How to learn Japanese without taking Japanese classes

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Hello there! Welcome to this article on how to learn Japanese independently and effectively. Before we get started there is something I want to clarify:

There is a myriad of methods and tools to learn Japanese out there, and every learner has a unique affinity for different kinds of learning approaches and materials.

What I'm going to share with you in this article is what *I* believe is the best way to master the Japanese language. The different strategies and tips I share with you here represent what worked best for me and many others in our language learning, so there is a good chance these methods will likely work for you too.

I could be wrong about that. Maybe some (or the majority) of approaches I recommend in here will not work well for you specifically, even if you give them an honest try during a significant amount of time, and that's fine. What's important is that you keep on researching, testing methods, and find whatever works best for you. This article is only part of that process.

Also, if you are tenacious about learning Japanese, then even not-that-good methods and materials can give you good enough results. Good methods and materials to learn the language are important, but they mean nothing if you are not relentless about your learning.

That said, I do want to express my discontent with the most commonplace method people follow to try to learn languages: The classroom based, grammar centered approach to language study. This system is riddled with flaws that make it not only terribly ineffective, but also uninteresting to the point of being unbearable.

Common methods applied in language classes, like grammar study and drilling bilingual vocabulary lists actually hinder the students' capability to acquire the language they want to master. And the coercion and lack of flexibility that learners suffer in a classroom setting foster stress as well as discouragement from learning the language altogether.

In such a setting, students end up treating their language "learning" activities (homework, group projects, etc.) as chores they want to get out of their freaking way as soon as possible, and not as learning experiences they look forward to engage in.

My goal with this article is to expose most of these flawed approaches and try to offer a better alternative to traditional Japanese learning methods. Whether you know no Japanese at all, or you already handle some of the language but you want to improve your skills, I think this article will be worthy of your time.

This article is a bit long too, so feel free to bookmark it and read parts of it at different times. Or go grab a snack and plow through the whole thing in one go if you wish!

Also, if you are learning a foreign language different to Japanese, most advice in this article will be applicable to your target language too. Just swap specific features of Japanese (like the kana and kanji) with features of your target language (like the Russian alphabet in Russian), and you are good to go.


First of all: WHY do you want to learn Japanese?


It could be the case that you just want to learn a bit of Japanese because you are planning to do some tourism around Japan or something similar. In that case, learning really well some key Japanese phrases might be good enough for you, and that's not that hard to do.

However, if what you want is to master Japanese to the point of being able to function as an adult in Japanese society, then that's a whole different league.

I'm not going to sugar coat it (and sugar is bad for you anyways): Mastering a foreign language to that point, specially Japanese, is a pretty heavy endeavor.

You will have to learn a new writing system conformed of 2000+ kanji symbols plus the kana syllabaries. After that, you will have to master thousands upon thousands of words, as well as use native content in the Japanese language to learn and gradually make sense of it all.

This is a process that will take determination, persistence and patience on your part, as well as a lot of time to accomplish. So, because of the amount of time and tenacity it takes to learn Japanese really, really, really well, I need to ask you:

Why exactly do you want to learn Japanese?

This may seem like a "duh" question, but it is of utmost importance that you are crystal-clear about why do you want to learn the Japanese language. As one of my favorite bloggers say:

"Why" is a powerful question. Your answer to that question is even more powerful. It defines your success. In fact, almost always your answer to "why" determines if you will succeed or fail.

~ Joel Runyon, Author of ImpossibleHQ.com

Why do you want to understand and use Japanese, then?

Is it because you really, really enjoy foreign entertainment? Maybe you want to be able to understand every anime, manga, videogames and novels you get your hands on, in their original language. Or maybe you love Japan and Japanese culture, but you know you'll never experience their culture to the fullest unless you master the language.

If you are planning on moving to Japan someday, getting a job or even building a business and live in there, knowing Japanese very, very well is a must. Same thing if you are training to become a translator and/or interpreter, or if Japanese is somehow part of your job: If you cannot function like an adult in the language, you're screwed.

Maybe you have some Japanese relatives that you want to be able to talk to. Or maybe you are a language geek and you want to learn Japanese for the sheer fun of experiencing new sounds and learning a new writing system. "Why learn Japanese? Well... because it's there. Why NOT to learn it, huh? Japanese rocks!"

Maybe your reasons for mastering Japanese are different to these, but whatever your reasons are for pursuing this endeavor, I want you to be completely clear about what those reasons are. Write them down if you need to.

Also, I want to make sure that your reasons for learning Japanese are internal; that is, that you will be doing this because of your own determination to master the language, and because you actually want to do it, not because somebody else is coercing you into learning it, like your parents if you still depend on them, or a boss, or because of peer pressure.


Do you really see yourself living the Japanese language?


If you are clear about what your reasons are for learning Japanese, then I'd like to ask you the following:

Do you actually see yourself using the Japanese language in your everyday life, say, 2 years from now?

I'd like you to try this out: Imagine, in the most realistic terms you can, how your life will be like once you've achieved your goal of mastering Japanese.

