If you\u2019re in Japan or enjoy traveling here, you have no doubt at least dabbled in learning the language. And so you should!\u00a0It\u2019s 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.\u00a0I 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. Finally, affordable and good Japanese lessonsJapan Switch offers great-value lessons with certified teachers and top-class materials, either online or at their school in Shinjuku. You can take group lessons for or private lessons for . 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.\u00a0This 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.\u00a0This was a huge mistake, and one that I know many people are guilty of, if only to a lesser extent.\u00a0The 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\u2019t fully appreciate and understand it until you\u2019ve heard it multiple times in the wild and used it yourself. When you\u2019re studying your butt off, it\u2019s 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\u2019ve learnt by yourself. If you\u2019re in Japan already, this is easy to do. It\u2019s just a matter of going outside and making friends with non English-speaking Japanese people and talking with them regularly.\u00a0 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\u2019ve made initial contact everything will get a lot easier. If you\u2019re not in Japan, it\u2019s a little trickier, but still possible.\u00a0Depending where you are, there is likely a Japanese community in your area that you can tap into.\u00a0If that\u2019s 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.\u00a0 As long as you\u2019re prepared to return the favor and help them with their English, there\u2019s no reason you can\u2019t 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\u2019s nonsense.\u00a0It\u2019s 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\u2014you 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\u2019t 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\u2019t 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.\u00a0I 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\u2019t 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\u2019t 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.\u00a0He was fluent by any definition, yet it turns out he\u2019d never actually lived outside Japan.\u00a0I\u2019ll 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.\u00a0Whether 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\u2019t know how to use it.\u00a0All 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.\u00a0They 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.\u00a0Even when I sat Level 1 of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, my results showed that my vocabulary was somewhat lacking.\u00a0This didn\u2019t 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\u2019t know to understand the overall meaning of the text.\u00a0If 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.\u00a0If you don\u2019t believe me, check out the Simple English edition of Wikipedia.\u00a0There, 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.\u00a0They also use relatively simple grammar, but these basic grammatical foundations are what allow so much information to be presented with so few words.\u00a0When 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\u2019re used to. This means that you have to learn a lot of new concepts in order to gain a solid grasp of the language.\u00a0The 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\u2019s easier to just memorize how to use it and move on Get confused later on when things don\u2019t seem to fit together The truth is, most fundamental grammar concepts aren\u2019t particularly difficult.\u00a0The problem is that with Step One, you\u2019re actually trying to learn general linguistics concepts based on a language that you don\u2019t yet understand\u2014Japanese.\u00a0You obviously understand the grammar of at least one language, but chances are, it\u2019s something that\u2019s just instinctive, and you can\u2019t 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.\u00a0A shortcut to learning Japanese, or any other language, is therefore to first develop a better understanding of your own language.\u00a0This allows you to make sense of new concepts much more easily because you can relate the concept to something you understand, even if it\u2019s 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\u2019t say \u201chayai hashirimasu\u201d because \u201chayai\u201d (fast) is an adjective and \u201chashirimasu\u201d (run) is a verb, and adjectives can\u2019t be used with verbs, you\u2019re likely to have trouble remembering such a rule.\u00a0If instead I tell you that you that it\u2019s wrong to say \u201crun quick\u201d, and that you should instead say \u201crun quickly\u201d because you can only use adverbs like \u201cquickly\u201d to modify verbs, it makes intuitive sense.\u00a0You instinctively understand that \u201crun quick\u201d is grammatically wrong, so you\u2019re able to relate this rule to something you already know.\u00a0Once 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.\u00a0 It\u2019s 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.\u00a0In English, word order determines the meanings of sentences, but in Japanese, that job is almost entirely left up to particles.\u00a0The problem is, most people when they start learning Japanese aren\u2019t really taught how particles work.\u00a0They\u2019re 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\u2014the golden rule of particles: A particle defines the role in the sentence of the word that comes before it. Let\u2019s look at an example. watashi wa konbini de pan wo kaimashita. I bought the bread at the convenience store. Our verb here is \u201ckaimashita\u201d, meaning \u201cbought\u201d, and it doesn\u2019t have a particle because verbs don\u2019t need them\u2014their role in the sentence is obvious. Now let\u2019s break down the other parts of the sentence and see what their particles do. watashi wa - \u201cwa\u201d defines the topic, so in this sentence, I\u2019m talking about me.\u00a0 I\u2019m the person who did the buying. konbini de - \u201cde\u201d defines where an action takes place.\u00a0 I did my buying at the convenience store. kono pan wo - \u201cwo\u201d defines the object of the verb.\u00a0 In this case, the verb is \u201ckaimashita\u201d, so wo indicates what was bought.\u00a0 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\u00a0pan wo\u00a0konbini\u00a0de kaimashita konbini\u00a0de watashi wa\u00a0pan wo kaimashita pan wo watashi wa konbini\u00a0de 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\u2019s 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.\u00a0Put 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.\u00a0For a headstart, check out this slide presentation I put together: 80\/20 Japanese - 10 Steps to 500 Sentences from Richard Webb 6. Learn to differentiate \u201cni\u201d and \u201cde\u201d 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 \u201cni\u201d and \u201cde\u201d.\u00a0 Among other things, these two particles both relate to location, and both can be translated as \u201cat\u201d, \u201cin\u201d or \u201con\u201d, so it\u2019s 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\u2019m doing something, then the place that I am doing it should be marked by the particle \u201cde\u201d.\u00a0If I\u2019m moving from A to B, or I\u2019m 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 \u201cni\u201d.\u00a0It\u2019s really quite clear cut. The part that causes confusion is this additional rule, which often isn\u2019t made clear: Ni defines the place where something is when used with the verbs \u201cimasu\u201d and \u201carimasu\u201d The confusion comes from the fact that where something is, and where something takes place, are kind of the same thing.\u00a0For 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.\u00a0 However, you would only use \u201cni\u201d to say where someone or something is if the verb is \u201carimasu\u201d or \u201cimasu\u201d.\u00a0Make 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.\u00a0Learn 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\u2019re not organised.\u00a0If you say that you will study and practice your Japanese when you have time, that time never comes.\u00a0There\u2019s always some other distraction, or something else to do that\u2019s seemingly more important.\u00a0If you\u2019re serious about improving your Japanese skills, you have to make time.\u00a0Schedule it in, and don\u2019t let anything else get in the way. That doesn\u2019t mean it has to feel like a chore.\u00a0At 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.\u00a0Make the process fun by talking to people who enjoy spending time with.\u00a0You can also watch movies or TV shows to improve your listening skills, and good ol\u2019 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\u2019t deviate from the schedule unless there\u2019s a genuine emergency. To make the process even more effective, you should spread your efforts evenly throughout the week.\u00a0If you\u2019re going to spend, for example, 3 hours a week studying or practicing Japanese, it\u2019s much better to do 30 minutes a day, six days a week than to cram it all into one session on a Sunday afternoon.\u00a0I 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\u2019t 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.