The Best Way to Learn Japanese

What is the best way to learn Japanese?  If you want to know how to learn Japanese fast and efficiently, this list of 15 tips will show you exactly how to do that.  The methods covered in this guide are a collection of advice from Japanese teachers, people who have gained fluency in a second language, and the things I’ve used successfully in my studies.   If you want go more into detail about how to learn Japanese, check out our massive 5-chapter guide on learning Japanese.

So let’s get right to it!

 

The Best Way to Learn Japanese:  15 Tips You Need to Know

1.  Don’t Be Original (To Begin With)

This was a huge problem I had, and I noticed other people have it too.  When I was a beginner at learning Japanese, it was pretty much reciting the words or phrases I learned.  No originality there.

When I got to an intermediate level, I knew enough Japanese to be creative and express my thoughts and feelings.  However, something strange happened.

Whenever I heard a useful word/phrase that someone else said (native Japanese speaker or one of my friends), I would purposely try NOT to use that word or phrase.  I wanted to be unique, and I didn’t want people to think I was copying other people.  So even though I knew a natural way to say something (because I heard someone else say it correctly), I would try to say it in a different way (and often fail).

This was very counterproductive.  My Japanese got worse since I was trying to say things that were not natural.

If I just copied what I had heard, I would have sounded much more natural.

When babies are learning to speak, do you think they care about originality?  No!  They just copy everything they hear at first.  And you know what?  It works!  So don’t be like me.

Don’t be afraid to use things you heard other people say.  If you hear something useful, you should jot it down in your notebook or smartphone app.  Originality will come when you have enough pieces of the puzzle to make a beautiful picture.

 

2.  Tell Your Life Story: Prepared Conversations

I highly recommend you do this if you have the chance to talk with native Japanese speakers.  Even more so if you plan on living in Japan.

Prepare short conversations, just as if you were giving a speech.  If you plan on living in Japan, I recommend preparing at least 2 prewritten “conversations.”

You should definitely prepare a self-introduction. You’ll be asked to do self-introduction in many different situations (your first day at work, if you take a Japanese class, or if you join any clubs, etc.).  Your self-introduction should include things like your name, where you’re from, and your likes/hobbies.  You may also choose to include why you came to Japan.

You should also prepare a conversation that gives more details about your background.  This could be a short description of your hometown, or why you are interested in Japan.

Once Japanese people hear your self-introduction, it is common for them to want to know more about you.  Your self-introduction is like a good movie trailer; it should make people want to know more about you.  When someone talks to you to get to know you better, you’ll have your prewritten conversations all ready to go.

I even remembered rules to games or interesting facts (that I could lead the conversation towards) if there was a lull in our conversation.  Doing this gives you confidence to speak to people since you already know what to say.  Preparing these conversations in advance is also a fun way to improve your Japanese.

 

3.  Active Learning: Putting Pen to Paper:  Definitely Do This!

If you want a way to master the things you study in Japanese, you need to write them down by hand.  This doesn’t mean using a computer program or an app.  Get a notebook and a nice pen, and write everything by hand.

This sounds like common sense and advice you’ve probably heard before, but very few people do this.  Yet, virtually all of the people I know who became good at another language wrote things down in a notebook or on flashcards.

Please try this if you aren’t doing this already.  This tip alone can make learning Japanese much faster and more efficient.

However, don’t just write massive lists of vocabulary words or kanji.  There’s a way to take notes that will help your learning.

 

Here’s how to do it:

  1. Separate a page in your notebook into 4 columns.
  2. The 1st column (can start from either the left or right, whichever you are comfortable with) should be the new Japanese word, phrase, grammar, or kanji you are learning.
  3. The 2nd column should be the translation of the word/phrase (in your native language). For kanji, you would write the reading of the kanji here.
  4. The 3rd column should be a “Notes” section. This section is very important!  Not only will it help you understand the material, but it also helps you to remember it.  The main focus of your notes should be on usage/nuance. Think about things like this and write them down:  How is it used?  Was it used in casual or formal situations?   Who is/was saying it?  Male or female?  Who is it/was it being said to?  Friends, co-workers, your boss?
  5. The 4th column should contain any example sentences that you found in a book, heard someone say, or original sentence that you came up with.
  6. For kanji, you could have extra spaces on your paper to practice writing out the character (with the correct stroke order) several times.

