In this series of “obvious” posts, we’ve gone over several things. First, we talked about epiphanies and how to get them. Then we went over confusion, and why it’s such a good thing. Lastly, we looked at conscious competence to show you why you’re having trouble (as well as the four stages one goes through to reach the “obvious-land”). Now, instead of talking about theory and the steps one goes through in order to reach “Japanese-is-obvious” levels, we’re going to talk about solid things you can do (and do right now) that will get you to this oh-so-awesome mountain peak of Japanese learning. I should warn you though… you’ll still have to think long term.

The Long, Difficult Trail

First, before we start, I just want to mention that the path is long. The path doesn’t end tomorrow. It doesn’t end next month. It goes for a while… arguably a lifetime, depending on where your standards are at, so you need to be ready for the long haul. To make things worse, after your initial downhill hike everything becomes an uphill climb.

There is good news, though – the longer you stick with it, the stronger your legs will get (paralleling your mind, and how it gets stronger as you practice learning, in this case, Japanese).

Now, if you had a giant mountain or hill to climb, what do you think the best way to do it is? Climbing for 8 hours all at once, one day a week? Or, how about climbing a little bit every day? I’d definitely go for the second option. Your legs will get stronger, and they won’t atrophy while you sit there doing nothing the other 7 days. Consistency wins this race. Hopefully you’ll remember that. If you aren’t consistent, and you don’t do a little bit every day, none of the strategies below will help you one bit. If you are, well, then you should try these out.

Here are some things you can do to make Japanese obvious. Some of it will be review for you and some of it (hopefully) will be new to you. Either way, though, this kind of thing is a good reminder for all of us to stay consistent with our studies.

5 Actionable Ways To Make Japanese More Obvious

I’m going to go over each way fairly quickly, but hopefully thoroughly enough for you to get started. It’s Thanksgiving Holiday for a lot of you out there starting tonight, so what a better time than now to spend a little time learning Japanese?

Get A Good SRS

At Tofugu (and even on TextFugu) we use Anki, though there are other SRS (that’s spaced repetition software) applications and websites out there as well (We just reviewed Memrise, in fact). Really, though, it doesn’t matter too much as long as the program you’re using does a few different things:

  1. It helps you to study things you don’t know more often.
  2. It keeps track of time so that you have cards that are “due” to study.
  3. Optional: Preferably it also doesn’t give you multiple choice. Multiple choice teaches you to “narrow down the answer” not to pull the memory out of your head. It’s much better to have to come up with the answer from nothing (or a mnemonic) otherwise it’s nothing like real life.

Now, the reason a good SRS is important for making Japanese obvious is because of the consistency. One study session means nothing. 365 study sessions? That means a ton. Plus, with a good SRS you study the things you need to study and the things you know get put away for a long time so you don’t have to see them very often (very efficient!). Over the course of a long time you’ll learn a lot and with this knowledge you’ll become consciously competent. From there, it’s only a matter of time before Japanese becomes obvious.

Start Studying Sentences

Sentences are a great way to study. They include grammar, vocab, and conversational Japanese… this is stuff you can use. There are various ways to study sentences but most likely the easiest way would be to search for a Japanese sentences deck on Anki. Just doing a search myself found quite a few good looking ones. The 8555 Japanese Sentences one looks like a really good one, if you don’t know where to start.

Doing this every day will get you really far – while there’s something to be said about vocab (and I will say something about vocab next!) sentences will be incredibly helpful to you over time. The more you learn, the more the puzzle pieces of Japanese will start to come together. The more puzzle pieces you have, the more obvious it becomes where to put the next piece, without even having to think about it.

Some tips to make sentence studying better:

  • Say the sentences out loud.
  • Be strict. If you don’t remember / know even one little part of the sentence mark it as wrong so it comes back (don’t worry, you’ll get it the next time!).
  • Really having trouble with the reading for a sentence? Try RhinoSpike.
  • Sentence study is probably best for lower to middle intermediate learners of Japanese. Beginners will be overwhelmed.

Be Efficient About Vocab Learning

Vocab is great. The more vocab you know, the more you can communicate. If you only know vocab and don’t know any grammar at all, you can still kind of talk to someone. If you only know grammar and don’t know any vocab, you can’t do that. So, vocab is important… The most important question you should ask yourself shouldn’t be “how do I learn vocab” – instead, it should be “in what order should I learn vocab?”

