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”.

Triage

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)

12 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.
    頑張ってください。

    • Triage: the assigning of priority order to projects on the basis of where funds and other resources can be best used, are most needed, or are most likely to achieve success

  3. I’m trying to work out my output skills too. I am pretty confident in understanding written and spoken Japanese with little need to consult a dictionary. But when I try to talk I become like a 3rd grader of Japanese.

    I’ve consumed so much Japanese media in Japanese these years but cant speak the language itself. My grammar understanding just comes from gut feeling all the time too. I had spent to much time acquiring vocab and missing out on grammar.

    Currently I’m reading genki and trying to improve my production skill. I also read Tae Kim’s book which make things much clearer. But I still have lots of work do do. Also lately I am making it a habit to pronounce out load when reading Japanese stuff. Do you guys think this is effective?

  4. Everyone ask, atleast in the beginning, “what’s the easiest way to learn Japanese”? ANSWER: Easiest way is to live there. There is no substitute. After that, it’s a process, vocabulary, grammer, writing. Get away from “Romaji” as fast as you can. You pronunciation will be better if you master hiragana & katakana, and that is not hard at all. You CAN master both in a month. Then youtube has a zillion video’s for learning & movies, game shows. 2 to 4 hrs a day you will have basic conversation in a year or year & a half. 3 yrs of learning will get you day to day conversation. So it’s not easy but I did it. I also lived there for 5 years. There is no substitute for that experience..
    頑張って下さいね。止められないと出来ると思います。よろしくお願いします。Above says. “Give it a shot, if you don’t quite you can do it, My Best to you.
    Ganbatte kudasai, yamerarenaito dekiruto omoimasu, yoroshiku onegaishimasu.

  5. Hi,
    I’m learning Japanese for few months and it’s not so easy for me. First I tried to learn by different self-studying books and websites. But it was difficult for me and I didn’t have any conversations. Than, my friends suggest me to find tutor so I take lessons on https://preply.com/en/skype/japanese-tutors. It’s a good source and I started to practice speaking. As additional sources I read books, watch videos, try to learn as much words as possible. But even now I’m looking for new opportunities to try something new in language learning.

    If you know some great ways you tried yourself, let me know, please.

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