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.

time is finite

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!)

study the grammar

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.

find a speaking partner

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 (string), (mouth), and (samurai), and means… to tie up or to bind. Huh? Plus the actual kanji for samurai, , is totally different from the samurai radical. Never mind, let’s push on.

The second kanji is made up of the radicals (tree), (one), (upside down box), and (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!

reason for learning japanese

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!

  • Juan Fernando Castellón

    Thank you for this post, motivation is vital. My main goal, with God’s help is to serve in a Spanish language congregation in Japan, while handling my day to day living in Japanese. I visited Japan last year for two weeks, I think two weeks of immersion (at least in writing, most of my hosts spoke Spanish) helped reinforce the Kanji I’ve learned over the years. Hopefully next time I get a chance to be immersed a little longer.

  • Shaun Krislock

    You nailed it Fiona!

  • Mel

    Half through #1 i started feeling so depressed that i rather commit suicide than do anything with my life. Bad.

  • Hashi
  • Ruben

    Tip # 2 was an eye opener.

    It is said that japanese has very easy grammar, and that japanese childeren spent a huge amount of time on kanji and not on grammar.

    Tip # 6 could be: don’t learn japanese exactly the way japanese childeren do. ;)

  • Philipp Brendel

    The first question people ask me when I tell them I’m learning Japanese is always, always: Why? Why learn such an exotic language? Why bother? Most of the time I get the feeling, my answer isn’t good enough: “Manga – video games – web sites.” But you know what? I don’t need to be working in Tokyo or have a Japanese mother-in-law; the little things motivate me well enough. Most of all, as a wise man once stated, “I enjoy understanding.”

  • besterthenyou

    We’ll now you’re time is REALLY finite.

  • 古戸ヱリカ

    I felt the same way when reading about studying grammar.

  • 古戸ヱリカ

    You’re? Uh oh, someone isn’t getting any tonight.

  • Víctor Hernández

    Hey in the #4, Isn’t 結 made up of, string ( 糸 ) and good luck/lucky ( 吉 ) with those you can get the meaning very easily ;). I understand the point that you want to make but breaking the kanji into each radical is just too much :)

  • Jacq

    Really good post, I’m always interested in how other people structure their Japanese study – especially other adult self learners. I was also happy to see Danielle Corsetto’s famous grammar strip from her webcomic ‘Girls with Slingshots’, but disappointed to see it wasn’t credited anywhere, so here’s the link for anyone interested:

  • フレヂイー

    Tip #6
    Stop believing that children learn languages better than adults. Children, have all the time in the world, have an amazing gift, too, that is no shame or embarrassment. A child will butcher words left and right, but guess what? They don’t care! Adults are sheepish, shy, we feel like the world will implode on us if we say a word wrong to a native speaker. Get over that hurdle, and fast.

    For those that have kids, next time you see them, realize that it took them 6-7 years to be fluent. But you are an adult and can understand concepts better. It really comes down to motivation, kids have that in bulk, adults, not so much.

  • Fee_Fi_Fiona

    Thank you; I found that comic doing the rounds on Tumblr reblogged to infinity and couldn’t get the actual source.

    p/s Just covering my arse here: “reblogged to infinity” = “had many many many notes”

  • Fee_Fi_Fiona

    Sorry Victor but “string” + “good luck” = “to tie up” doesn’t make sense to me either.

    In any case, yes, “breaking the kanji into each radical is just too much” was exactly the point I was trying to make.

  • Fee_Fi_Fiona

    Thank you, I’m glad you liked it.

  • Marc(OS)

    Can I ask what you mean by serving in a Spanish language congregation?

  • ZXNova

    The info in this topic is very good. But the problem I have at this point is martial needed to learn grammar. Otherwise, I would do better.

  • PurpleClouds

    Staying in Japan for over a year, have fallen in love with the place , the ppl… couldn’t possibly have a better drive to continue learning :) Well i am just a beginner though.

