You Can Learn Japanese Quickly. (And here's how)
So, you've decided you want to learn Japanese. But how do you do it? There is a lot of information out there on the internet, many of it conflicting. Should you use textbooks? Websites? Duolingo? Should you invest a lot of money in a course? Can you learn for free using online resources only? Well, we've tried just about everything, and we've put together a blueprint for learning that will hopefully you a lot of time.
Before we answer all of those questions, however, there's something much more important that we need to deal with first - mindset.
How to Learn Japanese Quickly, Part 1: The Mindset
If you're rolling your eyes right now, I completely understand, but hear me out - how many people start learning a language every year, and then give up? Have you tried to learn a language before, and gave up because you just didn't have the crazy motivation to grind for what felt like an eternity? All of these problems can be solved by having a good mindset. In fact, this is so important that I'm going to spend an entire post on it.
Does the task of learning a new language sound daunting to you? It should. You need to learn thousands and thousands of words, learn how to string them together in coherent sentences with all sorts of unfamiliar grammar rules, of which there seem to be countless. Even worse, you have to do all of this without thinking. It needs to be automatic. You have to learn a new culture, and you essentially have to relearn every single thing you've done in life, but now in Japanese. However, if you found this post, I genuinely believe, from the bottom of my heart, that you can learn Japanese. And you can get really good at it, but this stems entirely from having a good mindset.
For the rest of this (very long) blog post, I'm going to talk about how to mentally prepare ourselves to conquer a project of this scale, with snippets of my own story. So grab a drink, get comfy, and let's depart on your Japanese learning adventure.
Table of Contents
What to expect
If you want me to tell you that you can just suddenly become fluent in Japanese in three weeks, then you're going to be disappointed. If someone claims that they have a system that will turn you into a fluent speaker instantly without you doing anything, they are probably trying to sell you something, or are deluded. Learning Japanese takes a lot of effort, and takes a lot of time (as does any language - or any worthwhile skill for that matter), and only if you put in the time and effort will you reap the rewards.
However, you can become very proficient in a short, yet more realistic period of time - say 6 months - if you are specific with what you want, and focused with your effort. This is the problem with most people that start learning Japanese - they never exactly define what they want. The problem is that they don't know what to expect. When you don't know what to expect, it's a bit natural to wander around aimlessly, and in doing so you create fear, and with fear comes loss of motivation. Compare the following two:
I'm going to become fluent in Japanese.
I'm going to achieve reading and speaking fluency in small talk, travel-related dialogue, music, politics, and math within 10 months. In the first month, I will focus on learning hiragana/katana and essential vocabulary. For months 2-4, I will amass essential vocabulary using a spaced repetition system. The moment I finish this phase, I will learn grammar by memorizing lots and lots of example sentences, in addition to more specialized vocab. After two weeks of this, I will begin looking for conversation partners, knowing that I'm going to embarrass myself to death, but I will continue forcing myself to speak every day. Starting month 6, I will write blog posts on iTalki and have them critiqued. Starting month 8, I will memorize sentences from movies or dramas, or that I hear and feel useful to remember.
Which sounds easier? It's a lot easier to get yourself to do something once you have a plan. And in case you're wondering, yes, this was exactly what I did.
Despite having a plan though, there will be ups and downs, and how you react to those ups and downs will ultimately decide your outcome. The ups are really, really good; タコパ (takopa - short for takoyaki party) that go until 4 A.M., talking to a few おじさん (ojisan) in the parking lot of a 7-11 in Ueno about our life stories, singing 恋するフォーチュンクッキー (AKB48's Koi Suru Fortune Cookie) at the top of my lungs with my exchange student friends on the 観覧車 (ferris wheel) next to Tokyo dome...and even falling in love with my (now ex-)girlfriend, and facetiming every day, only speaking Japanese.
The downs...not being able to understand the cashier at Kinokuniya (Japanese bookstore in LA) when I bought my first light novel in Japanese, my first day at English-Japanese exchange where I understood almost none of what was going on around me and sitting there like an awkward duck, being asked questions I didn't understand and couldn't answer, being unable to express myself and the only person in the room who couldn't contribute to the conversation...
Growing pains hurt, but in the end, it was completely worth it. After all, they're growing pains. I've grown so much as a person; I've learned so much about the world, and connected to so many more people in so many ways that would've been inaccessible to me if I didn't speak Japanese.
And so, my dear reader, if you're still having doubts - I urge you to give yourself permission to learn Japanese. Give yourself to grow, even if it's painful sometimes. I'll show you how to get through it. I don't care if everyone around you doubts you, I believe in you. From the bottom of my heart. If you do everything that it takes to learn Japanese, there's no reason you won't become fluent.
