You want to speak Japanese now.
If this sounds like you, then I think I know how you got here (and hopefully that doesn’t sound creepy).
You may have just raised your head from your textbook, your manga, or from your despair at being lost in a Japanese conversation. You turned your face skyward pleadingly and thought:
I am not learning fast enough!
So you thrust open your laptop in desperation and typed “how to learn Japanese fast” furiously into Google. What came up? I’ll bet you found a lot of people discouraging you or giving you mixed messages. Or worse, they’ve told you to stop learning now as it’s an impossible language. You sunk in your chair, crestfallen, and wondered what you’re even trying to do.
Take a very deep, long, soothing breath. Ignore those people. Get yourself a snack.
Whether you’re looking at hiragana and katakana for the first time, or you’re caught on a language “plateau” where you feel you’ve learned a lot but have stopped improving, this need to learn now is a product of frustration.
If you were ever a kid thrown into a lake and told to swim, you know that you can’t expect to immediately backflip out of the water and start butterflying your way to the opposite shore. But while it’s not realistic to go from 0 to 60 in a nanosecond, there are certain tricks you can use to speed up the process a bit.
The key to fast improvement is combination. Combine your kanji and vocabulary study, combine your efforts with a partner, combine grammar and speaking practice, and combine your everyday habits with exposure to Japanese.
Here are a few little gems to give you a boost.
How to Learn Japanese Fast: 10 Useful Hacks
1. Consume Vocab and Kanji Simultaneously (with This Tool)
Let’s face it: learning kanji, 漢字 (かんじ) — Chinese characters is not the friendliest of tasks. It can be slow, dull, and grueling. In most textbooks there is no real context for the kanji and, with over 2,000 characters in regular use, no visible end to your sufferings. Not feeling the speed, are we?
But fear not, there is a solution. Now I’m sure to be contested on this point, but if you’re here, and your goal is fast fluency, you’re going to want to bypass the whole kanji and stroke-order affair….at least for now. With the constant advance of electronic communication, it is becoming less necessary to be able to write kanji, and more important to be able to spell it out in hiragana on a smartphone or computer.
What you will need to do, however, is build yourself a fully-stocked arsenal of vocabulary. Overwhelming, yes, but here’s a start:
You need to get yourself a goal.
But how can you give yourself a manageable goal for vocabulary while learning kanji that you can use in a conversation?
Enter the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, or, the JLPT.
Enter Sayaka Kurashina’s “日本語単語スピードマスター (にほんご たんご すぴーどますたー) — Japanese Vocabulary Speed Master” for JLPT vocab levels 1-5!
“Argh,” you’re going to protest, “but I hate tests, and it doesn’t even test writing or speaking…”
Ah, but listen closely, oh impatient one.
Think speed. Think momentum. Think combination.
You need a goal because you want to measure your progress, but you need to do it within a time frame. It forces you to study.
Let’s say that your goal is to take the JLPT at the appropriate level by next summer/winter. Right now you could go online and acquire “Speed Master,” a great Japanese vocabulary textbook at any level. In each of the five levels of the series, you will learn the vocabulary required for each test in context. Each chapter covers a particular topic of conversation, so all the relevant vocabulary you need for “Transportation,” for instance, is all in one place.
But wait, you ask, how am I learning any kanji from this?
That’s the beauty of the book. There is a little translucent red sheet included which, when placed over the page, makes the English translations disappear. Once you’ve studied the meanings a few times over, just use this red sheet, and you’ll be able to remember the reading of a vocabulary word just by seeing the kanji itself.
You’ll be able to internalize the look, sound, and meaning of the kanji. Also, since the vocabulary is organized into tidy little topics, you’ll start to recognize recurring kanji in each chapter. You’ll be able to guess at the pronunciation of new vocabulary, and more importantly, predict its meaning. If you’re trying to remember a certain character’s meaning, just think of its fellow, like this:
“Oh, so that’s 会 (かい) — meet, as in 会話 (かいわ) — conversation and 会社 (かいしゃ) — company, which both have to do with meeting or gathering to do something.”
