In this article I am going to give you everything I’ve learned from my firsthand experience of studying and using Japanese, as well as the best advice I’ve received from dozens of prominent language learners. By the end of it you will know how to learn Japanese the easy way.
Fair warning, this is an extremely detailed walk-through!
I designed it so that it would be valuable no matter where you are coming from. It starts with instructions for people who have never learned a foreign language before and continues all the way up to the advanced level for Japanese specifically.
I didn’t want to leave anything out.
If you can’t read it all in one go, no worries. I highly encourage you to bookmark this page in case you need to come back to it at a later time.
Take advantage of the table of contents below in order to go straight to the sections you need to.
How is it Easy?
Perhaps you’re wondering “How can it be easy? Isn’t Japanese one of the hardest languages to learn?”
According to the Foreign Service Institute (FSI), Japanese is a Category IV Language, also known as a “Super-hard language” which is exceptionally difficult for native English speakers to learn.
The reason why it is so hard is because English and Japanese have very little in common with one another.
The words don’t match. The writing systems are completely different. And the grammar rules are nearly the opposite of one another.
When you compare learning Japanese to another language, such as Italian (Category I), you can confidently say that learning Japanese is harder for English natives than others.
But that does not mean it has to be hard.
Learning the Japanese language can actually be a fairly easy process if you know how to go about it.
There are a few factors that, when taken into consideration, greatly reduces the difficulty.
The number one way to make learning Japanese easy is to use effective methods.
But, there’s a catch.
You must use the right method at the right time!
Let me give an example of this with a common method: reading Japanese books.
Based off just the description, do you think this is an effective method?
The answer is “it depends” on the level of the language learner.
If someone who is a beginner at Japanese were to pick up a book and start reading through it, they would have a very difficult time due to the sheer number of new words and kanji that they would run into.
They would have to spend a lot of time looking up these new words, and the chances that they would get frustrated and quit and high up there.
I can tell you this from firsthand experience.
But what if a person was at the intermediate level and had already learned all of the written characters as well as several thousand of the most commonly used words?
For that person, reading a Japanese book would be a fantastic method for learning new words, reinforcing the grammar that they already knew, and getting exposure to new phrases and expressions.
In other words, the effectiveness of a method depends to a large extent on the ability of the learner.
That being said, there are still some things that are objectively better.
Let’s continue with out book reading example.
Which do you think is better: Using a physical book or a digital book to learn a language?
The overwhelming consensus is that using digital books is far superior for several reasons:
- Looking up new words is exponentially faster
- Copying words and sentences is far easier
- Having access to it (portability) is much greater
In today’s world the difficulty of learning Japanese is largely dependent on how you go about it.
You don’t have to scour the bookstores for material. The internet has an unlimited amount.
You don’t have to move to Japan to immerse yourself. You can bring Japan to wherever you are.
I’m going to go into more detail on how to effectively learn Japanese later in this post. What you’ll see is that there are different strategies for each aspect of the language during the different stages of learning.
The Right Materials
Using any book or course to learn Japanese is better than none, but sometimes it’s just barely better.
Due to the vast nature of the Japanese language, the chances that you will need to use multiple resources is pretty high.
That being said, some resources are easier to use and learn from than others and it really comes down to two factors:
- The content
- The organization of said content
Let me talk about this with my own experience. When I was learning kanji (Chinese characters used in written Japanese) I tried a lot of different books.
The one that finally worked for me was called Remembering the Kanji.
I used it to learn all the 2,136 “daily use kanji” and then I decided to use the third book in the series which teaches an additional 1,000 characters.
Comparing these two books, the first one is far better than the third.
Because the content of the first book is the kanji that are required for literacy.
Very important stuff.
The third book not only contained less kanji overall, but they were also far less important. I remember learning the kanji for a dozen difference species of trees in Japanese and wondering why the heck I was spending my time learning them!
After having read 2,000,000 words in Japanese, I can distinctly tell you that I only ever saw three of those trees.
In other words, the third book was not a wise use of time. At least, not in my experience.
That being said, both books are top-notch at the second factor: organization.
You see, when Japanese children learn kanji in school they are taught words that are easy for them to grasp and understand.
