This week we wrap up the Japanese-learning experiment by our US entrepreneur recently arrived in Japan, TP. Clearly his is not the only program that works in learning the language, but for those of us who are naturally language challenged and who didn't do a year of high-school here as a teenager, it's a course that can work. TP wraps up by making some observations about what it really takes to get the job done, and about mistakes made and lessons learned.
I would like to add that I personally learned my Japanese by attending a language class in Shibuya every day for two 6-month periods spaced about a year apart. The classes ran from 09:00 through 13:00, and after that I would grab a quick lunch and go to work. If you're unable to take TP's all-or-nothing approach to learning Japanese full time, then a part-time commitment can also work - only I can say from practical experience that learning on a part-time can extend your goal of reaching competency by at least several years.
[TP] Japanese takes a real and sustained commitment to reach real, functional spoken and reading at a business level. [Note by TL] For non-Chinese foreigners learning Japanese for the first time and doing it full time, I have seen a number of people achieve JLPT Level 2 ability in about 9-12 months, and Level 1 in about 15-18 months. To get there faster, you'll need more hands-on coaching by specialist teachers in a language school. If you're learning part-time, and have a chance to use your language skills outside of class, you can expect Level 2 in 2-3 years, and Level 1 in 3-5 years.
[TP] Kanji is critical not only for reading, but also for acquiring the vocabulary for advanced conversation, especially in specialized fields of business. But for a foreigner who does not want to take the 9-12 years that Japanese children take to acquire advanced reading, the only shortcut is to compress as much as possible (almost to a maniacal level) until you can begin understanding their normal daily reading in Japanese. And as quick as possible, the Westerner student needs to change their attitude from one of "Kanji are a curse" to "Kanji are my friends" - they're interesting, useful, efficient, and key to your achieving your personal goals and plans in Japan. [Note by TL] I've mentioned before about the book "Remembering the Kanji, Book One" by James W. Heisig. This book will definitely give you a "Kanji are my friends" feeling!
If you are truly serious about your Japanese progression, until you get full liftoff in Japanese, it is important to consciously minimize the time you spend hanging around with your English-speaking friends, watching English TV, reading English media, and generally diluting your immersion efforts.
I wholeheartedly agree with a foreign friend's advice to read about things you are interested in as soon as possible. Textbook sentences and materials targeting children are often boring to say the least. So for the active mind, creating the pull of interesting content is important.
OK, to wrap-up, how would I have done things differently if I'd known at the start what I know now?
I followed the advice of Japanese friends, and my wife, to focus on learning basic conversational Japanese before focusing on Kanji and reading. I now feel that learning Kanji as soon as possible is vital in achieving the overall objective of competency in Japanese business.
Part way through, I had problems retaining what I was learning. I put this down to studying too many different systems and texts at the same time. This caused me to continuously compare systems at a meta-level. I suggest sticking with some core texts and finishing them before starting something else.
In the beginning, listening to Japanese TV and full-out Japanese conversation was too complicated to be of much use except for getting a sense of the rhythms and pronunciation. I think learning from TV is not productive time. Instead, I recommend focusing on drills of basic sentence patterns combined with intensive reading practice. Reading practice is less of a moving target and you can repeat it until you master it. At the same time, through reading you can build up Kanji, vocabulary, and grammar--and by reading out loud you reinforce your spoken Japanese as well.
Related to the point above, I probably should have not done so many home stays in the early stages, as it distracted me from the foundation I was trying to build.
On the face of it, language exchanges, i.e., spending time with someone wanting to learn English in return for your learning Japanese from him or her, sounds attractive. Not least of which because it's free. However, the reality is that you're spending 50% of your precious study time unproductively, and from someone who may not have a clue about how to impart language skills. I found it much better to pay a good Japanese teacher for 2-3 hours a week. I found that this was sufficient supplement for the broad based program I was on, to improve pronunciation and get advice about vocabulary usage.