Learning a foreign language can be a daunting experience, especially one as intimidating as Japanese. Over my 3+ years of studying the language, I’ve learned what works for me, and what doesn’t. Which habits are good, and which habits are bad. There are a lot of things I really wish I would have known when I started studying all those many years ago, and now I’d like to share that erudition with you. Bask in this mighty font of knowledge, friends – and read on to see if your current study habits are setting you up for disaster (or success)!
Listen to as Much Japanese as You Can
Think about it – as a baby you listened to the English language constantly before you ever spoke a single word. By listening to Japanese all the time (TV, music, podcasts, etc) you prepare your brain for the great adventure ahead of you. It also helps out a lot with pronunciation. The more authentic Japanese you hear, the easier it will be for you to produce Japanese with little to no accent.
I listened to a lot of Japanese before I ever started seriously studying the language (TV, movies, music) and as a result I had a much more native sounding accent when I started taking classes. It really works!
As far as TV shows – dramas and talk shows are definitely the way to go. Watch them without subtitles, or just have it playing in the background while you do something else. Even passive listening can be a great help.
Anime can be good too, but for the beginner I’d say listening to real people talk in dramas and talk shows is best. The style of speech in anime is not always parallel with how people speak in the real world, and if you’re still just a beginner you might not always know if the styles and phrases used are practical. Wouldn’t want to develop any bad habits!
Don’t Use Romaji
Speaking of bad habits, let’s talk about romaji. Romaji is an unfortunate, unsightly crutch. Using English characters to represent the Japanese language will encourage you to speak with an English accent. And that’s bad. Very bad. There are even different “forms” of romaji (arigato, arigatou, arigatō), and that’s just confusing. Either don’t use romaji at all, or get yourself off it as soon as you can.
One of the first steps you should take in learning Japanese is getting katakana and hiragana down pat. If you can do that, you’ll never need to touch romaji ever again. And that’s a good thing.
One of my biggest gripes with the textbook we used in college was that it was chock full of romaji. Even in the third volume, everything was still in romaji. This really slowed down my reading speed and it wasn’t until I actually started reading real Japanese media on my own that I started to see great improvement. Check out the Tofugu Japanese Language Resources Guide for textbooks that don’t suck.
Sticking with romaji will really slow down your reading ability. If you get used to reading Japanese strictly in romaji, you will be very slow at reading Japanese in hiragana/katakana. The quicker you get used to reading in real Japanese, the better.
Use an SRS
SRS stands for Spaced Repetition System. They’re basically smart flashcards that track your progress for you. My favorites are Anki and iKnow. I use Anki for making my own flashcard decks, and I use iKnow for general vocabulary. SRS is really helpful because it automatically pays attention to which cards you get wrong and which ones you get right.
For example, if you keep missing one card, then the SRS will bring it up more frequently to give you more practice with it. And then if there’s a card you consistently get right all the time, the SRS will place it on the back burner and bring it back when it is ripe for review.
I use Anki when I want to make my own flashcard decks. I use video games, manga, and TV shows as material for getting new vocab words and phrases. As I’m going along, I make note of the words or phrases that I don’t understand and then later I put them into an Anki deck. That way, I can review the words and phrases that were difficult for me and speed up my comprehension. It really helps me focus and make the best use of my time.
Programs like Anki and websites like iKnow are very helpful for setting up a systematic schedule of study. They keep track of what you need to focus on studying first, and what you can save for another day. Anki also has a great community and a lot of premade decks you can download and check out before delving into the adventure of making your own. Using regular old flashcards is fine, but you’re really wasting a lot of time by not using an SRS.
Make Japanese Friends
While not as important as the other tips on this list (in the very beginning, at least), having real life Japanese people to talk to is very helpful, especially if you are self taught. And besides, what fun is learning a language if you have no one to talk to?
Having someone to send emails back and forth with, call, or webcam with can be a great learning asset. It prepares you for the real world of speaking Japanese, and you’ll have a native to immediately correct any mistakes you’re making. One of the online services that Koichi really likes is Lang-8. You can check out his review of it here.
Just make sure to let your new-found Japanese friends know that you actually want them to tell you when you mess up. A good amount of Japanese people are very shy and hesitant when it comes to correcting people and telling them they are wrong. This of course depends on the person. Our language partners in Japan had no problem telling us when we screwed up.
I made a lot of good friends when I studied abroad though, and I talk to most of them weekly. I still email with my home-stay sisters on a regular basis and talk to my other Japanese friends on Facebook. They help keep my Japanese skills sharp as well as improve my writing and reading comprehension. The Firefox plug-in Rikaichan can be a very useful tool for deciphering cryptic Japanese on the internet. Check it out!
Don’t study Japanese for five hours on Monday, not touch it again for a week, and try to make up for it by studying ten hours next Tuesday. You need to be consistent. Study Japanese every day if you can. Figure out how much time you can set aside each day and develop a schedule. Studying a little bit each day is way better than studying for long periods erratically. Keeping a consistent schedule will help you learn faster and retain information better.
Out of everything on the list, this is what I personally have the most trouble with. There’s just too many video games to play and people to hang out with for me to stay focused all the time. Don’t be like me! Set up a schedule for yourself and stick to it!
Have Fun While You Learn
Most important of all, just have fun with it! You’re not going to want to do something if you’re not enjoying yourself and you’ll retain a lot more information if you’re having a good time. And once you find a study method that works for you, stick with it, but don’t overdo it.
For example, if you’re really enjoying a study session with your favorite manga, stop a little early. Quit while you’re still having fun. That way, you’ll be looking forward to getting back into it. Don’t study until you’re completely stressed out and frustrated – who would want to come back to that?
Study with your friends and learn with manga, TV shows, and video games you actually enjoy. As you start to have fun with it, you’ll actually start to look forward to studying. Suddenly studying seems less like a chore and more like an adventure! (Whee!)
Put It All Together
On days when I’m not slacking off, I try to get a solid 2-3 hours of real study time in. I really like the Core Japanese decks on iKnow, so I make use of those quite often.
Lately, I’ve been reading the manga Yotsuba&! and making Anki cards out of the words and phrases that are new to me. I usually start from the beginning of the manga every session just to practice reading with the new phrases I’ve learned because it’s good review.
When I’m not actively studying, I like to have Japanese TV playing in the background. I have a two monitor set up on my computer, so when I’m surfing the web, I’ll have my browser up on one and a Japanese playlist up on the other. My playlist is comprised of some of my favorite dramas and a handful of variety shows.
When I’m not at home, I try to listen to Japanese music. I’ve been listening to a lot of Imaginary Flying Machine lately, but it’s always good to listen to music where the lyrics are audible and easy to understand.
Listening to Japanese all day really gets your brain into “Japanese mode.” On days when I really immerse myself in Japanese media I’ll often find myself thinking and even dreaming in Japanese. Fun!
There’s also a lot of mobile apps that you can use to study Japanese on the road. Some of my favorites include Kotoba! (awesome free Japanese dictionary), Tae Kim’s Guide to Learning Japanese (super awesome for grammar and structure), and Kanji Study (great for studying kanji on the go).
With Japanese, anything is possible
And there you have it. Just keep these simple tips in mind and you’ll have no problem overcoming the obstacle of conquering the Japanese language. I’ve been studying for 3+ years now and I still make good use of these basic tips each and every day. Now get out there and JFDI.
So tell me, what are your best tips for someone starting to learn the Japanese language?
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