Most of the world doesn’t speak Japanese. In fact, only 1.8% of the world speaks Japanese, and most of these people live on a series of islands that add up to, approximately, the size of the state of California. If you happen to live outside of this island (statistically, you probably do), then the chances of hearing, speaking, reading, or writing the Japanese language go down quite dramatically. Your opportunities include classes, people you know, the internet, and what you come up with on your own.

This article is about the last bit.

It’s so hard to make your brain switch over to “Japanese-mode” without being surrounded by Japanese (all Japanese all the time, some people might say). There certainly is a huge difference between hearing almost only Japanese and hearing just some Japanese. Until it becomes easier for your brain to switch to primarily Japanese, it’s just not going to do so on its own. And because for most people creating an “immersion experience” outside of Japan is near impossible, you have to put in a lot of extra work to make things work.

This article is about that too.

There are certain things that I did before we headed back to Japan in February. It turned out that once I was there for a day or two things started clicking back into place (apparently things really go into hibernation in your brain), but the preparation I did helped a lot as well. I thought it would be interesting to share those things with you so that you can try them out too. Depending on your level, some aspects may or may not be helpful, but I’ll try to break things down so everyone can get something out of this.

Kanji Learning


It may seem like I’m taking this opportunity to just tout WaniKani, because I am, but it really made a huge difference for me in not only preparing for this trip but also for some of the other practice ideas I have written about below. Really, I can’t stress enough how important kanji is. It is the foundation for reading and writing. It will allow you to learn vocabulary much faster. It will even help you with pronunciation and understanding, which trickles down to speaking and listening quite a bit too. Sure, it’s the scariest thing out there for most learners, but it’s the thing that will get you better at Japanese the fastest, no matter what it is you plan to focus on (reading, speaking, whatever).

I had previously known a lot of kanji and could read a decent amount of vocab, but it was WaniKani that helped me to actually understand kanji and turn it around to work for me (rather than me being a slave to kanji). The amount I was able to read went up very considerably in the last six months, and it has made all other types of studying and comprehension much better, as you’ll read about below, I’m sure.

Anyways, no matter what you do, if you’re learning Japanese in a non-Japanese speaking world, kanji is going to be your foundation. Always. Whether you want to only learn Japanese to read manga or you want to learn Japanese to talk to people, kanji will accelerate everything by a considerable amount. I’m super biased and WaniKani is obviously the best thing since sliced bread, but even if you don’t use WaniKani use something else (kanjidamage, Anki, Remembering The Kanji, to name a few), because kanji is very necessary for fast advancement and understanding of the Japanese language.

The “Constant Translation” Project


Photo by S. Diddy

For me, it started with the radio. The thing is, when you live with someone else, you aren’t going to be able to turn on Japanese audiobooks, podcasts, TV shows, and so on 24/7 for yourself. You have to think about other people when other people are around (shocking, right?), so you have to come up with other ways to “listen” to Japanese during your down time.

In the car, we’d listen to the radio. What I realized is that I could translate things as I heard them. Now the key here is to do things at your level. Some people may be taking phrases and translating them in Japanese. Others may be listening for words they know, then saying them in Japanese. No matter what level you are, though, you can increase your awareness of what’s being said on the radio and translate as much as possible in real time.

I think there are two important keys to making this work, though.

  1. You can’t worry about accuracy. Worry more about speed. You aren’t writing anything down and you aren’t trying to make things perfect. More importantly, you’re trying to translate as much as you possibly can as quickly as you can. The goal is to be able to make switches from English to Japanese a lot more quickly, and this will help you to practice that.
  2. You actually remember to do this drill. Because it’s easier for your brain to not do this, you’re not going to remember to do this every time the radio, TV, or laser-disk fires up. Training yourself to remember that you need to do this constantly is really important. It will take a week or two before you automatically just attempt to translate everything you hear on the radio as soon as it starts playing.

