What’s the best way to learn Japanese?

Q: What’s the best way to learn Japanese?
A: It depends.

Q: What’s the best way to learn Kanji?
A: The question is vague.

Q: How long until I can become fluent?
A: What does “fluent” mean? Also, it depends.

I get very short emails of this kind all the time and I usually don’t respond (sorry if this was you). But really, 99% of these generic, vague questions I can answer: “It depends”.


Learning a language is a big job. You’ve been practicing it and learning it for years and years from your parents and school all the way up to adulthood and beyond. Now that you’re starting ALL OVER AGAIN, it’s time to set priorities.

Even if you don’t set priorities, they will get set whether you like it or not. Of course like you (I hope), I strive to be natively proficient at everything but frankly, my writing skills can use work, a LOT of work. That’s because instead of writing in Japanese, I’m spending my time writing this blog post in English and mostly reading. Even though I can naively wish my writing would magically improve, it won’t happen unless I work on it (I’m not).

So if you need Japanese for your work, have family, interested in anime or whatever, you can easily break it down into one of four skills: listening, speaking, reading, writing. Once you have your priorities, you need to work on improving those skills by actually DOING IT.

Triage and focus on one of:

  1. listening
  2. reading
  3. speaking
  4. writing

However, when it comes to output skills, you need input otherwise you’re just making up random nonsense. So if you want to work on speaking, start by listening, reading before writing (about 2-4 times more input over output).

2-4X input over output:

    listening > speaking
    reading > writing

Finally, even if you triage (which will happen regardless), you should still work on the other areas. Our brains are a complex neural network and stimulating different parts of it helps retention. So if you spend all your time buried in a book, get out and talk to some people. If you’re just winging it in Japan, go home and do some reading.

Having a visual image of an object for example, a “vending machine” with the Kanji 自動販売機 “self moving sell machine” after hearing the word in conversations is the best way to cement it in long-term memory.

Maintain a good balance

Counter examples

Take these stereotypical examples and it’s easy to see where the problems lie because priorities were not in line with desired result.

1. Advanced Japanese student who can’t hold a conversation
Didn’t actually spend time outside classroom speaking to people.

2. Cannot speak with Japanese significant other
Always speaks in English with significant other. Has some excuse for not studying or reading.

3. Loves anime, can’t understand a word
English subtitles always on. Doesn’t spend time looking up the words. Doesn’t read manga or light novel with a dictionary.

4. Can’t write Kanji by hand (this is me and probably many Japanese people)
Always uses an electronic device to type. Rarely writes by hand.

5. Can’t write that novel in Japanese
Writes English blog post about learning priorities (yeah you know who you are).

6. Grammar is confusing
Didn’t read my book (shameless plug)

6 thoughts on “What’s the best way to learn Japanese?

  1. My problem is finding material to practice Japanese when it comes to reading and listening because my listening skills are especially poor is daunting to find a text that teaches something new but still isn’t a strain to get through every word. And when it comes to speaking and writing, well I would love to have someone to communicate with but am still constantly uncomfortable with the fact that they have to decipher everything that I’ve clumsily botched together in my efforts to practice.

    Does anyone have some suggestions of where I can find materials to practice? Btw I’ve been learning Japanese all through middle/high school.

    • Try lang-8. That’s how I got started. Thing of a couple basic sentences in English you would like to write in Japanese (like “The tree is green.” or “This morning, I walked to the park.”), look up those words on WWWJDIC or Tangorin (better), and use the info in Tae Kim’s grammar guide to write basic sentence. You might be surprised at the comments of the natives – many times the verbs you choose are not what you had in mind but may be more specific. I found Japanese happens to use verbs that are more specific than English counterparts. We need to stop using “get” for everything.

  2. Im not sure you know what “triage” means. It might be that you are using it creatively in a way I don’t know, but I don’t get it.
    Triage is the initial medical examination in an accident to determine what kind of treatment should be given. If you’re applying it to troubleshooting a study problem, it doesn’t really work because triage implies an emergency situation; it’s too heavy-handed for study.
    But this is a really good blog. I want know more about you and where you’re coming from.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.