How to Learn a Language

My inspiration found me in the shape of a student I first met six months ago. She had just started taking English lessons, and though she was a beginner language learner, she took lots of notes, studied on her own, and was really fun to talk to. We had lessons regularly for a while, but then I didn’t see her for a month or two (at my company, it’s common for students to move between teachers). Recently, I had my first lesson with her since this short break, and I was amazed at how much her English had improved. Her grammar and understanding, even her listening ability, was on a level much higher than when she’d started.

Which made me focus on the truth about myself: I’ve been lazy. After a year and a half of living in Japan, my language is ability is quite lower than I’d intended. My excuses? Japanese is really difficult. It’s hard to find people to practice speaking with. I teach my own language all day and am too tired to learn another one in my off times.

And on and on. So now, here I am, with four months left of living in this beautiful country, and I’m just now getting serious with my studying. (To be fair, I’ve been studying the whole time. But it’s been pretty passive and sporadic.) I’m not one of those people who can sit down with a language workbook and pay attention for more than five minutes. But after teaching and talking to more than a hundred students over the past year, I’ve discovered a few secrets to more efficient language learning.

The main one? Immersion. Absolutely everything you can do/watch/listen to/say in another language should be done/watched/listened to/said. Netflix and chill? Put on the language dub (with or without subtitles). Listening to music? Choose some from the language you’re learning. Immerse yourself. Reading a book? Find one in *insert language* here. Even if it’s only a children’s book, you’ll see improvement.

Here’s how I’ve been studying (in addition to the above –  practice what you preach, right?):

Memrise. It’s an app/website with hundreds of “courses” for every language. You learn through flashcards, memory tips, and lots of repetition. (Duolingo is also pretty good, but it doesn’t have a lot of material for Japanese yet.)

Audiobooks. I chose something I know very well: Harry Potter. It wasn’t particularly cheap (whatever 17 pounds is in yen) and I honestly only understand about 10% of it. But, through knowing the story and being able to pick out various words and phrases here and there, it’s helping me keep up with listening to Japanese at a natural speed (read: incredibly fast).

Kindle books. I’m actually able to read Japanese much easier than I can speak it. Weird, I know. But I’ve found a book of Japanese stories written in Japanese first, then English, and a whole load of vocab and grammar explanation. I got SO excited about running into kanji I didn’t know, being able to pick it up through context clues, and understanding most of what I read, and that’s the kind of feeling that keeps you motivated.

Tandem. A language exchange app similar to Hello Talk, where language learners can pair up with their opposite (for example, for me, someone who speaks Japanese and is learning English), and start conversations with each other. The apps have built-in editing and correcting tools, so you’re both the student and the teacher, for free. Where Hello Talk has a somewhat Facebook-like setup, Tandem is a bit more like Twitter, which I for some reason prefer. Both have messaging as the initial communication, but also have the ability to voice or video call if you want to practice in real-time.

My goal? To make it to N4 abilities before I leave. Wish me luck!



Not enough words.

I haven’t had a lot of words lately. I’ve had plenty of experiences to talk about: a rollercoaster-like ferry ride to a tiny island in post-typhoon winds, a photo shoot for a friend’s birthday at all the famous places in the city, even the first in a card-deck full of before-you-leave-Japan challenges. I just don’t have the words to write them down adequately. I guess it’s kind of like writer’s block, but instead of not knowing what to write, it’s not knowing how. I’ve been feeling pretty guilty about it, actually. “Come on, Kita, you have to start writing again. What kind of writer are you, that you haven’t even touched your laptop in days?” But just recently, I realized that’s okay. It’s okay to not write sometimes. It’s okay to just live for a while. And then, when you’re ready, you can write it down.

Blood is Thicker

I have a big family. As the last of four siblings, I’m the “baby,” though it’s been a long time since I actually felt like the youngest. We have lots of aunts, u cles, and cousins, a big circle that seems to grow bigger every year. We always get together for Christmas, Labor Day weekend, and – my favorite – Thanksgiving. There’s always too much food and at least one or two card games going. If there’s football on, we’ll watch it, but it’s usually overcome by chatter, jokes, and friendly arguments. I love that atmosphere. And I love my family.

