Whether you’re already pouring hours a day into studying Japanese or struggling to get anything done due to a lack of motivation or time, there is a way to do more. These small tricks will help you neatly fold up some studying and stuff it into the nooks and crannies of your day, sometimes without even realizing it.
Follow Japanese Profiles On Social Media
Usually social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook are the sworn enemies of productive study time, gently beckoning you from your browser’s corner tab, but using this trick you can turn their addictiveness to your advantage: Follow a few Japanese celebrities or news outlets so that Japanese writing appears on websites that you visit often.
The extent you take this is totally up to you, add one or two profiles for an unintrusive sprinkling of kanji, or go crazy and make half of your entire newsfeed Japanese. Just make sure each one is something you’re actually interested in, and don’t add so many that using your account is no longer fun/useful. If you do you’ll end up irritatedly scrolling through and only reading your native language.
Here’s a few suggestions to get you started: @asahi (the Asahi Shimbun), @matomenaver (news aggregator Naver Matome), @pamyurin (the weird and wonderful Kyary Pamyu Pamyu) and @55_Kumamon (Japan’s mascot king, Kumamon).
Take it further: If you don’t need to trick yourself into studying, you can set up a separate account specifically for this purpose.
Listen to Japanese Music
Japanese music is available anywhere in the world, and even things like Spotify, Last.fm, and iTunes Radio will let you listen to it for free, so there’s no excuses not to try this one.
Studies have shown that listening to music performed in your target language can help facilitate learning by subconsciously training you to recognise patterns of speech and boundaries between words. In basic terms, this means music teaches your mind to break down chunks of syllables and learn where separate words begin and end. This happens to some extent when listening to regular speech, but if words are attached to notes our brains can compartmentalise them more effectively.
Of course, the more engaged you are, the more you’ll learn from listening to Japanese music, but even having it on in the background as you do something else is beneficial. Notch it up to Hardcore Mode by listening to Japanese radio while practicing writing kanji.
Take it further: Expand on this approach by repeating segments of songs and trying to note down the lyrics (the sounds alone if you’re a beginner, the actual kanji and meaning for more advanced levels), then performing an online search afterwards to check your accuracy. If you’re confident enough you could even break out a microphone and give it a shot at karaoke. Or, quietly, into a shampoo bottle, alone in the shower.
Set Your Phone to Japanese
Urgh. I know, this one’s tough. There’ll be moments when you’re so frustrated you’ll want to set your phone ablaze in a sacrificial ceremony to the almighty gods of Kanji. But it does pay off.
When I lived in China I used this method to learn the different characters associated with actions on my phone. This resulted in situations where I embarrassed myself by repeatedly failing to put a new contact’s details in my phone, as well as mornings when my alarm would go off and I was unable to differentiate between “snooze” and “off,” forcing me to get out of bed in a fit of snoozeless rage (the most furious of all types of rage). After a while, though, I began to recognise those characters not only on my phone, but elsewhere. I’d use my office computer and understand commands that I’d never noticed before; I didn’t know how to pronounce them at this point, but I’d already done the (arguably) most difficult part of learning the characters.
This is an incredibly frustrating thing to try but if you persevere the spaced repetition involved in regularly seeing the same characters really helps you to retain the information.
Take it further: If you’re a real masochist, you can also go about setting your other devices and software in Japanese. Just remember to write down where the language settings section is…
Label Items With Kanji Sticky Notes
If you’re struggling with vocabulary get yourself some sticky notes and begin labeling things in your home like a family-friendly version of the movie Memento. Either include the kanji and furigana to help you memorize both, or just the kanji in order to test yourself on the pronunciation each time.
Color-coding can be a useful way of organising the information, either by categorising types of words (e.g. on the shower you could have the noun “shower”, シャワー, in one colour and the verb “wash”, 洗う, in another) or the stage of your learning (e.g. green for words you usually remember, orange for words you can sometimes recall and red for those ones that just won’t stick).
Take it further: You could take the Memento comparison more literally and have those “code red” stickers tattooed all over your silly, forgetful face… But I’d suggest just air-writing the kanji with your finger each time you see them instead.
Think In Japanese
Next time you find yourself with nothing to do, be it in a car, a doctor’s waiting room or while attempting to look busy at the office, think to yourself in Japanese. Not having your textbook is no longer a valid excuse for not studying!
