokemon, Hamtaro, Kiki’s Delivery Service, etc.) were all originally produced in Japanese, something that I had never questioned growing up.

NEWS – My first Japanese love

In Spanish class, I would review Japanese verbs. In between scene rehearsals and memorizing lines, I would memorize vocabulary. On road trips with my grandma, I would put in CDs of Jpop and flip through my White Rabbit Press flashcards for hiragana and katakana. I eventually owned every book on Japanese our tiny Barnes & Noble language section offered. I was obsessed.

My parents are well traveled and both have lived abroad. We often took trips, and the first time I went out of the country was to Ireland with my dad. When three exchange students came to our school my sophomore year, I made friends with all of them and soaked up knowledge about their culture. My best friend of the three, a boy from Ukraine, joked around with me in chorus class and danced the tango with me in our annual performance.

After he left, I refused to accept that my life would go back to being normal, without talks on language, culture, food, and the world outside my small town in Tennessee. I promptly asked my dad if we could have an exchange student stay with us. Although he would have allowed it under different circumstances, my parents were divorced and I alternated weeks between him and my mom. It wouldn’t be a good situation for a foreign student to enter into since I would only be there half the time.

On a whim, my next request was that he send me to another country as an exchange student myself. I fully expected him to laugh and tell me no, so his response shocked me. He nodded and said, “Sure.”

I ran into the computer room and began my search for an exchange program. I spent a good week or so looking at programs. Finally, I found AFS Intercultural Programs and their Japanese homestay option. I originally wanted to go for a year or semester, but my mom was against me leaving at all. As an only child, it’s hard to convince your parents to let you do much out of fear. But my mom begrudgingly agreed and let me stay in Japan for an 8 week summer program.

The application process was long and tedious, but I was eventually accepted to leave the summer before my senior year in high school. I stayed with an amazing host family in Fukuoka, whom I still consider my second family. I learned not only about Japan and the language, but I learned about myself and broke out of my shell. I even won the Japanese speech contest we had at the end of our program and was given a voucher to any Japanese bookstore. I spent it on Jpop magazines.

First time in Japan
First time in Japan

Reverse culture shock hit me hard and I was back to being a depressed high schooler. I was able to connect with more people, though, and made friends more easily. I talked about my experiences, helped my friends and family lay down their stereotypes of Asian culture, and kept studying for the JLPT. However, I wasn’t satisfied. I had to go back.

I took another trip to Japan in 2009 after graduating high school. Eight high school students in my hometown visited our sister city, Tsuru, Japan in Yamanashi Prefecture. I stayed with two more host families, and my bedroom in one of the houses had a view of Mt. Fuji. We attended Japanese high school for a few days, toured the city, met the mayor, and promised to meet each other again.

High school trip to Tsuru
High school trip to Tsuru

I went off to college to study Japanese, but found classes were too easy for me, even though I skipped the beginning levels. I got second place in another speech contest, transferred schools to get a better education, and ended up adding Korean to my repertoire. I watched more dramas, made friends from Japan, South Korea, China, etc. and attended Japanese conversation cafe.

I did a year long exchange in Kyoto at Ritsumeikan University, where I was placed first in advanced classes and then tested out of Japanese altogether, and was allowed to take any class of my choosing. Admittedly, I was bad at studying kanji, but my conversation and listening skills were enough to allow me to join a theatre club on campus, where I spent a year learning the ins and outs of student-only production. I even became the sound operator for the last play before I was to return home.

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Furisode on Coming of Age Day

I am currently studying for my second attempt at the JLPT N1. I failed the first time when I was in Kyoto because my kanji level was still too low. I felt ashamed but mostly I studied Japanese to be able to communicate. Now I want to be able to read books more easily, but I have finished a few Japanese novels such as Hidamari no Kanojo by Osamu Koshigaya and Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto.

My journey learning Japanese was more about the people I met, the places I went, and the ways I challenged myself to achieve more for myself. I had self-motivation because I wanted to be able to sing my favorite songs and watch my favorite TV shows. With Korean, I am picking the language back up in order to communicate better with my Korean boyfriend. Motivation does wonders, but you have to push yourself to do more.

As Bruce Lee once said, “If you always put limit on everything you do, physical or anything else. It will spread into your work and into your life. There are no limits. There are only plateaus, and you must not stay there, you must go beyond them.”

If you are learning Japanese, check out my Resources page.

But resources can only do so much for you. You must be determined and learn how to motivate yourself. I think that’s a valuable life skill that can be applied to everything. It just so happens that I learned it by self-studying a few languages.