- 日 for “day”
- 一 for “one”
- 人 for “person”
Buy you and I aren’t little kids. We can understand more abstract information so we don’t have to use the same curriculum.
We could first learn that 日 means “sun” and then learn that 月 means “moon” before moving on to 明 which is a combination of those two last kanji and means “bright” as in “the sun reflects brightly off the moon.”
What if we could use the information that we have previously learned to help learn new information faster?
That would be a lot easier than a seemingly random approach to new things.
That is what a truly magnificent book or course will do. It will systematically introduce you to new information that builds upon what you have already learned so that each new concept feels logical and is easy to absorb.
This last element in making the language learning process easy might sound a little weird at first, but it has to do with human psychology.
Now, I’m not a licensed psychologist, but I have always found the topic to be fascinating and I’ve spent quite a bit of time learning about it through books and videos.
After countless hours of study, and many years of personal application, I’ve come to the belief that the psychology of language learning is actually the most important factor!
A bold claim, I know.
I’ll go into some practical applications of it in the following section, but for now let me talk about why having fun is important if you want to learn Japanese the easy way.
Human beings are like water.
What do I mean by that? Well, water always takes the path of least resistance when it flows.
It always flows downhill. Why? Because it’s easier than flowing uphill.
If it encounters a rock, it flows around the rock since that is much easier than trying to go through it.
Likewise, people naturally do what is easy in life. It’s a lot easier to binge watch your favorite show on Netflix for 6 hours than it is to sit down and study Japanese for 6 hours.
But what if it wasn’t?
What if there was a way to make learning Japanese for 6 hours the easy choice as you contemplated what to do on your free night?
There are only two ways that I know of to do this sort of thing where choosing to study Japanese over a form of entertainment is natural.
- Have incredible self-discipline
- Make learning Japanese really fun
I will talk about making the entire process fun as we go through each stage, but the point I want to make here is that when you find ways to make learning Japanese fun, it actually becomes a lot easier overall.
The reason is because you get rid of “study time” by turning it into “play time.”
There is a famous quote that says “Do what you love, and you’ll never work another day in your life.”
This applies to learning the Japanese language as well.
If you do things that you love, while learning the language, then you will never have to “study” ever again.
The Psychology of Language Learning
If I gave you the single most effective method for learning Japanese, what is the only thing that could possible stop you from using it to achieve success?
The answer is “you.”
And if I gave you a mediocre method for learning Japanese and two years later when I talked with you, you were completely fluent, what was the main reason you succeeded?
Again, the answer is “you.”
Your beliefs, your tenacity, your determination will have a bigger impact on your overall success than any method possible could.
So what separates one person from another? Their psychology.
The way they think about themselves, their abilities, and the process of learning Japanese.
This is a deep rabbit hole that we could get lost in, so I’ll keep it short and focused.
There are several factors that have an inordinate effect on results and these are accomplished by:
- Having the right mindset
- Having appropriate goals
- Setting good expectations
Let’s take a look at each one now.
The Right Mindset
Your mindset is perhaps the single most important factor in the entire process.
Do you have a positive outlook on your language learning journey? Do you truly believe that you can become fluent in Japanese? Are you excited about learning new things and using it every day?
If your mental game is strong, then you will perform better and enjoy it a lot more as well.
Let me give you a simple tool to use in order to make sure your thinking is right.
Any time you have a thought about learning Japanese ask yourself this question:
“Does this thought support me or does it hinder me?”
If it’s a supportive thought, such as “I can and will learn how to read Japanese” then keep it!
If it’s an unsupportive one, such as “This is too hard, I’ll never figure it out” then get rid of it and tell yourself the reverse!
Here’s the thing to remember: It doesn’t actually matter if the thought is “true” or not. All that matters is if it helps you or hurts you.
If you establish this habit, your success is virtually guaranteed.
We all know that having goals in life is important, but very few people actually set them.
The biggest reason to have them in language learning is because they will keep you focused and enable you to grow your abilities faster.
If your goal is to read Japanese novels, then your activities are going to be centered around learning kanji and understanding the language in its literary form.
But if your goal is to talk to Japanese people, then your activities are going to focus on speaking the language and learning common words and phrases.