Mindset Tip #1: Reframing
You can turn just about everything terrible (in learning Japanese) to something good, if you just look at it the right way. Yes, we can all be pessimists sometimes, but sometimes a little bit of naivety doesn't hurt. Consider:
"Oh my god, it's going to take five years for me to become fluent at Japanese? That's going to feel like forever. Ugh."
I'm sorry to say - that person probably doesn't have a very good chance of toughing through those five years. Let's compare that to:
"It only takes five years to become fluent? Wow, I guess that's not that bad. If I start now, then in five years I'll become fluent!"
The way you frame your thoughts influences your beliefs, which influences your actions. If I'm being completely honest though, it doesn't take that long to get fluent (more on this later). After the first two years, there's only really specific things left to fill in, and even faster if you live in Japan.
The other thing is mistakes.
"Oh my god, that's such an embarrassing mistake. How could I say that? I just want to disappear, I'm so embarrassed, I hate myself. I'm so stupid, I'm terrible at Japanese and I'll never get good at Japanese."
If you're wondering who said that...yes, it was me. I have bad days sometimes. However, contrast that with:
"Oh wow, yeah, that was stupid. But it was pretty funny. I'm glad we both got a good laugh out of it - and hey, at least I learned something! Imagine making that mistake at a business meeting...glad I learned it now!"
And I got just a little bit better at Japanese that day - and if you add up all of those little improvements, it's a lot.
The Importance of Goalsetting
This is it. This is the most important part. This where the magic happens. I want you to get a pen/paper, or open up your notes app on your smartphone, what have you. Here's where we're going to do some real planning. The first question I need to ask you is:
Why do you want to learn Japanese?
I don't care how cringey it might sound, how embarrassed you might be, I don't care - be completely honest (no one's going to read it) and just write down a big list of reasons. Mine looked something like:
My grandfather spoke Japanese (he grew up in Japan-controlled Taiwan)
I like anime, manga, dramas, and variety shows
I grew up in in a suburb of LA which has a sizeable Japanese population, so a lot of my friends are Japanese and I always felt left out whenever they spoke Japanese
I was surrounded by a lot of Japanese influence growing up, and have always wanted to know more
I eat a lot of Japanese food
I use a lot of Japanese household products and I've always been curious what was on the labels
I want to try living abroad in Japan at some point in my life
It looks good on my resume?
Go crazy. Pour your heart out.
The next question then, is, now that you have your reasons, what exactly do you want to achieve? Be as specific as possible - based on your reasons. Here's my example:
I want to be able to get around Japan with no trouble; no matter where I am I want to be able to ask for directions, book accommodations, resolve issues if anything comes up, buy things comfortably
I want to be able to have small talk with just about anyone I meet. I want to be able to talk about weather, politics, compare/contrast how we live in our respective countries
I want to be able to talk about music and math (these are my two main passions in life)
I want to be able to understand most of dramas/variety shows (understanding everything is different; I use 月曜から夜ふかし as a benchmark)
I want to be able to read the news, as well as most novels I'm interested in (primarily romance and nonfiction), and manga as well
My goals have changed a little since then (I've replaced the things I've achieved with even more), but I challenge you to not be humble here. Write it all down. Everything that you want to do. Everyone falls slightly short (like 90%) of what they shoot for - so the farther you shoot, the farther your 90% will be!
Now that you have your big list, set it aside for now. Later, we will talk about creating exact processes that will take you to your goals specifically, with systems for tracking progress and staying motivated. For now, I just want you to imagine yourself, visualize yourself being able to do everything on that list you just wrote. Really let that feeling sink in.
Okay, now that we've gotten the feel-good part out of the way, it's time to feel bad - with goals comes inevitable failure. Most people (especially me) never achieve anything on their first try. It's really tempting to give up when we face failure - or at least feel really bad about ourselves. So now we just need a good system to overcome and grow from failure.
Mindset Tip #2: Coping with Failure
At any point along your Japanese journey, when you're feeling discouraged, unmotivated, down about yourself - I want you to come back to this particular section right here.
Failure hurts. It really does. It's supposed to. It means that there's something "wrong", there's something that you can get better at. And that might not be good for your self-esteem; it can be very difficult for us to acknowledge that we're not perfect, that we're not "great", that we're not as incredible as we'd like to be.
Let's reframe that. "We're not perfect, there's room for us to improve..."
