Rachel: The Anki Whisperer

I probably never stood a chance.

I’ve been a nerd since Day 1: I wanted to learn a foreign language ever since I knew they existed, I’ve always been a tech and gadget watcher, and to top it all off, my Nintendo basically raised me. That by itself was probably enough of a perfect storm to get me to study Japanese, but add in the two best friends in high school who both spoke it, and it was over.

Back then, I discovered all of the awesome things about starting Japanese–everyone is amazed at the fact that you can read and write kanji, even if it’s only a handful of them. It’s a language that (at least 15 years ago when I started taking classes) is less commonly studied than say Spanish or French, and there’s some sort of pop culture media to draw just about anyone in. Hell, the day when I realized that the weird fish-bone looking thing (宝) on the sail of the coin boat in Mario 3 meant “treasure”, I pretty much lost it.

But that honeymoon period doesn’t last long.

In the beginning, you make leaps and bounds in your comprehension. You go from being able to understand nothing to the joy of reading your first sentences in Japanese! When I first started coursework, I thought that nothing would stop me. I carried my studies all the way from high school through college, and even graduated with my bachelors in Japanese. But by graduation all that Japanese meant to me was kanji quizzes, upper division courses filled with fluent native speakers wanting to get an easy A, and spending hours looking up every single kanji on assigned readings only to find that I still didn’t even know what the fuck any of it said. No matter what foreign language you choose to study, it is a long, difficult, and often frustrating process. Learning a language where you literally need to re-learn how to read and write makes it about 1000 times worse.

After college, I washed my hands clean of Japanese, boxed up all my manga, and gave up on the dream of ever being fluent. Leave it to Krystal to not let me leave good enough alone. It was bad enough that when I went to visit her in Japan, it became horribly, painfully clear just how terrible my Japanese had become. Not only did it take me forever to rehearse a simple request, once people responded to me in Japanese it was a crapshoot whether or not I’d understand what they said, let alone be able to say something back. After 6 years of coursework in the language, I couldn’t even carry out a simple transaction without feeling like a deer in the headlights.

But remember that part about me being obsessed with languages since I was a child? Krystal knew exactly what to say and what things to share with me to make me really excited about learning Japanese again. She’s obnoxiously good at that. And hearing about her progress over the ten days of my visit not only changed my mind about wanting to give up on Japanese, it drove me to challenge myself in the language like I never had before, even in that ephemeral honeymoon period. I came home from Japan with renewed excitement, smarter study tools, and the desire to be able to speak real Japanese with real people. Oh, and 50 lbs of manga, light novels, and children’s books in my checked suitcase (dead serious).

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t have any delusions that gaining fluency in Japanese will be easy, but by using clever tools and techniques with sources that I enjoy (aka, that 50 lbs of shit in my luggage), and with a good friend to keep me honest, I’m making the whole process better…ish.

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