Tactics

Learn Japanese Fast – Minimum Effort for Maximum Effect

A lot of people don’t just want to learn Japanese, but to learn Japanese fast.

One of the biggest obstacles that people run into is the sheer amount of information contained in the Japanese language. For example, there are over 50,000 Kanji!

Wow, that is just a wee bit too much to learn if you ask me. But the good news is that there is just over 2,000 that is actually taught in Japanese schools and is the standard for fluency in the language.

Whew! Much better. I mean, 2,000 is still a lot, but not nearly as scary as the thought of having to learn over 50,000. Am I right?

This brings up a good point. Even though there are tons and tons of words that we CAN learn, which ones should we actually be focusing our attention on in order to make the most progress with the language in the quickest amount of time?

The 80/20 Rule

You may have heard of The 80/20 Rule before. It is also known as the Pareto Principe. It basically states that 20% of your efforts will produce 80% of your results. Continuing this logic and you will see that the other 80% of your efforts only end up creating 20% of your results. Let’s look at it another way in regards to the Japanese language.

20% of the words and kanji you learn will be used in 80% of your conversations and in the material you read. Read that last statement again!

For example, remember how I told you that there were just over 2,000 Kanji that are taught in Japanese schools and are the official ones used to determine fluency? Well, that’s true. However, only 200 Kanji account for 50% of all Japanese Kanji on Wikipedia. Just under 500 Kanji accounts for 75%. This is The 80/20 Rule at work.

Pretty crazy right! Now, the 80/20 rule is not exact for everything you apply it to, but it is pretty close and accurate enough for you to use it effectively in your life. So doesn’t it make sense to spend your time and energy FIRST on the things that you will used the most? Then after you have that 20% down, you can move on to the other 80% of the material that will help you to add variety and flavor to your sentences. The things that are nice to know, but not need to know.


Is it alright if I tell you a story about nice to know words vs. need to know words in my own life? I hope you said yes, because I’m going to tell you now.

When I was much younger and learning how to read books, I would often come across a new word that I didn’t know. I would first try to figure out what it meant by the surrounding context. But If that didn’t work, then I would just skip it and continue reading.

And you know what happened? While not knowing that word may have made me miss out on exactly what the author was trying to say, it never killed me or stopped me from enjoying the book. It was a nice to know, not a need to know. The goal was to understand most of the book, not 100% of it while I was in the process of learning.

Now that I am much older and better at my English, I know a lot more words than when I was a kid and almost never see something in a book that I don’t know and understand. Here’s the point: focus on the essentials first!

The Plan

So now that you know about The 80/20 Rule and why you should use it as a guide to determine where you should spend your efforts, what does that process look like?

Well first of all let’s talk about words/vocabulary. You should initially be focusing on the top 1,000 Japanese words. Which words you may ask? The ones most often used in conversations.

These are the biggest “need to know words” and you can find them in a Japanese Frequency Dictionary.

You should also learn some phrase structures. Things like “Where is the..?” “How do you say…?” “I would like to…”. In addition to the most used words, you will want the most used phrases or sentences that appear in natural conversation. The reason why this is so important will soon be revealed.

How about Japanese grammar? Forget about it! No seriously, spending you time studying grammar is high level stuff. Nice to know, not need to know. Why you may ask? Because when you study and learn phrases and sentences, you automatically learn grammar. Read on to know more.

How To Learn These Words

So what’s the best way to study and learn these words? Make a list of them and repeat it each day! No, seriously don’t so that. You will quit before you get through the list on day 1.

Actually, one of the best ways to learn new words is to take a few of them and create a sentence that incorporates them together. Why is this? Well, it’s because when we take these new words and uses them in a sentence, it gives meaning to them. In other words, It turns the different words into a movie that you see playing in your head. This is exactly what you want and it is how we use language.

For example, you have a thought in your head. You want to share this thought with another person, but you have to transform the thought into words (probably English if you’re reading this) and then when the other person hears the words, they get transformed back into a thought, but this time it’s in their head.

