Whether you started on a whim, or it was your life dream, learning Japanese, as enthralling and challenging as it might seem, is never a light task to achieve. The three writing systems, the huge amount of characters you have to memorize, the different levels of speech politeness, the douon igigo 同音異義語 or homophones, make you sometimes believe that you will never be able to reach a decent level of Japanese.
Here I am telling you this is not true.
Of course, there are many differences between Japanese learners. People from the kanjiken 漢字圏 (such as Chinese, Taiwanese, even Korean) will not find it difficult to remember Japanese characters, whereas for a European or American this might probably the most challenging part. On the other hand, some learners are better at pronunciation, something that Chinese learners, for instance, have some trouble with.
All in all, my point is, we are all equal in finding that learning Japanese is difficult.
If you don’t trust me, there are countless studies that place Japanese as the number 1, or at least in the top 5 hardest languages on earth.
So, what can you do to learn and become good at one of the most difficult languages in the world?
Note: this article is useful for those who already started learning the language. For those who struggle with even just the thought of taking it up, stay tuned.
So, you started learning Japanese, and you already know Hiragana and Katakana, and somewhere around 500 kanji. Then you are completely able to start reading in Japanese. Start with some light reading. Gather as many textbooks of your level, and one level higher, if possible, and read all the texts they feature. My advice is to actually try your luck with more difficult texts.
Let’s say you are N5 level, you can try to read N4 level texts. At first, it will result in a terrible headache. Of course, you will not probably understand all from the beginning. So what to do? Here is some advice: Try to grasp the main meaning of the text. Don’t bother at first about characters you don’t understand or you can’t read. If you got that, skip to the next step.
Did you encounter unknown characters? Look them up, write them down, then write down the most commonly used compounds. This works better if you write the certain kanji for at least 2-3 rows. New words? Look them up and write them down, but make sure you also try to use them in a certain context. After all, words out of the dictionary are not useful for anything.If you finished all that, go through the text again. If you understand it better it’s great. Repeat until you understand the text 100%.
If you get this pattern, you can apply it at any moment of your Japanese language learning. After 10 years, I still do it with really difficult texts. And it works just fine.
Also, you don’t have to be afraid to try literature. I know how it sounds, but 6 months after I started learning Japanese one of my teachers handed me a book by Haruki Murakami and asked me to read within 2 weeks. Needless to say, I barely slept, but something like this helps you gain confidence. And confidence is what you need when you start learning a language like this.
At a beginner-intermediate level you can start with fairy tales (believe me, Japanese folklore is extremely entertaining), then switch to more popular authors like Yoshimoto Banana (she uses very little kanji), Haruki and Ryu Murakami or Kenzaburo Oe.
Manga can also be a great medium of studying Japanese, since it uses conversational words and more informal language.
Of course, if you live in Japan and try to learn Japanese at the source, that should be easy. If you are living abroad, you need to find opportunities to listen to Japanese at least 2-3 hours a day. We live in the internet era, so technically that should not be a problem. You can literally start watching anything, from anime to Japanese dramas, from owarai to Japanese news.
It goes without saying, the recorded material is the best for study. With an anime episode, you can replay it as many times as you want until you get to understand all/ most of the words. Also, they usually have subtitles which makes your work of deciphering the meaning a lot easier.
It also makes it a lot less useful, because, after all, you can just rely on the subtitles and not use your mind at all, to grasp the meaning. Even so, and especially if you are a beginner, and subtitles are compulsory, it’s worth it, because the human mind absorbs the words, remembers the tonalities, the pronunciation, and accents. Bottom line, you will realize in a few months that you actually know a word because you heard it over and over again in a certain anime/ movie.
Scientists also say that the best way to acquire a foreign language is to listen to it while sleeping. You won’t probably remember any words, but your brain will internalize the language and will make it easier for you to speak it and understand it.
In my opinion, watching Japanese TV is probably the best way to become really proficient at Japanese. For those who live abroad, there are a few sites that provide free streaming of Japanese TV channels. Some of them is Keyhole TV and if you have a steady internet connection, you can literally watch it the whole day.
Now this is a hard task for the Japanese learners who live abroad. With reading and listening, your vocabulary gets bigger and that is a certain thing. However, that is only the passive vocabulary. The active one is enhanced only by actually speaking the language.
You can do so by bonding and creating relations with Japanese natives or other Japanese speakers, living in your country, or abroad. How?
Take part in as many events related to Japanese culture, as possible. They are the best place to meet Japanese people, and create relations and friendships.
Find as many opportunities as possible to speak to your Japanese teacher/ tutor/ colleagues outside the class. Go out for some dinner, for a movie or even for a walk, invite them to your gatherings and outings. Okay, a teacher might not accept all this, but at least you can try.
As I said, we have internet, and there are dozens of chat rooms for Japanese learners, not to speak of the communities on Facebook.
One other good way can be to teach your native language to a Japanese. He/ she will in turn teach you some useful words and expressions you will not get from books.
Now, not because someone is going to peep into your dairy, but writing in Japanese can do miracles to your skills. Let’s say, it’s a voiceless way of using your active vocabulary.
The purpose is to write freely, whatever comes to your mind, things that impressed you, bothered you, upset you or made you happy during the day. It’s important to do so every day, even if you don’t have anything relevant to write. After all, you can make up things, write anything from imagination.
Writing every day is a great exercise of the new kanji and grammatical expression you learned during the day/ week/ month. It’s also an awesome way of using each word in the appropriate context. And let’s face it, one page a day will boost your confidence and make you even more eager to learn more characters and more expressions.
This is a bonus. Some people might dislike the idea of singing, or of singing in front of other people. If you’re in Japan it’s incredibly easy to do. Also, you can go by yourself, shut yourself in the karaoke booth and practice.
You most likely have some favorite Japanese songs. Some you heard in the anime, some in movies, some just browsing Youtube. But did you ever try to look up their lyrics?
Going to karaoke has amazing effects for Japanese learners, because it mixes all the three key factors in learning a language: reading, listening and speaking. You read the lyrics, you utter them, and you also listen to yourself (and compare yourself to the original).
I had friends who struggled with katakana, kanji and also with their pronunciation. 3 months of going to karaoke once or twice a week and they were the quickest at reading katakana, they knew all the kanji in their songs and their pronunciation was more Japanese-like than ever.
If you live abroad, well, in most European countries and the US there are karaoke bars, but very few have Japanese songs. So, the best solution would be to buy a Japanese Karaoke machine, install it at home and well…pray your neighbors won’t be too angry…
Also, there are tons of songs on Youtube, which feature karaoke versions, and if you don’t want to waste any money, this is the best solution for you. If it’s karaoke, wherever it is, it’s good enough.
This is my top 5 tips for improving your Japanese. Let me know which ones are you have tried!