Why Saying “I Want to Learn Japanese” Won’t Help You and How to Set Good Goals

I became a vegetarian in high school but that all changed about two days after arriving in Japan. I realized that it would be a sin to spend an entire year in the country without trying sushi, so I did.

When I decided to return for a second year, I joked to a friend that I loved the fish in Japan so much that I just had to come back. My friend, loosely quoting Abraham Tverski, interrupted me: “You don’t love fish! You just love eating fish!”

Pedantic as it may seem, I’m convinced that this is a clarification that’ll help you learn Japanese faster. After all, you don’t want to learn Japanese. You want to do something, but in Japanese.

Today I’m hoping to poke holes in your “fish love” in order to help you actually learn Japanese.

In this post, we’ll talk about why “I want to learn Japanese” is a statement that won’t get you anywhere in your learning. Then, we’ll walk through some concrete steps toward creating more effective goals. Finally, we’ll look at a few examples of what good goals look like.

By the end of this article, your goal of “I want to learn Japanese” will morph into something you can actually act on and you’ll be well on your way to actually accomplish what you’re setting out to do.

“I Want to Learn Japanese”: How to Set Good Goals and Find Your Way to Fluency

Step 1: Understand Why “I Want to Learn Japanese” Is a Poor Goal

Current goal: “I want to learn Japanese.”

Saying “I want to learn Japanese” doesn’t give you anywhere to go. But more than that, it’s false—learning Japanese is really just a conduit for doing the thing that you actually want to do.

Maybe you heard a song by Yonedzu Kenshi or Amazarashi on the radio, thought it was beautiful and wished you could understand it. Do you have any idea how smooth Japanese rap is? It’s pretty easy to fall in love with it.


Maybe you’re into dramas and really wanted to watch “Ossans’ Love,” a drama that took the world (or at least Taiwan) by storm, before subtitles came out. (If not, consider yourself hereby obligated to do so).

Maybe you’re a bookworm and heard about how special (or perhaps strange) Haruki Murakami’s writing is in Japanese. Perhaps you just clicked that link and saw how many other incredible authors Japan boasts, many of whose works are largely untranslated.

Maybe you’re into anime—or maybe you’re not but recently discovered that cartoons you watched as a kid like “Pokemon,” “Digimon” or “Yu-Gi-Oh!” actually fall into this category and are Japanese and now you’ve just “gotta watch ’em all!”

Maybe you’ve seen that pink-haired-polka-dot-loving artist Yayoi Kusama pop up in your news feed about a million times and wonder what she’s all about.

Who knows, maybe you just really dig variety shows and can’t get enough “Merengue Sensation.”

These are only a few of the reasons why I love Japanese and I could literally write an entire post just about the awesome things I love about the language and culture. Whether you share my hobbies or I completely missed the mark, my point is that behind wanting to learn the Japanese language is probably an interest related to Japanese.

Step one is understanding what drives your desire to learn.

Embrace this.

Step 2: Understand How to Give Your Goal “Direction”

Current goal: “I want to learn Japanese because Japanese food is delicious.”

Simply put, just as you can’t catch any fish in water where no fish exist, you won’t make any progress chasing after a goal that doesn’t go anywhere.

This is why saying “I want to learn Japanese” isn’t very helpful. The flow chart of progress doesn’t go anywhere. This all changes upon qualifying your desire to learn Japanese.

Say that you’re a new cook and want to make some fool-proof 肉じゃが (にくじゃが) — “nikujaga,” a meat and potato stew that’s the embodiment of nostalgia and comfort food in Japan.

Here’s how you might approach your craving for 肉じゃが:

1. You find a 肉じゃが recipe after a bit of Googling.

2. Being a beginner in Japanese, you don’t understand the instructions.

3. You consider your options: Are you more interested in Japanese or Japanese food? (This is how we identify which problems must be solved.)

4a. If you just want to eat delicious Japanese food, you don’t need Japanese to do that. Here’s an English 肉じゃが recipe. Boom! You just saved several years of time by deciding to walk half a kilometer instead of building a car from scratch to cover the same distance.

4b. If your desire to use Japanese is equal, greater than or (so help you God) necessary to satisfy this desire of having a bit of heaven in your tummy, then our process becomes more complicated. You not only want to learn Japanese, now you have to!

