When I was a freshman in college, I looked up the Mandarin equivalent of “thank you” for an ill-conceived experiment communicating with restaurant staff while picking up Chinese takeout. In return I received a look of bewilderment, then a smile, and finally a barrage of unintelligible sound that I’m going to guess was an interrogative of some kind. I hadn’t thought that far ahead. I certainly didn’t anticipate I would one day sit down to reflect on several years of daily study and look forward to those that lay ahead. In the same vein, it was a good number of years into my addiction to anime before I began to think about trying to follow along without subtitles, ultimately traveling to Japan to get a closer look at the reality behind the narrow focus and stylized depictions of its pop culture.

These are not my first experiences with second languages. I studied Spanish in high school. Though I enjoyed it, I had no native Spanish speaking friends and didn’t see the language fitting into my other interests and plans at that time. I stopped once I had met my credit requirements. For me, it was challenging to sustain interest and momentum without a compelling hook to anchor my efforts.

In college I took up Italian, which was a good complement with my family heritage and classical music training. I spent a summer in Italy playing in an opera orchestra and taking language instruction. I was far from cosmopolitan centers, so the locals spoke little or no English, which was a great immersion experience. Most famously, I wandered around Urbania a few days before my departure, asking merchants if I could dig through their garbage. Confusion was dispelled when I explained I needed packing material to pad the bottles of wine I was mailing back to myself. I think I learned as much or more by becoming part of the community than from the many hours of formal study. I returned to the US determined to maintain that progress, but was discouraged by the drop in learning speed in the absence of constant exposure. I ultimately ended this study as well, though I had uncovered another piece of the necessary support system. Drive could only go so far without the environment for learning.

I think language is a crucial component of understanding a culture. Each influences and, in turn, is influenced by the other. It is this notion that serves as a backstop to my current endeavors and keeps me coming back each day for more. My wife Min is Chinese. She and one of her cousins are the only members of their extended family to have lived and worked outside of China. Bridging the cultural gap between me and them, or even beginning to understand what it means to be Chinese, is a journey that probably won’t have a defined end, but most of the lessons to be learned along the way would likely be lost on me if I did not have the ability to communicate in their language. It’s also really difficult to order tasty food when you can’t read the menu.

My entry point to Japanese via cartoons was somewhat less profound, but that fascination and enjoyment was what led me to track down the real people, places, and things that inspired their two-dimensional counterparts. I started reading (translated) work by contemporary Japanese writers, following news, and when presented with the opportunity, traveled to Japan to live and study for a short period of time. Friends were made. Broken Japanese was spoken. Trains were taken. Ramen was eaten. Although I absorbed much in the few months I was there, in the long run I had only just scratched the surface. As with China, I can spend the rest of my life studying the business, culture, and language and still not fully understand everything I see and hear. But so long as I can learn one thing tomorrow that I didn’t know today, I’ll consider it time well spent.

Staying interested has been the easy part. Where I’ve had to take deliberate measures has been in locating and choosing tools for learning, and creating opportunities for exposure in lieu of total immersion. In these respects, I have had more success with Mandarin than Japanese, but I’m in the process of making adjustments to both.

I started Mandarin studies with the Pimsleur method audio lessons. It was a good way to get acquainted with the sounds of the language without the distraction of writing and explicit grammar study, but after a few cycles through I needed to move on to broader and more challenging content. I had picked up a few textbooks and located some web-based materials, but the inert nature of the books and scattershot content of the websites made them difficult to utilize. There were opportunities to take formal classes at universities and community organizations, but the physical location and schedule constraints never quite seemed to work with my existing obligations. Discovering ChinesePod was the breakthrough that addressed many of these hurdles. While not a complete solution (which the service candidly notes), it was the wellspring of content and engagement that I needed to really start moving forward. It consists of language teaching podcasts centered around topic areas and stresses the use of contemporary language (as opposed to wooden, antiquated textbook models). The shows are complemented with online study materials and exercises specific to each lesson, as well as a growing collection of general tools and resources. I have been using ChinesePod regularly since the fall of 2009, in which time I’ve worked through 1,281 podcasts. That number includes the entirety of the “Newbie” and “Elementary” libraries, the first two of five difficulty levels, which I just recently cleared.

Now that I’m squarely in the midst of “Intermediate” lessons, I need to address learning gaps in order to push my Mandarin to be more functional. ChinesePod’s standard service, which includes the podcasts and study materials, is a great tool for listening comprehension and character recognition. The discussions, both in the podcast and on the chat boards, are engaging and frequently dip into cultural background and current events behind the language. As the creators acknowledge, ChinesePod’s strength is in providing exposure and context to the language, but it’s not meant to replace other methods and tools. For instance, it doesn’t offer a structured approach to learning grammar and doesn’t include conversational speaking unless you opt for additional Skype-based individual instruction. Handwriting practice (which I’ve chosen not to pursue at this time) is enabled through the site’s partnership with Skritter, but isn’t the main focus. For me to get a more solid foundation in the language structure, those textbooks will ultimately need to reappear, though this time I ought to have a much better idea of what to do with them. I got a jump start in speaking practice while Min’s parents lived with us last year. Now that they’ve returned to China I’ve slipped back to a bad habit of passing up opportunities to speak with Min because it’s still far quicker and easier to use English. It is frustrating to try expressing an adult thought with a limited vocabulary, but I’m going to have to get used to stretching if I want to improve.

Japanese has been more of a mishmash of source material, ranging from phrasebooks to audio lessons and websites of varying quality. I have yet to come across a comparable site to ChinesePod for learning Japanese (hint hint, Praxis Language). Initially, I had only planned to learn basic conversational spoken Japanese, but found that these resources were even insufficient for that. Now I’m evaluating where to go next in search of learning opportunities, but also stepping back to rethink through what I want to ultimately achieve. I decided that it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to add Japanese reading, as it borrows much of its writing system from Chinese. More importantly, I thought about my already deep interest in Japanese culture and plans to incorporate study of its approaches to infrastructure and urbanization into my long-term professional trajectory, and came to the realization that I’m going to have to take my speaking well beyond “please”, “thank you”, and “give me ramen with all of the toppings” if I truly want to immerse myself in these areas. Looks like I have some work to do.

Learning second languages as an adult has taught me a great deal about the process of learning, helped me understand my own strengths and weaknesses with regard to absorbing new information, and caused me to question behavior I observe in other realms. In my current work environment, I’m frequently expected to become an instant expert in tasks I’m taking on for the first time, execute quickly, and make no mistakes. This would be an absolutely disastrous approach to language study (and I have my doubts as to whether it’s a reasonable or valuable in any context). I work to make my Chinese and Japanese study efficient, so as to fill my available time with as much exposure as possible, but there is no substitute for consistent, applied practice (with ample allowance for experimentation and mistakes) over long periods of time. In this path, results do not come rapidly, make themselves apparent only in subtle ways, and often involve a bit of stumbling before getting a solid footing. It is not for the impatient or perfectionist. I’ll look back in 10, 20, and 30 years and be glad that I was neither.