When you first start learning Japanese, it feels like you’re speeding along the freeway, seeing the sights and taking in so much knowledge along the way.
But sooner or later, we all reach a point where we hit a speed bump and feel the engines stall.
Suddenly, you’re stuck in a jam and the lack of improvement in your Japanese skills is driving you nuts!
Before you blow a gasket, take a look at our carefully selected tips and tricks to get you out of that rut and improve your Japanese. These 12 tips will have you firing on all cylinders and back in the fast lane in no time!
Improve Your Japanese Skills with 12 Tried-and-true Tips
Whatever stage of Japanese learning you’re at, it’s worth regularly tuning up your methods to ensure that you’re learning in the most efficient way. Your time is precious, and streamlining your learning will make sure that you get the best dividends from the hard work you put into your studies.
Follow these tips to ensure your studying is as efficient as it can get.
1. Understand the mechanics of remembering and forgetting
If you’re studying topics when you already know them well, then you can waste a lot of time going over familiar ground. On the other hand, if you wait too long, then you risk having to re-learn old material and your previous efforts will have been wasted.
Understanding the curve of forgetting and how it relates to your own learning can help you to strategize effectively and find the best point to review material.
In “How We Learn,” Benedict Carey explains how “Some amount of ‘breakdown’ must occur for us to strengthen learning when we return to the material. Without a little forgetting, you get no benefit from further study. It is what allows learning to build, like an exercised muscle.”
Optimize the curve of forgetting and make sure you review new material at the most beneficial intervals, the way FluentU does.
FluentU makes native Japanese videos accessible to any level learner through interactive transcripts. There’s a handy pop-up dictionary that allows you to check any word instantly, just by tapping on it in the subtitles. You’ll see definitions, in-context usage examples and helpful illustrations. You can even save words to your personalized vocabulary list to review later.
As you learn, FluentU uses intelligent software to adapt to your needs and create the perfect program for your learning pace and style. The FluentU app makes learning on the go a breeze on iOS or Android devices and the FluentU website means you can switch to your browser whenever it suits you.
2. Focus on what you’ll use most often
To achieve fluency faster and get returns on your learning investment, you should prioritize important information. It makes sense to learn the most common words first and rarer words or grammar once you’ve gained fluency in the basics.
It’s really hard to know which words or kanji are going to be useful as a non-native speaker but thankfully, there are resources that can help. The Japanese corpus is a list of Japanese words compiled by linguistic researchers, based on a comprehensive analysis of a wide range of Japanese sources.
The resultant list of words, ordered by frequency of usage, is commonly referred to as the Japanese “core vocabulary.”
There are lots of resources which teach the core 1,000, 2,000 or even 10,000 words, such as the Japanese Core 2,000 flashcard deck on the SRS flashcard platform Anki.
Using the core vocabulary means that even if you only study 100 words, those words are the 100 that are most commonly used, so they’ll be the most useful in typical conversations.
3. Prioritize improving your Japanese speaking and listening skills
Japanese really comes alive when you can make friends. Nothing beats being able to make someone laugh, or seeing someone’s eyes light up as you connect with them.
If you improve your Japanese speaking skills, then you’ll be able to ask questions and make connections with people even if you can’t read or write fluently. Conversely, being literate but unable to hold a conversation will make face-to-face connections really difficult to form.
To see the importance of improving your Japanese speaking skills, imagine that you’re in a restaurant and you can’t read. No big deal: You can just ask the waitstaff what dishes they recommend or if they have something that’s spicy, and so on.
On the other hand, if you can read but can’t speak well and encounter unfamiliar ingredients or onomatopoeia (used often on menus), then you may struggle to order something you’d enjoy.
If you don’t have anyone to practice speaking with yet, it’s a good idea to make a few Japanese friends. One great way to connect with Japanese speakers is through language exchange. Find a partner and make the most of your study time by working together to help each other.
Become a Better Learner
Sometimes, all it takes to learn faster and more efficiently is a shift in perspective. Learn better, not harder, with these tips!
4. Set good goals and have realistic expectations
Goal setting is really important if you’re striving to achieve fluency. Think about when you’ve been successful in the past and what factors helped (or hindered) you.
Track how you’re progressing through each month and review your goals regularly. Trackers such as those in this Language Printables resource can be very helpful.
Feeling unmotivated, or just plain burnt out, can be a major spanner in the works, especially if you’re studying without peers and teachers to encourage you. Try to keep motivation high and avoid crashing by using the following tips:
- Find your learning style and choose activities well suited to you.
