What’s the best way to learn Japanese?
I can answer this question in three parts:
- First, what I believe is key to being really successful at learning Japanese.
- Next, some of the complementary philosophies and approaches that I also agree with. These can go along with #1.
- Finally, some tools that I think are invaluable and will speed up the process for you big-time.
I get asked this question constantly because of my background: I earned a B.A. in Japanese Language and Literature, spent 20+ years traveling in Japan, married a Japanese wife and I’m actively raising two kids fully bilingual Japanese and English. And recently, over the past year, I’ve been fortunate enough to spend hundreds of hours working inside of a completely bilingual Montessori preschool and kindergarten. What I learned from working with the director of the Montessori changed my understanding of language learning forever.
The key to learning any language easily
The most important thing that will help you is your mindset and approach. Be like a child. And especially, be like a 2 year old. If you haven’t raised a 2 year old, what happens at that age is that they develop the ability to start spouting back words. They’ve been listening to them since even before birth, but they didn’t have the brain ability to actually command their mouth to make words until around 1–2. When they do, they sound like little cavemen. It’s cute. My little guy says “PAPA, me (replace me with his name- he speaks of himself in 3rd person) want babana” or “Kitty hungry” or “can I iPad?” He’s taking a few words he’s learned and connecting them into simple sentences, and forming statements or questions. And we listen to him. Sometimes he says something neither my wife or I understand, and we end up in what looks like a loving game of charades, only he has a limit of patience with how many times he’ll repeat himself before he starts getting mad.
The point here is: Start learning words and don’t be afraid of making mistakes. That’s it. Start learning words- and use them. If you’re around other Japanese people, or can be, ask them to be patient with you, and ask them to correct you when you make mistakes. I just started an online club using Google Meet (like Google Hangouts, only way cooler) to get a ton of Japanese people together to learn English this way. It works.
The 80/20 rule: Choose what to focus on
The 80/20 principle really holds true with Japanese. Take for example that a functional beginner in almost any language is typically defined as knowing about 250–500 words. 500 words is enough to get you through most tourist situations and basic introductions. It’s enough to communicate like a toddler, and that’s enough to communicate at a basic level. Maybe not eloquent, but functional for sure.
Interestingly, a study pointed out that the most frequent 500 Kanji (Chinese characters adopted and adapted into Japanese that make up the main writing system) covers 80% of total Kanji usage in newspapers. The top 1,000 characters covers 95% of total use in newspapers, and the next 2,000 characters covers the last 5% of use.
How hard is it to memorize 500 words? Get some flashcards. If you can memorize 10 words per day, that’s 300 in the course of a month. It adds up fast. There are a number of lists, but I recommend using the JLPT established vocabulary lists. The Japanese Ministry of Education has invested considerable resources to create standardized tests from levels N5 (the lowest) to N1 (the highest).
Great tools for learning Japanese
The Japanese app by renzo, Inc.
If you have an iPhone, I highly recommend renzo, Inc.’s Japanese app. I wrote a full review of the app here on Japaneur. The app is simply one of the most useful Japanese learning resources you’ll ever have, and you’ll continue using it daily no matter where you go with your Japanese. I just visited the vet with my cat here in Kobe last week, and I used it three times in the course of a conversation to look up words that I didn’t know pertaining to my cat’s checkup.
With the Japanese app you can look up words using the English alphabet (roman letters). Just spent a few hours learning the Japanese hiragana alphabet, and with a relatively decent ear you’ll be able to hear the words, type them in roman letters on your iPhone, and be presented with a dictionary definition and the characters as well. In fact, you’ll also be presented with example sentences, so you can take your study even further.
One of the most useful functions of the Japanese app to students of Japanese is the ability to use JLPT lists for study, so you always have everything you need with you to study Japanese, anywhere you and your phone are. And you can even create your own lists as well, which I do constantly to document what I’m learning each year, in specific circumstances (like my vet appointment for my cat) and more.
As an advanced student of Japanese, you can even draw the Kanji (Japanese-Chinese character) on screen and it will look it up for you. This is huge. I could go on and on about this app. Just get it and use it and you’ll see. It’s on my home screen for a reason and I use it several times a day.
The Google Chrome extension Rikaikun
Another great took I use is rikaikun, which is a Google Chrome extension and a port of the very good rikaichan that was around for Mac OS wayyyyyy back in the day. Rikaikun is stellar. Just download and install it, activate it, then mouse over the Japanese characters, and voila, it shows you the definition in a floating palate. It even recognizes compound characters, which is useful if you’re me trying to read Mogi Sensei’s Japanese twitter feed, which makes my brain hurt from time to time. Check out the screen shot for an example of how Rikaikun works. It’s magic. And it’s free.
There are also several books I recommend, and I’ll compile a list and publish it in an upcoming post. Sign up for updates I’ll notify you when I publish the list. Most of the books are really good, and probably 80% of them are available used on Amazon.com.
The only final advice I would have to anyone looking to really learn the language is: Don’t give up. Ideally fall in love with someone who speaks the language. That’s incentive. And be good to them. They may just help you a little bit. But all the real effort has to be yours. Cheers and good luck.