Do you visualize yourself actually reading books and articles written entirely in Japanese? Or using chatrooms and social networks like Mixi to interact with Japanese natives?

Can you visualize yourself watching dramas, or anime, or documentaries, or movies in full Japanese and understanding almost everything of what the narrators and characters say? What about playing videogames in Japanese and understanding practically everything you read and listen in them?

Can you realistically see yourself filling documentation in Japanese and maybe writing articles in the language? Do you see yourself actually talking with Japanese acquaintances and friends using Skype or in person in the future?

Can you really conceive of you bantering with your Japanese pals at a restaurant in Japan, while you read the menu written entirely in Japanese, and tell the waiter your sushi order in full Japanese?

I'm asking you to visualize these scenarios in order to check how they make you feel; to see what they spark within you. When you try to imagine any of these, how do they make you feel? Do you go like:

"Oh man, yes! YES!! Talking with Japanese people! Reading manga in Japanese! Playing videogames in full Japanese! Being able to navigate my way in the middle of Kyoto! Reading books with nothing but freaking kanji and kana in them, man!

Can you imagine? Yes, I want that for me! I freaking want it!! I want to be able to do all of this and much more in Japanese!! :D"


Or maybe you go like:

"... heh. To be honest, I don't really care much about all of this stuff. I mean, yeah, it would be cool to know Japanese and all, but... meh."

Or you feel like:

"Ugh... I don't know, it just doesn't feel right. I mean, as a fantasy, knowing Japanese would be really cool, but... doing all of that stuff in real life? I don't feel it... I don't think I really want any of that, really. It's just not for me, I think."

If you really tried to do this exercise, then I think your feelings fall somewhere under that spectrum of "OMG Yes! YES!! I freaking WANT IT!!" to "Uhm... nope. That's not for me, bro."

If visualizing these end result scenarios makes you feel good and inspires in you the desire to get there, then you are on the right track.

If imagining these makes you feel nothing, or gave you a sense of "... ewww, I don't really see myself doing any of that in the future, really", then I think it's time to reconsider your reasons and motivation to learn Japanese.

Remember that you should only pursue this project if you really, really want to do it, not if anybody else is coercing you to do it, or because it would look nice in your CV but you couldn't care less about the language and culture behind it.

If you don't really want to learn Japanese, don't do it. Learn another language, or pursue some other kind of project instead!

If, on the contrary, visualizing these scenarios makes you go "Man, this is so awesome... yes, I want that for me! I want it!!", or it inspires at least a more moderate "I'm not CRAZY excited about Japanese, but yes, I want to learn it to be able to fulfill my life projects, and have a bit of fun on the language too :)" then keep reading.


How do most students go about learning Japanese?


If you ask almost anybody:

"Hey, I'd like to learn Japanese, but I don't know what should I do... what would you recommend I do?"

Most people out there will answer right away with: "Go take a class."

Sounds reasonable, right? If you want to learn a language, then attending language classes at your local university or language institute is the definitive way to go... or so we think. Let's take a quick look at how language classes work:

A language class consists of one teacher in front of a group of students inside a classroom. A couple of hours per class, 3-5 times a week, the teacher gets together with the students and proceeds to do explanations on the whiteboard, answers some questions, and then orders the students to execute certain activities according to the fixed curriculum for the class. Some of these activities include:
  • Studying grammar rules.
  • Going over vocabulary lists.
  • Solving textbook exercises involving the grammar and vocabulary being worked on that day.
  • Listening to the occasional dialog on tape or CD (what?!), or watching an occasional clip.
  • Doing projects like writing short essays in the language, or making murals with cardboard, markers and pictures cut form magazines (remember those?)
  • Practicing your speaking skills by playing out a forced scenario with one or more of your classmates. If there is something I HATE most about language classes it's THIS!
  • And our favorite activity of all time: Cramming for tests! Yayz!
Also, in the case of Japanese, students also have to memorize the kana syllabaries and the kanji symbols, with their respective pronunciation and readings, by grinding them on paper over and over and over again.


Now, some people are fortunate enough to afford working one-on-one with a personal tutor instead of attending Japanese classes, while others learn independently either because they decide it's better that way, or because they cannot afford the price of classes or a personal mentor.

Thing is, these two groups of people usually follow the same activities they would have to do if they were taking classes anyways: They buy/borrow Japanese learning textbooks, read all grammar rules in them and try to memorize them all, practice their speaking by following forced scenarios with their tutors (or with themselves!), drill the kanji and kana by hand over and over again, etc.

In a nutshell, this is how most people would go about learning Japanese, at least from what I've seen.

But the question is: Does this academic, grammar-centered, grade-based approach to language study actually work? Is studying grammar rules, and solving textbook exercises, and cramming for tests actually effective for you to master Japanese?

From what I've researched and experienced myself, my take is a resounding NO. Very, very, very few people, if any, experiences actual success with this kind of approach to language learning, even after 6+ years of studying.

Let me explain to you why in the name of Amaterasu am I saying this...


