Learning Japanese Series
Check out our series on learning the various aspects of Japanese.
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Our Guides to Learn Japanese
This is your 1 stop guide on how to learn Japanese. many websites charge a subscription fee or hide the best information behind e-books, but at BFF Tokyo all of our information is free thanks to our sponsor Japan Switch, which provides affordable morning Japanese lessons in Tokyo.
How to Learn Japanese Intelligently
There is no one method of learning Japanese that applies to everyone
The main goal of our guides is to teach you to learn Japanese intelligently. Most people when they learn a language ask their teachers and friends on how to learn the language and some even extensively research online or read forums about what are some of the best tricks. The biggest problem in asking someone who has learned Japanese themselves is that they assume the way they learned is the best way to learn and which may be true for them but probably not true for you. When creating these guides we stopped to hear the advice from many different people to provide the ultimate and widest ranging look on how to learn Japanese. Our hope is that you look through all of the guides and find the method or strategy that works best for you and test them out. This will involve some trial and error on your part because you may not actually know what your learning style is and I would be more surprised if you knew it as opposed to not.
One example of this is learning to write Japanese characters. Some people can learn how to read Japanese characters simply through writing them over and over again but this method does not work for me. If something is not memorable I will usually forget it, so the best way to learn how to write kanji for me is through the Heisig method of creating a story line for each kanji, similar to how some people remember long lines of numbers. If I had not tested both methods I would not have figured out which method of studying is more suitable for me. The same will apply to you as well in that you need to test out multiple of the methods to find the one that suits you best and once you find it then dive all in.
To summarize the points above there is no one all and be all method on how to learn Japanese. Another unique phenomena is that sometimes one method works well for you and other times a different method works better based on how you're feeling and your goals at the moment.
Study Japanese consistently and avoid binge study sessions.
The other key points about learning Japanese effectively is consistency over quantity. Similar to anyone who has studied for hours and hours on end for a University exam and end up forgetting the information three days later, language learning is similar in that you need to use the language consistently for short periods of time as opposed to learning in one chunk. For example, spending one hour every day for seven days as opposed to one day for 7 hours is how you learn a language and anything else long-term to be
How to Learn Japanese - Vocabulary
The key to learning Japanese vocabulary is frequency and exposure. Your brain will not retain words that it does not use because it can only store a certain amount of new information. There is a lot of competing information for your brain memory space like maybe a date you have with someone, learning terminology for your field of work, or even something as simple as learning a new person's name. I am not saying that you should not learn people's names to remember more Japanese words, but if you want to learn a language it may come at a memory cost!
No Japanese textbooks or apps will know what you want to learn
The areas that all textbooks, vocabulary books, and study apps fail at is providing the right words to know when you want to know them. All these products are standardized products meant to serve the general population and will never serve your needs 100 percent. The traditional method in textbooks are based on teaching you daily conversation but the challenge with this method is that most people find the contents boring because you cannot connect deeply with another person. Another method, not employed in textbooks but often found online is the frequency based model where they share with you the most commonly used 2000 words in English and you learn those in order.
The challenge with these methods are that they are unable to take into consideration what is important for your marriage or personal relationships, what conversations and vocabulary are relevant for your occupation and what you are doing in Japan, and are unable to target your passions, hobbies, and who you really are as a person. If you are the type of person who wants to learn the language to build personal connections, you will always struggle with learning through the content developed by other people and you will have to determine yourself what is the most relevant things for you.
Create your own frequency words list
One of the tips we share in our article on how to learn Japanese vocabulary is the Batino method where you write down the most common 50 to 100 words you used in English and translate these into Japanese and then you can study these words. This combines the frequency method but also takes into account what you actually want to communicate. Now that you know that there is no textbook that meets your needs exactly, you now have the opportunity to take an active role in choosing how to learn Japanese vocabulary as opposed to the passive method of allowing someone to determine it for you. We also talk more about the forgetting curve and talk about software that determines what words to study that day based on how well you remember the words.
How to Learn Japanese - Listening
Learning how to improve your Japanese listening is one of those topics that seems obvious at first because the general answer is the more you listen the better you’re listening will become. However, the topic of improving your listening skills actually goes much deeper than that and improving your listening skills is not that simplistic.
You can’t hear what you can’t say in Japanese
One case in point is when you come across Japanese sounds and syllables that do not exist in the English language. No matter how often you listen to these sounds, you will never be able to hear them exactly and in this case the best method for learning is not to listen more but learning how to pronounce those sounds and syllables yourself because you cannot hear sounds that you cannot pronounce yourself.
You most likely overestimate your Japanese listening abilities.
Another behavior that is not effective from a learning point of view is when a Japanese language learner tries to listen to things that are way beyond their current level and so they actually cannot understand anything. This method is useful from a maintaining motivation point of view, but not useful from measuring the amount you learn based on the amount of time invested.
