How to Improve Your Japanese by Tackling 8 Major Problem Areas
Have you hit a big ol’ wall while learning Japanese?
Most learners eventually reach a point where learning Japanese becomes much more difficult and your progress seems to slow to a crawl.
It can happen at different times for different people.
If you want to take a giant sledgehammer to this wall or just avoid it in the future, here are some tips to get you back in the game!
- 1. “I don’t know where to start.”
- 2. “I’m missing a lot of vocabulary.”
- 3. “I’m kinda bored.”
- 4. “I can’t get through grammar lessons.”
- 5. “My pronunciation doesn’t sound native.”
- 6. “I don’t understand half of what native speakers say.”
- 7. “I can understand Japanese, but I can’t say much.”
- 8. “I’ve completely lost motivation.”
- And One More Thing...
1. “I don’t know where to start.”
First, calm yourself down. Take a breath. Perhaps meditate for a little while. The key here is to avoid becoming overwhelmed.
Now, go a little deeper into your existing Japanese skills and knowledge. You know what you know and you know what you don’t know. Take a moment to seriously analyze your weaknesses. Be honest with yourself.
Once you identify some key areas in which you can improve, you can target those areas to continue improving. Let’s have a look at how we can identify and correct our problems.
This post will address a few different key issues you may be having in learning Japanese:
- Sounding like a native speaker
- Speaking without fear
- Motivation (or lack thereof)
Once you’ve identified your major problem areas, proceed to read the rest of this post and choose some methods of improvement from our given recommendations.
2. “I’m missing a lot of vocabulary.”
Maybe vocabulary is a weakness for you. Do you find yourself able to name simple objects but unable to thoroughly describe them?
For example, maybe you know the word “table” but you don’t know words for “legs,” “surface,” “wood,” “heavy” or other things related to tables. Maybe you know a basic word for an object but not different types of those objects.
For example, let’s take a look at the word “food,” 食べ物 (tabemono).
- Japanese food is 和食 (washoku)
- Italian food is イタリア料理 (Itaria ryouri)
- Appetizer is 前菜 (zensai)
- A traditional Japanese multi-course meal is called 懐石料理 (kaiseki ryouri)
If you know the word “food” but don’t know any types of Japanese food or any other words about food, you may want to focus on building some food vocabulary. Here’s a trick that works well.
Learn vocabulary by situation or theme
Try to learn words following a theme or situation you might encounter. For example, one theme might be “at the restaurant” so you would study a lot of vocabulary related to restaurants. That includes food words, ordering and paying of course. You can even study different types of restaurants.
By learning these words together, you’ll be able to remember them more easily since they all have a strong thematic link. This will also assist you later when you want to practice conversations involving that situation or theme.
3. “I’m kinda bored.”
Boredom can really get the best of you when trying to study a language—but luckily we live in a world with unlimited resources for fun. You just need to shift your perspective a little.
Play a game!
There’s a cool language game you can play with yourself in your everyday life to improve your Japanese.
Practice describing something random you come across during your regular routine. For example, if you walk past a park, try to describe it in excruciating detail. What’s in the park? What plants? What animals do you see? Do you see people? Describe them. Is there a bench? What color is it? What material? What does it feel like?
Translate these descriptions into Japanese or try to think them up directly in Japanese. By describing everything in extreme detail, you can increase your vocabulary quickly. By providing context, you can also have an easier time remembering. You’ll also start to see the gaps in your vocabulary, which allows you to take the steps to fill them in.
If you don’t know a word, take note of it on paper or on your smartphone using your favorite note-taking app. Go back later and translate the words and study them. Denshi Jisho is a great free online dictionary to look up words.
Then you can add them to your favorite flashcard app like Anki to continue your study.
4. “I can’t get through grammar lessons.”
You might be stuck on some grammar lessons at your current Japanese level, or you might simply be dreading the next one you’ll need to face to advance. Or perhaps grammar lessons bore you to tears and you can’t focus enough to soldier through.
