How to Stay Motivated When Learning Japanese

It’s pretty easy to stay motivated with Japanese while in high school or college. You have class to go to each day, homework to do, tests to take, and grades to achieve. If you don’t keep up with your studies, you fail. Pretty decent motivation.

For the self-learner, there really aren’t the same sort of consequences. You skip doing Japanese for a week and you’re not punished at all. You’re actually rewarded. Rewarded with more time to play video games, watch TV, or go out with your friends. So how do you keep yourself motivated when there’s so much other fun stuff to do?

Habit, Habit, Habit

One of the most important factors of keeping motivation is developing it into a habit. Once something becomes a part of your daily routine, you’ll be much more likely to keep doing it from now until forever as it’s become second nature to you, just like walking the dog or brushing your teeth.

Lots of places on the internet say that it takes about twenty-one days to develop a habit. I personally feel that this is a very arbitrary number and how long it takes to develop a habit will very much depend on the activity and the person in question, but three weeks is a good starting point.

To make sure you stick to this habit of studying Japanese every day, every other day, or every week (especially in the beginning when the going is tough, and then once again when you reach the intermediate plateau) a great idea is to schedule your time. Actually block off time for activities during the day, or at the very least your Japanese. Physically write it down somewhere that you’re going to study Japanese from 7pm to 8pm Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and set an alarm or something to remind you when it’s time.

It also helps to be specific. Instead of just writing “Study Japanese,” write stuff like “Study Anki Deck,” “Study WaniKani,” or “Study TextFugu.” This makes it much easier to get right into your study session instead of wasting time thinking about what method you want to use because you’ve already laid it out ahead of time.

I really like this method a lot and I use it often when I have a lot of stuff to get done in one day. I’ve also used it in the past to get into the habit of working out each day and I also used it for studying Japanese (and now French). I feel like I’m much more productive when I have my whole day mapped out in an Excel file or something and I waste way less time derping around the internet. Trust me, it works. Mapping out your day is absolutely wonderful for productivity and motivation.

You don’t have to take my word for it though, just check out this list of famous people and their daily rituals and scheduled activities. If it worked for them, it can work for you too.

But of course there will always be that one night you were planning to have a study session and out of the blue your friends show up and want to go see a movie, or play video games and hang out or something and you’d feel like a real jerk blowing them off to study Japanese. You just need to promise yourself that you’ll reschedule your study time for later so you don’t get behind.

It’s important to keep up with your learning, but you don’t want to become a social outcast because of it. Unless of course you’re already a social outcast, then in that case, study away!

Keep it Fun

Fun is a huge motivator. You’re a lot more likely to do something and keep up with it if it’s fun. So, it’s important to find study methods that both work well for you and aren’t boring as all get out. Some great ways are to study with video games, anime, and dramas.

It’s also important to keep your individual study sessions short enough so that you aren’t burnt out by the end of them. The sweet spot for me is usually about thirty minutes to an hour, but you should go with what works best for you and then you can schedule that block of time into your week like I mentioned above.

Studying with these materials is also very rewarding. It may seem terrible at first when you start studying with a drama or something because there are so many new words, but in the end when you can watch the entire show and not have to look up any words and you know exactly what’s going on and what’s being said, it’s a pretty amazing feeling.

You should also be sure to select material that’s suitable for your level of learning. If you’re at expert level, you shouldn’t be reading and watching kid’s material (unless you’re just looking for an ego boost), and if you’re a beginner, you shouldn’t be diving into news reports and technical manuals.

Children’s books and TV shows are a great place to get your feet wet, and they can really make you feel a lot more accomplished. Unless of course you have trouble understanding anything that’s going on in the kid’s show, in which case you’ll feel like an idiot (it’s happened to me more than once), but that’s something you just have to get over. You’ll understand it eventually, just be patient.

Accountability

Accountability is a great motivator. Tell someone else your plan for keeping up with your Japanese studies and let them know exactly what you plan to do, when you plan to achieve milestones, and how you’re going to get there. Tell as many people as you can. You could even have some of them remind you about it, or get some really good friends to ask you if you studied Japanese today or not. Having to be accountable to people about your learning is a great way of guilting yourself into being motivated.

This way, if you fail to keep up with your studies, you’re not only letting yourself down, but you’re letting down everyone you told about your grand plans. You don’t want all your friends to be disappointed in you, right? Accountability works wonders. Plus, when you do achieve your goals, you’ll not only be proud yourself, but you’ll also have lots of other people to be proud of you and support you along the way.

