I have always been a firm believer of the importance of combining study and using Japanese.
Actually, that’s a lie. I used to be very lazy when it came to using Japanese but enjoyed studying immensely.
It’s only in recent the last 5 years that I’ve been using Japanese more and more. Acquiring it through natural means while also studying.
Using Japanese when you’re not used to it can be surprisingly difficult. However, using Japanese can be a far more effective way to remember Japanese long-term.
It was a few months ago that someone directed me to the work of Stephen Krashen, a linguist who specializes in the study and practice of second language acquisition. His theories are fascinating and can be applied to Japanese language acquisition.
Studying (Learning) vs Using (Acquiring) Japanese
When we learn Japanese we turn to textbooks, teachers, apps to learn vocabulary, grammar, kanji, etc.
We consciously learn through formal instruction about a language i.e grammar rules. Our current education programs for language learning seems to be drill information then test it. This isn’t a very effective form of long-term language acquisition. The majority of polyglots (people who know more than 2 languages) learn through speaking more than studying. Just watch these video presentations by polyglots.
According to Krashen ‘learning’ is less important than ‘acquisition’. However, that doesn’t mean you should stop learning altogether! Studying is a great way to help you understand why something is the way it is and help enforce what you’re learning through acquisition.
Acquisition is the result of a subconscious process of learning. This is similar to how children learn their first language. They see objects and how the people around them interact and talk about these objects. When their mom points at themselves and says “mama” the child learns “mama = this person”.
Acquisition doesn’t mean watching NHK News or anime for an hour and hoping you’ll become fluent without any knowledge or understanding. Acquisition requires meaningful interactions in Japanese – natural communication, where the speakers are able to exchange meaning even if it’s not 100% correct Japanese. It’s importance is to understand and convey messages, and to learn from those natural interactions. Not to submissively sit there listening without understand the message that’s being conveyed.
(This is similar to Donovan Nagel’s approach. He argues that you don’t need to study grammar to learn a language.)
How to Acquire Japanese Language Naturally – Comprehensible Input
“We acquire languages when we understand messages.”
This is an old video, but portrays Stephen Krashen’s ideas behind second language acquisition nicely. (It’s also short!)
He shows how you can pick up words, sentence structures, naturally through meaningful communication.
It’s something that many beginner (even intermediate/advanced) Japanese learners struggle with. Speaking with a Japanese person can be intimidating, but it’s key if you want your Japanese to improve quickly and naturally. That’s why it’s such a large part of of the Speak Japanese Fluently in 1 Year Challenge.
Another way to acquire Japanese naturally is through Japanese media. This means anime, manga, novels, news, articles, video games, etc.
I mentioned before that just putting on any show and watching/listening won’t help.
Let’s say you’re a beginner and want to watch anime. You put on Fullmetal Alchemist, a show about alchemy, science, war and philosophy. As a beginner you won’t learn the periodic table or military term. You’re unlikely to even learn them at advanced levels. So watching a show with complicated messages won’t be helpful to your Japanese.
That’s why it’s important to watch shows that suit what you’re learning, with messages you can easily understand*. Slice of life and romance narratives are the best because they tell messages about daily life and natural interactions. They convey ideas/messages that you can easily understand. (*Here are some good anime you can watch.)
Similar to media books can be great tools at using your Japanese and acquiring it naturally!
Such as イッキによめる！ Ikki Ni Yomeru (Stories You Can Read Smoothly). This is a 6-volume series of stories designed to be read smoothly in 10 minutes. These books are unique in that each contains a collection of both old and modern tales. Each book contains nine stories aimed at Japanese elementary 1st graders with short quiz questions to check your reading. The stories contain furigana for difficult kanji and explanations for some words in Japanese.
If you have time I strongly recommend you watch this interview. Where he talks about using novels as tools to learn a new language. (A longer interview with Stephen Krashen but really fascinating!)
Always Push Yourself Just a Little
Krashen also says how important the “input” is, that the second language you’re consuming should be a level above what you already know. In other words, you need to push yourself.
As I mentioned, nothing too hard so that you don’t understand anything. But difficult enough that you understand the meaning and learn something new!
Japanese is a Language – a Means of Communication
Learning, actively studying Japanese, is important. It helps you understand why certain things are the way they are. It helps concrete the meaning of individual words and kanji that you see/hear when you use your Japanese.
But acquisition is essential for making your Japanese appear more native/natural, and for learning fluency long-term.
Japanese is a language, and languages are means of communication. Not just between people but between media and consumer. Your ultimate goal shouldn’t be to pass JLPT N1. (Although having that as a goal is good if that’s what you want! It’s one of my goals still.) Your goal, even as a beginner, should be to convey and understand meaningful messages in Japanese.
You can do this through speaking with Japanese people. But also consuming media (anime, manga, novels, the news) and focusing on what they’re trying to say and how they’re saying it.
And I think most important of all. Have fun! Enjoy learning something new.