Once I had my sights set on moving to Japan I knew I had to learn Japanese. As I mentioned I had learned a few phrases before that first fateful trip - and I just seemed to take to the language. As I was dead serious about moving to Japan a dead-serious program to learn the language seemed the only way to go. UCLA has a great extension program in foreign languages, so I enrolled.
Friends who have an interest in the Japanese language often ask if I have any advice on studying Japanese. My advice? Don't. Studying any foreign language is tough - Japanese is an incredibly hard language to learn. For example, "I am going to the store" when directly translated into Japanese comes out "I store to going am". Then, in order to really be able to study the language, you have to learn to read and write Japanese. We have one alphabet - 26 letters. Japanese has three writing systems - hiragana, katakana, and kanji. You need to know at least 2000 kanji to be able to read a newspaper. But I just dove in.
During my three years at UCLA I became a professional student. Simply put, I studied my rear end off. I did well - straight A's the entire three years. But it was tough. Studying kanji alone requires hours of sitting and writing. I would get up every Saturday morning and write kanji from 7AM until noon. By the time I was done at UCLA I could write about 800 kanji. Kanji looks like this - 日本語 - which means the Japanese language. Kanji is simply impossible. One kanji can have different meanings and pronunciations depending on its position in a word.
Sometimes I think if I'd known then what I know now.... but I didn't know, so I just kept studying. My teachers at UCLA were maniacally strict Japanese women. This was a great help actually, not only in learning the language but how the Japanese think. Even though the entire three years was a struggle I never lost sight of my goal and could see gradual improvement.
Looking back, these were three of the best years of my life. I was never much of a student - but I totally immersed myself in the study of Japanese. I love the language. Now after living and working in Japan for almost 15 years I often think my Japanese sucks. I imagine it doesn't - but it's sometime disheartening to know I'll never be 100% fluent. But my Japanese has, in the end, served its purpose. Without it I would have never been able to move to Japan - so I see my Japanese ability as destiny fulfilled.
Next blog - the move.