Learning japanese: a life's journey

Learning a language is quite a challenge, here I will gather some resources and thoughts about learning Japanese.

Introduction

This is where I speak from: I've been living in Japan since 2015 and it took me 1 year to get to a conversational level. At that time, I had probably reached JLPT N3 level and could enjoy casual discussion. After 3 years I was eventually able to read business emails and converse with IT engineer colleagues, I'd say my level was around JLPT N2. But then, it took me an additional 3 years to finally get to JLPT N1 level. If you solely focus on the exam you could probably achieve this in less time though.

I begin with broad advice for learning languages in general, and then focus on specific strategies to learn Japanese. At the very end, you will find my list of resources, such as, apps, books, movies, that I've come to rely on to study Japanese.

 

My best advice: INPUT, INPUT, INPUT!

See: How to Learn a Language: INPUT (Why most methods don't work)

It's often heartbreaking, however, some people can put a lot of effort into learning a foreign language, without seeing much results. I noticed most of them focus too much on output. They would speak and write a lot (i.e. output) as opposed to reading or listening (i.e. input). Typically, they would attend lots of conversational lessons, language exchange events, or just study grammar like nerds. the first two are pure output and the last one the poorest input you can get. So this is the best advice I have come up with over the years: always emphasis on natural input (e.g. 85%) rather than output!

Does input really works better?

Personal experience confirms it and observation as well. Every people I know of, with a high level of speaking proficiency, have spent long hours watching videos, movies, and reading books. They would also avoid relying too much on their mother tongue, for instance, using subtitles in their target language while watching movies. Those people have been absorbing a tremendous amount of their target language, as a result, they greatly improved their understanding of the language through sheer "observation". In addition, science seems to confirm that input is more important than output.

To further support my claim, I would tell you that babies learn with 100% input and they also need to see your face to reproduce mouth movements, etc. Mimicry (i.e. input) is unfairly thrown upon, probably because we've been told in our childhood that "it's bad to copy your classmate's homework". But if you think about it, how would you learn anything without imitation first? Do you want to become a top tennis player? You'd better watch the pros, dissect and reproduce their moves until you get to their level. Only once you have reached their level, can you dare think of new ways to out-perform them. Another example, how would you magically come up with the laws of physics, if you had never carefully observed the outside world before? How to use mathematical equations, to model a phenomenon you never witnessed in the first place? In the same way, how can you expect to magically come up with words you have never heard about before. If you lack proper exposure to your target language, how would you build a properly structured sentence? This would be wishful thinking.

 

Language = context

Language is all about context and you can't properly use a word just by looking at its definition. You need to hear that word in many situations and sentences to accurately capture its meaning. Which is yet another reason why input is so crucial to memorize all those subtleties. For instance, in English if you'd like to talk about a "group of animals", the appropriate expression will be different whether you talk about birds or cattle: we say "a flock of seagulls" but "a herd of cows". As for Japanese, お疲れ様です (otsukare sama desu) does not exist in English for instance but is sometimes translated as "good work". It's impossible to guess how the expression is used just by looking at the literal translation. So you need to hear it used in various circumstances to understand it can be used as a greeting in the workplace or even as a goodbye (instead of sayonara). Here is another one, 寒い (samui) and 冷たい (tsumetai). They both mean cold, however, the first is only used when speaking about the weather, and the second is about something cold at the touch, like cold water. So, pick up a Netflix show with Japanese subtitles, even if you feel like your kanji level is not so high. Read some books you like, perhaps use the digital version so that you can use 10ten reader or Android's JadeReader. Prefer raw input, instead of Japanese lessons where you try to come up with sounds and words you don't even know that much to begin with. That being said, because of Kanji I have to admit it can be hard to get input from Japanese text. So I use to take private lessons where I would read out loud some book and ask for an explanation as soon as I did not understand something or If I could not read at all. Hiragana are easier to learn, so I also read a lot of books targeted at Japanese children as those were mostly written with hiragana.

Learn by association: words together with a sentence

Language is context, so don't memorize words as individual entities. Always write down the sentence that made you discover some new words. You can also write a short explanation about the situation that made you learn this word. For instance, say you buy some donuts at your favorite bakery and you hear for the first time: "o mochikaeri desu ka?" -> is it "to go"? when taking notes to learn that expression you could write next to your new word "mochikaeri" -> "while buying my favorite donuts at XXX". This is a powerful mnemonic.

Your mind is a network: more links = more shortcuts

Grammar creates "indirection", if you have to think about the rule before you talk it will slow you down:

You want to acquire reflexes that are more direct for your speech to flow:

Ideally, your mind must naturally be triggered, you see or feel something and the word just popups into your head. The more association you create the more direct shortcuts! Grammar will slow you down, you will observe, then think, then apply the rule, to finally come up with the correct sentence. More input is more opportunity to create new associations and direct links!