I know what you’re thinking.  This is a lot of time and effort to spend on learning new Japanese material.   It does take time, but you deepen your understanding and remember things better by doing all of this.  So, in the long run, this might help you to learn Japanese faster.

 

4.  Choosing the Right Materials for You

Finding the best materials to learn Japanese is a challenge for most people.  There are just too many books, videos, and programs out there.  I believe in using more than one type of material.  Books are great for reading and learning new material, but combining that with audio and video lesson with real native speakers will help you learn faster.

If you don’t want to buy different books, CDs, or videos, I highly recommend Japanesepod101.  They have everything you need to learn Japanese, so you don’t need to buy anything else (unless you plan to take the JLPT).  It is the best resource I have used to improve my Japanese on my own.

If you want to buy a book, our “best Japanese books” guide can help you find the perfect book for your level.

 

5. Practice Speaking…By Yourself?

Speaking is the most important skill to focus on when learning Japanese, especially if you are a beginner.  Why, you ask?

It’s probably the skill you’ll use the most.  In my opinion, it’s also the most fun since you can communicate directly with people.

But more importantly, when you try to speak Japanese, your brain is trying to assemble all of the pieces of knowledge you learned (grammar, vocab, etc.) and put it together to make one beautiful picture.  This type of practice is essential to improve all areas of your Japanese skills.

If you can’t find or afford a teacher to speak with, no problem!  The great thing is that you can practice speaking on your own.

In the beginning, you don’t need to know a lot of words.  Just try to copy the tone and flow of Japanese speakers by humming, or even making up random words. As long as you try to match the rhythm and tone of native speakers, your speaking will improve.  I used this method while driving to work.  I would have imaginary conversations with me saying gibberish, but trying to match a native speaker’s speaking rhythm. Eventually, when I learned more words and grammar, the rhythm and tone I practiced stayed with me.  I was able to say new words and sentences with much better pronunciation.

 

6.  Enjoy the Journey

This may seem pretty obvious, but a lot of people who learn Japanese take it too seriously.

They think they must study books for hours and not have any distractions.

This can actually hold you back from learning faster.

Finding something you like related to Japanese, whether it is music, movies, anime, Japanese food, or traditional sword making…this can help you learn Japanese faster.

Let’s say you love watching Japanese movies.

Which will be easier to remember?

  1. A list of random Japanese words that are in a textbook.
  2. A list of Japanese words that you heard while watching a movie you like.

Of course, the words from the movie will be much easier to remember!  This is because you can relate to them and have an interest in them.  I feel like my brain really “wakes up” and pays attention when I’m studying words that I can relate too.

The other great thing about this is that most interests you have will teach you common and natural Japanese.  And since you’ll probably hear this word within a sentence, it will help you learn the nuance too (which is hard to do with just a book).

 

7.  Don’t Be Camera…Or Voice Recorder Shy

I hate listening to my voice.  But doing this is one of the best ways to improve your Japanese speaking by yourself.

This makes it perfect for those who are a little shy or rather not study in a class of people.

Record yourself saying something that you heard a native Japanese speaker say (from CDs that come from books, audio lessons, movies, or even YouTube videos).  Then compare your recording with the native speaker.

Do this several times, and you’ll hear yourself improve in just one session.  No matter how much you think you suck now, keep doing this often, and your pronunciation will skyrocket.  Just be sure to analyze your voice and make little adjustments every time you record yourself.

If you’re brave enough, record a video of yourself.  This way, you can see your body language, facial expressions, and the movement of your mouth…all of which affect how you communicate in Japanese.