Another interesting phenomena is how everyone always assume you understand more than you actually do when it comes to joining in a conversation or watching a TV program or drama. Everyone who learns a language goes through this phase where they overestimate the percentage they understand and underestimate the impact of subtitles. I am guilty of overestimating and I uncovered this when I asked people to explain the conversation they heard and what they thought they heard, and the percentage they claimed to understand was off by more than 30% in most cases and in some cases 70 - 80%. The harder it is for the person to admit to their mistakes or responsibility in situations, the greater they misunderstand the gap between what they understand and do not understand.
Want to pass the JLPT? Here is one tip for you.
Another technique that we share in the article on how to learn Japanese listening is on how I passed the listening section of the N1 Japanese proficiency test. One technique I used was to listen to the audio at 1.25 to 1.5 times the normal speed of the listening exercise. After training my brain to listen at this much faster speed, it became much easier to listen to audio at a normal speed and I was able to get a 90% on the listening section even though it was one of my weaker areas.
How to Learn Japanese - Speaking
The problem with most guides on how to speak Japanese is that it is created by people who can actually speak Japanese really well. Many of these awesome people are foreigners who will go out of their way to speak Japanese and so their advice may not apply to someone whose introverted, shy, or is concerned about making mistakes.
We all know we should speak more...now let’s find another approach for introverts
The advice that the more you speak, the better your speaking becomes is known by everyone and doesn't really help anyone who is not already speaking. People who are shy know that they should be speaking more, so the core challenge is not a lack of knowledge but how to develop confidence in your Japanese abilities. This is what I discovered as a Japanese language School owner - yes, I am an American who owns a Japanese language school in Tokyo - and the confidence issue is something I discovered talking to a lot of my students about why they come to my school and what service I can offer to better help them.
Our guide on how to learn to speak Japanese is focused towards people who are introverted and will not go out and start speaking to strangers and making friends with Japanese people from the beginning. Our guide is for the types of people who prefer talking in a one-on-one environment and are focused on making fewer friends but spending more time together. The guide will only be somewhat beneficial to those who have the magical talent of going to a party where you don’t know no one and immediately talking to a lot of people and makes new acquaintances. You will learn about how to fine tune your speaking and improve your pronunciation, but in terms of learning how to communicate as fast as possible, your method of going out there and using it is the best method around.
How to start speaking when you cannot speak
When you start learning a language, you aren't going to be able to say many things and it takes a while until you're able to do daily conversation. One method you can practice without a teacher and Japanese friends is to use shadowing or using a voice on text recorder - it always reminds me that my Japanese r’s need a lot of improvement. By shadowing and practicing this way you can increase your opportunities to speak Japanese while avoiding the risk of sounding silly or seeing other people struggle to understand you. The guide also focuses on other small steps you can take to build your confidence before you go out there and start speaking to strangers and making new friends.
For those who are having trouble learning how to speak Japanese I highly recommend reading our article on speaking and the article on how to make Japanese friends as well. Both articles are deeply interconnected and the guide on making Japanese friends teaches you on how to apply your speaking practice and what topics to talk about with Japanese people.
How to Learn Japanese - Kanji
Learning how to learn Japanese kanji is not really something you can explain to someone else until you have done it yourself because there is nothing you can use as a reference to help someone understand the challenges of learning over 2000 written characters. For those who have learned English, there are around 100 characters at most if you include cursive and print written forms. Simply saying imagine learning 20x this amount of characters for reading is not something you can understand.
Damn...2000 is a lot of written letters and characters
The main point other websites are trying to communicate is that learning chinese characters is really tough and there is no magic bullet solutions to help you learn them all in 6 months. Learning 2000 written characters will take 2 or 3 years if you want to become really fluent, but you can get away with knowing about 1200 characters as that covers more than 80% of what you read. There is a ton of software that will help you learn kanji in a logical and effective way but the challenge is maintaining motivation. For me the key on how to learn Japanese kanji is on finding a way to enjoy learning the characters.
You do not need to learn to write in order to read Japanese kanji
The good news is that the methods for learning kanji has improved and you are not limited to the traditional method of writing the kanji as much as possible. Children would spend hours and hours every day writing Chinese characters nonstop from the ages of 5 to 14 years old to develop the habit and the muscle memory required to learn how to write Chinese characters. I am glad to share with you that you are not required to learn how to write Chinese characters to be able to read them because I can read about 1800 and am only able to write about 10 at most.
This will contradict what I said about how to improve your Japanese listening skills because you cannot hear sounds that you cannot pronounce or speak, but this does not apply to reading. You can learn to read Kanji without having to devote 1000s of hours to develop the muscle memory to write them. I was able to accomplish this by using the time I would have normally dedicated to writing to reading hours a day. Instead of reading something in English, I would always be reading something in Japanese instead.