Okay, slightly better. "We're not perfect, there's room for us to improve, which means I can improve."
Even better. "We're not perfect, there's room for us to improve, so no sense sitting around - let's do it!"
Even better. "We're not perfect, there's room for us to improve - which means I get to improve! No sense sitting around, let's do it!"
But mistakes are everything that we need. Because mistakes are an avenue to improvement. Mistakes are gifts, gifts from the universe - a gift that will, ultimately, make us better at Japanese if we choose to work at it. Yes, it sucks that it's painful, but hey, at least we get to get better right? At least you're aware that you're making mistakes; there's nothing worse than being horrible at something and not knowing why. Yes, you made a mistake, yes it was embarrassing - but this way, you'll never forget it and you will never make that mistake again.
I think 5 seconds of embarrassment + me stressing about it for a little bit are quite worth being able to never make a certain grammar mistake ever again. If you're curious what kind of mistakes I've made, here's some of my favorite ones:
“触ってください。(sawatte kudasai: Please touch me)” (What I meant to say: 座ってください. (suwatte kudasai: Please sit down)）
“監獄に行きたい。(kangoku ni ikitai: I want to go to prison)” (What I meant to say: 韓国に行きたい。 (kankoku ni ikitai: I want to go to Korea.))
“子供の時カスになりたかった。(kodomo no toki kasu ni naritakatta: When I was a kid, I wanted to become [a piece of shit]” (What I meant to say: 子供の時歌手になりたかった。(kodomo no toki kashu ni naritakatta: When I was a kid, I wanted to be a singer))
Just remember - if it's embarrassing/painful now, it'll be funny later. Oh my god, I was so embarrassed at the time, but now it's just funny to me. I can't believe I said "I want to go to prison" in front of all of my friends.
The hardest thing to do is to accept that mistakes are an unavoidable and indispensable part of the learning process. Knowing that, we should change our attitude toward it. We should seek it. We should always seek scenarios where we will be pushed, and uncover our mistakes - because mistakes do not expose how "bad" we are, but rather they "teach" us what we can improve at. I don't care what everyone around you says (and if they're bringing you down, might want to reconsider keeping them around...) - everything hinges on how you react to failure. I'm going to quote my mother here.
"If you want to get good at something, you just have to mess up 10,000 times and learn from it."
And what's our response? "Only 10,000 times? Well, all I have to do is get them over with as fast as possible!"
Okay, in reality, it's probably more like 1000ish...I'm at a solid 800-900 right now (yes, I've made that many mistakes, but most of them minor). And let me tell you, it was absolutely worth it.
At this stage in my life, I'm actually afraid of not making mistakes - because I surely am, it just means I can't see them anymore. Which means I'm not improving.
This attitude towards failure is nothing new, and you've probably heard it a thousand times, but actually living it and merely saying it are two very different things. I think we have a society have a very unhealthy view of failure; I feel like I'm constantly being pushed away from this mindset, and I have to work especially hard to recenter myself constantly. Things that help include creating an environment that fosters a healthy attitude toward failure.
Everyone that's very skilled at something has this in common - they look for imperfections in their craft and mercilessly chip away at them. Conversely, people that are jealous, mean, belittling to others, do not handle failure very well, since how they treat others is a projection of what they think about themselves - and therefore probably aren't that good at that many things, since they never allow themselves to improve. (This is a broad generalization; there are exceptions of course) I urge you to challenge yourself, and swallow the pain, and keep pushing forward. You'll thank yourself later.
It's important to emphasize that we should also celebrate our victories as well. I used to have a really bad habit of only obsessing over my mistakes, and ignoring every compliment I ever got. Do not do this, it's not good for you.
To wrap up this section, I want to share one last thought that changed my life, and I hope you don't mind me being a little more personal here. I had this thought at the lowest point in my life - I hated everything about my life; I thought I was never going to get into grad school for math, I hated my job, I hated my own music, I hated my own piano playing, I hated everything about myself and everything I was doing at the time. Then, one day:
"The most I can achieve is whatever I achieve when I am being '100% effective.' This doesn't mean go absolutely crazy HAM (though sometimes it can), this means maximizing all of the all of the effort I can get out myself by eating well, sleeping well, and managing my energy well...and using all of it effectively to achieve what I want. And if I'm doing that as best I can, then that's all I can ever hope to achieve, so no point beating myself up if that's not enough."
