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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.

overwhelmed

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.

anatomy of a study session

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:

タウンワーク!タウンワーク!
バイトが君に見つけてもらう時を待っているよ。

That last sentence is pretty interesting grammar-wise:

  • there’s , 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 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.

Input/Output

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 and , 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.

talk to yourself collage

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!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=722802692 Ashley Cowan

    Nice. I did give up once. But meeting a lovely Japanese girly has helped me re-focus :) Looooong way to go though and sooooo slow!! ! :) Meet me and the wife! What can i say, Japanese women are lovely! :)
    http://soundcloud.com/ashleycowan/best-of-friends

  • http://zoomingjapan.com/ zoomingjapan

    I think all of us had at least ONCE a stage where we wanted to give up!
    I’m sure it was more than once for me!
    Sometimes I wanted to give up, sometimes I didn’t have time, somtimes I DID give up!

    It’s ok to take a break for a while and then come back with a refreshed mind! Worked well for me!
    I also had to try many different approaches until I find something that worked for ME!
    Just because others tell you that they learned XY in [enter short amount of time] doesn’t mean it’ll work for you as well!

    Keep experimenting! ;)
    Giving up is ok as long as it’s just for a short time! *g*

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=722802692 Ashley Cowan

    I now do some speaking via the Japanese Mastery Method site (its fun!) some RTK1 every day because its important for me to learn how to write Kanji and a little bit of Tofugu, when i wanna change..i am leaving Tofugu until i finish RTK (i have to finish it, its personal now!!) but i will defo use Tofugu after so its like you say..as long as you do something, keep it mixed and fresh one day it will all click!

  • http://zoomingjapan.com/ zoomingjapan

    I used to do RTK1 and then my “own version” of RTK2. I was so motivated and I was already in Japan when I did RTK1 that I finished in only a few month. Suddenly the world around me made sense. I couldn’t read all of the kanji yet, but I knew their basic meaning. From then on it was a lot more fun to keep studying, so it sounds like you’re on the right way.
    Definitely don’t give up on RTK1 ^^

  • http://www.twitter.com/christaran Chris Taran

    At some point there is so much stuff to learnt hat you have no idea what to learn next. And then you give up because you don’t know what would be the most useful thing to learn. Which is my current dilemma and why I kind of stopped studying like 2 years ago now. Now I -really- don’t know where to pick up.

  • besterthenyou

    If you need to pick up again, do TextFugu or Genki. Both are really great textbooks. TextFugu is more entertaining, but Genki is more informative. So get back on the wagon! :)

  • http://twitter.com/Cupucuups Hamyo

    getting fluency is about to make the study activity becomes your habbit. What ever you do, keep practicing :) like lord fugu said “There’s actually a lot of people out there think that they just gonna take some serum, and then they learn japanese” :)

    http://okonomikatsu.blogspot.com/

  • Crowbeak

    I don’t think you analyzed the

    バイトが君に見つけてもらう時を待っているよ。

    sentence quite correctly. I would portion it out as

    バイトが 君に見つけてもらう時 を待っているよ。

    The job is the sentence subject; it’s waiting. What it’s waiting for is 君に見つけてもらう時. So バイトが isn’t a modifier for 時.

  • Raab

    I’m not sure either analysis is right (I mean, I really don’t know). At first I thought that 時 (when) modified バイトが君に見つけてもらう (a job is found for you), but then I remembered that 時を待つ is a phrase meaning “to wait for an opportunity”. If it’s read that way, it could translate as “We’re waiting for the chance to find a job for you”, right?

    This is one of those sentences that I understand without actually understanding.

  • Gekko

    I’m very very new at studying Japanese and this might be wrong but I know something about grammar.

    The subject is バイトwhich literally means work. I’ll translate it as “Job” in order to make it less confusing.

    We know that the verb is progressive and means “to wait”. So far the sentence translates as: “A job is waiting”.

    What is the job waiting for? The を particle makes it clear that it’s waiting for a “moment” (時). And then, it is indeed true that 君に見つけてもらう is complementing 時. All together it means: The discovering and receiving of you moment.

    In other words: The moment where it discovers and receives you.

    And if we now read the whole sentence, it says: “A job is waiting for the moment to discover and receive you”.

    Please, somebody who is fluent confirm this possible interpretation!