The language learning industry fiasco


Probably the greatest misconception that plagues the world of language learning is the idea that mastering a language involves having a vast and explicit knowledge of grammatical formulas, which you then proceed to apply consciously on the foreign words you've drilled from bilingual vocabulary lists... which is kind of what you would do if you were to tackle a Physics or Math problem in a textbook.

When I refer to the "language learning industry", I'm referring to the group of entities consisting of:
  • Language institutions/academies that offer language classes.
  • Language-related educational media publishers.
  • Language teachers and tutors.
  • Standardized test developers.
These guys carry out their activities, sessions and product creation based on the notion that learning languages is, at its core, a process of drilling formulas and facts into memory to be soon regurgitated on tests and examinations.

This idea is conditioned into us from an early age by teachers, friends, family and the media, and it stays with us as we grow older. Thus, when people around the world want to become language learners, they naturally go and start doing what they've been conditioned to believe:

They sign up for classes, buy language learning textbooks, CDs and software, contract private tutors to "teach" them Japanese, and pay for taking standardized tests that supposedly measure how fluent and literate they are.

All of these, as you may already know, can get pretty damn expensive fast... but most learners just accept those exorbitant costs as the norm.

Doing what they can to pay for their classes, materials and exams (sinking into debt if necessary), these learners fuel the profit and growth of the language learning industry. And the stronger the industry gets, the more influence it gains to keep maintaining the "status quo" of the language learning world.

"Uhm... and what's wrong with that? Are you a freaking communist or something?!"

Never. I'm all for investing my money on useful guides, tools and interesting content in the languages we want to learn. Also, common sense would tell us that if the language learning industry profits and grows then it will be able to help more and more people achieve their language goals... but alas, that's not what actually happens.

What really happens is that students spend lots of time and money taking language classes in school and academies, and even after several years of attending (think 6+), studying diligently and getting the best grades... they realize that they are not able to actually understand native content (like newspapers, TV shows, podcasts, etc) or even communicate well with natives once they try to do so.

All that money, all that time, all that cramming and stress... to end up being below mediocre at Japanese. Why does this happen? Is it the fault of the students, because they were lazy and did not study hard enough? Or maybe most of them don't have a natural affinity for language learning, so it's normal they end up sucking?

Not all of that is true. Even dedicated straight-A students of Japanese end up having a big grammatical knowledge of the language, but also end up being below mediocre at actually understanding and using it in real world settings.

If this happens to those students, it's not because they were lazy or because their brains suck at languages; it's because the whole methodology they followed is the one that is detrimentally ineffective, and most of the time, so filled with uninteresting activities that it's painful to endure.

Reading and following uninteresting textbooks that you didn't choose to read, doing insipid "rearrange the words" or "fill all the gaps in this paragraph" exercises on texts you don't give a damn about, memorizing dozens of grammar rules and vocabulary (usually without context), listening to slow and forced dialog, and not to mention trying to rote-memorize the Kanji and Kana through drilling, drilling and drilling some more...

Contrary to what teachers, commercials, acquaintances and even our loved ones have made us believe, those activities will not help you master Japanese at an unconscious level (i.e. the same way you master English).

Some of those activities might be kind of useful if you want to become a Japanese grammarian, but not if what you want are the skills of understanding and expressing yourself naturally in Japanese.... or English, or Spanish, or Korean, French, Italian, Klingon, Esperanto, or whatever language you want to learn.


My native language is Spanish, and from my personal experience (yours may vary) learning languages, I can confidently tell you that taking classes by itself will never lead you to literacy and fluency in any language, even in the rare occasion where the classes are actually fun and engaging. If anything, classes are more of a hindrance than a helpful resource.

After discovering how ineffective language classes are, some people say: "Screw classes! I'm just gonna go learn Japanese on my own!", which is a smart decision in itself, but that more often than not leads to failure too.

This is because most of these self-learners just apply the same traditional methods followed in the classroom, but on their own. This results in frustration, self-flagellation, stress, hardly any enjoyment of the process, and worst of all, not much to show for after years of trying.

To me, and to many knowledgeable people in the field, the traditional methods of language learning are inefficient, expensive, mostly uninteresting (if not plain painful) and simply don't deliver good results for the investment required.

In a nutshell... they suck. Thus, unless for some reason you actually enjoy using some of these methods (like learning grammar rules), you should avoid them for good.


Classroom instruction is obsolete


As I mentioned above, the traditional language "learning" approach followed in classrooms is fatally flawed because:

1) It focuses on activities like grammar study and memorization of lists with bilingual word pairs without context, which help little in terms of actual language acquisition.

2) Most of the time, a classroom setting has a fixed, unmovable curriculum, which kills flexibility in terms of materials of choice and schedule of learning. This forces students to follow the established materials and methods of the classroom, even when they would rather use different materials and ways of doing things.

3) Because most language learning materials used in classrooms have to appeal to a wide general audience, they tend to be generic, aseptic and uninteresting. Generic material rarely appeals to the interests of each individual learner.

