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Hard-mode learning

According to the US Foreign Service Institute, learning Japanese to a proficient level takes roughly 88 weeks or 2200 hours to achieve and is classed as a ‘super-hard’ language for English speakers to learn. Anyone who is attempting to learn this language (including myself) will find you can’t argue with this ‘super-hard’ label. So I want to put together a list of tips for learning Japanese that may make the process slightly easier.

These tips for learning Japanese are some of my own methods and decisions that have helped me immensely, and ones that I continue to use in my own learning experience. In an effort to absorb, practice and speak one of the hardest languages in the world — anything goes.

In no particular order, hopefully some of these will prove useful to you as well.

1. Change Alexa, Google assistant, Siri, etc to Japanese

One of the most difficult aspects of learning Japanese — or any language for that matter — is finding conversational practice. While speaking to a human would be ideal, speaking to a semi-intelligent robot can be a good alternative. 

This tip works on both the speaking and listening side of Japanese with a number of benefits; for a start, asking questions in Japanese, as you would do in English, is a simple way to begin. If your pronunciation and structure are correct you are awarded with a Japanese response and the knowledge that you are at least somewhat understandable. In this sense, it’s also a way of gauging pronunciation etc. if it doesn’t recognise what you’re saying. 

The beauty of this method however, is that you can move on to more complicated sentences, ask it anything you like, and get a perfectly constructed response in return — all without the embarrassment of potentially getting it wrong and the nervousness of speaking.  

2. Say every sentence twice

As you go about daily life, perform activities and speak to others, you think and say these things in English. Whatever it is you do during the day, how about considering the Japanese equivalent?

In other words, say or think it in English then try and say the same thing in Japanese. 

This idea presents us with countless scenarios which to practice with, but best of all they would coincidently be common phrases that you would realistically use. They could be anything at all from ‘where do you want to go this weekend?’ to ‘I’m going to organise a meeting tomorrow’ or ‘I can see some birds in the garden’ — absolutely anything. 

We use short sentences and statements like this all the time and they present a perfect opportunity to pause and briefly consider how you would say it in Japanese. This would get your mind accustomed to forming sentences on the go and make you want to learn more everyday vocabulary.

3. Always have a Japanese dictionary on hand

During your time learning the Japanese language there will be countless moments when a Japanese dictionary will come in handy. Let me run you through a few scenarios where having one on hand will be beneficial: 

(For most of these you’ll just need to know how to recognise and pronounce hiragana, then type using the Japanese keyboard.)

  • If you hear a new word for the first time and want to know what it means.
  • If you recognise a word but have forgotten the meaning
  • Researching a new word from an English counterpart.
  • For assessing whether a verb is an Ichidan or Godan verb.
  • For verb conjugation reference.
  • When coming across a new kanji compound (if you know the individual kanji readings).
  • For confirming spelling and pronunciation of vocabulary.
  • For confirming the usage frequency of vocabulary. 
  • For confirming kanji readings. 

These scenarios will come up all the time and you’ll find having one on hand to be invaluable. Any decent Japanese dictionary will contain the answers you need. I personally use the ‘Japanese Dictionary Takoboto’ app on my phone. 

4. Write each kanji at least once

As someone studying Japanese as a second language, I believe writing kanji at least once can prove very beneficial. 

Practising kanji stroke order (how to write them) allows you to understand the components that make up a kanji, also known as radicals. If you write each kanji at least once, by the time you reach the magical number of 2,136 (the number of kanji that allows you to read 99% of Japanese material), you will have a full understanding of how to construct each kanji. 

Having this knowledge will help you visually dissect kanji, identifying them more easily and identifying recurring patterns; being able to identify radicals within each kanji can also help remember the meanings. This can be either through their names or by their visual characteristics that can give hints to an overall meaning.

5. Use Google translate

Now, I know what you’re thinking; google translate is generally quite shocking at translating written Japanese to English, but there is a time when it proves to be surprisingly useful and fairly accurate. 

Imagine you’ve just constructed a sentence in your mind but don’t know whether it is correct or not. You cannot use a Japanese dictionary as it’s too long, so what do you do?

Try speaking it to google translate and let it translate into English. For the most part, google translate does a good job of translating voice recordings. 

Firstly, this Japanese learning tip works because you already have an expectation of what the English equivalent should be. Secondly, it does require some degree of competency in grammar, kanji and somewhat of an objective viewpoint. This is because if the translation doesn’t come out as expected you have to analyse why that is, rather than being ‘because it’s google’. 

I’ve formed sentences I thought were correct, but after carefully looking at both the response and my original input, ive realised I’ve missed something or used the wrong particle etc. Adjusting my sentences usually results in the right outcome.

Using google in this manner can help your speaking fluency and the development of Japanese sentence structuring. For this to work properly, pronunciation has to be pretty spot on too. 

6. Take a short break once in a while

As we get towards the halfway mark on this list of tips for learning Japanese, It seems appropriate to cover this next one; take a break from Japanese once in a while. 

This may seem counter-intuitive considering the last point I just made with kanji; however, constantly studying Japanese most days can bog you down. The process can become mentally draining, and with that can come a sense of frustration and cease being fun. 

Taking a break of 3 – 4 days without thinking about anything Japanese related can help your mind relax. You will find you once again look forward to returning to Japanese, you are more engaged with what you are learning and learn new things at a faster rate for a period. 

