How to Study Japanese

Written on November 16, 2010. Written by .
I’ve been studying Japanese for about 16 months now, the last 3 of which have been in Japan. During this period, I have researched language learning strategies to optimize my rate of progress. I can confidently say that there is nothing that will magically make you fluent overnight. No matter what you do, it is going to take a long time, but you can speed up the process by making sure that your study time is effective. This means that you need to find study methods that constantly challenge you, but are never so hard that you are floundering in confusion. Trying to watch movies when you first start is going to do next to nothing for you. Maintaining the right level of difficulty is called “staying in flow” and it should be your top priority. Below are the best methods that I have found, sorted by the time-frame when flow becomes possible.
  1. Classes/textbooks (all levels). Taking classes is a really good way to get started because it makes it easier to go through the material slowly enough to retain it. Textbook work is fairly tedious and doing it by yourself is particularly boring. For Japanese, I have been using the textbooks published by the Japan Times: Genki volume I, Genki volume II, An Integrated Approach to Intermediate Japanese, and Authentic Japanese. I think the first three are very good and the last is decent – it’s always harder to find good books at higher levels. My only criticism is that there are many important words that should be defined earlier in the books. In other words, the vocabulary is not sorted optimally, but this is not a major problem. Whether you take classes or not, textbooks should be the cornerstone of your early studies because they explain the grammar, which is extremely important.
  2. Anki Flashcard Software (all levels). In parallel with the textbook study, it helps to have an efficient system for reviewing. Vocabulary will leak out of your memory unless if you are using it regularly and there are many words that don’t come up very often. Therefore, it is best to have a system that can reliably remind you of all the words you are supposed to remember. Going through all the words every time is inefficient, so I use a spaced-repetition system that preferentially reminds me of words that I am struggling to remember. Basically, a spaced-repetition system is a program that presents flashcards and you respond by telling the program whether you remembered the word or not. When you miss a card, it shows it to you again sooner than if you had gotten it correct. I use a program called Anki on the iPod touch ($25), which is convenient because I can study anywhere if I have an couple extra minutes. There is also a free version of this program made for PCs. In order to enter vocabulary into Anki, I use another iPod touch program called Kotoba, which is a free Japanese-English dictionary. In Kotoba you can create a list of favorites from the textbook’s vocabulary list and email it as a CSV fle to your computer. I take this CSV file and import it into my Anki deck using the PC application. I keep all my Japanese cards in a single deck as recommended by the program’s author. To do the import, you first need to install the Japanese plug-in for Anki. Then in the import dialog box, select the Japanese model and set the fields as: Discard field, Discard field, Expression, Reading, Meaning. Then you can synchronize using AnkiOnline to get the updated deck on the iPod touch.
  3. Conversation practice (lower intermediate and beyond). In addition to studying with textbooks and Anki, I do a lot of conversation practice with language partners. Usually we try to spend half the time in English and half in Japanese. Be careful not to fall into the pattern of having both partners speaking in their non-native language because then nobody gets listening practice. This type of study becomes more effective the more advanced you become. Initially you don’t need to spend much time with language partners, but once you hit the intermediate level you should start doing a lot of conversation practice.
  4. Lyrics and Comics (upper intermediate and beyond). Once you get to the upper intermediate level, it becomes more effective to learn by studying song lyrics and comic books. Songs are good because you can easily get corresponding audio music and text lyrics and it is more fun than textbooks. Comic books are good for Japanese because you can easily find them with hiragana so you don’t have to look up all the kanji the hard way.
  5. Web pages (upper intermediate and beyond). There is a great browser plugin that displays definitions of Japanese words in a popup bubble when you hover over them with your mouse. This is amazingly useful for reading Japanese web pages. It’s called rikaichan in Firefox and rikaikun in Chrome.
  6. Books and Movies (advanced). I’m looking forward to being able to study from books and movies because they are probably the most interesting in terms of content.
To give an idea as to how long the process might take, each textbook takes roughly two months to cover in a 40-hour per week intensive course. That is 20 hours of class time and 20 hours of self-study per week. Therefore, it would presumably take 8 months of full-time study to finish the 4th textbook. If you study 2 hours per day 5 days a week, the same course might take 2.5 years. At a typical college pace, it would take 3-4 academic years.

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