The Best Way to Learn Japanese

The Best Way to Learn Japanese

What’s the best way to learn Japanese?  After pouring years, beers, and tears into  the question (pretty much in that order), I finally have an answer.  Man, it has been one long decade.

They say the best things in life should be savored.   I got that from an instant coffee commercial, actually.  Well, there’s irony for you.   But as far as I’m concerned, most things—like making money, learning Japanese, and folding my laundry—would be best done as fast as possible.  So from the start, that’s how I approached learning the language.  I didn’t care what effort it required or how much it cost; I just wanted it over and done with so I could hold a decent conversation.   I figured I’d get all that learning stuff out of the way early so I could get on to something more important, which turns out to be laying on my futon drinking Japanese malt liquor and trying to understand the TV.

But back to the question of learning Japanese.  First, let me provide you with a little perspective on how I got to this point.  Here’s the abbreviated version of what I did to learn Japanese:

The Shortcuts I Tried

The Pimsleur audio-only course, I, II, and III.  Pretty good for an introduction into the language.  Not a big investment of time, and it gets you up and speaking right away.  Plus the spaced repetition was effective.  Costs a fortune, though.

Rosetta Stone.  I did almost the whole thing, until I finally got bored with it.  It took me a while to figure out that I had to go though the program reading the kanji and hiragana, and looking up the words I didn’t know in a dictionary.  But after that, I thought it was fairly good.  The curriculum is pretty solid, and you learn a lot of core phrases and vocabulary.  But like Pimsleur, it’ll empty your wallet in a hurry.

A Canon Wordtank electronic dictionary.  I used it every day for years, until it finally snapped at the hinges from all the opening and closing and I had to hold the little guy together with duct tape.  Now I use a Casio Ex-word.

Somewhere along the line I taught myself hiragana with the help of a website that provided mnemonics.  I wrote down five hiragana the first day.  Then the next day, I wrote the five from the previous day and five new ones.  Every day I re-wrote all the hiragana I’d learned, plus five new.  It took me a little over a week.  Then I taught myself katakana the same way.

Three semesters of college courses.  I’d already completed graduate school, so I enrolled just to take Japanese.  A lot of people seem to dislike taking classes, but I think they’re fantastic.  I learned a ton and made a bunch of friends.  We completed both Genki I and Genki II books.

A Japanese lover for several years.  Contrary to my expectations, this did almost nothing to improve my Japanese, since she wanted to improve her English and her language skills were far superior to mine.  Rule of thumb:  the best speaker wins.  Plus the time we spent ironing out our cultural differences (i.e. “arguing”) really detracted from the time I would have otherwise spent studying.  Your mileage may vary.

The Intermediate Stages

Japanese tutors.  A great use of money.  If at all possible, find someone who’ll meet you in a coffee shop and have focused conversations in Japanese.  Tell them specifically what you want to learn and then make sure they can teach it to you.  I paid between twelve and twenty bucks an hour, and it was easily worth it.  And unlike girlfriends, they won’t get all pissy if you don’t take out the trash or feed the cat for a week.  That’s worth something right there.

The Mixxer.  This language-exchange site enables you to arrange conversations with Japanese people via Skype.  I found it to be mildly helpful.  One of the big disadvantages is, of course, that your time investment is doubled, since for every 30 minutes you spend speaking Japanese, you have to spend another 30 speaking English.  Also, you tend to cover the same, safe ground and talk about familiar subjects, unlike working with a tutor who will push you to learn things you don’t know.  There’s a reason why real teachers get paid money.

Japanesepod 101.  I’ve listened to this podcast for years, which you can download through iTunes.  They speak a bit too much English and have less repetition than I’d like, but hey, it’s free.  Actually, I used it for so many years that at one point I made a 25-dollar donation as a gesture of thanks.  I have this thing about karma.

The Heisig method for learning Kanji.  I tried Heisig’s book, “Remembering the Kanji,” for about a week before I dumped it and switched to “Kanji ABC,” which is a similar (and, I think, better) book.  Both use the same core method, which involves studying kanji through its component parts.  For example, first you learn that 少means “little” and 石 means “stone.”  Then you learn 砂 (little + stone), which means sand.  Easy, right?  Unfortunately, most kanji aren’t so reasonable, but that’s not the book’s fault.  You can also make up mnemonics to help you remember the meaning of the kanji.   Some people apparently like Heisig’s mnemonics, but I hated them and made up my own.  At the end of the day, I felt the approach was useful, as it helped me make some sense of this insane language, but I certainly couldn’t “read” Japanese after I was finished with it.  It was also a lot of work, something which I strive to avoid.

Every “Learn Japanese Quickly” and “Fluent in 3 Months” type of program you’ve ever heard of.  I spent hundreds of dollars on various products guaranteed to skyrocket my Japanese into outer space.  I bought books, software, CDs, DVDs, and even cassette tapes.  All that stuff that promises to make you a language God overnight, I tried it.  You’d have better luck mailing an envelope of cash to Santa and hoping a box of fluency shows up under your tree.

