People have countless ways to learn Japanese words available to them these days. There are online courses, smartphone apps, classes at the local university, online tutors, and many other options to choose from.
One fantastic method that you can do on your own is to learn new vocabulary through reading and listening to stories.
I’ve tried learning Japanese a lot of different ways myself and this is by far my favorite method to use. Here are the reasons why I think so, and why I recommend you give it a try.
There Is No Performance Anxiety
The activities for learning a language are often divided into two separate categories: input and output.
Input is when you read and listen to the language. The information gets “put in” to your eyes, ears, and mind.
Output is when you speak and write. It is the stuff that you “put out” to the world when you are communicating with others.
One of the best parts about learning the language through stories is that it is entirely input based which brings a couple of advantages to you as the learner.
One of the biggest ones is that it is a totally relaxed and stress-free way to learn. Since you are not trying to construct sentences yourself, there is no pressure to perform.
There are no tests to pass or homework to turn in and get corrected.
In other words, you don’t have to worry about messing up or looking silly in front of others!
Instead, when you learn through stories you get to have a fun experience by reading or listening to an interesting plot with likable characters whom you can cheer for and follow along with on their adventures.
You embark upon a process of discovery, both with the story itself and also with Japanese language as your tool for understanding what’s going on.
Since you have all the time in the world with this method, you can spend as much time (or as little) as that you need for looking up words or grammar rules that are new.
You get to decide how your time is spent and what activities you engage in. You get to pick the materials that you learn from. That keeps it interesting since you can select the things that naturally interest you.
Since you’re the one in charge, you get to make all the decisions on how you learn Japanese and at no part do you ever need to prove what you’ve learned by taking a test or role-playing a scenario with others.
Use A Natural Spaced Repetition System
One of the tried and true methods for learning Japanese is through the use of flashcards. In recent years, a specific type of flashcard system known as Spaced Repetition System (SRS) has become popular.
The basic explanation is that SRS is set up to show you the flashcards and information that you need to review the most based on your previous difficulties with the information and how long ago your last review was.
The advantage of this method is that you can have a deck of thousands of cards, and yet you only need spend a small amount of time each day on the one that you have the most trouble remembering.
What’s interesting about using stories as your primary learning method is that there is actually a natural spaced repetition system in place.
However, it’s a little different from how most SRS flashcards work.
Rather than focusing on showing you which words you have the hardest time remembering, the “story SRS” shows you the most common and important words most often by natives of the language itself.
That’s because, by their very nature, high frequency words are the most common ones that you encounter. They are the words used most often by Japanese people when they communicate.
When you read a Japanese story you will encounter words like 行く (iku) for “to go” and する (suru) for “to do” a lot because these words are both very common and important.
Other words may only appear once, which is a signal to you that they are less important to learn and remember than the ones you see more often.
Something else we can use to are advantage is the knowledge that certain words are more common in specific situations.
For example, if you were interested in learning lots of medical vocabulary because you work in the medical industry and are planning on moving to Japan, then you could read stories about a doctor or a surgeon.
That will bring up words like 鉗子 (kanshi) for “forceps” which are important to know for that particular field, but not so important in others such as business or programming.
You can apply this specialized vocabulary building strategy depending on your needs and level with Japanese by carefully selecting the right material.
Learning new words this way also helps a lot with picking up the meanings and readings of kanji which we will go over next.
Learn Kanji in Context
As I’m sure you are familiar with already, the Japanese written language has three parts.
The first two are hiragana and katakana and are fairly simple to pick up for most people.
It’s the third system kanji (literally “Chinese characters”) that causes the most trouble and frustration.
In addition to the 2,136 Jōyō Kanji which are mandatory for Japanese people to learn in school, there are many hundreds more that appear in novels, websites, and everywhere else that the language is written.
Add on top of that the fact that each kanji can have more than one meaning and reading (pronunciation) and you can see why a lot of people hate learning them.
Learning kanji through stories is actually a great and natural way to help solve these problems.
