Japan Blog Matsuri: Japanese in Context

Japan Blog Matsuri

It’s been a really long time since there was a Japan Blog Matsuri, so when Declan of Kana Kanji got in touch to ask if I would participate in the new Japan Blog Matsuri I couldn’t resist! The theme is Japanese in Context:

We’ve all spent time studying our textbooks, listening to lessons or sitting in class. But I find that the most memorable pieces of Japanese were all learned in context. If you figured out the meaning of a word because someone was screaming it angrily at you, I want to hear about it. Sometimes a kanji will be completely meaningless until you see it in a certain place. Tell me all about the moment when the penny dropped and something was burned into your memory.

It’s an interesting topic, and something I’ve actually been thinking about a lot recently. Rather than talk about a specific moment when I understood a certain word or phrase though, I would like to talk about learning Japanese in general, and how to apply a context to what you learn.

I started studying Japanese in September 2006, after my first visit to Japan in the spring of that year. As I became more and more interested in Japanese I began to cover my flat in post-it notes with Japanese words on them, so that the fridge was no longer a fridge, but a れいぞうこ. The kettle was a やかん. When I slept at night, it was not on a bed, but a ベッド. By giving myself vocabulary to learn in the context of where and when I would need it, I found it stuck in my memory a little better.

When I moved to Japan in 2008 I thought I’d be able to manage the basics like buying a coffee in a local cafe, but even that was challenging at first. Still, with practice I began to get better at using Japanese as and when I needed it. I challenged myself with trying out new cafes, rather than sticking to Starbucks where I barely had to speak Japanese at all, and every time I tried to read the menu and understand a little more about what was going on around me.

After returning to England in 2011 I have felt my Japanese skills diminish. I haven’t had much chance to practice until recently, and picking up a textbook is always a struggle. I’ve toyed with taking classes again, but I’ve often found that learning in a classroom can be unproductive (for me, anyway). The best way I ever found to study Japanese was to be in Japan!

As with all languages, I would imagine, Japanese is best learnt by being there and experiencing the way in which the language is really used in everyday life. Some of the best phrases I ever learnt were from simply listening to friends. Sometimes my Japanese friends and colleagues would chatter around me and I wouldn’t follow much of what they said, but the odd word or phrase would stand out, and often I would reach for my notebook and ask them what they had said. I found that everyone around me was really happy to help me learn, and delighted in teaching me these colloquial phrases, even while sat in an izakaya.

But I’m not in Japan now, so how can I learn in context?

Luckily, I now have the chance to use Japanese in my job (something I haven’t had for the last two years), and phrases which were once just things on black and white textbook pages have suddenly become relevant. I don’t have to use Japanese all the time at work, but I can use it, and the more I do the better I think I can be at my job. My job as a travel consultant won’t require me to use many long and complicated sentence structures, but I can certainly find a use for things like making hotel reservations, asking (politely) to speak to my customer who is staying at a particular hotel, and reading train and bus timetables.

By giving myself a context, I now have reason to practice and study Japanese again! There are thousands of kanji I don’t know, but if I focus on learning the names of major cities and other travel-related vocabulary, I stand more of a chance of being able to remember what I’m trying to learn. When my colleagues mention the name of a place I’m not so familiar with, not only will I look up the place, I’ll look up the name and see how it’s written too. Some Japanese cities are written with very interesting kanji, and it’s easier to remember them once you know what they mean. For example, Hiroshima is 広島, which could be translated as ‘wide island’. So, whenever I think of Hiroshima, I think ‘wide island’.

I’m not really in a position to be giving advice about studying Japanese as I’ve let mine slip so much, but the one thing I would say is that it’s really important to give yourself some context! If you’re not lucky enough to be in Japan, just make sure you work out why you’re studying, and try to think about the situations in which you will use your Japanese in real life. And remember to think about the whole situation – after all, you don’t want to be like me on my first trip to Japan… I studiously memorised the phrase “いくらですか?” (ikura desu ka / how much is it) and wrote it on the front of my phrasebook but, when faced with an answer, I had no idea what I was being told and whether it was 300 Yen, 3,000 Yen or 30,000 Yen, as I had only learn the numbers 1 to 10. (>_<)


