Learning Japanese is pretty hard.
After all, you have to learn thousands of kanji, get the hang of seemingly simple loan words and learn the meaning behind aizuchi.
If only you could pop around the corner and visit Japan on your lunch break.
Of course, for most of us, this is impossible.
The distance keeps even the keenest Japanese learners from hopping on the next flight to Tokyo.
Flights are expensive, holidays few; it might be years before you can get some real Japanese immersion.
But as the old saying goes: If you can’t go to Japan, you’ll just have to bring Japan to you.
There are all sorts of ways to get immersed in Japanese outside of Japan—so until you make it there, fake it!
Short of begging the man in the local store to shout “いらっしゃいませ!” (welcome) each time you enter, we’ve rounded up are the most reliable ways immerse yourself in Japanese right from the comfort of your own home.
5 Steps to Instant Japanese Immersion Without Leaving Home
1. Watch Japanese Television
These days, you can use YouTube and the internet as a whole to access a huge variety of Japanese TV shows, suiting everyone from anime lovers to soap opera addicts.
“Pokémon” and “Dragonball Z” might be the reason some of you first got interested in Japan; don’t forget that now. Revisit your old favorites armed with pen and paper.
Of course, just kicking back with an anime in the background isn’t going to work wonders for your Nihongo. It’s all about active watching.
In other words, watch a show with the intention of picking up new vocabulary. Strive to jot down around 10 new words or phrases each episode. Incorporate them into your growing vocabulary. If you make an effort to learn these words, you’ll be able to pick up on them the next time they come up in conversation.
Language learning is all about spaced repetition and TV series are perfect for this. The same words and lines come up regularly. Hearing the same voices over and again will allow you to get accustomed to the pronunciation and speed of a few different people over a number of weeks.
Below are some recommendations:
“One Piece” — Who doesn’t love stories about pirates, adventure, and big ol’ hunts for hidden treasure?
“Gakuen Alice” — Think “Harry Potter,” except each one of the students attending this school has one, unique supernatural power.
“Lucky Star” — Brilliantly tangential, this series follows the daily lives of four school girls. Time is lavishly devoted to their casual discussions (e.g. the correct way to eat a pastry).
“Hana Yori Dango” — A high school love story. It’s a love triangle that most young Japanese people seem to have an opinion on. Go Team Domyouji!
“Hanazakari no Kimitachi e” — In which a high school girl disguises herself as a boy to enter the all-male Osaka Gakuen. The opening disclaimer says it all: “This drama is fictional. Please pardon the foolishness.”
“Kekkon Dekinai Otoko” — Meet Kuwano-san: 40-year-old architect, convinced of two things: 1. that he loves steak, and 2. that he has no desire to marry.
There are many more options out there! Take a look at our full-length post on learning with dramas.
2. Listen to Japanese Music
Listening practice is absolutely key. We pick up foreign vocabulary through music for the same reason that we remember the lyrics of English songs: music is catchy.
Choose songs that you enjoy listening to and presto! You’ve got a useful listening exercise that won’t be a total chore.
The hardest part can be finding music that you like and that’s the right level for you. There’s no point starting out listening to a rap so fast that you can’t pick out even a single word nor even tell, for that matter, that it’s in Japanese.
Try ballads, pop songs, or TV theme-tunes, which tend to be slower and make it easier to distinguish individual words. All else fails, track down some children’s music!
Lots of YouTube videos have lyrics written in kana or romaji, and a good exercise is to try to sing along with the music, karaoke style. Hey, consider this your formal training for the day you finally end up visiting Japan. Karaoke is unavoidable!
Here are some of our favorites for learning with:
Sekai no Owari — “RPG”
Greeen — “Kiseki”
Arashi — “Love so Sweet” (“Hana Yori Dango” theme song)
Indigo la End — ダビングシーン (“Dubbing Scene”)
To all those Disney lovers out there: you know the songs by heart in English, so why not try them out in Japanese?
“Frozen” — “Let It Go”
“Lion King” — “Hakuna Matata”
To maximize your learning, you should look up words that you don’t know in your Japanese dictionary, and record them and review them using your trusty flashcard app.
Now if this sounds like a lot of work, another option is FluentU.
It naturally and gradually eases you into learning Japanese language and culture. You’ll learn real Japanese as it’s spoken in real life.
Just take a look at the wide variety of authentic video content available in the program. Here’s a small sample:
You’ll discover tons of new Japanese vocabulary through these great clips.
