This is me posing on that first trip just outside the Imperial Palace grounds in Tokyo.
So we set off on a two week trip armed with a copy of Lonely Planet and a phrasebook. We knew no Japanese at all on that first trip and survived on a few phrases that we picked out of the phrasebook. Though the language difference seemed completely overwhelming at first, not least because we couldn't understand any of the Japanese writing that we saw everywhere, we had a fantastic time and lots of wonderful experiences with nothing more than a few simple greetings, pleases and thank you's.
After that first trip I was hooked, Japan had lived up to and far exceeded my expectations and I wanted to learn as much about it as I could. I was completely enchanted by the complex little pictograms that I had seen everywhere and desperate to understand them. So my Japanese journey started, rather unusually with studying kanji. More conventional beginner's Japanese textbooks soon followed when I realised that I needed to understand at least some grammar to make sense of the kanji and kana that I was learning.
Here I am enjoying the view from the Sky Garden Observatory in Osaka.
This is us posing for a self-portrait at Odaiba, Tokyo.
This time however, I've vowed that things will be different. Since that last visit I've spent a semester at university, completed 2 years of evening classes, passed the N5 JLPT exam and taken private lessons for the last year. I have also managed to make friends with several Japanese people living here in Leeds which means I get chance to practice my skills and hear spoken Japanese quite often.
So here I am, 3 months away from my next trip to Japan with plenty of study under my belt and an urge to make it count this time. With that it mind I am working hard at the moment to revise and brush up on what I've learnt as much as I can.
And here is how I'm doing it ...
As I mentioned above I am currently taking private lessons where I spend an hour every week with my teacher working through the chapters of Minna no Nihongo, an excellent textbook written entirely in Japanese script, and practicing the grammar structures and vocabulary. I also spend a few hours each week writing up my notes, jotting down new words and working through the exercises in the textbook.
I have used several Japanese textbooks in the past and Minna no Nihongo is my favourite. I am told by my teacher that the language used is very close to how people actually speak in Japan unlike in some other books and the vocabulary isn't overly related to business as in Japanese For Busy People.
I think it's important to work through each new chapter methodically making sure that new words and grammar are introduced, learnt and practiced. That way they stick in your head and you can use them in future conversations.
Along with my lessons I am also using the Basic Kanji Book to learn more written Japanese in the hope that I will be able to read some basic information from signs and menus etc when I'm in Japan. The Basic Kanji Book is another favourite of mine. Each chapter introduces several new kanji along with reading and writing exercises. Each kanji and its stroke order is shown in a hand-written style making it easy to copy and learn while several compounds introduce useful words.
So far the only sure fire way that I have found to learn kanji is practice, practice, practice and there is no better way than to write them out repeatedly while trying to link them visually to their meaning, a task that I often find quite challenging! Another good way to test your kanji knowledge is by reading real life materials such as simple articles or Japanese children's books if you can get your hands on any.
At the moment I am making a stack of new flashcards every week as I encounter new words and kanji in my studies, I really think it's the best way to increase your vocabulary and commit those new words to memory. Though you can buy pre-made cards I prefer to make my own because writing out the words and kanji is all part of the learning process for me. I carry them with me everywhere and whenever I'm on a bus, waiting for friends or have slow day at the restaurant where I work I get them out and start testing myself, I've even roped in my husband and friends to test me too.
I've always used flashcards for pre-exam revision as it seems to be the most effective way to learn a lot of new words and as far as I see it preparing to use my language skills for real in Japan is like my biggest exam yet!
Anyone else studying Japanese will know that you can study from books and memorize long lists of vocabulary all you like but there is nothing like the challenge of actually speaking Japanese to other people. Over the last few years, through my lessons and making friends with Japanese people, I have been able to practice my spoken Japanese quite regularly. I still find it very challenging, sometimes my brain just won't think of the right word or verb conjugation quickly enough, but I've seen my ability come on leaps and bounds since I started doing it. So, before I go to Japan, I'm making sure that I speak as much Japanese as possible either to my Japanese tutor, to Japanese friends, to my (bewildered) husband and sometimes even to myself!
Anyone that follows the Itsumo Japan Facebook page will know that I have been posting a 'Food I Want to Eat in Japan' everyday, partly to indulge my culinary fantasies and partly to promote this blog, but I also decided to write each post both in English and in Japanese. I have a few Japanese followers and friends online so I thought they'd appreciate it and also I thought that it would be a chance to use my Japanese everyday.
I'm not going to pretend that each update has been perfect, I suspect that there have been some glaring errors that have made my teacher shudder but I have enjoyed the challenge of trying to express myself in Japanese. Sometimes it was really hard but I figure that the more I practice stringing sentences together the more successful I'll be in Japan.
Watching Dorama and Films
Using Japanese, of course, isn't all about speaking, you have to listen too and I don't think there's a more fun way to practice that than watching your favourite Japanese dorama and films. It's a really great way to get used to hearing the new words and grammar forms that you've learned being used and it's always very gratifying when you realise that you can understand some of what's being said, however small.
Mostly I watch with subtitles because my Japanese is just not that good and I want to know what's going on but I still feel like it's a really worthwhile (and fun) part of my studies. Recently though, as I prepare for my trip I have started watching a few un-subtitled programmes and, though I couldn't understand everything that was said, I did understand the odd whole sentence here and there and enough to follow the story, and that felt great!
Creating My Own Phrasebook
The final thing that I'm doing to prepare my Japanese skills for use in Japan is creating my own phrasebook. This may sound a little ambitious but don't worry, I'm not attempting to write a whole book, I'm just collecting together some words, phrases and kanji that I've happened across through my studies that I think will be useful when I'm in Japan.
Although I always take a conventional phrasebook with me as well (usually the excellent Lonely Planet Japanese Phrasebook) I thought that it would be good to put some of the stuff I've been learning from textbooks and lessons to use. So I'm planning to write out these useful words and phrases and carry them with me in the hope that I get to use them in some real life situations.
So that's my plan for preparing to use my Japanese skills in Japan. What do you think? How have you brushed up your skills before visiting Japan and how did it go? I'd love to hear about what you think works and what wasn't so successful.
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