4) Grades only give you an illusion of how much you master a particular language. In reality, grades only reflect your ability to do tests and complete academic projects, not your ability to actually understand and express yourself in the language in real life.


Now, it's true that some teachers follow different methods to this traditional, austere approach to languages. Some of these people make classes much more engaging by having a fun personality and encouraging more interesting activities within class and outside of it.

Some teachers focus much less on grammar and more on native content like movies or novels. Some allow more flexibility than what the curriculum strictly says. I know this is so because I've had teachers like this; teachers that actually made you look forward to going to class.

But even when some teachers can make language classes much better than the conventional lot... this model of transmitting knowledge is nowadays, simply put, obsolete.

Think about it for a moment. Why do we still use classroom instruction as a means to transmit knowledge anymore when we have modern technology and the Internet to do this much more effectively and efficiently?

If you want to listen to a lecture about, say, how the 'wa' and 'ga' particles are used in Japanese sentences, you can just download the respective lesson from JapanesePod101 or even search for this lesson on YouTube.

Unlike a live lecture, you can rewind and re-watch/re-listen to the video/audio as much as you wish until you nail down the lesson in question.

If you have doubts about a particular lesson you can just head over to a Japanese learning forum or chatroom, and ask questions in there. Or you can just do more research on the matter until you clear up your doubts.

If you want to socialize and interact with other language learners and share tips and experiences with them, you can do so through forums, chatrooms and Skype.

Or if you want to do a reunion, in real life, with other Japanese learners that live around where you do, you can just accord a time, place and activities (sushi and sake included!) with them through Facebook or Meetup.com.

If you want to practice your mad Nihongo skillz with actual natives you can use Skype and sites like MyLanguageExchange.com and Lang-8.com for this purpose.

Want to practice with natives in person? Leverage sites like Meetup.com and Facebook to see if there are natives around where you happen to live, or host one in your house through CouchSurfing.org.

You feel you need the classroom because it gives you "structure" for your Japanese learning? We all need some kind of basic plan to tackle a language project like this one. But is enduring the coercion of a classroom setting and the pressure of getting good grades worth this inflexible kind of structure?

You can build your own language learning structure, which is by definition completely flexible, because you get to decide what will be part of your learning plan and what not... which is something you cannot do in a Japanese class.

To do this just make the time, do some research and learn about what other methods and tools are out there that can help you master this language. Then, it's up to you to decide what methods and tools will you use, and how your general (and flexible!) learning schedule will be like.

There are entire websites and guides out there devoted to how you should go about learning particular languages, like this article, or like the Master Japanese digital guide.

I talk more about that particular guide near the end of this article, but the point is that there ARE resources out there that will help you come up with ideas for making your own structure, as well as getting as much methodology guesswork out of the way as possible, so that you can start learning your chosen language soon. All you gotta do is to search for those resources! Everything starts with a simple Google search :)


What if you feel you need somebody to keep you on track?


Some people feel that they need an external force keeping them on track of their learning, like a language class or institution. Otherwise, they would drop their language learning activities as soon as life gets in the way and/or the process becomes too overwhelming.

Without the pressure, coercion, the fear of wasting unthinkable amounts of time and money, and the fear of your family ostracizing you because you are a pathetic loser (if you still depend on them) that classes offer... then quitting your Japanese journey becomes so easy that you will just quit within 3 months... or the first freaking week... right?

You may feel that you necessarily need something outside of you to keep you on track of your Japanese learning... but this is true only if you let it.

You don't need anything external to keep you on track. You can keep yourself on track, by remembering why you are doing all this, by being relentless about your goal, by believing in your own willpower to push through, and by making the decision of standing the very possible discomfort/pain you will feel by working on achieving your goal.

To me, it's better to push forward because of your own conviction to do it, and not because of fear of ridicule or fear of wasting money.

Finally, what if you feel you need (or simply prefer) to receive direct Japanese instruction, live? What if you want to receive lessons and lectures directly, and preferably face to face?

What if you want to work with an expert that takes care of your learning structure, materials and schedule for you? Someone who helps you stay on track? Someone who answers all of your questions and helps you find engaging content in Japanese for you to devour?

If that's the case, and if you have enough money to invest in one, then hire a tutor/mentor. Plain and simple.

Working with a mentor one-on-one and have him or her personalize your learning experience according to your own preferences and particular language needs is light-years more effective, and also cheaper (relative to most classes), than having to attend a classroom in order to follow an untouchable curriculum, with an unmovable schedule, and to receive lectures given en masse, with complete disregard for your particular interests and priorities.

I'm not against direct instruction and I'm not against structured learning. Some people prefer to learn by receiving direct instruction, either through Skype or face-to-face. And we all need to establish some kind of plan of action to implement our learning methods, even if our plan is pretty flexible.

What I don't agree with is the perpetuation of obsolete methods and tools for which there are much better alternatives. I'm also against using materials that do not interest us at all for our language learning.

I'm all for the challenge and discomfort (and even pain sometimes) that comes from trying to learn something new, but I'm not for following specific materials under coercion when I'm simply not interested in using those.

