Your Brain on 10,000 Sentences

You’re gonna need a way bigger hat

All my life goals come from the internet. And so somewhere, in the ten minutes a day I spend surfing sites that don’t need to be immediately cleared from my browser, I stumbled upon the notion that studying 10,000 sentences was the one true path to learning Japanese. Next time, remind me to stick with porn. Hey, if it’s a question of going blind, I figure you’re much better off with a few pictures of enormous asses than two thousand tiny characters.

But anyway, here’s the idea: you pack your skull so full of vocabulary that one day it comes leaking out your ears and you flop on the ground mumbling in tongues. Tha Spirit! Lawd A’mighty, I’ma cured! I kn see! I kn see! Only you’d say it in Japanese. And frankly, yeah, it’d be an actual miracle if you could see after all that kanji.

One way to Study Japanese

And with that guidance, and not much else, this then was my approach:

First, I learned the 2,136 Joyo kanji using the Heisig method. Which is basically the equivalent of memorizing the 26-letter English alphabet, only you do it eighty-two times, with different letters each time. It takes about six months, and by the end you can’t remember the beginning. So that’s a pretty wonderful use of your time. Actually, “learned” isn’t even accurate, since kanji have a plethora of meanings and pronunciations, depending on how they’re used. But anyway, eventually I had some idea what some of them meant. Occasionally.

Next, I downloaded an Anki flashcard deck with 10,000 sentences. Each sentence featured a unique Japanese word. Then I set about studying, reading the kanji, deciphering how words were constructed and pronounced. This has all the attraction of eating your way through an enormous bag of stale CostCo tortilla chips. You can chew through a few at first if you’re hungry enough, but by the end you’ll be choked with barfing regrets.

Then, after a year and a few thousand flash cards, the creeping doubts set in. Why didn’t I choose Spanish? Why 10,000? Malcolm Gladwell argued it took that many hours to become an expert. AntiMoon mentioned 10,000 sentences in passing and AJATT latched onto it, as did about ten thousand internet language-learning forums. But how accurate was the original number? I went out for a run to ponder the question. That’s what I do when I need to think and the bars aren’t open yet.

And after about 6.2 miles, it dawned on me. A thousand—-of anything—-is kinda too easy, while 100,000’s way too hard. Like, lots of folks can run a kilometer, but nobody runs 100,000. Get a bike already, jeez. But 10K? Somehow that feels right—-pretty challenging, but achievable.

The problem, though, lies in the margin of error. Like, what if you need 7,000 to be an expert? What if it’s really 18,520? That’s equivalent to tooling along at 55 MPH, then getting ticketed for a screaming 102. So 10,000? Please just admit you pulled that out of your ass because it was a nice, round number.

Still, I kept going. It took about two years, maybe. It was just a really long slog, and then one day, suddenly, it was over. Like the Grinch, my brain grew three sizes that day. I bought a tiny orange cupcake and lit a wee candle on top. Then I had a party all for myself with some confetti and two liters of grape Fanta.

Sorry, fell asleep mid-sentence and dreamed I was eight again. The reality’s more like I slammed a sixer of Suntory Malt Liquor and chowed a bag of Wasabi-flavored Calbee’s, since that’s what I do every day. I really gotta reform my diet, although anything beats those damn CostCo chips, which so wreck the roof of your mouth. I don’t really remember, however, which leads me to believe that indeed, booze was involved.

Conclusions from Studying 10,000 Sentences

  1. Ten Thousand’s not nearly enough. I mean, not even close. I’m sure I’ve studied a good 15,000 unique sentences at this point, and it’s barely enough to communicate. And no, I don’t mean just ordering two large pizzas or going to the ophthalmologist. I’m talking about a command of the language that approximates human-like speech. You’d be laughed out of the fourth grade with a 15,000 word vocabulary.
  2. It gives you a really good perspective on just what language learning entails. Once in a while I read how “easy” Japanese is. Like, “I learned Japanese in three months!” Shuur you did. Want to know how long it actually takes to learn Japanese? Just do the math. Exactly as long as you’d need to memorize 2,136 convoluted characters and then study their combinations in over 15 thousand sentences. You might want to clear your social calendar for the next few years.
  3. Studying a massive amount of sentences is really, really useful. I absolutely recommend it to anyone serious about learning Japanese. Of course, it’s not a substitute for reading the Japanese newspaper, watching Japanese TV, listening to Japanese radio, taking Japanese classes, chatting up old Japanese men and young Japanese ladies in bars and then explaining to your Japanese significant other why you came home late. All that’s necessary too. You gotta be like Bubba Gump on this language. Studying vocabulary is just a supplement, something to do while you’re riding the escalator or lying on the beach. All those spare minutes a day you used to spend wondering what your life’s purpose was? Hey, apparently it was to learn a freakishly hard language that’s gonna take over your existence. Hooray.
  4. The more you do it, the better you get. It gets better. So it’s like being gay. Sorry, that didn’t come out quite right. I mean, you’re gonna suck at first, but eventually you’ll suck less. Bugger it, let’s just skip to the next point.
  5. Expect to forget. You can’t just study architectural phrases for a few days and then two years later meet a guy who builds bridges and you bust out “civil engineer?” And he’s all, “Well, yes I am, and props to you for knowing that term.” You have to constantly review, or things start getting fuzzy. It’s merely repeated exposure, over and over, that finally sinks the language into your brain. Probably having a fantastic memory would help a lot too, I wouldn’t know. I did try not drinking for a couple months, thinking that would be beneficial. Mostly I was just terribly thirsty and distracted by delicious thoughts of beer. Didn’t do much for my memory, though, as I recall.
  6. While it improves your reading considerably, it doesn’t help speaking and listening all that much. There isn’t a great amount of crossover. Even if you practice vocabulary out loud, practical recall remains context-dependent, like the difference between singing karaoke and fronting a band. It’s easy think you know all the words to the song until you get on stage. Sure found that out the hard way. Damn Marvin Gaye.

But if you’re set on learning Japanese, then Ken Seeroi’s all for it. And hey, no time like the present, since Japanese folks have a several-thousand-words-of-English head start. The language of red-haired devils is devouring this nation of like a swarm of locusts—from storefronts and menus to movies and conversations—and won’t stop till it’s chewed clear through the culture. But if you hurry, you might still master Japanese. Just about the time everyone else masters English.

126 Replies to “Your Brain on 10,000 Sentences”

    1. Can’t argue with that, although the word “errand” is intriguing. Like, Run down to the store and pick me up a loaf of bread. Oh, and while you’re at it, learn Japanese, ya fool.

  1. It’s like being gay..your’re gonna suck at first but then you’ll suck less. Haha made my morning right there. Great post.

  2. http://www.Iknow.jp

    Is a fantastic resource for learning Japanese(and Mandarin), and it’s ran by a Japanese company.

    Based on the sames principles as anki just basically better media etc. I’ve been using it for vocab/sentences for years.

    1. I’ve tried iKnow for a little bit, and it seemed okay. It’s probably a good choice for someone who wants to pursue this approach.

  3. It’s a lot of work. Way too much. Kenneth, The First, weren’t you supposed to be encouraging us to learn? hahhaahhaha Well, we’re better off knowing the truth, I guess.

    Your photos are always interesting. I’m looking forward to a post, probably titled how to go around in Japan taking photos and the narration of all your adventures and misadventures with your camera.

    1. Positive and encouraging? Those aren’t Japanese qualities. Now sit back down and write kanji for a few hours.

      As for photos, maybe it’s not too difficult, since there’s a lot of Japanese-looking stuff everywhere. But thanks for the props.

  4. As someone who has finished Heisig and is half-way through the 10.000 sentences (Core10k), I can totally relate to this post.
    Especially with the civil engineer thing – I actually had exactly that moment not a long time ago, just with “carpenter” (大工) haha.
    And it’s funny how often I think about where I would be at this moment if I devoted all that time to learning Spanish instead 😉
    Anyway, at 5000 I’m still having (reasonable) fun learning the language, maybe because I only do 10 new words per day so it doesn’t feel like that much of a grudge.
    Thanks for a great post!

    1. Yeah, you’d probably be authoring novels in Spanish by now.

      Learning 10 new vocabulary words a day is a good rate. That’s always been my default, because it’s not very daunting. Then if I finish those and have a bit of motivation left, I click “Study More,” and increase the new cards by like 2 or 3. Then if I manage those, I do another 2 or 3, or even 1. That little extra adds up over time, while taking the pressure off.

      1. I studied Japanese seriously for several years about 15 years ago, gave it up, got back to it a couple years ago now. I’ve spent more hours than I want to even think about counting. I’ve gotten to the point where I can puzzle out the gist of what’s going on in a manga about a topic I’m familiar with if the pictures make it fairly clear what’s going on, and just that feels like a huge accomplishment. What really makes me want to cry is when I go into a restaurant that’s playing TV in Spanish and realize that I understand more of it than when I watch Japanese TV. Because I only studied Spanish decades ago in high school, and I actually FLUNKED a year.

        1. That’s funny, because a similar thing happened to me.

          I rented a DVD that had originally been in Italian, and was subtitled into Japanese. At the start of the movie, they threw a quick disclaimer onto the screen, probably six or seven sentences, first in Italian, and then in Japanese. The Italian was far easier to understand.

          It probably goes without saying that I’ve never studied Italian.