So by creating a sentence with the new words you want to learn, you are in essence creating a new thought with the words and they get fused together in your mind, thereby locking it in.

Why You Should Use Sentences

There are also two more reasons you should be using phrases to learn new words. Do you know what they are?

The first one is that it helps you learn grammar naturally. Is might not be the best idea to study and learn words and the surrounding grammar separately because they are rarely used separately. They are both interdependent on one another.

I mean, let’s face it. We talk and read in sentences. Not in words. If we only ever read in words (and not sentences) then we would never understand what context is and why it is so vital to comprehension.

The other reason why you want to learn in sentences is actually two reasons that go together: structure, and therefore interchangeability.

If I know the sentence “I would like to eat pizza today”, then I can use the exact same structure of that sentence, change a few words, and have a whole new sentence.

By changing only one word, I could say, “I would like to eat chicken today,” or “I would like to eat chicken tomorrow.” So, when you have a handful of sentence structures, you can swap out different individual words and convey a totally new idea to someone else.

By the way, if you’re not sure how to do this, a great place to start is with Japanese Phrase Books.

Where Do You Go From Here?

Well, that sure was a lot of information! I hope it all made sense for you. I won’t just leave you out to dry, though. There are a couple more places you can go depending on what you would like to do next.

If you would like to know some other ways that you can increase the speed at which you learn Japanese, then check out the link below to discover the best  way to do so. Click here now:

What is Fluent in 3 Months? – A Review

Or if you feel that you would like to use phrases and sentences to learn Japanese vocabulary and grammar together in an easy way, then I would recommend you check out the review below where I talk about Rocket Japanese and how they can help you. Each time they introduce a new word, it fits nicely into a sentence that you will actually use in the the real world. Read about it here:

How to Learn Japanese – A Rocket Review

Great! Does all that make sense? Did you learn something useful here today? I sure hope so.

Let me know what you think in the comments below!

6 Comments

  • rebecca cosmidou

    Hi, Nick!
    I am visiting your site again since Japanese is a language that i would like to learn! Or i used to say so! But i find it really difficult to even spell some of the words this language uses! I hope that the rule 80/20 is really useful and could help me going on with this effort! I hope reading your articles and following your instructions help me start speaking this difficult but so interesting language!
    Best wishes,
    Rebecca!

    • Nick

      Hey Rebecca, thanks for coming back! Love seeing you here. I just want to encourage you to keep at it. There’s a saying that “everything is hard before it is easy.” And I’m here to help you as well!

  • ariefw

    You are stating exactly how I learned my English and my Mandarin.

    That’s why I am intrigued on how fast I will learn my Japanese. I think all I have to do is put more effort to it.

    Yeah, Japanese will be my 3rd foreign language but I don’t feel the pressure to master it soon. LOL.

    • Nick

      Working on your third foreign language is awesome! Once you’ve learn one additional language, it is often easier to learn another since you’ve got those new habits and disciplines down.

      Keep up the good work!

  • Jaylin

    I’ve always wanted to become perfectly fluent in………………..well every single language in the world if I’m completely honest, but especially Japanese. I’ve been studying it on and off for years, and I’ve gotten good enough to understand about 20-40% of what I hear. But that’s the thing, what I hear. I can recognize certain key phrases and sentence structure or things like that (sometimes) but I can’t even begin to read it.

    I have no idea what I’m doing and honestly I’m not really sure. Is it possible for someone with some Japanese knowledge to actually learn how to read a completely opposing alphabet online without having to take a college course or leave the country?

    • Nick

      Hey Jaylin, I’m right there with you with wanting to be fluent in multiple languages. Being multilingual is one of the coolest things.

      And you can totally learn to read it! Especially since you know some Japanese. That gives you a head start since you already know the meaning of many words. I created a page for people who are just starting out on learning how to read. Check it out here:

      Japanese for Beginners

      This is a great place to start learning how to read Hiragana and Katakana. There are also some links on that page that provide very useful mnemonics for memorizing each Kana.

      I hope this helps!

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