I'm also against forcing people to follow unnecessary methods that don't help us in acquiring our target languages, like memorizing grammar rules... and practicing forced speaking scenarios with people you barely know. Man, I HATE those with a passion!


How do natives learn their language?


Have you ever wondered how did you learn English?

Think about it: How come you are able to understand TV shows and movies? How is it possible that you can understand almost everything you listen to in podcasts and music, and also understand everything that is going on in your favorite novel? How come you can speak fluently and write emails without any significant trouble?

Did you need to study English grammar for 6 years straight until you were able to write a coherent sentence? Of course not. By the time you were 6 years old you were already capable of understanding what was being said to you. By that time you were pretty damn good at reading.

You were not a freaking Seth Godin (i.e. an excellent writer and speaker), but you could still write and speak, right? And yet you probably didn't know much about English grammar, if at all. You probably don't know much (or anything) about English grammar right now (unless you are an English teacher), yet you are able to read this.

How is that possible? Why are you a master of something that you've never studied? Ok sure, you had to take English classes at school when you were young, and do some grammar exercises and all that... but you already owned pretty hard at English before taking those classes, am I wrong?

Well, that's the thing. You cannot learn a language the same way you would learn Math or Chemistry, and that is because languages are a physical skill.

The greatest focus of the language learning industry, which is teaching grammar rules, falls completely short in fulfilling its objective. That is because grammar rules are just information about the language, an abstraction of it, and not the language itself. Languages are physical skills, and have to be mastered as such.

An example of this is learning how to drive a car: You could know in detail all the mechanics of how the insides of a car actually work. You could also know Newton's laws, the exact force value you have to exert on the pedal to reach a certain speed number and other numeric data, but having all that knowledge about the car doesn't translate into driving skills.

The only way you can actually learn how to drive the car is to get in it, turn it on, mess around with the pedals and the wheel, and start figuring out how the car reacts to your inputs (pressing the pedal, steering the wheel, etc.) through practice. And by practicing consistently you start getting used to the whole driving experience, until it eventually becomes natural to you.

Even if you know nothing about mechanics and have no idea of what the heck is a Newton (it's a unit to measure force), you can learn how to drive a car by practicing and messing around. The same principle applies to you and the English language, as you don't need to know explicit grammar rules in English in order to understand and produce sentences that follow such rules.

So, why did you own so hard at English by the time you were 6 years old?

First, because of massive exposure to the language. Those first 6 years of your life consisted of constant, almost non-stop English practice.

Everything around you was in English back then: Your books, signs on the street, food envelopes, the TV, videogames... practically everything. Your parents, family, friends and all people you interacted with talked to you in English. It was English everywhere.

As an inevitable consequence, your brain started catching patterns in the language, which eventually forged your natural sense of grammar... you know, when you read a sentence like "There is certain to be doctor in office", and you can feel the sentence is off and how to make it correct, even when you don't know the precise grammar rules that explain why.


Now, it's important to clarify that you didn't get to master English just by being "exposed to the language". Somehow, you gradually learned the meanings of all those strings of sounds in the language - its words, until you got to where you are now in English.

You mastered English through a LOT of practice since you were an infant, by doing activities like reading children books, talking with classmates, watching Sesame Street, and listening to your parents.

With help of your environment and easy content in English, with help of your guardians, even with the help of school for most of us (I admit), you got to where you are in your native language.

By actually understanding meanings (i.e. by getting comprehensible input), gradually, through practice, for an obscene amount of years, is how you got to the point you are today in your English.

Through a combination of environment and constant (unintended) practice in the language is how all natives learn their native languages, and is also, in a general sense, what you have to do to master Japanese and any other language you choose to tackle.


Learning the Japanese writing system


Just like you learned your ABCs, you have to learn the entire Japanese writing system, which includes:

Roumaji: This is just the English alphabet you know and love, but used in a special way to symbolize the sounds of the...

Kana: The pair of syllabaries named Hiragana and Katakana. Once you master these you will no longer need Roumaji to read the sounds of Japanese, and you will be ready to tackle...

Kanji: The ideographic characters borrowed from the Chinese language. You will need to master at the very least 2136 of them, which are known as the general use "jouyou" Kanji.

Once you master all of these you can start learning Japanese vocabulary and grammar patterns (not explicit grammar rules), and thus start developing your reading and listening skills in the language.

I invite you to check out the articles below to learn how you can learn the Japanese writing system effectively and efficiently:

Learning Japanese vocabulary and grammar - Turning Japanese content into comprehensible input


Once you master the kana and the rough meaning in English of the general use kanji (at least), it's time to actually start learning vocabulary in Japanese, and star getting used to the grammatical patterns of the language!

Before we continue, I wanted to mention that I once wrote that "Passive immersion IS an essential part of your learning process". Passive immersion means listening/watching content in Japanese, without looking up what you don't understand, and just kind of letting the language "wash over you".

Don't listen to that. Although doing passive immersion in Japanese (like listening to Japanese music while you do something else) doesn't hurt, it is NOT essential to your learning process. The only thing that matters is that you are receiving comprehensible input.

