I’ve passed the JLPT2 language proficiency test a few years ago. I’ve done sales, closed deals, negotiated contracts, and picked up girls in bars with lame but effective pick up lines — all in Japanese.
Let me share my basic philosophy and practical approach to learning and maintaining Japanese language skills.
You can do this with a mix of immersion techniques + online resources. Also you’ll need patience. Years of it…especially for those who are just getting started.
And the only way to stay dedicated and engaged to something for this period of time is to make it part of your routine, and to make it fun.
#1 Find a Japanese Girlfriend/Boyfriend
This is hands-down the secret to learning any language. The only way to really understand up-to-date, colloquial Japanese and not the overly-polite and archaic vocabulary they teach you in text books, is to speak with real people. Start dating a Japanese person, preferably one who speaks very poor English, that way you are not tempted to switch back to English.
This relationship will be painful and it’s unlikely that it will last more than a few months. Miscommunications will be a daily occurrence, and having basic conversations will be an uphill battle. Biblical jokes can be thrown out the window. There is no cultural context for your Moses reference and you’ll be met with blank stares. But the good thing is, you’ll have to learn how to explain the concept of the 10 commandments and the parting of the dead sea in Japanese.
You’ll be forced to learn the culture, the “average” life of a Japanese person, and will have a dedicated partner in crime to help you tackle the language. Your partner will want to spend lots of time with you, so you can’t get lazy and cop out of studying. You are basically forced to study every day, through texting, Line messages, meeting them, and meeting with their friends.
Forget the 10,000 hour rule. It’s too measured. Language learning is relative. Fluency is relative. You can pick up what you need to know in a much shorter time — the necessities. It’s the difference between learning how to order a beer in Japanese vs. knowing the vocabulary for a mechanical engineering degree. Having a Japanese girlfriend/boyfriend will force you into it.
Sometimes your Japanese girlfriend will do weird and scary things, but take it as a learning opportunity
Netflix. Hulu. Amazon. Niconicodoga. Youtube. All at your fingertips. Pick a show that you like, turn on the subtitles, and make it an evening or a weekend habit! For example I really enjoyed the Japanese series “Kekkon Dekinai Otoko” and Terrace House which you can find on Netflix with subs.
For intermediate Japanese speakers who want to get accustomed to more colloquial Japanese you can check out Youtube channels like Nomitalk.
Find a topic you like on Youtube, like Tedx Japan and follow it.
I was never a big anime or manga fan. But I found some that I enjoyed, and I watched the hell out of them. And then I watched them again. One of my favorites was Paprika, and also Great Teacher Onizuka (GTO) which is an anime, manga, movie and a show!
#3 Read stuff you like
Life is short. Unless you are Chinese, learning the kanji is very, very difficult. This is why you shouldn’t waste your time reading over boring kanji and newspapers. No I don’t care about the horse races.
Find someone on Twitter that you like and follow them. Like this guy, Mimura, I guess he’s kind of funny.
Find something you are interested in, and it will be that much easier to read through it in Japanese. No one is forcing you to finish a book about a topic you’re not interested in. You’ll be actually curious to learn what the heck is going on in the book/article, and hence more engaged. For example I always read RocketNews because it’s silly and fun, and good for conversation starters. They have worthwhile and interesting news articles like this in Japanese. Also, they have both English/Japanese sites for cross referencing!
Always have the TV or radio on in Japanese. Listen to Audiobooks. I use Audible and listen to an audiobook in English, and then the equivalent in Japanese. It makes it easier to connect the dots. Except for Harry Potter, because that’s just freakin’ tough! Just have it playing in the background always. On the way to work, school, whatever. Make it part of your routine.
I also use the Radiko.jp app which streams TBS radio and a bunch of other stations. I pretty much have it on whenever I am commuting. I also like the Bilingual News podcast with Nami and John, where they cover interesting news articles and speak about them in both English and Japanese.
Don’t worry about trying to understand everything, because you won’t understand most of it for a while.
It might seem pointless at first to listen to stuff you don’t really understand, but in fact there is quite a bit of science behind this — listening practice helps your speaking. Your brain will start to strengthen the synaptic connections of your neurons, which will affect the way you speak. This is why, conversely, Japanese people have such hard trouble pronouncing the “R” sound. They’ve been listening and using “L” their entire lives. Language Acquisition and its Brain Function
#5 Hack Your Brain (or…just be healthy)
Did you know that if you are overweight that your brain starts to shrink, you tend to become more impulsive, and it impairs your memory? Or that simply breathing through your nose, and not your mouth, can have massive positive health benefits? There’s a reason that the term “mouth breather” is not a compliment.
My point is that there are so many things that will affect how quickly you can learn a language besides the actual resources/tools that you are using. Make sure you’re eating well, sleeping enough and getting some exercise. If you feel like you have plateau’d or your brain is simply not processing Japanese, then get your body moving, do some pushups and forget about it. You’ll be fine tomorrow. We all have bad days.
Make sure you are taking care of yourself first and it will dramatically increase your learning abilities! Oh, and don’t forget to drink coffee, it helps too.
Good luck and 頑張って！