Three Quick Tips For Learning Japanese

    Do you want to start learning Japanese? In this short article, I’ll be providing some tips for starting out.

    1. Break free from the monolingual mindset

    If you’ve never learned another language before, you might find learning Japanese too intimidating to even know where to begin. The U.S. State Department considers Japanese to be one of the most difficult languages to learn for native English speakers, alongside Arabic, Chinese, and Korean.

    If your first and only language is English, you might actually find it easier if you try learning a language more similar to English first, like French or Spanish. These languages use the same alphabet, have more cognates (similar words in both languages with the same meaning), have more similar grammar, and have more support and resources available for English-speaking learners.

    Learning your second language is often the hardest, as you have to accustom yourself to thinking in another language for the first time. But the sooner you get over that initial hurdle, the sooner you can develop the skills that will help you learn other languages in the future.

    2. Consider why you want to learn Japanese

    Exposure to native speakers through reading and listening should generally be the bread-and-butter of learning any language, but depending on your goals, you should focus on different material in your studies.

    Focus on…

    • listening if you want to watch anime, dramas, or other TV shows and movies without subtitles;
    • reading if you want to read manga, novels, or other books or play video games in Japanese;
    • speaking if you want to converse with Japanese people on the phone or in-person;
    • writing if you want to communicate with Japanese people via text.

    If you want to live in Japan, then you’ll need to work on all of the above. Remember that children take years of 24/7 exposure before becoming fluent in a language, so for teenagers and adults who might only be able to dedicate a few hours a week to learning a new language, you should think about about which of these to prioritize based on what you want to do.

    For example, if your goal is to understand livestreams in real-time, you should spend more time on listening practice and less time on trying to memorize kanji or perfecting your pronunciation. If you want to make covers of Japanese songs, then you should spend more time on phonetics. If you’re not going to use it, you’re going to end up losing it anyway.

    3. Two different types of memorization

    There are two kinds of memorization: recognition and recall.

    Recognition is being able to understand what someone is saying or what you’re reading. You use recognition when you see a word like “jungle” or “pyramid” and can picture it in your mind, without having to get out a dictionary to look it up.

    You also use recognition on things like multiple choice tests, where you need to determine the correct choice from incorrect choices. As an example, can you tell which of the following words I made up?

    • “dirigible”
    • “modillion”
    • “piezolarity”
    • “pugnacious”
    • “riparian”

    Recall is being able to express what you want to say or what you want to write. An example is if you’re trying to remember something. If I asked you what word you would use to describe a greenish-yellow color, coming up with the word “chartreuse” would be recall.

    In English-speaking countries, spelling bees only exist because knowing how to say a word doesn’t necessarily mean that you can recall how to spell it. In Japan, people are forgetting how to handwrite kanji as they type more and more on computers and phones. So unless you’re living in Japan and need to fill out lots of paper forms, you probably won’t get a ton of mileage out of learning to handwrite Japanese.

    Both recognition and recall are important to learning a language. At the beginning, when you’re learning common words and phrases that you need to know, you’ll want to focus on recall. As you expand your vocabulary and move on to less common words that you need to understand but don’t need to say or write as often, you’ll probably want to shift to primarily focusing on recognition.


    To sum up the above in four words: study smarter, not harder. If you do choose to learn Japanese, I wish you the best of luck! I might write some more stuff in the future, but if you have any topics you’d like me to discuss, feel free to suggest them to me.

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