Anki.  Anki is an electronic flashcard program that schedules your reviews for you.  I’ve used it every single day without fail for years.  It’s pretty darn helpful, if you’re the kind of person who can stick to a daily routine with mochi-like adhesion.  I bought the iPod app as well, which was probably the best twenty-five bucks I’ve ever spent.  I used to write paper flashcards, thousands of them.  I’d write a card, review it a few times, and finally it would end up in a drawer with stacks of its friends, never to be seen again.  Anki gets rid of all that and organizes everything.  Love it.

10,000 sentences.  I took this idea from a website called AntiMoon, which is authored by two Polish guys who learned English.  They believe that vocabulary is best learned in context, as opposed to individual words.  So rather than study words in isolation (砂 = Sand), you study them in a sentences (目に砂が入ったのですか = Did you get sand in your eye?)   And according to them, it takes about 10,000 sentences like this (in addition to a ton of exposure to the language) to become competent.  That seems about right to me, and to date I’ve put several thousand sentences into Anki.  I’d say that learning kanji and vocabulary in this fashion is at least as effective as the Heisig method, and certainly complements it.

Immersion.  I surrounded myself with lots of Japanese, lots of the time.  Notes on my walls, watching Japanese soap operas, listening to Japanese music, reading Japanese books, singing karaoke.  Everything I did, I tried to do in Japanese.  I continued with this for a couple of years, and as much as I hate to admit it, it really wasn’t that effective.  It’s kind of like when you hear a song and you don’t understand the words.  You can hear that song a billion times and still not comprehend it.  I found that simple, honest-to-God studying beat the hell out of passive input.  However, I don’t believe that’s the case for everyone.  Certain individuals are definitely better at absorbing language from their surroundings.  Just like anything else, whether through birth or upbringing, some folks are simply better than others.  Damn their ability.

The Japan Years

Moving to Japan.  Well, in for a penny, in for a pound.  For some reason I was under the impression that if I moved to Japan, I’d “pick up” the language.  That didn’t happen at all.  In fact, because I was so busy teaching English at an eikaiwa, I think my progress actually slowed down.  To compensate, I tried not to hang out with people who spoke English when I wasn’t at work.  I found that to be a mixed bag, however, since a lot of Japanese people love it when you speak English.  For one thing, it gives them the chance to be the expert.  I’d go to an izakaya and they’d say things in halting English like,“Can you eat octopus?”  If I said, “Octo-what?”—sure as hell a free bowl of takowasa would arrive in front of me.  They delighted in explaining things I’d been doing for decades, like using chopsticks and eating edamame.  My next social experiment will be saying that I’ve never heard of beer, just to see how many they buy me.  On the other hand, when you speak only Japanese and eat all the same food, suddenly you become more like everyone else, which makes you a lot less interesting.  I found myself simply answering the same questions again and again.  If nothing else, I became an expert at telling people where I was from and how long I’d been in Japan.

Attending a Japanese language institute in Japan.  Now this was super helpful.  In fact, most people I know here who speak any decent level of Japanese, especially Chinese and Korean people, have attended similar schools.  Through classes and on my own, I went through about a dozen more textbooks.

“Extensive reading.”  This is a method of reading in which you deliberately read at a level below your ability.  In this way, you can read with (theoretically) less effort and more enjoyment.  It also enables you to cover more material quickly.  I particularly like to read books that come with an accompanying CD.  If you’re looking for something to get started with, you should check out the Japanese Graded Reader series.  Costs a bit if you order it from outside of Japan, but it’s pretty freaking awesome.

Contradictions and Conclusions

That’s about half of what I went through to learn the language.  From the outset, I was convinced that there actually was a “best” method for learning Japanese.  This was largely bolstered by the wide variety of products claiming that there is a greatest, easiest, or fastest way, which they just happen to have on sale today.  But what confounded me was the wide range of people I met in Japan who spoke fluently.  A Nepalese girl who studied at a Japanese university and a British guy who just read tons of manga.  An American doctor who incessantly watched Japanese movies and a Russian guy who systematically went through textbooks.  There were as many approaches as there were people.

Conclusions

So my honest conclusion is, not only is there no best method, but it almost doesn’t matter what you do, so long as you do a lot of it.  In other words, volume trumps method.   Moreover, what’s effective for an intermediate learner is often not appropriate for a beginner or an advanced student, which means that listening to the advice of others may be a bad idea.  The internet in particular is full of people telling you what’s best:  Read the newspaper in Japanese; switch your operating system to Japanese; use a Japanese-Japanese dictionary.  Everybody’s got an opinion.  Bottom line is, you should probably spend a lot less time reading about how to learn Japanese, and more time actually learning it.  I mean, except for this, which you should read twice.

Six Recommendations

Although I no longer believe in the myth of a “best” method for learning Japanese, there are still some things that I believe are vitally important for success.

1. Ensure you receive a large volume of comprehensible input.  What that input is isn’t as important as making sure you get a steady stream of it.  Do whatever suits you—read books, watch movies, talk to people—but check that it satisfies two criteria:  First, you have to be able to understand it on some level.  Maybe not perfectly, but enough to follow what you’re seeing and hearing.  Secondly, it should be valuable information.  Repeating familiar, safe conversations about your hometown, family, and hobbies won’t do much to improve your Japanese.  Nor will watching anime full of slang that nobody uses.  Push yourself to learn things that are widely useful.

