Japanese Learner Interview with @sandkatt-part 1 of 2

Hey everyone, let’s get to know the JapanNewbie crowd a little better. I want to introduce you to @sandkatt. The following is part one of a two-part interview exploring @sandkatt’s road to Japanese proficiency.

@sandkatt in Hiroshima
@sandkatt in Hiroshima

Sandkatt is a Japanese learner I noticed on Twitter. I noticed her because her Japanese is really good! Surprisingly so… inspiringly so! Follow her for some Japanese-learning motivation.

Sandkatt’s Japanese is not awkward, she’s got a beefy vocabulary, and a solid command of informal Japanese. She frequently tweets with Japanese folk who never tweet in English. Despite all this, she hasn’t become complacent with her abilities and she still uses Anki for her SRS reps!

When I asked her about her Japan experience, she replied that she had only really spent a “short time in Hiroshima” which made me curious to know more about her obviously successful Japanese study history. We exchanged some emails and the result is this interview. I hope this will be an inspiration to the Japanese learners and hopeful Japan travelers out there!

Quickly explain how you first got started studying Japanese.

Hmm, I think like many people my initial interest in the Japanese language and culture can be attributed to an early exposure to things such as animé and video games. But not only that, I’ve also always been a fan of cyberpunk novels and Japan always seemed to be romanticized a bit by cyberpunk authors such as William Gibson.

Neuromancer by William Gibson
Students of Japanese like Sci-fi! Harvey has of course also read this.

So while the interest was there, I never really had the opportunity until I started college in 1999. I had taken Spanish and French classes in high school, but nothing ever really ever stuck. Then I saw that my school was offering a Japanese 101 class so I signed up and immediately took to it – much more so than to any other language I had tried to study in the past.

So before you were in college were you already listening to native Japanese through anime? Had you ever tried to learn any Japanese on your own before starting your formal study? How did it go?

Well before college it was the 90s so high speed internet didn’t really exist back then. So it wasn’t like I could just go to YouTube and watch videos of anime or listen to Japanese people speak. The only real exposure to native Japanese I had at the time was from some of the subbed anime VHS tapes I had. So when I started my Japanese 101 class in college I was pretty much a blank slate.

Could you give us a brief rundown of your Japanese study history? Which schools, for how much time, how hardcore was your self-study, and so on.

As I mentioned, I started studying Japanese in college after graduating high school and that lasted about a year. The classes progressed fairly slowly though, as anybody who has taken those kind of courses will know. By the end we had finished Japanese for Busy People 1, and I knew my kana and some of the basic kanji.

So that was in 2000 when I took my last class. After that there really wasn’t that much progression in my studies. I had a lot of other stuff going on in my life at the time so Japanese had to take a back seat. Fast forward to August 2007, I moved to Hiroshima to teach English along with my now ex.

By this time I had forgotten a lot of what I had learned back in school except for my kana and some basic sentence structure. Once we settled in I found a local Japanese conversation school called ABLE (If you click Teachers link you’ll see Fujii-sensei!) which was run by an American and offered private Japanese classes. That’s where I met Fujii-sensei who became my Japanese tutor and I would see her for one hour every week from October ’07 to December ’08. We started on Minna no Nihongo 1 and kanji, and eventually moved onto other books to study for JLPT3. Fujii-sensei was great. We had a great connection and she always made learning easy and fun. I attribute a lot of my success to her. Private lessons are expensive, but I feel like they were worth every yen.

While in Japan I also learned a lot by hanging out and conversing with my Japanese friends and co-workers, most of whom also spoke English, a few who didn’t. I also really got into reading manga so I usually brought one with me to read wherever I went. Of course my tutor also gave me homework to do every week so I was sure to do that as well. Because I was studying Japanese I usually acted as the interpreter when my partner and I needed to go to the ward office, bank, or immigration, and usually such trips were also proceeded by me studying vocab and grammar I thought would be helpful.

So let’s see, I had the private tutor for about 14 months after which I passed JLPT3 in Dec ’08. I ended up staying in Japan for around a year and a half or so and then moved back to the US to go back to school. So since I’ve been back it’s all been self study. The thing about self-study though is you really have to be on it every day I think, and make as much effort as possible. I was lucky in that by this time I already had a good knowledge of basic Japanese to build upon. This made self-study a bit easier I think.

Before returning to the US I made sure to buy some JLPT2 level books so I could continue my studies while away. Along with Anki, I can use them to help study my grammar and vocabulary everyday. I also try and communicate using tools such as Twitter or Mixi, and lately I’ve started reading some Japanese websites and news blogs.

The texts that @sandkatt uses
The texts that @sandkatt uses

(The JLPT2 Kanji book is available at TheJapanShop.com)

A little over a year ago I did a fan translation for an Arcade Card RPG made by Square Enix called “Lord of Vermilion.” With a little help from another person we translated the original set of 100 cards from the game and put it here on GameFAQs.com (change encoding to Unicode (UTF-8) if you can’t see the Japanese text). While I’m showing my uber-nerdiness here, that was one of my first attempts at translating and I learned a lot from it.

So which Japanese websites and blogs do you read? Any that you would recommend other Japanese-learners check out?