This took all of the pressure off - and my progress in everything grew astronomically, since I wasn't holding myself back with all of these negative thoughts. I was less afraid, and tried more and more things, and found what worked and what didn't faster. It became this crazy cycle where I stopped caring about my results, and only valued my effort. It felt so easy. So long as I'm working smart and hard, I will move forward. This gives sets up the premise for the next section:
Creating Good Processes
First, let's talk about the importance of processes. Humans are kind of weird - if you set a New Year's Resolution like "I'm going to lose 20 lbs" or something like that, chances are, unless you have an incredible amount of self-discipline, it's probably not going to happen. However, if instead, you and a friend commit to going to the gym twice a week, and whoever ditches has to buy the other dinner, then you'll probably lose 20 lbs before you even realized. Why is this?
Big, vague goals without a good plan are hard to commit to because they seem unrealistic, whereas processes are really easy to commit to.
It's so easy for you to say "I'm going to go to the gym twice a week" as opposed to "I'm going to lose 20 lbs" because, as humans, we want instant gratification. This is hard for me to admit, but I'm not exception; I love instant gratification.
So let's use this to our advantage! It's super easy - if you make your goal committing to a process that will make you achieve all of your Japanese goals, then you can achieve this in 5 minutes!
Remember when we wrote down everything that you wanted to achieve with Japanese? Well, you're going to need that, because now comes the part where we turn everything into effort-based goals. Now, before we dive into it, we should tell ourselves exactly what we want in a process. I've boiled it down to a few things:
It absolutely NEEDS TO BE FUN. Fun fun fun fun fun. If it's not fun, you won't do it. Period.
It needs to take clear and realistic steps that end up achieving our goals in time.
Trackable, with explicit long/short-term timelines and goals
Incorporates feedback loops, so that you're learning from your own performance
Allows for adjustments when necessary (for when life/work decides to go crazy)
If you commit to a process like this, there is absolutely no reason why you can't achieve all of your Japanese goals. So what's the catch? Well...they're kind of hard to make, and take a while to perfect.
This is going to be most of the content in the next post - working backwards from our goals that we wrote down earlier, and picking study methods that meet as many of the criteria above as possible. By the way, these 6 criteria can be used to evaluate any service/book/course/app you are considering. For now, let's just set a timeline.
Here's also where it gets a little tricky - the actual time it takes people to achieve certain things varies from person to person, and sometimes things happen in life that mess up your schedule. So you will need plenty of space for adjusting, but first, let's start with the following rough criteria:
Bare essentials to travel/survive: 3 weeks - 2 months
Able to get through a conversation about specific subjects: 4 - 6 months
Able to have a decent conversation about most everyday things + a few specific subjects: 1 year+
Able to have smooth conversations about most things: 2 years+
Able to have really good conversations about just about everything: 5+ years
Able to read literature, know the culture very well, and have academic conversations: 7+ years
So let's pick something from my list as an example: "I want to be able to understand most of dramas/variety shows." Let's say this will take ~2 years (it should be much faster if you're not as lazy as me). Then, here's a timeline I can use:
In the first month, I just want to get used to the sounds, and pick out the words I know from my essential word list
By month 3, I should be able to recognize a few words that I know. Hopefully, this will let me piece together the meaning of the sentence.
At month 6, I should be able to recognize the important words in a sentence, provided I know them.
After 1 year, I should be able to recognize most words in the sentence, but not necessarily be able to string them together.
At about the 1.5 year mark, I should be able to understand most of what they're saying, except maybe a few adjectives and really specialized words, which I can always look up
At the 2 year mark, I should be able to understand "most" of what they're saying
Do this for all of the goals on your list; use a big timeline if you need to. In the next post, we'll talk about how to get to each of these mini-goals. This is the power of mini-goals: they're a lot smaller, more manageable, yet ultimately culminate in our big goal.
I did this for Korean, and it more or less went according to plan, except for a few hiccups where I had to push some timelines back, but others went faster than I expected so it evened out. By the way, if you do this, you cannot use subtitles. Pick a show you don't care about, and just watch it without subs. You need to get used to listening, not reading subtitles.
Mindset Tip #3: Set Goals by Effort, Not Results
...or at least a mixture of both. While sometimes results-based goals are important, that makes us that more likely to face failure, and while we should face failure head-on, too much of it isn't good either. This goes back to the idea of instant gratification somewhat; if our goals simply amount to committing to a predetermined process for a given period of time, how easy is that? All you have to do is whatever is on your to-do list.
In some sense, you can think of learning Japanese as a very big collection of tasks, each of which are very easy. Doing big tasks is hard, do the trick is to fool ourselves into thinking we're just doing small tasks. Small tasks which are fun, that we genuinely enjoy, and then - before you know it - wow! You finished a really big project!