 

Pronunciation: do like babies do shadowing!

To improve pronunciation as well as hearing abilities, you should use shadowing. Speech shadowing is when you listen to some speech and try to reproduce the sounds right away. You would focus on a single sentence and loop between listening and speaking until you reach some level of satisfaction and go to the next sentence. You could achieve this by watching some Japanese movie with Japanese subtitles and pausing frequently to try to pronounce it yourself. You should also know that there is a feedback loop (virtuous cycle) between listening and pronunciation: the more you listen the more you hear with details, it follows that your pronunciation gets better... And as you get better at saying things you also get better at hearing them! This is why shadowing can be really powerful, especially if you have a real native speaker to train with. Being able to watch mouth movements is also really helpful, if not mandatory, to properly reproduce the sounds. Children need it to learn their native language. By the way, this is why the generalization of masks during the coronavirus pandemic is really concerning. I'm not even mentioning socializing through facial expression which accounts at least for 50% of the communication in my estimation...

 

Japanese specific advice

Don't skip learning Kanji

When I started learning Japanese, I had those thoughts myself: "Kanji are scary", "I don't have time", "I just want to be able to speak and understand basic conversation". I'll be blunt, those are stupid thoughts, just don't go that road, you don't know better, yet. Because you are just beginning your journey, you probably have no idea how much Kanji and Japanese are intricately intertwined. I'll give you just one example:

Now, guess how we say "a high school student"? Well it's 高校生 (koukou sei) and not 高校の生徒 (koukou no seito). Although the later is grammatically correct, no native speaker would ever use it, except perhaps to explain the very meaning of 高校生. If you limit yourself to only read words through romaji, it won't make that much sense to you. It's also way harder to memorize anything this way. Look at all those words ending or beginning with "sei":

Japanese has so many homonyms that kanji can't be overlooked. You need kanji to understand how the language is structured and its logic. Sometimes, even Japanese people talking to each others would say things like "do you mean 'sei' as in 'seikai'" to disambiguate their speech. In addition, new words are made up every day by combining kanji together. Contrary to Japan's conservative vibe the language itself is more flexible than you would think! You better understand kanji to get those neologism.

Besides all those considerations, 99% of the Japanese content requires a mix between katakana/hiragana and kanji, you won't find much just using romaji. Only relying on romaji will make you hit a wall at some point. That being said you don't necessarily need to learn how to write every single Kanji, reading is what matters most as it translates to speaking and comprehension.

Don't learn kanji one by one

It's been shown that even in languages with Latin roots, the reader doesn't read every single letterletter. When reading you don't actually look at letters one by one, but at the whole word, or chunks of the word. Your brain actually guesses half of the word making you feel like you are looking at its entirety. The truth is we only look at the salient parts of a word!

If all you do is to learn kanji one by one along with their various pronunciations, don't expect to be able to read Japanese. Look at the kanji 「読」(yomu) and its various pronunciations:

Even if you achieve the feat of memorizing every single reading, for some group of Kanji, this won't tell you which reading you should use. So instead, you should learn entire words. When you see 読書 (doku sho -> reading a book) just remember 読書 as a whole, later you may come across 読者 (doku sha -> reader) and notice the first kanji is the same as 読書. When looking up 読む (yo mu) you'll understand that 読 means reading in general and everything will come together. But in the end, you'll have to remember that 読+書 reads doku + sho and 読+む reads yo + mu. You will develop a photographic memory just like Latin words. If you had to list every possible reading for 読 to finally infer which one you should use; It would be impossible to instantly come up with the correct reading. Similar to counting on your fingers versus counting in your head. When you see "2+2" you actually memorized "= 2". Explicitly counting every time "2+2 = 1+1+1+1 = 4" would be much slower.

But do study 'radicals' individually

As an exception to the above advice, learning kanji one by one can have its merits in specific situations. Obviously, if you'd like to learn how to write, you won't have much choice but to study them one at a time! It can also be useful to learn some of them carefully to improve your reading and recognition abilities. Kanji are like Lego bricks, complex kanji are actually made of smaller and easy ones. Being able to clearly recognize and write easy kanji can go a long way to help you better read overall. Once you mastered a few basic kanji you won't have to study complex one half as much, and will get away with just photographic memory and skipping on tedious stroke memorization. Studying 100 kanji from the JLPT N5 and some radicals is more than enough in my opinion.

