I signed up for my first Japanese class in December 2016. It was a group class at New York’s Japan Society. Since then I’ve been more-or-less continually studying the language, and just over one year ago I moved to Tokyo.
You would think 6.5 years of studying would mean I’m pretty good, right? Not so much. The textbooks and standardized tests place my level (~N2) as “between intermediate and advanced”, which is far short of fluency.
I’m a firm believer in the thesis that children don’t have huge biological advantages over adults in language-learning; they are just advantaged by their circumstances. If I were surrounded by two people whose full-time job was to take care of me, and could only communicate in Japanese; and I were unable to do basic things by myself with communicating those needs to my caretakers; and I were unable to entertain myself with any English written or spoken material; and I were somehow deprived of the ability to form verbal thoughts without using Japanese—then, I think I’d learn Japanese pretty fast. Before moving to Japan, I was hoping that the much-discussed “immersion experience” would give me a boost of this sort.
But in reality, I am a part-time Japanese learner, not a full-time one. Even if menus and signage are now in Japanese, and my interactions with service people are in Japanese, nothing significant has changed. My work is still in English; my wife still speaks English; and while I have some Japanese coworkers and friends, imposing my current level of verbal Japanese skills on them is a surefire way to waste both of our time. While there is some Japanese entertainment media I enjoy, the Anglosphere produces a great deal of both fiction and nonfiction content that I also want to keep on top of.
So I’ve begun to accept that there’s no magic bullet. I’m going to keep spending an hour or three a day on Japanese, with some periods of more serious commitment and some of less. As such, I’ve started thinking about how to most-effectively use that time.
What follows is a blend of a personal experience report, and tips; perhaps it will be useful to others in similar positions, and hopefully it will be interesting.
For my part-time study style, I’ve come to realize that the concept of activation energy is key to determining how a study activity will fit into my life. That is: how hard is it to actually start doing the thing?
Spaced repetition systems, like WaniKani for kanji, Bunpro for grammar, and Anki for vocabulary, are easy to stick with. Every day, you follow the program: review X previously-learned items, introduce Y new items. You’re incentivized to stick to this schedule, because if you don’t you’ll accumulate more reviews the next day. Flashcard drills don’t require intense concentration; I can do them while brushing my teeth, standing in line, or riding the subway. And the results are quantitatively clear and gratifying: after restarting from scratch in May 2022, I now “know” 1889 of the 2048 kanji in WaniKani, and am on track to finish the rest in another four weeks.
Forced study occurs when you sign yourself up for something involving other people. This could be a group class, individual lessons, a language exchange, or homework. Finding and signing up for such a resource can take activation energy, but once you’re committed, you’re regularly studying. However, the effectiveness is much harder to measure, which can be discouraging. It’s easy to skate by in group classes, especially ones made for adults-attending-voluntarily instead of students-who-get-graded. And although I’ve only experienced two individual tutors so far, my experience is that they have a formula: find a textbook, and work through it together. I keep hoping they would help me pinpoint and drill on weaknesses, but realistically I’m the only one with enough introspective access to do that sort of thing.
Which brings us to the last category, deep independent study. This is where you block out an hour or more, sit down, and do something difficult at the edge of your abilities. Some examples include reading long texts, watching anime, or reviewing a series of confusingly-similar grammar points to tease out the nuances between them. The key is that you are actively engaging with the task, not going on autopilot through a flashcard deck, or following the program someone else pushes you through. For example, when doing reading practice, I will look up and underline every word I don’t know, then at the end of the passage, create flashcards for them, with context sentences from the reading.
Managing the balance between these types of studying is difficult. Obviously, deep independent study is the hardest; thus, as a part-time learner, I very rarely make time for it. In the past, aiming to pass a standardized test has been a good forcing function. I’ve thought of blocking out an hour during the workday to make it a regular occurrence, but I haven’t been willing to pull the trigger on that yet.
The Path Through Japanese
Japanese is a particularly-difficult language for English speakers. At a high level, my journey has looked like the following.
Through group classes, I learned the basics. Hiragana and katakana, the syllabaries. Beginner grammar: this is mostly conjugations. (Japanese conjugates their adjectives too, not just verbs!) Enough vocabulary to get me started constructing sentences.
After that, I began diving into the things that take serious time: kanji, grammar, and vocabulary. Learning these is a cumulative process that spans years, and is done concurrently. The goal is to steadily grow my mental database, primarily focused on recognition but ideally also on recall.
The simplest task is learning kanji. If you use WaniKani at max speed, it will take approximately 60 weeks to learn the 2048 kanji that WaniKani deems useful. (Which is pretty close to the 2136 kanji the Japanese government deems useful.) WaniKani’s pedagogy isn’t my favorite—I prefer Heisig—but they’ve wrapped up the kanji-learning process into a program, which is invaluable because it pushes you mechanically through the entire list, with low activation energy.
After you’ve learned basic conjugations, grammar consists of a bunch of “grammar points”. The concept of a grammar point was not known to me before learning Japanese; I don’t remember it coming up in high-school Spanish classes (or English classes). I would generally define these as any word, phrase, or pattern that you use when constructing a sentence, whose meaning and usage is not obvious from just the definition. So on the simpler end of the spectrum, you have things like が (“ga”), which roughly corresponds to the English word “but”. The reason it’s a grammar point, instead of a vocabulary word, is that you need to know how verbs and adjectives must conjugate when preceding it, and when it’s appropriate to use が versus other forms of “but” like けど (“kedo”) or ながらも (“nagara mo”). At the more complex end of the spectrum, you have phrases like ～というものでもない (“to iu mono de mo nai”), which literally translates to something like “as for the the thing that is called that, it does not exist”, but in reality corresponds to English phrases like “there is no guarantee that” or “not necessarily”.
