Japanese is a historically difficult language to learn. Early European priests who came to Japan to convert the Japanese to Christianity, called Japanese “the Devil’s tongue”. After spending nearly 10 years living here, and studying the language, I can understand their sentiment. Today I would like to share 5 methods you can use to learn Japanese more quickly.
As you begin studying Japanese you will probably get neck deep in confusing grammar. You will suffer to try to remember the differences between different types of verbs, the different conjugations (base te, base ta…), and it goes on and on. If you are focused on just communicating basically (which should be your main goal if you are a beginner), just focus on basic vocabulary and the articles.
You can communicate surprisingly fluently just lining up vocabulary and the correct articles. It won’t be pretty, but it’s effective. For example, you want to say, “I can’t go with you to the store.” You may not know the correct grammar to say that, so just line up the grammar and the articles, “watashi wa anata to store ni iku dekiru nai.” Is it grammatically correct? Of course not, but is it understandable? Yes. When you are living in Japan, it is more important to be understood than correct.
Listening is by far the most important skill in language learning. Recent linguistic studies state that listening skills may be the key to grammar, pronunciation, and speaking. That is to say, if you can’t understand it, you won’t be able to see it. So, practicing listening is of the utmost importance. Listen to Japanese as much as you can. Of course, watching movies and listening to music is good, but studies show that this is less effective than one would hope.
Your listening CD’s from textbooks are very useful. It is important to listen to things that are about at your level. If it is too difficult eventually your brain will get tired and you won’t be able to focus. On the other hand, if it is too easy you won’t learn anything from it. Try to find listening items that are just slightly above your level.
As I made clear in the above section, listening is very important. A great way to improve your listening, speaking and pronunciation all at the same time is a technique is called shadowing. Shadowing is when you listen to a piece, you speak aloud, just behind the pace of the recorded speech.
For example, the first line below is the recording, the second line is what you say:
Watashi wa takoyaki o tabetai desu
Watashi…wa….takoyaki…o tabetai desu
There are 3 steps to shadowing. First, listen to the recording. As you listen, make an image of the words in your mind (I like to think of it like karaoke). Listen as many times as you need until you think you have the image of most of the words. Secondly, shadow the recording. One again, like karaoke, “read” the image of the words in your mind. In doing this, you will be able to check if the words you imagined match with what is being said. Furthermore, as you try to keep up with the recording, your pronunciation will also improve. Finally, once you are able to shadow mostly, open the book to the text of the recording, and read as you shadow. This will be the final check of your listening.
Now, I mentioned before that listening to music is not the most effective way to improve listening. But, music can be a great tool in language study. All of the people I have met who have great pronunciation in a second language that they are studying are singers. There are a lot of linguistic studies that show there is an intrinsic link between music and speech, some even believe that language evolved from singing, rather than the other way around. So singing along to your favorite songs, is not only fun, but it will also markedly improve your pronunciation.
Finally, I think that one of the most important ways to maintain your language skills, improve your grammar, and learn more vocabulary is to read for fun. There is an incredible amount of evidence that shows the benefits that reading often, for your own enjoyment, has incredible results on your language skills. But, like what I said about listening before, if it is too difficult, you are just wasting your time.
Many years ago I bought the Japanese translation of Harry Potter. I love Harry Potter. I have read books close to 5 or 6 times each. So, I figured that reading it in Japanese would not be so tough. I read one chapter and threw the book away. It took me one week to read. I had to look up vocabulary, and kanji every few moments. By the time I figured out what the meaning was, I forgot what I was reading. In that one week, I learned absolutely nothing. After throwing the book away, I went to my wife’s manga collection and saw she had the entire series of Rurouni Kenshin. I was a big fan of the anime, so I figured I’d give the manga a try. I read the entire series in about a week.
I recommend reading manga in Japanese. There are few kanji, they are not super difficult, and because there are pictures you can generally follow the story even if you do not understand 100 per cent.
Bonus: Don’t Worry About Kanji So Much
One last piece of advice – don’t spend so much time on kanji. One again, this depends on your purpose for studying. If you just want to communicate with people and build relationships, you don’t really need much kanji. You will pick up most of what you need just in daily life!