Don’t worry about your skill level being an issue when it comes to understanding the language. FluentU makes native Japanese videos approachable through interactive transcripts.
Tap on any word to look it up instantly.
You’ll see definitions, in-context usage examples and helpful illustrations. Simply tap “Add to” to send interesting vocabulary words to your personal vocab list for later review.
FluentU even uses a learning program which adapts to your specific needs to turn every video into a language learning lesson and get you to actively practice your newly-learned language skills.
Access FluentU on the website to use it with your computer or tablet or, better yet, start learning Japanese on the go with the FluentU app for iOS or Android!
By the way, another great way to work on your listening is with useful podcasts.
3. Read and Watch Japanese News
An excellent way to keep up with Japanese contemporary culture and current affairs is to check out Japanese broadcaster NHK’s “News Web.”
Here, as well as the news in ordinary Japanese, NHK helpfully posts やさしい日本語のニュース (やさしいにほんごのニューズ). These are articles written in simple Japanese, alongside videos and audio clips for listening practice.
The NHK page is wonderfully beginner-friendly, allowing users to hover over more difficult words for explanations in simpler Japanese, and glossing all kanji with hiragana.
Unlike watching TV or listening to music, using NHK’s site will help to hone your Japanese reading skills. The NHK site combines the best bits of textbook learning with interactive features which is a fantastic help to the reader.
Imagine you have two hats. One is an “I am learning about Japanese current affairs” hat. The other is an, “I am learning Japanese” hat. You have, alas, only one head. So why choose which hat to wear? Stick them together, and what have you got? An excellent and shiny new hat—your “I am learning about Japanese culture, in Japanese” hat.
Reading up on Japanese culture and learning Japanese don’t need to be separate activities: combine the two, and learn to speak about the events with the words that native Japanese speakers would use to discuss them.
To have a go at reading an article, see News Web Easy.
Travel and culture website MATCHA offers a similar service, with an “easy Japanese” version of its English website.
4. Play Games in Japanese
For anyone who likes gaming, switching games into Japanese is an easy way to collect new and interesting vocabulary that you wouldn’t necessarily learn in a classroom.
“Pokémon” is a great place to start: it offers the option of kana (intended for Japanese children) or kanji, so it can be attempted by Japanese learners from lower-intermediate to advanced.
The game’s repetitive situations such as battles, going to the Pokémon Centre, and so on really allow new vocab to become internalized. It won’t be long before it becomes normal to see some of the moves, items, and phrases in Japanese.
The best bit is that the more words you look up and the more vocabulary you understand, the better you’ll be able to play the game.
Have you ever wanted to replay your favorite game from scratch? Now you can! Playing the game for a long time becomes a positively conscientious effort. You’ll have a whole new learning curve like when you first picked up your Gameboy back in grade school.
No-one wants to be defeated because at a crucial moment they didn’t realize that the move しっぽをふる is “Tail Whip” and, as such, is essentially useless.
5. Switch Your Social Media to Japanese
Think about things that you do every day that could be converted into Japanese. Social media are great for this, because 1. they’re online, and so their language can usually be changed, and 2. we all spend too much time on them, so we might as well be improving our Japanese at the same time.
Switching your Facebook to Japanese will replace the like button with an いいね！button; an “X has become friends with Y” to XさんとYさんが友達になりました (XさんとYさんがともだちになりました), and a “X liked Y’s photo” to XさんがYさんの写真について”いいね!”と言っています (XさんがYさんのしゃしんについて “いいね！”といっています.)
You will learn specific phrases like these but, just as importantly, it will become more and more natural just to see Japanese text.
If, like me, your first ever glance at a page of full Japanese text filled you with vague panic and the conviction that you would never be able to decipher these characters, then I have good news and bad news.
The good news? The characters aren’t as alien as they might seem, and after a few months you will start to scan them as you do English.
The bad news? It will be a challenge.
Learning takes time, and the only real way to learn is frequent exposure. But that’s not really even bad news because you like learning Japanese—that’s why you’re here!
Immersion doesn’t have to happen in Japan.
Immersion at home works because it makes your newly acquired language a part of your daily life in the way that your own language is. Learning ceases to take place through a textbook or a student-teacher exchange.
Learning a language is not just showing up to a class once a week. It’s about taking initiative and doing all the small things you possibly can between classes.
So, if you can’t get to Japan, bring Japan to you!
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