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What’s the best way to learn Japanese?

Photo by John Spiri of Global Stories Press

At the 2014 JALT National Conference, I gave a talk entitled “What’s the best way to learn Japanese?” The slot was quite late on Saturday afternoon, and it was labeled “commercial,” so I was not expecting to get any more than five or six people.

I was therefore more than a bit surprised when the room filled up to the point where people were standing at the back! I hadn’t realised that I was touching on such a hot topic, but from speaking to people who were in the audience, it seems that there is a huge amount of interest in this question, particularly among long-term residents of Japan who are not satisfied with their level of proficiency in the language.

The purpose of the presentation was to introduce a research project that I have just started. In the project, I am looking at successful learners of Japanese in order to find out what, if anything, they have in common. The research is still in the early stages, and I will write more fully about it when I have more data. Following the presentation, however, a number of people said they would like to hear about my own learning experiences and the advice that I would give to learners of Japanese, so here goes!

Please bear in mind when reading this that I am simply writing about my own experience: I am not claiming that all of these points apply to all learners; indeed, I know for a fact that a number of successful learners strongly disagree with me on at least one of them.

One more note of caution: although I would consider myself to be a reasonably successful learner in some ways, (I have written several books in Japanese and regularly conduct presentations and workshops in the language), I am also very aware of my limitations. For example, although I can understand the gist of newspaper articles, I certainly could not claim to know all the kanji. I also find it difficult to write things like short notes or comments on questionnaires by hand in Japanese.

That said, I am happy to share my experiences in the hope that they might encourage, or simply be of interest to, other learners. As I am very much a lover of lists, I will arrange my thoughts as a “top tips.”

Tip #1: Find a teacher.

One of the participants in my study remarked, “There is no way I could ever have figured out how to conjugate verbs without a teacher.” I agree! It is certainly possible to acquire the grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation of a language through extensive input and interaction, but finding a teacher who can explain it to you and tell you where you are going wrong will make the process much quicker and far less painful. Having pre-arranged lessons at regular intervals will also help you to stay motivated. If you find a private teacher, do not simply turn up expecting to be taught; make sure you go to each lesson armed with a list of things that you have noticed, heard, wanted to say, or been confused by. This will make the time much more productive.

Tip #2: Let go.

One thing that held me back in my early studies was a refusal to let go of the notion that English should be the default way of looking at the world. (See my blog post “Don’t sweat the small stuff” for more on this.) For example, I could not understand the difference between kore, sore, and are because I could not accept the need for three categories where English only has two. In fact, of course, all human language is an arbitrary interpretation of reality, and it is quite easy to think of a system that would use four, five, or even more categories to represent the reality that English interprets as “this” and “that.” The turning point for me was when I looked up yappari in the dictionary and found a translation that sounded unlike anything I would ever say in my own language. I realised at that point that I needed to stop thinking, “What does that mean in English?” and ask instead, “How do Japanese people use this expression?” My Japanese learning really took off after I truly accepted that, as opposed to simply acknowledging it at an intellectual level.

Tip #3: Don’t expect your progress to be linear.

Although I should have known better, I expected that my language learning would resemble a “ladder” of progress, as I mastered one thing before moving on to the next. In fact, it turned out to be more like a Greek plate-spinning show, with numerous items on the go at the same time, and me having to return to each periodically in order to keep it “spinning” in my head. Another useful metaphor I came up with was the baggage carousel at an airport. I realised that there was no need to panic about things I didn’t understand immediately because if they were genuinely useful, they would be coming around again anyway.

Tip #4: Get a grammar book.

Ignore anyone who tells you that grammar is not important. Grammar is how you put words together in order to express meaning. You may pick it up bit by bit through informal learning, but you will be much quicker and much more accurate if you take the time to learn how the language works. I highly recommend the “Dictionary of Japanese Grammar” series by Makino and Tsutsui, published by the Japan Times. (See my post on “Sowing the seeds of grammar” for a more in-depth discussion of the importance of grammar.)

Tip #5: Write.

One of the things that I think distinguished me from other Westerners who came at the same time as I did was that I spent a lot of time writing Japanese. The beauty of writing is that it forces you to think about things that you could just gloss over if you were speaking. (Should that be wa or ga? Do I need ni before this word? etc.) I started out writing a diary, but I soon got bored with that, so I took to writing about anything that had been on my mind that day. I generally wrote about one side of B5 per day, and I wrote on alternate lines. When I was finished, I used to give my writing to a Japanese friend, who very kindly corrected it for me. I would then read the corrections and write the whole thing out again on a clean sheet of paper to make sure I had understood it. After that, I made a conscious attempt to incorporate as much of the new language I had learned as possible in my next “assignment.” It sounds boring, I know, but it is extremely effective if you can keep it up. (See my discussion of the SHAPAL method for more on this.)

