If you’re reading this post it’s probably safe to assume that you’ve got an interest in Japan, and you’re trying to improve your Japanese. You’ve probably also read all the tips and tricks out there that are supposed to help you achieve Enlightenment-level mastery of the Japanese language.
But if you were to try and follow all these tips, you’re in for a world of hurt. I mean, there are so many of them, and some contradict others. So it’s time to get selective: which tips are the best? Which ones should you follow? Most importantly, which tips are going to work for you?
To (hopefully) make it easier for you to decide, I’m going to list the top five tips that work for me – and when I say “me” I mean someone learning Japanese as an adult, in a non-immersive environment, using almost entirely self-study. The best part? Almost all of these tips are applicable to any new language you might be trying to learn, not just Japanese.
Tip #1: Realize Time is Finite
The general consensus is that it is easiest to learn a language early in life, when brain plasticity is at its greatest. But I don’t believe this “critical period” alone determines whether someone can master a new language or not. I think the obvious but often overlooked other half of the equation is the amount of time available.
Chances are, if you’re still living at home with your parents, someone else does most of the cooking and cleaning – you know, all the mundane but necessary “life” stuff. This means more free time for you, which means more time to learn Japanese (if you so choose, that is).
Once you leave the nest, though, it’s a whole different ball game. In addition to all the “life” stuff, your free time is also whittled down by university and part-time jobs, then by work and overtime… and it doesn’t get any better. Fast forward a few years and now you’ve got kids to ferry around to ballet and soccer, parents that are getting on and need caring for… you get the picture.
While slightly depressing, realizing and reminding myself how little actual time I have to learn Japanese makes prioritizing a whole lot easier. Because sometimes, the alternative to not studying Japanese is just that little bit more attractive:
Hmm, an hour of Homeland or an hour of revising ～て verb forms?
Should I complete another Cloudstone quest or go through my Anki reps?
Trashy gossip magazine or Hoshi Shinichi’s 変な薬?
Keeping Japanese high up on my list of priorities makes the choice obvious.
Tip #2: Study the Grammar
Some people claim that you don’t need to study grammar; just read and listen enough and you’ll pick it up naturally.
There’s definitely truth in this: when I was younger I learned English this way. My mother tongue is Malay; I attended schools where the language of instruction was Malay. But back then I had my youthful flexible brain and school holidays that seemed to last forever: all the more time to read English books and watch English TV programs.
I wish I could say things haven’t changed since then, that I can just soak up a new language like a sponge, but that’s just not true. These days I simply can’t do without studying the grammar and figuring out how a language is put together. (But if you can, all the more power to you!)
If you’re a self-learner like I am, studying Japanese grammar is going to be painful at first: it will seem like you’re making only very slow progress if any. Plus, unlike those that take formal Japanese classes, you won’t have the benefit of having someone point out your mistakes and answer all your “But why?!” questions (I know I had a lot of those, and some things still really confuse me).
But trust me, studying the grammar now will help you learn faster in the long run, since you don’t have to always stop and wonder why this particle was used here instead of that one, or what the heck is this verb form I’ve never seen it before.
Tip #3: Find a Speaking Partner
If I could do things over, I’d have tried to find a speaking partner from Day 1, that’s how important I think having a speaking partner is.
You can practice your listening and speaking skills by shadowing J-drama actors. Unfortunately, real spoken Japanese is notorious for being very fast, and syllables are punted off at every opportunity – and you can’t ask the actors to repeat themselves, a bit more slowly and a bit more clearly please! Trying to slow the audio down just makes it worse; the actors’ voices end up so mangled they sound like Chewbacca with a cold.
When you’ve got a speaking partner, though, those problems go away. You can even ask them to clarify words and grammar constructs you haven’t come across before. Besides, actively engaging in a conversation, rather than simply parroting a script also trains your brain to think and reply in Japanese.
This is a no-brainer, but for the sake of completion: if at all possible, find a speaking partner of the same gender, especially for a gendered language like Japanese. I’ve also been self-learning Portuguese for a while now, with my better half as my speaking partner. But Portuguese is also a gendered language, and unfortunately I’ve developed the hard-to-shake habit of speaking like a guy, talking to a girl.
This isn’t a fatal mistake, whether in Japanese or Portuguese; people will still understand what you’re trying to say. Nevertheless it gets in the way of real mastery of a language, and if you get into the habit of speaking like the opposite gender (like I have) it’s just going to make it harder to correct yourself in the future (as I’ve found).
