Previously I spoke about what I learned studying French, and how Japanese differs. In this article I want to talk about how to actually learn Japanese, or at least, how I'm learning it.
This is a rather long post, so I'll ToC it up:
Table of Contents
Components Of The Language
After starting to learn the language and after studying a few different resources, I broke down the language into different areas for my study.
Learning Kanji On Its Own
If you don't know what 'Kanji' refers to, I spoke more about it in my last post here.
The idea of learning Kanji on its own is a controversial one, so I wanted to talk a little about the different approaches.
The traditional approach says that you can learn everything when you need it. Learn vocab and grammar as it is spoken, and written in kana (the non-kanji scripts), and only learn kanji characters as you come across them. This is recommended largely because it allows you to get up to speed with speaking the language faster, and it means that by the time you learn a new kanji character, you already have a vocab word to tie it to.
I tried this approach at first, and the major problem I was having was remembering the kanji as I encountered them. Each character looked very similar to my eyes, and remembering the (to me) arbitrary shapes that made up 'grandchild' - 孫 - or 'music' - 楽 - was difficult, they just didn't stick in my brain. I hunted around for another way, and I found a book called Remembering the Kanji whose author claims that you can learn the Japanese kanji extremely quickly, with just their English meanings. The idea is that each character is composed of smaller 'primitives,' which you can use in a mnemonic to remember how to write the character. For example, the character 子 means child, 系 means lineage, and together in the character 孫 means 'grandchild.' There are more difficult connections to make in some characters, but you can come up with a memorable image for anything.
So, I tried the 'Remembering the Kanji' approach before learning much vocab/grammar. I took three months to memorize 2200 kanji and then I could approach the language at the same level as a Chinese reader might, with no idea how to read the characters, but knowing their rough meaning and having the ability to remember and distinguish them.
That isn't a typo either, 2200 kanji in three months, something I didn't believe possible! Using spaced repetition tools and the mnemonic technique in the book, I got through on average 25 new kanji per day, and now I can consistently get every single one right on my daily review. I was so stoked I bought this poster to commemorate the occasion (and give myself a convenient random test chart):
However, this is quite a controversial point in Japanese language learning. Those who advocate learning using the first approach (mentioned above) have a good point - taking time to memorize a bunch of kanji really does slow you down in the short term. The kanji you memorize aren't useful at all to spoken Japanese. However, I was getting overwhelmed by trying to learn words, and grammar, and vocab, and pitch accent, and kanji all at once. By taking the time to focus on kanji alone, they became a chunk of knowledge I could build on and connect things to. When I recently came across the word 'postcard', then learning how to write the word in Kanji '葉書' was also a breeze. 葉書 is made of the kanji for leaf and write, so after making up a little mnemonic story about writing your postcard on a leaf, I could easily recall the kanji as well as the pronunciation and meaning.
During my recent trip to Japan, knowing some kanji gave me some utility even without knowing the associated vocabulary. I came across a massage chair in one of our hotels with a remote control that was labelled solely in kanji. Without knowing the words, but by recognising the kanji for 'shoulder,' 'neck,' 'up,' 'down,' 'wide,' etc. I could figure the controls out and get a sweet massage.
It also helps knowing whether to 'push' or 'pull' doors...
Vocab and Grammar
'Vocabulary' refers to the words that make up the language, 'Grammar' refers to the rules that tell you how to put them together in a sentence to communicate an idea.
I am studying these from textbooks, specifically Genki I so far. Each chapter provides vocab lists to memorise which I do with the help of an app called 'memrise,' (covered below). Then I read the new grammar rules in each chapter, as well as do the practice exercises (which include reading, listening, translating, etc) 2 or 3 times until the rules stick enough that I can move to the next section.
When I first tried this I had difficulty remembering the Kanji, so I took a break as detailed above. I've since resumed and am up to Chapter 6, and it's much smoother sailing.
Pitch Accent and Pronunciation
A slight aside here to talk about Chinese. Chinese is a tonal language; depending on the dialect it can have 4 or more different tones, each tone a different way of pronouncing the same syllable. Two words might have the same syllables, but pronounced in subtly different ways that determine the meaning.
