When taking a formal foreign language class, your main goal is simple – pass the class, and maybe even aim for a A.
With self-study you have much more freedom to focus your energies into one or more areas. Sure, everybody wants to ‘become fluent’, but true fluency comes from a variety of interrelated skills. For example (in no particular order):
- Cultural knowledge
- Special domain knowledge (for example, technical terms in a certain field)
If you set specific goals, or at least priority of study areas then you’re more likely to achieve fluency in those areas, and this leads to more satisfaction and a rewarding feeling that your efforts were worth it.
One way to start is by thinking about the main reason you are studying Japanese (or some other foreign language). Here are a few different categories to think about:
- Want to learn to enjoy various forms of Japanese entertainment (books, manga, movies, TV shows) without resorting to subtitles or translations.
- Attracted to the difficulty of learning Japanese
- Attracted to modern Japanese culture
- Attracted to older Japanese culture (history buff)
- Want to/have to/are living in Japan
- Want to impress/communicate better with a current/future romantic interest
- Want to work in a job environment where Japanese is the primary language used (in or out of Japan)
Odds are that at least one or more of these applies to you. For me, I can say pretty much all of them apply, with some more than others. I would say the top three are probably the biggest for me personally.
I have been fortunate enough to have very rewarding jobs since college, so it is very difficult for me to live in Japan unless I can make commitment to quit and find a job in Japan (which likely pays significantly less). I also have family here.
For these reasons, plus the fact there isn’t a huge amount of native Japanese speakers in South Florida (compared to New York or California), several years back I decided to make understanding Japanese my main focus, and conversation secondary. After all, I could practice speaking in a mirror all day, but without many native speakers to converse with it’s hard to become truly fluent in conversation.
Not to say my conversation ability is that lacking – in the last few years I’ve had many opportunities to speak with native speakers and am generally able to get my point across, but I’m much better at reading Japanese novels. To give you an idea I’ve read over 50 novels in Japanese, not including manga or magazines.
If I tried to roughly list my priorities, with higher ones first, it would look something like this:
- Reading ability (modern Japanese books, magazines, and manga)
- Listening ability (modern Japanese)
- Writing ability (using a keyboard)
- Speaking ability
- Writing ability (by hand)
But enough about me. Try and think about your own priorities and that will help drive what types of study materials you utilize and how you study from day-to-day.