Bah, humbug to methods!

I recently received this question via email from Shiki.

To: taekim.japanese AT
Date: Thu, Aug 7, 2008 at 11:39 AM

Subject: Some questions about your method…

You said that when you were learning Japanese you didn’t study kanji, but the words made of them. So when you encountered a new word, what did you do to “drill” it into your memory? I’m just wondering what steps to take when I encounter a new word.

Also, how often did you find yourself reviewing? When I say reviewing, I mean like SRS/flashcard reviewing. I ask this because the method you described yourself using for learning Japanese is very appealing to me, as I think it’s in line with what will help me learn Japanese successfully. It’s not that I don’t have the time to review, but I just find reviewing for long periods of time very boring. I’m not really interested in coming home and having to do 4 hours of reviewing that my SRS scheduled for me today. I’d rather just jump straight into reading manga, looking for new words and kanji, having fun while learning.


I do not have a method, I do not play monopoly

I did not do any review, I did not use an SRS, I did not pass Go, I did not collect $200, and I definitely did not use flashcards. Or more accurately, I did try to use flashcards early on but all my efforts at making and reviewing flashcards soon petered out due to boredom.

Here are some of the things I did do depending on my mood and how much interest I had for any given vocabulary.

  1. I skipped the word if I was lazy or too absorbed into the story to stop reading. (Usually when it didn’t hinder my comprehension too much)
  2. I looked up the word, found the definition, and moved on.
  3. I remembered other words that used the same Kanji, and looked those up as well.
  4. For new Kanji, I looked up the meaning for the individual Kanji and practiced writing the odder ones like 「飛」.
  5. For fairly abstract concepts such as 「関して」 or 「かつて」, I looked up other example sentences similar to the steps described in this post.
  6. In conversation practice, I asked my partner to write down words I didn’t recognize and reviewed my notes later (or not depending on how lazy I was).

The only thing that could be considered review was going back and reading something over again for the fun of it. On reading it over, I might look up words I skipped previously or have forgotten since then.

Here, let me put words in your mouth

While that’s what I did to study Japanese, I’m going to read a bit between the lines here and answer what I think the question is really asking, “How should you study Japanese?”

Here’s the short answer:

Do what works for you.

Similar to diet fads, people seem to want to gravitate toward some magical method for mastering Japanese. Various books and software try to reel these people in with claims like, “Learn Japanese the Easy Way!” or “The Fastest Way to Learn Japanese!”. In my opinion, 99.9% of these products are complete crap. I won’t say which ones because I rather not say anything rather than being overly negative.

Regardless of whether you think Japanese is more or less difficult than learning other languages, the bottom line is that mastering any foreign language is a large task. So do yourself a favor and take an approach that makes learning Japanese enjoyable and interesting for you.

Are you having trouble writing the Kanji? Try the Heisig method. Are you having trouble recalling vocabulary? Try an SRS. Are you getting bored with the study material? Try new kinds of material such as dramas, movies, books, comics. Or here’s a crazy idea. How about making some Japanese friends to practice with? The important thing to realize is that no single method is going to cover everything.

The point is, I can’t advocate a single method or steps to learning Japanese because we all learn in different ways and have different goals. Here are some questions that might affect how you want to approach Japanese.

  1. What is your desired pace and average study time?
  2. What are your areas of interest?
  3. How best do you learn: visual, audio, or mechanical? You need to incorporate all three but you can use your natural disposition to your advantage.
  4. Do you like to learn in an organized or unorganized fashion?

I also suggest you read my post on studying tips. Practice makes perfect, so you should not forget that eventually you’ll have to use Japanese in the real world to get better at it. Feed Me Japanese also has some good posts about learning methods.

Finally, my last piece of advice is this.

If it’s painful, boring, or frustrating, stop doing it and try something else.

And if everything starts to feel that way, try taking a little break. But don’t let it last too long otherwise it might became a hiatus and you start forgetting what you’ve worked so hard to learn. Remember, like proper dieting and exercise, the importance is in consistency and not speed.


So Shiki, it sounds like you answered your own question. If you don’t like reviewing for long periods of time and prefer to jump straight into reading manga, then go do that! It worked for me! (In addition to having Japanese friends to converse with.)

10 thoughts on “Bah, humbug to methods!

  1. Great advice! I completely agree. I hope Shiki has fun with it.

    One question I would add is: If you find a manga or TV show you really enjoy or make friends with Japanese people, is it possible to take a “break” from Japanese?

    People who love to read don’t take breaks from reading, People who love to watch Heroes or 24 don’t worry about keeping up. Do you take breaks from friends for months at a time?

    It’s amazing how easy it is to keep up with the stuff you enjoy…

  2. Thanks a lot for answering. I have one more question though.

    Without actually drilling the kanji, do you ever find it hard to recall how to write them when you need to?

  3. Remembering how to write Kanji is difficult but drilling doesn’t really help.

    Mnemonics and breaking them into its separate components help. Similar to Heisig but personally I use Japanese instead of stories and English keywords. For example, 忘れる is 亡くなる and 心, similar to 忙しい but death is on top so it’s completely gone (forgotten) while when it’s to the left, things are just difficult to manage (busy). Or I remember 練習 because 練る means to knead (I picture 糸(いと) and 車 as kind of a wheeled compressor on a string) and “kneading learning” means to practice.

    Things like that and also just practicing writing by hand helps. I don’t mean one word over and over (once you’ve recalled it once, repeating it doesn’t really benefit) but complete sentences with various words. An SRS with sentences (NOT just words or individual kanji) written in kana to be converted to kanji can certainly help. But I don’t have the motivation to do those so I mostly practice as necessary. For instance, I got naturally good with writing kanji like 通勤手当、年末調整、and 雇用区分 while working in HR.

  4. Tae Kim recommending Heisig to a reader? :O
    Never thought that the day would come…..;)

  5. Well I’m not recommending it per se, I’m just saying what works for me may not for other and vice versa. So while I don’t like Heisig’s method personally, it seems to work for others, so who am I to judge?

    The thing that really annoyed me was people saying things like, “I learned 2000 kanji in X weeks!” I highly doubt that’s the case.

    There’s nothing wrong with trying different stuff for yourself and finding what works for you. But that doesn’t mean you should go out and tell others that they’re doing it the wrong way.

  6. I have another question. I’m about half-way finished reading through your guide on grammar and I’m looking for something to read to practice what I’ve learned. Do you have any recommendations?

  7. Well I like all kinds of manga No real preferences, just something that isn’t too difficult.

  8. If you want something easier, probably go with some kind of 少女 or 少年漫画.

    Personally, I like One Piece but that’s just my preference. If you want something closer to modern Japan, めぞん一刻 or ちびまる子ちゃん might be more suitable.

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