When you establish a goal (what you want to be able to do with the language) then you gain clarity on what types of activities you need to spend the majority of your time on.
To a certain degree, we all have to learn the same basics since they are the foundation that the entire language is built on.
But once you’ve pass the beginner level and get into intermediate section it’s time to run straight to the place you want to be and not worry about things that aren’t important to you.
This allows you to get there faster and prevents you from wasting time doing activities that won’t help.
The best part about all this is that you can have more than one goal simultaneously. You are also free to create new ones whenever you complete an older one.
Unnecessary frustrations come when we have bad or unrealistic expectations.
You can learn a lot of Japanese in 90 days and even have real, although limited, conversations with Japanese people.
You’re not going to reach a native level where you understand everything and can perfectly express yourself in such as short amount of time.
Trust me, I wish this wasn’t the case.
If you know this fact going into it, then you won’t feel upset when you turn on a show and still don’t understand everything despite months of study and practice.
That being said, it doesn’t have to take 10 years to learn the language either!
So let’s talk about the two biggest questions that people have about learning Japanese so that we can set healthy expectations that support us in our success.
You wouldn’t think this to be the case, but the singular word “fluency” is actually one of the most controversial in the entire language learning community.
The main reason is because everyone has their own definition, so when a person claims that they are “fluent” and it doesn’t fit someone else’s criteria, drama ensues.
I’m going to provide a useful definition of it here for the sake of proper expectations.
Maybe it’s wrong, or maybe it’s right. That doesn’t really matter because it is functional.
You can work with it.
Let’s start with the dictionary definition first.
“Fluency: the ability to speak or write a foreign language easily and accurately.”
Even though writing is included in this definition, most people consider fluency to be a verbal skill and I tend to agree with that as well. A real life example is a 6-year old child in their native tongue.
“The 6-year-old child typically has a 2,600 word expressive vocabulary (words he or she says), and a receptive vocabulary (words he or she understands) of 20,000–24,000 words” (Susie Loraine, M.A., CCC-SLP).
You can actually have full conversations with a 6-year old kid. Even though they are only able to use 2,600 words themselves.
If an adult asked a kid what they thought of calculus and the kid didn’t understand what that word meant, people would know that it’s a lack of vocabulary, not a lack of fluency on the kid’s part.
That’s the key point: fluency is the ability to easily and accurately express yourself by saying the things you want to.
Being able to understand 98% of what you hear and read, or correctly using grammar and pronunciation 98% of the time is actually called “native-level” or “native-like” skill in the language.
With this understanding, you can see how a person can be fluent in Japanese, but still need a lot of work to reach that higher native-level.
I don’t like using years as a measurement of time for language learning because it can be rather misleading. Here’s an example from my own life:
- 1st year = 300 hours
- 2nd year = 1,000 hours
As you can see, even though I studied Japanese for two years when I started, the time I put into the second year was over 3x as much as the first and my abilities reflected this when compared to the first year.
People who used immersion (8-16 hours per day) learned even more than I did during that same year.
So how many hours does it take to learn Japanese?
Unfortunately, there’s isn’t an exact answer. The answer depends on your goals and your starting point.
Like I mentioned before, you can hit fluency much faster than native-like skill. You can also get that F-Card quicker if it’s your only goal and you spend all of your time on it (to the exclusion of things like writing, reading novels, etc.).
Assuming that you are a monolingual English native, you’re going to spend more time than people who:
- Know multiple languages
- Know Hanzi (Chinese characters)
- Know Korean (similar grammar to Japanese)
Let’s take a look at two measurements.
The FSI say that it takes 2,200 classroom hours to learn Japanese. The thing to keep in mind is that students are expected to spend two hours studying on their own for each hour spent in class.
That means the FSI puts learning Japanese at a total of 6,600 hours.
Now let’s take a look at the highest level (N1) of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT).
According to Coto Language Academy it takes 3,900 hours to pass the test which is the official exam that Japan uses to measure non-native Japanese language ability.
If we just take the middle ground and say that it takes 5,000 hours to learn Japanese, then we can look at a couple of yearly time frames based on daily study time.
