How's my nihongo? Call 1-800-SUCK

Having lived in Japan for nigh-on 6 years now, and working at a Japanese developer you'd think my Japanese was pretty damn good, right? And by all reasoning it should be! I have decided I'll probably stay the rest of my life in this country, I deal on a daily basis with my colleagues, I watch tedious Japanese television... I'd be a pretty sad individual if my Japanese wasn't up to scratch, right?
Well, it isn't. I'm rubbish.

So what went wrong? For a start, I am naturally lazy, like most people. You come home from a hard day's work, the last thing you want to do is hit the books. No, you want to sit back, play some games, watch some tv, go out for some drinks. You definitely won't want to learn kanji. I would like to go back to school but that can be quite expensive. I once tried group lessons, sharing a class with only two other foreigners, neither of whom had the slightest interest in making an effort. While they were being sponsored by their companies I was paying for it myself and keen to make it count. So I would be sitting in class thinking "man, we went over this last week! Haven't you learnt it yet? Sheez." In an ideal world classmates would offer a little competition or at least motivation. I was unlucky enough to be stuck with the two most tiresome individuals the foreigner community had to offer. So I tried private lessons. Much more expensive, obviously, but at least it was tailored to my needs and weaknesses. It went great for a while, until crunch kicked in at work.
In the end I let it slip and never had the balls to pick it up again.

I also firmly believe reading is the best way to study a language. But with Japanese you're buggered. Sure, katakana and hiragana are a doddle to learn, but kanji? A right Royal pain in the neck. Even reading a newspaper requires some 2000 odd kanji.

Of course my spoken Japanese is alright. I have no problems communicating with my colleagues about work and life. Occasionally I stumble over some words but so far I've been lucky to have worked with some very patient people who were always willing to speak in baby-Japanese when necessary. I learnt some handy slang too when out for smoking breaks. Emails and documents still go through Excite, most days. I could wrestle my way through them, but I am usually busy enough with my own tasks so a quick and dirty translation on-line is good enough. Except when I send them out, of course, then I do spend some time making sure I am not inadvertendly insulting the boss's mother or anything like that.

So I'm screwed. I have no excuse but to go back to school. I really should. One day...

But how good do you have to be to actually work? I guess if you can manage an interview in Japanese you're probably good enough, at first. I shouldn't bother with JLPT too much unless you want to go into translation or work for another industry. I don't think I've ever met anyone in the games inudustry who cared about JLPT or even knew exactly what it was. You may want to use it to motivate yourself, but I don't think it's required for development work.

The final tip I can give is probably "learn kanji NOW!". If you're toying with the idea of moving here, start learning it immediately, while you're still young, preferably, before your synapses start eroding with old age. The Japanese start learning it from age 6 orso, and even they have problems with it! But always keep in mind that, aside from the kanji, it is just another language. Grammatically it's pretty easy and solid. Once you get to grips with the structure of words you'll pick it up fairly quickly. If you just put in a little effort it is not that difficult to learn!


  1. Mine is shit too :(

    I have the same problem with studying - I just can't be arsed half the time (want to do personal projects or other things in my spare time) so very little revision gets done.

    Where I differ from you is that my spoken Japanese is worse than my ability to read and write. This is just wrong.

    Well, ok, newspapers and many design documents are a no-no mostly, but I know a few hundred (maybe nearly a thousand by now) Kanji and have a good associative memory so can recognise them by their rough shape quite quickly. I also like writing kanji when I'm bored, so that helps too, I guess.

    I'm also good at remembering obscure words and grammar that nobody ever uses :( This gets me nowhere.

    Basically, you just need to go out to bars, get drunk and talk to random strangers. That is by far the best way to learn how to speak. If you are an outgoing person with tons of confidence, you will have no problems learning how to speak the language. Types like me kick ourselves about grammar and are slow to speak because we worry about making mistakes and looking even more idiotic than we already do. Of course, studying helps, and is essential to being able to read and certainly to speak if you are in another country, but the best thing to do is just get out and learn in the field.

    Kanji ARE a really useful thing to learn though - definitely do not ignore them, because once you start to get a head for them, you are able to guess meanings of written words even if you don't know all the kanji used. They are also very useful for vocabulary boosting.

    Oh, and I have private lessons too, but I can never be arsed to study, so it's basically a conversation class and I forget the grammar because I don't speak to people more than I need (don't make a real effort) or study.

    I've been here for a year and still don't speak well. I should be ashamed I guess :(


  2. Ah, the lubrication of alcohol is a very good tool when studying Japanese. I actually speak better Japanese when I'm off my head, or at least *I* think I do, which is all that matters!

    Defenitely, getting over yourself and just speaking Japanese to everybody is the best thing to do. Noone, absolutely noone, will laugh at you if your Japanese is rubbish!


    (A year already YMLL? Time flies. Drop me a line if you're in town for CEDEC or TGS!)

  3. The line about newspapers makes it sound like that's a baseline - after the first hundred one can begin to get some positive feedback and smugness that "hey I can read that now!" Since I draw and stuff I used the art part of my brain as much as I could when learning kanji as well as all the language stuff. Just writing them and trying to write them well helped me a lot.


  4. Oh, absolutely! The newspaper comment was just an indication of the kinds of difficulties one might have studying Japanese. I truly believe reading is the best way to learn vocabulary (and its context) and common grammatical structures when studying a new language. With only a few kanji you can start to read some ads or children's books, but sadly they don't really offer me the vocab I really need in everyday life. If I was good enough to read, e.g., a newspaper I think it'd help my Japanese *enormously*.

    Damn kanji. It sounds like I'm making excuses, and to be honest, I probably am...