My mom dropped my sister and I off on a Saturday at a friend’s house and went off for some rare time away from the kids.
After goggling at the interior of his father’s taxidermy and playing knights in the woods behind his home, we tired out and went in for lunch. While we ate, my friend put on DragonballZ. It was in Japanese. It was 1990. I was five.
Summer after seventh grade, my parents bought a new computer with internet access. The same year, they bought satellite service for the first time. Toonami brought me Gundam Wing, Tenchi Muyo!, Outlaw Star, and of course, more DragonballZ. Napster brought me subtitled Love Hina, Oh My Goddess!, and Cowboy Bebop (not all in that year.)
For some (possibly unrelated) reason I enrolled in Japanese as a High School sophomore. Hiragana and katakana ate nearly the entire first quarter. I already knew that I had 2,000+ kanji to learn, along with a slew of grammar structures and mountains of vocabulary. At the rate we were going, I’d be able to read middle-school materials by the time I became eligible for Social Security. But what could I do? Classrooms and teachers are how you learn languages, or so I thought. I kept watching anime and as a junior, joined a Japanese-style Jujitsu dojo. All good so far.
In college, I tested out of the first year of Japanese and promptly failed my first 200-level class. Not a good start. I kept studying on my own while nursing my bruised pride. I developed a pathos against speaking Japanese, something I had confidence in before failed speech exam after failed speech exam beat that out of me. Four years later, I tested out of first-year Japanese again at a different University, as well as the second semester of second-year. Once I hit the classroom again, I promptly failed, this time because the teacher felt I was arrogant for having tested out of class. Meanwhile, her A-students sought me out for tutoring during my shifts at the university library. I decide maybe it isn’t me after all.
After college, I volunteered as a manga translator for a fan group, crashed, and burned. Too much new kanji, too little support from senior staff. I put my ambitions as a translator aside, but continue chewing through Japanese culture, anime, and manga.
Three years later, I discovered Anki. I downloaded a J-E kanji and J-E vocab deck. I binged on them eight hours a day until the learning curve went horizontal, but a year later, I’m no better at reading or listening. Where had I gone wrong? To Google!
I discovered Japanese Level Up and began my quest by downloading the free kanji deck the site offers. Business as usual, I binged the new cards so they went into cycle in the first week, and while suffering through review hell, began building my own J-E beginner deck. I began building my J-J deck just as JALUP’s owner offered up his own J-J deck. I shelled out the $40 and binged again, getting all cards in cycle July 2014.
I could read Japanese novels while hardly reaching for a dictionary, and play Japanese SNES games without ever reaching for a dictionary, but I’d fail at listening, or in basic conversation. I’d still never been to Japan. I found the NHK radio news podcast in Japanese and start listening to the same podcasts over and over until they made sense.
They started to.
As of May 2015. I’m a fluent Japanese reader, a passable Japanese listener and writer, and a terrible Japanese speaker. People claim I don’t have an accent, but the awkward pauses still prevent anyone from mistaking me for native.
UPDATE 6/2017: I went to Japan for March 2016. It’s amazing what a trip to a country can do for motivating language learning. It’s not something everyone can afford, but if you need to put a nitrous on your motivation, there’s nothing better. As of writing this update, I’m much more confident than when I wrote this article two years ago, and I can easily speak, if not fluently, then without the sustained *PROCESSING* pauses that make me feel like a poorly-made gaijin robot.