I first began studying Japanese after moving to Sasebo, Japan. Before moving to Japan, I was determined to learn enough “battle Japanese” in order to order at restaurants or ask for directions. I used listening CDs only, without giving heed to trying to learn how to read or write Japanese. Or course, when I arrived in Japan, I realized that just learning a few key phrases would not help me at all to live there. Even if I could get out a statement in Japanese, I was unable to understand the response from the person I was talking to. It was at this point that I understood that language cannot be learned merely by listening to CDs without trying to learn to read write, or understand the grammar that composes that language.
After I came to the realization that I needed to study Japanese writing and grammar in order to be able to fully understand the language, my studying began in earnest. At first, my studying was labor intensive, focused mainly on learning new vocabulary and understanding sentence composition. I would spend hours reading my Japanese textbooks, following the conversation in the book with a CD, and then practicing reading out loud myself.
That was ten years ago. However, even now I use many of the same techniques I employed when I first started learning. I still place great emphasis on understanding and using grammar correctly. Every other month or so I pick a textbook or drill book I have used in previous years and go through the material and drills again. Many times when using a foreign language, one develops comfortable grammar patterns, and it can be difficult to compose writing that breaks free from those patterns. Using grammar drill books is a great way to “rewire” one’s way of writing in that language.
I also still using listening devices and repeat out loud in order to train my listening skills and ability to say words at a near native level. I have found that using podcasts and the news on the Internet have been a great help. I typically will replay a podcast several times, often shadowing the speaker. With online news stories, the article is often posted along with voice streaming, which is a wonderful way to practice reading, listening, and speaking all at once.
I have found it important to read a broad variety of composition in order to understand the various nuances of Japanese. There is formal Japanese used in the news, casual Japanese found in many novels, and then more flowery “written” Japanese found in more classic Japanese literature. Now that I am studying to work in medical translation, I also am reading more articles about medicine and medical issues.
In order to gain proficiency in a translation target language, I feel like the key is practice, practice, and more practice. Since I am working on my Masters in translation while a full time mother, it can be difficult to find time to study enough to improve. Therefore, I try to utilize every moment I can to practice my Japanese. I listen to my IPod while cleaning or exercising, watch Japanese television while fixing dinner, wake up early in the morning to read the news or other current events. Not only is practice important, but making practice an every day affair.
In learning a foreign language, it is important in my opinion to come into contact with that language every day. Since I am a full time mother, I also work with speaking to my children in Japanese. We read stories together in Japanese, research various topics and practice writing in our diaries…all in Japanese. Being able to have a conversation each day with my children in Japanese is a great way for me to think and respond in that language.
Wherever I am living, I try to find a local Japanese person that is willing to help teach me conversation and deeper reading and writing skills. This gives me a great opportunity to make Japanese a “living” language, rather than just a language I study from textbooks.
I also try to keep a database of new words I have learned, in order to read over and memorize them. Excel is a wonderful tool for creating a vocabulary database. You can order the words alphabetically in order to search easily. You can also create different databases given the genre you are studying, for example medical terms, technical terms, conversational terms, etc.
Living in the age where the Internet is readily available makes it incredibly easy not only to search for vocabulary, but also for examples of how to use those new words. Especially in translation, it is not important only to know a certain word in the target language, but also how to correctly use that word in a sentence. That is where the Internet becomes a wonderful tool. You can search using a certain vocabulary word and find examples of composition using the word. This is a great way to practice your writing skills and make sure you are correctly using new words.
I have lived in Japan a total of four years, and that was a great way for me to learn basic Japanese skills, but I have actually been given praise since returning to America that my Japanese writing has greatly improved. I believe this is because I cannot rely on the “Japanese experience”, and have to create my own Japanese environment in order to keep learning. While in Japan, many times I became more passive in my learning. Now that coming into contact with Japanese is not as easy, I find myself working harder at reading, writing and listening to various Japanese programs on the television and Internet.
Now that I have begun training for translation in a more specific field, I will also have to find new ways to gain the technical knowledge necessary to provide accurate translation. I think my best tool will be the Internet. Of course, reading books and magazines is a wonderful way to study, but living away from Japan, the cost of buying literature can be daunting. The Internet is not only useful, but comes at almost not cost.