Monday, December 7, 2009

Tribulations and Attainment

My biggest reason for coming to Japan was to try and learn the language. For some reason it was, and still is, quite fascinating to me: there are no plural words, the orders is completely backwards from English, it uses some Chinese characters without being dominated by them. Most importantly though it’s not tonal like Mandarin, Thai or Korean, but like a puzzle made up of around 40 to 50 different sounds that don't change. (I can't tell you how disappointing it was learning mandarin for 7 years and not being able to say anything in China. Tones and pitches be damned.) Also many good cartoons and video games use this language.

After writing nothing short of a miserable test last year, at a level that is maybe between basic and intermediate, I was quite depressed. I felt defeated in the worst way. Months before, my friend Steve was bugging me about not being fluent yet, and other little things were adding up like my sister Patty assuming I was fluent by now. I mean if you live in a different country for over 2 years, I think that’s logical too, so what was wrong with me? These things weighed on me more than I would like to give credit.

I was hoping to have closer Japanese friends by then; not to mention now. Over a year since moving to Japan and they could have helped me out with this stuff. To some extent I still don’t have that, but I mostly gave up on trying to find some, and hired a tutor in February; conceding to some defeat. I got lots of friends here, don't get me wrong, it's just that they either live in other cities or whatever. My motivation to study was low, as I lost pretty much all reason to carry on. Some of my tutoring sessions was us just chatting, sometimes in Japanese, but I didn’t care because my tutor was my friend now.

I still remember the precise moment when I lost all motivation; when I wrote in my blog how mind boggling it has been for me to study as long and as hard as I have done, but still not know where “I am” in terms of knowing the language, other than getting destroyed on an easy/intermediate test. I stopped caring.

I kept on not caring up until about a month ago. I got an audio book on “accelerated learning” (which I still need to finish) but in the beginning it taught me about “universal learners”; ie people like me who need to see the whole picture before attempting to break it down into little pieces and conquering it that way.

How can you sum up a language in one picture? Recently the English language just hit one million words. Language has so many branches, who really knows what and where and how? People are still learning how to learn all over the place, and debating the best ways to teach. Did I try and bite off too much and now I’m suffering for it?

Not long after this revelation, I found a 1000 word list that was required for people writing the level 3 test. There was a breath of fresh air about that; here was my whole picture. If I could somehow conquer these 1000 words, then I should be ok for the test right?

Around the one-month mark, was when my tutor Kayo introduced a new grammar book for the test. Again; you conquer this book, you conquer the test. If you remember my recent posts, I was quite shocked how much was now falling into my lap that was so basic and essential; but at the same time I’ve never seen or heard it before; now to use this grammar ‘glue’ to put words together right? Grammar, like my engineering mind, is very logical. There are rules; none of that fuzzy and flawed opinion/emotional swagger. If you learn enough tricks through example after example; eventually they’re going to run out of tricks on you right? “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.”

The grammar learning was slow going, mostly because the words were a mess. I was constantly going back and checking my dictionary, thinking repetition and reading and whatnot would let it naturally seep into my head. It would too, if I had more time. I had tried my “traditional” method of memorizing the words on flash cards like I’ve done in the past, but I’ve grown so tired of how slow and full of review it is, that not much progress was made.

Richard was taking the same test as I, and we started coming in to see Kayo for extra sessions. I wrote a copy of the exam that I wrote last year as practice, and was disheartened that I actually did worse. This was incredibly dispiriting yet again; it looks like I did a good job of guessing last year when I failed.

I was finding that the more I was learning, the harder the test became. Now I wasn’t going for “this sounds better”, and thinking about my answers logically with stuff that was so new. New tricks popped up all the time, and more baffling questions sprung up constantly. I’m lucky I could get most of them cleared with my tutor, as there is so much gray area you can’t find in a book of rules.

I canceled tutoring English on Thursday so I could study. I couldn’t do it after class Wednesday as I was exhausted from teaching all day and staying up late studying the night before. I put in many late nights at some family restaurants, enjoying the drink bar and hurting my head for hours, and progress was still incredibly slow. (you get drinks, and the place is warm unlike my house)

“Work smarter, not harder” is amazing advice. How does one work smarter though? “Don’t confuse motion with progress”. Some people are busy all day, but get nothing done. I remember when my grades started to decline in Elementary school because I was more concerned with figuring out why I was so doing so much better at learning than most of the other kids: ‘what am I learning? Why? How?’ would continue to distract me for years.

In university I learnt about how memory works, tricks you can use, and many kinds of things like that: ‘get lots of sleep, use association’ and so on. Then here I was on Thursday, feeling like my wheels were spinning no matter how many hours studying and headaches I got. I even got out of a class to study more, and stayed at the restaurant until 11. Atleast I learnt how to better moderate and control my headaches from cramming for hours: more liquids, less coffee and less pressure were my Advil.

I got home late Thursday feeling hopeless still. I wrote, corrected, translated, and re-worked 2 day-long practice tests already, but still things looked grim. An hour of relaxing later, my headache was manageable and I went to bed at midnight. I don’t know what prompted it, despite how tired and worn out I was, but I picked up that huge word list and went over it again.

On each page of the second book, I knew maybe 10% of the words; another upsetting statistic. I then started to memorize that first page. A number of times my nagging thoughts told me to stop, or slow down because I was doing too much and will forget everything in the morning anyways. I didn’t care, and didn’t sleep until I memorized that whole first page; maybe 50 words. It took me almost an hour.