 

8.  You Are the Sensei

“If you want to learn something, read about it. If you want to understand something, write about it. If you want to master something, teach it.”

This powerful quote by Yogi Bhajan says it all.   If you teach something in Japanese, it will help you not just to learn it, but to MASTER it. You don’t even need students.  You just need the mindset of a teacher.

What does this mean?

Let’s say you are learning the te-form of Japanese verbs.  You already studied them and have a decent understanding of them.

Pretend that you have to teach the te-form of verbs to a class tomorrow.  How will you prepare?  What will you do and say to teach them?  What kind of examples will you give them?

If you prepare a teaching lesson for a specific grammar, vocabulary, or kanji, you are teaching YOURSELF the material.  While you are thinking of how to teach it, you’ll come up with questions about the material yourself.  Is this sentence natural?  Can this grammar work in this way?  Is this easy to understand?

This will make you want to search for the answers, and when you do, you’ll gain a better understanding of the material.

It may seem like a lot of work, because…well it is.  However, if you spend time and effort doing this, you’ll master the material faster than if you just casually studied it from a book.

 

9.  Getting Help When You Need It

There might not be any opportunities to learn Japanese in the area you live in.  So many of us study Japanese on our own.

With so many useful resources out there, it’s easier than ever to learn Japanese on your own.

However, you will 100% run into questions where you can’t find a good answer.  When this happens, be proactive and find help.

Most of the time, a good Google search can find the answers you seek.  But when you need more insight or advice, I recommend asking someone knowledgeable for help.

You can try forums on Reddit or Quora for simple questions.  Hi-Native is also good since there are native Japanese speakers answering questions on there. Their premium service costs money, but the free version was enough for me.  I usually got my questions answered quickly, even with the free version.

If you have a more difficult question that requires a longer explanation or would like someone to give you feedback on your Japanese, finding a good online tutor is one of the best ways to learn Japanese.  Italki or Verbling has a lot of native Japanese speakers that can give you private lessons.

 

10.  The Bookworm Gets the Worm?

The best Japanese teacher I ever had always told me to read a lot.  She said that if I wanted to become fluent in Japanese, I should start reading a lot.  At the time, I only cared about speaking, so I thought that advice didn’t apply to me.

Years later, I realized she was right.

This applies mostly to intermediate to advanced Japanese students, but you should start to read even as a beginner.  Not only does reading increase your vocabulary and solidify your understanding of grammar, but it also does two things that are magical for your Japanese.

  1. It helps you understand the nuance of words and phrases (which most textbooks can’t do).
  2. It teaches you natural Japanese.

When I say reading, I don’t mean Japanese textbooks. I’m talking about things you would usually read for fun — novels, people’s blogs, websites about your hobby, comics, etc.

Manga can be useful for learning Japanese,  but it does use a lot of casual and slang Japanese.  So you’ll learn things that are not in most textbooks.  However, be careful about using those expressions in real life.

Sometimes the words in manga are too casual and should only be used with close friends.  Those of you who had friends calling their boss “お前 (omae)*” know what I’m talking about.

*Note: お前 (omae) is a very casual way to say “you” in Japanese.  It is usually used with people you are close with or are of a lower social status than you.  Using it with people you’ve just met, co-workers, or people of higher social status than you (boss, teacher, etc.) is very rude and disrespectful.

 

11.  Take Your Time to Remember One Thing at a Time

When many of us start studying Japanese, we try to learn everything at once.  We want to learn as much as we can in as little time as possible. I did this (and still do this) a lot.

“If I study 100 kanji per day, I’ll be able to read the newspaper in 2months!”

Yup, I did study 100 kanji per day (took me about 8 -10 hours) using the Heisig method, so I just remembered the meaning and stroke order.  Well, after a couple of weeks and over a thousand kanji later, I was burnt out and forgot many of them.

It is much more efficient to concentrate on one thing at a time.  If you are trying to learn the jouyou kanji (2,136 “regular use” kanji), break it down into smaller chunks.