2. Learn kanji.  This is absolutely essential for expanding your vocabulary.  Because kanji are the building blocks of the language, learning them will increase your vocabulary exponentially.  There’s a brilliantly written article by shameless self-promoter Ken Seeroi that explains this in greater detail.

3. Get an electronic dictionary, so that when you wake up at 4 a.m. wondering how to say “Oh God, why have I wasted my life learning Japanese?” you can look it up.

4. Read.  Read easy stuff, but a lot of it.  It’s a safe bet that much of what you’ve learned throughout your life has come from reading.  It’s no different in Japanese.  Reading with furigana (teenie tiny hiragana printed above the kanji, à la Hiragana Times) is a good stepping stone.

5. Take classes.  In blogs and discussion boards, the mantra is that classes are old-fashioned and you can learn faster and more efficiently on your own.  I seriously doubt that, particularly in the long-term.  I’ve heard people complain, “But I took a full semester of Japanese and all I learned were 50 kanji,” like somehow it was the teacher’s fault they didn’t learn more.  I hate to be the one to dish out the tough love, but if there’s something you want to learn, look it up and learn it.  That part’s on you.  What a class provides is a schedule, curriculum, and an opportunity to practice.  Nobody’s stopping you from learning more.

6. Don’t quit.  Learning Japanese can be fun, and even occasionally useful if you happen to live in Japan, but it’s not like someone’s going to lay the Hands of Knowledge on you and you’ll be like, Oh my God, I can see!  I can see kanji!

Let me level with you.  Nobody’s going to sell you a program that promises to teach you Japanese over the course of twenty years, because you wouldn’t buy it.  It’s way easier to sell something that claims you can learn Japanese by sleeping with a copy of I am a Cat under your pillow.  But it’s probably going to take you a lot longer than you’ve been lead to believe.

If I had to estimate the percentage of people who try and actually succeed at learning Japanese, I’d put it between one percent and Hell Freezing Over.  But that isn’t because 99% of the people lack the right method.  On the contrary, they don’t succeed because their expectations are skewed.  Everyone’s gung-ho to study hard for about a year and a half.  After that, they lose focus, skip studying for a couple of days, and then a couple of days becomes a week.  Real life sets in, and a week turns into a month.  And then you read about some fool who mastered Japanese in like nine months and you become convinced that you’re either not doing the right thing, or you just don’t have what it takes.  But neither of those things is likely true.  The fact is, it takes some time.  And that’s okay.   Just live long and prosper.  I’m pretty sure that’s a Japanese saying.  Anyway, you should do that.

 



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46 Comments

  1. I’m actually approaching that gun-ho year and a half mark, so it’ll be interesting to see if I’m in that small percentile to see it through to the end!

    • You can absolutely do it! Nobody else’s success or failure has any bearing on your own. Just staying with it is most of the battle. I don’t know how to say ganbatte in English (bust ass?), but if I did, that’s what I’d say.

  2. Language learning forums have to be the worst and best thing ive ever discovered. On one hand they have some useful advice. On another hand they got all these people who got better than me faster than me. I have to keep telling myself “its alright because you spent half your time floundering and dicking around with different “methods”.

    • Yeah, I’ve read about every site out there. Everyone’s like, I “mastered” Japanese in six months by doing this! So I thought, okay, even though that seems improbable, I’ll try it too. And six months later maybe it’d helped a bit, but as they say, where’s the earth-shattering kaboom?

      I gotta think that either everyone else is way more genius than me, or they’re being rather exuberant in their self-assessments. Of course, it’s anathema to suggest any sort of testing. Gauge progress? That’s crazy talk.

      • I think i saw 1 guy that got good really fast and took a couple of jlpt1 practice tests and sum other test and did fairly well. But he was doing massive active studying, like 30000 anki cards in like 9 months. And if you go that hard then i figure you probably deserve it.

        • I’m pretty skeptical of those types of claims. I’ve met a few people here who speak Japanese well, and I always make it a point to ask some questions. For example, I met a guy at a cocktail party who said he got to JLPT1 in a year and a half. Now, that’s amazing, and I have no doubt he did it. So, I asked him if he’d done any studying prior to the “year and a half,” and he said no, but, well, except for a couple of semesters of Japanese in college. And he’d studied Korean for two years. And he’d grown up in Italy and was fluent in both Italian and English.

          That’s not to detract from a substantial achievement, but saying that you did something quickly certainly makes you sound a lot more impressive.

  3. Haha great post, I love your post title, I was really hoping to find the best way to learn Japanese but sadly, after reading the first paragraph, reality struck me.

    It’s been a while since you have posted, so I wondered where you went, probably spending your days in a izakaya? haha

    I’m for one who isn’t really fond of classes but that’s just me. It all comes down to personal preferences I guess. I think classes only work well for people who not just only do the hw they are assigned in class but actually go to the effort of learning other things by themselves. Like Kanji for example.

    Haha I felt the same with, Idc what the cost, as long as it gives me fluency. I tried pimsleur and I gotta admit it was really boring. Like the typical names, eating sushi, etc. I tried jpod101 but the gaijin accent of the Japanese by the English speakers just made me stop, as it made me feel like wanting to pronounce the Japanese like them. Although jpod101 was good with the pdf files explaining grammar points and what not. But I’ve given up on all that and am trying to learn via immersion and what not.