  5. I’m very critical of the Heisig method. I repeatedly hear “I’ve been studying for 3 weeks and I’ve already learned 783 kanji!”. As you’ve pointed out that’s garbage. You’re one of the very few people I’ve heard of that’s finished Heisig’s first book and gone on to reach anything beyond beginners level Japanese, but it’s telling that you and all the others I’ve heard of that have reached a decent literacy, all have used a hybrid method such as you describe. The approach you’ve suggested is far more practical but is counter to what Heisig says to do – he says don’t use other approaches stick to just his.

    “It’s facile to think that a given kanji has a single definition.”
    Yes and I’d go further than that and say many (most?) kanji don’t have definitions at all, they are just a vague idea that only has meaning when formed into words. When you start out, kanji like 木 水 川 石北 四 all have obvious and concrete meanings. But then you learn that 熊本 is not a book about bears; 本 has a quite complex meaning or meanings.

    It’s a failing of most kanji courses/books that they don’t make any attempt to explain kanji, how they developed, the radicals etc. I think Heisig’s idea at least is admirable, I just don’t think he did a good job of it.

    That’s was a bit of a rant 🙂

    1. You’ll get no argument from my side. Heisig’s book is rubbish. But there aren’t a lot of better resources out there. (The lack of quality learning materials is a general problem with Japanese.)

      It’s easy to see how Remembering the Kanji could be improved (and indeed, it’s in its 6th edition), but I doubt there are many people interested in doing so. Certainly not me.

  6. Seeroi San,

    Thank you again.
    About 15 years ago, I took my family to Japan as a reward for my son getting A’s in his Japanese language class in high school for 4 years.
    While there, several of the hotels had in room audio feeds, one of which was “Counting Sheep”, as a sleep aid.
    I have searched for that program to no avail.
    Can you help me find it?
    Thank you,
    Paul Trautman

    1. I did a quick Google for “Counting Sheep Japanese Song” and there were some hits, but of course I don’t know what the song sounds like.

      I also tried a similar search in Japanese, using the search term “羊を数える”. There were some promising-looking results under the Video results:

      https://www.google.co.jp/search?q=counting+sheep+japanese+song&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8&client=firefox-b&gfe_rd=cr&ei=tNRIV82wH-vO8gfmx7GoDQ#q=%E7%BE%8A%E3%82%92%E6%95%B0%E3%81%88%E3%82%8B&tbm=vid

      Check that out and let me know if it helps, hey.

  7. not really my kind of post, but yay, new post. I’m happy to tell you that after one week, I finally translated a song, Ken-san. I tried to translate a tourism brochure before, but a song more interesting. Maybe I can boast it on my facebook. lol.

    1. Yeah, I know it’s a little language-geeky. Sorry about that.

      But good job on the song translation. That’s certainly one of the most fun ways to learn a language. How’s the singing coming along?

  8. I returned to learning Japanese for the nth time. Managed to learn kanji for one two three this time even! I’m proud! Well, not really. I’m pretty comfortable with hiragana, not so with katakana, and just finished memorizing the first 100 kanjis. Yes, a hundred, not 10 thousand. You have to start somewhere. One question though, with learning kanji, should I go with the full kit? Meaning, all readings, stroke order? To be honest the readings just slip my brain SO fast 🙁 I wonder if I should just go on and familiarize myself with more kanjis or try to learn all the readings of the ones I currently recognize. Also great post, as usual.

    1. Oh man, you pose a difficult question. There are lots of different opinions regarding the best way to learn kanji. But as usual, I’ll just say what I think.

      And by the way, it’s pretty hard, so don’t beat yourself up over it.

      It makes sense to me to try to learn a subset of joyo kanji using (something like) the Remembering the Kanji method. In short, you don’t worry about the readings, or stroke order, and you don’t even worry about the meanings (since one kanji can mean all kinds of different things). Instead, you’re treating them like letters. You just want to be able to recognize them, to distinguish a U from a V.

      The subset of joyo is sometimes called RTK Lite (if you google for it). So I’d start there. Good luck, space man.

  9. “Japanese Rule of 7” is one of the few blogs that I’ve read in its entirety, and it’s currently the only blog that I follow on a regular basis.
    So if I say a few harsh things it’s out of love, not malice.
    I enjoy your take on the ex-pat experience, but some of the things you say about learning Japanese make me cringe.

    First off, even if Japanese is the hardest language in the world, it’s still just a human language. So we shouldn’t exaggerate where it fits in the scale of things that are hard to do.
    When I was a child, my parents forced me to study classical piano. As a young adult I was under the delusion that I could become a Master Chess Player. My first real job after college was as a live-in counselor in a home for runaways.
    Classical Piano, Competitive Chess, trying to mend broken children … Now that’s what I would call “hard”.
    From my experience learning Japanese is at most 20% tedious stuff (like drills and memorization) and at least 80% fun stuff (like reading manga, conversing over Skype, social networking, watching Doreamon cartoons and etc.) Classical piano is at least 90% drills. Competitive Chess is at least 60% memorization.
    Learning Japanese becomes progressively easier and more rewarding as you get more and more into it. Counseling runaways becomes increasingly harder and more frustrating as you get more and more into it.
    Of course it takes a lot of practice to get good at Japanese, but what doesn’t take a lot of practice to get good at?

    Which brings me to the next point…. You like to warn people about how long it takes to actually learn Japanese; which is a welcome counter to all the “Fluent in Practically No Time With Hardly Any Effort” scams that are all over the internet.
    But I think there’s some misconceptions about how long it takes to learn Japanese versus other languages. As if maybe you could master French, German and Spanish in the time it took to learn Japanese.
    I seriously doubt that.
    After three years of Japanese self-study — while living in America — I can travel independently throughout Japan. I can make Japanese Facebook friends. I can compare and contrast American and Japanese health care systems over Skype (after taking about an hour to prepare a vocabulary list). I can read a Psychology Primer (with the help of a dictionary app). And I can sometimes catch the gist of crime dramas without subtitles.
    After three years of formal study in English (My native language is Greek BTW.) I could make small talk with tourists, read Batman comics (with the help of a dictionary), and sometimes catch the gist of crime dramas without subtitles.
    After three years of (mostly) self study in Spanish I could make small talk with the lady that cleaned my office, read Salsa fan magazines (with the help of a dictionary) and sometimes catch the gist of what was being said on Puerto Rican radio.
    After six years of formal study and three grueling months of tutoring in English I was able to get a good score on the TOEFL test. But, upon entering a Midwestern University, I still couldn’t take class notes to save my life.
    After another six years of living in the US and a couple of speech classes I was able to acquire an accent that many people (who are not from the Midwest) mistake for Midwestern. (Because “has a foreign accent” is translated into “has difficulty communicating” by most American job interviewers.)
    After nearly forty years of living and working in the US, I’m still helpless without a spell checker. I still have difficulty figuring out how some words are pronounced just by seeing them in print. I sometimes make grammatical errors when I’m in a rush. And I couldn’t tell you the English name for all the herbs and flowers that my mother grows in her garden.

    Which brings me to one final point about vocabulary….
    The introduction to your post hints that learning a ton of words isn’t going to teach you a language. So why make that your approach? (Instead of trying to memorize one usage of 10,000 different words, why not try to write out 100 variations of the 100 most useful sentence patterns?)
    There comes a point where context and the internal logic of word construction helps you understand the meaning of words that you’ve never encountered before. I first observed this phenomenon when learning English psychology terms as a college student, and I’m having the same experience learning Japanese psychology terms.
    I would even say that grasping the internal logic of word construction is easier in Japanese than it is in English or Spanish — thanks of course to the kanji.

    1. I appreciate your well-considered comment.

      I’m not particularly advocating the 10,000 sentences method. I think there are plenty of other good (possibly better) ways to learn Japanese. I’m just looking for a way to ensure repeated exposure to the kanji in a variety of forms. Since there are 2,100 kanji, you simply wouldn’t see that many in 100 variations of 100 sentences. That method sounds more appropriate for acquiring grammar patterns, rather than vocabulary.

      Having studied French and a wee bit of Spanish, I’m of the opinion that they’re waaaay easier than Japanese. Although I respect your opinion, I simply can’t wrap my head around it. I’m not sure listing the things one can do in a language is the best test. I mean, I went to Korea. There I was able to order food, navigate the buses and subways, and meet and chat with people, without using English or Japanese, and without knowing a single word of Korean.

      I wonder how long it’ll be before you can write the same comment in Japanese.

      1. It only makes sense to talk about the difficulty of learning a language for speakers of a particular native language, since it matters how similar the two languages are. That being said, if you’re interested in more than anecdotal evidence and individual experience, you might find this interesting. It’s what the US defense department and foreign service have found about how long it takes English speakers to learn the languages they teach.
        http://www.ausa.org/publications/ausanews/specialreports/2010/8/Pages/DLI%E2%80%99slanguageguidelines.aspx

      2. I agree. I studied 1 year German, and my German level was around the same level that my Japanese was after 4 years… This is because many European languages are somehow related to each other.

        When it comes to kanjis… well… it is not even possible to make any comparison. Its just extra that comes of top of the language, and it makes the study of the language so much harder. When I studied German, I was able to read and write everything, I just lacked understanding.

  10. I’m pretty much in agreement with Ken’s comments on learning French and German compared to Japanese. I did one year of German study years ago, and it still sounds natural to me in a way Japanese never does, even after several years of mixed book study and immersion.

    And I also travelled around Korea some years ago, checking into little hotels without a reservation, catching intercity buses and Seoul subway trains with no more than a few words of Korean.

    My take on learning languages is that at elementary level, learners are typically in a controlled environment (not always the case). There’s a lot of focus on acquiring grammatical structure, but vocabulary is limited to maybe a thousand words.

