Start Smart: 7 Tips to Kick-start Your Japanese Learning

It’s that time of year again.

We’re all writing our New Year’s resolution list, and many of us have “learn a new language” on it.

I know I do. Since you’re here, I’ll bet you’ve got “learn Japanese” on yours.

So, let me guess. You didn’t even get through that first textbook.

Don’t feel sad about it. I’ve walked in your shoes more than once.

Japanese language learners are notorious for picking up and dropping their new language.

I’ve found that all you really need is a proper start. This has to supply enough momentum to carry you through the beginning stages.

The start makes or breaks you.

Start Smart: 7 Ways to Kick-start Your Japanese

So, let’s talk about you sticking to Japanese. Since I’ve gone through it all first-hand, I’d like to share a little of my experience with starting and stopping Japanese.

Determined to learn (sort of), I roamed the endless seas of the Internet in search of the magic potion — that elixir for instant language learning.

Isn’t there something that could magically transport me to Japanese fluency?

Hate to break it to you, mate. I’ve found such a thing does not exist.

Oh, fear not! The most important thing when you start a new language is to start right!

Even though Japanese may strike you as an unconquerable foe, there are some things you could do to ease the process. Here are 6 things to boost your learning experience from the very beginning.

1. Be Wary of the Stroke

Have you ever been to an Asian restaurant struggling to get those chopsticks held properly? These two devilish utensils have a certain way to be used. This same idea applies to the Japanese writing system. There is a certain way to write right.

Although it’s fairly easy to teach yourself hiragana and katakana, it almost always comes with a price. When self-teaching, the correct stroke order is often discarded.

Stroke order is an essential part of learning the basics of kanji. If you don’t get it correctly, you’re going to have a hard time progressing with your learning later on.

Why is stroke order that important?

The Japanese language is a lot similar to the Japanese culture, in that it’s enfolded in rituals and formalities. The stroke order is meant to help you write more effectively, smoothly and easily. The only catch is that it doesn’t feel quite so smooth when you’re starting out.

Do yourself a favor and learn when to finish your pen stroke with a sudden stop or with a swoosh. You’ll thank me in the long run.

2. Don’t Skip Steps

You got that shiny new textbook, but you rushed through the first chapters about phonetics. You started to learn your hiragana and katakana, but then you got to the first bump, whatever that was. It may have been when you tried to read the first passage of the first lesson. Or it may have been when you realized that the weird Subject-Object-Verb formation is a pain in the butt. Or was it that first particle encounter? You stumbled. You thought: “That one’s not so important. I’ll just leave it for tomorrow”.

Guess what, James: Tomorrow never comes (sorry 007).

Those first lessons may seem to contain trivial things, but they don’t.

Family titles, time expressions and those first particles are more difficult to master than you might think. Stay on each chapter for as long as you need, until you’re confident you can recite the whole lesson while juggling and balancing on one foot. Send me a video if you do.

3. You Get What You Pay For

Remember that shiny new textbook we mentioned earlier? Be sure that all your materials are just as shiny. The importance of choosing the most appropriate language resources is hard to undervalue. Getting what you need beforehand will motivate you and considerably speed up your progress. Getting it wrong… well, you know what happens when you get something wrong. You may quit for wrongly thinking that this language is just too hard to learn. Don’t make that mistake. Get it right from the beginning.

To start off on the right foot with your materials, you’ll require:

Kodansha's Furigana Japanese Dictionary (Kodansha Dictionaries)

  • A textbook that is not outdated. There are a lot of textbooks out there. Some are better for self study while others are better for learning with a sensei. My own personal favorite is the Genki series. It offers a good balance on all four language skill areas—speaking, listening, reading and writing.
  • A good grammar book. You have to build a solid foundation if you want to rocket boost your learning. There is no better way than learning the basics of Japanese grammar. A “Dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar” by Japan Times is a great choice.

4. Immerse Yourself in Japanese Media

So, which one was it? Maybe “Naruto” or “Dragonball.” Or maybe it was something old school like “Macross” or “Getta robo.” You know exactly what I’m talking about — If I had to guess, I would say that there’s something in Japanese popular culture that drove you towards the road of Japanese language learning. Fans of anime, manga, Jpop and Jrock often have a strong desire to understand the language of their favorite hobby.

Exercise caution when using these highly stylized pop culture staples for your learning. Although this is a really dashing way to learn some slang and a handful of grammar patterns, it teaches you vocabulary that’s essentially useless in everyday speech. Depend on Jdramas for your learning and you’ll eventually come out with a lexical pool that contains the following words and their derivatives: heartbeat, embrace, tears, eternity, unforgivable, butterfly, sakura, love, forever.

Watch your series, enjoy your movies, listen to your songs, but stick to your textbook. Alternatively, you may want to read Japanese news or watch variety shows. Try reading some easy Japanese magazine articles that meet your interests. Get to know the language you really need out in the world.

5. Try Online Japanese Immersion with FluentU

Authentic content like movies and music are great, but there’s just one thing: it’s really hard.

You’ll find yourself spending most of your time in your dictionary, rather than engaging with the content.

There’s a better way that’ll let you spend more time learning.

It’s called FluentU.

FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.

You can try FluentU for free for 2 weeks. Click here to check out the website or download the iOS app or Android app.

  FluentU Ad

FluentU does this in 2 ways. First, it lets you watch the videos with interactive captions. Hover a word to instantly pause the video, see the definition, and images and example sentences. You can even see how a word is used in other videos.

Second, FluentU has interactive flashcards that let you learn the words through video context. You can always swipe left or right to see more examples.

If you enjoy learning through context, definitely check out FluentU’s website—or start learning Japanese on the go with the FluentU app for iOS or for Android!

6. Turn into a Karaoke Master

Karaoke (カラオケ) is a compound word. It combines kara () “empty” and ōkesutora (オーケストラ) “orchestra.” The “empty” part refers to the absence of vocals, which you are kindly invited to fill in. I;m sure you already know the drill.

Now, imagine the glory of stepping into a karaoke booth with a handful of your Japanese friends or classmates. You take the microphone and belt out any Japanese song they throw at you!

You want that, don’t you? So start practicing. Today.

There are so many benefits to singing karaoke:

  • You’re messing around with the language. That’s always a good thing!
  • There are kanji in those lyrics. They’re accompanied by small, floating hiragana called furigana. If you know your hiragana and katakana, then you’re ready for those karaoke songs.
  • It’s one of the best reading practice sessions you can get.
  • Singing equals pronunciation practice. Lots of it
  • Depending on the lyrics of the songs you choose to sing, you’ll eventually learn a handful of everyday words and useful phrases.

Follow lyrics, recognize kana and kanji, increase your reading speeds and learn how Japanese really sound. A good understanding of Japanese phonetics will make Japanese more enjoyable to learn.

7. Make Friends

Yes, make friends. We live in the age of instant global communication. You could talk face to face (thank you VoIP) with anyone on the planet wherever, whenever.

  • Join a meet-up group. has plenty of those, and you can always make a Google search.
  • Find a video exchange pal. It’s the same as a pen pal, instead you talk through Skype (or some equivalent). There are tons of Japanese people out there excited to engage with others in a language exchange. You’ll trade your English for their Japanese. Quite the trade, right? Listening to your video pal and hearing yourself speak will help you correct pronunciation. Urge your video pal to correct you if needed. Push yourself into having an actual conversation in Japanese and teach your brain to think in the language.

 Get Off to a Flying Start

Start on a positive note and you’ll start right. Relax and enjoy the process! Don’t worry about the verbs you can’t remember or the grammar points you can’t yet grasp. Keep studying and everything will eventually become clearer in your mind. Choose the material you feel most comfortable with and spend time with the language. Love the process. That’s the surest path to Japanese fluency.

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