Comprehensible input means reading or listening to something in correct Japanese, and understanding what it actually means.

There are several ways to acquire comprehensible input, like beginner Japanese podcasts or Japanese stories for children. Personally, what I do and what I recommend to get comprehensible input is the following:

1) Get materials in Japanese that are of interest of you. Acquire written and audio content, mainly through the Internet, that you would totally devour with pleasure if it were in English.

2) Sit down for 1-2 hours each day with your content, have a Japanese-English dictionary open in your computer.

3) Have your written content in Japanese at hand, or have your audio content in Japanese at hand plus an accurate transcript of said audio content.

4) Start reading/listening to your content and "decipher" what each line you are reading/listening to means. Use your dictionary and transcription to aid you in this process of finding the meaning of what you are reading/listening to.

You can find a more in-depth guide on how to do this on my How to improve your reading skills in English, and my How to improve your listening skills in English guides.

The only difference is that instead of looking up English words you will be looking up individual kanji, kanji compounds, kanji+kana compounds, and katakana only words, their pronunciations (in kana), and their possible translations in English.

Also, as I already mentioned, you do NOT need to know grammar rules in order to learn and understand any language. All you need to know is what all those set of sounds and strings of characters you will find actually mean (vocabulary), and through that process of "deciphering" content day after day after day you will start figuring out, almost subconsciously, the patterns of how all of those characters actually come together.


So... where do you get those words? What kind of content should you use for learning Japanese?


As I mentioned, I suggest you use content of interest in Japanese to do your learning. Ideally, use content made for and by natives. You can use native materials to learn Japanese at any level of your journey, you just need to be more patient the less experienced you are with the language.

As I mentioned in the Language learning industry fiasco module, most of us are led to believe that language textbooks and other academic materials are THE tools you use to learn Japanese - that anything beyond those academic tools are just "bonus" resources to complement them, not real standalone resources you can use for learning the language.

Students and teachers who follow this ideology will likely tell you that you are terribly mistaken if you think you can learn Japanese from native content like anime, manga, blogs, music and videogames in Japanese.

"Are you nuts? You cannot learn Japanese from anime! It's not that easy!"

Yes, it's not that easy. But that doesn't mean it cannot be done with the right tools, like dictionaries and transcripts.

People with that mindset might tell you that trying to do that is just not formal enough. "Just 'watching anime' doesn't have any structure at all! You will learn bad grammar and will end up speaking like crazy, non-realistic anime characters! You will end up sounding like a cartoon!", they might say.

But this is not true. You can use native materials in full Japanese as your learning tools. Manga, books and websites can be your textbooks, and J-Drama protagonists and singers can be your "teachers".

Just like you learned English by being massively exposed to TV shows, cartoons, music and other fun content in English, you can do kind of the same thing to learn Japanese.

I assure you that no academic textbooks with grammar explanations are required to master the language, although you can use them if you really want to.


Bilingual vs monolingual resources, and the importance of content of interest


When you are just starting out it's totally ok to use bilingual resources, like lists of interesting example sentences with translations (not isolated, contex-tless words with translations, like in bilingual lists usually used in classrooms) or bilingual stories in Japanese/English, and other similar resources.

Using native materials to learn Japanese actively is not as simple as just consuming this content as if it were in English of course. To execute it you need to put aside a couple of hours to sit down and dissect a piece of content in Japanese of your choice with the help of transcripts and a dictionary (at first a bilingual dictionary, THEN a monolingual dictionary once you get good enough).

Then, if you want you could also use tools like Spaced Repetition Systems to help you review consistently what you've deciphered on said materials.

This is a process that requires effort and patience from you, as breaking down manga dialogs, and blog articles, and song lyrics and many other pieces of content word-by-word takes its sweet time.


Also, because of how patience-intensive the process of "decoding" Japanese content is, it's important that you find and use content that is of interest to you to execute your learning.

If you use (or are forced to use) learning materials you have no interest in, like most textbooks, or even native materials about topics that don't interest you at all, then that will turn your learning process from challenging but enjoyable to boring and unbearable, which will most likely lead you to quit Japanese altogether.

Dissecting Japanese materials you would devour if they were in English is a hell more sustainable and engaging than trying to dissect content you simply don't care about.

So remember: As long as it's in Japanese, and for Japanese people, you can use it to learn Japanese, no matter how mundane, or geeky, or specialized, or dirty or whatever it may be the content is. Don't let naysayers discourage you from using real Japanese content of your interest to learn the language!

Oh, and if you actually like language textbooks, and you actually like to learn about Japanese grammar, then sure, go ahead and use textbooks as learning materials... as long as most of their content is written in Japanese :)


Speaking - When should you start talking in Japanese?


A common concern among language learners is: "When should I start speaking the language? Right away? Only once I can understand more than 90% of the language? Somewhere in between?"