会話 meet + talk = conversation
会社 meet + in society = company
Kanji’s good like that. It ends up making a ton of sense.
Shoot for mastering at least a few chapters a week and your arsenal will be a force to be reckoned with.
2. Set Reasonable Goals (to Measure Your Progress)
As previously stated, getting a goal is essential to learning Japanese fast. By setting reasonable goals with concrete deadlines and solid study plans, you’ll find your studies going much farther, much quicker.
But what kind of goal should you set?
First, you want a goal that’s specific. Saying “I want to learn how to speak Japanese” as a goal is incredibly vague. How much Japanese do you want to be able to speak? What kind of Japanese? What do you want to talk about? Who do you want to talk to? These are all important things to keep in mind in order to narrow down on one specific objective.
For example, let’s say you’re going to be studying abroad in Japan (lucky you!) and you’ve been assigned to stay with a host family. Right away, you want to be able to say hello and thank you to them. They’re taking you under their roof, after all! And after the basic greetings, you’ll want to get to know them. Asking them what they do for a living or what their hobbies are always great icebreakers. So now you know you’ll need to learn a few Japanese words for occupations and interests.
Now you have an objective: to learn Japanese greetings, Japanese words for jobs and Japanese words for hobbies.
So instead of “I want to speak Japanese,” try saying “I want to be able to ask for directions in Tokyo,” or “I want to talk about school with my language partner.” These specifics will help you narrow down on the vocabulary and material you need to achieve that goal.
Your goal should also be measurable. After all, how can you tell if you’re learning fast if you don’t keep track of your progress? That’s like a sprinter trying to time themselves without a stopwatch!
To do this, identify a time frame in which you’d like to make a certain amount of progress. For instance, if you’re tackling hiragana for the first time, try saying “I want to learn hiragana in one week.” This way, you can focus your study time exclusively on hiragana for the next seven days.
Let’s go back to your upcoming study abroad. You have one month before you’re due to arrive in Tokyo. That’s four weeks to meet your goal of learning greetings, jobs and hobbies. Here’s one way to break up your objective into measurable chunks: spend one week focusing on greetings, one week focusing on jobs, one week focusing on hobbies and the final week doing review.
This can further be divided into days. Spend Monday listening to your new vocabulary words. On Tuesday and Thursday, practice speaking with a YouTube video or language partner. Wednesday and Friday can be devoted to writing practice. By the end of the week, you’ll be able to see exactly how much you’ve accomplished!
However, it has to be something that’s actually achievable. A goal like “I want to memorize all 2,136 official kanji in one month” is highly unlikely to happen. It takes Japanese children 18 years to learn all of them! Instead, try for “I want to learn 15 kanji per day.” Way more reasonable!
So when preparing for that conversation with your host family, don’t try to cram information about the finer points of software engineering or the avian species one might find when birdwatching in Yoyogi Park. Instead, try learning the Japanese words for 20 common occupations and 20 hobbies. And don’t worry about learning the finer points of Japanese introductions—standard polite greetings will work just fine.
With these solid goals, you’ll be all set to learn Japanese fast!
3. Pair Your Studies with Apps (Like FluentU)
For a bonus boost to your learning, pair your studies with an effective language learning app, like FluentU. Using FluentU will give you a chance to see the vocabulary and other language info you learn in context as it’s used by native Japanese speakers.
FluentU has videos and flashcard sets for all levels, from beginners to experts, making it an ideal partner for your entire Japanese learning journey. And getting started is a snap!
First, use the lessons provided in the beginner course. You’ll get learning right away with real-world usage of essential expressions, asking questions, basic grammar and more.