Most of the Japanese blogs/pages I read now are more advanced because that’s the level of Japanese I’m studying now. If you’re still beginner then you might find these a bit difficult to understand. Here are some of my favorites:

Ittai News – http://blog.livedoor.jp/dqnplus/
Hatena Bookmark – http://b.hatena.ne.jp
はちま起稿 – http://blog.livedoor.jp/htmk73/
[2ch] ニュー速クオリティ – http://news4vip.livedoor.biz/
Gigazine – http://gigazine.net/
Famitsu – http://www.famitsu.com/

If you’re at the advanced or higher level you’ve reached the point where you can really start reading normal/complicated stuff so you have a lot more options. And once you reach that point I think building vocabulary becomes very important so I am always looking for good words to study and adding them to my Anki deck. I started reading Hatena B and found some good sites to follow through there. Also following Japanese Twitter users, I would always check out their blogs and links they tweeted about to find interesting things to read.

So all in all, I would say my serious study of Japanese started with my tutor October ’07, so I’ve been studying for a little over 2 years now.

Wait, so tell me more about this move to Hiroshima to teach English. Are you saying you didn’t have the job lined up before you went? Did your travel partner have anything set up? Or did you guys just really “drop everything” and move to Japan on a travel visa? Would you recommend this approach to others looking to live in Japan for a while?

We did have our job lined up before we went but it was kind of last minute-ish. I think the whole process of finding the job, application process, and leaving for Japan took under a month as the employer was in need of us almost immediately. We actually found the job by checking out job postings online. I think the ones we checked the most often were Gaijin Pot and Dave’s ESL Cafe.

My partner took care of securing the job and means of getting to Japan while my task was to plan out our vacation in Tokyo, figure out how to get around, and to get us to Hiroshima. Thankfully our employer took care of our apartment. We had several phone conversations with her before leaving and she told us she was looking for an apartment for us and that we had two choices. The first choice was an okay apartment further away from the city center and work. The other option was a nicer apartment which was in a really nice part of town but was also smaller. For us, location was everything so we took the smaller one.

So once our train pulled into Hiroshima station, we met our boss and she drove us to our new apartment and that was it! She really made the process painless for us so we were always very thankful. It was also really exciting for me as well because aside from a Caribbean cruise when I was 13, this was my first time abroad.

We technically did come in on travel visas, but we had already secured a job before hand. This allowed us to just changed our travel visas into working visas at the local immigration office once we arrived. I don’t know if I could recommend coming to Japan and then looking for a job. I know there are a lot of jobs where they want you to be in Japan already so I can certainly understand that desire. It’s a crapshoot though. And with the economy the way it is I know there’s a lot of competition for jobs. I was talking to my old boss recently and she said she got over 40 responses to her recent wanted ad.

Is there a single aspect of your own Japanese study history that you would passionately recommend to anyone else wanting to learn Japanese? Which aspect and why?

Communicate. Learning another language is a two-way street. You can’t just dive into books and expect everything to stick. In order to really learn a language and become fluent you need to communicate with others. When you learn a new grammar point or word, try using it! Yeah you’re going to be terrible at first but so what? Everybody makes mistakes, but what’s important is that you try. I’m still scared/embarrassed to look at my first Mixi entries :)

Do you have any regrets about how you studied Japanese that you would warn others against?

After moving back to the US I had a lot of false starts with Anki and my vocab book. Don’t do that. If you’re going to go the SRS route (and I highly recommend you do), use it everyday and stick with it.

Also, while in Japan I let my shyness and insecurity get in the way of progress I think. Sometimes I believe that if I wouldn’t have been so reserved I would have done more or learned more.

sandkatt is shy...(?)
sandkatt is shy...(?)

Lots of people quickly give up attempting to study abroad because it’s too expensive. What are your thoughts on this?

It is expensive. Especially if you do study abroad programs where you have to float all the costs of supporting yourself as well. At least while I was in Japan I was working and making a somewhat steady income. I wouldn’t even want to imagine what it would be like to do that without a job.

If you’re serious about learning Japanese though, study abroad is the way to go. When I started learning Japanese in Japan I was a near blank slate. I think because of that, the speaking habits, pronunciations, and general flow of conversation I adopted were a bit more natural as opposed to somebody who only studied at home. One of my co-workers actually took 4 years of Japanese in college, but never did a study abroad program. While he knew a lot of Japanese the way he spoke was very disjointed and unnatural so it sounded kind of funny. Of course your milage may vary though.

Plus I had many experiences that you simply can’t put a price tag on. I gave up a lot to move to Japan; a good job, all my stuff, friends, but it was worth it. I don’t regret a second of it.

Whew! That’s enough for one post. Look forward to Part 2 of this interview with @sandkatt in a few days! Feel free to leave additional questions or comments about the interview below, and I’ll be sure to get @sandkatt back here to answer them.

Until next time!
(Part 2 of this two-part interview is available here.)

– Harvey

If you want to read up on what was going through @sandkatt’s mind while she was in Japan, check her discontinued blog here!

Check out @sandkatt’s flickr feed for more Japan shots!