Accountability is a great way to motivate yourself to achieve goals. Just don’t annoy your friends and family by talking to them about it all the time (unless they’re studying Japanese too, then by all means, bug the crap out of each other), wouldn’t want to alienate yourself or anything. Just use your best judgment.

Keep at It

Once you’ve developed a good habit of studying Japanese and having fun with it, you’ll be an unstoppable Japanese learning machine. No longer do you need a classroom, nagging teacher, or the threat of bad grades to motivate you. You have a fun schedule you created yourself, awesome self-learning materials, accountability, and the self-satisfaction of making it on your own. Learning Japanese solo is entirely possible with the right materials and the right attitude. So get out there and JFDI.


So tell me, how do you keep motivated with your Japanese self-study? Do you struggle with keeping up with it? What other tips and tricks do you use to stay motivated? Let us know and share in the comments!

  • http://twitter.com/testyal1 William Sumners

    I love learning any language, and Japanese is no different.

  • http://twitter.com/enricobianco Enrico Bianco

    I would add: remember your goal.

    That is, remember why it is you want to study Japanese in the first place.

    Do you want to be able to converse with people? Read manga and watch anime? Translate newspaper articles? Interpret for Japanese celebrity guests at conventions and conferences?

    It’s easier to feel like you’re making progress when you know where it is you’re trying to get to.

  • Tanya

    My best friend is a Japanese. The best motivation!!!

  • http://twitter.com/Kyze Héctor

    About that accountability, Koichi said the opposite in TextFugu: http://www.textfugu.com/season-1/hard-way/1-6/#top

  • Marije

    This is a great article, thank you. I’m just at the beginning of learning Japanese and I’m really struggling with Hiragana (starts good, I know). I know I should make a habit of it, thank you for reminding me and the other tips.

  • Rikke

    FIrst, to be honest, I’m a horribly lazy student!
    Second, maybe I’m a really bad candidate to answer this question, ‘cos Japanese is perhaps one of the things I’ve been the most interested in my whole life.

    I have a thing for languages; I want to be able to speak it, preferably fluently.
    My method of studying isn’t sitting hunched over books, dictating sentences and grammar rules to myself.
    I multi-task. That’s seriously the best way for me to learn. I’ve ripped the sound off of some of the anime I know pretty well, and as I know what they’re talking about, I keep finding new words and sentences. If I don’t know the word, or just wanna check what kanji it uses, I look it up on my phone or pc. Today, for example, I came across a word I new very well: 恐らく. However, I wanted to check if it had a kanji, and I was very surprised and puzzled to find it’s the same as that in 恐ろしい.
    By the way, I do this while walking my dogs/exercising/during transportation, so it’s a perfect use of time!

    I also chat a lot with myself/to imaginary people (lol, this makes me sound so sad xD). It helps, needless to say. Obviously, if you wanna be good at speaking, you gotta speak.

  • guyhey

    I’ve found once I committed in my mind to study Japanese as much as possible that I’m doing it, and I feel a strange mental itch when I’m not. I just now realized I’m not listening to something Japanese in the background, and it feels wrong.

    I think the post on “Just do it” is profoundly correct, but difficult to convey to someone who isn’t just doing it.

  • 古戸ヱリカ

    I smell an epic final battle between the tofugu and the textfugu over whether or not people should tell other people that they’re learning Japanese.

    As for me, I took the middle road, and told everyone I was learning a new language, but I told them it was Spanish.

  • Indre

    Awesome article, John!

    Posts like this just reminds me that I made a good decision and keeps me going!

    I’ve started learning 6 months ago and Tofugu was great source of inspiration. I’ve read Koichi’s JFDI post and it helped me to stay motivated at the beginning. After that I just turned studying Japanese into a habit and now I can’t imagine a day without doing it. No excuses – even when I’m tired, on holidays or just lazy I still try to do smth to improve my Japanese …or at least watch a drama or two :D

    I also try to have as much fun as I can and only choose the material I really like. Hopefully I will stay motivated enough to overcome the intermediate plateau.

    My Japanese friends are very supportive so I’m working hard to meet their expectations too :)

  • Indre

    I like your strategy :D Maybe I should tell people that I’m learning Esperanto to avoid endless comments like “So you want to move to Japan?” *facepalm*

  • http://www.myjapanesegreentea.com/ Ricardo Caicedo

    I developed the habit of studying at least 5 kanji daily, and have been at it for more than a year. That small number of kanji adds up before you know it.