If I wanted to learn about how to stretch or find a nice restaurant in the area, I would try to read about it in Japanese and not English. This may not be the strategy for everyone but this was how I was able to combine learning Japanese kanji and something else at the same time so I felt that I was accomplished two things while taking one action. You could apply the same logic to learning to write Japanese though!
Regardless of your desire to learn how to write Japanese kanji, we share some tips and novel ideas, links to the software that will assist you, and links to other sources of information that will help you learn kanji in as shortest time as possible. I sometimes meet people who want to become fluent in Japanese in six months for work reasons and the challenge of learning to read Japanese kanji will be the are you underestimate the most. Unless you are a computer or have computer like memory, you cannot learn 2000 characters in six months and if you can, I would like you to know how jealous I am!
How to learn Japanese reading
Similar to speaking and listening to Japanese, your ability to read at the beginning is very limited and the first hurdle that you have to make is that you want to read something at a complication level of 10 out of 10. However your language ability is only at a 1 out of 10, so the question you have to answer is what types of content should I use to learn. The bad news is that you should not be using materials that are beyond your ability to comprehend both verbally and culturally. The faster you make it past this emotional hurdle of the ideal Japanese speaking self and your current language abilities, the less time you will use learning things that will not directly improve your Japanese.
Read things in Japanese that are at your level
I think you get the point, but I need to harp on this topic because even though it is easy to understand from a rational point of view, it is emotionally tough to understand. Most people get stuck on wanting to learn content that is way beyond their level. What happens in most cases is that you are very motivated in the beginning but quickly lose that motivation because you cannot understand what you are reading in Japanese and get frustrated. You then avoid practicing your Japanese reading and end up putting in the closet and focus on what you are good at or end up giving up on your Japenese learning adventure.
So the art of learning how to read Japanese is in knowing your abilities and matching your current abilities to what you are reading. The hardest thing to read are Japanese novels and the thing people will often try to read first are these but end up giving up because it is too hard. The rational way to learn how to read Japanese is through a textbook because it is content organize for those learning Japanese as a foreign language. The content made for native speakers and which are the most interesting do not make any considerations for language learners because that is like removing the spice from food and is bland.
The beginning is bland but things start to get more delicious
Similar to a baby you start with eating bland food and bland textbooks, and you start developing taste buds for the delicious stuff like ice cream and you gradually and continually refine your senses until you can afford and enjoy the finer things in life like filet mignon. Sorry for the rant but that is how you learn how to read Japanese even though you would prefer to skip the learning phase and go straight into turbo mode.
How to make Japanese friends
I think more foreigners are having trouble making Japanese friends then learning the language itself. To be honest, making Japanese friends in Osaka and Kansai is easier than Tokyo because people in that region are more quick to open up to foreigners and Japanese alike. However in Tokyo, Japanese people have a hard time opening up to Japanese they do not know and foreigners as well, so remember that it is more of a regional phenomena and applies to all people and not only foreigners.
Making friends with Japanese is a group effort.
The other thing that foreigners do not understand is that making friends with a Japanese person is not a one on one type of relationship like in the West. Making friends with one Japanese person is making friends with all of their friends. Many Japanese people have very strong bonds with their junior high school and senior high school friends and these bonds often continue for a lifetime. They will not cut these bonds or give up spending time with these friends to spend more time with you in most cases. If you receive an invite by a Japanese person to hang out with them and their friends, they are probably giving you a test run to see if you are a match for their click. They want to spend time with you but they also want to continue nurturing their relationship with their Japanese friends and so they often choose foreign friends who can adapt to a friendship with them and their friends.
Speaking with two native speakers is tough but is the fast track to learning Japanese.
Speaking with Japanese people in groups is a great way to speed up your Japanese learning. When two native speakers talk in their native language, they will speak at a native speed and intonation. They will not revert to the simple and stiff speed which you may be used to from your learning materials. You will struggle a long time to understand what they say in a group setting and the context of the conversation. However, if you have an ally there who can explain the context of the situation and explain some of the natural slang words, your Japanese level will definitely improve faster than your other foreign friends.
In our article on how to make Japanese friends we cover everything and I am proud to say that we made the most comprehensive article on how to make Japanese friends that I have found on the internet and it's completely free for you. Discover how the cultural differences in making friendships affect Japanese and foreigners and the common misunderstanding both sides have.
We share information on what's trending and what people from different age demographics like in terms of media, celebrities, and trends. We also share a lot about Japanese slang and also talked about Japanese comedy as well to give you more points in common with Japanese people. Also learn things that Japanese don't expect foreigners to know and that will impress them and help you start building bonds much more quickly. This is a type of guide you show your Japanese friends and they will nod in agreement at many of the points and be like oh my God I totally did not know that but it makes sense.
This is our most popular article and has been shared more than a hundred fifty times.
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We provide the most affordable Japanese lessons in Tokyo at our school Japan Switch