All three of us in the Tofugu office are moderately (read: dangerously) addicted to Starcraft 2. We tend to eat our lunches quickly so that we have time for a game or two during the day. Little did we know that we were in fact honing our non-Starcraft skills as well. In fact, we've been training ourselves to become better Japanese learners. Let me share with you how, below.
Mechanics Come First
If shortcut keys don't come natural and clicking on those teensy tiny zerglings gives you trouble, then more advanced things like splitting marines to avoid banelings probably won't be very effective. What I'm saying is, you have to start with the basics, get those extremely solid, and then move on to the harder stuff. When you do that, advanced concepts aren't so hard anymore and you'll be able to do them better in a pinch.
In Japanese, this means doing basic things like learning to read hiragana. It also means learning kanji radicals before learning kanji. Basically, you have to put the time in if you want to do the fancier stuff; you can't just skip straight up. If you don't, the fancier things will just end up screwing you over (aka all your marines become a florescent green soup).
Picking The Counter
While I still adamantly believe that infestors are the counter to everything, those of you unlucky enough to not make lots of infestors have to actually think about what units to build. For example, you don't want to build banshees when your opponent is going void rays. Instead, you should build marines (which also counter everything) or vikings or something more effective. If you don't pick decent counters to what your enemy is throwing at you you're going to have a much harder time winning the game. Sometimes this requires you to make a tech switch. Sometimes this requires you to build different units. Whatever it is, you need to be flexible.
In Japanese you have to do this as well. To counter the huge stack of vocab you need to learn, consider countering it with Anki. Need to counter imba kanji? Perhaps you should sign up for the WaniKani beta (wink wink nudge nudge). Everything in Japanese has at least one counter. Be smart about which counters you choose, though. If you pick incorrectly your mass void rays of Japanese learning will go down in flames.
Don't Forget To Scout
Scouting is everything. If you don't know what units the enemy is building, then you don't know what to build to counter them. Also, if you see that they're expanding, perhaps you can put on some early pressure or expand yourself. Basically, it allows you to react to various situations effectively. You know what's coming and can therefore prepare for it.
In Japanese, it's also good to scout. Take a look at the things that you'll be learning in the near future so you can start thinking about how you want to tackle them. By staying ahead like this you can plan ahead. When you know a set of kanji is coming, you can set everything up beforehand so that the actual studying of it is EZPZ.
Rushing And All-Ins
Although I enjoy a 14-drone-in-base-hatch rush just as much as the next guy, rushing is an all in. If you pull it off, well, that's great. You win. But if you screw it up there's a lot of catching up to do (and usually you just end up losing in the end at the higher levels).
There are all-ins in Japanese as well. When done right, you can plow through a lot of material very quickly and come out on top. When done incorrectly, you can burn yourself out on Japanese and possibly lose the entire game. Just like an a rush in Starcraft, you might be able to get back into the game, but it will certainly be painful and slow going.
So, be smart about your rushes and all-ins. They can be effective, but they're risky. Make sure your chances are good before attempting.
Upgrades = Advantage
In Starcraft I'm an upgrade fanatic. I'll hit 3-3 cracklings before most people are at 2-2. I have to give up a little bit to get there, and it takes a bit of time, but once you're ahead on upgrades everything seems nice and easy. Even siege tanks don't stand a chance.
Starcraft upgrades, when very simplified, come down to attack, defense, and other. The attack and defense upgrades in Japanese are probably kanji and vocab. Other is, well, "other." If you can get your kanji up to a high level, everything else will be easier. You'll be able to read more Japanese which will help you with your grammar. It's like engaging 1-1 marines with 3-3 cracklings.
The "other" category of upgrades are more specific. They're more like learning a new grammar point. You'll be able to use them throughout the rest of the game, and you'll never lose them. They will only help in specific situations (depending on the upgrade), but they will certainly help if you pick and choose the right ones.
Spend some extra time upgrading your kanji and vocab. It may seem like wasted time right now, but it will keep you way ahead in the mid and late game.
While micro skills can be important, it's your macro skills that wins a game of Starcraft, I think. Even if you lose a battle, if you're pumping out more units than your opponent you'll always at least have a chance to win.
In Japanese, it's about the steady, daily progress. Studying Japanese consistently rather than building one big Protoss death ball then giving up after getting crushed by an infestor only army isn't something that will sustain you to the late game. Sure, build the death ball, but make sure you're also continually building new units as you move forward. You want to study every single day in order to get fluent, not just once in a while. So, macro your Japanese just like you macro those imba marines out of your reactor barracks.
As a marine would say: "By the numbers, boys!"
Expand Only When Appropriate
Expanding before a barracks / spawning pool / gateway can be risky, but it can be done. As long as you're scouting, you can usually figure out when it's appropriate to expand in a game. If you just guess and go for it, there can be dire results (if your opponent takes advantage of it, at least). Expanding takes extra minerals and time, which takes away from your army. Balancing the two is important so that you don't lose the game due to your expansion.
In Japanese, expanding to another mineral patch is like starting a new chapter or new set of vocab. You're going to have to expand at some point, that's a given, but when you expand is up to you. You want to balance it out, though. If you expand too early, you're risking an attack that could take you out completely (i.e. you're juggling too many things and just can't handle everything at once, causing you to quit learning Japanese). If you expand too late, then you've just wasted a bunch of time, slowing down your Japanese learning (possibly demotivating as well). You have to expand to new concepts and ideas somewhere in between… sometime when you're just getting midway into your current items and need something fresh to keep moving forward. Play with this to figure out what works best for you.
When you run out of minerals, you're screwed. You have to keep up a strong economy to defeat your opponent. Everyone knows this. That's why you have to expand in order to stay in the game (unless you're going for the all-in, of course).
In Japanese, your economy isn't so much about minerals or gas, it's more about will power and motivation. Think of it this way. Every time you study, you're using up some will power and motivation. Different people have different ways to replenish their supply. Some people take a break. Some people do something completely different. Whatever it is, you have to make sure you keep replenishing it. More importantly, if you see that one source of minerals (motivation / will power) is running out, you must start expanding and find a new source. No single source will last you forever, so it's important to always be looking for that next mineral patch.
Oh, and if you so happen to find a gold mineral patch of motivation and will power… well… ride that out as long as you can.
Choose Your Race
Obviously there are three distinct races to play in Starcraft 2. While it's obvious that Zerg is the best, to each their own, I suppose. All three races play very differently, and they all can reach the end goal of winning. That being said, even though it's good to learn about all three of them, it's best to stick with one race and learn that one race really, really well. If you do that, you'll get much better than if you try to learn all three to mediocrity.
In Japanese, there are several different "ways" or "methods" you can use to learn Japanese. They are also pretty distinct, but they will all get you to the end goal of fluency if you put enough effort into any of them. You have your TextFugu style or your Genki style. You have a number of other "races" for learning Japanese as well. If you're going to learn Japanese, spend a little time playing with each of them. Then, when you figure out which one suits your playing / learning style best, stick with that one and dive in deep. Learn the ins and outs and get great at it. While all styles have the possibility of making your Japanese better, you'll eventually have to focus on one in order to become a pro.
Spawn More Overlords
That being said, you can correlate language learning with just about any other skill ever. It's a fun exercise nonetheless, and I encourage you to think about language learning as compared to something you are good at. How is language learning like learning how to surf? Or learning how to play kendama? Maybe you'll figure out something you did with the skill you have and be able to apply it in a new and interesting way to Japanese learning. Give it a shot, it's a lot of fun.