  • John

    Here’s where the accountability thing gets kind of tricky in my opinion.

    I agree with most of what’s on that TextFugu link you sent me – like when people tell lots of others that they’re working out, or learning an instrument, or studying a language, I think it’s bad when they’re vague about it and telling others because then they really have no goal or deadline to live up to or anything to prove to the people they told. However, I think it’s good when people tell others stuff like, I’m going to lose 20lbs by Christmas, or I’ll learn to play this song by Thanksgiving, or I’ll know this many kanji by New Year. That way people can be checked up on to see if they attained the goals they said they were going to meet.

    I think when people are specific in the goals they share with other people and actually give a deadline and have a point to reach and shoot for and others know about it, I think that is beneficial. At least for me it is. Maybe for some other people it isn’t.

    But bottom line, I think it’s good to be specific when telling others and not so good to be generic about it. Hopefully what I said makes sense, lol. But yeah, do whatever works best for you – nobody’s the same.

  • John

    Yeah, I get the same way. I genuinely feel bad when I miss a day or two of studying or working out.

  • John

    Yeah, totally. That’s great though – keep it up, dude!

  • John

    Yeah, I kind of touched on that and a few other things in a previous article I wrote. I just didn’t want to rehash too much of it in this one, lol. But yeah, Remembering your goal and staying on target is really important to do.

    http://www.tofugu.com/2012/04/30/how-to-conquer-the-intermediate-plateau-of-japanese/

  • John

    Yeah, just keep at it and you’ll be reading hiragana like a pro! Have you checked out our Hiragana42 yet? If not you really should. It’s free and really helpful for learning hiragana.

    http://www.tofugu.com/japanese-resources/hiragana42/

  • ジョサイア

    Remembering かな and 漢字(かんじ) gets less difficult the longer you do it!
    I remember when I first started learning 日本語(にほんご)I was really bad at かな, What I did was read children books with a ひらがな to ろまじ chart.

  • ジョサイア

    Same here, C++ is no different :/.

  • ジョサイア

    I’ll just tell everyone that I’m learning ancient Sumerian. xD

  • ジョサイア

    I don’t really tell people but most of my friends know anyway. :D

  • ジョサイア

    Same here, but I have a lot of goals so I always have to find a balance….
    Like I can’t study Javanese after I just spent 2-4 hours on C++ and other stuff.(But I can listing to Japanese music when I’m programming!)

  • http://twitter.com/shollum Shollum

    lol. Good initiative. Let them think you’re a huge geek, just not a huge Japan geek.

  • http://twitter.com/shollum Shollum

    For those of you who spend a lot of time on the computer and need some help remembering to do things. There are free scheduling programs out there to help you. You can use the Lightning add on for Thunderbird (or alternatively Firebird, but it hasn’t been supported in a long time) which is a calender.

    This should help any of you who have difficulty scheduling without a calender. Better yet, it’ll tell you when that time comes around, so you can’t ‘forget to look’. Might not help much for you procrastinators (like me), but it’s worth a try.

    If you are on the go, cellphones have a similar alert feature (even if your phone is several years old, it should have it. Mine does).

    If you tend to ignore alarms and such, then make your studying a habit associated with something else. For instance, along with the rest of your nightly routine, you can do some reps on Anki or do some cards on WaniKani (which is really nice by the way, but it’s a bit confusing for me since I’ve already gone through Heisig’s. Different keywords and radicals = brain hurt).

    For making things that aren’t that fun normally (*cough*kanji study*cough*) enjoyable, set yourself some goals to achieve. Also remember not to try and learn too many things at once. You shouldn’t try to cram a kanji’s meaning, writing, and all it’s readings into your head at once or you’ll never want to study. Only learning one part of the kanji at a time is a lot more progress than trying to do the entirety of a kanji, burning out, not touching it for weeks, and then having to learn the same kanji again.

    Sorry for yet another long comment, just my thoughts on the subject.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Benny1228 Benny Kaye Nelson

    I read manga online and when it comes to the beginning or end of a chapter, that one page shows up that says something like, “In need of Japanese to English translators!” or whatever and I think to myself, “I want to be in that position.”

  • Yuni Indah Safitri

    This is really unrelated to staying motivated when learning Japanese, but i love how Tofugu’s banner images are so cute and personal XD

  • John

    Haha, glad you’ve been enjoying them

  • ジョサイア

    In the ハルヒすずみあ picture about under “Make it fun ” What if your キョン D:?