  • Víctor Hernández

    Yeah, doesn’t make sense, but it does once you know the meaning and it’s easy to recall (maybe no easy for everyone but at least you got a connection with something).

    Don’t take me wrong; I believe that memorizing the kanji using “brute force” isn’t the smartest way (it’s a valid method if someone got a lot of determination and time). But memorizing the characters using mnemonics or other methods is way better than using an “on demand” method, the advantage of the later is that you can practice vocabulary + grammar + kanji at the same time.

    However, maybe it’s ’cause my perspective to learn the language is different since I need to be able to speak, read and write since I’m going to study and live in japan and with a time limit I need to stress a lot more the “logic” side of the learning process :).

  • フレヂィー

    So, what’s your point? I didn’t say children are NOT born more capable of learning, in general. I was specifically referring to how one learns language and how adults and children learn it. The link you shared has nothing to do with what I pointed out. I don’t mean to sound crass but if you’re going to make a point, make it.

    Explain the word “chug” to a child that just learned the word drink and tell me how that works out. Now, tell an adult the same thing and his brain will start to fire on all cylinders, he hears the word “chug” and the brain kicks in > “chug > drink > swallow > and on and on … etc.”

  • HatsuHazama

    Very true. Children taught French in primary school (Y3-6) using the same methods you’d teach anyone French will simply leave primary school knowing no more French than your average non-French person.

    The misconception that children learn better maybe comes from the fact that in some countries (for me, India comes to mind), they teach kids languages from age 5. In a shorter time than usual they pick up English in India, so it would appear that kids learn better, till you consider their schools not only teach English lessons, but most do all classes in English (so it’s like full immersion), sometimes even with a rule that everyone must speak English while at school!

  • ジョサイア

    No ラメン tonight…darn.

  • ジョサイア


  • ジョサイア

    Great post!

    I really like that method…time to go pull out the manga… :D

    I’ve been learning Russian because it it very diffident from Japanese ..and they just have good action movies. LOL

    P.S. I think Koichi is pro SRS so…

  • Gabriel

    Não te preocupes de falares como um rapaz, as diferenças são bastante pequenas, pelo menos comparado com o japonês. Para além disso quem fala português é muito compreensivo para quem está a aprender. Mas isto já o teu parceiro te deve ter dito. ;)

  • Fee_Fi_Fiona

    Rsrsrs, eu peço o meu namorado, “Oi, fale alguma coisa quando eu fiz errado, viu?”

    Mas ele sempre só falou “Ai que bonitinha! Falando português!”

  • Fee_Fi_Fiona

    Russian? We need to provide support for the Russian language at work, and holy moly I don’t know how the lady that proofreads the translations does it!

    About the SRS thing: I use it too for complicated words and expressions… but I guess the (cliched) message is do what works for you, and SRS-ing on its own didn’t get me very far.

  • フレヂィー

    I complete agree.

  • Anonymous

    I’m not sure the deluge method can be entirely effective, since a lot of words aren’t repeated often enough for them to stick in your brain. I can speak from experience; I read the FF6 script for practice,and the only words I know I learned were Esper and Empire. The two words that are absolutely essential to the plot and thus will be repeated in almost every conversation over the course of the game. I doubt there are a lot of words in Japanese that can replicate this level of repetition.

  • Mel

    You know, there’s a big difference between Portuguese from Portugal and Portuguese from Brazil. The accent’s totally different and some words have complete different meanings. Oh! And the culture’s distinct too, obviously.
    If you study the history between the two countries you’ll know why Brazil inherited so much from the Portuguese culture. Ever heard of Pedro Álvares Cabral?
    Boa sorte com o estudo! :) Pelo o que li, ainda faltam uns pequenos ajustes na gramática, mas há-de melhorar. :)

  • Fee_Fi_Fiona

    Yup, I know that Brazilian Portuguese and Portuguese Portuguese are different – pode adivinhe que o namorado e brasileiro?

    Apologies, looks like I should have put a disclaimer about which Portuguese I meant in somewhere in the post.

