Learning Japanese with Matt Vs Japan
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Elle: Hi everyone. And welcome to the English LingQ podcast. Today I am joined by a special guest, Matt Vs Japan. How are you, Matt?
Matt: I am doing pretty great. How about yourself?
Elle: I’m doing good. I’m doing good. Thank you. And thank you for joining us. So for those listeners, viewers who don’t know who you are, Matt versus Japan, tell us a little bit about your YouTube channel.
Matt: Yeah, well, so I guess the very short version of my origin story is when I was in high school, I decided that I wanted to learn Japanese and I wanted to get really, really good at it.
So I found a website called All Japanese All the Time. That inspired me to really dedicate my whole life to learning Japanese. Uh, so I did that for about five years, reached a pretty good level. Six months of those five years was spent in Japan, but all the rest was spent, uh, here in Portland, Oregon, where I am right now.
And after getting pretty good at Japanese in five years, I started a YouTube channel to kind of help other people who wanted to use the type of, kind of unorthodox methods that I used to get good at Japanese without being inside of Japan.
Elle: Hmm. Excellent. I have to say I, I used to live in Japan. I know a little, but not like you speak Japanese! I have to say I’m so impressed. You sound Japanese to me when I listened. It’s it’s crazy. And you seem to speak with such ease too. It’s clear that you’ve put in many, many hours. Um, I wonder, so was it always Japanese for you? Like did you grow up interested in languages in general. Was it always a fascination with Japan and the Japanese language?
Matt: Actually for most of my life up until I got interested in Japanese languages were pretty much not on my radar at all. In fact, starting in middle school, I was forced to take Spanish classes. Well, actually I was forced to take a language class. I took Spanish by default because it was the easiest one and I was probably the worst kid in the class.
I’m pretty sure the teacher hated me because I was always goofing around and never paying attention. And I used to have this weird perverse pride, uh, where I would brag about how little I had learned, like, hey, I managed to get through this whole year and I don’t even know what, you know, tango means or whatever.
So, uh, yeah, I was the opposite type of person. And in fact, there were some kids in, in my middle school and my high school who were really into anime, but I kind of viewed them as the uncool kids and I wanted to be a cool, popular kid. So I was like, oh no, I can’t go anywhere near that. But, yeah. So then when I was in high school, actually it was freshman year of high school, ninth grade for people who don’t live in America, uh, that I became interested in Japanese.
And for the first portion of that year of school, I was taking Spanish again, because you had to take a language in school and I was doing really awfully. And so then when I just had this epiphany that I’m really interested in Japanese, and I want, I want to do whatever I can to learn more about the language and culture.
I went to my Spanish teacher to ask her, to let me transfer to Japanese. And she was like, well, you can’t even do Spanish. There’s no way you’re going to be able to do Japanese, it’s way harder. But, uh, I convinced them to let me switch and yeah, that was it.
Elle: That’s great that you had the opportunity. So there was Spanish, sorry. There was Japanese also in your high school. That’s great.
Matt: Yeah, lucky in that regard.
Elle: Yeah, for sure. So you totally fell in love with the, I guess the culture of the language, decided to go full on. And then, so you said you were in Japan for six months at some point, was that after high school?
Matt: That was during high school. So about a year after I first became interested in Japanese, I took a three week trip to Japan with other people from my school.
It was kind of a program through my school. And that was really fun, really excited and made me even more convinced that I wanted to pursue Japanese. And then the next year after that, I applied for a study abroad program that I just found online and went to Japan during my junior year of high.
Elle: And whereabouts were you in Japan?
Matt: I was in Gunma prefecture, which is only an hour or two away from Tokyo, but it also doesn’t really have anything interesting happening. So Japanese people, when they hear that I went to Gunma, they’ll be like, why why’d you go to Gunma? But, uh, I had no say in the matter, that was just where the program sent me.
Elle: Right. And you just had a fantastic time, any stand out kind of memories or experiences for you?
Matt: Actually, I didn’t have such a good time during my second trip to Japan. And it really, what happened was, well, a few things, first of all, the program that I went on was I, it was basically, or let me put it this way.
So when I went to Japan, I was going to a Japanese high school. And from the Japanese high school’s, point of view, the purpose of having an American come and stay at their school was that it was going to aid the English studies of all the Japanese students there. So the school that I was sent to was very focused on having their students learn English.
So it wasn’t really structured from, from the perspective of making the American have a good experience, because, you know, When I arrived in Japan, I didn’t speak Japanese very well yet. So, uh, I couldn’t understand any of the classes. Like they just threw me into the same classes that the Japanese people were taking.
So I was taking, you know, biology, physics, uh, math, all in Japanese. So it was complete jibberish and because the high school, uh, was a very, uh, it was a very serious school that was meant for students who wanted to go to a prestigious college. Most of the students were very serious about studying and, you know, weren’t the most kind of like laid back type of people.