There is a debate as to how much you should focus on words versus individual kanji memorization, like I said earlier, I believe once you've learned a few basic ones you should always focus on words as chunks first. It is my estimation that, only when a Kanji seems to appear frequently in your studies you may benefit from learning that individual kanji up to its individual strokes. I personally developed my reading ability mostly by learning new words with their associated Kanji and probably only spent 10% of my time studying Kanji individually if not less.

 

My personal Journey

Probably not an exhaustive list of all I've done, but here is a feel on how I went about learning Japanese. I started in France learning to read and write hiragana and katakana along with some random words (numbers, days, greetings, etc.) then proceeded onto It took about 6 months, I was going on and off and a few years later I proceeded to learn about 100 kanji individually. Those were easy kanji, it gave me the foundation that allowed me to focus on reading kanji without having to necessarily study their writing individually.

After giving up on Japanese for a few years, life gave me the opportunity to move to Tokyo, and things got real serious. In my first two years of earnest learning this is what I more or less did:

My private lessons focused on speaking and reading books out loud while asking questions about kanji I could not read, or overall meaning. I would also maintain a list of Japanese that came up during the week and that I could not figure out. The group lesson was very structured and focused on grammar. It exposed me gradually to various sentence patterns that I would re-use in my everyday life. Grammar acted as a temporary support to build sentences and to auto-correct myself. Eventually I forgot most of the rules as I was getting more fluid and intuitive with the language. To me, grammar should be used as a "disposable ladder". It takes time to climb it but once you are up there you have no need for it.

During those first two years, I would listen to a podcast called Bilingual news every day while commuting on my bicycle. I would also read books for children and look for any new words I did not understand. I would also mark up sections I did not understand and ask my teachers or colleagues afterward. Eventually, I went on to manga and more advanced books. I had fun watching Japanese drama and Netflix anime and movies, and of course only with Japanese subtitles or no subtitles when they were not available. At first, I would barely understand anything but thanks to the images it was still enjoyable and I got used to it progressively. I also played Japanese versions of games I used to like, for instance, Starcraft or Zelda. I also switched my phone to Japanese right from the beginning of my studies and progressively switch my software as well: at first Firefox web browser, then my email client, then the entire Windows OS, etc. until practically my whole computer would display nothing but Japanese and force myself to read it every day.

If you don't know about space repetition learning (flashcards) applications I recommend you start getting informed. I have been using Anki desktop application since 2011 almost every day. You can learn anything from mathematics to Japanese. It has an Android app and you can study anytime you have a break, waiting for someone or commuting, etc.

So it's been 6 years I'm reviewing Anki flashcards every day, at first one hour a day then about 30mns. All my cards are formatted as follows:

Note that I never bothered reverse front and backside. I probably spend too much time on my cards right now and I should be reading more books perhaps... Aside from that I'm inserting new cards every day in my Anki deck as soon as I hear read something new (like 2-3 cards a day). It's quite easy to add cards using the Jsho app. It's a dictionary that allows you to transfer the whole definition to Ankidroid. lookup some words in Jsho and do a long press on the definition and that's it!

 

General mindset

Regularity

Your learning process needs to be consistent and steady, 15mn a day is more efficient than 1 hour a week. You'll memorize better each night and skipping just one day is just 15mn worth of studies lost. On the other hand, skipping your weekly learning will hurt your "gains" way more. The power of regularity and steady accumulation is one of the greatest force of nature that transcends any field, think of the millions of years of wind and water erosion that shaped the grand canyon.

Keep going

Unless you are some sort of superhuman, if you don't like what you do, you won't go through it. One way to force yourself to be consistent is to have fun while learning. Use movies, books you like. Play video games in your target language. Even better, lock away any content you may consume in your native language. Now when you have a break it's a break that has the added bonus to make you learn some language.

A complementary strategy is to have weekly lessons to help you commit, but this cannot be the core of your study, just something to support your learning and some special moment where you share your progress and love for the language with your teacher or other students. Like I said earlier, weekly lessons won't cut it in terms of the amount of input you'll be exposed to.

Find a meaningful goal

For instance, when speaking with someone, do not talk to just practice some language, but exchange to get to know them or to express something about you. It has to be interesting and engaging, just like when you speak in your native language. Having a conversation just for the sake of talking is boring and won't get you anywhere in the long term. The end goal is not to learn the language the goal is to do something interesting with the language, for instance: "I want to understand this culture the way they think", "I'd be so happy to get to know that person who only speaks Japanese", "I want to enjoy that movie and every nuance that only the original language can convey", "I want to learn about that field but I can only find content in xx language", etc.

Summary

 

Resources

Find the resource I use to learn Japanese in this article

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