Whenever you start to feel a little bit overwhelmed with it all, take a break and you’ll feel much better for it.

7. Listen to Japanese audio in bed

Yes, specifically in bed. It is one of the times of day that you are most relaxed after unwinding from a long day, and scientific studies have shown that (to a varying degree) brain activity can actually increase during such times.

I have found that going to bed maybe slightly earlier, with the lights off, eyes closed, doing nothing except concentrating on some Japanese audio stimuli, has helped my listening ability immensely. Compared to listening during the day, the mind may be more focused and processes what you’re listening to much better. I know this may all sound a bit strange but I encourage you to give it a go and see if it works for you.

I find listening to something like Japanese news channels and live-streams that are always different and continually plays works best.

8. Always have kanji visible

Kanji is arguably the bane of many Japanese language learners. As previously mentioned, the target for achieving reading fluency is memorising at least the meanings of 2,136 of the things. So any tips for learning Japanese kanji are always welcome.

One of my personal tips is to always have kanji staring you in the face whether this be a book, post-it notes, crazed drawings on the wall etc. This follows on from number 4 in some ways as my method is to write them down along with their meanings and readings and always have them next to me on my desk. This means that throughout the day I can glance over and constantly refresh and remember everything I know about the one I’m currently looking at.

What you’ll find is that if you have short periods without studying kanji at all, you can easily forget them. This tip aims to keep them in mind, in sight and in focus.

9. Change the language on your phone and computer

This tip for learning Japanese works best if you already have a little kanji knowledge available.

Setting the language to Japanese will change almost everything on the device, as well as the language within many apps. Menu’s, notifications, call functions will all appear in Japanese, however, it’s not as daunting as it sounds; It’s just another attempt at getting you in the habit of seeing and reading Japanese regularly.

For a start, this tip will be simpler on mobile phones. For the most part, you will already have an idea of what buttons do what and where to go to perform what you need, and most settings, menu items, apps etc all have associated icons and so will be able to garner a meaning from those. 

This gives you a starting block at understanding what the newly visible Japanese means, memorise the context that it is in and apply and recognise the words in other settings. This is the basis of how this method helps to improve your Japanese. Once the terms are learnt and understood they will constantly be visible should you continue using your devices in Japanese. 

Doing the same thing on your computer has the same effect and outcome, but will initially be more difficult due to the volume of files and functions a PC has over mobiles.

10. Listen specifically for Japanese particles

Listening practice is incredibly important to understand Japanese in a natural way and to grow accustomed to its sound, but rather than trying to listen to everything in a general sense, try to target specific components. 

This could be anything such as verbs or nouns, but Japanese particles have arguably the most influence on the outcome of a sentence and are perhaps the hardest component of Japanese sentence structure.

First of all start by listening out for the に, も, を, and と, particles as these (in my opinion) are the most influential. To a lesser extent there is also の, か, and は but these are somewhat easier to use and decipher. Try to hone your focus onto the end of nouns and verbs you already know in the beginning, as you will be able to recognise the particle additions on the ends of those words. After a while you will be able to recognise the ends of words and the beginning of particles even in vocabulary you aren’t familiar with.

Being able to recognise particles in Japanese speech will skyrocket your ability to comprehend entire conversations.

In case you are unsure how to setup a Japanese keyboard on your devices, Tofugu’s guide on doing that covers it all: How to install Japanese keyboard

11. Start studying Kanji early but steadily

This is the third and last kanji tip for learning Japanese, one that you may have heard before but is worth repeating — study kanji as soon as possible.

With so many kanji present in Japanese and the vast majority of written Japanese using these symbols, it’s best to get accustomed to them and begin learning them straight away. 

Many guides mention learning x number of kanji everyday, however, only allowing yourself a single day to process new characters, will inevitably mean by the time you finish you’ll most likely have forgotten 75% of the ones that came before. 

Instead, I recommend learning x number a week. Sure this will take you longer but you will retain a lot more and may even find the process to be enjoyable as you see a gradual improvement. 

12 Engage with other Japanese content

Lastly, learning Japanese shouldn’t all be about having your head in a textbook or app, neither should it become a chore.  

Hopefully at least part of the reason for learning the language is that you enjoy it and Japan interests you. With that in mind, always find time to engage with Japanese related content that you like, whether that be in the form of YouTube videos, documentaries, listening to Japanese music, watching Japanese movies etc. 

Just partaking in these kinds of activities can help your Japanese improve in a number of ways. It helps passively accustom you to the language; you might come across words you’ve recently learnt and see or hear them in context; it could help re-establish your reason and motivation for learning Japanese. 

A personal example is how I’ve developed an interest in YouTube video walks, during which I like to and try to read the signs and notices etc. whilst vicariously walking around Japan. 

It’s these kinds of experiences that merge enjoyment with unexpected learning opportunities.

Ending thoughts

When it comes to learning Japanese, there is no single quick method to hack your way to proficiency. It’s a gradual process that takes time, dedication, and practice; once you begin, you are in for the long haul. 

To that end, finding tips for learning Japanese can make all the difference, to hone in on different ways of studying that encourage improvement. These are just my 12 personal tips for learning Japanese that have allowed me to continue towards the goal of fluency — but there will always be a long way to go.