Japanese is one of the most fascinating languages in the world to study as a non-native speaker. Its complexity, its openness to incorporating words from other languages (gairaigo), and its association with one of the world’s strongest economies makes it an ideal choice for foreign language study. Here are 5 tips for learning Japanese faster and with better retention.
My path to learning Japanese began in 1989, first in college and later while living in various Japanese cities. You could say I know the language very well: I have given university lectures in Japanese, critiqued essays for Japanese college students, and translated books from English into Japanese. I can read Japanese philosophy and business books and have read (and written) 100,000s of e-mails in Japanese. And yet, I know there is always another level to be reached and I am far from mastery.
So, as a fellow student on the road to mastery, here are my study tips on how to learn Japanese:
Tip #1: Use flashcards every day: Flashcards are indispensable for learning Japanese. Twenty years ago, I usually just used those of the paper variety that are bound by a metal ring. This is a fine choice. But, if you have a computer (which I assume you do since you are reading this), I highly suggest buying flashcard software. It adds the additional dimension of associating pictures with the target words and is great for visual learners.
Tip #2: Master the basics first, then throw out the rule book: As with starting to learn any language, studying Japanese requires a mastery of the basics first. You must learn the basic grammatical structure (e.g., verbs are placed at the end of a sentence), the function of a particle, and when to use each of the four alphabets (kanji, hiragana, katakana, and romajii). However, once you are able to read even a simple sentence in hiragana, I suggest throwing out the rule book in terms of study order. Remember, you learned your native language without a rule book – you learned by doing. Follow the same philosophy for studying Japanese and you will attain mastery much more quickly.
Tip #3: Read aloud daily: Read aloud every day. This works multiple language centers in your brain at once. For me, I find that it exercises my “language muscle” much more effectively than when just reading to myself. This will help your speaking skills as well. I suggest alternating between non-fiction texts and books with lots of dialogue.
Tip #4: Speak with as many people as possible: Just like in your native country, no two people speak a language the same way. Vocabulary, cadence, intonation, level of formality and other factors vary significantly from person to person. To practice your speaking skills, be sure to rely not just on a couple of language partners. Rather, find a variety of people: boys and girls, women and men, bankers and florists. If you do not have daily access to native Japanese speakers, watch Japanese videos online. You can find them for free on Google Videos and YouTube.
Tip #5: Write a little every day: Keep a journal in Japanese. Or, get a Japanese pen pal: you could agree to divide your time between writing your native language and Japanese. Either way, writing in Japanese on a daily basis, even just a few sentences, will contribute tremendously to both your reading and speaking ability.
The complexity of Japanese means that there is always a new level of knowledge to be reached. This makes learning Japanese a great pursuit that can provide a lifetime of enjoyment.