    I tend to read light novels now that are probably above my level but I do understand the general gist of it and mostly enjoy it. Mostly I stick to manga.

    I’m surprised that immersing yourself in Japanese everyday for you, didn’t help you as much as I thought it would.

    I reckon as long as you keep learning Japanese, have an interest in it, then you will surely reach fluency. It takes time but no one wants to wait. Such as, people wanting to be fluent in 2 years, (me included) but now I don’t care as much and just enjoy the ride of learning Japanese.

    Keep up the good posts Ken;)

    • Yeah, it’s been a busy couple of months. Somehow time in Japan just seems to go by faster than time elsewhere. A month here flies by in about a day.

      I think that your reading will really pay off. That’s excellent, and if you enjoy manga, then by all means keep on reading it. Whatever keeps you going.

      As far as immersion goes, it’s true I haven’t found it as magical as I’d hoped. , and yet . . .

      In terms of return-on-investment, I do feel that immersion hasn’t been as magical as I’d hoped. That is, I might spend 16 hours a day speaking, thinking, and hearing Japanese, yet only learn one or two new words. For the past couple of years, I’ve probably used English an average of two hours a day (for example, here). I can manage daily life with great fluency, but I still want to be able to do more. The bar just keeps getting higher. Certainly, I’ve gotten more skillful at expressing what I already know, and my accent has improved, but for the time I’ve spent the gains have been modest. By contrast, if I read a book for an hour, or spend an hour in class, I definitely improve faster. Apparently, working for years as a cashier won’t teach you calculus.

  4. How do the Japanese react to being told that the person they are speaking doesn’t speak Japanese very well? What is a “normal” way of saying “I have bad Japanese” or “I don’t speak Japanese very well”?

    • Well, you could say something like

      私は日本語をうまく話すことが出来ません。

      watashi ha nihongo wo umaku hanasu koto ga dekimasen.

      (I can’t speak Japanese well.)

      or simply

      日本語が下手です。

      nihongo ga heta desu.

      ([My] Japanese is poor.)

      But it’s kind of hilarious, really. Like showing up to play hoops with Michael Jordan and telling him that your leg hurts, so you might not be able to give him your best game.

      In the West, it’s probably a little more common to make excuses for your lack of ability. But in Japan, it’s expected that you’re going to be terrible. No apology is necessary.

  5. Great article!
    But I wanted to advise all people to don’t understimate the use of hard-copy dictionaries for kanji: in my case it helped me a lot to remember radicals and to memorize the whole kanji.

    • Thanks for the input. That’s a good point. I vacillate between being a technology early adopter and being a Luddite. There are clearly advantages to both electronic and paper dictionaries, and wherever it helps, I’m all for the idea of using real, honest-to-God books.

  6. The immersion thing simply needs time. And you need to “hack” all parts of your life. Listening to one song over and over again won’t help you understand it, but looking up the lyrics will.

    Watching television for hundreds of hours will help you a bit. Making Anki cards from the vocabulary you hear in the shows will help you a lot.

    It’s a combination of things I found useful to do. Never stick to one thing, but immersion really helps if you supplement it with enough things.

    • Since I’ve been fully immersed in Japan for five years, I’d say if it needs time, then it needs a whole lot of time. But to be fair, my standards keep changing. Where once I wanted simply to be able to communicate, now I want to have discussions on a college level. That’s not going to happen overnight.

      Funny, I wonder when “hack” became the new word for “study.”

  7. Im just starting to get into learning japanese and have been trying to use rosetta stone ive been enjoying it alot granted im not very far but I set it up so it doesnt teach me the kanji only the words, my theory is it would be alot easier to recall which squiggles are for example ko when i actually understand the language enough for that to mean something to me, do you think this will work? also im not trying to speak japanese I really would just like to be able to read manga and play video games or watch anime without waiting for an english release which in a lot of cases doesnt even happen I noticed you said you almost finished rosetta stone and it didnt take you that far, do you think after putting the time in to finish the rosetta stone courses I would atleast be able to accomplish the goals i have in mind or should i learn kanji at the same time and think about taking some japanese classes in tokyo?

    • Hi Jarod,

      Rosetta Stone will give you a solid base for the language. It’s a good implementation of computer-based learning, and a nice alternative to a textbook or classes. Like any kind of study, it gets a bit repetitive after a while, but if you power through it, you’ll learn a ton of basic vocabulary and a bit of grammar.

      To read manga and play games, you’ll need hiragana and katakana at a minimum, so invest a bit of time in learning those (separate from Rosetta Stone) if you haven’t already. I did this by writing 5 new characters every day. Then I’d write all of the previous days characters. I also used mnemonics to help me remember them. You can find charts of the characters on Wikipedia.

      To answer your questions, Yes, I do think it makes sense to learn some of the language aurally at first. Trying to jump into the writing system right away can be overwhelming and demotivating for some people. So yeah, spend a few weeks or even a couple of months getting used to the sounds and becoming acquainted with the language that way. Then decide if you want to make a bigger commitment to learning Japanese.

