I recently posted The Ultimate Beginners Guide to Learning Japanese. This included a list of everything you need to learn as a beginner, how to learn it, and resources you can use. I mention multiple times that it’s important to pick resources and study methods that work for you. Knowing how you learn is vital when learning a new language.
When I asked friends (who are various levels of beginner Japanese) to look over the article, a few people asked for more information on how I learn Japanese. Adding my Japanese study techniques would have made the article way too long, so, it had to be its own article.
So how do I learn Japanese?
How I Started
Before I go into what I do now, I need to give some background on how I got here.
I’ve been studying Japanese for over 17 years and how I study has changed a lot over the years.
When I first started, I studied Japanese one hour a week with a Japanese teacher using the にほんご45じかん (Nihongo 45 Jikan) books. But I didn’t know how to study a language. I thought I just had to attend class and do the homework and I that would be enough to learn the language. This meant I didn’t study much outside of my classes and my progress was very slow.
It took me about two years to learn the equivalent of JLPT N5 vocabulary and grammar, and to become comfortable with reading and writing hiragana and katakana. I didn’t start learning kanji until a year and a half after I started studying.
The only way I knew how to learn something new was through teachers, so I spent a lot of time and money on private classes, as well as language schools in Japan. (I went to Fukuoka and studied at Genki JACs combined with WWOOF for four months, two years after I started studying Japanese. I then went to Kansai Gaidai University in Osaka for a year abroad during university, two years after Genki Jacs.)
It wasn’t until my fourth year of university (seven years after I started learning Japanese after returning from Kansai Gaidai ) that I started to teach myself Japanese and learned how to learn. This coincided with my study for the JLPT N3.
Starting To Teach Myself
When I started to teach myself Japanese, I still mostly used resources offering structured learning. Specifically, the Nihongo Sou-matome books because the material was split into days.
I really struggled with un-structured learning so the Nihongo Sou-matome series was perfect for me back then, the schedule was built right into the books!
I studied the Sou-matome books the same way I studied at school, through rote memorization. This meant a lot of writing the same words out over and over and over and over. Drilling information and hoping it would stick. Which, I didn’t find out until later, is not a very effective technique for learning Japanese long-term.
Struggling With Advanced Japanese
I passed the JLPT N3 exam well enough but really struggled with learning advanced Japanese for the JLPT N2 and N1 exams.
My study method for the N2 was studying at a language school in Japan for 6 months combined with rote memorization and hand-made flashcards.
I was still too scared to try reading novels and bounced right off of Anki. Admittedly, I was not good at trying new things and quickly dropped things I thought were too difficult. Again, not a good way to learn new things.
I was able to pass the N2 exam but only just. Even still, I tried to take the N1 exam the following year, using the same methods I had used up to that point. Nihongo Sou-matome, rote memorization, and trying to throw as much Japanese at my brain as I could in the hope that something would stick.
Suffice to say, it did not go well. (I ended up burning out and didn’t touch Japanese for the next seven months…)
How I Approach Language Learning Now
It was a long road but I’m finally at the point where I can say I’m fluent in Japanese, and it really is thanks to the last five-or-so years of working out what works best for me. Shame it took me so long! Oh well.
I now learn Japanese mostly using the following methods:
Repetition with SRS: Anki
Creating my own SRS (Spaced Repetition System) flashcards and focusing on only a few courses at a time (instead of spreading myself too thin) has helped a lot. My recent change to Anki has really helped.
Anki is a little difficult to get into, but it’s incredibly versatile. When you get used to it it’s easy to create new cards and decks that work for your study methods. There are lots of guides out there that show you how to set up Anki, how to create your own decks, and how to find ones other people have made.
Careful Study: “Why did I get it wrong?” and Mnemonics
This technique has been a life changer for me. Whenever I get something wrong, I take a few seconds to ask myself “Why did I get it wrong?” and then try to cement the correct answer in my head.
I used to get frustrated when I got an answer wrong, but taking to the time to understanding why I got an answer wrong, and using mnemonics to help me remember tricky words or kanji has boosted my vocabulary exponentially.
I go over this method more in Quality Japanese Self Study Techniques
I was so scared to read novels because I thought I wasn’t “ready”. Every time I tried to read a novel I found it too difficult and dropped it. But it turns out reading was really what I needed to help my long-term Japanese comprehension.
And I shouldn’t have waited until I was at N2 level, I could have started reading at any level. (I have tips for finding good reading materials for you on Tips for Effective Japanese Immersion Learning.)
Variety in Learning
Learning a language is like eating healthy, you need to have a balanced diet.
My Japanese diet consists of reading books, writing articles for work, studying kanji with Kanji Study, learning/reviewing vocabulary and kanji with Anki, speaking with friends and, sometimes, working with a teacher.
Taking my Time
Instead of grinding myself into the ground with intensive study I now take my time and learn at my own pace. This has a better impact on my overall mental and physical health. (Especially now I have a full-time job which is exhausting.)
It took me a long time to get good at Japanese because my study methods were so ineffective. One reason I share study techniques through Japanese Talk is to try to help people avoid making the same mistakes I made.
I’m now studying Korean and practicing what I preach and find myself picking up the language a lot faster than I did with Japanese.
If you’re new to Japanese I highly recommend these articles covering more detailed tips and tricks for learning the language:
General Study Techniques