I moved to Tokyo in March of 2016, without much of a plan. I basically wanted to learn about Japanese language and culture to my heart’s content, and then see where life would take me.
In December 2018, after some of the most arduous years of study my life (way worse than my Master’s degree), I passed the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) N1: the most difficult of the Japanese language tests administered by the Japanese government.
N1 is ludicrously hard. To pass, you need to grasp antiquated expressions, literary grammatical structures and extremely formal business Japanese. However, once you make it, finding a rewarding and long-term job (not to mentions friends, a partner, etc.) in Japan becomes so much easier.
Along the way, you’ll learn a tremendous amount about Japan’s culture and history. You’ll become able to interact with Japanese people much more smoothly, breaking through some of the notoriously formidable barriers of high-context communication. With a bit of introspection, you’ll also learn a lot more about your own language, and just how much the words we use shape the way we think about and interact with the world around us.
So if you’re ready to embark upon this mad quest, here are four beginner tips to learn Japanese.
Tip 1) Immerse yourself.
I promise the next ones won’t be as painstakingly obvious. To learn Japanese, just like any other language, you have to immerse yourself. Go to Japan. Make Japanese friends. Watch Japanese television. Listen to Japanese music.
The goal of immersion is to learn without learning. Rather than going through the purely intellectual exercise of associating a word with it’s equivalent in your mother tongue, associate it with something you’ve experienced with your senses. The latter association will linger in your memory for much longer.
So for instance, rather than making a flashcard that says 牛 = (ushi) cow, go grab a 牛丼 = (gyuudon) beef bowl.
Then in asking yourself why 牛 is read as “ushi” by itself but “gyuu” when coupled with another kanji (Chinese character), you’ll gain an overview of what the kanji means, how it’s used and how it can be read in several ways.
Even just sitting there passively listening to Japanese music can be beneficial. Many times throughout my studies, I recognized a word or expression because I’d heard it a dozen times before in a song.
Learning a language is about interiorizing the association between a word and its meaning. If that association is born from a difficult real-life situation or a pleasant repeated experience, trust me, it will stick in your memory harder than mochi will stick to your teeth on a warm Tokyo summer day.
Tip 2) Use technology to complement your studies
There are way too many apps out there, each claiming to effortlessly teach you Japanese in record time. In my experience, the simpler and more customizable the app, the better. I essentially used just two apps throughout my studies: Anki (a flashcard app) and Jsho (a dictionary).
Anki was my savior. Rather than copying existing flashcard decks, I made my own cards for everything. As I was studying in language school, for each level I would make a new deck with progressively harder vocabulary. To this day, I’ve accumulated around 10’000 cards.
For physical objects, rather than including an English translation, I would add pictures. For concepts or abstract notions, I would include sample sentences (preferably from where I’d heard the expression used in real life), as well as include (when possible) the difference between that word and similar words or expressions. If your plan is to pass N1, you will need to know the difference between a word and its close relatives, so keep that in mind when learning kanji.
In line with my previous tip on immersion, try to take pictures of your everyday life and attach them to your Anki. Here as well, associating the Japanese word with something you have experienced via one of your senses is much more likely to make it stick in your memory than if you just insert a dictionary translation.
To this day, I’ll add words and expressions alongside how they were used and in what context. I know that certain expressions are only used in formal contexts, or when angry, or with a younger colleague, etc., based on when I heard those expressions being used in real life. For Japanese more than for other languages, you will need to be sensitive to these nuances if you want to be able to break the cultural divide and communicate freely with Japanese people.
Tip 3) Think of grammar as a math problem, learn it like vocabulary
When learning a new language, we are tempted to equivocate its grammar with the grammar of our own language. This is a terrible mistake.
In my experience, grammar is best understood as a function, a way of forming connections between the words of a sentence. That’s why when I learn a new grammar point, I tend to write it out as a simple, almost mathematical formula. For example:
「上で」(uede) is a piece of grammar that comes up in the JLPT N2 exam. It loosely translates to “as a result of,” when the first part of the sentence is necessary for the second part. So I would write it into a flashcard as follows.
On the front I would write out my grammatical “equation:”
The front part of the sentence “A” can be a noun or a verb (N/V), followed by 上で, followed by the latter part of the sentence “B” which could be anything.
On the back of my card, I would write out a loose English equivalent if possible, followed by examples sentences. In the rare case where the kanji is hard to read, I would also write out the proper reading, although this usually isn’t much of a problem. So in the case of 上で, the back of my card would look like:
As a result of / after, when A is an important condition for B
After talking with my boss, I decided to leave the company.
As a result of a discussion with my boss, I decided to leave the company.
I would recommend very little variation in the meaning of the sentences on the flashcard, because the next step will be to drill the grammar points the same way you would drill vocabulary, with daily revision.
Tip 4) Have fun with it
As a Swiss person, I had German language classes. I studied German for seven years. My Japanese became better than my German after about nine months of intensive study. The reason: I associate Japanese with beautiful scenery, a rich culture and wonderful people. I associate German with an exasperated high school teacher who taught like a factory instructor from the Industrial Age.
With language as with everything else, perseverance is key, and it’s impossible to persevere at an intellectually draining task unless you’re enjoying it.
I loved learning weird and antiquated expressions, using them at random times to make my friends laugh. I had a blast trying to come up with childish puns and wordplay in the hope that I could make my teacher facepalm. I’m a terribly untalented but overly enthusiastic singer, so each time I go to karaoke I try to sing Japanese songs. I watch TV series and anime in Japanese with Japanese subtitles, even when they’re full of useless vocabulary about sorcery and chivalry from the Middle Ages.
As long as you push the barriers of comprehension and comfort, you will constantly be making progress. The hardest part is to not give up. In the very beginning of your language-learning journey, when you’re going from knowing 1% of what you need to know to 2%, you’ll get a huge sense of accomplishment. Learning the same amount to get you from 63 to 64% isn’t nearly as satisfying. In fact, the more you learn, the more it will feel like you’re stagnating, so try not to worry too much about progress. Trust your brain, keep at it, and have fun.
I’ll be back with more tips soon. In the meantime, happy learning!
P.S. A couple more great online resources you can use to complement your studies (I am not affiliated with any of them):
NHK’s News Web Easy is a great way to get reading exercise if you’re around the N2 level. They also have a podcast.
Japanese.io is a fantastic browser extension that provides instant translation and can help you store vocabulary. It’s compatible with Anki.
Youtube Channel “Nihongo no Mori” is a fantastic tool to learn grammar and practice your listening.