If you’re in Japan or enjoy traveling here, you have no doubt at least dabbled in learning the language. And so you should! It’s a great language, and by learning to speak Japanese you give yourself the opportunity to meet some really incredible people, and better immerse yourself in a fascinating culture. It can also open up a lot of doors and career opportunities, as there is plenty of demand for bilinguals.
I speak from experience, as my journey has taken me from studying Japanese in Australia as a teenager, to eventually spending more than six years living in Japan. I studied at a Japanese high school and university, passed the highest level of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, and ended up working for two Japanese companies where virtually all communication was in Japanese. It was an amazing experience, and was made all the more memorable by the cultural access that speaking Japanese afforded me. During my time there, I met a lot of other people learning Japanese, and noticed that Japanese is often taught quite poorly.
Once you get past a couple of initial hurdles, Japanese is a relatively easy language, but despite this, many people struggle with Japanese for years, frustrated by their lack of progress. This struggle inspired me to write a book that teaches Japanese the way that I feel it should be taught, emphasising the language-learning strategies that were most effective for me, as well as others I know who have reached a similar level of fluency. To get you started, here are 7 ways to improve your Japanese skills.
1. Study less and practice more
I know one person in particular who was extremely diligent with his Japanese study, but refused to speak Japanese in the real world. He told me that he didn’t want to use it in public until he could understand it properly. This was a huge mistake, and one that I know many people are guilty of, if only to a lesser extent. The best way to improve your speaking skills in any language is to practice speaking. Studying has its benefits, and is necessary to help you learn new expressions and understand important concepts, but for every new word or sentence pattern you learn, you won’t fully appreciate and understand it until you’ve heard it multiple times in the wild and used it yourself.
When you’re studying your butt off, it’s easy to forget that a language is a skill, not just a collection of knowledge. You need to apply that knowledge in order to improve the skill, so keep studying, but make sure you spend more time talking and using what you learn, than revising what you’ve learnt by yourself. If you’re in Japan already, this is easy to do. It’s just a matter of going outside and making friends with non English-speaking Japanese people and talking with them regularly. It takes a bit of courage, but look around in your area for clubs and groups that gather regularly over a common interest and join in the fun. Chances are, they will be welcoming if a little shy, and not at all critical, so once you’ve made initial contact everything will get a lot easier.
If you’re not in Japan, it’s a little trickier, but still possible. Depending where you are, there is likely a Japanese community in your area that you can tap into. If that’s not a viable option, websites like www.italki.com and http://www.interpals.net give you cheap, even free, access to native Japanese speakers with whom you can practice your speaking. As long as you’re prepared to return the favor and help them with their English, there’s no reason you can’t find a Japanese speaking buddy for free.
2. Learn actively, not passively
It is a common misconception that you can learn a second language the same way you learnt your first, and that by immersing yourself in the language, you will naturally pick it up over time. Certain language products are even built around this very idea, but it’s nonsense. It’s the ultimate marketing lie that appeals to the laziness in all of us.
There are no magic pixies that implant linguistic knowledge in our brains while we sleep—you have to put in the work. The truth is, as an adult, you already have a language that all your complex thoughts are based in, so you don’t have anywhere near as much necessity to learn a new language as you did as a young child. Besides, it takes a child several years of constant support and attention from their parents before they can put any kind of sentence together, let alone a coherent one.
As an adult, you will never receive that level of attention on your own, and you probably also don’t have years to dedicate all of your efforts to the goal of learning Japanese. Fortunately, adults can learn much faster than children by leveraging what they already know about language, and using their intellect to effectively take huge shortcuts in the language-learning process.
Of course, immersion can be incredibly powerful. I was lucky enough to be as immersed in Japanese life as is reasonably possible when I completed a study-abroad program in Japan at the age of 15. I lived with a host family and went to a Japanese high school, and was forced to use Japanese day in, day out, without any breaks. But not only do very few people get to experience such an environment, I also wouldn’t have gotten anywhere had I not put in the effort.
I spoke to everyone I could, and studied Japanese in my downtime. I could have easily been lazy and hoped that the language would just magically seep into my brain while I sat back and listened, but it wouldn’t have gotten me very far. It was the combination of environment and effort that enabled me to improve quickly. The other side of the coin is that immersion is also not a requirement for learning a language.
One time when I was in Japan, a random salaryman came up to me and started speaking to me in English. He was fluent by any definition, yet it turns out he’d never actually lived outside Japan. I’ll never know what his study habits were, but he was living proof that it is possible to learn a language without being fully immersed in it. Whether you live in Japan or not, you can learn to speak Japanese if you put in the effort and make the most of your opportunities.
