Why I started to develop Japanese like a Breeze (jlab)

When I started to learn Japanese, I had no idea what I was up to. I didn’t and still don’t think that it is particularly difficult to become fluent in Japanese (although I haven’t reached this goal myself yet) – it just takes lots of time. Around 126 million people speak this language, after all. What actually was difficult for me, is the way Japanese is usually taught: I found most studying materials, creating flashcards myself and learning kanji to be very boring.

In the beginning, these reasons didn’t matter much. I was so fascinated by the sound and the structure of Japanese, that the language itself fuelled my ambition. I bought a crappy textbook, learned kana, did the core 2k deck, tried a few websites, started with Heisig’s “Remembering the Kanji (RtK)”. After I got used to how Japanese works and sounds however, all the “text book”-stories and in particular learning kanji started to get really boring. Heisig’s book is great, but it kept me away from what I wanted to consume: Spoken language, so I quit after kanji #450 [1].

Since I already had a good understanding of how Japanese worked, I turned towards the things I actually wanted to be able to understand: Movies and podcasts. I consumed as much as I could for a while, but didn’t learn much from this. In fact, this shot at immersion was the most inefficient thing I tried, maybe my skill was just not good enough at that time. After all, the material is spoken fast, full of unknown words and my crappy reading skills made figuring things out even worse.

However, giving up was no option. Instead, I took a break and started to design my own tools, the goal of making things as easy as possible always in mind. I started with converting Japanese text to latin characters (roumaji), because I can read them at a glance [2]. A dictionary soon followed, then a kana and a kanji trainer. By now everything has advanced to a very powerful Anki addon that gives you lots of freedom: It lets you choose yourself when to learn the writing systems and makes studying with movies super easy. You can use it with the traditional approach of learning kanji first. Or you can study with roumaji as long as you want and spread learning the writing systems evenly throughout your entire journey of mastering Japanese.

The studying ease brought by this tool recharged my motivation, even though coding it took lots of time. My most important lesson learned during this time is the following: Do whatever it takes to keep studying fun and never stop! It doesn’t matter if you use a text book, an app, start with kanji or study with roumaji, whatever brings you forward is adequate. Bored by what you’re doing? Just try something else as long as you don’t give up – learning Japanese is one of the most rewarding things in the world!

[1] I do want to learn how to read Japanese, but first I want to be fluent at least in listening comprehension.

[2] I can also read kana, but while it is easy to learn initially, fluent reading takes lots of practice. When I started to code jlab, I felt that even kana was slowing me down.