After a while you’ll start to notice that many words will go from “kind of knew” to “knows really well” status. As you learn more and more words from learning kanji (see above), you’ll be able to recall words a lot more easily which is very important to speaking and listening.

Talking To Yourself


Photo by Joe Jakeman

I already talked about this in the past, so I’ll let you go read about “Practicing Japanese To Insanity” on your own. I just wanted to add a couple of things that I focused on in the months leading up to February.

  • As you go through the day, collect useful words you’ve learned. I put them in Evernote, but put yours wherever you want. Then, when you’re talking to yourself, try to remember the words you’re supposed to use (review them a bit before starting, but don’t look while you’re talking because that won’t help) and use them. The act of recalling these words on your own will help you to recall them the next time you actually need them.
  • If you learn new grammar throughout the day, also try to use that in much the same way as the previous bullet point.
  • Try to do different emotions. I would go from angry to unsure to polite to happy. It’s interesting and mixes things up, plus speaking with emotion is more natural than speaking without it.

When you can, talk to yourself. Also, add a little structure to it, which involves just using the things you’ve learned recently to help with recall.

Frequency Word Lists


Photo by d3b…*

Not worrying as much about the kanji, there are some good word-frequency lists out there. I took a list, edited it a bit, and then put it into a spreadsheet which I printed out. Thirty pages later, I had approximately 10,000 frequent words ordered (with many not-so-well-ordered sections) by frequency of use. Wrapping back around to part one of this article, all that WaniKani really helped a lot with this, because, well, there was a lot of kanji.

With this printout, I went through it crossing out words I already knew well. Because I made the mistake of using a sharpie and because I knew almost everything a good number of pages in, I switched to highlighting what I didn’t know instead. Sharpies are pretty “pungent.” Do whatever works for you. Using a list like this, you know you’re studying the most useful words first, though it’s pretty hard to do without a good kanji foundation, so I’d recommend that first. You can then whittle away the things you don’t know, moving closer and closer to obscurity.

I would spend a bit of time with this every day and it helped remind me of common words, helped me to learn new ones, and came in handy during listening. There would be words that would come up in conversation and I’d go… “Hmm, I’ve seen that somewhere, oh yeah, it’s that word.” Context helps a lot here too. But, studying like this will give you a lot of benefit for a very small amount of time, something that gives you a big advantage when you’re living in a non-Japanese speaking part of the world.

Reading, A Lot


Photo by moriza

Reading, of course, also played a big part in my preparations. Mainly I read blogs, since they were written in a more “conversational” manner, but I also read articles too. I found that Readability + iPad worked pretty well, at least in terms of turning terribly formatted Japanese websites into readable ones. The thing about reading is that 1) you need kanji knowledge (always coming back to part 1), and 2) you get exposed to a lot of grammar, slang, and vocabulary words. Reading a lot means you get a lot of that, and it makes you better exponentially over time.

Just reading for a day or two does nothing. Even a week barely will feel like you’ve gotten better. Read for an hour or two a day for a month, though, and you’ll get way better at not just reading, but understanding and speaking as well. Reading will help you to recall better, and recalling is important for everything.

What Do You Do?

In a non-Japanese speaking world, what do you do to get better? Sometimes it takes some creativity. More often it just takes a lot of force and  hardheadedness. I think a mixture of the two works quite well, but what about you?

  • Bakagaijin

    kakkoii naaaaaaaaaaaaaaah

  • Scott Lavigne

    I kind of take the talking to one’s self and mix it with the translating Japanese ideas. When you’re walking somewhere or sitting and waiting, you always are thinking stuff in your head. Translate that to Japanese. “Wow! It’s cold!” becomes “チョー寒いね!”. And if you are lucky enough to have a smartphone, you can look up any words you don’t know in a dictionary app(like imiwa)! This helps you become able to just think in Japanese. And it’s how I became able to have conversations pretty quick in Japanese and Korean, it helps you understand, and create a response faster because you can think in that language now.