  • 古戸ヱリカ

    Then you have fun while pretending not to.

  • Jack
  • Yuni Indah Safitri

    Very much, keep up the good work! XD

  • ジョサイア

    xD

  • Wombat

    I have to stay motivated, I have to teach it!!!!

  • http://www.facebook.com/takashi.kato.5201 Takashi Kato

    First of all, I do not deny that self-studying works. I have been teaching Japanese for 20 years here in the U.S., and I have faced so many students came to me because he/she is sick of try studying Japanese without proper teacher/tutor. My biggest view is students need a solid foundation in order for them to proceed without teacher. Did you learn hiragana and kanji with proper stroke orders? Did you know studying the language is not merely an acquisition of a ligustic matter, rather something to do with its culture, manners, and customs? Why a verb comes the end of the sentense, but sometimes this is not the case? In what instance you do not need to use sufix “ka” when you compose interrogatives? Self-study is good, just make sure you choose right “private teacher/tutor” first, then proceed your self-study afterwards if you wish to avoid mastering a broken Japanese or uneducated Japanese. Japanese is a wonderful language to master and once you master your level of satisfaction will be sky high!!

  • Wakanai

    I agree, but also for the opposite. I see many students in my class (one evening per week) who will not make additional efforts to study more than what’s necessary (memorise the kanji, make homework, etc.). But those 3 hours per week of guided instructions are not enough to convey all related backgrounds. So besides taking lessons, I think it’s absolutely necessary to study additional things, read about the language, try to find out the backgrounds, etc. And – as you say – besides self-study, it’s highly recommended to have some guided instructions. Who are you going to ask your questions to?
    In my case, the problem is finding a person who is willing to answer my questions. Not everybody has the time, the motivation and the capability to explain things :)

  • Kurosekai32

    Changing the language settings on your favorite social networks (Facebook, Twitter, w/e) to Japanese has helped me speed up my reading of Japanese, and also helps to become familiar with Kanji like “写真” (photo). It also helps keep you motivated; if you don’t keep learning and remembering the Japanese, you won’t be able to use Facebook! [Unless you change it back to English, but that's just cheating!]

  • Jonny

    One of the most important things is to actually be in Japan where you have no choice but to speak Japanese in most occasions.

    http://hezekiah.hubpages.com/hub/Japanese-is-easier-than-you-think

  • Koichinohaha

    How to stay motivated when learning Japanese: read tofugu. :D

  • Rudyfrenchy

    Thanks for all the good learning, As soon as I feel a bit down for my Japanese study I just have to look at Tofugu, it really cheers me up and keep my intellectual curiosity up high about everything related to Japan. That motivates me a lot. Thank you Tofugu team. And now in my native language (since you mentionned learning french): Merci beaucoup pour la motivation et de m’aider dans mon apprentisage du japonais. ;-) (don’t pay attention to star rating stuff, I didn’t figure it out how it works, lol)

  • Nightmaresky

    Thanks for the article! It’s given me some encouragement. I am one of those people who are good at math, but terrible at language. I am glad I am not the only one who feels down about trying to learn Japanese! I swear I’ll start having nightmares about kanji. I am going to keep at it and try some of the things you suggested. :D

  • Rorschach

    Currently, I’m attending law school. The volume of work is absurd. Best thing to do is to study Japanese before bed, or devote a small portion of your time for it in the day. I think motivation is a mere catalyst to work and it can wear off. I do so much and it’s come to the point where finding “motivation” is becoming redundant in my life.

    Commitment is the virtue to build. Real commitment means doing something even when you don’t feel like doing it.

  • Vanillakitty

    I bribe myself with cake:) Its a fantastic method!!!!! Not so good if your on a diet though:)

  • Jack

    Hey all, I wrote a similar article on my blog, over at Delicious Japanese. It’s called “10 Ways to Keep Your Motivation to Learn Japanese High, Forever”. And can be read at:

    http://www.deliciousjapanese.com/2014/04/08/10-ways-keep-motivation-learn-japanese-high-forever/

    I feel like you missed the point a little bit with ‘habit habit habit’. If you feel rewarded by not studying Japanese and rather playing video games, going out, watching movies etc, shouldn’t you just be doing all of those fun things in Japanese?

    Making something part of a daily routine certainly guarantees a lot of time will be spent on it in the long run, but I think Japanese needs to be made fun and exciting as well, and people should put conscious effort into experimenting with it and seeking out new learning materials. Very un-routiney kind of stuff.