    When you get to intermediate level, that all switches round. Now the words are coming thick and fast. The environment is less controlled, and the learner now has to acquire around five to ten thousand words to participate in immersion situations.

    This is where Japanese throws up two barriers to learning vocabulary compared with say French or German. The first barrier is that core Japanese vocabulary (apart from somewhat superficial borrowings from English) has no cognates with English. French and German have many cognates with English – words with related but not the same meaning. The second is that unlike European languages, which use alphabets and chop everything neatly up into words, Japanese uses a lot of kanji and runs everything together. My experience is that reading Japanese is not something that can be picked up easily from reading signs or skimming through a magazine. It requires lots of serious study. (I know there is furigana and computer apps that will give you the pronunciation of words written in kanji, but I guess the goal is not to need them).

  11. I have started learning Japanese a few months ago and there is really no getting around it. You have to do it everyday or it will be like the Dutch or Italian or whatever you have learned for two years in high-school. You should read every day, write everyday and even learn new things everyday (imagine that!). While repeating to yourself words and the readings of a kanji when you see it is nice and all, if you don’t actually do the same but with sentences you will not really get the hang of it. It seems like quite the journey and there is no treasure at the end, so you will have to be happy with getting used to work hard to achieve a stupid goal. And don’t ever question why you are doing it. There is not a sane reason anyway. You are probably just mentally ill or something. The damn japs and their propaganda machine making gaijin scum suffer until the day they die.

  12. Hello,
    this is my first time writing here – writing “in public” ist nothing that comes naturally to me. But now I feel the need to do so:-)
    First: thank you so much!!
    I always feel inspired, interested, amused…I am always interested to hear your point of view.
    Second: I would like to ask a question.
    The background: learning languages was always my hobby, and I have a great interest in the history of language and writing. I have been learning eight languages over time – in three of them I feel confident having conversation about everything and am able to read and write anything. With the others it fascinates me to have a grasp of the grammer, the system…it is a level to go on holiday in the country and get around.

    Well, for a couple of reasons I am now learning Japanese. Well. It feels different to me. For example, studying Russian is always relaxing. I enjoy it, I calm down.

    I have never experienced an emotional roller coaster as with Japanese now. For example, I get to a new grammar point and it feels like standing before a wall, and I feel like a snail which has to erode it morsel after morsel. Then, after getting the point, it feels like standing on a cliff, the air around me, and it is like looking down: “well, quite easy, in fact”…and ist is exhilarating. My God, it is exhausting…it´s different.

    Sorry for talking so much, but this now, is my question:

    I stumbled upon the counters. Ok. Ok. Have to learn some, nobody can learn all the counters I have been told. I settled for around 20 (and can hopefully use them correctly:-)).

    I would like to know very much: how did you learn counters? How many do you use? Do you learn any new counter you meet in everyday life? Do you think about them, study them? Or aren´t they not that important in Japanese reality?

    Anyhow, I always think about your advice to imagine being in an russian gulag. It helps:-)

    Greetings,

    A.

    1. Yeah, that emotional roller coaster–I feel that every day, living and working in Japan. There’s something very unstable about the language, and I swear Japanese people feel it as well.

      As for the counters, I think they’re a red herring. Japanese folks love to say things like: Japanese is hard, right? It’s got a bunch of counters, right?

      Nope, that’s not why it’s hard.

      Or they’ll say: It’s got varying levels of politeness. That’s why it’s hard, right?

      Nope, not that either.

      The subject-verb-object is different?

      Ah, you’re way off.

      All right, well, it’s got hiragana, katakana, and kanji. That’s why it’s hard, right?

      Still no, but you’re getting warm.

      The only reason Japanese is hard is because of the kanji. It’s an alphabet of 2100+ characters that change their pronunciations and meanings depending how you combine them and what day of the week it is. Who came up with that bright idea?

      You hear plenty of people say some version of “Japanese is easy” or “not that hard.” But nobody ever says it’s easy to read and write. So basically the language isn’t too bad, assuming you just stick with the oral tradition.

      Anyway, you’ll pick up the most frequently-used counters simply through exposure. Nobody talks about a stick of bread or a loaf of gum. A strand of pie or a slice of hair? Herd of cats? English has a crazy number of counters too.

      The remaining handful of counters you might need to memorize. But since Japanese requires memorizing freaking bazillions of things, 10 or 20 is no big deal. That should be a bar of cake.

      Thanks for writing in, seriously.

      1. One time a Japanese friend was giving me instructions to buy a train ticket and I was all “How should I say the number? What’s the counter for tickets? Should I say hitori?” And she patiently explained that it would be perfectly clear if I held up one finger and said “ichi.”

        I mean, yeah sure you need to know the counters to be fluent and sound like a native speaker. But now I don’t panic about them quite so much anymore.

  13. Anyone see Tim Ferris’ claim that he *mastered* Japanese in 4 hours or something like that? The man is a modern day vaudeville act and his take on language acquisition seems to still bring in an audience …

  14. …and thank you for your kind reply!

    – very interesting what you say about something in the language being unstable.

    I am at ease with my counters now and will get on with the other bazillions of things!:-)

    Kind regards,

    A.

  15. I usually just act as a silent reader Ken, but I feel compelled to comment and ask questions as well. I’ve been living in Japan for 6 months now, not knowing any letters at all and just know arigatou gozaimasu and ohayougozaimasu when I first came.

    Fast forward to now, I know first and 2nd grade Kanji (I’m one of the guys who completely don’t get the Heisig method, probably cause I’m not English native speaker, so I stick learning Kanji like the japanese kids learning it, so I use the Kanji books for elementary schools). Now, the problem is, I understand the meaning of its Kanji, but boy I’m fucked if they ask me to pronounce it because of its gazilion pronounciation. My first question is, do you have any tips for bakagaijin to memorize those gajilions pronounciation of Kanji? I know you probably said exposure is the key, but anything else comes to mind Seeroi Sensei?

    As for vocabulary, yes I also use Anki, but not the core 10K, I’m still at the core 2k, now the 3rd part. But most of the words I don’t think I will be using quite often, do you personally think it is useful for us? what other things that you do besides Anki to learn new vocab?

    Thanks as usual Ken! always wait for your new post (preferably sooner than later please :p)

    B

    1. Pronunciations? My best advice is to use kanji at every turn. Stop writing Tokyo as とうきょう. Once you start connecting Tokyo with 東京, the pronunciations start making sense.

      The one thing I wouldn’t do is memorize them independently of words, like 東 = とう、ひがし、whatever. That seems insane to me.

      I used Anki for the 2100 joyo kanji (about 60% effective), 10,000 sentences (about 65% effective), recording stuff people said or I read or heard (about 70% effective), and for memorizing the 47 prefectures of Japan (about 98% effective). It’s not as good as reading, but it’s something you can do while you’re riding the escalator, so it’s hard to knock it.

      Thanks for writing in!

  16. Hi Ken! I learned Japanese in three months, and so can you! I just “went native” for 12 weeks and/or did a buttload of Anki reviews. I also used this method to learn how to speak Korean, Spanish, Chinese, Latin, Klingon, Ruby on Rails, and French!

    Oh wait, you’ve tried that and it didn’t work? No worries, I’ve got some motivational BS for you to get you back on track! …Still having troubles? I’ve got your back– just whip out your Mastercard and visit the paid portion of my site. Better yet, buy my products, those will surely make you fluent!

    …um…anyway…

    I’ve recently discovered (or likely rediscovered) one of the major downsides to 10k sentences. From my experiences, large Anki decks are either completely random, or ordered based on sentence length. But they never seem to be able to be ordered by usefulness.

    After getting up to about 2,000 sentences I took a really easy online quiz. I completely bombed it. I know sentences like 我只想知道你什么时候回来, but was stumped by 干嘛.

    In the past you’ve stressed the importance of a teacher, and I think my experience completely exemplifies your point.

    1. Ah, good point. I have a deck that started out ordered around words that share the same kanji, and that’s what you really need. Random is terrible.

      Ideally, all the words that share kanji should be kept together. So you learn 人, then 恋人, then 巨人, then 素人, and they stay together, rather than getting shuffled by the Anki algorithm. Not only does it teach you all the readings for a given kanji, but helps you to really understand what the character means.

      When I did Heisig, I even went so far as to create dozens of small sub-decks, so I could at least study the kanji in groups and clearly distinguish 像 from 象. Once Anki starts separating them, things get confusing. It makes a good case for paper, actually.

      1. Hi! You’ll probably never even see this but I just wanted to ask if this deck you used could be found anywhere? I’m always looking for sentence decks but I also can only find randomly shuffled decks.
        Have a nice day!

        1. Hey, thanks for the comment. Yeah, I deleted all my decks about a year ago, after deciding that a decade of Anki wasn’t really all that effective. You might check over on https://forum.koohii.com/ . Those folks are pretty into Anki-ing everything under the sun. Tell ’em JapaneseRuleof7 says hi.

  17. Quick question if you don’t mind. I recently purchased Rosetta Stone for Japanese since it was quite cheap at only $169 and I’m contemplating Pimsleur but it is rather expensive and there are about 4 different levels of learning. My question is whether or not Pimsleur is worth dishing out the money for? Also if you have any other suggestions for programs outside of language classes for learning japanese that would be helpful I would appreciate it. I’m trying not to break the bank but if it is worth it for the price im willing to bite the bullet.