  • innadee

    I usually just watch A TON of Japanese tv without the subtitles… It helps a lot with the listening and trying to process what’s going on and stuff. I do at least one show a day. Heck, i’ve picked up both vocabulary and some slang words. :)

  • Mescale

    I think you’ll find Oportunities is actually spelt HIPPOTUNEYARTARIES.
    Silly Koichi

  • Kerensa

    I’m in a Japanese speaking world, but I thought I’d share some of what I do.

    I take kendo classes. Granted, the words used at the dojo aren’t words that you would use in everyday Japanese, but it does help gain the confidence to speak more Japanese as well as practice speaking what you already know.

    Other than that, I take private Japanese lessons at work and I try to place myself in situations that are out of my comfort zone and force me to speak Japanese. Reading children’s novels and some manga is also helpful (Doraemon, Yotsuba!). The reading aspect of my study is something I did while living in America too. Making notes of words I don’t know, etc.

  • MisterM2402

    This 10,000 frequent words spreadsheet, could you share that with the rest of the class? Please? :D Sounds interesting.

  • Kirt Senser

    For those of you that haven’t tried wanikani yet, get on that ASAP. I’ve been using it for a little while now, and even though I’ve studied Japanese for a few years and even did things like “Remembering the Kanji” (got about 1000 kanji in), it was never quite as fun/enjoyable as wanikani.

  • Chux

    In the bus, I always look for car plates and (For example RA-6544) And I try to say (or think) it in japanese. Made me a fast number sayer :)

  • Hannah Whittingham

    Great article!
    I found this quite helpful.

    I liked the point you made about constantly translating.
    I have been doing this, but I typically stop if I think I’m saying the sentence incorrectly.
    Which often leads me to being a bit frustrated with not knowing proper Japanese grammar. And then I just stop translating altogether!

    But I’ll do what you said and keep trying anyway, even if I’m not sure whether what I said was correctly or not!

    As for what I do, one thing I’ve done is changed my facebook language settings to Japanese, which was actually very helpful. As it forces to really READ and try to understand whats happening. And if there is a kanji I don’t understand, it gets me to look it up and study it. I’ve learned a few kanji and words this way.

    Another thing I do is read blogs (like you) and play Japanese games. I’ve found that Love Plus is particularly good, since the language used in the game is fairly simple, and casual. Granted…A majority of it I still don’t understand, but it does get me studying certain phrases or kanji I don’t understand. And when I do understand something, it’s really quite exciting! >u<

    The game is pretty straight forward too, so I know how to navigate the game easily. Not only that…But it's absolutely adorable. T-T ♥

  • Jon

    I don’t think you should do the constantly translating thing while you’re driving. Maybe while someone else is driving, but I certainly don’t think it’s a good idea to do it you’re personally driving.

    If you need something to read, you can always try youtube. Just find some videos from Japanese people, and look at the Japanese comments.

  • suko

    Shop in Asian stores. ‘Cause there you’ll need to stuff you’d actually need if you came to live in Japan. You gotta live on something, after all ;) So don’t just go by pictures or translations but the original packaging. Read the labels and instructions, even if you usually don’t. You’ll learn more that Japanese ^^

  • 古戸ヱリカ

    What a kakkoii morning.

  • 古戸ヱリカ

    Translating while driving is a great way to memorize the word 交通事故.

  • 古戸ヱリカ

    Based off the banner image, we can confirm that Japan is the only country that still sleeps with a night-light on.

  • Hashi

    It’s to keep the North Koreans away

  • 田辺先生

    When bands/musicians perform on Japanese TV they lyrics are nearly always on the screen…. there for most songs on Youtube have the lyrics as well. Even better, BUY the CD and listen while reading the lyric… great for your kana/kanji and for vocab.

  • Hamyo

    You can try to translating the scene of a movie that in english in to Japanese, it might be the hardest one but if you want to learn both of english and japanese it will help you so much. have a try :)

  • Hamyo

    Translating a scene on a movie that in english in to japanese is the hardest one but it really helpfull for a person that want to learn both english and japanese. :)

  • Hamishhh

    I second this.