Which is why it took me completely by surprise when I realized I don’t miss them. I knew that things would be different when I left my home country. But I didn’t think I’d go six months without hearing my mom’s voice. I didn’t think I’d find out from Facebook that my brother got engaged. I didn’t think that when my oldest sister came to visit she’d treat me like the owner of a B&B. I didn’t think my friends would feel more like my family than my family does. But they do.

Don’t Rock the Boat

I almost died.

That may or may not be true. What qualifies as “almost”?

I could have died. 

Possibly more accurate, but I could have died crossing the hundred-pedestrian crosswalk outside the train station this morning. “Could have” doesn’t quite cover the mind-numbing fear of, “This is it. I’m gonna die.

​My friend from a local university messaged me one day out of the blue: “Wanna go white water rafting with me this weekend?” 

Um. YES.

Being a total newbie, I didn’t realize you needed a trained professional for this kind of thing, so I imagined a couple of our friends in bikinis and swim trunks splashing around on a wild lazy river. Imagine my surprise when we showed up to a shed full of life jackets, helmets, and release forms.

We met early on a Sunday morning at Kisogawa station, where we were met by our guide, who would drive us the rest of the way to Gifu and Nagara River. It hadn’t rained in a while, and the river was a bit shallower than usual, but it was a beautiful day and the water was the absolute perfect temperature. We were one of the last rafting boats to leave the take-off point, and fishermen were already setting up for a day of fishing. This gave us the perfect audience for our first rapid- which also turned out to be the first time we completely flipped the raft. Fortunately, nothing was hurt but pride. There were a few more accidental individual tumbles into the water throughout the day, but we managed to stay upright for most of the rest of the day.

 Our guide taught us to “surf”, where we paddled upstream towards the white water and balanced the raft right on top of the big waves. We also did a bit of cliff-diving, the highest point I’d ever jumped off of. I even learned to kayak (holy arm workout) in one of the long, calm sections of water.

The last rapid, we were told, was the wildest and most dangerous. It was a long, rocky section of where, the place where most accidents happen. And since it was shallower than usual… “Just don’t fall in.” You’d think I’d recognize foreshadowing when I heard it. Our guide told us about a man he’d had to pull out of where he was hanging onto a giant rock, ankle touching knee in an ugly fracture. But that just doesn’t seem real in a story.

Our guide asked me if I wanted to paddle the kayak through the rapid, and because I’m both reckless and dangerously trusting, I said yes. He then suggested that his guide-in-training — not the strongest paddle in the boat — should go with me. I wasn’t as excited about that, as we had yet to kayak together, but the guide told me to hurry and jump in the kayak while it was still close to the raft, and I moved before I’d thought it through.

The raft went first, with the two of us paddling behind. (Really, the guide was paddling and I was sitting behind him with one of those half-paddles those hat actually really sucks for tandem kayaking.) In case you’ve never rafted before, standard procedure is that, when the raft tips up to an uneven tilt, you stay upright by leaning towards the higher side. Turns out, this is not the same in a kayak.

In the very first bump, we were still working on straightening out and hit it at an angle. The kayak tilted, and my guide leaned hard to one side. Trying to be as helpful as possible, I leaned with him. Which was when I realized he wasn’t leaning. He was falling. And the whole kayak was going with him.

We tipped, and I splashed into the rushing water with three separate thoughts screaming for attention in my head. The first was an articulate, HOLY SHIT. The second: Get into safe position, feet up, pointing downstream, please dear god do not skin yourself on the rocks. The third: Get. The fuck. Back in the boat. 

We were near the side of the river, several boulders bordering the water. I considered trying to push off them with my legs, but instead foolishly scrambled for purchase along their slippery sides, water slamming me against them. The kayak came hurtling towards me, shoving me under, the dark bottom shutting all light out of my sight. I was slammed against the rocks underwater, hands reaching for anything to hold onto, my mind both fighting for survival and already accepting that I would never resurface.

When I managed to come up for air, I grabbed onto the kayak, trying to flip it right side up while staying in the feet up position, terrified of everything I couldn’t see in the water beneath me. I was either not strong enough or didn’t have the technique to flip the kayak over myself, and the guide was several meters downstream. I could see more rocks ahead, bordering the river as it turned a sharp left. The guide was pushed into the boat, and I lunged for the biggest rock with all that I had in me, clinging to it like the lifesaver that it was. (Or seemed to be. At that point, I was out of the rapids, but my survival-mode brain didn’t allow me to let go of that rock for at least a full minute.)