When I woke up in the morning (now Friday), the first thing I did before getting out of my warm bed, was go over the words again. To my surprise, I remembered them all. I got really excited by this. I was lucky I only had a morning class this day, as I spent the next 7 hours straight memorizing word after word, until it was time to drive to Okaya to have a 2 hour session with Kayo and Richard again. Many times while memorizing, I had a feeling it was futile doing so much. Who could possibly remember this much random stuff being thrown your way?

By the time I got to class I was exhausted and completely out of it, but we studied for 2 hours, then Richard and I went to a restaurant to study until late that night again. Grammar was half the test and I needed to go over it, but I wanted to defeat this pile of words in front of me, and I managed to do just that.

That one day, I manage to memorize over 400 words, and now I can say I know over 1000 Japanese words. Normally, it would have taken me a month or more if I had been diligent, and it would have taken more time. It’s nice being able to put a number to what I know. When I woke up Saturday, I spent and hour and a half going over the pile I had memorized the day before with surprising accuracy. What took me 12 hours Friday, took me 90 minutes Saturday. I studied the whole time in my bed, while I could see my breath because my room was so cold. I switched my hand that was holding the paper a couple times because it would go numb from being exposed.

I went to Okaya again for my last 2 hours session before the test, and Richard and I studied until 11 that night; way too late. Now that I had my puzzle pieces for my ‘complete picture’ together, learning grammar was much, much easier without having to jump to my dictionary constantly, and finding the words I had just learnt peppered all over past tests and sample questions did nothing but reinforce that which I just memorized. I did my 3rd, and last, practice test now, and I did really badly. It was so frustrating, and I was so tired, and now that it was so late I found questions I didn’t have time to get answers for.

In our last hour, I did one big compilation of everything I had learnt. I put grammar points on one page and categorized how to conjugate them. I added maybe 20 words found in tests to my collection for memorization later. I poured over old practice questions not so much to get a feel for them, but to figure out the “why” behind their logic rules, and recognize the tricks that started repeating.

I had done all that I could, and now the most important thing was left: getting some much needed sleep for the test Sunday.

I got home past midnight and to my delight I had forgotten to turn off my electric blanket. This meant my bed was warm and I hopped right into it. I only got about 6 hours of sleep, as much as I could, and I got in my car and drove in the fog to pick up Richard and Michelle to go to Matsumoto for the test.

I had a dull headache still from my trials over the last couple days, and I was still wearing the same clothes from Saturday; not having time to change. I offered to drive up Sorin too, but he wanted to go separate and ended up going to the wrong place. The poor guy ended up being late, and wasn’t allowed to write the test.

I parked at Neal’s, and went over my vocabulary list again while he gave us tea. This time I cleared it in maybe 45 minutes. The first part of the test was vocab/writing, so I would review grammar later. In contrast to last year, the room was really hot; I mean I was practically sweating which didn’t help my dull headache. Last year I froze.

The first part of the test went all right, but so-so. My slew of memorization helped me finish on time, but barely. Again, the more I learnt the harder the test seemed to get; for example I’d come across a word, but recognizing it wasn’t the problem anymore, the problem was which definition was I expected to use for it.

The second part was the listening, and maybe I got 50% on that one, maybe not even that much. I really didn’t study for the listening part at all, and it was confusing; but atleast I didn’t feel like my brain exploded like it did last year. These two parts together are worth what the 3rd part of the test was: the grammar/reading section. (100, 100, and 200 marks respectively)

During the lunch break I didn’t mingle with anyone, and I went over my notes and examples again and again. I tried to be calm, I tried to be positive, and when the last part started, I lit it up.

Question after question I recognized the tricks right away, and threw in answer after answer. There were a couple I had to think a little about, but after 30 minutes I had 40 out of the 50 questions filled in. I double-checked the time a couple times to make sure there wasn’t a mistake; there was no way I could be going through this so fast; I had over 30 minutes left to write.

The last part did take longer though: the reading section. I had to read a couple pages written in Japanese and answer a few, heavily scored questions. I took my time, and read the whole thing. I can’t tell you how beautiful it was. I wanted to run into the hallway and dance. I wanted to throw the test in the air and cheer, but I suppressed it all, and enjoyed some of the most beautiful writing I have ever read, perhaps on par with the feeling of discovering you can ride a bike all by yourself for the first time, and I answered the questions with ease.

Time was up, and I was ecstatic. I was still restraining my joy, and to my surprise everything got watery; I was so happy, I almost started crying.

I can not tell you how happy I was. I can not properly express a sliver of the joy that I experienced. Writing this now, I want to cry all over again. I went from wanting to hang myself last year, to breathing some of the easiest, most elated breaths of fresh air in my life. I did not realize how much stress, how much pressure, how much depression, and how much complete utter failure and defeat I had been carrying around with me for so long, and how much it weighed on me, until I felt it spread its wings, and disperse along with that morning’s fog, leaving nothing but warm sunshine on my soul.

After years of doubt, defeat and pain; I had in one stroke, truly validated that I really can accomplish absolutely anything that I want.



Unknown said...

That is a great post!

It gives me great motivation for my future exams :)

(I am sorry I put pressure on you!! I know learning a language is super tough!!)

I am happy that you did well!!

Unknown said...

Wow, that was really inspirational! i am so proud of you!!! you are a really good writer, it felt like i was in the room with you and listening to you tell the story! very moving!