When you’ve gotten enough words down to make a few sentences, try watching videos geared for your level. FluentU’s library is neatly organized based on difficulty and topic, so you can always select something that suits your needs as well as your interests. For complete newcomers, I suggest starting with Beginner 1, and if you have a few expressions already under your belt, go for Beginner 2.
After watching your video with interactive subtitles, you’ll have a quiz to test your understanding. Each word is automatically saved to your vocab list, and you can create your own lists as well. FluentU’s algorithm keeps track of what you’ve mastered and what you need to work on, so all you have to do is sit back and study!
You can also favorite the videos you like so you have access to them at any time. The possibilities are endless with FluentU.
4. Master Using Everyday Grammar (with a Partner-in-crime)
You’re dying to start speaking now, but you might be hearing incredibly complex grammar from your anime or Japanese movies and you’re feeling overwhelmed.
Here’s the thing: if you’re bent on learning to speak fast, you’ve got to bite off one piece at a time.
Instead of kicking yourself for not being able to understand everything, make it your business to master the art of small talk. When you meet someone for the first time, what do you say? How about when you wake up in the morning and greet your roommates or host family? You probably make pretty simple (perhaps half-asleep) pleasantries and small talk.
And you can most certainly do this in Japanese. Since it’s stuff you say every day, you can make a nice little habit of it.
Great way to do this: recruit a Japanese-learning buddy.
Convince your roommate. Got a buddy who likes Akira Kurosawa? Recruit ‘em. Same major? Bored housemate? Competitive friend? Talented dog? GOOD!
Now learn your basic pleasantries, or better yet, make use of the simple grammar structures introduced in the “みんなの日本語 (みんなのにほんご)” textbook, which I’ll explain more about in the next point, and start engaging each other! Think of most everyday conversations. What are they?
- おはようございます — Good morning
- こんにちは — Hello/Good afternoon
- こんばんは — Good evening
- おやすみなさい — Good night
- 良い天気ですね。 (いいてんきですね。) — Great weather, isn’t it?
- 暑いですね。 (あついですね。) — Hot, isn’t it?
- 寒いですね。 (さむいですね。) — Cold, isn’t it?
- What time is it? / It’s…
- 今何時ですか？(いまなんじですか？) — What time is it?
- ７時です。 (しちじです。) — It’s 7 o’clock.
- What is this/that? / It’s…
- これ／それは何ですか？ (これ／それはなんですか？) — What is this/that?
- これ／それは。。。です。— This/That is…
- Do you have…?
- 。。。はありますか？— Do you have/Is there…?
- What are you doing?
- 何をしていますか？(なにをしていますか？) — What are you doing?
- What did you do yesterday?
- 昨日何をしましたか？(きのう なにをしましたか？) — What did you do yesterday?
Get a buddy on board with you, and you’ll feel less like you’re fighting a one-man battle against an invisible foe (Japanese). At first you’ll be shy, jokingly exchanging the Japanese that you know, but you’ll find that the more you practice successful exchanges of even the simplest sentences, the more comfortable and familiar you’ll be with the grammar and the sound/feel of the language itself.
The more you speak, the faster you’ll improve. 100% true.
5. Visit Online Learning Communities (Learn from Other Students)
There’s no need to feel down when you hit a hurdle in your studies: every learner of Japanese has been where you’ve been. That’s why it’s important to find a supportive learning community to help you along your journey.
Whether in person or online, a good learning community will have language resources, sympathetic ears and helpful advice as they build each other up for success. They’re also a great place for speaking Japanese and finding language partners—perfect for learning how to pronounce that “r” sound!
Alright, you want to join a language group. But how do you find one that’s right for you?
One option is to enroll in a Japanese class. Classrooms are a natural community, and you’ll all have the same materials to learn from in addition to a common learning goal. If there aren’t any schools in your area with Japanese classes, try using Meetup to find a local Japanese learning group. You might be surprised at how many others in your town are trying to learn Japanese!
