Learning Japanese

I have decided to make a list of the things that have really helped me in learning Japanese and getting to the level that I am at. These things can be applied to other languages as well. I think most people know things like “start when you’re young” and “spend time in the country” but I want to offer some more practical approaches for those of us who don’t have an ideal learning environment.

1. Immersion

If you can go to another country, that’s great. But, most of us can’t and that’s ok. It doesn’t have to stop you from learning a language. But, to make up for not being in the environment everyday, you have to do as much as you can to put the language into your environment.

  • Work:  One thing you can do is put yourself in a Japanese speaking environment if there is one near where you live. In my city there are several (authentic) Japanese restaurants and grocery stores. It can be hard to get a job there as a foreigner who doesn’t speak much Japanese, but if someone gives you a chance then you will have that input all the time. If you already have a job, try looking on the activity boards that are often in these stores. They will be all in Japanese so you may have to stand there with your dictionary staring at a poster for a while, but this will tell you what kind of things Japanese native speakers are participating in in your city. See if you can get involved. If this seems intimidating, try putting up your own poster looking for a conversation partner. Many people will be willing to meet with you just to do language exchange. Also, bigger cities will often have a Japanese Church that you could go to to meet people.
  • Entertainment:  If you don’t have a Japanese community where you live, you can still do a lot on your own by immersing yourself through entertainment. There are tons of sources out there that will provide you with Japanese entertainment. I have known people who have gone as far as to not watch or listen to any English based entertainment unless they are with another American. However, it is important that you listen to all kinds of things, not just, oh, let’s say Anime. Anime can give you a lot of useful Japanese phrases but the reality is that it just is not a good representation of the Japanese spoken on a daily basis in Japan. So, mix it in with some TV shows, some documentaries, and most of all, the news.

While I don’t completely agree with the theory that All Japanese All the Time espouses, if you follow the toolbar down on the left side, you will see a section titled Phase 1: Equipment. This is an extensive list of free resources for Japanese TV, news, radio, etc. You can also find internet sites that stream radio from Japan. (My favorite is FM Hirakata because they have a top 30 countdown that they play almost every day.) Also, consider podcasts. You can set up a Japanese iTunes account and download podcasts for free. There are also a few on the US version.

If all this has left you saying, “But I can’t understand native level material!’, then read on!

2) Fake it till you make it

In general, I abhor this saying. However, I have found it to be pretty useful in language learning. Here’s why:

In one of the Japanese podcasts I was listening to (a lecture for high school students) the speaker said that if you want to become more familiar with the society around you, you have to watch the news, read articles, get involved. Even if you don’t understand what the articles are talking about, the information will get into your head. Then, the next time you hear it, you will remember that you have heard it somewhere and it will prompt you to look it up. So, even if you don’t understand all of what you read, you should read on because it will help you later.

This is true of learning a language too. In order to learn a language, you have to accept the fact that you won’t understand everything all the time. But, as those things you don’t understand are used more and more around you, you will get a better grasp of what they mean. So, if you are listening to a video, don’t pause it to look up every word. Watch and listen closely. Then watch it again. You will already know what happens visually and be able to identify key words that you couldn’t pick out the first time around.  Look up those and ignore the others. The more you listen, the more your vocabulary will grow and the easier it will be to pick out the important words from the unimportant ones. And if you don’t have time to look things up (say while driving) then just let it play. You will get used to the patterns and sounds and you may start to notice things in other programs and realize you have heard them before. It helps you internalize what you learn.

3. Kanji actually is pattern recognition

I have developed a theory of what kanji is that is different from how everyone else teaches it. (stick with me here) Kanji is the spelling of a word. Each word has a set of kanji that are used to write it. While each individual kanji also has a meaning and a set of pronunciations, memorizing them is tedious and won’t really help you. However, once you have learned so many words that use W and X kanji together and so many words that use Y and Z kanji, when you see XZ or YW, you get a good idea of how it might be pronounced. If you try to learn them all in order or learn what each one means, you will seldom actually be able to guess when you see a compound. Its much better to just learn words.

4. Prepare for interaction

This is something I learned from interpreting. If you know you are going to be interacting with someone and talking about a certain topic, if you know that you want to ask someone something specific, or if you are going to watch a show about something particular, you should brainstorm the words you will need, look them up, and study them before you go into that situation. That saves you from having to look them up on the spot and you will be surprised how much confidence it gives you. For those of you who are beginners, I recommend this dictionary. For those of you who are a little more advanced, ALC can be your best friend ever. Its not a dictionary, its a collection of translated phrases.

5. Say it the way you can

When you are talking to someone, or even writing to someone, don’t worry as much about saying something perfectly. That’s not what communication is about. You are trying to get a message across. So, use the words you have to try to do that. If at all possible, don’t stop and look things up while you are talking. Use the words you have to describe it.

6. Word will haunt you

When you started learning basic vocabulary, I’m sure you would look at a chapter and think “I will never need to know how to say X” and didn’t think twice about that word. However, words like that will haunt you. They will come back around and bite you in the butt. What I want to say here is that that is not a bad thing. You can rely on it. You don’t need to memorize every word you come across. Eventually, those words you didn’t study will come back up and you can learn them at that time. So, think of it like this:

When you study any new text, listen to any tv show, or start a new chapter of a textbook, those new words will fall into 3 categories: Use Now, Save for Later, and Throw Away.

  • The ones in the Use Now category are things that you have been wanting to say but didn’t know how. You should put all your effort into studying those ones.
  • Save for Later words can be jotted down in a notebook and left alone. If you finish studying the first words, you might go over some of these. But basically, these are words that you can foresee using sometime in the future, but not every day.
  • Words in the Throw Away category are words that you don’t think you will need. Like really, when are you ever going to use the term “liquid assets” in conversation. Well, eventually, you probably will. But until that day comes, set these words in your throw away pile.

7. Plateauing 

Plateauing is something that happens when you have studied for a while and feel like you aren’t making any progress. It can be incredibly frustrating. However, the best thing is usually to take a little break from your studies. It doesn’t mean you are giving up, it means you need time for all the things you have learned to sink in. Usually, when I hit a wall, I will turn the subtitles back on to whatever show I was watching and just enjoy it for what it is, instead of looking at everything as a study material that I have to digest. If you keep Japanese input around you like that, you will eventually find something that grasps your curiosity and your studies will naturally continue. Just be patient with yourself.


One thought on “Learning Japanese

  1. You know, I can fully attest to Number 5, Ally. Especially when I began getting into German in any kind of real capacity. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to speak like a true Deutschlander, so I used what I knew. The more I did that around other people who spoke better German than I did, the better I got at it. The biggest feedback I got after a while was that it didn’t matter that I didn’t have the largest vocabulary, or that my syntax would be horrifying on occasion – it was that the conversation was just that. A conversation. Fluid. Not “Hang on, I need to figure out how to conjugate this.” Probably the best advice out of a great grouping of tips.

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