There’s one question that’s bound to come up over and over again on any forum or website dedicated to learning Japanese:
“How did you learn Japanese?”
or perhaps just:
“How should I learn Japanese?”
…Or a variation of the above.
It’s not surprising – after all, learning a new language is a huge task and many people have no idea how or where to even begin, especially if they have never learned a foreign language before. That’s why, I figured I’d give answering this question a shot. This is going to be a multi-part post, and the first one is a summary of how I’ve learned Japanese up to this point.
Note that this is 100% my experience. What it means is that you might try some of the stuff that worked for me and find out that it doesn’t work for you. You might try stuff that didn’t work for me and realize it’s a great fit for you. My way is not the only true way of learning the language – there’s no such thing as one, “right” way of learning a new language. There’s only what works for you and what doesn’t, which you’re going to have to find out through trial and error.
So, with all of this out of the way, let’s get started.
My first attempt at learning Japanese was, admittedly, a failure.
It was around 2010 or 2011. At that point, I had been thinking about learning the language for a few years already, but I had yet to take any real action towards that goal. It was more of a shapeless dream: “hey it’d be cool if I learned Japanese one day”. I had no idea where to start. One day, I came upon a blog titled All Japanese All the Time. Intrigued, I began reading post after post, and for the first time ever I started feeling like I could actually do it. That I could actually learn Japanese.
Now, if you’re not familiar with AJATT, it strongly pushes a “full immersion” method of learning Japanese. That means no classes, no textbooks (at least not used in the traditional way), just surrounding yourself with Japanese one-hundred percent of the time. All of this is supposed to mimic the way children learn a language.
Of course, 100% immersion is nearly impossible even if you live in Japan, but it was the goal to strive for.
Following the site’s advice, I picked up the Remembering the Kanji book (yes, kanji first, not hiragana and katakana) and started to learn the characters. Day-in-day-out I would do my reviews on Anki, make up new mnemonics, try to memorize the kanji… It took me about six months, which is a bit on the slow side for this method, but I eventually completed the book.
The next step was learning grammar – but not from a textbook. The way to do it was to review sentences in Anki. Simple sentences, at first with English translation, eventually moving on to more complex ones (I assume I had learned kana too somewhere along the way but I don’t remember). This way you were meant to learn grammar “naturally”, without the need to memorize rules or do exercises. At this point you were also supposed to start “immersing yourself”. So I began watching shows and anime without subs. I loaded my iPod with audio and listened to it for hours on end. Or I tried to, but usually it just gave me a headache.
Predictably, I still didn’t understand jack shit.
Eventually I got fed up. Reviewing the kanji in Anki was getting boring and I still couldn’t read anything, so I let my Anki decks rot for a few months. It didn’t help that I was still in high school back then, and me and school, we weren’t on good terms, so I might’ve been a little stressed out.
Part of it was my certainly my fault: I both wanted to “cut corners” by not learning from a textbook and I had some unrealistic expectations about the whole immersion thing (even if I didn’t want to admit this to myself.) I’m not dissing AJATT in its entirety – after all, it did get me started on the whole “learning Japanese” thing. And I still think they had some good ideas.
I couldn’t really abandon Japanese for good, though. After school ended I wanted to come back to it, but I figured that what I’d been doing before wasn’t really working out so I had to try something different. Since the immersion method was all like “textbooks suck”, I decided to, well, try a textbook instead. That was when I found TextFugu.
Now, TextFugu isn’t the greatest entry in the world of Japanese textbooks, since it covers relatively little material compared to say, Genki. Or at least back when I last heard about it (like two years ago) it did. Still, it looked pretty, it was easy to read and it was marketed specifically to self-learners. I signed up for it. I learned hiragana and katakana for real this time. Then, I learned some vocab, and really, really basic grammar (think これはペンです and similar). I guess I must’ve known most of it at that point, since it wasn’t like I had completely shunned textbooks up until then, but it was the fist time I was learning it in a more structured way.
My new plan at that point could be summed up as “learn enough kanji and grammar ASAP, learn the rest by reading stuff that’s actually interesting”. It worked for me while I was learning English, after all, so I figured it should work for Japanese as well! The problem was that in Japanese, kanji kind of get in the way of reading. By that point I mostly forgot what I’d learned from Remembering the Kanji and I wasn’t really feeling like re-doing it. I wanted to learn kanji “for real”, not just their English meanings. That was when I found out the creators of TextFugu decided to make a kanji-learning app – WaniKani.
I liked WaniKani straight away, mainly because it looked pretty and it took care of the hard part (making cards and coming up with mnemonics) for me. The “gamification” of the learning process was a nice touch as well. With that said, it was slow-going at first, but I eventually picked up the pace and in the end, it took me exactly two years to finish the course.
In the meantime, I got into university and that was where I started taking Japanese classes. While I was never the best about paying attention in class, at the very least it ensured I got some grammar into my head.
And so, about a year into university and WaniKani, I felt like the first phase of my plan – getting good enough to read fairly simple things without wanting to die – had been accomplished. I looked around and started to import books, games, manga… Some (or rather most) of it was still too difficult for me to read comfortably, but with a dictionary in hand, I could make my way through (most of) them (some I dropped until a later point in time, lol). So I kept on doing that in addition to going through WaniKani and the textbooks uni threw at me (Minna no Nihongo 1&2, An Integrated Approach to Intermediate Japanese etc.)
- In 2014 I completed my first game in Japanese. It was Final Fantasy X – in hindsight, maybe I shouldn’t have chosen a game with auto-scrolling text as my first （笑）
- In 2016 I passed JLPT N2. I took the test mostly for fun – I just wanted to check how well I’d do. I actually came out of it with a 180/180 score (I kept refreshing the page that day, thinking it must be a mistake.)
So, if you think about it, I was quite slow at this, considering I started all the way back in 2011 and it took me until 2016 to start feeling somewhat comfortable with reading longer and more complex texts. But I still made it. Somehow.
Looking back at it, it wasn’t really a grand journey or anything, just one person pissing about in front of a computer, somehow managing to learn a language in the meantime. And of course, I have a lot left to learn – I still bump into new vocab more often than I’d like to, and without much practice my conversational abilities are, to put it mildly, lacking, but, at the very least, I feel like I must’ve made some progress compared to that day when I first opened that Remembering the Kanji book.
That’s all for part 1 – in part 2 I’ll be talking about some questions and doubts I had when I decided to start learning Japanese (as well as some I still have & those I heard from others).
If you’ve got questions or comments, feel free to leave them here!