If online groups are more your speed, there are countless sites dedicated to the study of Japanese. Reddit has a huge Japanese learning community on r/LearnJapanese, which features learning resources, study tips and more. You’ll find everything from YouTube channels to flashcard decks, making it an infinite toolbox with every kind of tool you could ever hope for to help you learn Japanese fast.
HiNative allows you to ask native speakers specific questions about Japanese, as well as get feedback on your own sentences and writings—great for those doing self-study to check their work. So if you’re not sure whether to use は or が in that sentence, simply ask away, and a native Japanese speaker will gladly tell you. You can also return the favor by answering users’ questions about your native language, making it a true paradise for language exchange.
By learning alongside other Japanese enthusiasts, you’ll be able to get answers to all of your tough questions and have cheerleaders on your side who will help you through your learning journey. Not to mention that you might make a few new friends!
6. Make Your Textbooks Go Further (by Talking to Them)
First of all, if you don’t have grammar textbooks, get yourself over to Amazon as fast as possible. The internet is fine for piecing together different approaches to Japanese grammar, but if you want to get that solid foundation and build momentum, it’s best to get all of your grammar in one basic place before you start supplementing.
Now I’m sure you’ve researched online and found suggestions like “Japanese for Busy People,” “Genki Japanese,” and the like. These are great resources for vocabulary, grammar, and phrases. That’s for certain. However, they do contain a whole lot of English explanation and translation. This is fine for initial comprehension, but having the English there to lead you around by the hand just ends up hindering your progress.
Hands down, full immersion is the way to go. If you’re in it for the speed, there’s nothing better than throwing yourself into the proverbial deep end and trying to keep your head above the kana (hiragana and katakana). You’ll definitely find that you’ll get comfortable in there pretty fast.
Enter みんなの日本語 (みんなのにほんご) — “Japanese for Everyone” in levels beginner through advanced. Here, you’re getting (nearly) the whole package. This gem is especially useful for beginners, as it introduces you to the most basic grammar structures all in kana, and conveniently includes the most basic introductions and pleasantries.
It essentially introduces itself to you in the first chapter, and invites you to do the same. At first, you’ll have to keep a smartphone handy to familiarize yourself with that basic vocabulary, but commit them to memory in context here, and just like you did as a kid, get comfortable with the grammar by repetition. The only translation is in your head.
Now here’s the pesky thing about textbook study. First and foremost, it seems excruciatingly boring. And lonely. And you might feel as if you’re just inhaling the grammar but not retaining it. Personally, I used to get frustrated that while I was sitting there learning grammar rules, I was missing opportunities to speak.
Here’s another opportunity for combination.
Get vocal with your textbook. It’s one thing to read and process, but it’s another entirely to get comfortable using the grammar in conversation. Especially in “みんなの日本語,” you’ll be vocalizing natural phrases, vocabulary in context, sample conversations, and, if you use the CD (which you seriously should, it’s awesome), you can develop a natural pronunciation of Japanese.
Here you are, half-insanely talking to your textbook. And will you ever be glad you did. Did I mention reading aloud will increase your comfort and reading speed with hiragana and katakana? Silly me.
If you want to go the extra mile, try shadowing. Imagine you’re starting a new job, and you’re following the veteran around just behind them as they motor along. Do the same while chasing a recording. Here’s a method that tends to get you started:
- Listen to the passage without looking at the script
- Listen to the passage while reading along silently
- Listen while reading aloud with the CD
- Finally, close your book, and try to repeat the phrases just a beat after the recording. (This gives your brain a second to comprehend what it’s just heard and to prepare you to repeat the sounds)
Better yet, after this, grab your Japanese buddy and practice a lively sample conversation once you’ve mastered the pronunciation. Look at you, speaking Japanese like a pro.
7. Make the Most of Mnemonics (for Creative Memorization)
Let’s face it: Japanese is extremely different from English. They developed in completely different parts of the world, were subjected to different influences and evolved in different ways. But there’s a brilliant ray of light to make memorizing all those new symbols and words a snap: mnemonics!