For all these issues, the solution is the same:
Read grammar sites and blogs
This is a great, free way to improve your Japanese grammar. Grammar sites and blogs often provide an engaging narrative to guide you along and make learning feel effortless—even entertaining! Simply read and read and read about it online.
- Choose a grammar point. Search for it. Study the explanations and examples.
- Try to form your own examples. Keep trying to use the grammar point in content until you can use it without problem.
- Continue to practice. If you don’t, you’ll forget!
Need a place to get started? Here are some great free resources you can use to practice your grammar.
- Maggie Sensei is run by popular Japanese culture video blogger Victor “Gimmeabreakman” and his friend Yukari, who writes the content for the site. It’s a great resource for learning Japanese grammar as it’s commonly used in conversation through easy-to-digest posts.
- Tae-Kim’s Guide to Learning Japanese is basically one of the original and most well-known free Japanese study resources on the net. Tae-Kim now has mobile apps available for study as well.
- FluentU Japanese is where you are right now. And you’re having a good time, right? We hope so! Run through our grammar and vocabulary posts to learn the ins and outs of Japanese. Subscribe to our weekly newsletters to have new grammar learning advice sent regularly to your email inbox.
5. “My pronunciation doesn’t sound native.”
Perhaps you really still sound too darn foreign when the time comes to speak Japanese—not that there’s anything wrong with sounding foreign, accents are awfully attractive, after all.
Even so, you’ve been dying to learn fluent, natural-sounding Japanese. Maybe you can’t quite nail down the accent. Maybe you’re still having issues with some pronunciation. Either way, that’s a problem that needs to be fixed.
If you can’t match native intonation, it may be difficult for them to understand you when you speak. Don’t worry, there are solutions for this problem, too.
Mimic your favorite TV character
If you like watching TV shows or anime, this is the tip for you. Here’s how you can use your favorite TV show or anime series to help you learn Japanese.
Please note that you might not want to use action-packed shows for this. Instead, pick a show with plenty of dialogue in it.
- Pick a character. This should be a character that you can identify with in a show you really like. The character might be your own gender, have a similar profession or express a similar outlook on life with their spoken words. Try to pick someone who speaks the way you’d ideally like to speak in Japanese.
- Listen to some clips. Track down some clips of that character speaking naturally. Try to find something that isn’t too crazy or emotional. Just find them talking normally.
- Record yourself copying them. Repeat that same dialogue a few times and try shadowing them as they speak. Then give it a go one more time while recording yourself. Make sure you try to match the intonation and stress exactly.
- Play back your recording. I know, it’s hard to listen to yourself isn’t it?
- Replay the original clip. Compare and contrast. Find points that you need to improve on and keep trying.
In addition to this, make sure you’re saying borrowed English words with the Japanese accent. Don’t say “cake,” say ケーキ (ke-ki). Japanese people will have a lot of trouble understanding you unless you say it with a katakana pronunciation. Even if the word is borrowed from English, it often sounds different enough that they won’t always catch it.
6. “I don’t understand half of what native speakers say.”
This can be one of the biggest challenges to overcome and certainly one of the most frustrating. This is the “walking textbook” problem.
You always sound robotic and you have trouble deciphering casual Japanese speech because you’re operating the way your textbook or class taught you to speak and listen.
You don’t necessarily learn how modern people speak in everyday conversations—it’s too often pushed aside in favor or more formal instruction. This is especially true if you’re going somewhere outside of Tokyo. Those Japanese dialects open up a whole new can of worms!
I live in Osaka, where Osaka dialect is spoken heavily even in some business situations. It’s a bit more casual than the standard dialect spoken in Tokyo and some of the words are different. It definitely has taken me a while to become adjusted and pick up new vocabulary, grammar twists and slang.
So, how do you get started if you want to better understand native Japanese speakers?
Mimic a character once more!
This is a seriously great way to help you out when learning anything to do with speaking Japanese. This time we’re going to be looking for some different things, though.
- Pay attention to the situation. Is it formal? Casual? How does the language differ in each situation? What words are they using?