    1. I don’t have any programs I’d particularly recommend, although I have one insight.

      Pimsleur is focused on output. It’s very good at drilling you on a set of sentence patterns, and training you to produce them quickly. You’ll learn how to speak Japanese. Unfortunately, you won’t learn how to speak a lot of it. Given the price, you’ll need to ask yourself if it’s worth paying a dollar per sentence (or something like that; I didn’t to the math).

      The 10,000-sentences method I describe is focused on input. It’s designed to get you to recognize a large number of words when you read or hear them. However, you won’t be able to produce many of them. You could, in theory, spend the time necessary to practice them, 10 sentences at a time, until you could produce them reliably. It would slow you down considerably, however, so you’d need to factor that in.

      Rosetta Stone is something of a cross between the two approaches. You get some input, some output, and some practice. It’s a reasonably good compromise. If you do use it, I strongly recommend using it to learn how to read the kanji. Start out by understanding the sentences with romaji or hiragana/katakana (use a dictionary), and then drill them using the kanji setting.

      Hope that helps.

      1. Yeah it does help. Do you have any suggestions for learning the Katakana/Hiragana?

        Also while on Amazon I was able to find some used Pimsleur lessons for about $100 so it does lesson the hit on the wallet but for all 4 lessons your still gonna pay over $400 which is no small chunk of change.

        1. By far the most effective thing I did was to learn 5 characters a day. The first day, I learned the “ah” set: あ、い、う、え、お. I just wrote them down the side of a paper half a dozen times (or more), until I could do them from memory. Then the next day, I did them again, then the “ka” set:
          か、き、く、け、こ. The next day, I rewrote the “ah” set, and the “ka” set, then started in on the “sa” set.

          In that way, I learned all the characters in about 9 days.

          I also used this for hiragana. And for katakana, this.
          They’re well done books, and give you some basic vocabulary that help make the characters real and connect them to words.

          Of course, you still have to practice a lot and use them all the time. There’s no stopping once you start.

          1. You wrote a blog saying that Hiragana/Katagana is the reason why your japanese sucks so is it really worth learning to begin with?

            1. It is, and let me clarify what I meant.

              If your plan is to learn only hiragana and katakana, that’s a terrible idea.
              If your plan is to learn them first, and then kanji at a much later date, that’s a terrible idea too.

              You should go into this understanding that you need all 3—hiragana, katakana, and kanji—and develop an approach to learn them as rapidly as possible.

              But that’s not what most people do. And it’s not what I did. I followed a fairly traditional approach where we spent a couple years messing around in hiragana, and treating kanji like they were optional. That was a huge mistake.

              If, instead, you start today, and learn the kanji as rapidly as possible, then in six or twelve months, you’ll know them. Along the way, spend a couple weeks learning hiragana and katakana, and then you’ll know all three writing systems. At which point you can begin to learn Japanese.

          2. So I am about 4 days into Rosetta Stone and it is quite fun. They are throwing a lot of Hiragana/Katakana at you and you have said before that it is a great way to learn Kanji. My question is how should I go about learning the Kanji? I don’t even know how I should go about learning it. Is there a book or something that will help me get exposed to it? Also should I start learning Kanji immeadiately or wait to becomemore exposed to Japanese first? I don’t want to fill my plate up to full since Rosetta Stone throws talking, listening, reading and writing at you all at once.

            1. Here’s what I did, and I think it was pretty effective.

              First, for every scenario Rosetta Stone presents to you, make sure you understand what’s going on. A lot of the pictures were, for me, unclear. For example, there was a picture of a guy skateboarding, and the word “korondeimasu.” I thought it meant “to slide,” or possibly “lean over.”

              Turns out, it means “falling down.” So you’ll need to use a dictionary and look up words. I know they bill Rosetta Stone as “Learn like a child does,” but that’s just marketing talk. It’s a little more work, but make sure you understand the words you’re learning.

              It’s fine to use romaji at first. But in the next few weeks, you might as well teach yourself hiragana. Then you can switch back and forth between romaji and hiragana. After that starts to feel okay, then switch between romaji, hiragana, and kanji. You’ll start to see which kanji correspond to which sounds. And presto, you’re reading kanji.

              Rosetta Stone’s ability to quickly switch between writing systems, along with the corresponding audio, make it a pretty nice package.

              The sole failing of Rosetta Stone is the same reason people buy it: because they make it sound like you don’t have to look anything up, and that you’ll just magically acquire the language. If you invest just a bit of effort into ensuring you comprehend what’s going on, it pays big dividends.

              Let me know how it goes.

          3. I write every new word down with a defentition. I find it helps a lot because tgey throw so many words at you that you forget exact meaning. Trying to work out the differences in Haite, kite and kabutte took a while to master. I still dont have all the counters down for numbers. Its uterly confusing. I had to go online just to figure out what was happening to the numbers because they provide no explanation for why you say two balls as nikon and two people are futari. The massive amounts of verb conjugations are still something that have me blindsided. Or when they suddenly throw in polite pronunciations for words like Isha. When I saw Oishan I spent a few minutes on google trying to figure out what word that was and was annoyed to learn that it was Isha.

            It has been really fun regardless, but much more complex than I anticipated and I tried to have relaistic expectations going into it.

            1. Words. If only there weren’t so many words, learning a language would be a lot easier.

              Rosetta Stone kind of throws you in at the deep end. They give you a lot of scattered information, and present some complexities that you really don’t need to bother with early on. But it’s still a good overview.

              Now would be a great time to ensure you’ve got a plan in place. Like, I’m going to use this program for half an hour a day, for the next two months, no matter what. I feel like a lot of people get part way into learning Japanese, and then realize it’s more than they anticipated, and lose enthusiasm. Enthusiasm won’t carry you through; determination will. Just make sure you’ve got that in place, right?

          4. I have no intentions on stopping. As for a plan I usually do about an hour of Rosetta Stone each day. Too much of it will just expose you to too much of the language and you forget other stuff easily. One thing I really like about Rosetta Stone is that it is very repetetive. You cover the same material numerous times in different ways so it sinks in.

            Just last night I bought this language learning program for only $33 dollars which includes four books and 9 companion CD’s. Based on the reviews it was a good program for the price. It is supposed to cover basic, intermediate and advanced Japanese but one reviewer said it was more like basic, basic intermediate and basic advanced. I plan on doing that program along with Rosetta Stone for the time being and once I complete those programs I plan on assessing what I have learned and get into more advanced Japanese if I am still not where I want or need to be to use Japanese functionally.

            Here is the program I purchased if you don’t mind taking a look at it and telling me what you think. Your input is always appreciated.

            https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0307478653/ref=as_li_qf_sp_asin_il_tl?ie=UTF8&tag=httpwwwjapa0f-20&camp=1789&creative=9325&linkCode=as2&creativeASIN=0307478653&linkId=f43885c0afc3f5b5c57176757fb54225

            1. Well, based upon the reviews, it sounds pretty fantastic, and the price is insane. 4 books and 9 CDs for about 30 bucks? Can that be right? At that price, you can’t afford not to buy it.

              Of course, I’m a bit skeptical, but then I’m skeptical of pretty much everything. It’ll be interesting to hear how it actually works for you.

          5. The way I figured, if it doesnt work I’m only out $30, but if it does work then it’s more than a bargain. I’ll let you know.

            Even if it only helps margianlly it is probably worth the price of it anyway. I am also skeptical because it does sound too good to be true.

          6. Why do I keep seeing the japanese particle wa, being written as ha so often? In this sentence

            あれはわたしのペンです (That is my pen over there.)
            are wa watashi no pen desu

            Wa is written as は but the charcater for wa is わ. I see this all the time and it is vey confusing. Is there an explanation for this?

            1. The only explanation is that Japanese folks like to make things as complicated as possible.

              So yes, in the kana alphabet wa is わ, and ha is は. But when marking the topic of the sentence, は is pronounced as wa. Just to eff you up.

              Still, it’s a pretty simple rule, so once you know it, you can usually read the sentence correctly. Of course, once in a while you run across a は and it takes a minute to figure out whether it’s the character ha, or whether it’s marking the sentence topic. Like ははははがねはがある。 (My) mother has steel teeth.

              Sorry, kind of a joke-y sentence, but it’s the best I could whip up on a Wednesday night. Anyway, also know that using kanji helps a great deal to disambiguate the words. Japanese written only in kana quickly becomes confusing.

          7. That sentence is very, very confusing. I tried and failed to read it. Google translate couldn’t make sense of it either. Then again google translate usually makes a mess of the simplest of sentences and words.

            On another note that language learning course that I found for $30 came in the mail today and it is quite impressive. The books are bigger than i expected an the reading and writing book that accompanoes it is very detailed. Each book also includes hundreds of japnese words with the defention in english which is almost worth the price of the program itself. I’m quite excited to use them. I will you keep posted on how well it goes. If it turns out to be a good product it could be something else for you to include in your section on learning services.

            1. That’s good to know about that course. Yes, please do keep me posted as you proceed through the journey of learning Japanese, even if you decide not to continue. It’s very cool to see someone starting from scratch, as I did.

              Here’s that same sentence using kanji: 母は鋼歯がある。That might make it a little easier to understand. At least you can clearly see where the topic-marking “wa” is.

          8. I did have a freudian slip this morning that let’s me know that im actually learing japanese. As I was deciding what to wear I was thinking out loud and unwittingly said T Shatsu when I decided to wear a T Shirt. I thought that was pretty funny.