Tip #6: Surround yourself with the language.

Another thing that separated me from my peers in my early days in Japan was that I made a conscious effort to create a social circle of Japanese people who did not speak English. I was able to do this because of my hobbies. Being with people who liked the same things I did made me feel like a part of the group even though we spoke different languages. (For bikers, what bike you ride is much more important than where you come from!) I cannot count the number of days, evenings, and even whole weekends I spent having a very tenuous grasp of what was going on around me but doing my best to understand and to make myself understood. It was incredibly frustrating, but it really paid off in the end. (That’s the PAL part of SHAPAL!)

Tip #7: Motivate yourself with role-models / competitors.

Many of the successful learners I have spoken to have talked about other Japanese learners who inspired them, either as a role-model (I want to be like him / her) or a competitor (if he / she can do it, so can I!) This was my experience as well. If you know any successful learners, talk to them not only about materials and study techniques, but also about their philosophy, their attitude, and their mindset. Use people you know as “targets,” and choose new ones as your proficiency develops.

Tip #8: Learn shuji.

It goes without saying that you need to be learning kanji. I spent quite literally hundreds (if not thousands) of hours writing each character out over and over again in one of those books that Japanese kids use. (Writing in the boxes is much more productive than simply writing on blank paper because it forces you to think about the balance of each character. Kanji practice books are very cheap, and you can buy them at any bookshop.) The thing I remember most about that was how it set up a cycle of priming and triggering that eventually enabled me to become a competent reader and writer.

On top of this, I also found it incredibly helpful to learn how to write kanji with a brush. Cultural centers usually have lessons in shuji, and they are normally very cheap. When you use a brush, the stroke order makes much more sense, and I found that helped me a lot to learn and remember the characters. It also taught me how to write characters that I had never seen before. If you want to learn kanji, get out your brush!

By the way, if you find that you keep forgetting the characters no matter how many times you practice them, join the club! I’m just working through a 100 block at the moment, and despite having mastered every single one of them in my daily tests, I now find that I can remember only about a third.

Tip #9: Set short-term goals, be systematic, and be consistent.

By “short-term goals,” I mean things like “By the end of this week, I will have learned / read / written ….” The more specific your goals, the more likely it is that you will achieve them. I know we all tell our students to do this, and with good reason – it works! Also, this may be a personal thing, but I have found that I need a system so that I can guarantee I will do what I need to do every day. For example, at the moment I am studying the kanji using a wonderful app called LS Kanji. I set the range of characters I want to study, and then every day, I study five new ones. I begin by testing myself on the five I learned the day before, and then I move on. Every time I reach a “hundred” milestone, I go back and test myself on the whole set. I do not move on to the next set until I can write them all without making any mistakes.

Tip #10: Learn what works for you.

I think this is probably the most important tip of all. As I mentioned above, I felt very strongly that learning to write the kanji with the correct stroke order helped me a lot, but one of the participants in my study (a far more successful learner than I) said, “I don’t care about the stroke order; I just write them any way I can remember them.” You will never be successful simply by following blindly advice given by other people. Try different things, and design your own learning program. If something is not working for you, change it, and try something new. As with anything, the key is simply not to give up, and the best way of studying is the one you can keep up. As I tell my students, there are basically three steps to being successful at anything, including language learning:

1. Decide what you are going to do.
2. Do it.
3. Keep doing it!

A bit trite and obvious, I know, but none the less true for it.

One final point that came up in the discussion at my presentation was the use of romaji as a learning tool. My personal opinion is that it is a distraction that will hinder you more than it helps you in the long term, but I would be interested to hear what others think.

Anyway, I hope that is helpful for some people, and I hope that others will add their own tips and suggestions in the comments.


  1. ashmoleanmuse on 2014年12月16日 at 12:13

    Hi David,

    Long time no see! Do you remember me? I used to post comments to the Learner Blog from time to time. I miss those days when you and I were at loggerheads with each other.

    I believe the tips could apply to the learners of English like me. I agree with you especially on Tip #4. “Ignore anyone who tells you that grammar is not important. Grammar is how you put words together in order to express meaning.” Very true!

    Have a lovely Holiday Season!


  2. Mike on 2016年05月17日 at 02:09

    I have just arrived in Japan as an English teacher at Mainichieikaiwa ( I am currently trying to learn Japanese basics. Thanks for your pieces of advice!
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