So they were kind of busy with their studies. Like my host brother would always come home from school and just study for multiple hours. And so, uh, and also they didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Japanese. So we couldn’t really communicate. So all of this kind of led to me having a pretty isolated experience.
And so that, half of it, I would say was not really my fault. But there are another component was that I was very focused on studying Japanese and I had a very kind of a limited view of what studying Japanese meant because I had been following the advice on this website that I mentioned before, alljapaneseallthetime.com, which talked about doing things like, uh, watching a lot of anime and reading a lot of books and creating a lot of flashcards.
And I just kind of felt like it was actually more efficient for me to learn from that type of media than from real life people. Because on media, you can pause, you can rewind, you can look things up more easily, whereas you can’t do that with a real life person. So I kind of felt, yeah, that I’m better off just going to the library and reading books than trying to, you know, join a club and like play soccer with Japanese people.
And I think there was some truth to that from a pure language learning efficiency perspective, but also from another more obvious perspective. I probably would’ve, it would’ve been more of a, a net positive influence on my life if I just didn’t focus so much on lung Japanese during the short period of time I had in Japan and instead focused on just experiencing the culture, connecting with people and broadening my worldview.
So if I could go back, I would’ve done it differently, but, um, Okay. That’s uh, that’s how things turned out. So yeah, I actually ended up coming, coming back to America earlier than originally planned. The program was supposed to be a 10 month program, but eventually just got so isolated and depressed that I decided I want to go home and be with my family.
So, yeah, that was an interesting turn of events in my personal little story, but I eventually just decided that I still felt some sort of deep connection to the Japanese culture and language. And I’ve come so far that I just want to keep on going with it, even though I had that kind of a nasty experience.
Elle: Yeah. Good for you. It just goes to show how powerful that connection was after having such a negative experience that you, you kept on and, are where you are today. So that’s great. So you talk about, um, you previously you talked about having an unorthodox approach to learning Japanese and I, I guess you just spoke briefly on it just then, do you mean like using anime, which I guess is kind of not frowned upon, but it’s a non traditional way. People might say, it’s not the best way to learn Japanese because you know, you’ll learn the wrong kind of Japanese, more colloquial kind of language. Um, so that was your main focus then when you started to study Japanese seriously?
Matt: Yeah, anime was definitely the main focus of what I was studying from, but in terms of what made my method unorthodox, I would say that it was really these two components of first of all, having very little formal structure.
So I basically learned the most common words and studied some basic grammar. But after that, I just dove into authentic content and I was learning things as they came up in the content without using something like a textbook or a teacher or something like that. So I was really learning in this kind of organic, chaotic way of taking things as, as they came up.
So that’s one aspect to it. The other aspect of it, of the way I learned was that the emphasis is very strongly on input and comprehension in the beginning and not so much on speaking. So I was really just trying to get to the point where I could understand Japanese well before I was really concerned with trying to produce Japanese myself.
Elle: How long did you study before you started to speak? Do you remember?
Matt: It was around three years before I started speaking regularly. And a lot of that was just how the circumstances kind of played out because, well, I will say so early on when I had that six month period in Japan, obviously I was speaking a lot.
I was in Japan, but after I came back, Uh, I didn’t speak for probably a year or two after that. And that was partially just because I was in America. I didn’t have any Japanese friends, so there weren’t really any opportunities to speak. And then around the three year mark, I, and by the way, the way that I’m counting my time, might be a little weird.
Cause the first two years I was just taking classes and not starting very seriously. And then two years then I started the all Japanese all the time period. So when I was three years into the all Japanese, all the time period, I transferred into a four year university where there was a lot of Japanese foreign exchange students.
And so that naturally gave me the opportunity to use my Japanese because suddenly I could kind of join this community of Japanese speakers. So I started speaking really regularly after that. And I found that at that time I could speak really naturally without a lot of effort, even though I hadn’t really spoken since I was in Japan multiple years back and back then I could hardly speak at all.
So. Kind of was like, uh, all the input naturally led to that result of being able to use it myself.
Elle: Hmm. So what advice then if you had to boil it down. I know that’s tough to do, what advice do you have for anyone who is because Japanese is known to be a really difficult language to learn. What advice do you have for anyone thinking about dabbling or starting to study Japanese?
Matt: I mean, it kind of depends on what the person’s goals are because, you know, getting, if you want to get really good at Japanese, like to the point where you can just comfortably watch your favorite anime with no subtitles and it’s not any extra work or you can go and have a meaningful conversation with a Japanese person about, uh, you know, any, any topic spontaneously, that is going to take multiple years of really committing yourself and dedicating yourself to study.