I’ve done a lot of the work for you (if you’re an Anki using person, at least), but the smartest thing to do is to learn in order of “most commonly used” to “least commonly used.” Let’s hark back to the “Puzzle Pieces” example again. Some pieces are more important than other pieces. Edge pieces, for example do a ton to help you place the center pieces. “The Most Common Vocab” are like those side pieces. If you put those down first (i.e. learn them first) you can put everything else down more easily. Basically, 10% of all the existing vocab make up 90% of the benefit… so, why not learn those first? Makes everything else easier, and you can start using everything a lot faster too.

So, in this case, Quality > Quantity in order to win and make Japanese more obvious.

Make Mistakes

Making lots of mistakes is super beneficial to your learning. For some reason schools punish people for making mistakes. Really, though, they should be encouraging people to make mistakes, because the more mistakes you make, the more you learn (at least as long as you’re paying attention to your mistakes and not repeating them too often).

Being scared of making mistakes will stop you from learning. If you freeze and cringe every time you mess up, you’ll be stuck at the back of the line, so to speak. So, to make Japanese obvious, you have to make a lot of mistakes. How would someone go about doing that, then?

One great way is to use Lang-8 … and use it A LOT. You write journal entries in the language you’re learning (Japanese) and then native Japanese speakers correct your journal entries for you. It’s pretty awesome, but not made for someone who isn’t really into their mistakes. If you’re a lower-mid intermediate level Japanese student (or higher) you should use Lang-8. Every time someone corrects a mistake, figure out why they corrected it that way. Starting to see a pattern? Well, then you aren’t learning from your mistakes.

Generally, though, you should try not to be afraid of messing up. Embrace mistakes and you’ll be able to move forward a lot faster. If you fear mistakes then you’ll also never progress, and that’s no good for our consistency mantra, right?

Explain Things To Others

It’s one thing to learn something, it’s a whole other thing to tell someone about it (and have it make sense). Having to explain / teach something you’ve learned makes you think about it in a totally different way. You have to process things that you “just know” into things that follow some sort of order. If you can teach something, then you understand it as well. Things you teach tend to be a lot more obvious to you than things you can’t teach.

Not everyone has a friend they can sit down and teach everything they’ve learned (booooring), but luckily in this digital age there are ways to replicate this and gain sort of the same effect. By starting a blog, YouTube channel, and so on, you can write up lessons on the things you’ve learned. Hey, you never know – perhaps someday you’ll gain an audience as well. Wouldn’t that be fun?

But, try to spend some time teaching what you’ve just learned right after you’ve learned it. Even if it’s only 10 minutes per day. It will raise questions about things you didn’t know as well as you thought you did and allow you to learn various concepts more in depth when you research them later, filling in the gaps.

So, teach teach teach… and you shall learn learn learn. Also, you’ll be making ambiguous things in your mind obvious, and that’s a great thing.

Obvious Enough For Yah?

Obviously there are more “obvious” things for you to do to help make your Japanese more obvious, but I hope the tips above will help you to get started. Really what it comes down to is consistency, and if you are smart about your learning you can add that to your arsenal as well.

What things do you do to help make Japanese more “obvious” to you? What actions get you one step closer that other people can do too? Share them in the comments below.

Oh, and don’t know Japanese but would love to learn? Try out TextFugu (plus, members get all those super-efficient vocab decks free).

P.S. If it wasn’t already obvious, you should follow us on Twitter.
P.P.S. Obviously Twitter isn’t good enough for you. How about Facebook, then?

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  • London Caller

    Obviously, I’m in the wrong country to learn the language, man.

  • Michael

    Khatzumoto, author of the site All Japanese All The Time, would beg to differ.

  • JGeeks

    Good points here. One of the things I do daily is read twitter and facebook, through which I follow a lot of Japanese users. I can’t read everything, but I’m often surprised by how much I can read and use the dictionary or Rikaichan to look up things I don’t know. It helps me to use it in a natural way, to reinforce vocab or call to my attention new vocab I should be studying.

  • Tiffany Harvey

    I think these are very good ideas, although I had some problems with a few when I tried doing them before. I’d love to hear any tips or feedback about these.

    1) Using sentences ~ When I used sentences in Anki, the reviews took far too long & I had no motivation for it. I also felt I knew a lot of the vocab just because I recognized the sentence, but I wouldn’t have necessarily know that same vocab word on it’s own out in the ‘wild’ (didn’t feel like I was really learning it).

    Right now I only keep vocab on Anki. I just finished adding the large list I was working through (JLPT3 vocab) & plan to start doing a lot of reading next (quickly looking up words as I read through the text, adding new vocab that seems to pop up a lot) & studying grammar rules. We’ll see how it goes!

    2) Using Lang-8 ~ I had a great time with this at first but soon got too frustrated.  Writing even a short post took a very long time for me, and then I could understand very little of the corrections, making it feel more pointless than helpful. I decided to come back when I could understand a little more so I could actually get something out of the corrections.