      Because honestly, beyond a few hundred words, you’re gonna want kanji to help you keep everything straight. I didn’t want to hear that, and I hate to say it, but that’s the real deal. Kanji helps you make sense of everything. Kind of like how, in English, once you understand the use of “-er” for superlatives, a lot of words make sense: bigger, smaller, warmer, happier, tastier. Just those two letters, “-er”, blasts your vocabulary into the stratosphere. Kanji is like that, only more so.

      Now, it’s a really big project to learn kanji. But hey, if you need a hobby that’ll keep you busy for the next decade or so, Japanese is a good choice. I don’t know the games you’re referring to specifically, but if they use Japanese, I’m pretty sure you’re going to need kanji to understand them. The good news is that Rosetta Stone is actually really good for helping you to become acquainted with kanji. You can see the same pictures, and hear the same dialog, with no letters, with romaji, hiragana, or with kanji. I found it helpful to use an electronic dictionary at the same time. I’d look at the kanji, then switch to hiragana and look up the word in my electronic dictionary using hiragana.

      Since you’re just starting out, don’t try to do everything at once. Just have some fun and get used to the language. But eventually, if you decide you want to learn it, then start learning kanji right away. You’ll be glad you did.

      • thanks for the reply! very informative and helpful ill take your advice and try to learn hiragana and katakana while using rosetta stone for the next few weeks and once I think I know them well enough ill restart the whole thing with no romanji, sorry to ask more of you but I find the fact that theres hiragana katakana AND kanji kind of confusing dont they all accomplish the same thing like our alphabet?

        • That’s a great question. I remember wondering the same thing when I started out.

          Here’s the deal. Kanji is analogous to numbers in English. You’ve probably never thought about it (I hadn’t before I started this insanity either), but there are two identical ways to indicate the same number in English:

          1 = one
          2 = two
          3 = three

          They’re the same thing, right? Only one is a symbol, and one is something you can read and pronounce. Then you’ve got all the operators (+, -, x, /, =, etc.). All that stuff is the English version of kanji.

          So why use kanji? For the same reason that you’d use numbers instead of words, because reading “five plus four times two equals thirteen” would drive a person nuts. It’s really long and hard to understand. But when you see it with the symbols (5+4*2=13), it’s really easy. Same thing with kanji. Once you learn the symbols, it’s worlds easier than trying to read hiragana alone.

          So why have hiragana and katakana when they both stand for the same sounds? Katakana is to Japanese what italics are to English. When you see something in italics (or katakana), you know the writer is probably either using a foreign word, or trying to emphasize a point.

          Hope that helps. If you have other questions, don’t hesitate to ask.

          • wow yes extremely helpful cant tell you how much you are helping me out here I really appreciate it!, so I take it hiragana is the main one to learn then? Ive been trying to look through some manga I have for characters that I recognize I had taught myself mu and da because in the particular series I have the japanese copies of I knew they would be easy to spot and they were but it was for the most part a tiny version of the hiragana printed beside the kanji so i was wondering if in most cases are the hiragana or katakana going to be printed tiny beside kanji? or is that for the most part only going to happen in manga?

            • Absolutely, hiragana is the one you want to learn first. Just knowing that will help you make sense of a lot of things. Just learn a few every day.

              Your observation is correct—tiny hiragana (also known as furigana) only appear beside kanji in manga, and even then it’s rare. Furigana only appears in about one percent of all manga, except for children’s comics. That’s unfortunate, because it would really help people learning Japanese. But since all Japanese people learn kanji in school, furigana is gradually unnecessary for them.

              I say “gradually” because the Japanese school system teaches a few kanji per year, starting with first grade, then every year builds upon that. So a 4th grader can only read texts meant for 4th graders and below; a fifth-grade text would contain kanji they couldn’t read. It takes them into high school to learn them all, after which they can read pretty much everything.

  8. thanks again as usual you’re very informative from what I can tell the use of furigana seems pretty consistent throughout this whole series so im thinking if I can just get to a point of being able to read the hiragana and katakana I should basically be able to just read manga to broaden my vocabulary with the use of a dictionary and whenever I come across kanji ill be able to learn those too because of the furigana ill see how it works out for me first step is learning the hiragana I have a feeling itll take me a long time haha but ill keep at, thanks again you have been incredibly helpful and ill be sure to ask if I have any more questions!

  9. What’s up, I log on to your blogs likke every
    week. Your writing style is witty, keep doing what you’re doing!

  10. As a former Mandarin linguist for the us govt and a 2-time graduate (Mandarin and Arabic) of the defense language institute in Monterey, CA, I think you’re all missing an important point – learning a language as an adult is a talent. It’s similar to musical talent. Some people can pick up a guitar and in just a few months be playing great. Others (like me) can practice forever and still not ‘get it.’ So it is with adult language learning. That’s why gov’t agencies, the military, etc. require potential students of the defense language institute to pass a language aptitude test before they’re accepted. So, if you’re still not ‘getting it’ after years of trying, maybe …

    • Yeah, I agree with that. There are certainly people with more or less aptitude for language learning, just like any other endeavor. Some people are amazing, and others, less so.

      I’d also refine it a little more, and note that people have areas of strength and weakness that influence how they learn and what they can perform. In my case, I can hear a song once and be able to sing it, even days (and sometimes, years) later. I don’t know how unique that is, but it’s still pretty interesting. Maybe that’s why I’ve always found Japanese conversation to be comparatively easy.