An “in-head” review of the last thing you learned is probably the most efficient use of this method but anything from simple sentences about the location of things in the room to complex monologues about current events will do.
Take it further: Memorize dialogues from your textbook, then later try to go through them word-for-word in your head.
Use the Japanese Menu at Japanese Restaurants
I have to admit that when I used to eat out in Japan I would rely on other people to do the ordering, or simply go off the pictures provided. Even when I’d selected something I wouldn’t bother to read the name most of the time, not when a quick point and “Kore okudasai” (this please) would suffice.
This is a huge missed opportunity though, as food words are amongst the most important vocabulary you can learn. And the brilliant thing about studying by reading menus is that it works for all levels of Japanese, beginners can practice reading hiragana and katakana, while even the most fluent Japanese speaker is bound to get tripped up by dish names every once in a while (I’m occasionally baffled by dish names in English).
Take it further: Ask for a copy of the menu (or take a picture) and take it away with you. Translate the dishes at home then test yourself next time you’re eating there. Who knows, maybe you’ll even discover a new favourite dish.
BONUS TIPS FOR READERS LIVING IN JAPAN
I’ve also included two extra tips to help people living in Japan take advantage of their surroundings and sponge up all that Japanese overflowing everywhere.
Eavesdrop On Conversations
Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to listen in on the Japanese conversations around you. If you’re in Japan, you’re literally surrounded by listening exercises far more authentic than in any textbook. Whether in a coffee shop, on public transport or even in the office, stop tuning out other people’s conversations as background noise and start trying to decipher them.
Listening to other people’s conversations even has a few advantages over holding your own. For example, people often talk slower with more simple language when talking to non-native speakers, but by listening to others you get to feel the rhythm of a more natural conversation. And that doesn’t necessarily make it more difficult: negating a need for a response means you can focus solely on listening rather than simultaneously piecing together a reply.
As well as improving your listening ability you’ll pick up new vocabulary and, perhaps most importantly, there’s a good chance you’ll hear things you’ve been saying wrong but people have been too polite to correct you on.
By listening to various age groups and types of people you’ll also put yourself out of your Japanese comfort zone and hear how different people talk. If you work with kids for your day job or the majority of your conversations are with the opposite gender it’s important to do this in order to avoid sounding like them. Because, if nobody else has told you this yet, you almost certainly do. Sorry.
I’m not saying that you should be breaking out a newspaper with eyeholes and making everybody around you feel uncomfortable, though. Be discreet about it. Take a note from Japanese culture and “observe without watching,” or in this case “listen without gaping.” Also, if somebody is talking loudly enough to be heard by the general public it’s unlikely to concern anything they’d be troubled by a stranger hearing.
Plus, your heart is true and your motives pure. Go forth and eavesdrop.
Take it further: You probably shouldn’t take this one further, even if your motives are pure.
Translate Advertisements On The Train
Log out of Facebook, switch off Candy Crush, Farmville or whatever this month’s trashy yet surprisingly addictive game is, and start using your time on the train productively. If you can’t get a seat you may not be able to take out your textbook and study the way you’d like to, but you can get some real-world reading practice in.
Step one: Look up and select an advert. If you’re a beginner make sure it doesn’t have a huge block of text and, whatever level you are, choose one that looks at least remotely interesting.
Step two: Read. When you come across a phrase or kanji you don’t understand, use your dictionary to translate. And don’t say you don’t have one, because you were just playing Candy Crush a minute ago and if you’ve paid for that but not a dictionary we’ll have to have a serious talk.
If something comes up that your translation tools can’t make sense of, don’t give up or spend an inordinate amount of time on it, make a note and move on. You can ask a friend later.
Like setting your phone to Japanese and the sticky note method, this is especially effective because of spaced repetition. Whether you’re intending to study or not, each time you get on the train and see the same adverts you’ll be reminded of the kanji and vocabulary you learnt when you translated them.
Take it further: Before you get off at your stop, snap a picture of the advertisement. This will allow you finish translating at home or, if you’d already done, check your work and review it.
Did I miss anything? No doubt many of you have picked up a few small tricks of your own to improve your Japanese outside of the classroom.