  • Anonymous

    Lately, I’ve been working on something to help me with my kanji compound words. I switched the lang on my iPhone to 日本語, and that actually helps with kanji compounds. I look at a compound, bring out my dictionary and start analyzing the phrase/compound. For instance, 電話, when I first learned that word TextFuguで, I was like, okay, but when I understood the kanji, I was like Ooooookaaay!!!

    電 – electricity
    話 – speak, talk; story; etc

    Phone – Electric Talk! Who knew!

    Great post Koichi.

    ~ fv

  • Tawlar98

    Cool ideas, I’m starting a book to teach Japanese although I’m probably half way through beginner Japanese. It still helps reinforce though!

  • Shollum

    As long as you remember that people don’t necessarily talk like that, reading manga is good for learning kanji compounds and vocabulary in general since a great deal of it has furigana, even if its too small to read at times. You also get a sense of context without the need to understand all of those descriptive words need to envision a setting.

    Besides, if you go with the idea that most of the words used in any text are normal everyday words that are important for you to learn anyway, then there aren’t many limits to what you can use for learning. So, read/watch as many things as you want (in Japanese, of course!) especially make sure you watch plenty of Ghibli films! That’s an order!

    Input is important for output! I think you forgot to put that in there. If you didn’t, I apologize, I’ve been running on sugar and caffeine since about 6:00. Which might explain this long winded post.

  • Kiriain

    “Making lots of mistakes is super beneficial to your learning. For some
    reason schools punish people for making mistakes. Really, though, they
    should be encouraging people to make mistakes, because the more mistakes
    you make, the more you learn (at least as long as you’re paying
    attention to your mistakes and not repeating them too often).”
    For some reason, I thought of Magic School Bus.

  • hoshiro-

    Oi oi oi oi oi oi koichi I just remembered this now but what every happened to your awesome panda hat?

  • Anonymous

    I love this “explaining things” idea. I do that all the time (although just to myself). I may look or sound like I’m crazy, but this way I figure out which parts of what I learned I’m stumbling over and need to work on.

    A lot of the time when something doesn’t make sense to me, trying to explain it to myself will a lot of the time I’ll actually all of a sudden think of something I didn’t think of before and sometimes that way my problems with a language will kind of solve themselves.

    Of course, if I understand it pretty well, it still sticks a lot better afterwards if I can explain it to myself without having to look it up.

    And, of course, I do Anki every single day for all of the languages I do. It has made everything SO much more interesting. I just need to start working on getting more sentences in there…

  • Anonymous

    By the by, I think I remember you writing about (or maybe you linked to something about it) how schools shouldn’t punish mistakes so much—could you refer me to any resources or articles with more info like that (if you don’t mind/aren’t too busy, of course)? Because eventually I will be teaching and it seems like a very interesting approach and I’d like to learn up about it.

  • Hokkaido Kuma

    I don’t know if there is any sort of theory of learning behind this, but what helps me a lot is that I try to move from English to Japanese.  By doing this, it gets me to think in Japanese versus always trying to think in English.  For example, when I input new cards into my anki decks, I always have the Source Language (English) shown, and then I have to think about what the word is in my Target Language (Japanese).

    I’ve noticed that as learners of a second language we have a tendency to always go from target language to source language; i.e. reading a passage, dissecting sentences, learning new vocabulary, etc.

    I don’t know if there any evidence that proves this is more effective, but it does help me a lot.

  • JackiJinx

    Maybe this has been addressed before, but I have a question (I think a good one). What do you do with a person who wants to help you with your learning, but doesn’t really know the language and isn’t in it for learning it for him or herself?

    My boyfriend is supportive and wants to help me, and I get on such great learning streaks when he’s not around, but when he’s up for the weekend, I tend to abandon any study time or really minimize it just because of wanting to do things with him. He wants to help me and not hinder, so suggestions for some time for studying with him would be wonderful. All I can think of are him helping me with some physical flash cards as he can sort of remember hiragana and katakana (getting him to remember even 二 might be a struggle in the kanji department, which is a shame since I need to be challenged hardcore in that department).

    The explaining thing from this article made me think of this quandary. I explain things after I say them to him in Japanese (in English, too; who am I kidding?), but it still feels like it’s not enough. It’s like my train brakes are pulled, you know?

    Happy Turkey day, by the way! ^^

  • MilkyChoco52

    Every time I read this blog I feel so inspired ~v~ 

  • Alexa VanDemark

    Do you have any suggestions/websites for practicing speaking Japanese? I freeze up every time in class and have to think on it a lot longer than my classmates.