          9. So here is a quick update. I decided to go head first into hiragana, yesterday I decided to make hiragana flash cards with the character and a word with the character in context on one side and the answers to both on the other. Since studying diligently on the flash cards I have already switched rosetta stone to hiragana and can read it with no problems, albeit slowly. I can also accurately write all the characters. In two days I have about a 95% accuracy rate with deciphering all the characters by going through the flash cards. These two characters give me the most trouble though because I can’t remember them for some reason, も へ.

            I also have two questions if you dn’t mind. First question is if you have any tips to help with pronunciation. I have troubles with the nuance of saying the vowels as they change from word to word. For example, かぎ は くるま の いえ に あります, is hard for me to say. Especially, の いえ に.

            Second question is why are all the borrowed, western words written in katakana? Especially when words like toire, terebi and tebeeru which are easy to write in hiragana.

            1. Congratulations on your progress. Hiragana is a great step toward learning Japanese.

              Katakana serves the same function that italics do in English. In the case of loan words, they alert you to the fact that the word is not originally Japanese, thus saving you the trouble of puzzling out what the hell ペンネパスタ is.

              As for pronunciation, I think it’s important to speak slowly at first. There’s a tendency to want to speak “naturally,” and thus quickly, but until you’re clearly enunciating each character, your speech will sound off.

              Also, pronunciation simply improves with practice. In the beginning, your mouth isn’t used to making those sounds, so it’s really just a training problem. But the more you do it, the better you’ll get.

          10. Thanks for the kudos and for answering all my questions. Positive reinforcement goes a long way, especially when undertaking a task as daunting as learning Japanese.

            Speaking of pronunciation, do you still speak with a slight accent? You say that you often hear すごい in regards to your ability to speak japanese, but is it just lip service or do they actually mean it? I would think that living in Japan and speaking Japanese for as long as you have that you wouldn’t have much of an accent or one at all. 11

            1. That’s an interesting question. Certainly you’ve met people who lived for years in a country and still spoke with an accent. I’d say it’s almost the norm, actually.

              I’ve had people say that I speak like a native, and I don’t think they’re lying, per se. I’ve also recorded myself on occasion, and it sounds pretty authentic. However, it’s probably closer to the truth to say that I can sound good for a little while. That is, within my comfort zone, I manage all right. Japanese isn’t a particularly hard accent to master. (As a tip, I’d say it helps to stop the flow of air through your nose, so you sound a bit nasally.) However, when I have to pronounce unfamiliar words, and particularly loan words like, uh, “restaurant,” it’s easy to spot that I’m not a native.

              I’ve also met people who sound much better than myself, most notably Europeans who already speak several languages. It’s then that I realize how poor my Japanese actually sounds. From what I can tell, it helps to speak a lot, and to have a really good ear.

          11. Yeah I have known pople who have picked up english as a second language and usually the older they are they have more of an accent they have. For example my best friend didn’t learn english until he started going to primary school but now he speaks english better than most people I know, without an accent whatsoever.

            From what I have seen, native english speakers do not appear to have an accent when speaking japanese if they have been speaking it for 10 or more years. That is if they live in Japan though.

            You mentioned that you can sound good for a little while if you try. Does that mean you try to speak with no accent or just the longer you talk the more your accent shows?

            1. It’s more that everyone naturally sounds better with phrases they’ve said over and over. How’s it going? Great, you? Yeah, great, nice weather we’re having lately, huh? Sure is.

              But once you start using less practiced vocabulary—including words you may have never said before—you simply can’t sound as smooth and natural. That’s when the foreign accent starts to show.

          12. How often do you come across new words that you have never heard or read before? You said you have reviewed almost 15,000 sentences in anki, not to mention the thousands of hours of media over the years, whether it be books, movies, tv shows and articles. And most importantly just daily conversation.

            1. Only a few times a week, perhaps around five. Of course, that doesn’t mean I can understand everything that’s going on around me.

              I see the same thing in my adult students as well, many of whom have lived abroad and studied English for decades. They can follow a straightforward conversation, but hit them with a phrase like “Yo Slim, what’s shakin’?” and it’s like they’ve never heard English before. Who’s Slim? Shaking? What’s that about?

              Native speakers can choose to speak straightforwardly, or to use more interesting language, and when it comes to radio and TV, it’s often the latter.

              Anyway, love to rap wit you more, but it’s time to go make that paper. Peace.

          13. So I’ve been using those textbooks for about 10 days now and I have to say they are quite useful. It goes perfectly with Rosetta Stone because it covers most of the same material as far as new words and sentences. The thing that makes it so useful is it picks up the slack in place of Rosetta Stone. It goes into much more deatail. It explains the particle words, sentence structure and is much more hands on with hiragana. It has you write in hiragana which helps out way more when learning the characters. Rosetta stone is a nice program except for the lack of explaning the sentence structure, word defentitions and the infuriating problems it has with recognizing speech. Living Language: Japanese fills in most of those gaps so it is a very good accompanying program, especially for the price of $30.

            I also started using the phone app, Memrise. It is free and has tons of different card decks for lerning new words. It has also been very useful. Especially when you have a few minutes of free time and you can review 5 new words in a matter of minutes.

            It all adds up.

            1. It does all add up, and it sounds like you’re on the right track.

              You may want to start learning some kanji, because that will eventually unlock the language. If you really want to learn Japanese, you’ll need it, and the sooner you start, the better.

              Just a thought.

          14. I need to knock out Katakana but I have been procrastinating because I only ever see it being used with loan words. If I can learn it as quickly as I did Hiragana it shouldn’t take more than 2 or 3 days.

            Do you have any suggestions for how one should begin learning Kanji? Ive been watching more Japanese shows and pretty much everything you see out in the streets, menus and so on is in Kanji so I’m starting to realize how important it is to learn it if you want to get buy in Japan and not be in the gaijin bubble.

            Since I have been watching more japanese tv I’m also starting to realize how informal spoken japanese is. It sounds nothing like the japanese you hear in Rosetta stone, outside of the greetings, those sound the exact same. I feel like you could study japanese for years but won’t ever actually pick up the language unless you are surrounded by native speakers for a prolonged period of time. It is the same thing with english. You could study english in textbooks and speach programs but everyone who speaks english has their own unique way of speaking it that cannot be learned from textbooks. It is something you can’t prepare for.

            1. Heh, even if you are surrounded by native Japanese speakers, half the time they’d rather just speak English with you. Honestly, I think it may be easier to study Japanese outside of Japan. Japan’s just one massive distraction that gets in the way of your Japanese. You’ll hear a lot more, and varied, words in dramas than in most real-life interactions, as Japanese folks tend to be a fairly un-talkative lot.

              I’ve written a good bit about how to study kanji. This will give you somewhere to start. Seriously though, don’t put it off too long. It’s the shortcut to learning Japanese.

    2. Hello.
      If I may add my 2 cents, since reading Ken sensei I understand there is no definite choice when it comes to japanese learning programs.
      I found that in europe, France in particular, there is a program called Assimil that is very popular and not too expensive.
      Bought it for about 120 CAD.
      I think it’s a worthy start although I’m just beginning.

      Good luck.K2SG

  18. Hello Ken.
    I have a phrase I need translated and google translate/bing translator are giving different interpretations!
    Do you know of a free group/site that could help me out? I tried FB to no avail.

    If any of you is interested, I need to know to whom the “husband” belongs to (her friend or herself) in that phrase:
    (I uderstand it’s about a lady who meets friends for her birthday):
    旦那さまが月に2本しか出ない珍しい美味しいお酒を出してくれたからお友達ちゃん飲んでた

    Thanks in advance.

    1. I don’t really use any translation sites. Google Translate is miserable. While Skype can do real-time translation of several languages, the best computers in the world seem utterly incapable of rendering the simplest of Japanese sentences intelligible. Seems to prove the point that it’s indeed one of the harder languages.

      But I digress.

      I think the phrase in question means: My husband only has two bottles of rare and delicious booze that come out in a month, and gave them [to me/my female friend], so my female friend drank them.

      It doesn’t make much sense in English, either because my translation sucks (a strong possibility), or because the Japanese is incomplete or wrong.

      I discussed this with a Japanese friend at some length, who also found it perplexing, and suspected it was machine-translated from another language. In the passage, it’s not clear whose friend it is (the husband’s or the wife’s). It’s also not clear who is giving and receiving the alcohol. The phrase “お友達ちゃん” is also unusual.

      To answer your question, I believe the husband is the speaker’s husband, but it’s possible the speaker is a neutral 3rd party. Thus, in place of “my husband,” “the husband” is also a possibility.

      Anybody with a stronger grasp of this than I, feel free to weigh in.

      1. Thanks for trying! Appreciate your time.
        There was i phrase before that one that I thought was not important for the context but I might be wrong:
        旦那さまとお友達ちゃんがお酒飲んでる

        I’m trying to learn japanese, but damn! what a challenge!
        (But I guess that’s part of the appeal…)

          1. I think you’re right, Ken, this almost looks like something that was translated into Japanese (not well) from another language. The “友達ちゃん” is tripping me out too. Not seeing the rest of the context…I think you’re right…it’s the speaker’s husband and the speaker’s friend…

  19. Ken San. Another brilliant post that quantifies the difficulty of leaning Japanese, 10k sentences!! Gosh

    Wikipedia… FOOL’S ERRAND
    noun
    a task or activity that has no hope of success.
    “he sent gullible freshmen on fool’s errands” or “why don’t you learn Japanese in your spare time”

    I once worked for a British Company on an IT project in Tokyo and of course I spoke no Japanese. However there was a Japanese born woman translator who had returned from 10 years in San Francisco to work there. She used to simultaneously translate into English what was being said in Japanese. I thought it was an excellent skill but clearly she was a genius!!

