“Clark-san, how come you speak some Japanese but don’t know any kanji?” I remember well my Japanese teacher’s question in 2001. And her tone! It was a whole lot closer to “What’s wrong with you?” than “How can I help?”
But it was just what I needed—an abrasive nudge to force me to face my language problem. My hodgepodge approach to Japanese study had led to a gap between speaking and reading abilities. I had to figure out my block. The huge number of kanji was keeping me from taking even the first steps. I felt overwhelmed, and so I did nothing. The fear of failure kept me from making any progress.
My teacher’s question caused me to seek a solution. I tried various approaches and stopped and started several times until I finally found what I needed. It was a simple method that was sustainable for me—a specific goal that took learning kanji from the realm of the impossible to the possible.
My approach was to practice writing kanji for ten minutes a day. Every. Single. Day.
And I did—for nine-and-a-half years. I didn’t miss a single day for 3,469 days, not even my wedding day. I had been planning to retire this practice on its tenth anniversary, but a medical problem brought it to an early end. I then transitioned to a new goal: learning new vocabulary—one hour per week, every week—a practice I’ve kept up for six years.
I remember one friend saying, “Ten minutes every day? That sounds awful!” And I thought, “Well, I guess it’s not right for you, but it works for me.”
We all have things we believe to be impossible, but we can each find our own solutions—a sustainable practice that will move us from being stuck to making progress, from feeling overwhelmed to celebrating success.
Where do you feel stuck? With kanji or the language in general? With a specific language need (for example, shopping, answering email, learning worship-related vocabulary, using public transportation)? Start there.
What is something you can do this month to make progress, something you will be likely to continue for many months or years?
Even if your life and calling do not require fluency or even if you know that you are only here for a few years, find your own “do-able” approach to learning Japanese. However big or small, your effort will take you deeper into relationships with Japanese people and increase your sense of “Japan success,” which we all know is no small achievement! Let this article be your nudge.
Three steps to success:
Identify your need. Where would progress—however small—be an encouragement for you?
Find your own sustainable practice. Mine was 10 minutes a day and is now one hour per week. Yours may be very different, but it will be something that works for you.
Celebrate your successes. I had one while writing this article—I tried using the post office’s online system for requesting a package’s redelivery and was thrilled to succeed after just two attempts.