3. Prioritize grammar over vocabulary
One of the important lessons I learned when I was studying in Japan is that vocabulary is all but useless if you don’t know how to use it. All of the Japanese students around me had to memorize copious amounts of English vocabulary in order to pass the frequent tests they were given. I watched in amazement as they memorized lists of English words that I, a native speaker, had never even seen before. They were mostly hard-working students that were good at remembering what was required of them, but they still had trouble with some major grammatical concepts. This kept them from being able to assemble words in the right order to communicate a message, meaning many of the words they knew would go to waste.
I, on the other hand, had quite a poor Japanese vocabulary for a long time, but was still able to communicate effectively. Even when I sat Level 1 of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, my results showed that my vocabulary was somewhat lacking. This didn’t stop me though. Despite only scoring 70% on the kanji and vocabulary part of the test, I scored 92% on the grammar and reading comprehension section. Because my grammatical understanding was strong, I could work around the words I didn’t know to understand the overall meaning of the text. If instead I had a larger vocabulary but was weaker at grammar, I would have had to rely much more heavily on knowing what every single word meant.
Vocabulary is obviously necessary, but not as necessary as you may think. If you don’t believe me, check out the Simple English edition of Wikipedia. There, you will find over 100,000 articles written primarily in Basic English and Special English, which are simplified versions of the English language consisting of around 850 and 1500 words, respectively. They also use relatively simple grammar, but these basic grammatical foundations are what allow so much information to be presented with so few words. When studying Japanese, put more effort into grammar than vocabulary, and your knowledge will be more widely applicable.
4. Learn your native language better
For people from most backgrounds, Japanese grammar is completely different to what you’re used to. This means that you have to learn a lot of new concepts in order to gain a solid grasp of the language. The problem is, that process usually looks something like this:
- Learn new Japanese grammar concept in abstract terms
- Practice it using example sentences
- Struggle to make true sense of it
- Decide it’s easier to just memorize how to use it and move on
- Get confused later on when things don’t seem to fit together
The truth is, most fundamental grammar concepts aren’t particularly difficult. The problem is that with Step One, you’re actually trying to learn general linguistics concepts based on a language that you don’t yet understand—Japanese. You obviously understand the grammar of at least one language, but chances are, it’s something that’s just instinctive, and you can’t actually explain why one expression makes sense while another may not.
The reason that language learning becomes easier the more you do it is because you develop an understanding of how languages work and how grammar functions. A shortcut to learning Japanese, or any other language, is therefore to first develop a better understanding of your own language. This allows you to make sense of new concepts much more easily because you can relate the concept to something you understand, even if it’s different to your own language. For example, most people know what nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs are, but although you can probably use them correctly, you may not necessarily understand how they relate to each other.
If I tell you that you can’t say “hayai hashirimasu” because “hayai” (fast) is an adjective and “hashirimasu” (run) is a verb, and adjectives can’t be used with verbs, you’re likely to have trouble remembering such a rule. If instead I tell you that you that it’s wrong to say “run quick”, and that you should instead say “run quickly” because you can only use adverbs like “quickly” to modify verbs, it makes intuitive sense. You instinctively understand that “run quick” is grammatically wrong, so you’re able to relate this rule to something you already know. Once you understand that, it becomes much easier to apply it to Japanese, especially in this case where the rule is exactly the same!
In my experience, understanding English better has allowed me to see the Japanese language much more clearly, and make better sense of different grammatical concepts. It’s for this reason that I draw a lot of comparisons with English in my Japanese language book, and I believe it will make the process of understanding Japanese grammar much more manageable.
5. Fully understand how particles work
Japanese particles are essentially what makes the Japanese language function. In English, word order determines the meanings of sentences, but in Japanese, that job is almost entirely left up to particles. The problem is, most people when they start learning Japanese aren’t really taught how particles work. They’re quite simple once you understand them, but most books and courses fail to really help you make sense of it all.
So here it is—the golden rule of particles:
A particle defines the role in the sentence of the word that comes before it.
Let’s look at an example.
watashi wa konbini de pan wo kaimashita.
I bought the bread at the convenience store.
Our verb here is “kaimashita”, meaning “bought”, and it doesn’t have a particle because verbs don’t need them—their role in the sentence is obvious.
Now let’s break down the other parts of the sentence and see what their particles do.
- watashi wa – “wa” defines the topic, so in this sentence, I’m talking about me. I’m the person who did the buying.
