I almost gave up on Japanese once.
When I first started self-studying Japanese, I was overwhelmed by the sheer amount of stuff there was to learn. I can even remember that panicky feeling like it was yesterday: in one hand I had the CD sleeve for MARS, Gackt’s sophomore album, in the other I had a dictionary – and I was stuck on the line 「何も言わないで」 because at the time I couldn’t even make the connection between the dictionary form 言う and its conjugated form 言わない.
Once I recovered from the fact that Oh my god I don’t even know how to look things up in the dictionary, I realized I had to change tack. I needed very specific, actionable techniques that I could start using straight away – and more importantly, they had to be effective.
These techniques have served me really well – and I hope they’ll work for you too!
Keep It Short and Sweet – But Not Too Short
I once had a lecturer that said the best programmers were so focused that they could sit in front of a computer until their bladders exploded. Er… yeah, that’s not me. When it comes to learning Japanese, my attention span is more around the 45-minute mark, and yours might be similar.
I’ve mentioned before that time is precious, and I’m sticking to my guns. By keeping your study sessions short, you get more bang for your buck: you’ll learn the most while you’re focused. Studying past the point where your mind starts to wander is just a waste of time. Simple, right? Of course, you must focus only on Japanese during a study session – that means checking Facebook is out.
The only tricky part about this technique is figuring out how long your study sessions should be. Suppose you’re in the middle of a blog post when the phone rings, and by the time you hang up you’ve lost your train of thought. It takes a few minutes of mentally retracing your steps before you recall what it was you were going to write. Humans are, basically, very bad at context-switching – making sure your study session is long enough gives your brain a chance to shift its focus to Japanese.
Take Time to Think About It
One problem I had with self-studying Japanese was that it was too easy to trick myself into thinking that I knew more than I actually did. There’s a lot that you can figure out just with context, after all. I’ll show you what I mean; have a look at this for example:
Even if you don’t know any Japanese, you could probably tell it’s an ad for a job placement agency. If you know some Japanese and recognize just the word バイト, you could safely assume that agency specializes in part-time job placements. That was sort of how I got by, but I found it really hard when it came to speaking and writing in Japanese myself – and no surprise, since I didn’t really know how to form sentences properly.
To understand how Japanese is put together, I’ve found it quite useful to pause and just think about why something is the way it is. This is really helpful when coming across new grammar, and can be a good way to solidify something you picked up in class with a “real” example. Using that same ad again as an example:
That last sentence is pretty interesting grammar-wise:
- there’s よ, your garden-variety sentence-ending particle
- the ている indicates an enduring state – waiting, in this case
- the entire バイトが君に見つけてもらう verb clause modifies the noun 時 just like an adjective would
… and so on. This might just seem too much to take on, especially if you’re just starting out. The idea is not to analyze everything down to the last detail – just pick one or two things to mull over. Besides, as your Japanese improves, there’ll be less things you need to figure out.
As I implied previously, Japanese fluency relies just as much on output skills like speaking and writing, as it does on input skills like reading and listening. (This of course depends on what your goals are: if you just want to be able to read raw manga, clearly “fluency” for you means focusing more on input rather than output.)
Improving your speaking skills can be as simple as talking to yourself in the shower. Japanese sounds, most notoriously ら and ふ, can be very different from English sounds, and something you learn only by doing. Besides, like the Fugu Lord says, you’re making use of time that would normally be wasted anyway, so there’s really no excuse not to try this.
Another way of improving your Japanese output skills is to practice with someone who has native Japanese fluency. Lang-8 is really good for improving your writing, for example, and sites like Mixxer can help pair you up with a Japanese language partner. If you live in a university town, finding a Japanese international student to be a conversation partner can be as simple as leaving a note on a community notice board.
There are definitely resources out there, you just have to sign up for them.
Do Repeat Yourself
I believe learning Japanese isn’t just about what you learn when you’re actively studying, but how much you can retain. But memory is a funny thing. You might not remember what you had for dinner yesterday, but a whiff of vanilla can send you back to when you were five, helping your mother make a batch of cookies. What is it that makes something stick?
Well, if I needed a smack across the face each time I needed to remember something, I don’t think I’d have any teeth left in my head! A much less painful way is simple repetition – and I think we can all agree that repetition is absolutely necessary to be any good at anything, be it Japanese, piano, tennis… you get the idea.
Short study sessions really help with this one: you literally have more time available for more study sessions, and since you didn’t study to the point of boredom previously, the next session won’t feel like such a chore. Also, in between those study sessions, your brain gets a chance to go over what you’ve just learned and turn it into long-term memories.
Besides having regular schedule of short study sessions, I’ve also found it handy to use some form of spaced repetition system. This works really well for those hard-to-remember kanji, or kanji look-alikes, and there’s no reason why you can’t make flashcards with grammar points. As for which SRS system to use: there’s Wanikani, of course, but also other options out there; just pick one that works for you.
So, short of moving to Japan to immerse yourself in the language and culture, what other techniques have you used in your journey to Japanese fluency? Which techniques worked best for you? Which didn’t? Share them with us in the comments!