What’s a mnemonic? Simply put, a mnemonic device is a tool to help people remember vast amounts of information. This ranges from rhymes to images to songs— anything can serve as a mnemonic device, as long as it helps you recall whatever you’ve been learning. Think of the alphabet song, or PEMDAS and FOIL in mathematics. (I always called FOIL the “FAIL method”—a mnemonic device for a mnemonic device!) These are types of mnemonic devices.
Mnemonics will save your life when you’re first starting out, and plenty of mnemonic devices exist for helping newcomers learn Japanese hiragana, katakana and especially kanji.
For instance, the character ん looks like the letter n, so you know that ん makes the “n” sound.
In kanji, 話 means “speak,” and is comprised of the radicals 言 “to say” and 舌 “tongue.” Put them together, and you get “to say with the tongue”—AKA “speak!”
Of course, you can make the most of the dozens of mnemonics out there. But an even more effective way to commit Japanese to memory is by creating your own. Here are some suggestions to help you get started:
- Make stories to distinguish Japanese words that sound similar.
- Example: “The 政府 (せいふ) — government stole money from my 財布 (さいふ) — wallet.”
- Create a song about grammar rules.
- The textbook series “Adventures in Japanese” has a wonderful song to help memorize て forms, to the tune of “O Christmas Tree.”
- Use a spelling device to remember the order of Japanese vowels.
- Example: “All invisible unicorns enjoy olives.” (あいうえお)
Don’t be afraid to get creative. As long as whatever you use helps you correctly recall information, it works!
8. Think in Japanese (for Easy Brain Training)
One of the simplest ways to train your brain to use a foreign language is to think in a foreign language. This requires some conscious effort, but all you have to do is look and think. No textbook necessary!
What’s the point, though? The thing is, just because you’ve read a word’s definition over and over again doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be able to recall it when the situation requires that word. You’ll need to actively use new words in order to assimilate them into your vocabulary.
Thinking in Japanese will allow you to practice using your new words. That way, when you end up in a conversation in Japanese, you’ll be able to express your thoughts and find words much easier. Who wouldn’t want to minimize the time spend fumbling for that one word you need?
Here are some ways you can start thinking in Japanese.
- React in Japanese. Say you’re walking down the street, and you see a cute dog coming your way. Your first reaction is to think about how adorable it is. Instead of making that mental comment in English (or your native language), make a conscious effort to go “あの犬はとても可愛いです.” (あのいぬはとてもかわいいです) — That dog is very cute.
- Describe your surroundings. On your commute to work or school, try reciting the Japanese names of things you see as you go by: car, bus, tree, store and so on. Don’t hesitate to go into more detail, either. How many cars are there? What color is that man’s shirt? What’s the weather like?
- Translate your conversations. After you’ve finished talking to someone, try to create a Japanese translation of your discussion. If you just placed an order with the barista, imagine that transaction taking place in Japanese. It’s alright if you can’t do everything word-for-word—as long as you get the gist down, it’s effective practice!
The best part about thinking in Japanese is that you don’t have to worry about making mistakes in front of others. Your mental world is yours alone, and thinking in Japanese will enrich it tremendously. So there’s no need to be shy. Look at that adorable 犬 and use Japanese to coo over it as much as your heart desires.
9. Watch Japanese YouTubers (Turn Down Time into Study Time)
Odds are you spend lots of time on YouTube, watching cat videos and gaming montages. If you’re going to browse videos anyway, why not swap some of your regular favorites for Japanese YouTubers?
YouTube is popular in Japan, and there are plenty of makeup tutorials, video games, comedy skits and more made by Japanese content creators with hugely popular channels. Some Japanese videos have gone viral in the west, too.
