What’s the best way to learn Japanese?

Originally published: 2015/12/4

Q: What’s the best way to learn Japanese?
A: It depends.

Q: What’s the best way to learn Kanji?
A: The question is vague.

Q: How long until I can become fluent?
A: What does “fluent” mean? Also, it depends.

I get very short emails of this kind all the time and I usually don’t respond (sorry if this was you). But really, 99% of these generic, vague questions I can answer: “It depends”.

Time Management

Learning a language is a big job. You’ve been practicing and learning for pretty much your entire life starting with your parents, to school, and all the way up to adulthood and beyond.

Don’t believe the stupid “fluent in 3 months!” marketing lies of various paid products (who does really?) and be prepared for a long term significant time commitment. There are countless strategies for maintaining dedication and achieving goals, which I’m not going to get into because different approaches work better for different people.

What I can say definitely based on basic memorization principles is that it’s far better to spend a little time regularly rather than a large chunk with big gaps of neglect. The best way to achieve this is to integrate Japanese into your daily schedule.

Personally, I did a lot of studying back in the old days when I had literally nothing better to do (no TV or internet). Nowadays, with smartphones, there’s obviously a lot more distractions to deal with. Depending on your schedule, try to find a regular time that you can dedicate such as your commute or scheduling conversation practice once a week.

Allocate a regular time in your schedule

It would be even more ideal if you can take one of your existing hobbies or interest and apply Japanese to it. The obvious example would be switching media such as music, movies, TV, books, and games to Japanese, perhaps with subtitles. Even if you spend an hour or so browsing on the internet or social media, consider watching Japanese Youtube videos or joining some Japanese Facebook group for example.

Of course, language is a tool for communication so you also want to make sure you’re not holed up by yourself and that you get out and socialize (more on this later). Ultimately, it’s very important that your “study” is enjoyable and provides some degree of satisfaction and positive feedback in order to prevent burn out and giving up.

Make it fun!


Assuming you are able to devote some amount of time on a regular basis, there’s still the issue that you have a lot of catching up to do compared to a native adult who has a head start of 2+ decades of education and immersion. So it’s time to set some priorities and have realistic expectations.

Even if you don’t set priorities, they will get set whether you like it or not. Of course like you (I hope), I strive to be natively proficient at everything but frankly, my writing skills can use work, a LOT of work. That’s because instead of writing in Japanese, I’m spending my time writing this blog post in English and mostly reading. Even though I can naively wish my writing would magically improve, it won’t happen unless I work on it (I’m not).

So if you need Japanese for your work, have family, interested in anime or whatever, you can easily break it down into one of four skills: listening, speaking, reading, writing. Once you have your priorities, you need to work on improving those skills by actually DOING IT.

Triage and focus on one of:

  1. listening
  2. reading
  3. speaking
  4. writing

However, when it comes to output skills, you need input otherwise you’re just making up random nonsense. So if you want to work on speaking, start by listening, reading before writing (about 2-4 times more input over output).

2-4X input over output:

    listening > speaking
    reading > writing

Finally, even if you triage (which will happen regardless), you should still work on the other areas. Our brains are a complex neural network and stimulating different parts of it helps retention. So if you spend all your time buried in a book, get out and talk to some people. If you’re just winging it in Japan, go home and do some reading.

Having a visual image of an object for example, a “vending machine” with the Kanji 自動販売機 “self moving sell machine” after hearing the word in conversations is the best way to cement it in long-term memory.

Maintain a good balance

Counter examples

Take these stereotypical examples and it’s easy to see where the problems lie because priorities were not in line with desired result.

  1. Stopped studying Japanese because “busy with life”
    Spends several hours watching Youtube on the weekend.
  2. Advanced Japanese student who can’t hold a conversation
    Didn’t actually spend time outside classroom speaking to people.
  3. Cannot speak with Japanese significant other
    Always speaks in English with significant other. Has some excuse for not studying or reading.
  4. Loves anime, can’t understand a word
    English subtitles always on. Doesn’t spend time looking up the words. Doesn’t read manga or light novel with a dictionary.
  5. Can’t write Kanji by hand (this is me)
    Always uses an electronic device to type. Rarely writes by hand.
  6. Can’t write that novel in Japanese
    Writes English blog post about learning priorities (yeah you know who you are).
  7. Grammar is confusing
    Didn’t read my book (shameless plug).

2 Replies to “What’s the best way to learn Japanese?”

  1. Good points there, Tae. ✓
    もう、辞書がないと書けなくなっちゃった。。。 トホホ

    1. いつも、ありがとうございます。私も全然書けませんが、最近は少し頑張ってみようかな~なんて考えたりしています。

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