- konbini de – “de” defines where an action takes place. I did my buying at the convenience store.
- kono pan wo – “wo” defines the object of the verb. In this case, the verb is “kaimashita”, so wo indicates what was bought. What I bought was bread.
One of the fun things about Japanese is that apart from the verb, we can completely flip the word order around and as long as the particles are used correctly, the meaning is fundamentally the same. So, in addition to the above sentence, we could express the same idea in any of the following ways:
- watashi wa pan wo konbini de kaimashita
- konbini de watashi wa pan wo kaimashita
- pan wo watashi wa konbini de kaimashita
These all have slightly different nuances, and varying levels of naturalness, but they are all grammatically correct and convey the same essential meaning. The word order is not so important, because particles do all the heavy lifting. This makes it even more important to get the particles right; get them wrong and the sentence no longer means what it’s supposed to. For example, if we take the last sentence, but change the particles to the order they appeared in originally, we get this:
pan wa watashi de supa wo kaimashita
The bread bought the supermarket at me.
Huh? Clearly something is wrong here.
Unlike English, where it is the word order that makes the sentence nonsensical, the incorrect use of particles is what does all the damage in Japanese. Put in the effort to learn what the important particles mean and how to use them correctly, and your Japanese will make a lot more sense. For a headstart, check out this slide presentation I put together:
6. Learn to differentiate “ni” and “de”
Now, even if you completely understood the above point, many people are often confused by which particle is appropriate in a given situation. There are a few pairs in particular that tend to cause confusion, and one of those pairs is “ni” and “de”. Among other things, these two particles both relate to location, and both can be translated as “at”, “in” or “on”, so it’s understandable that you might not always know which to use. Perhaps this will help:
- De defines where an action takes place
- Ni defines the destination of an action involving movement
So if I’m doing something, then the place that I am doing it should be marked by the particle “de”. If I’m moving from A to B, or I’m doing something that causes something else to move from A to B, like giving or sending, then the destination of that movement is marked by “ni”. It’s really quite clear cut. The part that causes confusion is this additional rule, which often isn’t made clear:
- Ni defines the place where something is when used with the verbs “imasu” and “arimasu”
The confusion comes from the fact that where something is, and where something takes place, are kind of the same thing. For example, if I am playing football at the park, the park is both where I am, and where the act of playing football is taking place. However, you would only use “ni” to say where someone or something is if the verb is “arimasu” or “imasu”. Make sense? There is more to these particles, as both have other uses, but hopefully this explanation clears up some of the confusion and will help with the majority of mistakes. Learn to differentiate these and you will be right a lot more often.
7. Make time instead of trying to find it
While I highly encourage people to learn Japanese through self-study, the lack of a structured program can cause your progress to stagnate if you’re not organised. If you say that you will study and practice your Japanese when you have time, that time never comes. There’s always some other distraction, or something else to do that’s seemingly more important. If you’re serious about improving your Japanese skills, you have to make time. Schedule it in, and don’t let anything else get in the way.
That doesn’t mean it has to feel like a chore. At the beginning especially, you should practice speaking as much as possible, so set up regular coffee dates or language exchanges (either online or off) and stick to them. Make the process fun by talking to people who enjoy spending time with. You can also watch movies or TV shows to improve your listening skills, and good ol’ fashioned study time can be enjoyable too if you give yourself opportunities to apply what you learn. The most important thing is that you allocate time and don’t deviate from the schedule unless there’s a genuine emergency.
To make the process even more effective, you should spread your efforts evenly throughout the week. If you’re going to spend, for example, 3 hours a week studying or practicing Japanese, it’s much better to do 30 minutes a day, six days a week than to cram it all into one session on a Sunday afternoon. I dare say one of the biggest reasons that improvement is slow with most scheduled language programs is that there is too long of a gap between classes. Instead of spending half your time trying to remember what you learnt a week earlier, study and practice your Japanese in short, frequent bursts so that everything you learn remains fresh in your mind.
Learning Japanese may seem like a daunting task, but with the right approach, it can be a very enjoyable and rewarding experience. By applying the seven points outlined here, you can make the most of your language-learning efforts, and hopefully come to realise that Japanese isn’t as difficult as everyone thinks it is.
For more language-learning strategies, as well as a detailed and easy-to-follow explanation of all the most important concepts relating to the Japanese language, check out my book, 80/20 Japanese.
You can also read Tokyo Cheapo’s list of 10 recommended resources for learning Japanese.
This article was first published in June, 2014. Last updated in February, 2021.