While we’re talking about studying Japanese, I’d be really interested to hear what methods have worked for you! Do leave a comment below! 🙂

kitty chan

11 thoughts on “Japan Blog Matsuri: Japanese in Context

  1. I think what’s helped me improve my Japanese was making friends with someone who didn’t speak English that well, and she wasn’t that interested in making an effort either lol. But she REALLY taught me a lot, and we would spend all day together just speaking in Japanese. To the point where I would feel exhausted at the end of the day (probably from using too much brain power lol). But I think the next step for me is to move to Japan 😉


    • Yes, I think it’s a great help if you can find a Japanese friend to practice with – especially if they’re not interested in learning English! Moving to Japan is, of course, the best option! 😉


  2. A very interesting blog post.
    I learned my first Japanese words in the 80s when I did karate in elementary school.
    I started to learn Hiragana and a few words in 1998 and joined a Japanese language course at my university in 2002. I learned Japanese on and off during that time, but was so busy with my other subjects, that I couldn’t focus much on Japanese.

    By the time I visited Japan for the first itme in 2007 I had already a bit more than a basic level. At that time, watching jdramas helped a lot to grow my listening skills and vocabulary.

    In early 2008 I moved to Japan and I studied every day before work on my own. I lived in the countryside and there was no language school and no other opportunity, but self-studying.
    My biggest issue were kanji at first, but after trying out many things, Heisig worked best for me. In September 2008 I was able to understand, recognize and write 2000+ kanji. The world around me suddenly made sense.

    Being in Japan helped a lot to naturally grow my vocabulary and listening skills.
    In 2009 I learned the on-yomi and kun-yomi of almost all 2000+ kanji I previously learned through Heisig. This time I used a method called “movie method” which is similar to Heisig.

    Finally I studied a lot of grammar as that had become my weak point.
    I missed the application deadline for the JLPT a few times, so it took until 2010 for me to take and pass N2. It was the first test I ever took – and also the last.
    At the end of 2012 I also took part in a prefectural speech contest where foreigners who have lived less than 5 years in Japan were supposed to hold a speech in Japanese.
    I won the first prize although I was the only one who wasn’t a university student and who didn’t have a teacher or prof in the background supporting me.

    After that I got busy with other things: traveling, moving, more work etc. …. so I stopped studying actively.
    I can manage my daily life here in Japan. I can read the books I want.
    If I study some more grammar, I could probably pass N1 without any problems (I tried a mock test in 2010 and apart from the grammar, the test was easy, esp. kanji and listening).

    These days I passively learn Kansai-ben (Kansai dialect) as everybody around me speaks it every day and I have started to use it without even realizing it! ^^;


    • It sounds like you’ve worked really hard, but you’re also probably a natural at languages! I’m really impressed with how much you’ve been able to keep studying and learning while in Japan – I wish I had stuck to it a bit more.


      • I admit it wasn’t easy. I needed a lot of self-discipline and had to sacrifice a lot of my free time, but I don’t regret that I spent my first two years mainly studying. That way I was able to enjoy everything much more later on! ^^


        • Honestly? It’s SO difficult! I wish I had tried harder while I was in Japan and I wish I was better at studying by myself. I have lots of textbooks and resources, but I just find studying so hard on my own. I’m hoping to pick it up a bit more now that I’m using it a little bit at work.


        • That’s what I fear will happen to me as well! ;___;
          I think it’s great that you can use it at work. I hope that I can find a job where I can put my Japan(ese) knowledge to use somehow.


  3. Interesting post! I’ve only been learning Japanese since I moved to Japan 2 months ago. Teaching ESL changes things – I’m in an English-speaking environment all day, so I still feel like I have to make an effort to go out, surround myself with the language, and find some context in order to take advantage of learning in an immersion environment.


    • Same here. It can’t be helped that you have to use English in your job.
      I had to as well. But like you said you need to try to immerse yourself in an Japanese environment outside of work.

      At my current work as an English teacher I only speak Japanese with all of my co-workers. Only during lessons I speak English, but through the kids I still get a lot of Japanese input, always have. 🙂

      Don’t give up! 🙂


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