  • Hinoema

    Ok, who else read the title of this post and thought “Why would I want to give anyone a reason to sue me?”


  • Rebeccawitham

    Great tips indeed – anki is awesome for kana/kanji, too!

  • heya

    My Japanese teacher at Kansas State encourages this often when we are learning dialogues. It has helped my understanding of sentence structure tremendously.

  • Anonymous

    Have you heard about this RosettaStone racket? what does the destroyer of the JLLI think about this?

  • LovePrincess

    I’m REALLY new to Anki..I’m not quite sure where or how to find the 8555 Japanese sentences deck TT__TT I’ve searched google like mad!

  • Shollum

    There is actually an article about that, just look for it. I think he also has a video about that.
    But to save you time, both of those basically say that Rosetta Stone sucks at teaching Japanese. I would still take a look at the article though, it’s pretty detailed.

    It’s definitely not worth it with that price, anyway.

  • Shollum

    Download Anki decks by doing this in Anki
    File> Download> Shared Decks
    Just about all Anki decks (except for privately distributed ones like the TextFugu ones) are here.

  • koichi

    muahaha, then the serum is working… bwahhaa

  • koichi

    sounds dumb, but best way is to practice not freezing up, a little at a time, over and over again. Strangely, your classmates that are quicker learned to be quicker (through various things in their entire lives, which makes it a little unfair…) and learned to be more confident, etc., but you can do it too! It won’t be overnight, but if every time you freeze up / do something you don’t want to do, you think about it and try to overcome it a little bit more, you’ll eventually catch up and get ahead of everyone else!

  • koichi


  • koichi

    dang, was about to suggest you teach him things you’ve learned in order to learn it better yourself, but then I read the last part … you should still do that, though! Maybe instead of explaining things you’ve said, explaining entire concepts / teaching him lesson-style what you’ve learned – teaching big picture will be pretty helpful as it’ll help you learn / teach other things as well. Maybe try giving that a shot? Will be work, but work is good for getting better at things :)

  • koichi

    was in a book or two I read… I’m not 100% sure, but I think it might have been either Switch (by Heath) or Fascinate (by Hogshead). I’d say Switch is more likely the one that has this in it, though I’m also basing the info on my own experience partly too, and also on research about Montessori school styles… sorry, it’s all smattered all over the place and I’m not exactly sure where the smatterings come from :(

  • koichi

    you know that huge warehouse full of wooden boxes in the Indiana Jones movies…?

  • koichi

    best show evah

  • Anonymous

    Well I wasn’t planing in buying it, because I don’t believe in things like promising, that you can speak fluently in like 6 months or so….

    But hey, I just wanted to thank you for guiding me to that RosettaStone related article. XD

  • hj871

    Nice post.

    For those who are intermediate level and getting bored of just sentences, but still find novels overwhelming, I’ve had some success with inputting short dialogs and text excerpts in Anki too. Simply take a short text excerpt from a story, article, or script from a scene in a drama, etc…at least a couple paragraphs long to fill out your card, but not so long that it’s overwhelming…put the Japanese text on one side, and a translation or hints on the other.  For dramas, you can simply copy/paste transcripts from subtitle files if you have them, and rip an mp3 clip of the audio. This will help give you some more “meaty” cards, so that you can build up your confidence and stamina to move on to longer material.

    And yup, “teaching” really does help you learn too. I totally agree. I’ve “accidentally” learned a ton just by trying to explain or find the answer to other people’s questions. Sometimes you stumble upon interesting things and end up learning something new yourself.

  • hoshiro-

    No? I never watched Indiana Jones. Is that where it is?

  • koichi

    Oh no! Haha, well, that messes up my joke then! :P

    (Panda hat’s in storage)

  • Mattbonder


  • Anonymous

    Don’t worry about it. Any direction you can give is great!

  • Bruce Smith

    Dudes. Khatzumoto is King. And Tofugu Rocks. It’s 2011 and soon will be 2012. We have this interwebthingie and lots of techie goodness. It’s not 1981 anymore when old codger’s like me started trying to learn Japanese. Now in 2011 not being in Japan is no excuse. Do what Khatz and Tofugu tell you to do. You can learn Japanese no matter where you live. Just do it.

  • kuritsutei

    i put sticky notes with the kanji on stuff

  • Alexa VanDemark

    Thank you! I’ll do my best!

  • Yasawatse

    I read this twice already….そして私はちょうど今理解して.I feel so much fail for not getting it the first time xD

  • Matt Bonder

     I would say mostly just do what Khatz tells you…. don’t learn grammer