      Visual recognition, however, is a whole other ballgame. I’m terrible with putting names to faces, and connecting readings to Japanese symbols…you know, same thing. This was a non-issue with French and Spanish, but I’ve found it to be a handicap for Japanese. Still, eh, what can you do? Work on your weaknesses, celebrate your strengths, and keep going.

    • Some people have an edge, like people raised bilingual. But this makes it sound like talent is something which you simply have or do not have, and cannot be acquired. I’m not sure how that could be substantiated.

      Myself, I didn’t “get” Japanese after years of trying. Then I tried more, and in a different way. Blasto. I “got” it. It’s now easier for me to go on and acquire other languages, or learn other related skills. I now have language learning talent, I believe, and that is a talent acquired as an adult. What’s more, I do think most anybody can do it with the right methods (methods which draw on Krashen’s input theory for example).

  11. Ken,

    You write not just the best Japanese blog I’ve read, but the best blog blog I’ve read. You have serious talent. And your positive, fun handling of all comments (including some less than fair ones) is brilliant. After coming across your recent posts I went back to the very beginning to read them all through, and I’m now up to this one. I’m addicted! It’s cool to see how your writing evolves, too.

    In this post, it was great to see Pimsleur being your very first recommendation. After trying many Japanese learning classes and tools myself for years, I’ve been LOVING Pimsleur the past few months. The spaced repetition works really well for me. And I have very little time to study, so the fact that I can do the program while walking to/from work is huge for me. (I also really like the Michel Thomas audio course, but it doesn’t have enough repetitive reinforcement.)

    Unfortunately, I’m about to finish Pimsleur’s level 3, and that’s as far as it goes. So my question for you is, as far as AUDIO programs go, what would you recommend for me to best continue with after Pimsleur? I don’t really want to start over with a new audio course at a complete beginner level.

    A little background… My wife is Japanese from Osaka, and we’re living in Boston with two small children (2 and 4). Next year, if all goes well, we’ll be moving to Osaka to be near her parents and give our kids full exposure to their Japanese side (for maybe 4-6 years). And I’d love nothing more, personally, than to get to live in Japan for a while.

    So my Japanese language goal, for now, is to be able to some day hold a decent conversation with my wife’s family. Maybe not debating politics and religion, but at least being able to talk about our day, make plans for the weekend, and say “This shochu is awesome, otousan. Of course I’d like another!” (as if I’d ever be able to drink as much as my wife’s father :-))

    This makes me think of one more question. My kids, especially my 4 year old daughter, are extremely friendly, curious, outgoing and outspoken. And I love that about them (I was never so extroverted). Do you think there’s a real risk that the Japanese school system could CRUSH this out of them? Some of your posts have me worried.

    Thanks for indulging my long comment, Ken! Again, I totally love your stuff, I’ve learned more about REAL life in Japan from your blog than from any books I’ve read, and I’d really value your opinions here.

    Looking forward to reading the rest of your posts!

    Your raving fan in Boston,

    Andrew

    • Hi Andrew,

      Thanks for such a good comment.

      As for Pimsleur, I really can’t recommend it enough. I think it’s a really well put-together program. They obviously invested a lot of time and effort into the instructional design, and it does a great job of taking a person from zero to almost-conversational in a short amount of time.

      But, like you, when it ended, I was like, Well, now what? I mean, where’s Pimsleur IV and V? Did Rocky stop after The Eye of the Tiger? No. He should have, but he didn’t.
      Because he’s Rocky.

      Unfortunately, I’ve never found a good answer. I tried JapanesePod 101, a few NHK series (the one with Yan is at least entertaining), a huge pile of other tapes and videos, plus a million other things, and nothing was a great help. Where Pimsleur was easy, everything after it has been a struggle.

      So I’ll tell you what somebody told me a decade ago, and I didn’t listen. And I know you also don’t want to hear it, but I’ll tell you anyway. Learn to read. That’s the key. Without it, you’re hamstringing yourself. Ridiculously. Imagine a person trying to learn English without the ABCs. Well, Japanese is even more dependent on the writing system. That’s the truth.

      I know, you only want to hold simple conversations with your wife’s family. Honestly, you could do as well by tapping into the thousands of English words they already know. If you really want to use Japanese, you’re actually going to have to learn the language, and that’s not going to happen without the writing system.

      I really shouldn’t say this, because it’s not motivational, so okay, forget I mentioned it. I really gotta work on some Japanese-is-Fun-and-Easy! product, and sell that for a few hundred bucks, and then we’ll all be happy. I’ll call it Mostly-Japanese-Most-of-the-Time.

      As for your kids, well yeah, I do think the Japanese school system would be hard on them. It’s hard on everyone, really. An international school is worth considering. It’s unlikely they’ll be at the same level as Japanese children of the same age, although the younger they are, the greater the chances are that they’ll catch up.

      Now all that being said, I still think it’s a wonderful idea to move here. There are a lot of great things about Japan. And okay, there are some not-great things about it too, but anyway, the food’s really good. Makes me hungry just thinking about living here.

      • I hear ya, Ken. I can read and write kana, and I’m moving ahead with kanji now after reading some of your posts. I downloaded “Remembering the Kanji” for Kindle and the very helpful Heisig method review Android app, “Kanji Up!” So far, so fun!

