The Language: How I Learn Japanese

When you move to a foreign country, you'll be exposed to a new language and surely you'll just absorb it. Living around it and being immersed in it will provide enough stimulus for you to organically learn the language. Or will it?

Having been in Japan for over a year now, I've found myself at a plateau with my Japanese. I have enough knowledge to get around, have daily conversations and completely survive in this country. But do I have enough language skills to thrive here? Can I express myself well enough to build and develop friendships, make potential work connections, or even come across as not rude or robotic?

I was fortunate enough to have studied some Japanese at university before coming to Japan. Upon arrival I was keen to pick-up where I left off, so I brought all my Japanese textbooks with me, bought a new kanji book, downloaded dozens of podcasts, installed various apps on my phone and even began listening to Japanese radio. But I found myself getting complacent (lazy) and coasting on the knowledge I already had.

I decided to attend a local community-centre class once a week, but this was a generic group lesson and covered topics that I had already learnt and didn't really go into any grammatical depth.

I decided to find myself a freelance teacher, put an advertisement on some local job/expat websites and found an ex-university lecturer who seemed keen and competent. However, during our lesson he would just read the textbook to me and offer almost nothing in terms of explanation or divert from the written examples.

After this, I decided to buddy-up with a work colleague and we became each other's language exchange partner- this went well for a few weeks, until our diaries began to clash and our meetings became less regular. During the sporadic exchanges we had, they would mostly be unstructured and consist of both of us using the language skills we already had rather than developing new ones.

That's when I took a step back and assessed the situation. Nothing had worked for me thus far and I was becoming frustrated with my lack of progress. I sat down and decided that I needed to invest in this learning, not just with my time, but also financially. I looked around for language schools in my area, and was recommended one called Wahaha Nihongo. I now attend a one-hour class every week (usually solo, occasionally with one other same-level student), each week we cover a new grammar topic and really hammer it home until I'm completely competent in it. I practice reading, writing, listening and a whole heap of speaking practice. I get given a decent amount of homework, and each lesson begins with a recap of last week's topic just to make sure its truly embedded into my brain, But the best bit is that the grammar isn't taught just for JLPT, or for an exam, but its practical and engaging. Recently, for example, I have been learning how to express my views on what the future will hold: how have our living experiences changed in the past century and what do I think the current century will hold for mankind; what are my opinions on Brexit and freedom of movement for people; how about Japan's aging population and the toll this may have on the current and next working-age citizens; or what kind of father do I want to be? I now feel more capable of truly expressing myself and engaging with people on more than a superficial "Good morning, how are you? It's hot today isn't it?" level.

My advice is: if you want results you have to invest your time and money. Just as you would if you wanted to transform your body- you would buy the right foods, pay for a gym membership, perhaps even a personal trainer once a week. Being committed to my lessons, doing the homework and using the various resources I have available, all in conjunction with one-another, is proving to be a winning combination.


Books I recommend

For beginners: NIHONGO FUN & EASY Survival Japanese for Beginners. Practical Japanese for daily conversations, comes with a CD for listening practice.

Intermediate: Minna no Nihongo 2. More advanced grammar, allowing you to express yourself more freely and explicitly, comes with a CD for listening practice.

Kanji: Remembering the Kanji, Vol. 1: A Complete Course on How Not to Forget the Meaning and Writing of Japanese Characters. A very helpful book for learning to read and write kanji.

App I recommend

Memrise. For all levels- you can tailor your language learning by selecting various courses within the app, including basic vocabulary, recognizing the alphabets, JLPT grammar, Kanji etc.

Memrize App screenshot


Habits I recommend

Make flashcards: hiragana, katakana, kanji, vocab, whatever you want to learn- make some flashcards for it and carry them with you in your bag. When you have a spare 10 minutes waiting for a train- practice your flashcards. Sat at home with your family and not up to much- have someone test you on your flashcards. Its easy and feels great when you can whiz through your cards and make new ones.

Make posters: put grammar posters in your bedroom and put vocab posters on the fridge (we currently have a body-parts poster on the toilet door).

Saying more then "Hello" to someone: try to use some of those words you've learnt and don't be embarrassed if your grammar isn't perfect. You have to practice.

And the most difficult perhaps- don't revert to English when you don't quite know how to express yourself: work your way around the language. Instead of saying something complicated like 'the 2017 government budget', try saying 'the Japan country next year money'. They'll know what you mean and will even give you the correct words if you ask for it.

Any language learning tips to suggest? What apps or books do you use? Please comment below.