Instead of remembering a list of 50 words in one day, take your time with each one. Don’t just remember the English translation.  Write it down in your notebook and explore it (tip #3 on this list).  If you’re not too sure what a word means, look it up the dictionary.  If the meaning still isn’t clear, go to Google Images and search for it (in Japanese) and see what images pop up.  The images that are displayed instantly give you an idea of what the word or phrase means.

Doing all this for each word, phrase, or kanji you learn will take a lot more time. But you’ll deepen your understanding of the material and remember it better.

 

12.  Repetition Is King

Okay, let’s get something straight here.  There are no magic bullets or Harry Potter spells than will make you learn Japanese overnight.  No matter how you study, it all comes down to repetition.  If you want to master Japanese, you NEED to master repetition.  You can’t just study something once.  You need to study it, review it, and study it again.   Do this until you know for sure you have it down.

However, there are ways to review that makes it easy for you.  There are so many apps and programs than have digital flashcards for you to study.  I like Anki and their spaced memorization method (shows you words you don’t understand/remember more often than those you do).

Of course, writing what you study in a notebook (by hand) is always a great way to review too.

 

13.  Train Your Brain

I don’t believe immersion is the secret to learning languages.

I know many people who have lived in Japan for years, and they can’t even say more than 1 sentence in Japanese.

Immersion can provide you with the opportunity to learn and get feedback consistently…if you choose to let it.  A lot of people I see don’t.  They decide not even to try to learn Japanese, let alone speak it.  They always impose their English on everyone, and by doing this, they learn nothing.

To learn Japanese efficiently, you need to train your brain.

You don’t need to be in Japan to do this.  Do you know that inner voice that you hear dozens if not hundreds of times per day?  You know, that voice that says, “Wake up!

We’re gonna be late!” Or “What should I eat for lunch today?”

Replace these inner voice dialogues with any Japanese that you know.  Instead of thinking “apple,” train your brain by referring to it as “りんご (ringo).” Instead of saying “I’m hungry…” say “お腹がすいた…(onaka ga suita).”

This can take a while to get used to, but it really helps you out when you do.  It almost feels like your brain can absorb more Japanese.  Maybe because when you start to use Japanese, your mind realizes it’s useful and remembers it better.  In any case, try it out.  You might be amazed at how well it can work.

 

14.  Become Your Own Master (With Curiosity)

The way to always improve your Japanese is to always be curious.  You should always want to know more.  Now, this doesn’t mean that you HAVE TO study everything new that you come across.  It just means that you should want to keep learning.

For example, when you are watching TV and hear someone say a word you don’t know, you’ll immediately search for it on your Japanese dictionary app. (Renzo dictionary app.  It’s amazing and it’s free!)

Or maybe you’re at a restaurant in Japan and see a new kanji. You write it down in your notes so you can search for it later.

This attitude of always wanting to learn more is how you can become fluent in Japanese.  So always be curious to learn more!

 

15.  Don’t Try To Be Perfect

We have been programmed not to make mistakes, and if we do make a mistake, we feel as if we failed.  This is absolute BS.  No matter what subject we try to learn, we WILL make mistakes.  But for some reason, making a mistake when you are learning Japanese feels a lot more embarrassing than math or science.

This is a shame because when you learn another language, making mistakes is NECESSARY for your success.

If you want to master Japanese, remember this:  mistakes = success.  The more mistakes you make, the better your Japanese will get.

Don’t be afraid to make mistakes.  When you make a mistake, quickly analyze it, and fix it the best that you can. And then try again.

If you keep doing this, your Japanese will improve much, much, much faster than someone who doesn’t try because they fear making mistakes.

Yes, it can be embarrassing.  However, most Japanese people will understand that you are not a native speaker, and are often impressed that you are trying to learn their language.  So go for it!  Heck, making mistakes can even be fun!

I hope this list of the best way to learn Japanese helps you out!  If you have any questions or comments, feel free to leave us a comment.  Good luck on your journey of learning Japanese!

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