Common 'knowledge' among non-Japanese speakers and beginning learners is that Japanese is not a tonal language. However, this isn't quite true. It's nowhere near as complex as Chinese in this respect, but there is still a 'correct' way to pronounce each word; with each syllable having either a high or low 'pitch' - the Pitch Accent of the word. To explain what I mean, say the word 'dictionary' in English and listen to how you pronounce it. When you say the word 'dictionary', you generally emphasise the first syllable: 'DIC-tionary'. If someone was to stress the 'tion' and say 'dic-TION-ary' then it would sound weird. You'd still be able to understand them, but it would just sound a little bit off, and would clearly not be a native accent. This 'syllable stress' is analogous to pitch accent; if you don't learn the right pitch accent then your speech sounds 'weird' and non-native.
Pitch accent usually isn't learned in a classroom setting, either because the teacher doesn't know about it - they're a foreigner who wasn't taught, or a Japanese native who never learned the technical details - or because there is just so much to learn with this language that it would be too overwhelming. But if you want to sound native, it's important to learn. I found a few places that teach about pitch accent and will cover them below.
As far as studying pitch accent, the main thing is to learn the basics early on in your Japanese, what the pitches are and how to distinguish them. Then as you continue learning other components of the language, when you're dealing with audio material, try to distinguish the pitch accent of the sentences, and mimic their pronunciation exactly.
In the first version of this article, this section didn't exist, but I think the concept of 'Honest Study' is too important to leave as just a tip.
I use an flash card app called memrise, mentioned below, that gives a multiple choice selection from which to choose the answer. I was having trouble making things stick, and this especially hit home when I visited Japan after a few months of study and couldn't recognise a lot of characters I thought I 'knew.' I realised I was relying on process of elimination to guess the right answer a lot, which meant things weren't really entering my memory. When used in the real world all you have is the character itself to go by - there's no hint or multiple choice, you just have to look at the character and know what it means.
So I had a lot more success when I modified my study, and tried to replicate the same environment as in the real world by first covering the choices up, mentally answering the quiz free of context, and then uncovering the buttons to check my answer. Lots of things which I could get correct when choosing from 1-6, I couldn't remember when just presented with the symbol in a vacuum. It was painful to get so many wrong at first, but after the initial hump it greatly improved my retention.
This is the general take away idea - what is the context in which you want to use the language? Practise in the same context. Multiple choice answers are all well and good when studying for a multiple choice exam, but not if you want conversational fluency.
Resources and Order Of Study
Remembering the Kanji Volume 1
I used this book to memorise the 2200 Joyo Kanji. I worked through it at an average of 25 kanji a day although it was pretty variable depending on free time. There were two other tools I used to help me do this.
Get it here:
Memrise is a spaced repetition flashcard app that helps you memorise stuff. You use it in learning mode to learn words as you progress through a course. The other main mode is Review mode; after a word enters your memory, review mode schedules that word to show up as a quiz card after 4 hours, then if you get it right, 24 hours, 2 days, 4 days, 8 days, etc up to a max of six months. If you ever get the card wrong in your review, the timer on the card resets to 0. There are other apps out there to do this, the most well known being Anki.
You can use the web interface on your desktop (rather than the app) to make your own custom courses of vocab that you learn out in the wild, and you can ignore words in courses that overlap.
Memrise home page: memrise.com
The way RTK's learning method works is through mnemonics, little memorable stories based on the components of a character. One of the weaknesses of the book is that in later sections it leaves you to make up your own stories, which can add time to an already lengthy process. I stumbled on this website which has crowdsourced mnemonic stories for all the kanji, often including funnier or more memorable stories than the original. I used this whenever the memrise course didn't have a mem that worked for me, instead adding my own into the system.
RTK Lookup: https://hochanh.github.io/rtk/index.html
Vocabulary and Grammar
For vocab and grammar I'm using first the Genki textbooks, as well as accompanying memrise courses to help the vocab and grammar stick. I'm only six months in and anticipate it taking another 6 to finish them, but there are some supplementary sources I'm using.
Tae Kim has written a free online guide to Japanese grammar which a lot of people recommend as another way to explain much of the grammar points covered in Genki, but from a native learner's perspective and more in depth explanations of some concepts. I plan to read this after Genki.
