50 Hints for Learning Japanese

By | February 15, 2021

It seems like lately I’ve written many articles about Japanese grammar, reviews, or translation, and haven’t spent too much time on general advice for those learning Japanese, so I thought I would write a list of hints for Japanese learners. These are targeted at beginning/intermediate learners, but perhaps even advanced students may find some of these tips useful.

I’ve written about many of these topics already on this blog, but I decided not to spend the time linking all the articles (with over 900, that’s not a trivial effort) If you want more info about any of these feel free to leave a comment and I can either find an old article, or consider writing a new one.

  1. Whether you are listening, speaking, reading, or writing, language is about communication; the more you actually care about something being communicated, the more motivation you will have to be engaged and focus on what you are doing. For example, for reading practice pick content that you really want to understand, as opposed to just going through the motions.
  2. While vocabulary lists can help fill in holes in certain areas you expect to be active in, ultimately learning words naturally in context will give the best understanding of those words, and help with retention. (As a side point, I think in forums like classes in high school or college, where one’s memory is likely a bit better, memorizing vocabulary lists makes more sense.)
  3. When reading or listening to something, don’t stop every time you hear a word to look it up. Instead, try to guess the meaning from context, since the skill of guessing meaning is actually one of the most important language skills you can have. Words that you can’t figure out will sit in the back of your mind and you’ll eventually make a connection once you get enough linguistic data to solve the puzzle.
  4. When studying kanji, learning radicals and other simple kanji that are often used in more complex kanji is one of the best ways to speed up the process. If you find a complex kanji whose pieces you don’t know (say 飾), look them up right away so you can try and see how things fit together.
  5. Don’t just focus on the meaning of kanji, also make sure you know all the readings. This is very important since it will allow you to link up kanji compounds you spot during reading with words you had already heard before. It will also allow you to easily type each of the kanji into a dictionary when looking up new words.
  6. Don’t underplay the importance of proper intonation when speaking Japanese, which is more about pitch and less about stress on a certain vowel. Having said that, realize that getting your pitches perfect, even with a lifetime of studying, just may not be possible for some people. So be aware of intonation patterns but don’t overly fixate on them. For beginning students, working on your consonant and vowel pronunciations, and smooth transitions, is more important than intonation.
  7. With little to no kanji and easy-to-understand imagery, children’s books are generally an excellent resource for reading practice.
  8. Record and listen to yourself speaking once in a while so you can hear how you actually sound. What you find may surprise you.
  9. Language is strongly tied to culture, don’t study Japanese (or any other language for that matter) in a bubble. If physically traveling to Japan isn’t feasible, at least try to experience various forms of media (manga, anime, newspapers, TV shows, etc.), and find opportunities to speak to natives on places like Skype or Zoom. 
  10. Turning on Japanese subtitles is a good way to get some extra reading practice and learn words you aren’t able to pick up otherwise. Ideally, it’s best to listen first without subtitles (so you can focus on the sounds) and then one more time with them enabled.
  11. Beware of using English subtitles to learn Japanese. Because of the many differences in these languages, even if the translation is accurate (which is not always the case) you may get a wrong idea of the meaning of certain words and phrases. It’s ok to do this once in a while––especially for content you are really interested in––but don’t overdo it.
  12. Podcasts (or Youtube videos with little or no visual elements) are a great way to practice listening when doing certain things like commuting or taking a shower. But be careful of trying to listen while in the middle of a high-concentration task, as it can be counterproductive. I find going for a walk in a familiar (and safe) area while listening to a podcast is a good balance for my mind.
  13. As opposed to relying on romaji, learn the hiragana and katakana alphabets as early as possible since it will open up many new avenues of study (children’s books, for example).
  14. Learn the basic uses of the most common particles (wa, ga, wo, de, ni, etc.) since it can be hard to figure these out from context, not to mention that they are very different from anything in English (especially wa, ga, and wo).
  15. Try to have short-,medium-, and long-term goals in the back of your mind when learning a language, since without those it can be hard to keep motivation.
  16. Spend most of your time focusing on Tokyo-dialect instead of other regional dialects, which can have different vocabulary, grammar, and intonation patterns. An exception is if you are living in a certain area of the country (or plan to), or if you have relatives or friends who speak some regional dialect. Once you get pretty comfortable with listening to Tokyo-dialect, you can try to listen or read content in a certain regional dialect to see if you can pick up the differences, but try to be aware of what dialect you are dealing with.
  17. Be cognizant of the fact that different environments use different types of vocabulary. For example, just because you can understand most of the vocabulary in everyday conversation doesn’t mean you will understand the dialogue in an anime series about giant robots. Conversely, if you are planning on living in Japan someday, try to use sources that are closer to real-life language. In my experience, the more exciting and outrageous the story is (like “Magic Princess Pumpkin”), the less it will help you with everyday language.
  18. When learning to write in Japanese, make sure you emphasize correct stroke order from the beginning, since otherwise you will develop bad habits that are difficult to fix later. Try to have a native look at your handwriting once in a while to point out obvious oddities, especially for hiragana and katakana.
