Are you a Japanese five-year-old?
If not, your brain isn’t currently programmed to absorb Japanese every minute of every day.
Unless you’re immersed in a foreign environment, learning a language means an absurd amount of time burying your nose in a textbook.
Here, we’re going to explore some great learning methods you can use instead of (or alongside) formal textbook and classroom learning.
- 6 Alternative Methods for Learning Japanese on Your Own
6 Alternative Methods for Learning Japanese on Your Own
There are some people to whom acquiring languages comes naturally, even notoriously difficult languages like Icelandic or hyper-tonal Mandarin.
I’m not one of those people. I need repetition and immersion to pick up a new tongue.
When I moved to Japan several years ago, I knew nothing beyond こんにちは (hello), 三菱 (みつびし – Mitsubishi) and Nintendo — plus, I didn’t even know the characters to write them. Here are some of the tactics I used to learn Japanese without the aid of a class full of speaking partners or a teacher.
1. We all have to eat
It’s often my first answer when people ask me how I learned to speak Japanese in Japan, having come into the country with no language skills. Quite simple: food and water are necessary for survival, and it’s impossible to get these things without at least some human interaction (at least, I don’t think Amazon Fresh is in Japan just yet).
Of course, my first experience actually speaking the language was with a company representative at the airport. The second was a brief exchange before boarding the 新幹線 (しんかんせん – bullet train) to Okayama. But when I was finally left alone to explore the city, I immediately rushed into a コンビニ (こんびに – convenience store) and grabbed a 弁当 (べんとう – bento). Finally, I would be able to eat! But unfortunately I had to go through the following interaction first:
Clerk: お弁当は温めますか？ (おべんとうは あたためますか？ – Do you want your bento heated up?)
Me: Blank look of incomprehension
Clerk: すみません、温めますか？ (すみません、あたためますか？- Excuse me, do you want it heated up?)
Me: Ummm… はい？(Yes?)
And so it goes. From one shaky exchange (and conversations with someone who knew what the clerk was asking me), I learned the vocabulary necessary to be fluent in a convenience store situation. For example:
Please heat it up
Please (do it)
Please do it
It would become awkward weeks later when I ordered an アメリカンドッグ (あめりかん どっぐ – corn dog) and they asked me if I wanted any sauces, but each exchange like these builds up your language skills out of pure necessity: you have to get food somehow.
Going to a コンビニ is clearly the easiest and least stressful way to do so without any language skills, but eventually you’ll want more than soggy rice and low-quality meat. Japanese restaurants in your own country can be your school. I wasn’t afraid to bounce a few mispronounced or poorly-executed phrases off of Japanese waiters and waitresses in the hopes that they would take the time to correct me or at least make me aware I was saying something wrong.
Plus, you’ll get the added bonus of exploring fabulous Japanese cuisine!
2. Traveling is key
Plenty of people can master Japanese without ever having stepped foot on one of the five islands. All it takes is dedication. I’m sure I could, given enough time and money. But for many of us in the middle, who learn the basics in a classroom and want to improve, flying to Tokyo may be the best way to take the next step. I often hear from those who studied the language at university how thrown they are upon first walking the streets of a Japanese city. Certainly, they understand a lot, but everything’s in a different context:
– Why would it be important to know the kanji for different cities and neighborhoods in an academic setting? These are immediately understood by those who take buses and trains in Japan.
– Being able to discuss politics and feelings with your teacher is quite an achievement, but it won’t do you any good if you can’t order food or find and use the ATM.
Even a few days in Japan to put one’s language skills in perspective will help beyond measure.
3. Find your niche
In and of itself, studying any language is a massive endeavor. Living abroad helps to an extent, but exploring Japanese through your own interests makes it more appealing to you and allows you to become fluent with words and phrases other speakers may never feel inclined to practice.