The main guide had managed to grab the kayak and flip it over, and in the mostly-calm post-rapid water, he paddled over to me, face a mixture of terror and the mask of calm he was trying to show me.

He reached out to me with a hand, but I was hesitant to let go of my new best friend. “Are you okay?” He asked.

Good question.

Urban Depression

The river is green. It smells like rotten eggs, pushing leftovers towards the ocean. Sulpher, I’m told, but what does that even mean? Why do bad eggs and dirty rivers smell the same?

I’d chosen the river as a reference point, something somewhat natural to walk next to, but you can’t walk next to it. So I walk on the dusty, red brick sidewalk, knowing the water is somewhere to my left, separated from me by apartment buildings and small businesses. 

I brought the camera, though I’m not sure why. There’s nothing to photograph here. Nothing that isn’t hard gray rising skyward, or a spare tree planted to take away from the sharpness of the steel.

My arms ache from rock climbing yesterday, and my hamstrings are tight from the workout I did in my living room. I want to run, but not here. Not on this damn concrete.

Stepping off my own beaten path

Today, I took a new path. I blazed a trail into the unknown and learned a very valuable lesson along the way: don’t leave your apartment without your keys. Because your boyfriend will leave and lock the door behind him.

As a result, I ended my workday at 4 o’clock, daydreamed about being home and on my couch in the A/C, and made it all the way to just outside my apartment building when I realized I didn’t have a key to get in, and R wouldn’t be home for six hours.

Fortunately, his work is only about a thirty-minute mixture of walking and riding the train away. In a direction I’ve never had reason to go before.

Now, you might think that living in a foreign country always feels… foreign. Or maybe you think that after a short while it all becomes commonplace. Both of those are true. The train ride to work for me feels as familiar as it does to any other commuter. Walking around my local park or supermarket is as normal as wandering around the small town I grew up in. But as soon as I step off the path that I travel every day, that’s when I re-enter the foreign country and remember, HOLY CRAP I LIVE IN JAPAN.

So taking that new train to that new city, it wasn’t that big of a deal. But it was enough to shake me up a little and remind me that there’s so much more out there that I haven’t seen, even as close as a ten-minute train ride away.

Which makes me wonder, how much did I miss when I was living back in Kansas? How many fascinating places did I not go because it all felt so normal to me? It doesn’t feel so normal from a thousand miles away.

A quick reminder that it’s always good to step outside your comfort zone.


Japanese phrase of the day: ぬるまゆにつかる

“neh-roo-mah-yoo nee tsu-ka-roo” – to avoid a challenge (stay in your comfort zone)





Discounted Sushi and Alpaca Wine

I. Adore. Supermarkets.

In Kansas, after I finished college, I lived about a five minute drive from Walmart, and was at least ten minutes further from an actual grocery store. This resulted in a whole lot of frozen food being put in my cart, with a couple boxes of pasta also being a staple in my grocery list. In my small hometown, there were only two grocery store options, and both offered limited options on fresh foods (and also cereal, which my parents and I both agreed was a top-5 item). As a result, I remember way too many weekends of driving to a bigger city thirty miles away, helping my mom pack an entire cart full of groceries that were supposed to last a week or two, and then having to take four or five trips in and out of the house to unload the bags from the car, even when we enlisted my father’s help.

In Japan, there’s a supermarket a three-minute walk from my apartment. It has vegetables I’ve never even heard of before, and fish I didn’t know could be eaten outside of 5-star restaurants. If you show up after nine, the day’s sushi will be marked down and you can get about ten different kinds of fish in one bentou for the equivalent of about four bucks. It’s magical.

As a result, I make homemade meals 9/10 times, using fresh ingredients rather than frozen or non-perishable. Meat comes in smaller portions, so I don’t have to plan multiple meals using one container of beef or chicken. Produce tends to have the faces of the farmers who grew it right on the label. And there’s about ten times as many alcohol choices than I’m used to back home (possibly because everyone walks to the store since it’s so close, possibly because casual drinking doesn’t have much of a stigma, or maybe because most young people here are too honest to buy alcohol when they’re underage) and best believe I take full advantage of that. My interior decorating now includes an entrance hallway lined with about 20 different kinds of empty wine bottles. I do have to go to the supermarket much more often now – about every other day – but it’s so much more convenient than back home.

Casual observation of the day.