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).
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: 4 Useful Hacks
1. Consume Vocab and Kanji Simultaneously (with This Tool)
Let’s face it: learning kanji (漢字 or, Chinese characters) is not the friendliest of tasks. It can be slow, dull, and gruelling. 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. Master Using Everyday Grammar (with a Partner-in-crime)
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 everyday, 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…?
- 。。。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.
3. 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.
4. 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 convenient hacks, then I should also tell you about the FluentU app.
The FluentU app takes real-world videos like music videos, commercials, news, and inspiring talks and turns them into Japanese learning experiences. It naturally and gradually eases you into learning Japanese language and culture. You’ll learn real Japanese as it’s spoken in real life.
The FluentU app has a broad range of contemporary videos—like music videos, dramas, TV shows and TV commercials:
FluentU makes these native Japanese videos approachable through interactive transcripts. Talk about a hack! 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 it suggests content and examples based on your vocabulary. You’ll have a 100% personalized experience.
The FluentU app is now available for iPhone and Android, and FluentU is also available as a website that you can use with 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.