Speaking in Tongues: Weekender’s Guide to Improving Your Japanese

You may have thought it to yourself each time you were confronted with a menu that you couldn’t make sense of, or every time you tried to read an ad on the subway, or tried to figure out what all of the buttons on your washing machine meant: It’s finally time to improve your Japanese. But where to start?

We’ve put together a few ideas to get you started on your quest. Ganbatte kudasai!


By Alec Jordan


Classroom in the Cloud

So we’ll start with the good news. There are more ways to learn Japanese online than you could possibly imagine. JapanesePod101.com has been providing Japanese podcast and vocabulary lessons for years, and they’re still going strong. While there’s plenty of advanced material for grammar and reading on the site, it’s also a great place for beginners: and naturally, there’s a lot of audio. For general online dictionaries, you can’t go wrong with Jisho, which works well on desktop and mobile browsers. Some of our favorite iOS apps for Japanese learning and reference are (the aptly named) Japanese, imiwa?Midori, and Learning Japanese (iOS/Android). When it comes to knuckling down and making your way through written Japanese, you could go with the flash card systems at WaniKani or ReadtheKanji.com. The principle behind these apps is called spaced repetition—basically, the better you remember a given electronic “flashcard,” the less often it will be called up. These services are designed specifically for Japanese, but if you are willing to spend some time on similar products of a more general bent—but with plenty of learning options—you can try out Memrise or Anki. So, what’s the bad news? With so many choices, it can be tough to stick with just one method.

Read What You Like

One fellow who hit upon a solid approach to learning Japanese from an early age is translator, media personality, and tourism ambassador for Nakano Ward, Benjamin Boas. Given the otaku cred of the ward he represents, it should come as no surprise that he started off learning Japanese through manga and video games. We asked him for a few language-learning pointers.

Do you have any particular tips or tricks that proved particularly useful to you as a student of Japanese?
To speak, you have to put yourself in situations where you’re forced to use Japanese. Group activities can be very helpful in doing this. Getting drunk with strangers even more so. Even one drink can help you relax and make mistakes. Making mistakes and being corrected is the only way to learn. For reading, read what you like. You’ll need to read things over and over to fully understand them so you might as well go with stuff you won’t mind repeatedly poring your eyes over.

What approach would you recommend for people who are interested in improving their Japanese?
Figure out what you want to do with your Japanese once it gets good. Then try to do that, even though you know you can’t.

How would you rate your level of Japanese at this point?
High enough to give academic presentations in Japanese and write articles in Japanese. I’ve done both.

What do you think are some of the biggest barriers that most people have when trying to learn Japanese?
Kanji is a big one that everyone has to get through. It’s a slog. Start early and chip away every day. There’s no shortcut.

The Old-Fashioned Way

Finally, there might be those of you out there who might not want that completely open-ended approach. A classroom environment, or the motivation of a test, could be just the trick. If you’d like to get started in an informal class setting, many of Tokyo’s ward offices and smaller city organizations offer classes taught by volunteer teachers, which are a quick (English language!) Google search away. They’re usually quite affordable, but more advanced students may want to find something more challenging before long. And speaking of challenges, there’s the Japanese Language Proficiency Test. Offered twice a year, this five-level exam (1 is the highest level and 5 is the lowest) has sections on kanji and vocabulary, grammar, reading, and listening. It may not be the truest indicator of your functional Japanese, but in preparing for the JLPT, you’ll pick up more than you expected. Added bonus: going to the exam offers an experience in diversity rivaled only by dropping by the Immigration Office.

What have been some of the most successful methods you’ve used to work on your Japanese? Let us know in the comments.

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Image: Daniel Rubio / Flickr, used under CC.

Main image: dmeurer / Flickr, used under CC

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