Tip #4: Meaningful Memorization
I don’t believe in memorizing kanji just… because. I need a reason to learn it – and I reckon the best reason to learn a kanji is the simple fact that it is in common use. The best way to find out which kanji are widely used, and also get some reading practice in at the same time? Tae Kim’s “deluge” method, which he describes as:
This means plowing through pages of books and manga, hours of dialogue, and conversation practice forgetting more words than remembering them. Don’t sit around wasting time entering and reviewing what you’ve already seen, just get more, more, and MORE STUFF!!!
When I come across a kanji or word I don’t know, I look it up and identify the radicals it contains, and then I forget about it. If that word is common enough and therefore worth knowing, I know I will come across it again, and each time I do, it reinforces my memory and understanding of it and its component radicals.
However, I personally find that the “deluge” method just on its own isn’t foolproof, especially when it comes to words and expressions with multiple kanji, like jukugos. So I’ve also adopted a bastardized version of Khatzumoto’s cloze-deletion method – or in plain English, using fill-in-the-blanks Anki cards.
The biggest advantage of the cloze-deletion method is, to me at least, the fact that it provides context, and also places emphasis on the word or expression in its entirety – because I don’t think that learning a bunch of constituent radicals or kanji on their own is the best way to learn new words. This is especially true, in my opinion, for kanji and words that are not the sum of their parts.
Say this is the word you want to learn: 結構.
The first kanji is made up of the radicals 糸 (string), 口 (mouth), and 士 (samurai), and means… to tie up or to bind. Huh? Plus the actual kanji for samurai, 侍, is totally different from the samurai radical. Never mind, let’s push on.
The second kanji is made up of the radicals 木 (tree), 一 (one), 冂 (upside down box), and 十 (ten), and means… paper mulberry. Um, okay, I guess. There’s a tree radical in there after all.
To all logical intents and purposes, 結構 must mean a tied-up paper mulberry tree, right? Nope, not even close. It means OK, no thanks, and wonderful, among other things. But there’s no way to know that unless you regard 結構 in its entirety as something separate from its constituent kanji, and you won’t know which meaning is correct without context.
Here’s how to combine the “deluge” method with cloze-deletion. Say I’ve seen this 結構 combination crop up a few times now on Rocket News, and I have no problem recognizing or reading it. But reproducing it? Alas! So into my Anki deck it goes, bastardized cloze-deletion style, one card for each kanji I’m trying to learn (by the way, SPACEALC is awesome for finding sentences for your Anki cards).
(Either one will be fine)
(There is no need to repay me)
Then I basically try to fill in the blanks when I do my Anki reps. The first few times, I go through the trouble of actually writing down the missing kanji on paper – I don’t know, maybe I’m a visual person, but actually seeing it seems to help. Later, as my memory of the word improves, I find that I can just trace the answer with my finger and just know I’ve “written” it correctly – and at this point I can tick this word off my list.
Tip #5: Find a reason
Learning a new language requires a whole lot of motivation: motivation to study the grammar, to do your Anki reps, to keep up with the reading, speaking and listening practice. All that stuff is a lot of work, and must surely be one of the main reasons why people give up.
So what’s the best was to stay motivated and not throw in to towel? Find a reason to persevere, and keep it in mind whenever things get hard.
As I’ve mentioned previously, I am self-learning Portuguese as well as Japanese. The reason for that is, surprise surprise, a sign of commitment to my better half. It’s great for having private conversations in public too, which is a bonus.
Those of you that read my first, introductory post might remember that I singled out Gackt’s “Story” as the start of my interest in all things Japanese. That was the lighthearted, politically correct reason. Here’s the other one: it’s undeniable that the Japanese did some pretty atrocious things during WWII. My parents’ and grandparents’ generation naturally don’t feel all that, shall we say, charitable towards the Japanese – but I’ve never felt comfortable with the disgust with which my mom would simply dismiss an entire nation. The questions “Are they really as bad as all that?” and “Who are they?” therefore became the other main reason for my interest in all things Japanese.
The reasons I’ve given for learning Portuguese and Japanese are very different and highly personal, but your own reason for learning a new language doesn’t have to be. Just find a reason, any reason!
Sure, there will be those holier-than-thou people who will say that “I want to read raw manga” is a laughable reason for learning Japanese, but I don’t buy that. If it’s good enough to keep you knuckling down day after day, then it’s more than good enough.
Well, if you’ve read up to this point, thank you and congratulations! You’ve got a much longer attention span than I have.
Do you have any tips of your own you’d like to share? Which combination of tips have worked best for you? Share them with us in the comments!