First things first – if you ever think learning Japanese ends, you’re terribly mistaken. I’ve spent a damn long time studying Japanese, but I still have decades worth of improvement left.
And this certainly isn’t a guide to how to learn Japanese (I think I will make one at some point), this is simply how I learnt it – good or bad.
In the beginning
When I first started, I had no idea how hard it would be, or just how far I would take it. For six months, I downloaded and listened to Pimsleur Japanese audio lessons. They are a bit dated, but they served their purpose of introducing me to the language. I would listen to them when I went out walking or when I was driving, so it barely even felt like I was investing time .
On Youtube, I watched a series called “Let’s Learn Japanese” that followed the adventures of Yan, a foreigner learning Japanese. This series is also pretty outdated now, but the Japanese it teaches is still a good place to start – not only that, but the adventures of Yan can be pretty amusing at times.
I’d now listened to each Pimsleur audio lesson several times, so I searched for some new content. Japanesepod101 is what I found. It has hundreds (thousands?) of Japanese audio lessons that you can download. A trial subscription is free, so you can download as many lessons as you think you might need before your free subscription ends.
With what felt like an unlimited amount of audio lessons to listen to, I also thought that I’d better get working on my kanji since I had not studied any! I searched the internet for the best way to learn the several thousand picture-based characters that Japan uses.
Heisig and Anki
What I came across was the Heisig method. James Heisig published a book in 1977 called “Remembering the Kanji” that breaks down each individual kanji and uses mnemonics to remember them. I worked my way through the book while making 10-20 flashcards each day (it was really time-consuming). It probably took me between 6 months and a year to finish the book, and then even more time to make sure I didn’t forget it afterwards. A hint of warning though, the Heisig method doesn’t actually teach you to read Japanese, it teaches you the alphabet and familiarises you with the rough meanings of each character.
When I realised that my Japanese reading ability was still terrible because I wasn’t reading actual Japanese, I started to panic. This is where I downloaded Anki. Anki is flashcard software that allows you to create or download flashcards. When you get a flashcard correct, it increases the amount of time until the flashcard appears again. This is called spaced repetition.
Depending on whether I got the flashcard right or wrong, the card would be brought to the top of the deck or pushed further down the deck.
I had decks for nouns, kanji, names, and verbs; but the most important for me at that point was sentence decks. A sentence deck is just the same as any other deck, just that what appears on the flashcard is a full sentence.
I continued with Anki for years. I had over 50,000 cards in total, and if I missed just a few days, it would take me hours and hours to catch up.
Now I was confident I had my listening study and my reading study down. Now it was time for speaking!
Actually using Japanese
I searched for websites such as conversationexchange, sites aimed at connecting people who want to practice languages together. Today, however, there are a lot better websites out there. I started talking to people here and there, and if we got along well, we’d exchange Skype info.
Now, I’m a pretty shy guy. Talking on Skype to a total stranger made me nervous – but talking real Japanese to a real Japanese person? Uh-oh.
The first couple of calls I made, I didn’t even dare speak Japanese! I’d spent years learning it, and I knew I could do It, but it just felt so strange! I know some people recommend having a glass of wine or two to help you along. I didn’t go with alcohol, I just spoke a little bit more Japanese each time, until it was sliding out of my mouth fairly naturally.
Next, I needed to improve my writing – one of the hardest parts of learning Japanese. I’d learnt to write hiragana and katakana (the alphabets that support kanji), as you can do this in a single day.
I often told myself that learning to write kanji isn’t that important these days, and while this is partially true, I still needed to know the basics. To practice writing kanji, I simply wrote them over and over again.
But be sure to not make the mistake of writing the same old kanji a thousand times, as this won’t be very productive. Instead, get a list of 10-20 kanji or words you want to learn, write down the pronunciation or the English counterpart so you can remember which word you’re trying to write, and then write all the words one by one. By the time you get back to the first word, you’ll be working out your memory muscle to trying to remember it. The trick to remembering something is by remembering it!
I’d been studying Japanese for four years now, and I just wasn’t satisfied with myself. Luckily for me, I was in a position where I could go to Japan and learn Japanese in a Japanese school.
At first, I was looking at 4-week courses, 8-week courses, but as I worked out the costs, I realised it would be best for me to go on an 18-month course!
I arrived at my school. Right off the bat, I was being praised. “Wow, you already know Japanese” – oh yes, did that feel good! I was put in the second highest class, while most others started in the fourth highest. B
After six months of school, I passed JLPT N2 and was moved into the highest class in the school. This class was a small class of Chinese students and a few Vietnamese students who were aiming for N1 – or already had it.
I spent another year in this class, but I wasn’t able to pass N1. It was time for graduation, and I wasn’t ready to go back home yet! I still had so much more to learn, so I enrolled in a business Japanese course in Kanagawa.
On this course, we studied business Japanese and subjects similar to what a Japanese middle-schooler would learn such as geography, business, marketing, economics etc. While studying these, we also had a few typical Japanese lessons, too.
After six months, I passed JLPT N1, and also got the BJT J2 (Business Japanese Test), and the Hisho-kentei level 3 (a secretarial exam).
After leaving this school (well, while still at it, technically), I started doing freelance translation, mainly for manga.
Eight or so years later, with the foundation of Japanese under my belt, I now need to continue reading, listening, and speaking Japanese for the rest of my life!