How I learned Japanese

A bit of history…

Let me explain the “why” first, before I go on to the “how”: Japanese came into my life rather early on, at about twelve, although I didn’t start learning it then. The conduit was a fascination for the art of two well known (if maybe somewhat dated by today’s standards) anime and manga series. For me these were actually nothing but cartoons with no particular attachments to a country until an exasperated relative yelled at me to “turn that Japanese (rude expletive) off already!” All of a sudden, I knew who’d made these entertaining jewels, and it was a country I had next to no knowledge about.

As so often happens when one is twelve, at that point it never crossed my mind to actually study the language. Japan was just a fascinating country on the other side of the mapamundi, and I was a middle high schooler with zero dough to spend on extra classes and a world of other things to worry about. However, I am absolutely obsessed with watching things in their original language (I tend to wring anxiously in my seat of a movie is dubbed, wondering “is this what the original script said?”), so I made an effort and somehow acquired these series I loved so much in their original Japanese, with English subtitles. The sounds of Japanese fascinated me, but at the same time, I was a terrible student with mediocre grades at best, and thought that learning such an alien language would take me decades, so I never pursued studying it.

Jumping forward some years, I’d learned a figurative lick of this language while at the same time somehow managing to make it into college, where I learned  students were required to learn a language unrelated to English or Spanish in order to graduate. Seeing an opening to learning a language I already liked at a low cost, I enrolled in this college’s Japanese course.

By the way, some months later I found out the required language actually had to be a Romance language. Whoops.

Fast-forward to today. Although I only studied it at the aforementioned institution for a relatively short eighteen months, I’ve spent almost eight years (give or take some months) studying Japanese pretty much continuously. When I’ve started learning another language, I’ve never dropped Japanese–I’ve just lowered the intensity with which I do it. I’ve learned then taught it, translated from and to it, made friends thanks to it, and been shown a broader horizon because of it. Japanese taught me to appreciate languages in a new light, and thanks to it I learned how to learn: in a nutshell, I would have never chosen (or had the guts) to learn a fourth or fifth language if not for it.

Enough preambles!

I won’t lie: back when I thought of myself as a terrible student, it took a lot more effort to retain Japanese grammar or vocabulary. It was as though feeling that I wasn’t good enough fed back into thinking that I could never retain what I learned. However, I’m also a very stubborn person and I wanted to be understood in this vexingly different language, so I dived into Japanese with  reckless abandon.

Speaking and listening

Long story short, at first I just listened. A lot. Japanese phonemes are not very different from Mexican Spanish’s so I had that to my advantage, but that was about it–there were zero homonyms, zero false friends, in a nutshell, zero common elements to grab onto, so at the beginning my weapon of choice was concept-sound correlation. This is essentially what children do when they’re acquiring their mothertongue: they see an object and hear how it is called. The furry pet that rubs against your legs when you get home? Ne-ko. That brown, solid thing at which you’re sitting? Tsu-ku-e. The thing that goes clic-clic-clic when you type on it? Pa-so-kon. You go around your day-to-day reviewing the everyday objects you generally don’t pay attention to, and renaming them in your head.

Relying on this technique holds a huge advantage for adult learners: new vocabulary generally comes surrounded by context, so with new words, you’re generally also receiving information such as what words (nouns, verbs,  adjectives, etc) it’s most commonly used with, and what functions (such as, “is it used commonly with transitive or intransitive verbs? is it passive or active?”–ie, you can move a table, but can’t swim a table) it’s most commonly used as.

Doing the reverse is also incredibly useful in acquiring vocabulary. This means not going around renaming objects, but rather going around objects you already know the name of in Japanese and stating to yourself what their context is–where they are, what they’re made of, what they’re used for, etc.

Once I’d acquired a healthy vocabulary and enough grammar to express myself on a basic level (with very level-appropiate “uhs” and “hmms” sandwiched between every word), I realized I had advanced much more in listening comprehension than I had in oral production, so I went on to imitating.

Imitating is an innate human skill–if we didn’t have it we’d never learn how to speak. At a time where I was going through a particularly rocky period of learning, I figured out that I should try exactly the same thing, and started watching anywhere between one and five hours of Japanese footage. Later on I started reducing the scope of stuff I saw to mostly variety, game and quiz shows, knowing the vocabulary people would use in that context would be closer to reality for me. This was back when Youtube was young and there weren’t so many online video services; nowadays, if you know what to look for and where to do so, you can find recorded or live content from just about anywhere in the planet.

The point was, since I already understood what the people on TV were talking about, to imitate the pace and pitch accent of what was being said. I would watch a phrase I was interested in over and over, imitating it several times until I was pleased with the level of similitude. This had three unexpected positive side effects: my foreign accent started dissapearing on its own, I had yet another source to learn new vocabulary from, and, as I was keeping up with the latest content aired on Japanese TV, I had a plethora of topics to use in actual conversation. Its only (not-really-)negative side effect was that since 70% of the people who work on TV in Japan come from the Kansai area, I acquired a bit of a Kansai accent, which has very little to do with Standard Japanese so I still have to mind my wording in some contexts.

