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.
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.
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.