    I would be interested to know how hard is it to do that on IT subject matter that you are not skilled in? and have you ever done that!!

    1. Me? No way. I’ve known quite a few simultaneous translators, and it’s an impressive skill. I’ve never attributed it to genius, however. Rather just to long exposure to both languages, often from a young age. I’ve also visited trade schools for translators, and seen how hard they study.

      So I’d assume that, if you grow up bilingual, or nearly so, and work your ass off, many folks could do the same.

  20. Hi Ken, to me the point your post raised is when can one feel one is proficient in the language.

    I am fluent in three languages that I have learned at different stages in my life and I think an ultimate test of proficiency is when you begin to think in that language without needing to communicate externally. For example, when you walk into a store and think to yourself “what should I buy?” – is that in english of japanese? How about when you dream. What language are your dreams in if there is speaking involved? If you are in an immersive environment for an extended time, and you have reached a reasonable level, the mind has a way of adopting the new language as its primary means of internal functioning. I would call this the point of achieving fluency, though fluency itself can be improved almost without limit.

    Now this, of course, will de-emphesise your kanji skills. I take it that it is important to read and write, but if you start to measure yourself by that then you may never ‘master’ japanese. From questioning my japanese friends, not even natives have full mastery of it. They too can come across a rare symbol/context that they have to look up.

    What I would like to know is: does a chinese learn japanese faster than a european. Does being a native to a character based language make it easier to learn another one, especially writing? The same as, for example, an italian will learn spanish far easier than a greek, who should learn it in turn easier than an asian?

    1. Thanks for a nice comment.

      To address a few points you mentioned, I find that my internal dialog depends on who I’m speaking to in my mind. If I walk into a store and I’m having an imaginary dialog with a Japanese friend about dinner, then I’m thinking in Japanese. On the other hand, if I’m contemplating this response to you, then it’s English. I switch back and forth without really noticing it. But if I had to guess, I’d say that since I live here and am surrounded by the language, I probably think in it 70% of the time.

      Perhaps more importantly, however, is how one actually pictures words. For example, when you think of the word “Tokyo,” do you think of it as t-o-k-y-o, とうきょう, or 東京? Because if you’re not picturing the word in kanji, you’re not picturing the real word. That is, Tokyo has a meaning, not just sounds. (It means East Capital.) And that’s true of most Japanese words.

      You mentioned that not even native Japanese people have a full mastery of kanji. That’s really something of a myth. Japanese folks read, write, and think in kanji. Do they know every word? Of course not. I don’t know every word in English either. Far from it. And I misspell words here and there, occasionally badly. But that doesn’t mean one can’t read most books in one’s native language. Japanese folks know plenty of kanji, trust me.

      And finally, yes, it’s waaay easier for Chinese folks to learn Japanese than it is for Westerners. I don’t believe there’s any debate on that point.

      1. Chinese will have it easy with the Kanji , but they will have some difficulties with the pronunciation and the grammar.
        I heard that for Koreans learning Japanese is fairly easy

  21. I think one of the most difficult and important things to do , is to find the method that works best for yourself , I tried anki and found that using a computer is tiring ( I am a low tech person) and it is easy to satrt surfing the net and wasting time.
    In my case: find a good textbook, or two that complement each other, make your own paper anki cards, keep it fun ( music , dramas etc) , study every day at least a few minutes, and try to output as much as you can.
    my difficulty when learning japanese is the huge amount of words used to express similar things.
    in English life in Japanese 人生 じんせい 命 いのち 生活 せいかつ.

    1. Certainly Anki isn’t for everyone. It’s better on a phone or iPod, where you just refer to it during spare moments. I almost never use it on the PC. And I agree, it’s way too easy to get distracted and just start surfing the net.

      Everything you wrote sounded good, but I wanted to mention that you might want to try getting as much input as possible, rather than output. Once I made that switch, my Japanese improved considerably. Working on output is comparatively slow. Just a thought.

      1. For myself, I’ve never been a big fan of drills or programmed learning. But if I have something interesting and fun to read at the right level, I’ll happily spend hours reading – the time just zooms by – which I wouldn’t do reading disconnected sentences.

        But the main message is that it’s time in the game that shows through in the end, whatever method you choose for yourself.

  22. This is my first visit to your blog. M.L. Kappa recommended you on her Blog Parade page as being hilarious. I’m all for that, and you are funny! The thought about being gay, yes, but your thoughts on learning language are spot on. I “learned” three languages, never getting past the primary level in any of them but my native English, and even that has its moments of primary more than any other level of learning. 🙂 Thanks for the post

  23. Was linked to your blog from the Kanji.Koohii.Com forums and am presently impressed. I like how you don’t sugar coat how much of a long trek it will be on becoming literate and fluent in Japanese.

    On to your points: In the last few years on RevTK forums, then Reddit and recently Memrise, I’ve been advocating breaking down all these amazing resources (RTK, Core 2k/6k, Tae Kim, Immersion) into smaller and more manageable sizes. So while both of us spend months and hundreds of hours learning all 2042 RTK kanjis, then months for the entire Tae Kim website and then months for every one of the 2000 Core 2k words and sentence, those seeking the path to Japanese can take an better path that ends at the same point.

    It’s a better divide and conquer approach in that sections are about 30 to 40 hours to finish. Plus, there’s immediate positive feedback when one learns 555 kanji then goes on to Tae Kim’s basic grammar section then goes on to 500 of the Core 2k/6k vocabulary list. Actually, the vocabulary list is even better as now they’re sorted by kanji making them even easier to learn and one can immediately see the differences of how the same kanji is used (usually in onyomi and kunyomi).

    1. You know, I believe the 10,000-sentences deck I used was actually sorted by you, so I owe you quite a debt of thanks.

      And I agree completely, it’s far more efficient, and rewarding, to break the learning process into smaller, related chunks. When somebody eventually writes an improved version of Heisig’s book, I hope this is one of the concepts they employ.

      1. There’s no need for someone to write an improved version of Heisig’s book. Both books 1 and 3 work great a reference set to the superior online sources. There’s the Koohii RevTK that offers all the user generated stories to fill in the hundreds of missing stories in Heisig’s book. There’s flashcard courses like this one http://www.memrise.com/course/1091255/sgjl-03-remembering-the-kanji-ko2k1-pt-1/ that I posted on Memrise recently that takes the 555 kanji from the cool 2001.Kanji.Odyssey Book 1 and presents those in Heisig’s order with Memnotes I shamelessly copy/pasted from RevTKs top stories.

        Hell, I could probably top RTK Book Two, if I can find a good way to present, there can be Onyomi flashcards based on the Core 2k/6k decks. Basically, create Onyomi entry when at least two words that use a kanji with that onyomi occurred in those 500 vocabulary lists. Each subsequent 500 vocabulary list will create a larger and larger number of Onyomi kanji. I’m probably not explaining it right, but basically you’ll see an Onyomi with two or more vocabulary words with missing kanji, what’s the kanji missing? The reverse would be a Kanji with sample words using that kanji, what’s the onyomi? The beauty is the sample words are words you should already know.

        Sorry for going off on a tangent in there. Glad the sorted list of sentences helped you learn. Personally, I abandoned sorted sentences after getting 15 in a row with 彼 even though they were there to explain simpler vocabulary. After that, I just sorted by vocabulary list.

  24. somehow i cant use the reply button, but apart from southern people and the french, native english speakers are the easiest to spot when they speak japanese… not that they are using a heavy accent alltogether(thats only in some words),but you can tell by a few words… and dont forget that sentence structure and the use of words is the main issue over all…

    1. You just need to scroll way far up to reply to that long as hell thread. I thought that I coudn’t reply to that long thread but you just have to scroll up to the oriinal comment that was replied to.

      I haven’t seen any non-english speakers speaking japanese so I wouldn’t know if they have a better accent or not. I would think the thicker your acent in your native langauge, the thicker your accent in Japanese would be but I could be wrong.

  25. The best way to learn Japanese is too immerse yourself in a Japanese environment with Japanese tantosha, sempai, etc. that control every move and thought you make, all the while attending any of the NGO sponsored schools that teach nihongo to immigrant workers. The books they used in my classes were shin nihongo no kiso and the bonjinsha company series of kanji books. These books get you up and running for the JLPT (now they call it something else) and working Japanese. They may of changed books by now, but that series was all you needed. I still dont understand the fascination with Japanese by English Teachers in Japan. You dont ever really need to use it, and you remain in a perpetual stage of fascination of learning but no application that many Japanese find annoying. I think if you worked in some of the places I have been at, youll quickly want to forget about all things Japanese real fast. The interview goes like this- “nihongo wakaru?” “nihon nande sunde iru?” “nihon ni nande kita?” “washoku suki?” “kuni wa doko”? kuni itsu ni kaeru?” O renrei wa? if you answer all that, then its “nihongo mae desu ne” What they are doing is not only testing your nihongo ability, they are testing how you will fit into the environment. There are also programmed answers to those questions, like for “kuni itsu kaeru” (when will you return home) you wouldnt answer next month because they expect years of commitment. Dare I say it, but some “kunis” (countries) may not make the cut as well as age, due to, gasp, discrimination.. Even if you answer in perfect Nihongo, suit up in black and make all the sucking noises, childlike faces and fake praise of their company and japan, you still might get some twilight zone answer, like there were too many applicants. Ive actually been to interviews where I was very straight, perhaps rude, and they liked me; they were desperate for a certain skill set. Doesnt mean you get to clown at work; your still in Japan, just means they know that you know whats up and are tired of the games. If your straight outta uni or nihongo gakko or english teacher career, you wont get away with that approach. Young people have the best shot, no matter what your nationality isbecause Japan like a clean slate to write on. Many companies are now starting to diversify their staff as well. If your young, just do as you have been coached to do, you chances are you will eventually succeed.