One of the reasons is because you get to see how each kanji is used within the context of the story which helps you to associate the correct meaning with it and learn when a separate meaning should be used in other situations.
Another reason is because each time you encounter the same kanji you get the opportunity to practice recalling how it is read.
At first, it is helpful if there is furigana associated with the new kanji.
These are small hiragana characters that appear above the kanji when reading left to right like we do in the West, or they appear to the right side of the kanji when reading top to bottom as in traditional Japanese (see picture above).
Re-encountering the same kanji throughout a story, and naturally recalling its correct reading is a great way of reinforcing the information until you’ve got it locked in.
Even when you try to remember but you can’t, by then looking up the way it is supposed to be read and saying it to yourself a few times the information becomes stored stronger in your memory.
Pick Up Natural Japanese
Japanese and English are worlds apart when it comes to their sentence structure and vocabulary usage.
The ways that Japanese people construct and then phrase certain ideas are so totally from English that many times it feels like they are the complete opposite of one another.
This can make it difficult to form your own sentences in Japanese that sound natural and correct when you use a bottom-up approach where you study grammar rules and vocabulary in isolation and then try to put them together and construct a sentence.
I think that spending some time learning and understanding how Japanese grammar works is a very important part of the process, but learning Japanese through stories can actually help quite a bit in this area.
Stories present words used in context correctly along with the right grammar patterns for the situation.
What this means is that when you read or listen to a lot of stories in Japanese and focus on understanding the meaning behind the words, you naturally begin to associate the correct patterns with those ideas.
Then when you go to express those same ideas yourself, you will fall back onto the ways that you’ve always heard or seen them used which increases the likelihood that what you say will be natural and correct.
Something else that is great about learning the language through stories is that you get exposure to both conversational and narrative dialog.
When the characters talk to one another, you learn the words and phrases that people use in everyday communication.
These are the things that you can start using yourself when you talk with people.
When you read the descriptions about what is happening and where, you learn how to construct longer and more complex sentences which can come in handy when you start to write or type in Japanese.
Understand The Culture Of Japan
Each culture has its own history, folklore, and common traditions.
People who grew up in a particular culture can make a reference that other people in their group will immediately understand, but might leave the language learner a bit confused.
I remember that I once heard a girl say that she felt like Urashima Taro when she came back to school.
At the time, I had no idea what she meant by that, but most Japanese people would immediately understand what she is saying because of the famous Japanese fairy tale.
It’s about a fisherman who came back to his village hundreds of years later after a magical journey beneath the sea and all the people he once knew were gone.
He felt like a total stranger in his own home town!
Many cultural values, traditions, and collective ideas are written in stories like this so that they can be preserved and passed down to following generations.
When you learn Japanese through stories, you understand what these collective ideas are in Japan’s society and this allows you to gain a deeper insight into their hearts and minds of the people and understand them better.
It’s An Enjoyable Process
People have different preferences in life, but one thing that most of us share is that we don’t like to be bored.
I remember when I started using SRS flashcards I was super excited about how efficient I was going to be learning and reviewing Japanese.
The problem was that after using it for many months, I began to dread using the application because I found it to be so boring.
It became too mechanical… Totally devoid of life and excitement!
This problem can be completely eliminated through stories when you pick the right ones.
The basic idea is to ask yourself, “would I read this book or story in my native language?” If the answer is yes, then you can read it in Japanese and not only learn the language better, but have a lot of fun at the same time.
This helps you to spend more time with the language since it feels more like play than work. This helps you to make Japanese a part of your daily life.
It also allows you to learn the language incidentally since your focus in more on the story behind the words, and less on the words themselves.
Try Using Stories Yourself
There are many ways to learn Japanese, but perhaps the best way to do it is through enjoying great stories.
People have been passing on information and learning new things through stories since they were invented, and its also a great way to pick up a new language as well.
I encourage you to give it a try and see how it works for your studies.
Further Resources for Learning Japanese: