In mid-June 2014, I stood at the base of the holy Mount Misen within the island of Itsukushima (popularly referred to as Miyajima). Standing with a bottled wheat tea in hand, I had found that the forest leading up the mountain before me was unlike any other I had come across before in Japan, with its dirt-trodden path intercepted by rocks and vines. I had grown fond of hiking in Japan, having wandered up pathways in Tokyo and Kyoto that were often met with both spectacular views and faded moss-covered shrines upon reaching their peaks. Often times while hiking, I envisioned pilgrims, bamboo cutters, and immigrants of days gone by; how they and the people before them had worked to gradually beat down the forests’ soil into trails with each step that they took. As I quietly walked away from the lights and sounds of the city, I imagined that I could, in a sense, feel as those before me had when navigating those ancient passages. I found that whenever faced with the task of an invisible peak before me, I wanted to get there, and see what lay beyond the seemingly endless slope before me.
As I hiked upon Mount Misen, I became enraptured by both my limitations and drives. With every step, it seemed like the humidity rose, the path became less clear, and the top of the mountain seemed further away. Many times I felt that I couldn’t do it, I couldn’t make it to the top. Especially when, as oft happens within the rainy season（梅雨）a heavy rain began to pour upon me muddying my path to the summit. Yet, somehow, I made it to the peak, initially greeted by the smell of burning incense and the hauntingly beautiful sound of chanting Buddhist monks. I bought an omamori (お守り), or sort of amulet, that infused within it came the scent of incense, with the hopes that it would serve to remind me of the rewards of challenging oneself. Be it mentally, or physically, I pushed myself beyond the limits of what I felt I was truly capable of.
I would like to argue that the acquisition of an unfamiliar language could feel similar to the act of climbing a mountain. Initially, one can become enraptured by the beauty and intricacy of what lays before them, yet the further one gets, the more challenges they face. Personally, my journey of studying the Japanese language is short, and I will have studied the language for three years by mid-autumn. In the time that I’ve studied, I have passed the JLPT N3, and I’m currently studying for the N2, by an outsider’s standpoint I could seem fluent. Yet, I often question the definition of fluency itself, is fluency the act of holding a basic conversation? Is it being able to converse within multiple topics in addition to reading and writing? If it is, I suppose I could be fluent, yet personally I know I have a long long way to go before reaching the proficiency in Japanese that I desire. Having self-studied for more than two years, and taken advanced classes for eight months, I have learned some ‘tools’ for learning Japanese that will be covered below.
Figure Out Your Goals
Like approaching the base of a mountain, beginning your studies in Japanese can be overwhelming, and depending upon your already spoken languages, you may face more or less barriers than others. For example, someone who is a native Mandarin speaker may already have a basic understanding of kanji 漢字 (Chinese characters) that a unilingual English speaker will not have. Arguably, according to this chart, Japanese is actually one of the hardest languages in the world for native English speakers to learn. So before anything, I would argue that you should determine how much effort, time, and money you are willing to put into Japanese, and furthermore why you intend to study it. Through understanding your ultimate goals for the language, as well as the time, money, etc. that you have available to committing to it, you are better equipped to creating a study plan. For example, an individual who wants to make a two-week trip to Japan, and an individual intending upon working within a Japanese company, may have different expectations of how much Japanese they want to learn.
Become aware of ‘Hitting Walls’
When mountain climbing, I sometimes found that I wanted to give up, that it was too hard, but I had to keep on going in order to reach my goal. Language learning is the same, inevitably there will be times that you feel like your Japanese is improving rapidly, but there will also be times when you feel like you can’t get to the next level. When you reach these walls you need to look back on your goals. For example, speaking basic conversational Japanese may allow for you to get by in everyday life, which may be a goal for some. For people who want to gain a greater proficiency in the language, you can either take a short break, or keep pushing. You will get through it! I promise.
Consider Taking Tests
As a self-studier, or even as a class-taker, sometimes it is difficult to determine what your so-called ‘level’ of Japanese is, or what you should study next. For example, some people may run into walls after completing the Genki textbooks, and other people may find that their university Japanese courses may not be the level that they desire. When it comes to a time like this, I would recommend looking at the JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test). The JLPT is an (bi)annual certification system run by the Japan Foundation that is held globally, and contains five different levels. Taking the test often involves a vocabulary component, an oral component, and a written comprehension component. There are plenty of textbooks and online resources you can find for studying for the tests, and you can even challenge yourself by trying to take a level higher than you think you are. Through taking the tests and getting the results, you can see what areas you need to study more, be it vocabulary, reading, listening, etc.
I believe that the best way to learn another language is to immerse yourself as much as possible, and you can do this even if you’re not in Japan. For example through,
- Listening to Japanese music while studying, while in the car, while at the gym, etc.
- Learn the lyrics to the Japanese music you like.
2. Anime, dramas, movies
- If you’re at a beginner level watching anime, dramas, and movies will help you understand the rhythm and cadence of the language
- If you’re more advanced you can try watching without subtitles, and write down or look up the meanings of any words that you pick up.
- You can actually learn a lot of different ways of speaking, dialects, and natural Japanese through watching these! Moreover, you can learn more about Japanese culture.
3. Make Japanese friends or language partners
- Check if there’s a Japanese/English language meet-up or exchange in your city.
- Find skype partners online (video not necessary) on websites such as Lang-8
- Become involved in Japanese related arts or clubs in your area such as karate or tea ceremony
- Find out about if there’s a Japanese community center in your area and attend any events that they have
- Beginner/intermediate level learners can check out Easy NHK News for reading practice, and can also try reading books for children
- Advanced learners can try reading articles in online newspapers, books, or essays
- A great resource for reading practice is Read Real Japanese
5. Visit or Move to Japan
- You can take Japanese language classes in places such as Tokyo
- Many countries offer working-holiday visas to Japan
- You can teach English on a program such as JET
- You can apply for the MEXT scholarships if you’re a student or researcher
- Even visiting Japan temporarily will give you lots of time to practice!
1. Learn Hiragana and Katakana
- Hiragana and katakana are two of the basic scripts for Japanese that you need to learn first for reading and writing.
2. Kanji and Vocab
- You could do rote-memorization, but I would recommend using an app such as anki, memrise, or wanikani
- Get in the habit of carrying around a notebook so that you can write down new words whenever you learn them.
- Learn the basics of stroke order, even take a class or two in shodo 書道! (calligraphy) It’ll really help with your understanding of the script.
- For beginners, I’d recommend Genki I and Genki II
- For intermediate and advanced you can try textbooks, or you can buy some of the JLPT textbooks
- There’s also some great YouTube channels for learning grammar that are super useful if you’re an audio-visual learner!
Above all, don’t give up on your goals. Like climbing a mountain, Japanese studying will be challenging. Moreover, different people have different goals with Japanese and have been studying for different lengths than you have. Everyone has a different path, so try not to discourage yourself by comparing yourself with other learners. We’re all on the same path in learning Japanese, just at different places with different goals, so let’s try to help each other.
I hope this is helpful! If anyone has any other suggestions, tips, or advice for learning Japanese, please comment.
Leia is a tea-drinking academic heading from grad school to Tokyo as an incoming ALT. She'll be found hitting up live houses in Koenji, birdwatching in the mountains, or seeking second hand book deals in Jimbocho.