- Look at how vocab words are used. For example, even though they have words for “say” and “tell,” Japanese people use the verb for “to teach,” 教える (oshieru), when saying “someone told me something.”
- Pay attention to other characters, too. Pay attention to words and patterns used more commonly by one gender over the other.
For example, younger Japanese women tend to use the ~なの ending to questions in familiar situations. Men tend not to use this. Women also sometimes end their sentences with わ to soften them. Men occasionally do this, but not nearly as often.
Little notes like this can lead to big breakthroughs for you.
- Learn some idioms. Make note of any strange expressions that don’t seem to make any sense in context. It’s probably an idiomatic expression. One of my favorite in Japanese is 頭に来る (atama ni kuru) or “coming to my head.” This means to get very angry. It makes no sense reading it literally, right?
To improve your Japanese quickly and efficiently in pretty much every area you might have trouble with, we have an all-in-one program for you: FluentU.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
7. “I can understand Japanese, but I can’t say much.”
In this case, you probably spend a lot of time studying the language but not enough time actually using it. You need to actually practice using the language verbally in order to build communication skills.
There are a couple things you can try to get your speaking game up to snuff.
Get a one-on-one teacher
It might not be a free option but it’s probably the fastest and most effective way to practice your conversation as well as learn about Japanese language. Especially if you don’t have any Japanese friends to talk to. You can search for teachers in your area or take to Skype options to find a quick, convenient solution.
- Kakehashi Japan offers Skype lessons with a variety of focuses, including JLPT prep, conversation, vocab and culture. They also offer free trials for new students.
Take to the internet
The internet is a great resource for many things. It’s provided us a way to communicate across the vast oceans that may separate us. Lucky for us, there are some great tools out there to help us learners meet native Japanese speakers with whom we can practice speaking.
- Lang-8 is an online service where you can post content and have it corrected by a native speaker. This isn’t verbal communication, but it will allow you to make contacts which you could then possibly chat up on Skype or other chat service.
- HelloTalk is a relatively new entry on the scene. It’s an Android/iOS app that basically expands a bit on Lang-8.
HelloTalk language exchange in an app where you can search for contacts to engage. Native speakers can offer real-time corrections to anything you write or record—yep, you can also send recorded voice clips!
8. “I’ve completely lost motivation.”
Maybe you’ve just completely lost the motivation to study Japanese. It happens. In that case, we need to get you back on track! Here’s a tip.
Find your reason
Maybe you don’t really remember why you’re studying in the first place. Get back that spark that pushed you to learn Japanese in the first place and you’ll be well on the path to recovery.
Have you always wanted to be able to watch anime without subtitles? Great! Give your Japanese learning a little kick-start by taking the time to watch your favorite anime shows every day.
Once you’re on a roll, ease yourself back into learning mode. Try watching the shows with a stronger focus on learning and understanding what’s being said. If you’re at an intermediate level, try watching clips or shows twice—only once with subtitles, noting what you don’t understand. Then try it without the subtitles. See how much you can pick up. You might be surprised.
Incorporate what you love into your learning and make it fun again!
Are you ready to get back into it and improve your Japanese? All you need to do now is say “no” to excuses and get back in the Japanese learning zone.
And One More Thing...
If you love learning Japanese with authentic materials, then I should also tell you more about FluentU.
FluentU naturally and gradually eases you into learning Japanese language and culture. You'll learn real Japanese as it's spoken in real life.
FluentU has a broad range of contemporary videos as you'll see below:
FluentU makes these native Japanese videos approachable through interactive transcripts. Tap on any word to look it up instantly.
All definitions have multiple examples, and they're written for Japanese learners like you. Tap to add words you'd like to review to a vocab list.
And FluentU has a learn mode which turns every video into a language learning lesson. You can always swipe left or right to see more examples.
The best part? FluentU keeps track of your vocabulary, and gives you extra practice with difficult words. It'll even remind you when it’s time to review what you’ve learned. You'll have a 100% personalized experience.
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