  • http://twitter.com/Kamijou_Toumad Tony

    This is really going to help me! Thank you so much!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=722802692 Ashley Cowan

    Alright I won’t!! For you Zoominginjapan I will crawl on! :)

  • http://zoomingjapan.com/ zoomingjapan

    Glad to hear that! ;)

  • mia

    I have a japanese boyfriend, but I feel shy to talk to him in japanese. I took a class and everyone said that I’m so lucky that I have someone that I can talk to, but actually, I feel very awkward trying to speak to him in Japanese when he can speak english better than I can speak Japanese. In the end, we tend to just speak english to each others and maybe throw out japanese words once in a while. :(

  • lychalis

    I have the same problem – managed to get in contact with a japanese student in my uni, although she’s not on my campus so until next year we can only talk by email – but right now I’m too nervous to say anything in japanese, although she said we’d start with simple sentences – I still can’t do it DX – hell, she does come over to where my campus is sometimes so meeting up is still possible, but I’m still too nervous to ask *sigh*

  • Fee_Fi_Fiona

    This was the way I interpreted it too. I was swayed towards this interpretation because: 1) I recognized 時を待つ as a set phrase (like you did), and 2) it was advertising the services of Town Work (the “we” in your sentence).

  • KnowsAs

    I translated it as the job is waiting to be found by you…

  • jules

    You guys are ridiculous; people would kill to have these opportunities! If anything they would be flattered that you’re taking the time to learn their language!

  • Colin

    The easiest way to get on top of looking up anything Japanese is to get your hands on a Casio Ex-word XD-D4800, or whatever the latest version is. Its got some nice easy dictionaries, and Its great for kanji too, just input it using a stylus. It doesnt seem too fussed about stroke order.

  • http://www.facebook.com/AbigailCamarillo Cam Abi

    Hmmm I can see this being actually really beneficial! For me its always easier to learn Japanese by listening and reading at the same time. So music is usually my choice, but its hard to figure out how people actually talk with just music. It mostly helps me with my pronounciation. I will try this next time although to find some that have Japanese subtitles and in simple hiragana is gonna be hard since I’m still in the process of learning kanji. :/

  • http://www.facebook.com/kelsey.lynn.589 Kelsey Lynn

    I liked practicing listening by finding videos on YouTube or listening to my favorite Japanese bands.

    This brought up an interesting, yet terrifying point for me though. I was listening to THANK YOU!! by Homemade Kazoku, and it’s hard to convey how utterly freaked out I became when I was listening to them. I was like, “WHAT?! WHAT IS THIS, I DON’T EVEN…*cry in despair because I obviously, suddenly don’t know Japanese anymore*”

    Turns out it was just the dialect. Yup. I even went to Epcot at Disney World (been a few times), and I like going to Japan so I can talk to the people (because everyone that works in that specific country is actually a native of that country). Plus I like the awestruck look on my mom’s face. But anyway, some of the people the first few times, I had to ask them to repeat themselves or speak more slowly because the dialect was hard for me to understand.

    Watching videos and listening to a lot of material helped me because I became somewhat accustomed to the different sounds of different dialects, and even though it will still catch me off guard every now and then, I don’t have to ask people to repeat themselves near as much :D

  • luscher

    wait, really ? and where can one find this serum ?

  • Tokyo Wayne

    Ha that is nothing! I’ve been married to a Japanese lady for over 25 years and my Japanese is really poor. I was doing better but when we started having children I stopped using Japanese so my children wouldn’t learn poor Japanese. Now my kids are fluent and attending normal Japanese schools in Tokyo and I’m getting tried of being illiterate so I’m finally hitting the books again. (Much to the joy of my 9 year old daughter that loves to see me having trouble with simple kanji. We have been in Japan for less than a year, but I’m finding my frustration over being illiterate is overcoming my inability to learn Japanese.
    To be honest I don’t think my wife really wants me to improve my Japanese. Well tough bananas to that.

  • http://www.facebook.com/danny.moji Danny Moji

    I think another 2 ways to be able to improve on learning the language , is the effort and the will to to be better or be fluent with the language..

    I did use Pimsluer & Rosetta Stone to help my progress on learning. I would say the most learn came from a cross section of both.

    Traveling to Tokyo in 2009 was a great motivation for me learn Japanese .

  • kaleem

    Hello. I really want to learn to understand japanese as my sole reason to do this is to be able to watch and understand japanese variety shows as they do not have subtitles. I have started the process whereby I watch a j-drama and use google translate frequently. Is this right?

  • Barzillai Blue

    i try to learn and sing along with Japanese songs and/or do Kareoke. This helps me out when it comes to pronunciation. :)