- 1 hour a day = 13.7 years
- 3 hours a day = 4.5 years
- 8 hours a day = 1.7 years
- 14 hours a day = 1 year
Those are some pretty sobering numbers.
Here’s the thing to keep in mind: that’s for learning all Japanese skills (reading, writing, listening, speaking, and culture).
If your goal is more specific (e.g. speak to natives) then it will take a lot less time.
You can also speed things up by using effective methods.
Let learn those methods now.
The Starting Line
Let me start off with a disclaimer: You can learn Japanese many different ways.
What I’m going to outline in the following sections is a general road map where each parts builds upon the previous ones so that it always feels like one easy step to the next level.
How long you spend at each part depends on the hours you put in, but generally speaking the more daily time you devote to learning Japanese the faster you will move through them.
At the the starting line, you know zero Japanese.
The objectives at this stage are to become familiar with the Japanese language in three primary ways.
Learning the sounds of Japanese right at the beginning helps a lot throughout the rest of the journey. When you know what the correct sounds are, it’s much easier to hear and learn new words.
On the flip side, being able to create those same (correct) sounds makes it easier for the person you’re speaking with to understand what you’re saying.
The Japanese and English languages share a lot of sounds with each other, but Japanese had notably less overall.
What that means for the student is that learning to not use certain sounds found in English is just as important as learning to use the ones that only appear in Japanese.
The first step to change is awareness.
If you know that a certain sound exists, or that it should exist, then it becomes much easier for you to hear and reproduce it.
As it turns out, when we are babies we can hear all sounds but as we gain exposure to our native language our brains begin to blot some of them out since they are unnecessary (Dobel, Lagemann, and Zwitserlood).
So it’s important to devote time to learning the sound system Japanese used.
However, Kant said it best: ”theory without practice is empty,” so we must also interact with the sounds in addition to learning about them.
The key is to listen to as much Japanese as you can and then practice mimicking what your hear.
Find pockets of time throughout your day where you can just listen to Japanese people speaking. It could be during exercise, in the car on the way to work, in the shower, or whenver you have some downtime.
How do you know if you’re making the right sounds when you say them yourself?
Unfortunately the best way to know is also the most embarrassing: record yourself speaking and then compare it to the native’s speech.
It takes a while before you are able to fully hear and make the right sounds, so don’t worry if it takes a while. As long as you improve a little each day, you will make it past the finish line.
As it so happens, I’ve created a free course right here on my blog that covers all the sounds in Japanese at an individual, word, and sentence level. Link below:
The best part about starting with the sounds is that you can continue to improve on it at each subsequent stage.
The Kana Systems
The Japanese written system is typically divided into four parts:
The first two are collectively referred to as the “kana” and are both phonetic scripts. They function similarly to our alphabet, but there are notable differences.
The third one (kanji) is the group of Chinese characters that were imported into the language when they began developing a writing system.
The fourth one is simply the roman letters used to transcribe Japanese. It’s really only used by people learning Japanese (i.e. non-natives).
Learning the kana can be compared to learning the alphabet in English.
Hiragana are the most commonly used and I like to think of them as lower-case letters.
Katakana are less common and are used for very specific purposes in the language. For those reasons, I tend to think of them as upper-case letters.
There are roughly 50 characters in each group, but they are actually a lot less intimidating once you begin learning them and start getting used to how they look.
There are quite a few ways that you can learn each kana such as writing them out, using flashcards, memory tricks, or just a lot of reading.
Whichever way you decide to go, I’d bet that you’ll have both sets of kana down in less than a month.
You will then use them for the rest of your Japanese language life, so it’s worth establishing them right at the beginning.
I’ve written a lot about them before, so here are some links that provide exact methods, the kana themselves, and other resources to help you learn:
Learning kanji is a much longer process, so we’ll introduce it in the beginner section and then focus on learning all the necessary ones at the intermediate level.
As for romaji, I only recommend using it to learn the kana so that you can use authentic Japanese from that point onward.
Greetings and Common Phrases
When I first started learning Japanese I was actually able to have a basic, although scripted, conversation within a few days.
The reason was because I started learning from a phrase book that didn’t bother going over detailed explanations on words and grammar.
It just gave me the sentences and told me what they meant.