Reading and writing

I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to learn the basic kana systems before going on to anything else when learning Japanese. Lots of people make the mistake of saying “but I don’t like reading, I just want to speak it”, and then they go to Japan and realize they can’t read a menu. I made it a point to make sure I could write and fully recognize both hiragana and katakana before I went on to anything else, for one fundamental reason: they’re not optional. From the perspective of someone who’s translated from and to this language, learning hiragana but slacking off on katakana (or viceversa) is like saying you want to learn the alphabet from A to M, but not N to Z.

Every time someone tells me they believe Japanese has three different writing systems just to make it harder for foreigners to learn (and I’ve heard this like four times), I secretly wish I had a sandbag to hit when I got home. Each writing system fulfills a different function, so learning only one and skipping all others because you’re dying to go on to the good stuff will prove a gigantic mistake later on.

That said, I know some people find it easier to memorize kanji (the third writing system, this one based not on sounds but on ideograms) as separate units, and therefore can go through large Anki decks of only individual kanji, readings and meanings. For some reason this doesn’t work for me. In order to memorize unknown kanji’s meanings and readings, I find it easier to plow through texts of a level slightly above my own and look up all the jukugo (kanji compounds–words made up of two or more kanji) in the dictionary. For online texts I used two different Mozilla add-ons based on the same dictionary, Moji and Rikaichan; for offline texts I started by using the paper version of the EN-JP Langenscheidt Dictionary, but later moved on to Imiwa? (and am of the mind that its creator  should be made a saint). With the exception of the Langenscheidt dictionary, all of these are free tools.

Going back to the kanji memorization exercise, I should add this works in a two-step manner. The first step would be what you just read–read jukugo (not isolate kanji) and look up meanings of unknown kanji. This helps in that even if you don’t learn both kanji, you’ll probably memorize at least one, which you may find again in another different jukugo. Rinse and repeat. By doing this, you’ll be memorizing kanji in a more natural way, finding new kanji by way of natural repetition instead of crossing them off an arbitrary kanji list.

The second step would be writing new jukugo down. This can be done by copying whole sentences (to ensure you remember the context), or just the compound, which is the way I did it. By writing these compounds down, not only was I creating a “personal dictionary” of my own, but I was also getting into the habit of memorizing kanji by stroke order. This part of my study routine further strenghtened my memory, and thanks to it, nowadays I can write about 600-800 individual characters (and the thousands of compounds made by combining them) without needing to look at a dictionary.


Recalling all of this has been quite a mental workout. Anyway, the practices I described worked very well for me, but if you are thinking of taking up Japanese or are already doing it, you must bear in mind that what works for one person may not work for another. I like my approach and recommend it because I feel it is closer to natural language acquisition than other systems, but I’m also aware it may look very haphazard to more organized people.

Whatever method you use, make sure to keep things fun. From personal experience I can say that once the ball gets rolling in this language, stopping is hard if not impossible–a friend (also fluent in Japanese) once went as far as to say this language was addicting, and I agree! So have fun, and let me know about your experiences with Japanese.

  • Molefi ,

    I think that your Japanese method is a lot more practical and more quickly satisfying than the method I’m using. I’m currently about 700 kanji deep in the learn-each-single-kanji-via-anki method. I used to build my vocabulary based on my immediate environment and needs, kind of like your style. But, since I’ve come home from college I decided to tackle Remembering the Kanji because people say it makes reading and writing much easier. Sometimes I wonder if I should go back to my old style. Even if I complete RTK, I’ll still have to learn pronunciations and compounds afterward. With that in mind, what does RTK give me besides the ability to handwrite kanji? I can’t remember the last time I needed to handwrite something English outside of taking tests.

    On an unrelated note, here’s a cool Japanese learning website to add to your list on the right. It transforms the Japanese language into an RPG:

    • Eriko ,

      I do think it is practical, although I’m not completely sure it’s quick, haha. I guess it all goes back to the fact that I’m a hardcore fan of naturalist learning, and think that regardless of the language, everyone should play to their strenghts.

      I don’t like to admit this because it seems there’s a fan crowd for these books, but I never quite saw the point in the RTK method: adding THAT much information to each symbol sounds useless if each kanji isn’t used in context. When I taught Japanese, my method for teaching kanji was a derivation of how I learned: I wrote sentences for my students (whenever possible, using the kanji within a context where both kunyomi and onyomi could be used–for example, 散(さんぽ)に出かけて30分ほど(ある)きました). For the most part, it worked both as an exercise in on-kun reading memorization and as a reinforcement of the grammar they had been learning so far; their own minds would take over the “how to write it” part.

      It’s pretty much clear that every student of Japanese that ever was has their own method for memorization. As I said, mine was a mixture of muscle memory and context reading, but I once had a student whose method consisted amusing herself by making up stories about how 日 met 本 and they were happily ever after. She had fun doing that and almost never forgot how to write a kanji after that, so what worked for her worked for me as her teacher too.

      Also, thanks for the link! That looks like a pretty useful site. I’ll add it both to the resource bank and blogroll!

    • jadvalentin ,

      This is awesome. I feel that making language acquisition a natural part of everyday life is integral to facilitating the learning process. Especially using vocab or learning new things with household items like chair and table. 凄い。