Fortunately, grammar points can be drilled with tools like Bunpro or textbook exercises, and in my experience will be pretty naturally reinforced through reading practice. Bunpro’s taxonomy counts 910 grammar points, which it divides along the JLPT levels. But unlike the kanji, there’s no crisp definition of a grammar point, and because of their complexity and nuance, cramming them at max speed won’t work that well. I’ve instead learned them one JLPT level at a time, in the months leading up to the test.
And finally, vocabulary. There’s so much! Research suggests a typical Japanese undergraduate vocabulary size is around 40,000 words. This is essentially going to be a lifetime effort. WaniKani will get you ~6,500 words, some of them rather esoteric (since their primary purpose is to help keep the kanji in your brain). There are some popular Anki vocabulary decks floating around, but they top out around 10,000 words, with the higher-quality ones being 5,000. I’ve been doing sentence mining based on Bunpro’s example sentences and the test prep materials and textbooks I’ve worked with, but it’s slow going.
Honestly, vocabulary is the part of language-learning that feels the most hopeless: no matter how much I learn, it’s so easy to encounter a sentence or subject area where I’m just clueless. This is strange, since flashcard-based vocab cramming takes such low activation energy, so maybe I just need to try harder. I might investigate better options here after I finish WaniKani.
Real-World Language Ability
The actual goal of language-learning is to be able to use it in the real world. I’ve prioritized those skills in roughly the following manner.
Reading is relatively difficult in Japanese, because of the kanji barrier. But, grinding through WaniKani can eliminate that barrier in a little over a year. That then leaves vocabulary recognition and grammar comprehension as the key ingredients. My main failure modes for reading are when a passage has too much unfamiliar vocabulary, or when the sentences stack together enough nested clauses and grammar points that I get lost and have to do a mental sentence-diagramming exercise to untangle what’s happening. But reading is very amenable to self-study, if you can work up the activation energy.
Listening is a tough skill to train, and I haven’t found a great way to do so that produces measurable feelings of progress. I try Netflix; standardized test preparation material; and listening to my teacher during our lessons. But ultimately, you either catch a sentence or you don’t. And when you don’t, going back to read the transcript or ask for clarification produces a feeling of defeat. I’m just hoping that the practice is all, somehow, adding up to something.
The main barrier for speaking is shyness. I don’t feel comfortable inflicting my Japanese on coworkers, or my hairstylist, or the bartender. So I pay for language lessons, and practice a little bit with my wife (who is also learning). One day I’ll work up the courage to do language-exchange lunches at work; everyone’s English is better than my Japanese (it’s a condition of employment!), but they know that going in and so it’ll be fine.
Progress is again hard to measure, and the gap between my talking-recall vocabulary and my reading-recognition vocabulary is shockingly large. I imagine there are techniques for dedicated improvements to this skill, but I don’t know them; the default technique of Japanese teachers seems to be “free conversation”, which just results in me stumbling as I route around hard-to-recall phrases like “daily routine” and replace them with simple elementary-school vocabulary like “things I do every day”. I haven’t yet tried shadowing, however, and I probably should.
Finally, writing. I’ve done very little in this area; I sometimes write emails to restaurants or other businesses, with proofreading from ChatGPT. I have completely abandoned being able to handwrite kanji, and although I’d like to learn how to type on my smartphone by using the nine-key flicking technique since it’s less prone to typos, I stick with desktop-style romaji input for now. (That is, I type “kannjihamuzukashi”, and select “漢字は難しい” from the options displayed above the keyboard.) If I were to do anything here, it would probably be to start a Japanese Twitter “diary” account, but I’m honestly fine just deprioritizing writing.
For a long time now, I’ve been hopeful that focusing on reading would pay dividends in other areas. After all, I reasoned: I was one of those kids that devoured (English) books, and then got perfect SAT verbal scores with little studying as a result. My brain must be good at learning a language via books. But I’ve struggled with the activation energy required for reading, and in the end most of the things I’m excited to read are in English. Furthermore, gaining vocabulary through reading (or flashcards) doesn’t seem to translate as well to listening and speaking as I’ve hoped, so I’m wondering if I need to rebalance my efforts. It’s possible that a more balanced studying focus (maybe even including writing!) would create better synergies.
I’m not sure what the future holds for my Japanese studies. I’m going to keep trying, but it will remain as a part-time endeavor. I continue to hope that I’ll find some trick that is better aligned with my particular brain, and will make my study time more efficient, so that I can reach a level of fluency within a reasonable number of years. I fantasize that one day I’ll push past a threshold, so that reading or watching native material feels less like deep studying and more like an enjoyable leisure activity that incidentally pushes a few more words into my corpus.
But most likely it’s going to continue to be a slow, steady grind. I’ll continue to feel frustrated, because there’s always something beyond my current abilities. I don’t know if I’ll ever get my Japanese to the level of my English, where I can bang out essays with relatively-nuanced word choice, or listen to philosophy podcasts on 2.5× speed. But there are probably things I can do better than I am currently, and I’ll keep searching for them as the journey continues.