It was actually a great way to start off and get a feel for how Japanese works.
Later on when I started learning things such as grammar I remember it being pretty easy because I already had exposure to using a lot of common phrases that utilized the same information.
I highly recommend getting a phrasebook (or similar resource) that gives you tons of set phrases and common greetings so that you can dip your toes into real Japanese right away and begin using it.
At the beginning of the journey, the excitement and fun comes from learning these new “alphabets” and phrases that you can start to use and actually understand.
- On day 1 you knew nothing.
- On day 2 you could greet people in Japanese.
- On day 3 you could read those same greetings in hiragana.
And on it continues.
You really begin to feel like you’re learning a foreign language that is completely different from English and you get a taste of what is to come as you improve your language skills.
The beginner level is where the vast majority of language learning resources focus, so there is a plethora of good material to choose from.
Too much, in fact.
In order to keep things simple, I’m going to continue off of where we left in the last section and cover the topics that a beginner should focus on.
Then I will give you one recommendation.
Like I said, there are a lot of really good (and a lot of not so good) books and courses that you can use at this point in the journey, so I will just keep things simple by picking the best.
Before we get to that however, let’s talk about the objectives of this stage in the game.
Introduction to Kanji
The third part of the Japanese writing system is called “kanji” which literally translates as “Chinese characters.” These are the symbols that come from the Chinese language, and they are absolutely essential for reading Japanese.
I’ve heard that there are as many as 50,000 characters, but that number is kind of like saying “there are billions of stars in the galaxy.”
It’s true, but not really meaningful to us as language learners.
In reality, there are only (he said sarcastically) 2,136 that you have to learn since they have been designated as required by the Japanese government.
But from what I’ve been told, most Japanese natives that attend university know about 3,000 and people who are considered “well-educated” such as college professors know around 5,000.
My point is that learning kanji is a lifelong process.
During the beginner stage, the goal is to become familiar with them and understand the basics.
- Multiple meanings
- Multiple readings
- Correct stroke order
- and more…
The key is to find a book or course that will introduce you to the various aspects of kanji and then to start learning them.
If you just learn several dozen kanji, that is perfectly fine for this stage. Getting them all down is something that should be tackled at the next level.
Study Grammar and Vocabulary
Since the Japanese language is structured so differently from English, it is important to spend time studying how the grammar works.
Likewise, the vocabulary used in Japanese is incredibly precise at times and they do certain things that you would never naturally think of coming from an English background.
For example, in English we only have one word for “sister” but the Japanese language has several.
Furthermore, there are multiple words that can be used for verbs like “to go” in Japanese and each one carries a different level of respect with it.
That being said, explanations alone are not enough.
The human mind needs lots of examples in order to really get a hold of the concept and be able to remember and then use it naturally.
That’s why I believe that the best way to learn new grammar and vocabulary is to first study it with an in-depth explanation and then to flood your mind with lots of example sentences.
The ideal situation would be to learn one new concept and then read and listen to 10-20 sentences that illustrate it.
This way you can fully comprehend the meaning of the sentence, while also getting lots of real life experience with how it is used.
Because of that, I believe that learning Japanese through full sentences is the best way to go.
I’ve never studied Japanese in a traditional classroom, but I have studied Spanish.
One of the common themes with classroom learning is that the teacher (or textbook) assigns a list of vocabulary for the student to memorize, but there is no context given.
Just the word in one language, and then the English translation.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t provide enough meaning for the human brain to fully understand and latch on to, so it ends up being a situation where the information is in one ear (or eye) and other the other.
The solution is to learn the language through complete sentences.
A sentence will not only show you how a word is used based on context, but it will also give you grammar in action.
Let’s look at words first.
How many different meanings does the word “hot” have in English?
- My girlfriend is hot (attractive).
- This pan is hot (high temperature).
- The new car is a hot (popular) seller.
- His emotions run hot (strongly).
In each of these sentences we used the same word, but that word had a different meaning.
What determined the meaning of the word? The surrounding context.
This is something that can only really be acquired though full sentences, which is exactly why I recommend you focus on them right from the start.