For me, this meant exploring Japanese through running. It wasn’t enough to search maps of nearby trails and settle for occasional shouts of “ファイト!” (ふぁいと！- you can do it!) and “頑張って!” (がんばって！- Do your best!) as I whizzed by. I wanted to know what it was like to race alongside my neighbors (much to my surprise, there were still high school bands playing “Eye of the Tiger”). This lead to picking up characters I could use in other situations:
クロスカントリー (くろす かんとりー)
全国大会 (ぜんこく たいかい)
分, 秒 (ふん, びょう)
Eventually, I wanted to express myself to fellow runners. What better way to do that than make fun of myself as the sole foreign face in a sea of Japanese people?
I speak like a foreigner, but I run like a Kenyan.
私は外国人のように話すが、ケニア人のように走る。 (わたしは がいこくじんのように はなすが、けにあじん のように はしる。)
Even if running isn’t your niche, the principle is the same. If you like painting, look up some of the vocabulary you need to shop at an art supply shop. No matter how primitive your Japanese may be at the beginning, learning it through the focus of your talents can drastically improve it more than simply sitting in a room and repeating phrases ever could.
4. Fill in the gaps with real-world Japanese videos
Did you know that 6/10 language learners die from boredom while watching scripted, clichéd beginner’s videos? Okay, I made that statistic up. But seriously, videos made for language learners aren’t doing anyone any favors. You’ve already seen how much colorful and useful Japanese you can learn by playing a sport and buying stuff from a convenience store. Why settle for basic, humdrum Japanese?
So where can you find great Japanese videos? Let’s start with YouTube and Netflix.
YouTube is an excellent free resource that offers content for any level of language learner. The amount of content is never-ending, so you are sure to find something that interests you. You can also find some great Netflix movies to help keep you immersed in Japanese while being entertained at the same time.
Another resource for authentic Japanese videos is FluentU. The web and mobile learning platform FluentU is a unique way to learn Japanese through movie trailers, news segments and other short clips. In the program, each video comes with expert-vetted interactive subtitles that you can click on to add words to a custom vocabulary list or multimedia flashcards.
5. Change your definition of fluency
No one is completely fluent in any language, not even native speakers. If you’re an English speaker, you may very well know enough to get by in your life in America, but can you honestly say you would manage if confronted by the unknown, e.g. medical terminology, technical jargon, etc.?
For that reason, simply decide what you want out of your Japanese education. As skilled as you might be, you’re never going to know every last kanji applicable to every situation. As I stated above, one can be completely fluent in convenience store Japanese by knowing a few key phrases… not much else is required. If you have no desire to go to restaurants or shop in a bakery, why should it matter if you know the language applicable to those situations? I’m oversimplifying it, but this approach is correct in its essentials: learn the language skills you need and improve upon them until you’re fluent on a day-to-day basis.
Although I’m sure it would be nice to reach a Japanese skill level where you could discuss the modern day implications of revering Saigo Takamori as a hero, you don’t need JLP1 or even JLP2 to be fluent in your life.
6. Find comfort in discomfort
This isn’t only an approach to language learning, but rather an attitude towards life abroad. As I see it, most people living in their respective home countries tend to find comfort in routine. Meeting the same group of friends at the neighborhood pub, driving the same route to work and going out to eat at the same two restaurants — it’s pretty common.
While I can’t deny that there’s a certain appeal to this, I find the opposite to be more comforting. That is, I enjoy being mildly uncomfortable in all aspects of life: environment, language, culture and even people. In doing so, we can push ourselves to improve and grow in a way unthought of by those in their routines.
Unless speaking Japanese is necessary for one’s survival, many just won’t be motivated to learn. And though I use living abroad as the ultimate example of this, it’s not the only way to push yourself with discomfort at home. Here’s a few more options:
– Joining a language group and finding yourself as the sole English speaker
– Going to Japanese-run supermarkets, restaurants and karaoke bars
– Switching your smartphone and computer operating systems to Japanese
– Decorating your apartment with objects containing Japanese text (actually, this sounds like a good idea regardless)
Surrounding yourself with the unknown forces your brain to try and make things more comfortable for you. In the case of Japanese, you may find that being annoyed with not understanding the language is more beneficial than learning at your leisure.