    To some Japanese, your innocent gaijiness is seen as meiwaku, or a disruption of the harmony, so they take all this into consideration. So they want to see a docile, broken individual that they dont have to break your mendokusai western individual habits. . Then its many meetings with coworkers and staff to reach a consensus on if this gaijin is worthy to join the company, where/what youll be doing and uniform ordering and sizing. If so, you get a phone call and indoc, then its put your ass to work. You asking “kore wa nan desu ka” and fascination with everything Japan, trying to fit in, will just piss everybody off and result in you doing more bitch work and harassment (the older women are particularly good at it) You might befriend a young Japanese person who wants to take you under their care, but the moment you mess up and invoke the wrath of the sempai and tantosha, they will disown you. Nobody cares about that fascination shit in Japan, leave that stuff to the tourist and english teachers.

    1. Do you live in Japan Mike? You seem a bit jaded to say the least. Not that it is a bad thing but you do seem to have strong opinions on Japan as a whole from your recent comments.

    2. Dang Mike, I loved that post… F-ING real world hardcore brass tacks straight at ya comments!!!! The PC “mean people” suck are gonna whine, but as a former Marine, I really respect that warrior mentality!! Well Said Dude!!

      1. Thanks bro! I cant really put Japan into others peoples words, that just dont work for me. For some reason, its taboo to say anything “bad” about Japan, even if its true,, but perfectly ok to bash and tear the U.S., Africa, U.K. and other countries to pieces. Fair enough, as the U.S. and others deserve plenty of criticism, especially the U.S. Those who wont allow it in conversation are guilty of censorship themselves.

        1. I wasn’t trying to say that you shouldn’t say bad thngs about japan. I just have never heard such cynacal things about Japan. You obviously have a reason for why you feel the way you do. I am very aware of the fact that Japan isn’t all sunshine and happiness but I still want to move there regardless.

          What are some things that you do like about Japan? You obviously like it enough to live there.

          1. “but I still want to move there regardless”

            Oh so your one of those. Well, nobody has a monopoly on Japan, so dont let my jade or shade affect you, but I think youll find what I posted to be universal. It might take some time before you realize it, I wished I could say otherwise, but I cant lie. I was told this years ago by an old timer in Japan, but I didnt listen either. Nobody does. You might find that sweet spot or niche; I hope it works out for you. Just find hobbies etc, like martial arts that keep you busy.

            What do I like about Japan? Safety, also, many things about Japanese character Im a fan of. Im different than others, so what I like, others will complain about. Japanese character is a refined art, and it provides for self reflection and growth; but it can be hard to marry up your default character to the Japanese way, usually there is conflict. When the “ugly” gaijin default comes up, it causes problems, but Japanese character doesnt do well in a Western environment. The downside is they never say what they mean or feel, and if you do, you risk offending them. I also like it when Japanese say they will do something, like meet you, they will always keep their promise and be on time. Their work ethic and spirit is great. They dont throw others under the bus just to make up for lack of skills. In some ways, I do admit, I feel inferior to Japanese, but that depends on what day you ask me. So, there are many things I like about Japanese, and its your right to come and enjoy what I and others have experienced.

  26. Just my “share” dude, feel free to share yours.

    If you told me that you walked down the street in Tokyo, and found peacocks in all the trees, well that sounds like a grand story, doesnt it? And there are many people who would actually believe it. Id have to disagree with you, as peacocks are native to India and I have lived in Japan and only seen them as pets or at zoos, but how could I convince you of that fact? You choose to believe what you want to believe. If you told me your friend found a cobra in his genkan, and I told you cobras are not native to Japan, it might of been a mamushi, but your friend is the leading expert on Japan, should I argue with you or your friend? Its not being jaded, its just truth, choose to believe what you want. Those arent peacocks in the trees, they are boring sparrows and pidgeons )

  27. you apparently have been living in a different japan as i am… your opinion is not rare, though…
    mixing japanese with english is also always welcomed…

  28. That’s why I’m glad I chose spanish. Learning the kanji seems impossible.

    By the way is that you in the picture?

  29. “The language of red-haired devils is devouring this nation of like a swarm of locusts—from storefronts and menus to movies and conversations”

    Yes – there is something I don’t understand. I am in Japan for a vacation, and I don’t know much japanese so I try to use english. But people are very reluctant to speak english?

    I was yesterday to the pharmacy, which in japanese is called “drugstore” (yes, really). The name of the shop was SunDrug, spelled in katakana. I want to ask them something so I say
    -Eigo o hanashimasuka?
    -Chotto matte
    (Indicating that she will call an other guy in the store. He appears and tell me (with good pronunciation)
    -I am sorry. I cannot speak english
    So yet another person enters. Can she speak english?
    -Eigo!? Eee…
    They apologise and I leave.

    This seems to be typical in Japan. So why is that? I suspect they do know a lot of english, more than I know japanese. Is it for fear of not speaking perfect english? Could it be the english pronunciation which is hard for a japanese speaker? English is btw a second language also for me.

    1. They do speak a lot of English, but it’s important to understand that Japanese folks aren’t great communicators—even in their own language.

      However, the real issue is likely a lack of desire to deal with you. We don’t want to make a mistake, especially in a drug store, so the easiest thing is to simply not help you, knowing that you’ll eventually give up and go away.

      Everybody enjoys being helpful, on their own terms.

  30. Well by now I read it all. Thank you for your honest view on this crazy country, which, by now seems even more crazy to me. Culture sure is a fascinating part of life though. I am curious how it will change over there in the future.

    We are still planning to visit Japan at some point but we’ll definitely avoid the big cities and keep on being hiking-alpine dude/gal. Any recommendations from your experience?

    Happy summer from Berlin (Germany) !!!

  31. Hey Ken, any news on when you will have a new piece out? It has been a while and the anticipation is starting to build. Love your work and can’t wait for another blog entry. Cheers.

  32. …I think that there are other ways to live in Japan, so other types of communication levels etc. I had commented on that in an older post.
    Very different approaches by some of the commentators; interesting read.
    -I want to clarify for most of you, that Spanish is nothing easy; in fact, possible one of the hardest; but always depends on what level you need. Spanish is my native language; and I can tell you that in Central America they really speak a BAD Spanish; mostly by youngsters; very easy, plain and bad lingo.
    Like whatever thing; learning basically Spanish could be fun and may be easy…like Japanese (I am between beginner and intermediate; also regarding Kanji; I only know a few hundreds)
    Grammar in Japanese, like Mike is saying is even easier. The only part difficult (and complex) of Japanese, is Kanji.
    -The other thing I want to say is that Pimsleur is REALLY bad; like Heisig s; I also checked the Pimsleur Spanish; that seems has the same approach that the Japanese (and possible the other languages) so I can hear pretty well ALL the bad parts; wrong sentences or outdated language and wrong pronunciation. I do not want that, in this case, with Japanese.

  33. Ken, I really enjoy your posts. I’m a sales director at a software company, and responsible for Japan. I travel to Tokyo several times a year, but communicate with our local distributor by email and Skype almost every day. I would really like to learn Japanese to help my communication with them and also make my way around Tokyo during my trips.

    I noticed in another post that you recommended Kanji ABC. I’ve also seen articles that mention the Genki textbooks. As the first step for self-learning, would you recommend starting with Kanji ABC, then move to the Genki books? Or start with the Genki books to get a basis in grammar, and then use Kanji ABC to build Kanji knowledge? Or should I use both simultaneously? Thanks!

    1. Well, I could be wrong, but you seem like a pretty normal guy who’s got a life. So right off the bat, you’re missing two of the prerequisites for learning Japanese.

      In your case, I’d suggest a more conversational approach. Just pick up a few simple phrases to help you get around. Pimsleur’s good for that. Otherwise, you’re gonna be stuck really learning Japanese, which is gonna take years. I mean, you sure that’s really your goal?

      1. Just wondering here, If you think learning Japanese is such a waist of time, then why do you keep writing guides on how to do it?

        Also another question I’ve meaning to ask, what language do you think is a good idea to pursue learning?

        1. You have to have some reason to do it, even if it is a completely stupid one, but there should be some end goal to all this autistic effort. Otherwise you are better of doing just about anything else. The point is to not waste your time if it is not going to be really worth it for you in any way. And considering how much time it requires it is going to be a huge waste of time.

        2. That’s the best question anyone’s asked in a long time.

          Maybe the simplest analogy I can give is that of drinking booze. I’ve had a lot of fun doing it, still do pretty regularly, and it’s given me a lot of crazy experiences. But would I recommend it to someone who’s never tried it?

          I wouldn’t. There are plenty of negative consequences and, objectively, you’d be smart not to do it. At the very least, you’d save enough money to buy a house, simply by avoiding the sauce. But I still talk about it, because it’s part of my life.

          So, Japanese. I’m interested in how it can be learned effectively, amazed at how hard it is, and baffled by the reams of bullshit written about language learning. I write about how to learn it because doing so is a way-too-big part of my life. But would I recommend it?