In any case, you still need to receive as much comprehensible input in Japanese as possible. Just speaking out a language might help you improve your pronunciation, but it doesn't improve your vocabulary and natural sense of its grammar. Speaking is when you show off the meanings and patterns of the language you've acquired and internalized.

Now, whether you start practicing your speaking right away, or you start speaking once understanding anything in Japanese is no longer an issue, is a decision that depends solely on what your particular priorities are.

For instance, if you live in Canada, if you are not going to Japan any time soon, and you are not that interested in meeting Japanese people online yet, but you DO want to be able to devour content in Japanese everyday, then you can relax and focus on immersion, input, reviewing the kana and kanji, and acquiring comprehensible input in Japanese daily.

Now, let's say that for some strong reasons you need to learn how to speak Japanese somewhat fluently as soon as possible. Maybe because your family is moving to Japan next semester, or your company is transferring you to Japan three months from now, or you are not moving but you will be interacting with Japanese people frequently, etc.

If that's your situation, then you still need to get tons of language input from native content, learn the kana, kanji and Japanese vocabulary, and review consistently what you've learned. However, your main focus will be on practicing your speaking skills, preferably with native friends (either online or offline) who can and don't mind correcting your mistakes.

Hiring a tutor to help you with your Japanese is a common option. Personally, I would rather do language exchanges with Japanese people who want to learn my native language. There are plenty of resources on the net, like MyLanguageExchange.com and italki.com, which you can use to meet Japanese natives (again, either online or offline) looking for English speakers that can help them in their own language journey.

And if those "language exchange" relationships with Japanese natives turn into some friendships, even better! If you can make some good Japanese buddies interested in learning English, not only both parties win (you help them with their English and they help you with your Japanese), but in a friendship you can be yourself and talk about topics that interest both of you, instead of artificially trying to force conversations.

Finally, it's a good idea to do some speaking and pronunciation exercises when you are not practicing face-to-face conversation, as doing so helps you get used to think in Japanese. Exercises like the following ones can be helpful:
  • Consciously changing your inner monologue to Japanese.
  • Speaking out loud your inner monologue in Japanese, as long as you don't disturb anybody around you.
  • Shadowing (imitating) how Japanese people speak in a movie, song or TV show.
  • Reading out loud, etc.

Handwriting and creative writing


After learning Japanese for a considerable amount of time (maybe about 6 months, but preferably more), and you've also built up your Japanese vocabulary to a meaningful level, then it's time to show off what you've learned and start practicing your writing skills!

One way to start practicing is to first figure out how to type Japanese in your operating system (maybe using the Firefox plugin Kitsune, or the Windows Japanese IME, or the Google Japanese IME). Then, you can start looking for online resources to meet Japanese people and share writings with them, like language exchange sites and social networks like Mixi, Twitter and Facebook. You can also practice your writing with natives through chat rooms, online games, email messages and tweets.

One resource I highly recommend to practice your Japanese writing is Lang-8.com. This is a website where you can submit texts in any language, about almost any topic you wish. Then Japanese users read your text and proof-read it for you, pointing out any mistakes that you made... but only if you also proof-read texts in English (and/or in your native language) written by other users.

Also, don't neglect your hand-writing! Try to find some way to practice your hand-writing somewhat frequently. You could practice your hand-writing by re-writing content in Japanese like random blog posts, book chapters, and Lang-8 entries you and other users have submitted in Japanese.

Or once your Japanese level is high enough (and if you are into this...), you could try keeping a paper diary and write by hand a short entry in Japanese each day.


A bonus treat: A couple of YouTube series about language learning that I love


Before finishing this article, I want to share with you a couple of YouTube series about language learning that I really, really enjoy, and that I think can change the way you see language learning for the better:

In the first series we have Khatzumoto (webmaster of AJATT.com and one of my favorite authors) and the crazy Tkyosam (from the YouTube channel of the same name), and see how they discuss how to truly learn Japanese, mothertrucker!! xD

In the second series we have Steve Kaufmann, founder of LingQ.com and master of like 10+ languages. In his series he shares with us his 7 Secrets to Successful Language Learning.

These guys are language learning experts, so you can trust the advice they give in these videos. But don't just follow their ideas blindly. Always remember that your method to learn Japanese should be like playing with Legos:

Be open-minded, take ideas (bricks) from different resources (like this article, other webpages and books, the Master Japanese guide, etc...) and test them out. Play with them. Run experiments.

Then ditch the ideas that don't work for you or that you don't really like following, and embrace the ones that are giving you the best results and/or that you enjoy using the most. With those ideas build an awesome method that works the very best for you.

As I said in the beginning of this article, there is no universal-best way to learn Japanese, or any other language for that matter. The advice and tips I'm sharing with you here represent what has worked best for me in my language learning, and what has worked for many other learners that have been utterly frustrated by traditional language learning methods.

But as the saying goes, there is no "one-size-fits-all" in language learning. So, don't fall in the trap of language learning dogma! Just remember that the most important thing in all of this is that you follow whatever works best for you; whatever gives YOU the best results possible.

Anyways, enjoy these video series! :D


Master Japanese - The Ultimate Japanese Learning Guide!