  19. Learning a language should be more of a marathon than a sprint mindset. The more you try to cram a massive amount of information in your head in a short span of time, the easier you will forget it. If you feel like you are burning out, take at least a week break from studying (if possible).
  20. Once you have learned katakana, hiragana, a few hundred kanji, and some fundamental grammar, consider setting your computer to Japanese mode. This forces you to either look up words as you go or guess from context. Some of the words will not be that helpful in daily life, but if you plan to ever work in Japan (or in Japanese) the vocabulary will come in handy. If you use your computer in a work environment (work-from-home, etc.) it will give extra impetus to learn to read and understand things quickly.
  21. Make sure you pronounce long vowels (ex: とうきょう) and the “small-tsu” (ex: きっかけ) properly, as these are things that don’t have a good parallel in English, and they can completely change the meaning of a word (ex: おばさん = “middle-aged woman or aunt”, おばあさん = “grandmother or old woman). Even if intonations differ across dialects, basic timing of pronunciation usually doesn’t change that much.
  22. Engaging in a friendly (or romantic) relationship with someone who speaks Japanese is certainly a good way to learn. But always put the relationship above your desire to learn from them.
  23. Don’t rely on machine translation for study or word lookup. At best, it will be useless. At worst, it will increase confusion and frustration.
  24. Just like in many other areas of your life, in language learning time management is a critical skill. Just sitting down to start a session of language learning gets you halfway there.
  25. In your early days of learning a new language, there will undoubtedly be times where you are in a “study” mindset, like when you have to open a textbook and study some grammar pattern. But as you proceed, try to transition into a state where it is more about enjoying yourself, with learning language a happy side effect. This could mean playing a game in Japanese or reading a manga, or even just watching a documentary about Japan to get some extra cultural information.
  26. Don’t be frustrated by polyglots who claim to know a large number of languages, or who say they can learn a foreign language in only a few months. The vast majority of such claims are unfounded or exaggerated. 
  27. While learning to write in Japanese may seem like a waste of time, especially if you don’t plan to live in Japan, at least learn to write in hiragana and practice once in a while. That way you can write anything if you get in a situation that requires it. Learning to write will also help you learn the shapes of the characters better, which may help with quick recognition when reading.
  28. When learning words, often the nuance or other meta-data is just as important as the base meaning. For example, does the word sound stiff, literary, or casual? Is it used more by women or men, young people, or old people? How polite is it?
  29. Japanese’s complex system of politeness is one of the things that makes this language special, and requires mastering if you want to be completely fluent. Start with basic “desu/masu” forms, making sure you know when you should use them, and eventually move up to more advanced forms. Always be aware of the social (or other) level of all people that are part of the conversation, whether they are present or not. If unsure of what forms to use, keep to basic keigo and avoid overly formal or polite language. Keep in mind that politeness levels don’t just show respect or humility, but can also help distinguish people. This is especially important since subjects, objects, and targets of actions are often omitted in Japanese.
  30. Be aware of what words include the お as part of them and are not particular polite (おなか) and also know when you can optionally use ご (for Chinese-reading, or “onyomi” words) or お (for Japanese-reading, or “kunyomi” words) for extra politeness. 
  31. Grammar is the linchpin that ties together reading, writing, listening, and speaking, and without proper grammar you can never communicate effectively. In your early days studying a language (the first few months, or perhaps longer), spend a good portion of your time getting comfortable with basic grammar. When learning a language in an immersion environment (especially when we are young), our mind can naturally pick up and use the patterns we call “grammar”, but for many of us learning rules is a worthwhile shortcut. Keep in mind as you become more fluent, you’ll learn when it’s safe to break the rules.
  32. Music is a good way to pick up vocabulary words, but don’t mimic the pronunciation you hear in songs because often it doesn’t match how words are spoken in daily life. Grammar and word order are also often different from normal speaking and prose. 
  33. Go to a Japanese bookstore and try searching for authors by name. This helps you practice your ability to use alphabet-order (a, i, u, e, o, ka, …) and can be surprisingly difficult when you first try it, even if you are able to recite the hiragana from memory.
  34. Loanwords that come from English (or other languages) may seem like an easy way to pick up new words in Japanese, but remember they will almost always be pronounced differently, and they can have subtly (or drastically) different meanings.
  35. Practice writing in Japanese (using a keyboard is fine), even if you never share what you wrote with anyone. It helps you use words you just learned, which increases retention and allows you to focus on grammar without being rushed to spit out words in real time. If you can have a native or fluent speaker check what you wrote and give feedback, even better. Keeping a blog at a defined cadence (daily, weekly, etc.) is one way to add Japanese writing practice to your schedule.
  36. Don’t get frustrated when you forget word or character meanings. Forgetting is a natural part of the learning process, as is re-learning.
  37. Flashcards (either physical or digital) are a good way to get a basic understanding of new words or characters, but make sure you plan activities to actually use the words, including recognizing and using them in context. Otherwise you’re likely to forget them.