        I still need to find a way to make my walking/listening times productive, so I’ll at least look into JapanesePod101. If you ever come across any other great audio programs, I’m all ears. And if you develop one, you’ll have MY several hundred bucks!

        • If I could go back in time and start studying Japanese from scratch again, I’d invest 100% of my time into learning the kanji from the very start. “Remembering the Kanji” is helpful for that. All it really teaches you is the Japanese alphabet—that is, the shape of the symbols. Don’t pay too much attention to the meanings.

          Assuming you can cross that hurdle (and with a couple thousand kanji to remember, it’s formidable), you’re ready to begin vocabulary building.

          Having the kanji enable you to make sense of the words, so that “shokuji,” “taberu,” and “kuishinbou” are obviously related. Using romaji or kana, you’d never know that.

          It certainly helps to listen to audio, but until you have a good base of kanji, you’re still stuck with the fundamental problem that you’re trying to remember the sounds of words, when you should be really associating them with shapes.

          So keep working on that kanji, is my advice. It’ll pay off big-time.

          • Ya know,

            When I was going to the Naval Academy, they made us take a course in Latin foundations and to this day, I still think it allowed me a much better understanding of English. Prior to that, I was unaware of all the Latin roots and phrases that were used in English, French, Spanish, German and Italian. I think it ended up being one of the most informative classes I had in my first year (along with the speed reading class). I understand that it doesn’t compare to the Kanji usage (Is there really 50,000 Kanji total?) in Japanese, but still, it reminded me of that anyway. The Kanji are always what has scared me away from learning Japanese (seriously, I was just too lazy…LOL), as I am just not talented at remembering things that way. I still think the whole process of learning another language and communicating is very inspiring, so good luck to all of you for working so hard.

    • I think Ken is right about the learning the read thing. Let me throw in my two yen here too (you know I was gonna!).

      Andrew, I haven’t had any experience with Pimsler, but I did use the JapanesePod101 product back in 2009 and had a similar experience when I got to the end of what was available and felt a bit lost. In the end I got some good advice (AJATT.com, a little juvenile at times but check the table of contents for some excellent articles) that I will try and simplify and regurgitate, and thanks to following that I was able to improve a lot; enough go on to do grad school in Japan and write my masters thesis in the language

      I can’t specifically criticize Pimsler, but I think a common drawback of material crafted for learners, maybe inherent, is that we get used to what are pretty sterile, controlled environments. We have our vocabulary lists, our grammar points, and our dialogues. With enough focus and repetition of a given lesson, we get that nice feeling that we know what is going and don’t feel lost. Maybe that sounds like a positive rather than a drawback, but if you look at it from another angle it is setting us up for problems down the road. I think it can make us too accustomed to only feeling comfortable when we feel like we know what is going on. So we become adverse to situations where we just don’t understand things very well, and shut down in those situations.

      What I want to suggest then, kind of goes hand in hand with Ken’s reading situation. I think it is important to try and acclimatize yourself to situations, (listening to things, reading things, watching things, speaking), where you do not know what is going on that well, such that it doesn’t feel too unpleasant. You feel relaxed, maybe even attentive, and ready to pick up on phrases or words which interest you. Moving past learner material and towards getting lots of exposure inevitably means being confused a lot, but if you can weather through it you will have a great source to guide your learning, the language itself as it is actually used. “High level” learning material can have you studying all kinds of words that might not actually help you “in the wild”, but studying things noticed through contact with the language itself will never lead you astray like that.

      • I wish there was an edit feature for comments! ><

      • I appreciate your reply, Dan. It’s definitely true that when I can’t understand 90% of what’s being said, I’ll just give up and wait for my wife to translate (which, she tells me, is pretty darned hard, even though she’s completely fluent in English. Translating between languages seems to be a totally different skill from just operating within a given language).

        Can’t wait to get to the point where I can understand enough to stay engaged and keep learning from the conversation itself. I hope it will feel like the day 20 years ago when I first managed to go from edge to edge to edge on a snowboard. That’s when a whole new world opened up…

        • No problem. I just got myself on a snowboard for the first time earlier this year and it was great. My French-Japanese friend with me was surprised I could stand up so quickly without any training, but I did a lot of falling down at first too. Ouch that hurt for days. I didn’t try going from edge to edge though, as I may have got myself killed!

          Best of luck with your studies.

  12. Ken: is there a particular language school in Japan you would recommend? If not a particular school, are there any qualities that a school should have? I am thinking of spending three to six months in Japan next year and I have a budget for this extended stay. In other words, I am not seeking employment as the outcome.

    By the way, I am very grateful for all the information you provide and I am willing to pay for your services. And while I am happy to go ahead and “buy Ken a beer” through PayPal, if you feel that to make a recommendation that you have to ask questions first, please feel free to contact me and let me know what your services will cost.

    Thanks,

    Alex

    • I can’t really recommend particular schools, since I’ve only attended two, and they weren’t especially great. I think the key is to find a school that matches your goals, budget, and tolerance for pain.

      In the past, I took about two or three hours of class a week, because that was all I could afford, both in terms of time and money. At that rate, of course, the results are predictable.

      In a perfect world, I’d choose to go full time, like 30-40 hours a week, as intensely as possible. But that would take quite a bit of cash, free time, and fierce determination.

