What a 50-Language Polyglot Can Teach You About Japanese Study Techniques

Are you ready to double or even triple your Japanese learning speed?

Sounds crazy, but hear me out.

Normal kanji drilling isn’t enough to remember words in the long run.

There are several expert-vetted Japanese study techniques that you should be using instead.

But first, let’s discuss why you should ditch your usual drilling exercises.


Why Standard Drilling Exercises Don’t Work

There are reasons why standard drilling doesn’t work so well:

But if you want to learn kanji, you’ve got practice writing it.

I even recommend drilling in my other articles.

So what gives?

The 4 Language Skills and Why They Matter

I have a CELTA (Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults), and they teach would-be teachers that there are four language skills, all of which are necessary:

And if you think about it, it makes sense.

Every time you use a language, you’re using at least one of these four skills.

In a conversation, you’ll exercise listening and speaking.

When you’re watching a TV show, you’ll use listening.

When you’re reading a book or manga, you’ll use reading.

When you’re writing, you’ll use writing and reading.

And if you want to become really good, great, or awesome at a language, you’ll have to get good at all four skills.

And if you want to double or triple your learning speed, then exercise more than one skill at a time.

2 Japanese Study Techniques Recommended by a Polyglot

Let’s give credit where credit is due…

The guy who came up with these methods, Alexander Arguelles, reads, speaks and writes 50 languages.

No, seriously.

So if that guy does it, then he must be doing something right. Right?

Arguelles is a super-duper smart polyglot who has a couple of compound exercises—as I’m calling them—that have become somewhat popular in the language-learning community. These compound exercises work more than one language skill at the same time: for example, reading, speaking and listening or writing and speaking.

Arguelles calls the following exercises Scriptorium and Shadowing:

1. Scriptorium: How to Triple Your Learning Speed Right Here, Right Now

Grab your nearest kanji flashcard, then write down the kanji a few times in your notebook.

Each time you write the kanji, say the meaning out loud. Now you’ve just doubled your learning speed because you’re practicing two skills instead of one.

Write it again and again, saying the on or kun readings (or alternating between both) out loud.


Now you’re learning how to write a kanji and you’re learning what it means and you’re learning how to say it. So you’re practicing three skills instead of one. Pretty sweet, right?

You’ll see that I’ve presented some modifications to this general method for using kanji. And I think you should modify the exercises based on whatever you’re studying at the time.

Here’s Arguelles’ recommended process tweaked a little for you Japanese students out there:

  1. Say the sentence out loud in Japanese.
  2. Write the sentence while saying each word out loud.
  3. When you’re finished, say it out loud again.

Try it now:

  • Grammar: Write out complete sentences (or the structure you’re studying) and say them aloud as you write them.
  • Vocabulary: Write only the word instead of complete sentences, and group similar words together to practice with situational vocabulary (i.e. all vocab you’d use at the post office, etc.)
  • Kanji Meanings: Write the kanji and say the meaning out loud, in English.
  • Kanji Pronunciation: Write the kanji and say the on or kun readings. Or switch as you write the kanji.

Remember to practice the speaking part before, during, and after you write.

This method’s not too hard, but the benefits can be huge. Not only will you practice several skills at once, but you’ll also be able to create associations between the written form and the sounds, meanings, and so on.

Now, let’s throw a few more language skills into the mix…

2. Shadowing: The Trick to Fast Fluency

Below, we’ll go over another Arguelles method, which he calls shadowing.

You’ll need materials that have both written and audio versions of the same sentence. Grab a Japanese audio textbook or an online learning platform.

To do this exercise: listen to the audio version of a sentence, read it in your textbook and speak it, all at the same time.

So simple, right?

Arguelles also advises following a few points: articulating loudly and clearly while walking outdoors “as swiftly as possible.”

Honestly, I don’t do this, but if you click on the link above, you can see him demonstrate the technique with Chinese.