    I don’t recognize the name Cabral, but I am aware of the relationship between Portugal and Brazil. In fact the most interesting thing about it, I think, was that the Portuguese intermarried with the Brazilian natives – quite unlike the Spanish in the other South American countries!

    Thanks for your comment : )

  • shahiir mizune

    You’re a Malay? I’m Malay to.

  • Mel

    É fácil saber que o seu namorado é Brasileiro, pelo o que escreveu em resposta a um comentário em Português.
    Português e Brasileiro são línguas com “personalidades” únicas.
    Read the frist two paragraphs if you want to find out about Pedro Álvares Cabral and his connection with Brazil in this link:

  • ジョサイア

    I use both, read a lot and put the memorable words in anki :D

    Also, The word アンキ is Japanese for memory. LOL

  • Fee_Fi_Fiona

    I don’t think reading just the FF6 script really captures the deluge method though. Get MORE stuff, like Tae Kim says, maybe?

  • Fee_Fi_Fiona

    Maybe when I’ve got some time : )

    I just find Brazil’s more recent stories more interesting though – I’m really curious as to how the Mensalão thing will play out.

  • Hannah

    I’m so glad you point out the importance of grammar! You can probably learn it well enough for daily use without focusing on it, but at higher levels it’s so important. With N2 or N1 readings, even if you know all the vocab, without knowing how the words relate to each other, you can miss the entire meaning. Lucky for me, I love studying grammar. It makes your language usage much more natural and various patterns can be used in many different situations.

    But on the other hand, my vocabulary is so small. orz

  • Fernando

    Adorei o artigo ! Parabéns ! Que ótima professora você é !

  • Mahdhi Osman

    Shocked to see the wellintonian part, were you perhaps a part of the “JET” programme?

  • Anders

    The best way to learn Japanese is to find work at a Japanese company. I don’t think you’ll really learn the language effectively (unless you’re an amazingly disciplined person) until you’re Forced to Learn. After 8 years, I still haven’t mastered Drunken Salariman-Go, but I do read business emails without trouble.

  • Diogo Diniz ジオゴジニズ

    Hi Fiona!! It’s so nice to find out you are learning Portuguese! I’m brazilian!! And by the way after I read your first post about Gackt I fell in love for him lol .. Well, my japanese learning techniques are always changing, I think I like that, I’m always taking different methods combined with the formal classes that I have with a japanese teacher who, luck of mine, is really energetic!! So when I started to get bored in the process I just change it all, start to learn the difficult fisrt and go back to the easy… This never-the-same method really works for me and keeps me motivated ;)

  • Salahare

    Time is Finite. You are Finite. Zathras if Finite… this is wrong tool. *rummages around toolbox*

    I had to make that obscure reference, forgive me.

  • Japaneselovingblackgirl456

    Well I want to learn the language because I want to live in Japan someday when I get older. I am only 13 in the 8th grade. I am taking Japanese for 4 years in high school so I could get my Japanese level up from a beginner to advanced. Maybe I will take Japanese again if I go to college to see what I know.

  • Melissa K.

    Thank you for this wonderful website. I am substitute teaching beginning Japanese here in Honolulu, Hawaii. I am 50 years old and studied Japanese from the age of 12-22 when I took it in middle school, high school and college. Then I virtually spoke no Japanese for 25 years or so when I was raising a family. In the last three years, I took it up again and went to Japan five times in the last two years, four times for community building in the temporary housing in Tohoku after 3/11/11. I have been studying very hard in the last year or so to make up for the lost years when I didn’t speak it. I have reacquired most of the language skills I had in college and learned lots of vocabulary and new kanji. It helps to be speaking it all the time to a native, so I am helping a Japanese national who moved here recently. I have found your website to be interesting, informative and fun! Thank you!

  • 破壊はな

    I started learning Japanese when I was 9 and the reason was to be one of those cool translator people who bring joy to those who want to read Japanese lyrics and manga. And, heh, now I wish I had learned Chinese instead… I can never make up my mind… Now here I am a few years later thinking “What IS my life?”