Someone on Facebook recently asked me: What’s the best way to begin learning Japanese, for someone starting from zero? Never one to shirk authorial duties, I did the responsible thing by jumping up, slamming my laptop closed, and running to the convenience store for a bottle of cheap white wine and a bag of spicy dried corn snacks. They’re super salty, but man, are they ever good. But then at the store I ran into this girl I know and she invited me over for some tea, and then we drank the bottle of wine, and then a bottle of red she had, and then I woke up and it was 3 a.m. and I didn’t know where I was, and by the time I got home I’d forgotten all about the question. But I really meant to answer it. Sometimes Japan just gets in the way like that.
Anyway, anything big—learning Japanese, making a million dollars, drinking a case and a half of beer—there’s probably no “best” way to do it. There’s a lot of ways you could do those things. You could pour the beers into a glass, or drink them straight from the bottle, for example. So many options. Actually, I generally avoid telling people “how to” do anything in Japan, since there’s already a ton of that noise on the internet, and most of it seems wrong to me. Which means that anything I say will automatically seem wrong to somebody else, which is depressing, since I know it’s actually right. Because I so feel it’s rightness. Whatever, okay, here’s the best way to learn Japanese. Really.
This should take you about 2 to 4 weeks, and at the end of it, you’ll have some basic abilities to make yourself understood in the language. So right off the bat, let’s aim to do three things:
1. Use the language as soon as possible
2. Establish a solid routine
3. Acquire essential words and phrases
To do so, we need to sidestep the biggest barrier, the written language. Now, I firmly believe that you will never become good at Japanese without knowing how to read it, but let’s set that aside for a month, just to get some initial familiarity with the language.
Steps 1 and 2
We can knock out both steps 1 and 2 with one of the better language products on the market, the 16-lesson Pimsleur audio course. I try not to go crazy with product recommendations, but I used this myself when I started over a decade ago, and since it’s relatively cheap, at around 30 bucks, I’m happy to give it the thumbs-up. It’s all audio, which is nice because you don’t have to mess with all that pesky writing stuff down. Plus, it establishes a daily routine, which is like gold when it comes to language learning. If you review things daily, you’ll remember them, but if you don’t, you won’t. That’s important to remember, so you should probably write it down.
So Pimsleur gets you speaking from Day One, which means you’ll be able to say something marginally useful right away, and begin to get a feeling for Japanese sentence construction. You also learn a method of studying that involves spaced repetition, reviewing previously-learned information at various time intervals. Do one lesson every day, or even the same lesson twice a day: once in the morning and once in the evening. It’s like vitamins, only for your mind. Mmmm, mind vitamins . . .
But any program, whether Pimsleur or otherwise, can only cover a limited amount of information, leading to the frequent student complaint, “But the course didn’t teach me . . . whatever.” Riiiight. It’s your learning—you’re not bound by the course or the teacher—so how much you learn (or not) is on you. If you want to learn something, freaking do it. Don’t wait for someone else to teach it to you. Which brings us to Step 3.
Think about what you need to learn. Do you need to know the names of all the animals? Maybe if you’re a zookeeper. Do you need to know words like “bus” and “taxi”? Maybe. “Firetruck?” What are you, a dispatcher? Prioritize what you need to learn first. Like, I’d say numbers 1 to a thousand would be pretty high on the list, since you’ll want to buy stuff that keeps you alive, like food. And names of foods you want to eat wouldn’t be a bad idea, either. Personally, I think the two most important phrases in any language are “One more beer, please,” followed closely by “Oh man, where’s the bathroom?” But that’s just me.
So in Step 3, just make flash cards. That’s it; nothing fancy. Don’t invest any time or money in software, electronic dictionaries, or anything complicated. Those are just distractions at this point, so put them off for a month. Focus on learning words and phrases. Spend your time learning Japanese. I know, it’s a radical idea.
For your flash cards, think about what you most need to learn, then look it up, write it on a card, and practice it a few times a day. Where should you look things up? You could buy a solid textbook, like Genki, but even a small phrasebook will suffice. Online searches are a bit unreliable, and unfortunately Google Translate doesn’t really work for this sort of thing. Sad face. Worse, any time you touch the computer, you increase your chances of doing one of the millions of things online more interesting than studying Japanese. Like writing about studying Japanese. Hmmm.
Okay, when you write your flash cards, make your life easy and use romaji. That is, use our normal alphabet, and write Japanese words using the ABCs.
Romaji is not Evil
Some people say not to use romaji. It’ll stunt your growth, grow hair on your palms, make you blind. Honestly, don’t worry about it. It’s not moonshine. Using it for a month won’t give you bad teeth and a Tennessee accent. Romaji is on all major road signs and train stations in Japan, and besides, you’re already using it. If you’ve ever seen words like “sushi,” “samurai,” “tofu,” or “karate,” that’s romaji. And seeing them didn’t cause your brain to melt, probably.
In Phase III, yes, you’ll learn the Japanese syllabaries hiragana and katakana. But to do so now would just create a sizable barrier, and take time away from acquiring essential working vocabulary. So don’t get bogged down with the written language until you’ve acquired a couple hundred words and you’re safely up and running with the language.
How Fast Should You Learn Japanese?
How many flash cards should you make every day? I sometimes read about people getting all nutty and doing like a hundred words a day or something, and then six months later, poof, they explode and stop altogether. Remember, it’s not how many words you learn, it’s how many words you, uh, remember. You’ve got to review all those flash cards; you can’t just scrawl them and set them on fire. So if you make 20 cards a day, by the end of the week you could be looking at over 100 reviews. In a month, that’s like a million reviews. Anyway, it’s a lot. With that in mind, try just to learn 5 to 10 new words every day, which is plenty. Sticking with it every day is the key, because eventually all those words add up to a sizable vocabulary.
So there’s your plan. Use Pimsleur every day, twice a day if possible, and write 5-10 meaningful flash cards, and that’s it. Actually, having the discipline not to chase every system and buy every book and program on the market is another skill you’re going to need to acquire. So be cool. Don’t get all bent about becoming a linguistic wizard overnight; just get a reasonable start. Then in about a month, it’ll be time to assess whether you want to make a bigger investment in this crazy language. And let’s talk about that next time, in Phase II.