  • Anonymous

    The problem I have with the reading suggestion at the bottom is….well, how am I supposed to read Japanese? That may sound like a strange question, but without any information on what I’m supposed to do with knowledge of Japanese grammar or vocab (or, worse, lack of said knowledge), it’s VERY easy to fuck it up and make all that reading utterly meaningless.

  • Hannah

    I’m living in Japan, but since I teach English it can still be a little difficult to be around it all the time.

    For a long time I was using Read the Kanji, but gave up after they changed the format and realized Memorize was the that site used to be, only free and with a lot more material. lol At the moment I do a LOT (way more than I should…) on Memorize everyday, vocab, kanji and right now medical vocab.

    Most nights I have the TV on ’cause I love Japanese television and it’s been pretty good listening practice. And then, on the train to and from work I read. I happen to love a good textbook, so I’ll read N1 study material most days (grammar right now, soon switching to reading), but when I’m not in test-prep mode I like to read “real” material.

    It’s been a little tricky tracking down interesting but not-too-easy, not-too-hard novels, but I finally found an author I really like. I recommend romance novels for N3 or low N2 level, they’re really straight forward and don’t get too complicate, though the stories themselves are usually pretty terrible. For N2/N1 I recommend 下町ロケット by 池井戸潤, one of the best books I’ve read, period. :) 永遠の0 (forget the author’s name) is a best seller right now and supposed to be good, so I might give it a shot in the near future.

    Oh, and karaoke is really really good for reading, speaking and pronunciation practice!! And it’s just fun. XD

  • Orphee

    Personally, I would try the frequent words list. I really like recognizing words in anime that I watch or in small text. I love using Wanikani but it requires Internet connection and my longest free time is when I am underground.

    On another hand, I find myself saying things like えっと~ and 何ですか。どこですか。 when I am looking for things or doing schoolwork (non-Japanese).

  • supermancampus

    A lot of great suggestions here, but I had a question about reading. I’m learning kanji readings (thanks wanikani) and I do most of my reading online. Do you suggest just reading a site and skimming it for the kanji I know or enabling hiragana on everything and just practicing that way?

  • Jumpstart Japanese

    I write a lesson blog on tumblr as a way to help me revise.

  • John S.

    I still learning Hiragana on textfugu. Should I be using WaniKani?

  • Celeste Sinclair

    I talk to my dog in Japanese. If he does something bad I’ll say だめですよ or if I’m praising him I’ll say いい犬ですね. He understands Japanese about as well as he understands English.

    I also find Lang-8 a good way to get writing practice in. I’ve always gotten feedback very quickly, which helps me keep motivated. The only problem is that since I’m a beginner I have a hard time understanding corrections and comments written in Japanese. However, Rikai-kun for Chrome enables me to piece things together. I’m Facebook friends with one of my Lang-8 friends, and it’s interesting to try to piece together Facebook wall posts written in Japanese.

  • Sybil


  • Dan Rosplock

    Whether you share your personal word frequency spreadsheet or not, I would appreciate a referral to some of the original frequency lists you used to make it. I haven’t been able to find any good ones.

  • junboudayo

    I also want to be friends with foreigners.

    But it is not good at English.

  • junboudayo

    I also want to be friends with foreigners.
    But it is not good at English.

  • PinkBarry – simple tool that gets one used to rapidly translating Hiragana and Katakana characters into english syllables – use it for 5 minutes a day – helps a crap load.

  • Kanrei

    For reading , I can recommend to read Children`s book, because it seems they use Kanji, which the children can. (For example I have here guardian`s of ga`hoole in Japanese, and the Kanji are around third class Kanji.) You have the Kanji the children should know without Furigana and others with. On amazon japan you may can look into a book and read some pages, maybe you can find out this way, if the book is around your kanji knowledge or not.

  • joshua hardman