- Use engaging content that’s relevant to your life when you study. Now and again, treat yourself and invest in a new resource to keep things fresh.
- Have good sleep hygiene.
- Set realistic goals.
- Ask for help. You can find native speakers who will support you through apps like HiNative and HelloTalk
- Take regular breaks to avoid burnout.
- Reward yourself to maintain motivation to improve.
5. Little and often is better than occasional marathon learning
Much like training for a sport, how often you practice Japanese is just as important as how much time you spend practicing. One long session flexing your Japanese muscles a week won’t pay off as much as shorter daily practice in the long run.
To keep you on track, try the Pomodoro technique, which was devised by Francesco Cirillo and introduced in his book of the same name. Essentially, you break your time into 30-minute chunks. Out of those 30 minutes, spend 25 minutes uninterrupted on the task at hand and five minutes taking a break. The technique is said to improve focus, productivity and motivation.
Free task timer apps like 30/30 or online timers make it easy to try the Pomodoro technique right away and see how well it works for yourself.
Another way to make sure you get through reviews regularly is to integrate learning into time that’s otherwise wasted. Studying while you commute, queue for the ATM or brush your teeth can help you find extra minutes you didn’t even realize you had, leaving more time for the things you love—like studying even more Japanese!
6. Avoid procrastination
It’s no good to sit at a desk with a textbook open if you’re taking nothing in—and we’ve all done it! Nor is it helpful to nag yourself about studying all day, while continually putting it off.
Brian Tracy, author of “Eat That Frog!” quotes Mark Twain in a wonderfully strange but effective analogy: If you eat a frog in the morning, you’ll feel satisfied knowing that you’ve already been through the worst thing that can happen that day. This “frog” is the hardest task on your study to-do list and, as you can imagine, people tend to put off the toughest tasks they have (like, say, eating a frog).
So get the most important, challenging task out of the way early in the day, so that you can feel motivated and accomplished, rather than having a nagging feeling that you still haven’t studied.
It’s important to choose study materials that’ll make it easy to stay focused. Too often, textbooks are dry or not relevant to your interests, so anime, manga, music and other pop culture can be far better choices to keep enthusiasm high.
An open secret among successful language learners is that self-discipline steps in where motivation fails you. A good routine, where learning is well-integrated into your lifestyle, means that learning comes as second nature, no matter what your mood. As Jim Ryun puts it, “Motivation is what gets you started. Habit is what keeps you going.”
Cultivating self-discipline will yield more consistent results than waiting for motivation. Apps that remind you to study and other types of technology that fit learning around your lifestyle will help you achieve your goals no matter what’s happening that day.
If you’re a serial procrastinator, then apps and plugins may help you break the habit and build a good study routine.
7. Learn from your mistakes
Mistakes are something that can be uncomfortable to recognize, but they’re a natural part of language learning.
When we learned to speak as children, we did it through repeated trial and error until we were understood and had adults helping to correct our mistakes. As adults, we can support our own learning by recognizing our mistakes and using them to help point us toward where we need to focus our efforts.
Rethinking the mindset many of us have about mistakes can really help boost motivation and reduce feelings of failure or frustration.
It’s natural to want to speak perfectly, but it’s worth remembering that if we understand everything and are making no mistakes when learning something new, then we aren’t being adequately challenged. Conversely, if we understand nothing, we’ll soon get lost and won’t be able to learn effectively.
Finding materials at your learning level can be a little overwhelming at first. The five-finger rule can be very helpful for determining if something’s the right language level for you, especially when it comes to reading materials.
Open a new reading book (not a textbook) or some Japanese short stories to any page and count the number of words you don’t understand as you read. Then, use this guide to determine if the text is too easy, too difficult or just right:
- 0-1 unknown words: The text is too easy and you’re not being adequately challenged.
- 2-3 unknown words: This text is just right. You can read it and learn something new without getting lost.
- 4 unknown words: This text will be a challenge, but try it if you’re feeling ambitious!
- 5+ unknown words: This text is too difficult for you right now.
Remember: Noting mistakes, studying the material again and reviewing regularly until you no longer make those mistakes is the best way to improve your Japanese.
8. Practice active learning
Let’s try some active learning right now! Without looking it up, draw the Apple logo. It’s simple, right? Seriously, give it a go!
How many times have you seen the Apple logo? It must be thousands, so you must be able to draw it perfectly, right?
Now check the real Apple logo against your drawing. How accurate is it?
The Universe of Memory goes into this experiment in more detail and why simply being exposed to something repeatedly isn’t enough to actually remember it. Active learning, rather than passive exposure, is the best way to form strong memories and recall new information.
