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:
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
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)