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Jul 11, 2012

How to remain motivated in learning Japanese

Why are you learning Japanese?

If you're learning Japanese, then you have some kind of reason for doing so. Maybe you have some friends that know the language, or you found an untranslated book that sounds interesting, or perhaps you want to make your resumé look better. Whatever your reasons are, they've motivated you to take the first step in learning Japanese, so that's great. Unfortunately, not all reasons for learning can keep that motivation going for a long period of time.

Vague goals won't keep you motivated.

If you started learning Japanese because it would look good to an employer or because you think it'll be useful sometime in the future, then your reasons for learning are pretty vague. That's not to say that your reasons aren't good, just that they have nothing concrete to aim for. With no concrete goal, you have no direction, no focus, and no real use for your budding language skills.

With these kinds of goals, where would you start in learning Japanese? You'd probably grab some mass produced program or CD set and begin studying along with it. You'd do worksheets, take quizzes, maybe repeat cookie cutter phrases. Exciting stuff. And if you completed those things, would you have any idea where you stood in relation to your goal? Probably not. You'd most likely just begin on the next program or CD, if you didn't get bored and quit.

Think about what has inspired you to learn Japanese. Now think about if your reason(s) have a vague goal. Some examples are “learning a second language would be useful,” “Japanese is important in business,” “Japanese seems cool,” or “I like Japanese food.” These reasons for learning have no actual goal attached to them, so while they're perfectly valid reasons to learn, they won't keep you motivated.

Immediate, concrete goals are a must.

Goals that do have a finish line, a point where you can declare the goal achieved, are great for keeping you motivated. For example, say that you really wanted to read Murakami's 1Q84 in the original Japanese. You might say, “Well that's a silly reason to learn an entire language!” but a reason like this actually provides direction, focus, and a use for Japanese.

To elaborate, with this kind of goal you can immediately get the book and hold it in front of you. You open it up and see hundreds of unknown characters - now you know where to start. You learn the hiragana and katakana. When next you pick up the book, you find that there are still characters you don't know, plus you don't understand the grammar, and we can't forget the vocabulary. So you start studying them all, learning kanji, grammar, and vocabulary via sentences in Anki. Each time you pick up the book, you can see where you are lacking and improve.

Then, one day, you pick the book up and truly begin to read. You are achieving your goal. As you continue to read, you find new words, new grammar structures, and new kanji. You learn them all, because they are part of reaching the end of your goal. Eventually, you complete the book. Your goal is reached. Having a concrete goal has provided you with focus and motivation.

Find a use for Japanese to remain motivated.

So what can you do if your reason for learning Japanese isn't already a concrete goal? Find goals that suit your reasons and aim for them. For the examples related to business, such as making your resumé look better or giving you an edge in the workplace, you could set the goal to read a financial text in Japanese. This would make the situation nearly identical to if your goal was to read 1Q84, but now you'd be learning business vocabulary and engaging in the kind of Japanese that you ultimately want to learn.

Another example for this scenario, you could aim to be able to watch the news and read the newspaper in Japanese. Each day you could learn more and more, until one day you don't have to look up anything. This would build your knowledge of common phrases, major events in Japan, important people, and business terms as well. And best of all, it's a concrete goal that will keep you focused on achieving something specific.

So whatever your reason is for learning Japanese, you can find a goal that is related to it that will create a concrete target for you. Once you have a destination, you can start your journey to it. So if you like Japanese food, aim to read a cookbook or watch and understand a cooking show. If you think Japan is cool, find something specific that is interesting and make that your goal. Feel free to change your goal as your reasons for learning change, but always have some destination in mind. 

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  1. Thanks for this. It's good to remind ourselves how far we've come. I was down on myself for my current level of progress, even though I've done a lot in a short time. But my speech is still slow and my listening is for shit, so I sometimes get frustrated that I'm not learning quickly enough.

    Then a friend of mine saw my login screen, which is perfectly comrpehensible to me (このコンプーターのロックを解除するにはCTRL+ALT+DELを押してください), and she said, "That just looks like a bunch of squiggles to me."

    We can get so focused on how long we have to go that we forget how far we've come. :)

    1. Sometimes it's the little things that can mean the most. Keep at it!