Since there are a few Glibs here trying to learn another language I thought I’d share my experience.  In my case I’m studying Japanese but will structure my experience here into what has worked well for me generally. If there is interest, in a follow-up post I’ll discuss what worked and didn’t work for me specifically learning Japanese.

Get Motivated

First and foremost, you are going to need something to keep you motivated. If you have no compelling interest in the language or a desire to use it, you are going to find it very difficult to study and retain much as an adult.  When you are younger, for example in high school and college, your ability to learn is much better than when you are older.

My interest in Japanese was twofold, first I’d always been curious about the country and the culture and second, I’d been told it was a very difficult language for an English  speaker to learn.  I can confirm the second part, but I turned it into a source of motivation.  I wasn’t going to let its difficult nature beat me.  However, honestly, looking back I’m not sure I’d do it again. I’ve no intention of moving to Japan and no professional need for it. It was simply something I chose do as an intellectual stretch. I wanted to learn something that was in no way related to my career which is heavy on math, finance.  However, I have made some wonderful friends as a result of my studies which was truly unexpected.

Find a Schedule

I have the misfortune to spend over an hour a half every weekday commuting by train to Manhattan.  Rather than spend this time simply surfing on the phone, with the exception of of course, I put this uninterrupted time into studying.  This equates to about seven hours or so each week of “found” study time.

Find a Class or a Partner or Even Better Both

There is plenty to be gained by self-study, but I’m astounded by the amount of people on the internet who want to learn a language only through self-study.  It’s a language – the whole point is communication.  For somebody learning Japanese he or she may only want to watch anime or read manga and feels self-study is perfectly appropriate. I think you’re setting yourself up for a huge case of disappointment.  An instructor, preferably with native fluency, is an invaluable resource to help you understand a language. While you can’t beat a physical class to fully understand nuance, thanks to the internet there are many, many live language classes that are available online through things like Skype.  Personally, I have a formal class for two hours once a week after work.

I also do a language exchange with three partners in Japan.  One of my partners is email only while the other two are Skype calls of one hour each week.  We do roughly half the call in Japanese and the other half in English.  They help me with my Japanese and I help them learn English.  I won’t lie and say that as a relatively introverted person that this was particularly easy to do.  The first six months or so getting to know everyone was really a struggle, however they have become true friends.  They are also an invaluable resource.  I can email them to ask them questions and unlike my teacher at my formal class they are friends.  I can ask them about colloquial usage and impolite words and phrases that my instructor won’t or doesn’t want to discuss.

YouTube, (Niconico), Movies and TV

I can’t imagine what it was like trying to learn a language and find content before all the various video sites.   I’m very much of an auditory learner so watching YouTube is a terrific way for me to learn.  I’m fortunate that Japan is a karaoke culture so lots of music has the lyrics available.  The music itself also helps me remember vocabulary.  However, like English music, Japanese lyrics aren’t necessarily grammatical.  I also watch plenty of news and talk shows in Japanese simply to try to follow the conversations.

Naturally I watch movies, TV and anime as well.  Here you must be careful.  Specific to Japanese there are various levels of politeness and the spoken language has gender differences.  So, unless you want to sound like a female samurai you need to understand the context of what you are watching and not simply repeat things you hear in videos.

Be Wary of Shortcuts

I can’t count the number of web site devoted to learning Japanese in short time periods or various “hacks” for learning Japanese.  If learning another language was really that easy don’t you think we’d all be learning another two or three?  I suppose if you are a fluent Spanish speaker learning Portuguese you have a shot a fluency in six months.  For the rest of us I’d suggest that it’s going to be a matter of putting in the time.  And, from my experience, if you’re over 40 be prepared for lots of it.  Younger students in my Japanese class kick my ass.  Yes, I’ve picked up many learning shortcuts over the years, but you can’t beat the younger brain for learning new things.