So, again, find your motivation and embrace it.

Research even suggests that emphasizing why you want to achieve a goal is more important than planning how you’ll do it. If you don’t come to a reason strong enough to guide your learning of Japanese, then you’ll probably save yourself a ton of time by realizing that there’s a much easier means to satisfy the desire into which “learning Japanese” is nested.

In step one, I listed the reasons that drove me to learn Japanese. Now make a list of your own. Answer the question “Why do you want to learn Japanese?” in as much detail as you can!

Next, go on to step three and express these goals in a SMART format. If you struggle, glance at everything you need to know to achieve your goals by Bakadesuyo.

Step 3: Work SMARTer, Not Harder

Current goal: “I want to learn Japanese because I like Japanese food and [this cool source] is only available in Japanese/there’s a richer variety of content in Japanese.”

SMART is an acronym for formatting goals that’s empowering because it forces you to create a goal with a specific direction and time frame in mind.

S stands for Specific
M stands for Measurable
A stands for Achievable
R stands for Relevant
T stands for Time-bound

Since you’re trying to figure out how you should go about learning Japanese, you should be asking questions. Use these to guide you:

  • What do you want to do?
  • Why is it meaningful to you?
  • Who is a part of your goal?
  • Where is it going to be done?
  • How much of your resources will it cost?

Set specific goals

Let’s slightly modify the sample current goal at the beginning of this section:

“I want to gain the skills necessary to understand recipes in Japanese.”

This goal is different from the previous ones in an important way: emphasizing the “necessary skills” breaks down the gargantuan task of “learning Japanese” into something much more manageable. Instead of learning Japanese to deal with all areas of life, we suddenly only need to learn enough to deal with one: reading a recipe.

By narrowing down your focus, you can start working on smaller steps that’ll take you toward your final goal.

This is the point where you should begin thinking about the big picture in terms of tiny components.

Measure your progress

Your next step, according to the SMART goal process is to find a way to measure your progress. In other words, break down the “necessary skills” and plot a path through them.

If you skim an incredibly detailed step-by-step guide about learning Japanese and minimize it to the parts relevant for your goal, you might pick out these steps:

1. Learn the hiragana and katakana (phonetic scripts like our alphabet).

2. Learn the kanji (the characters whose sounds are represented by hiragana/katakana).

3. Learn Japanese vocabulary.

4. Learn Japanese grammar.

You can break these goals down even further by asking yourself two questions:

  • How much time will I spend on this goal each day?
  • How do I know when I’m done?

Let’s break down the hiragana and katakana step as an example and create a sub-goal that you can use as a stepping stone to your ultimate goal:

In order to read Japanese, I first need to master the most basic script used in Japanese. Hiragana and katakana are each comprised of 71 characters, which means that I’ll need to learn 142 units in total. I’ll learn 10 per day, and will complete the goal of learning all 142 in about two weeks.

You now have a very specific, actionable sub-goal and a time frame to achieve it in. It almost seems doable now, doesn’t it?

Make sure your goal is achievable

There’s nothing we won’t do for our taste buds; two weeks passed and you’ve now got the hiragana down. You’ve downloaded a Spaced Repetition System (SRS) like Anki so you can move on to learning kanji just like that impressive and convincing guide suggested. But… wait a second.

I meant it when I told you to work SMARTer, not harder. If you’re really going to learn Japanese then you’ll have to learn “everything” eventually. You might as well do it in an efficient order! You might have heard about David Allen’s two-minute rule, paraphrased here: If doing something will take less than two minutes, do it. If it’ll take more than two minutes, schedule it for later.

This is a powerful productivity hack that I’d like you to apply to your language learning: If there’s something you can do that’s relevant to your life and your Japanese learning goal right now, focus on that instead of something that’ll be “helpful eventually.”

Have you hooked the fish I’m reaching for? (I know that was terrible, sorry.)

You don’t need to learn every kanji, grammar concept or word in Japanese right now. The fastest way to understand Japanese recipes is to break down several recipes and learn the vocabulary and grammar inside of them. Recipes tend to use repeated expressions and have a quite limited range of vocabulary. This means that you can become fluent in “Japanese for recipes” much faster than in “Japanese.”

