Ever have that dream where you’re taking a test you haven’t studied for?
Sitting at an uncomfortable desk, under pressure, with the clock ticking…
No matter how long you’ve been out of school, it never gets any less unpleasant.
What is it about that classroom environment—in nightmares and real life? Of course, a focused class with a good teacher can do wonders for your language education. But is it the most engaging, authentic way to learn?
Not always. And that’s important for language learners.
If you’re passionate about getting fluent in Japanese, the last thing you want is to put all your attention toward drills and tests. You need authentic language learning opportunities that’ll get you comfortable having real conversations with native speakers.
In this post, we’ll show you six effective but engaging tips for learning Japanese right from your own home. These ideas can provide awesome supplements to any structured Japanese courses or programs you’re pursuing, or they can stand alone to boost your skills in new ways.
Why Study Japanese Outside of the Classroom?
- You can use Japanese like the Japanese use it, not just to pass tests. Think about how you learned your native language as a child. Yes, there were some classes and some tests, but they were also backed up by a lifetime of real-world usage, from watching “Sesame Street,” to chatting with your friends and reading fun facts about animals at the zoo.
Ultimately, you were learning your native language in order to navigate your world and communicate with others, not just for good grades. Broadening your language studies can help you achieve the same in Japanese. Languages exist to be used!
- If you’re already enrolled in classes, great! You can use these tools to become even better. You may have heard of the これはペンです (これ は ぺん です — this is a pen) analogy; it’s the most basic grammatical construction that you need to know, but it’s also a boring, dry sentence that you’ll probably never have to say in real life.
While the things you’ll learn in the classroom are invaluable to your fluency, many of these lessons could be learned outside of the classroom and injected with a bit of fun. For example, ドラえもんはロボット猫です (どらえもんは ろぼっと ねこ です — Doraemon is a robotic cat) might not come up in real life any more often than これはペンです, and might not be appropriate for a textbook writer to use, but it’s certainly a more entertaining way to learn that same sentence construction for most of us!
Classrooms do play a part in the journey to fluency for most learners. The guidance of a native or native-level Japanese-speaker who’s experienced in language teaching can build an important framework for your studies. But incorporating the Doraemons of the Japanese language into your studies will keep things fresh and fun, so you’re motivated to keep learning.
- By learning outside the classroom, you’re designing your own curriculum. You can learn about the things that matter to you, follow your passions and hobbies and get rid of the boring bits. Learning Japanese shouldn’t feel like a chore.
You’re a unique human being with a variety of interests, things you love to talk about and things you love to learn about. At the moment, you’re doing a lot of that in English and I’m sure you’d love to get to the point where you’re confident doing the same in Japanese.
A classroom of students will have so many different passions, but classroom learning generally won’t cater to them individually. In the limited time you have available, you’ll be learning important things (let’s face it, nobody’s passionate about asking for directions to the train station, but you still need to know!). By complementing your formal studies with learning the things you love, you’ll be well on your path to fluency.
So without further ado, here are six tips that’ll help you to make learning Japanese faster, more effective and more fun.
6 Super Effective Tips for Learning Japanese That Your Sensei Won’t Tell You
1. Ditch the Handwriting Drills
Students of Japanese often spend far too much time memorizing stroke orders, and not enough time on what’ll prove the most useful in their studies: learning to read, speak and listen. In real life, most of us type on our phones and computers and rarely write by hand.
The same even applies to native Japanese speakers. There’s a growing phenomenon of Japanese people forgetting how to handwrite kanji because they hardly ever have to. On the flip side, it’s not unusual to meet students who’ve studied Japanese for several years, and can handwrite far more kanji than their native Japanese counterparts, but struggle to use the language in real-life settings.
Of course, being able to write the 仮名 (かな — kana) is naturally very important, but over 2,000 joyo kanji?
You need to read them to be fluent, but do you really need to handwrite even half of them?
If 25-year-old Hanako doesn’t need to know how to handwrite more than a handful of kanji in her day-to-day life and work, then you probably don’t either.
With the limited time that you have available in your studies, and so much to learn before achieving native fluency, consider putting handwriting on the back burner and focusing instead on the skills that’ll add more immediate value to your Japanese studies. Use your reclaimed time to read more, talk more, watch more and basically practice using the language in a way that the Japanese are actually using it themselves.
That said, this doesn’t mean you can get away with not handwriting any kanji, especially if you’re planning to spend time in Japan.
There’s still a lot of bureaucracy and forms in Japan; it can be rather embarrassing when you can converse fluently even on arcane academic subjects but need to use Google to look up the kanji for your address.
The clerk at Town Hall will probably look pretty confused when you have a nice long chat about the ins and outs of local government and then watch your ardent struggle to write down where you live.
2. Learn Casual Japanese from Manga
As anyone who has even just have a passing interest in Japanese pop culture knows, there’s a manga for pretty much everything. From history to statistics, the Japanese learn about all sorts of fascinating educational subjects through manga, so you can double-down and practice your Japanese language skills while broadening your horizons as well.
Of course, life isn’t all about winning at Trivial Pursuit, so for something lighter, more entertaining, but also just as useful to your Japanese studies, you can skip the educational-manga genre entirely; so much can also be learned by following the exciting adventures of an alien girl with a squid on her head.
By studying with manga, you’ll be learning lessons that don’t generally come in textbooks. Japanese is a living language, with slang, casual speech and all sorts of words that you wouldn’t use at your university or at the office, but that people use every day with their friends and family. Studying with manga is all about getting exposure to the fun stuff!
A lot of this sort of casual speech is used in anime, too, but the benefit of manga is that it’s happening as fast or as slow as you read, and you’ve got plenty of time to Google terms that you’re unfamiliar with, instead of frantically pressing pause and rewind every time you miss something.