As for grammar, it’s really as abstract concept that has little meaning in isolation. It is only when grammar is applied in the context of full sentences that people can understand what it means.
Combine Reading with Listening
The single best piece of advice that I ever received was from the legendary Steve Kauffman himself when he said to “listen to whatever you read, and read whatever you listen to.”
He was speaking from his own experience on how he learned 20 languages (including Japanese) but there is actual scientific proof that supports what he said.
To make a long story short, we learn information better when we experience it in different ways.
Language learning is comprised primarily a visual aspect (reading) and an auditory aspect (listening) which means that you can learn new information faster when you experience it in both forms.
Add in some speaking and writing and you are ready for liftoff.
This is actually the main reason why I believe that using a high quality course for learning Japanese is far superior to using a book.
Books are great, but they are limited to just the visual part of learning.
An online course on the other hand, will give you both the visual lessons (reading) as well as the audio lesson (listening) from native speakers who pronounce the words correctly.
I told you that I would provide one recommendation that I feel is the best for people at the beginner level.
That recommendation is JapanesePod101.
I won’t go into too much detail here because I don’t want us to get sidetracked, but they also break down learning Japanese into several levels like I’ve done in this article.
The thing I like the most about them is that they have an incredibly huge library of Japanese material to learn from and it is all very high quality stuff.
You can sign up for a free account and gain access to thousands (not an exaggeration) of lessons right away.
If you want to learn Japanese even faster, you can try out their premium version which unlocks 100% of their tools, resources, and trained tutors that support you in learning Japanese.
At the beginner stage you get your toes wet in all aspects of the language.
You read a little, you listen a little.
You speak some, you write some.
It’s also valuable to learn about the culture because things like social standing and gender have an effect on which words a person uses.
You are learning a ton of information and it really feels like you’re making a lot of progress. This is fun and exciting since you now have a skill that takes you inside a completely different culture.
I think a good, generic timeline for this stage is three months. It might take a little longer, but it could also be shorter.
Regardless of if you feel ready or not, you should move on to the intermediate stage no later than the one year mark. Let’s take a look at it now.
The intermediate level is the largest and the longest section out of the four, and the reason is because there is simply so much to learn.
It can last for years if you don’t devote enough daily time to it.
I’m not saying this to scare you. I just want to be honest and give you the right expectations for it. Let’s take a look at what all is involved so that you can see the tasks that lie ahead.
Learn all the Joyo Kanji
In the last section I told you that all you needed to do was get introduced to kanji. Now you have to learn them all.
Not all 50,000 though!
Just the 2,136 that the Japanese Government has mandated be taught in the public education system.
These are the ones that are used everyday in magazines, newspapers, government documents, and more. If you ever visit Japan or read something written by a native, they will expect you to know these words.
In my experience, the best way to lean these kanji is actually by combining two separate methods:
- Deliberate study
- Extensive reading
By deliberate study I mean going through a book or course and learning each and every single “joyo kanji” at the stroke level, the meaning level, and the reading level.
There are four different ways to learn kanji that I’ve written about. It’s best to find the one that *clicks* with you and that you can enjoy.
This will help you to become intimate with this part of the language and will serve you well for the rest of your reading life.
But just leaning the characters isn’t enough. You also need to see them in action, see them being used in context, and that happens when you read a lot of Japanese.
If you’ve been learning the language through full sentences like I recommended before, then this should be a natural thing for you.
It’s also important because it ties into the next element of this stage.
Start Reading Paragraphs
It’s one thing to read a sentence. It’s another to read an entire paragraph.
I don’t want to get all “pushy” on you, but when you get to the intermediate level it is time to start reading (and listening) to native level materials.
What exactly does that mean?
Well, the simple definition is that native materials are anything that is “made by natives, for natives” and isn’t tailored to people learning Japanese.
This allows you to start consuming the exact same material that Japanese people consume and learn the words, phrases, and expressions that they naturally learn (and therefore use in real life).
It’s kind of a big step because before we have been using material specifically designed to help us quickly learn new words and concepts, but at this point we are going to step away from that and “live like the natives do.”
This means you will start reading the news in Japanese, blog posts written by them, and you might even start reading your first full length novel.
And always listen to the same stuff when you can!
