Tips for learning Japanese or any foreign language

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Language learning is a long process. I have been learning Japanese on and off for about ten years. Over this period I have been to Japan four times, spending eight months there in total. I was last in the country over three years ago.

It is difficult to maintain language skills when you’re not living in-country. I work a full-time job, am married to an English speaker, volunteer at a local church and have other responsibilities that can easily crowd out the time, energy and motivation required to maintain my language skills. From experience, I’d say that it is easier to be dedicated to your language studies when there are compulsory classes in high school when you have the leisure time to hang out with native speakers, when you study the language at university, or when the language is used in your workplace.

I’m sure that my situation is not unique. I wager that most Australians who gain proficiency in an Asian language do not end up living in a country where that language is spoken for longer than a few years. Does this diminish the relevance of their skills?  Not in my view. Experience working in Asia and grasp of an Asian language will increasingly be required for Australian professionals and business people. Such skills will be called upon throughout your career.

The question for others in the same position as myself is therefore how to maintain your language skills during the periods of your career when it is not utilised. Given the time and energy invested in learning an Asian language, the skills learnt should not be allowed to go to waste. A few principles and tips for learning Japanese that I attempt to follow in order to maintain my capability are as follows:

1. Have fun

Many people have study goals, eg “this month I will learn 50 new characters”. Goals can be good motivators, however, their utility depends upon the strength of your commitment to achieving those goals. For me, if the method of study is tiresome, my willpower to achieve study goals dissipates rapidly. For language study to be sustainable over the long term, I suggest that the study method needs to be fun. Watch TV, read manga, chat with friends on Skype – do activities that you enjoy in your language of study.

2. Do it now

Take advantage of each opportunity to further your study and never postpone a planned study session as far as it is within your power. Can’t fit in that half hour of reading that you had planned? Do five minutes’ worth instead, or even one. Do whatever the circumstances at hand will allow. Study apps for your smartphone are great for this. An SRS app such as Anki will allow you to review some vocab in less time than it takes to check your emails. Adhering to the principle of “do it now” is an effective antidote to procrastination regarding your language study.

3. Keep connected

To stay motivated, keep connected with others who learn and use your language of study. Join the local Chamber of Commerce, contribute an article to Asia Options, join a language meet up group, attend consular events, get on an industry email list (eg ANJeL) – there is no shortage of options.

Language learning is a long process as the moment you stop studying, your skills begin to decay. As the saying goes, “use it or lose it”. Hopefully these tips will assist you in maintaining your language skills.

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Will Barker is a lawyer in the Brisbane offices of a global law firm. He has studied abroad in Japan and the UK and represented Australia at a number of international youth diplomatic conferences.

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