Try it now:

  1. Get your audio textbook, app, or learning platform. Pick a section to focus on that matches your skill level.
  2. Listen to the section up to three times first, without reading. I advise this because you don’t want too much going on at once.
  3. Listen to the audio while reading it silently up to three times. Again, I think it’s a good idea to ease into it, especially if the material is completely new to you.
  4. Listen to the audio, read it, and say it out loud all at the same time. There you have it! That’s how you practice three skills at once.
  5. Do it loudly while walking around a park at top speed if you like that sort of thing. If you’ve got the cajones, go right ahead…

Resources for Your New Japanese Study Techniques

Again, feel free to modify the exercises to fit your studies. Or your personal preferences…

Because, I’m sorry, but there is just no way I’m power-walking through a park spouting Japanese at the top of my lungs. I’ll be sitting on a bench or in a corner somewhere doing it all quiet-like, thank you very much. That’s just me though…

So what are some other ways you can exercise several skills at once?

Audio TextbooksJapanese study techniques

There are tons of textbooks that can with practicing multiple language skills. Books by popular companies such as Pimsleur or Living Language offer text plus audio, so you carry your Japanese textbook around the park reading out loud like a boss. And you’ll be practicing three skills at the same time.

Full Audio Courses

It sounds like you may only practice one single thing with an audio course, but Pimsleur makes sure it’s about more than just listening—it’s highly interactive. Much of Japanese learning with Pimsleur means listening to a conversation and then repeating parts of it, gradually building up knowledge until you can recall the phrases that have been said when prompted. As noted above, some Pimsleur courses do come with a reading component, too, but this is secondary and not heavily focused on.

The audio is the huge selling point for Pimsleur, and it’s surprisingly well-rounded—you can use this program to learn easily and effortlessly, wherever you go. Many people use this program for learning while driving! Just let the teachers guide you from basic phrases to complete sentences. It always prompts you to listen, repeat and respond, making it highly interactive. You’ll have to pay for Pimsleur materials, but they’re all worth the expense, and sometimes they have nice sales—check out what they're currently offering today!

Apps and SoftwareJapanese study techniques

Rosetta Stone is a software program that uses pictures, written words, and audio to teach language. It’s suitable for beginner or lower intermediate students and can be a good way to practice reading, speaking, and listening at the same time. Just have your wallet handy…it’s not cheap. That said, there’s a reason why it’s so darn famous.

Other mobile apps, such as JA Sensei’s companion, JA Audiobook, offer cheaper alternatives. For around $5 you can download an app that includes real text excerpts and accompanying audio. Again, by speaking alongside the audio, you can practice reading, speaking, and listening at the same time.


There’s also FluentU, a video-based learning app that includes interactive subtitles and transcripts so you can read along (with both hiragana and kanji). Just by following along with the videos, you’re practicing listening and reading simultaneously. And if you decide to speak alongside the audio—which I highly recommend—you’ll be practicing three skills at the same time. The in-app adaptive quizzes also have a speaking component to keep you exercising those skills.

For more apps, check out the top 16 to help you learn Japanese.

TV and Anime

TV shows are great for learning to listen to native Japanese. But they can be a bit challenging for beginners or even intermediate students. Another problem…native video shows will mostly help you practice listening.

If you want to do compound language exercises with TV shows, you have to do a tiny bit of legwork.

Here are a few workarounds:

  • Watch your favorite shows a million times until you memorize what they’re saying. Hey…I’m being serious! I’ve seen Ghost in the Shell so often that I could probably recite the whole movie to you.
  • Get your hands on a show that has Japanese subtitles and Japanese audio. This isn’t quite as hard as it may sound. Here’s a search engine hack for Amazon. For each DVD, there’s a line that says, “Subtitles: Japanese.” So in Google, type: “subtitles: Japanese” amazon, including the quotes. And add on the names of the shows you’re looking for. It’s doesn’t work perfectly, but play around with it for a while and see what happens. Use similar search engine hacking with other sites such as CDJapan, then see what you get.


Okay everybody, that about wraps it up.

Hopefully, you’ve got some ideas that you can use to double or even triple your learning speed.

If you’re really crazy, you can even try to quadruple your learning speed by reading text from one place and listening to someone speak…while you’re writing it and speaking it.

Sounds like a bit much to me.

But if you do try it…

がんばって! (Good luck!)

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