Learning to Hear Japanese


The brains ability to tune out various sounds and distractions is very helpful when you are trying to focus on something. However, it becomes a problem when your brain tunes out the thing you are trying to focus on. When it comes to learning Japanese, your brain can be quite lazy. Training your brain to recognize Japanese (rather than ignore it) will help you learn Japanese quicker.

Choose Interesting Materials

Learning a language should be fun. Learning Japanese is not an exception. One of the easiest ways to make learning Japanese easier is to choose materials that you are interested in. This works well because the part of your brain that views learning Japanese as work and wants to tune it out is overridden by the part that is interested in the chosen topic.

I am very interested in cars. So while it can be difficult for me to focus on an outdated Japanese greetings video, I have no problem gluing myself to the screen to watch Japanese TV shows about cars. I will also watch it again and again to make sure I understand. Not just because I want to learn Japanese, but also because I want to see the car videos again.

It is important that you study all of the most common Japanese words and phrases, but I have never really found this to be a problem when using “topical” Japanese when studying.  You will still learn the basics, as well as the special words used within your field of interest. Choose topics that interest you and learning Japanese seems a lot more fun. Tim Ferris of The 4 Hour Work Week, who speaks several languages, gives also uses this method when learning languages.

Repetitive Focus Sessions

This method is a little harder and feels more like work, but quite useful. When you first start learning Japanese your brain doesn’t immediately recognize Japanese words and tunes them out (even though you may understand). By completely focusing your attention on listening you will realize that you can actually understand. As you do this repeatedly, you start to hear words and recognize meanings rather than just sounds. Each time you understand is like a light bulb going off inside your head. That feeling is quite rewarding.

Intensively focusing can be quite tiring, so I recommend that you do this in short sessions. Practice for a bit and then take a break. However, like anything, the more time you spend with the material the easier it gets.

I am currently learning to play the sanshin, a traditional 3 string instrument of Okinawa. I am also learning to sing traditional folk songs of Miyakojima宮古民謡(みやこみんよう). Since Miyako”go”, or Japanese spoken in Miyako is so different and unrecognizable (even to native Japanese) this is the method I use to learn the words. It’s kind of like learning to sing in another language without understanding the language…at all. When I listen to the songs my brain wants to focus on other things. So I have to “train” my brain to pay attention by really focusing. Eventually my mind starts focusing on the words rather than tuning them out. It just takes a little bit of time.

Is It Hard To Learn Japanese?


It depends. Probably not the answer that you were hoping for, but bare with me for a second. It depends on whether you want to learn to speak Japanese or if you also want to learn to read and write. If you want to speak Japanese (which is the case for most people) then it is actually much easier than most people think.

The reason for this is that there are fewer possible sounds and more “solid” rules than English. Japan has a total of 5 vowels and 13 consonants, compared to English’s 12 vowels and 24 consonants. It’s true that some of the Japanese sounds are not in the English language and and can be difficult for native English speakers to pronounce. Compared to English however, pronunciations of consonants in Japanese don’t change. So while some of the sounds in the Japanese language might be difficult to pronounce, they never change.

Compared to English where there are many exceptions to grammatical rules,  Japanese grammar has very few exceptions. Verb conjugations are also very structured with few exceptions. So basically, Japanese is pretty straight forward once you learn the rules.

The one place where Japanese is more difficult than English is in the number of words used. According to a recent article in the Japan Times Online, it takes about 10,000 Japanese words to comprise 90% of all sentences in modern Japanese magazines. This is quite a bit higher compared to English which requires about 3,000 words.

But don’t panic quite yet, these statistics are a little bit misleading. First, many of the the words in modern day Japanese magazines are actually foreign words, with the biggest chunk of those coming from the English language. So with out learning any words at all you already have a decent Japanese vocabulary. Second, there are far fewer words used in common everyday speech. So if your goal is to to speak Japanese fluently, you are looking at a much smaller list of words.

If you want to read and write Japanese then the slope is a little steeper. Japanese has three distinct alphabets with the largest containing over 2,000 complex characters used in common writing. There are also various readings of the character depending on whether the word origin is Japanese or Chinese.

By now you are probably thinking that you will stick with speaking. And I will openly admit that learning to read and write Japanese does take quite a bit of time and some hard work. On the plus side, the Japanese writing system is also very structured. While some of the characters can be complex, they are also very logical.

For those who are interested in working or living in Japan, the ability to read and write in Japanese is crucial. There are a fair number of bilingual foreigners in Japan that speak Japanese. There are far fewer who can also read and write. Adding this additional skill opens up far more opportunities in Japan.

There are also far better study tools then there were a few years ago. Having spent countless hours writing characters over and over again, I can definitely say there are also far more effective methods.

Over the next few weeks I will be sharing some of these methods and discussing what I think are some great materials for learning to read and write Japanese. Japanese Words Newsletter subscribers will also receive an exclusive deal on some great products designed specifically to teach you to read Japanese. If you aren’t already a Japanese Words Newsletter subscriber, you can sign up for free here. As a member you also gain access to the members page containing additional Japanese resources and links.