The single biggest obstacle during this part of the journey is the vast number of new words and kanji that you run into.
Thankfully, there is a fantastic language learning company that has created a revolutionary tool designed specifically to help language learners consume native materials quickly and easily.
The company is called LingQ and was co-founded by Steve Kaufmann (the guy I mentioned earlier).
This is the website that helped me grow my vocabulary from 5,000 words in Japanese to over 37,000 (as of this writing) by reading and listening to native materials.
Just like the last time I recommended a great resource, I won’t go into too much depth on it here.
My top recommendation for intermediate students is to try out LingQ.
If you do, make sure to watch all of the introduction videos that explain exactly how the system works and then be sure to devote at least one month to using it in order to realize the system’s power.
It sneaks up on you!
But in a good way.
The following three steps which are essential at the intermediate stage are all ones that you can accomplish through using LingQ’s innovative system.
Use More Japanese and Less English
When you’re at the beginner stages and you’re using full sentences to learn new Japanese words and grammar patterns, I highly recommend using full English translations to help with comprehension.
At that stage in the game, you are using what you already know (English) to understand what you don’t yet know (Japanese).
But once you’ve graduated that stage and made it to the intermediate level, you don’t need to rely on English as much as before.
Instead, what you should be doing it using the Japanese that you’ve learned to help pick up new words and phrases.
How this looks in practice is that when reading a full Japanese sentence (or paragraph) you would use Japanese for comprehension until you encountered a new word or grammar pattern.
You can then look up the new information and see what the English meaning is for quick comprehension, but you don’t try to translate the entire sentence from Japanese to English.
Instead, you try to get an overall feeling for the meaning behind the Japanese that you see and hear.
The idea is to slowly, yet intentionally, weed yourself off of English so that you can begin to immerse yourself in the Japanese language.
Eventually you will get to the point where you are using Japanese to learn Japanese.
That’s when you’ve hit the jackpot, baby!
Specialize in What Interests You
One of the most important concepts of language learning is that you need to use different strategies when you are at different levels of progression.
This was a mistake that I experienced firsthand as I continued to use beginner material long past the point where I should have upgraded.
I mentioned this before, but we all have to learn the same basics since they are the building blocks for the entire structure.
But once we get past the beginner stage, there is actually a lot of room to stretch your wings.
Once you’ve reached the intermediate level, it’s not more lessons that you need, but more materials.
And what materials should you use to improve you language abilities? The ones that naturally interest you!
For example, if you love anime and want to be able to watch it without subs, then you should start learning Japanese directly from episodes of your favorite anime.
FYI, LingQ can help with this with their ability to import the audio and text files of anime into personalized lessons.
Or if your goal is to read mystery novels in Japanese, then you should start reading lots of Japanese mystery novels as your primary method for learning the language.
By doing this you are keeping the process fun, tailoring it to your goals, and making it easy to spend time with the language because you love the things you’re reading and listening to.
Now it is the perfect time for you, the learner, to start consuming native level materials as your primary method for learning the language.
So far I have focused on reading and listening since that is how we learn new things. But we would be incomplete if we only had half of the picture.
It’s important to practice speaking and writing (or typing) in order to improve those skills as well.
The simple rule is that you get better at what you do.
Reading a lot makes you a better reader, speaking a lot makes you a better speaker, and so on.
But there are actually different kinds of speaking. Let’s see them now.
Gain Speaking Experience
The intermediate level is really where most students attain fluency (as described earlier in this article) in Japanese .
The basic idea is that you want to get to the point where you could survive just fine if you were dropped into a part of Japan where nobody speaks English.
This is accomplished through two methods:
- Learning enough Japanese
- Gaining confidence speaking
You do need to practice speaking to physically build the muscle memory needed for correct pronunciation, but most people’s problem with speaking is actually a lack of confidence or a fear of making mistakes (and then being criticized).
The best way to gain confidence is though positive experiences.
We want to create a lot of good interactions between you and someone else speaking Japanese so that you have memories that support your trust in your own abilities.
There are really two kinds of speaking.
There is the rehearsed speaking where you memorize your lines, like in a play, for thing such as your personalized introduction or common greetings.