  38. When using kanji, be aware when words have a very different meaning depending on how they are written. (ex: 責める = “to blame”, 攻める = “to attack”). Even native speakers can make kanji mistakes, but it’s a good idea to double-check you are using the correct kanji to match your intended meaning.
  39. With a relatively small number of sounds and somewhat short average word length, Japanese has a large number of homonyms. For example, one Japanese dictionary made for natives has over 50 entries for “きょう”. As per the previous item, kanji often help to distinguish different meanings, but intonation isn’t always different so you might expect this to be a problem when speaking. But in practice, it’s usually clear from the context which meaning is being used. Rather than just trying to memorize the meaning of all words with a certain spelling, I would instead learn them naturally one-by-one as you come across them. This will make it easier to separate them in your mind.
  40. The number of resources available nowadays for language learning is staggering. While it is important to use a variety of sources, and fun to search for them, I recommend starting with a well-written, well-tested textbook to get your fundamentals correct. Two series I have used myself (for both learning myself and teaching) are “Youkoso” and “Genki”.
  41. Being self-taught can work for foreign languages, but it takes much more dedication and motivation. Having a teacher, even someone you meet once in a while, can make a big difference, especially in areas like pronunciation correction that are hard to get done in other forums.
  42. Be wary of sites and apps that “gamify” language learning. While these can be fun, and sometimes help you learn, they can train you to focus on things that may not be best for your language learning (for example, finishing a few more quizzes to get to the next level, instead of spending time to search and speak with native speakers). It’s OK to use them, but I wouldn’t use more than 25%-50% of your time on these sites and apps. It’s a little like sweet desserts: things that are delicious (fun) but that you don’t want to overdose on. (Note: Having made my own website that gamifies language learning, as well as come across a few good such sites made by others, I have complex feelings about this topic.)
  43. Industry-recognized language proficiency tests like the JLPT can be excellent mid- or long-term goals that can help with motivation, and may help you with a career involving Japanese. But no written test will really tell you how fluent you are––this is something you need to learn to gauge on your own. If you find yourself doing a lot (months) of studying specifically targeting a test like this, or are feeling frustrated about not being able to pass, I would consider reevaluating your priorities.
  44. Japanese tends to omit words that can be inferred from context, which can be a big change compared to languages like English that are strict about things like object usage. From early on in your Japanese studies, it’s a good idea to get this into your head and try to be as concise as possible and avoid unnecessary words, except when those word(s) are needed to prevent misunderstandings.
  45. Language learning, like many other things, is generally more fun when done in groups. Try to meet (in person, or virtual) at least once in a while with other people so you can talk about Japanese study and practice conversation.  
  46. Japanese literature has been around for centuries and offers stories that can be interesting, philosophically deep, and can also act as inexpensive windows into both modern and classical Japanese culture. Once you get enough grammar and reading experience under your belt, consider trying to read a short, easy Japanese novel. Reading adult-oriented fiction can be difficult to get through but is well worth the effort invested. Classic children’s stories are another way to get your feet wet in Japanese literature.
  47. Native speakers can provide precious feedback in many areas, such as what natural pronunciation sounds like and what is a natural way to say something. But once you start getting into details you will find differences in individuals regarding things like the nuance of a certain word or the most natural phrasing. For the average problem, just rely on the advice of a native speaker you trust. But for particularly difficult problems, feel free to ask a bunch of native speakers and compare what they have to say.
  48. Linguistic studies have shown that we learn more from our peers than our parents. Try and find native or fluent speakers of Japanese that you can spend time with that are of a similar age and/or have similar interests as you. Even if it is a one-way relationship (say, listening to a podcast), you’re more likely to pick up and try and use words learned from someone you respect.
  49. Nothing compares to immersion, especially living in a location where you are forced to understand and communicate in a foreign language. But keep in mind that X years of experience living in a certain country doesn’t magically make you fluent; you still have to put in a great amount of effort (unless you are young or lucky enough to be able to pick up the language automatically). If you don’t put in too much effort to actively learn a language in a country you are living in, you may learn to understand it naturally, but you may never learn to speak it with proper grammar and pronunciation.
  50. Above all, have fun!

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2 thoughts on “50 Hints for Learning Japanese

  1. Jim Miles

    This is an excellent list! With #20 I find having my software in Japanese generally great but occasionally I need to do something fiddly (like adjust some confusingly-worded privacy setting – anything that would be difficult in my native language anyway) and in those cases I often get a bit stressed if I can’t instantly switch back to English while time is of the essence. As a result I’ve made a point of being completely on top of how to quickly change language settings on anything that is in Japanese, and that’s reduced the panic factor – it’s always when something is urgent that the language settings seem most hidden away XD

    Reply
    1. locksleyu Post author

      Yeah, I know what you mean. On my Mac usually I have to restart an app to see a language chain, or in the worst case my entire machine (:

      Reply

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