So for, for those people, I would say if your final goal is to get really good, then I think taking an approach of focusing on comprehension and getting really good at understanding the language before worrying about speaking is going to serve you really well. But if you’re kind of, coming at it, as you know, it’s kind of a hobby, something you do on the side.
It’d be cool if you could, you know, speak a few words here or there, when you take a vacation to Japan. You know, maybe you learn a couple of phrases that enrich your experience of anime, although you still have to use the subtitles, uh, in that case then, you know, taking a more maybe traditional approach where, you know, you, you learn something and then you try to practice using it or, you know, using an app or something or a normal textbook.
Will probably serve you well, because the thing about my approach is that the, the gains that you get are very delayed. You know, like I said, it took me three years before I could speak really well. When the, when that three-year point arrived, I could speak really well, much better than people who generally take a traditional approach.
Uh, but three years is a really long time to be waiting and fully dedicating yourself to this thing. So I’d say it’s probably going to be helpful for people to think about what their goals are starting off, because I think a lot of people don’t really think about that.
Elle: Hmm, I agree with that for sure. Um, do you speak any other languages, or are you all about the Japanese? Do you remember any Spanish from high school?
Matt: I don’t remember any Spanish from high school, but I have been working on Mandarin, uh, on and off for a couple of years. But for the last couple of months, I’ve been more consistent with it. So that’s, that’s been pretty cool.
Elle: And how’s that going? I guess you have the Kanji from Japanese to help you.
Matt: That definitely helps a lot. And, uh, overall, uh, it was, yeah, like I said, I was on and off for a couple of years because, you know, I’m very interested in Mandarin and I want to learn the language, but I don’t necessarily want to dedicate my whole life to it like I did with Japanese. And because have always been a kind of all or nothing personality type, it’s taken me a while to learn how to still do Chinese, without trying to do it all the time.
And it feels like just in the past year, I finally figured out how to do that. And so now things are going pretty smoothly. And it’s, it’s been a lot of fun. I still base my approach off the, the approach that I took for Japanese. So I’m not really worried about speaking. I’m mostly watching Chinese dramas with Chinese subtitles and as I go, I’ll look words up and then I’ll make flashcards juror to remember words.
And yeah, I’m kind of at the point now where I can watch a drama and follow the plot if there’s Chinese subtitles, because you know, they, for a lot of people, the characters are probably one of the most difficult aspects of the language, but for me it makes it way easier cause I know them from Japanese. So with subtitles, I can understand pretty, pretty good amount, much less when it’s, it’s just listening, but…
but yeah, it’s been a lot of fun.
Elle: Excellent. And so what is, uh, what’s in the works for Matt Vs Japan in 2021? Anything interesting happening?
Matt: Yeah. Well, so right now I’m working on this project called Refold. We kind of launched a couple of months ago. So it’s kind of just taking the method that I used to learn Japanese and kind of adding a more formal structure to it so that there is some structure within the chaos.
Cause like I said, my personal, uh, method of learning Japanese was very chaotic and organic. It was just consuming, whatever, whatever Japanese content I felt like consuming, learning, whatever came up. And it worked but I think for a lot of people, they feel, they feel very overwhelmed by just the. You know, Nebula nebulosity of this approach.
So we’re creating a more structured kind of outline for how to learn organically through native content. And so we, when I say we it’s, I’m doing this with my friend, Ethan, so it’s the two of us mainly right now. And so we have a website up refold.la that has, um, uh, what we call a roadmap for taking this immersion style of, of learning and it breaks the language learning process down into four stages.
And the guide right now is what we call language agnostic. Meaning it’s not for any specific language, it’s just how to learn any language. And so we want to start partnering with people who have gotten to a really high level in various languages and creating kind of language specific guides for the same underlying
methodology that has specific resources and, and has a, you know, methodology for tackling challenges, unique to various languages. So hopefully, yeah, we’ll, we’ll have some of these language specific guides coming out, uh, later down this year.
Elle: Excellent. That sounds great. I think that’s great because like you say it is… a lot of people I think could benefit from that, this kind of language learning, just cherry picking, but you know what you enjoy, but it is chaotic, like you say, and it takes a special, I think, kind of person maybe to stick with it. And so a lot of people would benefit from having structure to it. So…
Matt: yeah, like I think it’s, it’s definitely never going to be for everybody, but I think, yeah, we can broaden out the scope of what type of person it’s going to work for by creating a more, a structured approach to it and better instruction.
Elle: Excellent. Well, I look forward to checking it out. Um, thank you so much, Matt, for joining us today. It’s been a pleasure.
Matt: Thanks so much for having me. It was fun.
Elle: Cheers And, uh, maybe we’ll chat again soon.
Matt: Yeah. Anytime.
Elle: Bye. Cheers. Bye bye.