This is true even if you aren’t learning Japanese because you love 肉じゃが. Whatever your goal is, the most important words and grammar to learn are the ones that are most relevant to your needs right now.

Think about it: If you’re really into Japanese pop music, there’s no point in learning formal speech as that’s not what you typically find in J-pop. On the flip side, if you’re a business owner looking to expand into Japan, casual speech isn’t something you’ll really need to know to achieve your goal.

Using the “learning Japanese to understand recipes” example, here’s a SMART sub-goal you might set to learn the relevant vocabulary and grammar:

“Learn the words and grammar necessary to understand a specific 肉じゃが recipe. If I learn five words per day, then I’ll know all the vocab I need in less than a month, leaving me with enough time to work through the grammar structures with a tutor.”

Use this example to guide your own goal-setting, no matter what your end-goal is.

Assess how relevant your goal is

At this point, you’ve knocked out a goal or two. We’ve invested a month or so into getting the basics of reading recipes down, you’re making some super 肉じゃが and because a lot of vocabulary and grammar gets repeated from recipe to recipe, you’ve also looked into making some other simple recipes like 親子丼 (おやこどん) — chicken and eggs on a bowl of rice. That’s great! You’ve progressed.

Are you happy? Is your stomach satisfied? It’s time to re-evaluate the situation.

  • This was six weeks of your life that you won’t get back. Was it worth it?
  • Do you need to spend more time on Japanese or are you content with only being able to read recipes?
  • If cooking’s what powers your learning, how can you get more involved?
  • If the food was great but it’s not quite hitting the (Japanese) spot, what’s wrong?

After some serious contemplation, you can modify, expand and even completely rewrite your goals for the future.

Pace yourself with time limits

You’ve probably already noticed that every sub-goal I mentioned so far has been time-bound, but it’s so important that I want to state it directly. When I say that your goals should be time-bound, I mean that they should have an end: we’re shooting to spend our life in Japanese, not to spend our life learning 肉じゃが recipes in Japanese.

That might seem a little silly in this context because learning a single recipe is a goal that’s very concrete and tangible. This idea becomes more important when you bite off more than you can chew (did you expect another fish joke?).

Let’s say that your goal was to read 10 pages of a book each day but you’re only consistently making four. If you’re constantly not meeting your time limit, that means that the goal you’ve picked is either a little too hard or not relevant enough to your interests.

Time frames go hand-in-hand with the previous step: It’s important to re-evaluate your goals along the way. You were willing to spend a month reading this book, but are you willing to spend two?

Putting time limits on your goals is essentially a fail-safe to ensure that you’re not wasting your time on things that are too difficult or aren’t meaningful enough.

Nobody except you can determine that time limit exactly; your level’s unique and constantly changing.

I personally have three tiers of goals that are constantly moving. Some things I identify as tasks to be completed within one day (like watching an episode of a drama or vocabulary reviews), others are weekly tasks (like finishing a chapter of my grammar workbook and writing these posts) and my last tier is a monthly goal (like finishing an entire book).

With this in mind, let’s expand and refocus our sample goal:

Expanding a goal: “I really enjoy cooking but it’s a little lonely all by myself. I talked to a few Japanese international students and we’ll get together once per week to cook.


This means that I should learn one new recipe each week and I also booked a couple of lessons on iTalki. Each week, I’ll go over the recipe with my tutor, learn some basic kitchen commands and then use the remaining time to work on a self-introduction.”

Refocusing a goal: “It took a lot of effort to figure out the grammar used in recipes and I still find it difficult to keep all of the different て-form verb endings straight.

I decided to purchase a beginner’s textbook for more practice and will work through a chapter each week. I’m not sure how difficult it’ll be to learn, so I might have to readjust and do a chapter every two weeks, instead.”


At this point, you should be armed with a much more useful and actionable goal (and sub-goals) than “I want to learn Japanese.”

While it’s true that learning Japanese might be difficult, learning each part of Japanese doesn’t have to be. Taking a little bit of time to think about how—and especially why—you’re going to learn Japanese can greatly simplify the process.

Find one thing that you really want to do in Japanese, break it down into smaller steps and then be SMART about taking those steps!

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