I also have a set of graded readers - books written within the confines of beginner levels of Japanese, graded based on the amount of vocab they contain. The aim is to provide a way for a learner to read 'real' books to help practice their reading outside the confines of a textbook. There are many varieties for English learners but only a few for Japanese. I'm making my own memrise course to hold the new vocab I learn while reading these.
From left to right these are:
- Genki 1 Textbook
- Genki 1 Workbook
- Genki 2 Textbook
- Genki 2 Workbook
- Genki Answer Key (answers to both textbooks and workbooks)
Genki Memrise Courses
Free online course: http://www.guidetojapanese.org/learn/
Below is the link to volume 1. Hopefully you can find the other volumes easily enough in the related items section. If not let me know in the comments and I'll dig up a list.
Pitch accent is something you just need to get the basics of. Here are a few resources. There is a basic course on memrise which covers some general rules, as well as a set of YouTube videos put together by a guy called Dogen which dive deeper.
Dogen's Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/dogen/posts
Dogen is planning to package his Patreon into a course, I'll update this article when he does.
Obviously something you'll pick up as you learn vocabulary, but if you want to learn pronunciation of individual kanji on an accelerated track, RTK Volume 2 follows on from the first one, this time teaching the on-yomi (Chinese pronunciation) of most Joyo Kanji. It's hotly debated whether to bother with Vol 2 and 3, I am giving it the benefit of the doubt simply because of the immense value the first book gave me. I plan to learn a few kanji per day in addition to my other studies.
Keigo and Informal Japanese
Most textbooks teach formal/polite Japanese, otherwise known as Keigo. My guess is because a) it's too much for beginners to learn both at once or b) because 'polite' speech is considered more important than informal for beginners to learn. That last reason makes sense to me, considering that a new Japanese learner will not be speaking informally with anyone, at least until they make some Japanese friends.
Knowing the difference is crucial if you want to talk to friends without sounding stiff and formal, and the other advantage this gives is that informal speech is simpler than formal speech and mirrors the way Japanese people learn - informally with their family first, using words like 'taberu?' in their basic form before learning the polite conjugations, tabemasu, tabemashita, etc.
A good resource I found for this is the YouTube channel 'Japanese Ammo with Misa' which has a variety of videos, but a number of them focus on informal Japanese and 'real' Japanese. Misa is also an experienced Japanese tutor outside of YouTube and has a clear way of explaining grammar usage with lots of examples.
First Six Months, Step by Step
So in summary my progression has gone:
- Learn Hiragana and Katakana - small time effort, about a week or two
- Study Genki up to chapter 5, learn enough Japanese to understand a bit about the language, and learn enough phrases to communicate in a basic way - ask where things are etc - two months
- Pause vocab/grammar study to memorize the Joyo kanji - three months
- Complete a course on pitch accent concurrently with memorizing kanji
- Return to Genki and continue with vocab and grammar. Start RTK2 on the side - current stage
Next six months
My plans for the next six months roughly look like:
- Finish Genki 1 and 2. Start on Tobira
- Finish RTK2
- Start and progress through Graded Readers
See you in six months!
Link is to a sample pdf of the first 100 pages ↩︎
The 2200 comes from the 'Joyo Kanji' list, which is a governmentally issued list of the kanji children must learn during their schooling years. ↩︎
There are a few words that are identical except for their pitch accent, but it's nowhere near as integral to the language as tonality is to Chinese dialects. ↩︎
Recording yourself and listening to it is key here - it's very hard to properly analyze your own voice without recording it, because the acoustics of your skull are weird. ↩︎
There is (as of the writing of this article) an upper bound of six months on any card. That means that once you get it right enough, you'll see the card every six months. However if you have 10000-20000 review cards, something not unusual when learning a language, then you're looking at 50-100 cards to review every day, which can get unreasonable. There are calls to extend the maximum 'review gap' to 1 year or more for this reason. ↩︎
The workbook has similar exercises to the ones in the textbook, additional study material to help practice. I recommend it if you have the coin, in particular the audio exercises on the included CD are great for spoken comprehension. If you're on a budget though you can definitely skip these. ↩︎
If you're like me and enjoy filling up a bookshelf. ↩︎