Make your learning more active by using the SAT acronym:
Some strategies that’ll promote active learning are shadowing, quizzing yourself, using SRS programs and applying your learning in conversation.
Reflecting upon learning and asking questions as you learn will also strengthen your memories and make your routine more active. Other strategies to boost active learning include re-phrasing and summarizing content. You can do this quickly by verbally summarizing, which also helps you get extra speaking practice.
Research indicates that we find learning and recall easier when the topic connects to something we already know, so take a moment to consider how a new topic links with your prior learning to strengthen neural connections.
Using the “KWL System” is a simple method to activate prior learning and form connections between topics. Learners simply ask themselves:
- What do I know already?
- What do I want to know?
- What did I learn?
Shortcuts That Really Work
Improving your Japanese skills takes hard work and dedication. Of course, that doesn’t mean you can’t take a few shortcuts along the way! Here are a few tips that really work.
9. Immerse yourself in Japanese
Surround yourself with Japanese for a certain amount of time every week or even every day. Make this a Japanese-only space, where everything you do—from checking your phone to writing your shopping list—is done in Japanese.
Avoid distractions in your native language by using a focus app for your cell phone, a clock or a kitchen timer.
Resist the urge to translate to your native language. Try to switch your internal dialogue to Japanese and when you hear words, try to imagine what they describe (in pictures), not what they say in your native language (in words).
Even if you can only think in scattered Japanese words and not full sentences, you’ll save time and effort and reach fluency faster if you can think in Japanese. Each time you translate in your head, you’re adding an extra step which slows you down. Simply put, it’s inefficient and more tiring to convert everything into your native language in your head.
Immersion can quickly tire you out if you don’t include activities that are fun, so use Japanese culture you enjoy for the immersion experience, whether that’s singing your favorite Japanese songs, watching Japanese cartoons or some other activity you like.
10. Develop multiple skills at once
Each time you study a new resource, you need to put time into getting to grips with its content. By moving on quickly, you may accidentally slow your learning, missing chances for review and having to re-learn at a future date. Don’t miss opportunities to get the most out of the time and money you’ve spent on your learning tools: Use them to develop multiple language skills at once.
Many textbooks and learning resources have accompanying audio, so why limit yourself to just practicing one skill at a time? Add shadowing to listening or reading practice to develop speaking instead of just honing silent skills.
You can also summarize or re-phrase parts of the audio, either verbally or by writing notes in Japanese. This allows you to improve your Japanese speaking, listening, reading and writing skills using just one resource. You’ll spend less time checking new points and more time strengthening your skills.
Of course, you’ll need to find the right balance between reviewing past learning enough to form long-term memories and progressing at a good speed.
Too often, independent study is done in silence and speaking and listening are neglected as a result. Talking to yourself has proven benefits, creating strong memories (as well as building muscle memory for pronunciation and developing speed). And, while you may not want to do this in public, trying it when studying alone could give your learning, and your recall, just the boost it needs.
11. Learn set phrases
Japanese has lots of set greetings and phrases that you’ll encounter in daily life. Learning to use these phrases with a rough understanding of their meaning is enough to make sure you’re being polite when ordering, dining or shopping in Japan.
Just as you don’t really need to fully understand the root and full meaning of why it’s polite to say “bless you” in English if someone sneezes, there are many phrases in Japanese that you can learn to use first and analyze later.
You can learn set greetings and common phrases as they’re used, which can help you learn useful Japanese in a way that’s immediately applicable in daily Japanese life. When studying, try to focus more on the sound, rhythm, intonation and meaning, rather than the component parts, and you’ll sound like a native speaker in no time.
The phrases you’ll want to learn vary by your motivation and goals. For example, if you plan to visit Japan and do some shopping, you might learn to recognize set phrases of keigo (polite speech) used by waitstaff and shop staff, as well as how to respond.
Additionally, a few slang phrases can go a long way when trying to engage in casual conversation and seem friendly, especially as most textbooks teach comparatively formal Japanese compared to what friends use when conversing.
12. Connect with your community
Learning with friends can make improving your Japanese more fun than hard work. Check out Meetup, local colleges’ Japanese societies, community center events or classes to find people who like the Japanese language and culture, too.
You can also check out what your nearest Japanese embassy is doing to promote the Japanese language and culture in your area.
Now, you don’t need to throw your learning methods on the scrapheap and start over to get more mileage from your time spent learning.
Start with a simple tune-up and streamline your study routine little by little, and you’ll improve your Japanese before you know it!
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