People lose motivation because of uncertainty or lack of fun. If I told you that you just need to work super hard for 8 hours straight, and you will 100% get $1,000,000 tomorrow - you would probably do it. However, if I told you that there was only a 0.1% chance, would you still work as hard? Suddenly, it becomes a lot more difficult. This is why processes are so important - since we thought about them in advance, and planned them - if you just stick to the process, you will get there.
Secondly, even if you were certain about the outcome, if it's not fun, you probably won't do it. Think about it like studying for a test that you absolutely don't care about - you know that if you study, you will do well, but you just can't bring yourself to care. (Some of you can, and I admire your self-discipline; I need to trick myself into doing things I don't like) This is why it's so important to make our processes fun. I will show you how to do that in the next post.
Motivation is all about tricking yourself into doing what you want to do. Very often, we get these weird mental blocks - either we fear failure, or even weirder - we fear success. Let's say you do become fluent - then what? It's new, it's weird, and you may not know what to do with yourself...but if you just commit to a process, then none of this matters - just do what you need to for the day and don't worry about anything else.
How Much to Study/Lifestyle Integration
Before we get into this, ask yourself this. How much time can you commit to Japanese each day? This is very important. Consistency is the key to learning a language - small chunks every day are far superior to binge studying every few days.
You have to study every day. No exceptions. Okay fine, you can miss a day here and there, but it cannot become a regular thing. Even if I only ended up studying 5 minutes one day, just about every day I studied Japanese.
It can be anywhere between 10 minutes to a few hours, but you have to study every day. I personally studied 30 minutes every day, with a few longer sessions over the weekend to make flash cards. You will have to adjust your timelines accordingly - the less you study each day, the longer you will need to learn everything. The timeline I gave came from 30 minutes of active studying, not including "immersion" techniques. If I had more time, it might become an hour or two, if I was low on time, I would do maybe 15 minutes.
Decide on a realistic, doable amount of time to study Japanese, and work it into your daily routine. I do my flash card reviews first thing I wake up, when I'm drinking my coffee. When I was abroad, I would do them on my phone on the subway. At school, I do it walking between classes, or waiting between classes. You need to integrate this into your daily routine. This is something that you do every day.
The other thing to do is to gradually change everything in your life to Japanese.
This is commonly referred to as "immersion," but I don't like this term - I prefer to call it lifestyle integration. The reason is because "immersion" sounds as though you're entering a "different" environment. Lifestyle integration, however, sounds like you're allowing this language to "become a part of you." Notice the subtle difference? In short:
Immersion = You enter new environment
Integration = New lifestyle enters you
You are learning to live your life in a new language. It needs to become a part of your identity. You speak this language. This is one of the languages that you speak. There is a new part of you that speaks Japanese. You use your phone in Japanese. You use your computer in Japanese. You watch Japanese TV (with no subtitles), you watch the Japanese news, etc...
The really annoying thing is that you have to learn to live your life in a new language - which can be time consuming. Make the mental preparation now to know that as you gradually switch into Japanese, you'll be like a child again - having to learn everything from scratch. This can be really fun however, if you choose to view that way. One tip of advice would be to not immediately change everything - this can be incredibly frustrating. I would say gradually do this over time, changing one thing at a time.
For your phone/computer, make sure you remember how to get to the Language menu before you change - in case you need to do something important! Or remember the icons or something.
I will talk in much more detail about this in the next post, but I wanted to bring it up a bit here because a lot of people I've encountered want to learn Japanese, but don't make room for Japanese in their life. I challenge you - start converting everything in your house to Japanese. Start living your life in Japanese. Once again, you're not just person learning Japanese halfheartedly - you are a Japanese learner, this is something you do. This is a part of your identity now. This is something you do every day, and this is something you will get very, very good at.
So that is just about everything I have to say about mindsets for learning Japanese, so I'll keep the conclusion short and sweet. There are a lot of steps to learning Japanese, yes, but they can be broken down into small, very achievable steps. Each one of these things are something that you absolutely can do.
The only thing you have to do to become fluent in Japanese is to put in the time and effort.
That's it. That's all you have to do. You don't have to end world hunger, you don't have to become a billionaire, you don't have to get someone to fall in love with you, you don't have to make every evil person in the world good, no. Every step to learning Japanese is completely doable for you right now, and all you have to do is to do it. Yes, it's a lot.
But I know you can do it if you put in the time and the work. So, will you?
If so, stay tuned for my next post - where we create our Japanese learning process.