The Art of Imitation And How It Can Improve Your Japanese


Imitation may not be the first method that pops to mind when you think of learning Japanese, but I have found it quite effective in improving my Japanese.

At first, I didn’t actually realize that I did it. I was just trying to speak Japanese the best that I could. It wasn’t until after I got a few compliments that I actually thought about it and realized it was probably due to imitation.

As a child I used to love to copy lines from movies and TV. I was a huge Jim Carrey fan and would go around imitating just about every line I could remember. Somehow, this transferred over into learning Japanese. When I speak with Native Japanese speakers I don’t just listen to their pronunciation, but try to copy exactly what they say and the way they say it. The reason this works well is that I am basically just copying, rather than trying to convert certain parts of speech to fit my own. It also allows me to practice Japanese even if I don’t know the meaning. I can imitate the sounds of the words and learn the words later. Children use this method to learn just about everything.

So the next time that you are studying Japanese words, watching a Japanese movie, or are conversing with a Japanese friend, try to imitate them. It will help your pronunciation and help you connect words and phrases much more smoothly.

The Secret to Learning Japanese


We’ve all met them. The people that seem to speak Japanese easily and read and write kanji. They handle daily activities like making important phone calls easily and don’t seem to get nervous about making mistakes. The student in your class who just seems to “get it” quicker than everyone else. Obviously, they must know something that you don’t. There must be some secret to learning Japanese that is allowing them to learn quicker than you. So what’s the secret?

Simply put, “the secret” (if it can be called that) is hard work, diligence, and lots of exposure.

There is no short cut to learning Japanese. To get fluent in Japanese you need to spend time to memorize the words and structures well and then use them repeatedly.

There are however, some common habits with those who learn Japanese faster and become better Japanese speakers than others. The great thing is that all of these habits can easily be copied.

  • They study often and on a regular basis
  • Enjoy their study time
  • They go out of their way to find ways to use their Japanese
  • Aren’t afraid to make mistakes
  • Surround themselves with the Japanese language

Finding ways to use your Japanese is very important. It not only gives you practice, but helps you learn if the materials you are using are relevant or not. The people who did the best in my Japanese classes in college were not limiting themselves to the slightly outdated material in the textbooks. They watched movies in Japanese and chatted with friends on messenger in Japanese as well. This helped them learn a lot of common Japanese phrases they could use in everyday situations.

So now you know the secret (or lack there of) to learn Japanese. Put the above methods to work and improve your Japanese!

Keeping Yourself Motivated to Study Japanese


Regardless of whether you are just starting or have been studying for quite some time there are always stumbling points. Times when you feel you will not attain the level of fluency you had hoped, that your progress is going to slowly, or that the immediate benefits you are receiving just aren’t worth the amount of time you are spending studying Japanese. I have certainly gone through these times myself. It’s pushing through them that will keep you on the right track to become a great Japanese speaker. So here are some simple motivation tips I have used to keep myself excited about learning Japanese.

Focus on why you started Learning Japanese

With all the studying, the flash cards, the kanji, and the speaking drills it can be easy to lose track of why you started learning Japanese. Since that reason also probably gave you quite a bit of motivation, take some time to think about it. I recommend writing it down so you can look at it again later. If the reason you started studying Japanese doesn’t get you excited, I recommend that you choose better one. You will be putting a lot of time into becoming fluent in Japanese. You will be much more likely to get there if you have a good reason for learning.

Speak Japanese with a native speaker

All that practice is important, but it’s actually speaking in Japanese that’s the fun part. If you are not able to find a native speaker, then at least try to find someone who you can converse with in Japanese. I used to sign up for tutoring when I was a student so I could practice speaking with Japanese exchange students. Even a fellow student studying Japanese is better than nothing. Just be sure to only speak Japanese.

Look at your overall progress

Language progression is accomplished in a lot of small steps. Each new word or grammatical structure you learn helps you understand and communicate just a little bit better. You may have learned 10 new words today, but compared to yesterday you still don’t feel you’ve made much progress. This can be a little bit depressing. Progress can be much easier to spot if you look at it overall. Look at your progress from the time you started until now. An easy way to do this is to go back and look at the material you started with. You will be surprised how easy it seems compared to when you first started learning . It’s much easier to see the distance you covered if you look at all the stairs you have climbed, rather than just the last step.

Break your Japanese study goals into smaller parts

Setting goals is a good thing. But what if you goal is really big? Maybe your goal is to speak business level Japanese so you can eventually work in Japan. If you are just starting out, it may seem if you will never get to that point. In this case, it can be very helpful to set a number of goals in between. Maybe set goals for learning 100 kanji by a certain date, speaking for 10 minutes in Japanese, passing the JLPT 4 this year and 3 next year. With each goal you acheive you give yourself a small reward. This will not only help you stay motivated, but also keep you working towards your goal.