          Absolutely not. I gotta level with you…in just ten years, I’ve seen Japan change remarkably. New words are flooding into the language: carbon fiber, artificial intelligence, mousepad… and while they can make kanji for such terms, more and more there’s a feeling of Oh the hell with it—we’ll just write everything out in katakana. The Japanese language has been irrevocably bastardized by English, because English is easier for everyone, including Japanese people. “Restaurant,” “table,” “door,” “glass,” “tomato,” “orange juice,” “black,” “white,” “gray”…it’s all written in pidgin English. Japanese is dead.

          Anybody who tells you otherwise is either lying or hasn’t thought about it enough. And Japan isn’t Japan any more. I doubt it has been for a long time, too. We’ve got Ikea, CostCo, Burger King, KFC, Amazon… The streets are packed with Chinese tourists. Whether this is a good thing or not, I’ve no idea, but I’m not making it up. And with the Olympics coming soon, no one’s under any illusions. Who’s buying stuff? Not the aging native population. If your business isn’t marketing to people from other countries, you’re missing out on a massive opportunity.

          Does everybody speak English? No. But a whole, whole lot of folks do. Anybody under the age of 40 knows several thousand words of English. So it’s going to be far easier for them to speak English with you, than for you to speak Japanese with them. Like Tupac said, That’s just the way it is.

          So what language would I recommend? Well, you could knock out Spanish in a tenth of the time it takes for Japanese, and that seems pretty useful. Or just learn to play the guitar, because that’s way cooler anyway.

      2. I guess you’re right about your first statement. :-). I’m still debating with myself how much I’m prepared to invest time-wise in this. There are times where I’m really interested in and excited about learning Japanese. Besides the job side of it, I’m also quite interested in Japan. So it would probably be more of something I would do for fun, as opposed to just another work task. Then, there are other times where I say to myself – when the heck am I ever going to find time to do it? I mean, I can barely remember my kids’ names, how am I going to memorize 2,000 Kanji? 🙂

        So I guess I would like to start out and see how it goes. I’m willing to make the effort to set aside some time every day, knowing that it’s for the long term. I don’t need to learn Japanese by a certain date. I also try to listen to Japanese radio and YouTube Japanese lessons while I’m working, just to get my ears and brains used to the language, I also occasionally watch Japanese movies (with English subtitles).

        By the way, I’ve also seen The Kodansha Kanji Learner’s Course mentioned in some articles. Are you familiar with that? Thanks.

        1. Sorry, I’m not familiar with it, but I’d like to caution you against looking for product-based solutions.

          It’s completely natural to do so, too. You want your teeth whitened, your toilet bowl sparkly, you simply browse Amazon for a product that makes it happen. That’s why companies market Japanese-learning products, because they know folks are out there exitedly searching for a solution. But you really can’t buy it—there’s no steroid, no hack, for knowledge. You just have to do work and spend time.

          Now granted, you certainly want to have good materials. But I’ve spent thousands of dollars on books, cassettes, CDs, videos, classes, tutors, you name it . . . and in the end I can’t say one was much better than another. As long as you avoid obvious (or not-so-obvious) scams, you’re probably on the right track. But then you still have to sit down and go through the program.

  34. …hello Ken; regarding of young guys knowing English; well; I did not had that luck when I went there. Im into British bikes, so I found several guys riding old Harley s etc I said hello and tried to chat a bit, saying that I have Triumph motorcycles etc…they did not understood a word…may be the bikers do not too much English ha ha.

    Hello Adam Sam, in my opinion; the easiest way (but not practical for most) is to learn the basics of a language; all the stuff; then after you manage to understand what s “going on” go and live in the country. ALL the cases that I know, included Japan, the guys can talk and can do all the daily life in those countries.

  35. Ken,

    Please post something soon, we miss your writing! I hope you’re having a great summer. Can’t wait to see the next blog post.

    1. I hear ya. Yeah, maybe the summer’s been a little too good, as I apparently need to get back to work. Thanks for the reminder, hey.

  36. I’m a bit late to the comments on this post, but I thought the whole point in the 10k sentence thing was to create your own cards based on words and sentences that you *actually used*.
    Of course learning a word like civil engineer is pointless; until you actually need it. Free up that slot in your Anki deck with some more useful words like ポテトチップチョコレート or イマラチ or something like that.
    Pfft, civil engineer… what a joke.

  37. …not also useless words but bad meanings. For example one word that is very used by Japanese people: “Tadaima”. All stupid books translate it like: “Im home” “just arrived” or like that. In fact Tadaima means something like: “in this very moment” or “right now”; you can see this word in a sentence like: Tadaima no jikoku ha 9 ji desu or tadaima junbichuu in a restaurant that still not open.
    They use Tadaima when they arrive home but the full sentence is: Tada ima kaerimashita…
    So, this is a very common case of what I say that the books are very wrong; now I am studying with another one; and have the facts right cause is write by Japanese but the method is still bad.
    Is not so difficult to write a text book the right and easy way; never ever saw one in High school, in music or whatever stuff; all have the same type of wrong ,method; due to that bore most people; tedious most people and you are years and years trying to decipher what they trying to teach you; meanwhile the fun is out…

  38. First, i would like to express that your writing skill is great. More than great. You know how to tailor/choice the words for sure ! Even if –most of the time– i do not agree with your bitterness, it’s always a pleasure to read your stories. (The Hanami “report” is my favorite. Full of poetry (huh… I’m French, that explains why i see poetry everywhere :3 )

    So about Japanese difficulty, I would have a lot to tell… First, as a french, available ressources to learn japanese is quite… hum… low (apart the great grammar written by Reiko Shimamori), so I rely a lot on english ressources.

    For kanjjis, I think that Kanjidamage is a neat way to memorize the most useful ones (with the meaning, the key and the “main” readings). And yep, I don’t think that Heisig method is great.

    There are also few apps to learn how to draw kanji. Surprinsingly, I think this is really nice to feel at ease with kanji: even if i don’t know the meaning, I can draw it (and so look in a dictionnary (thanks Jisho.org….)).

    While I try to memorize kanjis (and believe me, with english ressources, I have some issues to catch the right nuance :D), I learn the grammar with my french book.

    Japanese grammar is really neat and a lot simpler that I expected (well, when it comes to french grammar, every other grammar is a blessing !). The way they “construct” verb is great and clever. Just two irregular verbs, no gender, no determiner, no plural. Though counting/enumerate is complicated.

    Well… Maybe I just try to lure myself ; just to convince me that one day, I will speak/write Japanese at an appropriate level. Maybe one day I will read Kawabata in Japanese (“L’espoir fait vivre !”)

    Just a little question: Do japanese know their grammar ?

    Strange question, but –again– as a french I’m horrified when I read French forum : it seems that we don’t know how to write our own language. Sad but true (well, our grammar is old, inacurate and full of exceptions: past participles agreement most of the time, wrong use od the subjonctive tenses, etc.)… So, according to you, how japanese treat their language ?

    PS: I apologize for my very clumsy english…

    1. That’s a very interesting question. Quick answer: No, but better than English-speakers.

      Let’s consider some background on this. Native speakers of any language don’t know their own grammar, unless they explicitly study it, because grammar doesn’t actually exist. It’s important to remember that grammar is descriptive, not prescriptive. It’s just a collection of rules that describe the way that people are already speaking.

      Let’s take an example. If I said, “Whoa, his writing is Sartre-esque to the max,” is it a “correct” English sentence? Absolutely. But the word “Sartre-esque” doesn’t exist; I just made it up. Yet we can extrapolate from other, similar words, such as “Reubenesque,” and we know that it’s valid to create new words by inserting a hyphen. Is the phrase “to the max” okay? Well, we could certainly say “to the fullest extent” and nobody would call us out on it. So here we’ve just substituted in a more casual phrase. So what I mean is that determining what is grammatically correct or not is more than just looking up rules in a book. It’s pattern-matching. Does this sentence fit patterns in my database of the several million sentences I’ve heard up till now? If so, then it’s good to go. Still not a great sentence, but eh, technically “correct.”

      All that craziness being said, it’s true that Japanese is grammatically simpler than many languages, and that the method of Japanese schooling (sit down, shut up, and copy what the teacher writes on the chalkboard) ensures that Japanese people have a good understanding of the fundamental structure of their own language. Much better than English-speakers do of the English language.

      But the real challenge with grammar is, Can you explain it? I have a friend who regularly phones me to explain Japanese phrases to him, because “if I ask a Japanese person, I know I won’t get a real answer.” And I’d say that’s accurate. Native speakers don’t have to understand what the grammar rules are, because they’re simply pattern-matching to their enormous database. When they have to explain it, they struggle to apply a descriptive rule to something that, frankly, just comes naturally.

      1. Thank you for your nice answer. What you wrote is totally true about grammar’s “essence”. But believe me, in France, things are really really really sadly badly serious (yeah, I like to put emphasis by piling up adverbs :3). Foreigners who learn French are better in orthography/grammar than natives nowdays.

        It piss me off sometimes because grammar can bring rich nuances in the discurse.Of course, not for casual conversations 🙂 still…

        And you’re right when you said that the challenge with grammar is to explain it to others. Well at least, I should try to pass a degree in teaching and go to japan to take my chance. It’s a good motivation.

        Well enough ranting from the angry and frustrated french guy, I should continue to read your articles and enjoy the day ! By the way, you should really consider writing a book of your experience. You have the talent for. And strangely, after multiple readings of several blog about japan (in French and English) your words are kindly unique. Very interesting point of view. And I mean it 😉

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