      Most people probably aren’t that gung-ho, and just want enough Japanese to be “conversational.” In that case, maybe a few hours a week, plus just hanging out here, would be enough, and a lot more fun.

      As for money, you know, I’m extremely grateful to the people who contribute, but you don’t really need to worry about it. Anybody who can spare a few bucks, man, I have all the gratitude in the world. But it’s really enough just to know that people read my crazy stuff. So thanks for that.

  13. Hi Ken,

    Really enjoyed your article. Great combo of humor and info.. Anyways, I understand giving advice and vouching for results is difficult to find even in our west white world (marketing aside), and especially in Japan, people seem to be more on the side of maybes but yeses, BUT STILL.. Would you think that signing up for a year/year and a half, to a school, 20-ish hours a week would get me to an intermediate level? And would that suffice to be able to work in Japan? Let’s say some kind of an office work kind of job? Where sitting in a chair, starring in a monitor and sending out emails is required? I’ve been googling bunch of schools, and most seem to teach in japanese with picture cards? I am not a teacher. Obviously. Is that a good method, or should I look for an english-jaanese school? Wow. A lot of questions. Thanks for answering any of them. :/

    • 20 hours of class a week for a year, year-and-a-half—yeah, that’d do it all right. Your Japanese will be pretty sweet after that. As for getting a job, well, it’s really a supply and demand problem, just like anywhere. What skill do you possess that a company needs? And why would they hire a non-native to do a job instead of somebody born in this country? The ability to use the language is just the starting point of course.

      As for methods, hmmm, there’s plenty of debate over what’s best. I’d probably look for a school with a good reputation and read comments from people who’d attended there. But I think you’re on the right track for sure.

  14. Good article and all that pleasantries…yeah!!

    getting to the point, could you be kind enough to share your anki deck of “several thousand sentences”? please, pretty please?

    • Let me email you. Since you asked so nicely.

      Cheers,

      Ken

      • Sensei,
        I’d like a copy of that too, please. Right now I’m working on a RTKanji and a RTKana deck, but after that and some vocab, I’d like to dive into the 10000 sentences. (Bows repeatedly.) お願いします!

  15. Hmm, I just live in Japan for 3 years, married to a Japanese woman, having a normal Japanese job, and no foreighners around me(country side). And I think I will be able to pass Jlpt 1 this summer.
    But, when I meet other gaijin, they are usual from south America, live here since 5 and 20 years, and speak about 10 words of Japanese.
    They cant even read anything, this seems to be the normal Gaijin, at least, to me.
    And I think its very correct what u said about study hard, it pays back, that’s what I do, endless. There is kind of no end……
    Japanese can be really a pain in the ass, but sometimes its fun, when u have a conversation for 3 hours and u understand anything, or, if my Japanese coworkers ask me how to write a Kanji in the correct way lol.

  16. Here I am. I have been trying since… let me think… at least second grade… to learn Japanese. XD What was little me thinking? When I was little, I saw my first anime about a neko girl, and I was upset that I needed subtitles. I thought “It’s going to take me a long time to learn a language. Might as well start now.” I learned all the hiragana and surfed the internet for EIGHT YEARS to find a method to learn Japanese. I’m 16 now, and I just learned katakana. *facepalm* I know the kanji for river, mountains, forest, up, down, everyone, doctor, I, and your. Now what? Do I keep surfing the internet for a method of learning Japanese that I can afford with my five dollars every four months that I earn from answering stupid quizzes on the internet? Do I get into watching Anime again (I haven’t watched anime seriously ever in my life, just one here and there)? I’m not sure where to go next with learning Japanese. All I’ve been doing in life so far is giving myself more and more reasons to learn the language. My newest reason is because I started singing covers of Japanese songs on YouTube, and I want to be able to sing and discuss with actual Japanese singers. And before I wanted to write stories in Japanese. Right now I just want to be able to play a game that the creator said “has no interest in being translated to English”. I don’t feel like these reasons are selfish, do you?

    • Rosy,

      I feel your frustration. But you have a nice fresh 16 year old brain, versus my cluttered old 58 year old brain, so if you apply yourself you’ll probably be able to learn Nihongo faster and better than I ever will. My suggestion: Follow Seeroi Sensei’s advice above, and commit an hour or more every single day to study.

      I don’t know if this will help you but some of the tools I’ve been using since I started this mental adventure back in January include:
      Pimsleur (free from the library)
      Rocket Japanese (about $300 for the full course. Think Pimsleur on steroids.)
      Remembering the Kanji (RTK)
      Anki (RTK deck from Nihongo Shark. Studies all 2200 kanji from RTK.)
      Memrise.com (There are literally hundreds of courses in Japanese. I’m going through the SGJL sequence of lessons which is pretty comprehensive, Genki 1, and The Ultimate Kanji Course.
      Duolingo.com is working on a beta version Japanese course. Should be ready soon and I’m looking forward to it.

      I’ve gotten to the point where just daily review of what I’ve already studied can take a couple of hours, and that doesn’t include new material. So due to time constraints my study of new material is slowing down. And what’s really frustrating is that the more new material I study, the more I forget old material that I thought I knew.

      Good luck in your J-studies.

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