If you’re living in Japan, you’ll have no problem finding pretty much any manga you could dream of with affordable prices and shipping at Amazon Japan. There are also many bookstore chains like Maruzen and Kinokuniya where you can shop up a storm. Also, if you’re in Tokyo or Osaka, then Akihabara and Nipponbashi respectively are basically the Promised Lands of everything manga and anime.
If you’re living overseas, ask your Japanese friends if you can have some of their discards or find out if there’s a manga cafe in your city. They might not be advertised in English, but you’d be surprised how frequently such cafes do exist. Japanese specialty stores will often have some secondhand bookstores, and even the multilingual section of your local library might be able to help!
Which sounds more enjoyable: reading through a Japanese textbook, or binging Japanese movies on Netflix?
Probably the movies, right?
But it’s actually possible to get the focused learning benefits of a textbook plus the entertainment value of authentic Japanese content.
This is where FluentU comes in. FluentU takes real-life Japanese videos, like movie trailers, music videos, inspiring talks and more, and transforms them into interactive learning experiences.
Each video comes with captions you can click to get instant definitions, examples sentences and visual learning aids. You’ll also be pointed to other videos that use the word. Then, FluentU’s innovative “Learn Mode” takes the video content and creates flashcards and activities to help you retain what you’ve learned.
It’s an awesome way to hear Japanese the way it’s really spoken, while also actively building your vocabulary. Plus, you’ll get exposure to Japanese culture and entertainment, which will give you plenty to chat about with native speakers!
If you want to take your learning with you wherever you go, check out the FluentU mobile app too.
4. Get Your Vocabulary Cooking with Japanese Recipes
There’s so much that you can learn from using Japanese recipes. Not only will you be massively upping your cooking game (and probably getting healthier in the process—step away from those Pocky and into the kitchen), these recipes are also a veritable goldmine of vocabulary.
First, recipes are chock-full of useful verbs and adjectives, so you’ll be significantly boosting your stockpile of essential Japanese words. You’ll also get exposure to the vocabulary for kitchenware, utensils and other nouns around the house, as well as units of measurement.
But it’s not just about the words; it’s also about the way you learn them. Cooking is a form of learning with your hands that’ll be just as effective for your Japanese language acquisition as it was when you were five years old and helping Mom or Dad out in the kitchen.
Harumi Kurihara is considered Japan’s answer to Martha Stewart, for good reason. Her recipes are easy to follow and taste absolutely amazing. She has plenty of Japanese-language recipes on her website.
There are also a ton of recipes on Cookpad. Consider it the Japanese equivalent of sites like Allrecipes and Epicurious, with a multitude of Japanese foodies sharing their お婆ちゃん (おばあちゃん — granny)’s favorite recipes so that you can bring them to your table.
5. Be a Translator-in-training
You know all those manga you’ve been reading? Translate them by writing down their meanings. Been practicing basic vocabulary with Japanese kids’ books? Read them out loud in English translation to any passing nephews or nieces (or your dog).
Translating is an effective learning technique because it quickly reveals where your language weaknesses lie. You won’t be able to gloss over vocabulary words you don’t recognize or confusing sentence structures. For this reason, it can also become a bit frustrating if you’re not an upper-advanced speaker; try translating regularly, but for short periods of time, so you can keep track of your progress without getting overwhelmed or discouraged.
Remember, your work will be far from perfect, but since this is for your own learning and not for a publisher, it doesn’t really matter. plus, maybe you can ask a helpful native-Japanese friend to look over what you’ve written and point out any mistakes so that you can learn even more from the experience.
As your Japanese reading skills get better and better through daily use, you can even practice translating short stories.
By taking on the commitment of translating a whole short story, you’re watching plots thicken, getting to know characters and finding them in far more interesting scenarios than the textbook staples such as “Hanako went to the convenience store to buy a pen.”
You’ll be using your Japanese like native speakers do, and you’ll encounter so much vocabulary in use that your Japanese language skills will really benefit. You’ll also be very proud of yourself once you get to that last sentence—pat yourself on the back!
Some excellent Japanese writers who’ve written short stories that you might enjoy include Banana Yoshimoto, Yoko Ogawa, Koji Suzuki (of “Ring” fame) and of course the massively popular Haruki Murakami.
6. Learn What You Love
The great thing about studies outside the classroom is that they’re self-structured.
If you feel like spending a day in your pajamas and slippers while binge-watching ドラマ (どらま — drama), then yes: you’re studying right now. You’ve studied for the last 12 hours. “Don’t ask any questions, concerned friends and family; I’m not becoming a 引きこもり (ひきこもり — recluse), I’m just super passionate about my studies right now,” is totally a legitimate excuse.
Pairing your passions with your Japanese study in this way will do wonders for your motivation to learn. Studying Japanese won’t be a chore—it’ll be something you’re inherently driven to do.
Think about the ways that you learn best, what you love and adapt it to your free-study time. Are you an oral or a visual learner? Do you feel like reading some fashion magazines today, or are you in the mood to watch some documentaries? Pretty much all of the things that you enjoy doing in English, you can work toward being able to do fluently in Japanese.
There are a ton of Japanese-language films and shows on sites like Netflix and Hulu, and you can buy Japanese magazines on websites like YesAsia. With the huge amount of Japanese media out there on the web, you can make your language learning experience a whole lot of fun!
With these tips in mind, you’ve got what it takes to build a Japanese language experience that’s perfect for you, not imperfect-for-everyone.
What you’ll learn in the classroom and textbooks gives you a framework, but you shouldn’t hang up your Japanese-learning hat the moment you get home.
Make sure you’re learning for the love, not the test results, by using the language for what languages should be used for: Doing awesome stuff.
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