There is a lot of value in this kind of speaking and it is something that people do a lot in the beginner stage.
Then there is the spontaneous conversions that reflect real life where you begin talking to a person and you have no idea what they are going to say.
It is really this second one that will make you feel fluent in Japanese.
If you know that you can handle yourself in a random talk with someone you’ve never meet before in Japanese, then you will have full confidence in your spoken abilities.
How do you do this?
Well, it’s tough. You have to put yourself out there and actually talk to people in Japanese without any kind of prearranged agenda.
You can hire online tutors to help with this, or just talk to every Japanese person your encounter.
The act of talking is more important than the result. Don’t worry about perfection. Your abilities will improve with time.
The advanced level is not so much concerned with breadth as it is with depth.
It other words, a person could be perfectly fluent at the intermediate level with an active vocabulary of 5,000 words, but the advanced student would be at that same functional level with 10,000-20,000 words.
Another example might be that an intermediate student is intimately familiar with common, everyday words and expressions, but the advanced student knows these as well as specialized topics like medicine, business, philosophy, politics, and so on.
For the vast majority of people, getting to the upper echelons of the intermediate level and becoming fluent will satisfy their desires.
But for the few that want to attain native-like abilities with Japanese, there is still much more work to be done.
One of the reoccurring frustrations I encountered was that no matter what new book I picked up to read, there were always hundreds (sometimes thousands) of new words and grammar patterns to learn.
I read a book on Artificial Intelligence. There were hundreds of new words.
I read an “issekai” book that was also a comedy. There were hundreds of new words.
I read a book that was originally written in English and then professionally translated into Japanese. There were thousands of new words!
And this was after my vocabulary was at 30,000 Japanese words!
What’s my point?
Most native adults know 20,000–35,000 words according to The Economist and the most time tested and effective method for growing one’s vocabulary is to read (and listen) to a lot of varied material.
But it takes time.
It’s not something that can be done in a single year.
So how do we handle this problem? We make Japanese a part of our daily lives.
Using immersion to learn a new language is actually one of the oldest tricks in the book.
People have long said that the best way to learn a new language is to move to the country and to use it exclusively in your day to day life.
The biggest advantage that immersion has is, pure and simple, volume.
Remember before when I talked about daily hours spent add up in a year? A person who uses immersion can easily get more exposure to the language in a month than a casual learner can in an entire year.
But immersion isn’t just about the amount of content a student takes it. It’s also about forcing the student to use the language in order to survive.
For example, if you only watched Japanese shows for entertainment then it would prompt you to quickly learn the language so that you could understand what is going on and enjoy the show.
Or if you limited your conversations to only Japanese, then you would struggle to express yourself at first, but then quickly get to the point where you learned how to communicate effectively.
All that being said, full and unbridled immersion has a major drawback: It’s incomprehensible!
According to Stephen Krashen, one of the most respected and well-known experts on language acquisition, “We acquire language in one way only: when we are exposed to input (written or spoken language) that is comprehensible to us” (The Input Hypothesis).
Simply put, when we understand the message being conveyed (not necessarily every single word used) we naturally acquire the new language in much the same way we did our native one.
So when you use immersion before you are ready, you actually put yourself into an environment where you are exposed to incomprehensible information, and it does you little good.
There are two ways to help overcome this problem.
One is to use “focused immersion” during the early stages where you surround yourself with content that you have previously studied and understand.
The other is to use immersion more heavily at the late-intermediate or advanced levels where you already know a lot of words and are able to follow new material more easily.
Of course if you have a high tolerance for ambiguity and the unknown, you can use full immersion right from the start and you will likely learn Japanese faster than anyone else you know.
Just be sure to also use the processes and advice presented throughout this article to systematically work your way from zero to hero.
The Rest is Up to You
I have given you my best. I hope that it helps.
My goal was to provide you with a road map filled with actionable advice that you could take and use to make your studies better.
My mission is to help as many people as possible learn and understand Japanese because I love this language so much.
It has brought me a lot of joy, and I want that for others as well.
If you walk away with just one new idea that helps you to be a better language learner, then I will consider it mission accomplished.
I wish you all the success in your Japanese endeavors.
Further Resources for Learning Japanese: