So, you want to learn Japanese…

Memorize this in a day? Sure, no problem!

Well it’s not going to magically happen by reading manga and playing Japanese video games…

Just a quick note because I’ve had people react unbelievably negatively to similar comments/posts I have made elsewhere in the past.

I know that there are a lot of people out there, in a lot of different situations, and there are different “learning styles” etc., but this is written (obviously, one would hope, but just in case I am including this little disclaimer) based upon my experience, and my opinions. You have a different theory on something, disagree with any of the points I make, that’s fine. You’re more than likely not going to change my mind but I’d be happy to here what you have to say on the subject. Leave a comment, or write something on your own site and leave a trackback! Just be civil about it. You want to argue any of the points I’ve made that’s fine, but I’m not interested in having any personal attacks made against me, or any comments that just consist of “u r wrong wtf! You suck! L0ser!”. I’ll just delete the comment or trackback and pretend you don’t exist.

Again, I am interested in hearing any genuine comments/questions etc. but just keep it civil please. Thanks.

Now then, I’m just as lazy as the next guy, I’d be even lazier but it required too much effort. But the fact of the matter is, if you want to learn Japanese (or any language really, or be a translator, etc. etc.), you have to work your butt off.

I didn’t work very hard at my other subjects in university, but I spent at least 4 hours a day, nearly every day year round, weekends and vacations included, studying for my Japanese classes. Some days I spent more than 12 hours studying Japanese.

I had never been to Japan, or studied Japanese before entering university, but 99% of my classmates and upperclassmen had, so I had to work all that much harder to keep up. And at first I wasn’t keeping up. I was consistently behind on tests, and being mildly dyslexic didn’t help when trying to learn the Japanese hiragana, katakana and kanji characters. Things were so bad that at first my teacher use to jokingly write “seppuku desu ne” (more or less “have you considered ritual suicide?”) on my returned test papers.

At first I figured I would be content to simply be able to speak the language and be functionally illiterate in Japanese. I didn’t worry about accent, I figured I would just speak and sound like an American speaking Japanese (because it was embarrassing to try and impersonate the accent; as if sounding like an off-the-boat foreigner was ever so better). To be honest, I kind of think these concessions helped me out at first, because it allowed me to concentrate more on other areas such as grammar and vocabulary, which are (again in my opinion) more important for a beginner. I grew out of these and other bad habits quickly enough because once reaching a certain level of ability I realized that there was only so far I would be able to go with these self-imposed limitations, and because my professor and mentor demanded that I give up such “stupid” ideas.

I am actually worse at writing kanji now then I was in university because I use pcs/word processors all the time which makes one lazy about remembering stroke order and the like (although it increases one’s recognition and reading ability considerably) and I just don’t often find myself in situations where I need to write anything more difficult than a quick note or my address by hand.


If you are able to write Kanji like a 5th century Chinese poet, more power to you. But it’s generally been my experience that among the 4 aspects of language (reading, writing, speaking, listening) listening and speaking are most important, reading comes next and writing is dead last. I am not just talking out my ass here either. I’ve lived in Japan for 7 years now and I’ve worked as a cultural liaison at a city hall, as a project manager at Morgan Stanley in Japan, as a translation coordinator at an all Japanese translation agency, and am currently a freelance translator working towards setting up my own company. I have managed to get and maintain all of these jobs (I quit/resigned each position I have had to try and move up a little in world, never been fired) without being able to expertly write all 1700 or so daily use (joyo) kanji.

So, I may be a bit slack with my writing practice and studies, but I guarantee you I have busted my ass on every other aspect of my studies.

I point this out because Japanese seems to be a fairly popular language to study nowadays, but it also seems there are a lot of people out there who think they are going to just absorb the language by watching cartoons, reading manga or listening to JPop. Well, you’re not. I know this is an incredibly unpopular opinion, but you have to in some actual work. Japanese is not nearly as difficult as most people believe, but you’re not going to learn it through it [sic] “osmosis”.

I went to a fairly small university (the university I went to doesn’t actually exist anymore, it was bought out) and our Japanese studies program was fairly small. I think overall the entire department consisted of maybe 70 or so students (the entire university was only 800 though). Out of those 70 students (this is only counting majors, not people taking non-major language courses) a bit more than half (I’d say about 35-40) were freshmen, but as I mentioned above most of the freshmen had already studied abroad or lived in Japan, or had some experience studying Japanese before, so they weren’t in the freshman (level 1) language courses. Most of the students started out in about level 4. In my level 1 class, there were about 25 students. Of those 25, only 10 made it to the level 3 and higher level classes (there were a total of 8 regular levels to be complete in 4 years and an additional 5 or so advanced courses on specific topics). The advancement rate was so low that during tests my professor would leave a stack of test papers on the left side of his desk and a stack of forms for students to change their major on the right. After tests he would inevitably tell at least one student that they should consider changing their major. Needless to say he wasn’t a very popular professor (but he was a damn good teacher).

Out of those original 25 students, about 10-12 of them were “anime kids” or “video game” kids who were interested in Japanese because they wanted to “get into” the business of whatever their particular obesession was. The number of those “anime kids” and “video game kids” who made it to the 10 students that actually got to levels 3 and above? Zero. Every last one of them flunked out or gave up. I know there were 2 anime/video game guys amongst the upper classmen who graduated from the department, but I also know that they both only ever developed mediocre language skills and are both working regular jobs in the U.S. which have no connection to Japan or Japanese at all.

I know for a fact that there are exceptions out there and that there are people who have learned Japanese mainly because of an interest in Japanese anime/manga/games etc. But, I also know that those people I know of who have succeeded also worked their asses off to succeed.

Interest in some aspect of the culture (even manga or anime) or a desire to work in some medium in which the Japanese are major players (video games) are great starting points to learning the language, but interest alone isn’t going to get you by. It takes time and effort, and it’s a lot of goddamn work. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible. It’s a lot easier than most people would have you believe, but get used to the idea you are going to have to work at it to succeed.


Now that I have finished dashing the hopes of those who want to magically learn Japanese and achieve a dream job with almost no effort, let me give a few more constructive tips on learning the language. These aren’t really in any particular order, they are just things that I have found useful over the course of my studies and other observances of common problems etc.

  1. Although I have just bashed the hell out of anime and video games as a learning medium above, they are good for practice and picking up vocabulary, but don’t stick with just anime, video games and pop culture stuff. Try to read, watch and listen to as wide a variety of things as you can.

    The more varied the material you are using is, the more varied the vocabulary, sentence structure and language styles you will be exposed to. Variety is good, and anime and games are notorious for using weird, oddball and sometimes downright creepy language styles, just like in English (my wife laughs out loud at some of the Japanese used in games that I have to translate). I’m sure you’ve seen plenty of movies, games etc. that are in English, written by native English speakers and thought to yourself “nobody talks like that!”; well the same is true for Japanese.

  2. Learn to speak with a proper accent. Seriously. I mentioned above that I didn’t at first, and this isn’t something you need to be able to master right off the bat, but it is important. If you sound like you can only half speak the language, people are going to treat you like it.

    Not to brag (but I will anyway), but most Native Japanese can’t tell that I am not Japanese over the phone. When I tell them (it makes a good excuse for chasing away telephone sales persons and the like) they are surprised, and I have even had one guy who said I was lying to try and get rid off (when in reality I was telling the truth to try and get rid of him). If you can speak and sound close to a native Japanese most people’s first impression will be that you understand the language better than someone who actually has better language skills than you but has a strong accent. I have a friend who is actually more proficient in Japanese than I am, but he speaks with a horribly strong American accent and he speaks really slowly, and none of our mutual Japanese acquaintances will credit that he actually knows the language better than me, just because I sound better. But he really does know more vocabulary, more grammar, kanji and is quicker to be able to understand/interpret difficult passages than I am.

    Accent means a lot. I know it’s embarrassing at first to try and use a native-sounding accent, but seriously, which do you think sounds worse? Someone trying to speak like a native or someone who has an accent so thick that they sometimes can’t be understood?

  3. Think about what you hear, read, write, study etc. Don’t just passively absorb stuff, think about it. Constantly.

    When I was in university I would often try to puzzle out how to say things in Japanese that other people had said to me in English (all in my head of course, aside from that one time I accidentally answered my grandmother in Japanese after 3 days of cramming for finals). You’d be amazed how much of a difference this can make. Also be sure to actively think about things that you hearing. Don’t just absorb information and file it away. Analyze, don’t just accept that “oyasuminasai” means good night, think about why it means good night, think about the constituent parts, compare it with other greetings, words that sound similar, etc. Doing this regularly will provide you with a much deeper understanding of the language and allow you to understand other things faster and more completely later.

  4. USE IT! Don’t worry about making mistakes, or sounding stupid, or anything. Whenever you have a chance to use Japanese do it.

    You have Japanese friends or acquaintances speak to them only in Japanese. If you can’t communicate everything you need to revert to English, but ask them how to say it in Japanese, but make sure you at least try to figure out how to say something in Japanese first. If they don’t understand but can speak English you can always explain it later. A lot (read: the vast fucking majority) of westerners who come to Japan stay in these little gaijin-groups (gaijin=foreigner). They don’t mix with Japanese people nearly enough, and when they do, they speak English. If you’re constantly speaking English you’re Japanese isn’t going to improve. You need to use it, and make mistakes to improve. If your Japanese friends insist on speaking to you in English that’s fine, just answer them in Japanese.

    It’s been my experience that there tend to be winners and losers in relationships (friendships or romantic) where both parties are trying to learn the other parties language. In 90% of the cases I have seen only one party or the other actually improves, because the language they are trying to learn becomes the dominant language of the relationship. Sure you want to help your friends/girlfriend/boyfriend/whatever with their studies, but you need to think about your own improvement first. Especially if you are in a country other than Japan. Your friend/etc will have plenty of other chances to use English, but you probably don’t have much chance to speak Japanese, so take advantage of the chances you do have!

  5. Learn about relative clauses and get used to them, because Japanese uses them a lot, and they use relative clauses that I sometimes swear are breaking the physical laws of the universe itself.

    What’s a relative clause? Wiki is your friend, but to give a very simple example (compliments of my second Japanese teacher), it is essentially where a phrase or part of a sentence is used almost like an adjective to modify another word or part of a sentence. As in “The man who kicked the dog.” What kind of a man is he? He’s the man “who kicked the dog.” In Japanese the order of relative clauses (as with so much else) is the opposite of English, with the modifier coming first (literal word for word translation in English “dog [object article] kicked man”), and they just pile them on top of each other with modifiers of modifier of modifiers (“the man who kicked the dog which pooped on the carpet in the house which belonged to jack where I left my keys which belonged to my car which was new was gone” What’s gone? The man, the dog, the house, the keys, the car? I dunno either, but this is pretty common sentence structure in Japanese, and yes, it they are an absolute bitch to translate.), so get used to them now.

I will add to this list a bit eventually, but I am going to end this for now. I look forward to any questions or comments.


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