There are also lots of channels to help you learn Japanese, run by native and non-native instructors alike. With so much variety out there, all it takes is a few clicks and you’re ready to binge watch! (Oops, I mean study!)
- ThatJapaneseManYuta is a great resource for actual Japanese study. He has street interviews with Japanese people about a wide variety of topics, including reactions to kanji tattoos and stereotypes, and also offers his own Japanese learning tips while explaining Japanese culture.
- Sushi Ramen Riku is a YouTuber who does bizarre builds and experiments. Some of his hits include hanging from the ceiling until his grandma notices him and pouring superheated salt into a watermelon. Many of his videos have English subtitles, so anybody can enjoy them!
- Hajime Syacho is one of the biggest YouTubers in Japan, and for good reason. His humorous videos show him doing all kinds of things, from eating the world’s largest gummy worm, to pranks, making giant slimes and more. While most of his videos aren’t subtitled in English, they do have Japanese subtitles, allowing you to practice reading and listening at the same time.
By watching Japanese YouTubers, you’ll get a feel for how Japanese people speak to each other as well as get accustomed to Japanese speech patterns. What better way to procrastinate from studying Japanese that by browsing Japanese videos?
10. Swap Out Your Habits (to Find the Hidden Time)
This is the big one.
Ask yourself this question and answer honestly: Why am I not getting any better at Japanese?
You might say a few of these:
- I have no time to study.
- I have no patience because I’m not improving.
- When I come home from work/school, I just want to relax.
Hey man, I thought you wanted to learn Japanese faster?
The cruel and honest fact: learning faster means you have to work harder. The best way to get comfortable with a language is by immersing yourself in it.
So ask yourself: how badly do you want this? If it’s really badly, consider me your conscience kicking your butt out of bed.
We’re going to analyze your day and uncover all that time that you don’t have. We’re going to cram Japanese into your life.
- You do: Binge-watch HBO shows
- You do: Zone out to music on your commute
- You do: Chat with friends about nothing in particular (which is fine…normally)
- You could: Grab your language partner on Skype or in person, and take a Japanese conversation as far as you possibly can.
- You do: Play “Candy Crush,” “Clash of Clans,” or scan Facebook in every second you can manufacture
- You could: Use these seconds to review vocab through a JLPT Study app.
- You do: Hit the Snooze button an embarrassing amount of times and crash at night while watching reruns of ’90s shows
- You could: Make the trek from bed to desk (or even move from lying to sitting position) and crush out 1-5 units in “Speed Master” before your first coffee. At night, 20 minutes before bed, shut the laptop and review those 1-5 units before you sleep.
- (P.S. studies have shown that this is the best time for your brain to retain language!)
You can do it. And you know you want to.
What you need to do is find that indestructible ball of enthusiasm and confidence inside you (it’s usually behind a massive dust-bunny of self-doubt and procrastination), and hold it high above your head, making every effort to get out what you’re trying to express. If you don’t have the words, use the ones you do.
Talk to your textbooks openly. Get excited about the potential ideas you can express with your new “Speed Master” vocab. Have an energetic and hilarious conversation with your language buddy every day. Even if that conversation might be:
- おはようございます！— Good morning!
- おはよう！元気ですか？(おはよう！げんきですか？) — Mornin’! How are you?
- 元気です！それは何ですか？(げんきです！それはなんですか？) — I’m great! What is that?
- これ？これはオレンジジュースです！(これ？これはオレンジジュースです！) — This? It’s orange juice!
- いいですね！— Nice!
Even this pretty shallow conversation is a conversation. In Japanese. Did you understand this? Great! If not, pull out those textbooks and get going.
No more excuses.
Roll all of these tips together and you’re going to find yourself butterflying through the water on the path to fluency at increasing speed, running with your momentum as you charge towards the rising sun (the Japanese flag)!
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.
The FluentU app is now available for iOS and Android, and it's also available as a website that you can access on your computer or tablet.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn Japanese with real-world videos.