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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 So while it can be difficult for me to focus on an outdated Japanese greetings video, I have no problem gluing myself to the screen to watch Japanese TV shows about cars.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.

Communicating In Japan If You don’t Speak Japanese

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Learning and communicating in a new language is a great experience. I can still remember the first time I really engaged in Japanese conversation. It was like I had passed through some invisible barrier. But what if you are traveling to Japan before you have had a chance to study much Japanese or need to get a point across you just don’t know the Japanese words for? The answer is actually easier than you might think. Do your best with Japanese and use simple, clear English where you don’t know the Japanese.

Japanese people are required to study English for 6 years in school. The problem is that the English teaching is focused on passing grammar tests rather than actually communicating. Since most of the English teachers are Japanese, they also don’t get the chance to hear English from native speakers. They do however learn a pretty large vocabulary.

So how does knowing this help you communicate in Japan?

  1. Most Japanese people understand grammar and have a large vocabulary, but don’t have much listening practice. Speak very clearly, use simple sentence structures, and be sure to leave small pauses in between each word.
  2. If you understand the Japanese alphabet pronounce the words using the Japanese syllables. For instance: hotel becomes “hoteru”.
  3. Lastly, if you are not able to get your point across verbally, write it down.

* The article was rewritten due to the original being lost due to a problem with the server. It is basically the same, but the wording may be slightly different.

Tips On Using Mnemosyne To Study Japanese

This post was originally about how to best use Mnemosyne as a study tool to help you learn Japanese faster. They say the best time to review something is right before you forget it. Mnemosyne is a flash card program program that uses an algorithm to help you do just that. Increasing the speed that you can learn new Japanese words and phrases.

Unfortunately, I had a hacker attack my server and have lost a few posts. On the good side, I am currently trying out a very similar program called Anki. Once I have spent a little more time with it, I will review both and write another post on how to best use them. In the meantime please feel free to sign up to my rss feed to make sure you don’t miss the post!

You can also sign up for the Japanese Words newsletter to get additional helpful tips and deals on some great Japanese materials.

Study Fewer Japanese Words, Learn More

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Let’s face it. You can only remember so much. The more you study the more you will remember, but you only have so much time. When it comes to learning Japanese, or any language for that matter, there is a lot to learn. You need to remember hundreds and eventually thousands of Japanese words, grammatical structures, and pronunciations. Not to mention kanji for those who want to be able to read and write. It can all seem a bit overwhelming at times. Especially if you are just getting started. The key is to be selective in what you learn.

When I decided I wanted to study in Japan, I tried to learn every single Japanese word and phrase I could. I figured I would tackle learning Japanese through pure quantity. This was a huge mistake. Having a large vocabulary is very important to speak a language fluently, but I wasn’t very selective in my learning. I would study every word that I came across regardless of how rare or useless it might be. I spent a lot of hours studying, but my level of Japanese didn’t improve very much. Basically, I had learned a bunch of Japanese words I couldn’t use. Since I couldn’t use them often, I also forgot them quickly.

So what should you do with words that you are unlikely to use or at least don’t need to use for a while? I recommend two options. The first is to skip them completely. This will help you free up time to learn words that will help you get speaking sooner. The second method is to write them down as you come across them in a dedicated notebook. You still won’t study them, but you will have them written down to study them at a later date when you decide you need to learn more advanced words.

When I first started doing this I felt guilty. Like I was taking the easy road, and that I wouldn’t get good at Japanese if I didn’t learn all I could. What if I needed this word down the road or couldn’t communicate well because I didn’t now advanced vocabulary. Luckily, I was completely wrong. Since I was studying less material and had more time to practice material I would actually use, my Japanese improved much faster. There were times (many times) that I couldn’t understand certain words, but it never stopped me from communicating well. Once I had the basics down strong, picking up new words as I came by them naturally was pretty easy. The confidence I gained in my Japanese ability helped me even more.

Why Are You Learning Japanese?


The entire first year that I studied Japanese I didn’t really learn much. As I mentioned in the free E-book 5 Tips to Learn Japanese Faster, a big part of this was due to the use of bad materials. Another big reason was that I didn’t really have a strong reason or goal for studying Japanese. I had an interest in Japan, martial arts, and the samurai. And I needed to take a foreign language. Unfortunately, these were not strong enough goals to to push me to focus on Japanese. It was only enough to keep me enjoying it and moving along at the slow pace of the class.

It wasn’t until I decided that I would study abroad in Japan and may want to work there someday that I really took studying Japanese seriously. Realizing I would be moving to Japan also helped me set goals to work towards. I wanted to learn to converse in basic conversation and learn at least a certain amount of kanji. Once I decided to work in Japan, I set new goals. Learning more Japanese words, more phrases, and more kanji.

These goals were attainable because they were very clear and also important to me. To gain a level of fluency in Japanese takes a lot of hours of study. That doesn’t mean it has to be difficult, just that you have to be dedicated.

The stronger your reasons are for learning Japanese the more likely you will be to succeed. Setting clear goals will also help you know exactly how much you have to study to get to the point you want to reach.

I suggest that you take some time to think about your reasons for studying Japanese. Try to paint as clear a picture as possible to why you are learning and what you want to achieve. Write down all the reasons you are studying Japanese and what level you expect to get to. During the times you are struggling you can look at it again to keep yourself inspired.

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