Learning Japanese? Here's a story and some ideas from a fellow learner
Updated: Jan 31, 2022
Once upon a time, there was a Russian girl who lived in the Russian Far East and, even though Japan was just a short flight away, felt like it was a universe apart... That girl heard of samurais, geishas, sushi, and sumo fighters. She watched Japanese mangas, took a class in Japanese history in college, and once even briefly worked for a Japanese telecom company. But she never thought of even trying to learn Japanese. It seemed like an impossible feat, with its elaborate kanji characters, multiple scripts, and no visible connection whatsoever with other languages she was speaking or learning. And she's never even met anyone who had learned this language, or who even tried to do it. So it's only natural that learning Japanese seemed about as feasible as for a person who can barely touch their toes to join the Cirque du Soleil. Does that sound a bit like you?
You've probably guessed that this girl was me. But that was a long time ago, and lots have changed since. A few years ago, energized by empowering ideas about pushing your limits and being able to do anything you put your mind to, I decided to try it. Actually, a friend of mine asked if I can recommend some learning resources for him to learn Japanese, and I, having tried dozens of tools and methods for learning the 5 languages I now speak fluently, volunteered to help him. And then got hooked (and he gave up after only 3 weeks....)
It's now been about a year since I've started experimenting with Japanese. I have to say I haven't miraculously reached fluency yet (as I ambitiously hoped), but I'm feeling quite proud of how far I've progressed. And besides picking up some handy Japanese vocabulary and everyday phrases, I've learned quite a lot about what to do and not to do to successfully learn Japanese. I'd like to share these tips with you to save you the trouble, time, and maybe even money if you are trying to progress in Japanese and prevent you from following the path of my friend who lost inspiration and hope after only a few short weeks...
So here we go...
Where to start:
Unlike Romance or Germanic languages that can be pretty intuitive for a Westerner to learn, I found that Japanese requires an instruction manual to just understand where to start and unlock the first learning steps. If you've never experimented with Asian languages, following a standard learning path (i.e. starting with "hellos", then learning conjugations of the verb "to be", followed by numbers, months, colors, etc.) just doesn't work, and will make you want to quit after a week. It's best to prepare you for what's to come, so to say... A good guide of what to expect and how the language works would be the first item to get your hands on before shocking your brain with the new script, sounds, and grammar!
Master Japanese is just that type of guide! As its author John Fotheringham says, this guide "shows you how to learn Japanese when you want, where you want, and how you want through Anywhere Immersion (TM)". It explains (in plain English) what makes Japanese special, with its tweaks and patterns (covering Japanese basics, honorifics, parts of speech, particles, pronunciation, writing, and so on). Careful - it's not a Japanese textbook! It's really a way to "demask the beast" and make it into a friendly puppy before you start a more thorough learning path with specialized courses, tutors, and targeted apps. But in addition to explaining what Japanese is all about in a simple and fun way, it gives you so much more - an actual guide to how successfully learn a language, master your motivation, track your progress, learn through action and immersion, and improve your reading, speaking, listening and writing skills. It also offers you a list of the best resources to learn Japanese, from audio courses to podcasts, books, and videos. Coming from a Westerner who learned Japanese from scratch, this book is living proof that mastering Japanese is possible!
I really wish I had discovered this book (available online in a variety of formats) when I first started learning Japanese - it would have saved me tons of time and frustration!
How to fit some Japanese learning into your everyday routine:
Finding time to sit down and study - even for half an hour - is always tricky when you have so many other things to juggle in your daily routine. But how about combining studying with other things you have to do anyway, and killing two birds with one stone?
The Pimsleur Method does just that - I listen to their audio courses when I brush my teeth in the morning, make my bed, cook breakfast, and do dishes (which I would do anyway). So by the time I'm ready to start work, I've already completed my daily 30 min of Japanese learning. I'd say Pimsleur is probably the best tool for beginner language learners I've found so far. It is based on 30-minute audio lessons (best done daily) that get you to listen to simple conversations and repeat acquired phrases at specific intervals after being prompted by the instructor. Without even noticing, you are learning and retaining full sentences that you can use pretty much from Day 1. Instead of simply memorizing words and phrases, you become truly engaged in the lessons and can never be a passive listener. By regularly repeating what you are hearing (before even seeing how the words are written), you also learn proper pronunciation (a huge plus!). Quizzes and short exercises at the end of each lesson help you visualize the material learned and practice it. Their mobile app works great on the go, and you can easily do your daily lesson when exercising, doing housework, taking a walk, or traveling to the office. I've found this to be an excellent app to start conversing in a language very fast, and a great first step in your language-learning journey. And they even offer a 7-day free trial!
I also found a few really good podcasts for beginner Japanese learners. My favorites are Easy Japanese from NHK World Radio and JapanesePod101. You can find these podcasts pretty much anywhere you listen to podcasts (Spotify, Castbox, etc.). They have short audit episodes that teach you useful grammar and vocabulary - and these are also easy to fit into your schedule when you are running around or chilling on a beach.
NHK World Radio actually has a whole library of online Japanese lessons (all free) for speakers of many different languages. They are supplemented by lesson notes with phrases written out, and excellent grammar explanations. Definitely check them out - you'll be surprised how addictive these episodes can get!
Don't obsess about being able to read and write Japanese early on!
This may sound counter-intuitive (isn't learning a language impossible without learning how to read and write??), but actually for languages with a drastically different writing system from what we Westerners are used to (such as Japanese), I find that it's better to postpone reading and writing until a bit later in your learning journey. Think about how kids do it - they start speaking their first language four or five years before knowing how to read or write it, and they do just fine!
My big mistake was trying to learn how to spell and recognize every word I was learning. And I couldn't for the life of me remember the katakana (and don't let me even start on kanji!). To tell you the truth, this was the biggest discouragement and hurdle for me, and it made me give up learning Japanese several times over the past year... What made me start again - every time - was listening (just listening) to podcasts and Pimsleur courses, where I actually felt like I was understanding more and more with every lesson.
I've slowly started to learn kanji and the kana only after 3-4 months of active audio lessons. Now I am paying more attention to how the words are written and try to remember the strokes and composite parts - and I get very excited when I manage to read something on a sushi menu! I'm still not writing in Japanese though (but luckily, smartphones and computer keyboards recognize Japanese words even if you write them in romaji - the phonetic depiction of Japanese words using Latin characters).
So don't get discouraged if the Japanese script seems too intimidating - you'll get to it when you are ready. It's totally ok to postpone this step!
Learning Japanese through a unique story approach
After you've had a bit of exposure to Japanese - perhaps after going through 15-20 Pimsleur classes, listening to a dozen or so podcasts, and watching some YouTube videos from JapanesePod101 and NHK World Radio, it's time for you to discover a unique and truly fun resource. It's called Japanese Uncovered.
It's been designed by Olly Richards, a world-renowned polyglot, and it's probably the most fun way for a beginner to learn Japanese (even though it does require a bit more discipline than a mobile app like Memrise or Busuu). I think that's the only course I've tried that was like a really good book - too difficult to put away. So addictive!
It works by immersing the learner in Japanese by reading and listening to an engaging story. Learning words, phrases & grammar happens almost on its own with the help of instructional videos that bring the story to life. It will feel more challenging though than other courses, because this course doesn't spend weeks teaching you "Konnichiwa" and "arigato", but jumps right into the subject matter. From lesson 1 you are presented with a 2-3 page story - all in Japanese! - but the way the instructors break down the text and guide you through it makes the task more than doable. I also found that by challenging your brain to more complex tasks early on, you act