Very well, so now you have learned, among other things:
  • That traditional methods to study Japanese are terrible.
  • That live classroom instruction, as a way of transmitting knowledge, is obsolete nowadays.
  • How to learn the Japanese writing system using some of the best methods and tools available.
  • How to learn vocabulary and get used to grammatical patterns through Japanese content of interest to you.
  • That comprehensible input is the key to learn any language, and that you don't really need to listen to content in the language passively.
  • That you don't need to learn any grammar rules whatsoever to dominate the oh-so-cool Nihongo.
  • And that ideally, you should worry about Writing and Speaking only after you can understand Japanese without trouble... unless you have a strong and internal reason to be able to speak fluently as soon as physically possible.
Oki doki loki... that's very cool and everything, but what about the specifics? What about the nitty gritty how of all this?

How do you actually get to implement these ideas? What exactly should you do everyday? What options do you have? Besides using Anki to review kana and kanji and implementing Heisig's method, what other tools do you have available? What kind of starter and native materials are out there?

Heck, where can you find those materials, exactly? Which are free and which are paid? What else should you consider before embarking in this Japanese journey? Should you get yourself a tablet or a smartphone? Should you track your progress in a calendar? What the flippin EFF are you supposed to do now?!

As I suggest above, building a learning plan that works best for you through experimentation is not only recommended, but encouraged. You can't know what works best for you if you don't run experiments.

But I do understand that time is precious too, and scouring the web for MOAR tips and advice on how to master Japanese can be very time consuming... not to mention that too much conflicting advice can make matters more confusing.

Thus, having some sort of Japanese-learning guide you can follow right now as your initial resource is always a huge plus. So, if you want to save yourself a big chunk of research time and get started learning Japanese as soon as possible, then I recommend get the digital guide Master Japanese, created by the linguist and Japanese master John Fotheringham.

This guide comes in two versions: One is a neatly ordered ebook in .pdf format chock-full with information, tips, advice and resources on how to learn Japanese in a fun, brain-friendly way.

The second version has the ebook guide in three different formats, as well as a compilation of hands-down enlightening (my opinion) audio interviews with several language bloggers, researchers, linguists and polyglots, among them, Khatzumoto, Steve Kaufmann, James Heisig and Benny Lewis. This version also includes other extra goodies, like worksheets, discount codes for special Japanese-learning resources, and even a free copy of the guide for a friend!

From all the Japanese learning guides on the web, this is the one that I recommend the most. If you want, you can check out wither the single .pdf guide, or the complete package through the following links:

Note: The following contain affiliate links. This means that if you follow any of those links and buy any product in the page you end up in, I earn a commission.


¡Click here to buy the complete Master Japanese package!

Or check out the single .pdf Master Japanese guide.

Thank you for reading this article, and I hope these tips and resources help you a lot in your Japanese learning journey. Cheers!


Summary


First, you must have a personal, strong motivation to learn Japanese. Learning Japanese will require effort, dedication and creativity from you.

If your motivation to learn is not important enough for you, and if you don't really see yourself doing things in Japanese frequently as part of your life, then it's not likely that you will succeed.

Most people who want to start learning a language sign up for language classes. Unfortunately, taking classes is a very inefficient way of trying to learn languages. This because of aspects like the inflexibility of the curriculum, the focus on studying grammar rules, and the focus on examinations over learning.

Nowadays classroom instruction is obsolete. What you could get in a classroom, like guidance from a teacher, you can get from a tutor or a language exchange partner. You can also find all the language learning materials you will ever need through the Internet.

Native Japanese people didn't master their native language by studying grammar rules or working through textbooks, but by acquiring comprehensible input in Japanese during their lives. That's how you learned your native English too.

To learn effectively the Japanese writing systems I suggest you check my articles about the kana and kanji.

Once you master the Japanese writing system, acquire comprehensible input in Japanese in order to learn vocabulary and get used to grammatical patterns in the language.

There are several ways to acquire comprehensible input, like beginner language learning materials and children stories. I personally recommend using native Japanese content (like music, books, videos) that you would enjoy if they were in English. It doesn't matter the genre, as long as your materials are in correct Japanese.

It's better to use content of your liking to learn Japanese than content you don't really care about (like most textbooks), because that helps you maintain interest and keeps the learning process much more bearable.

You can "decipher" these materials using transcripts and dictionaries (bilingual first, monolingual later), and learn vocabulary and grammar that way. I outline how you can do this on my articles about reading and listening.

I suggest you focus on training your listening and reading skills first. Then, once you've acquired enough vocabulary and grammar for your needs, practice pronunciation by yourself and practice your speaking with a tutor and/or language exchange partners. Same idea for practicing your writing.

If you want more in-depth information, either go to the beginning and read the entire article, or take a look at the Master Japanese guide by John Fotheringham. You can check out this excellent guide by clicking on the link below:

Note: The following is an affiliate link. If you buy something through it, I earn a commission.

Click here to check out the complete Master Japanese package!


Last Updated: June 3 of 2016

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