How I Learned Japanese

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People often ask me how I learned Japanese, so I thought I would make a post about it. I’ve been studying Japanese through a combination of self study and formal classes for about half my life – that’s a long time!

If you are interested in learning or improving your Japanese, you should be aware that there is no magic trick to learn Japanese quickly and easily. If you have studied Japanese (or any foreign language), you know this is true. If you’re new to Japanese, it’s going to take some effort and dedication on your part to get anywhere near fluent.

But that moment when you can finally have conversations in Japanese without having to use a dictionary or wave your arms emphatically, it’s a pretty cool feeling. So even if it seems daunting, trust me, it’s worth it! For a little inspiration, here is my story of lifelong Japanese learning

Asakusa

Why Japanese?

When I was younger my uncle lived in Japan and he brought me Japanese books and toys. I decided then that I wanted to learn to read the strange characters and learn the children’s songs that I couldn’t understand. I had Spanish and French classes when I was in elementary and middle school, so I have always been interested in learning foreign languages. There was just something about Japanese that attracted me, and I began self study with software when I was in middle school.

Formal Study

When I reached high school, I had the opportunity to take Japanese as a foreign language, and I was excited to finally formally study what I’d already begun on my own. I had a group of Japanese friends in high school so I had access to practicing the language outside of the classroom. I watched anime with subtitles on, and dramas on the NHK cable channel without subtitles (although I’m not sure how much I really understood at that point!). I learned hiragana and katakana, beginner kanji, grammar and basic conversation skills.

When I entered university, I tested out of the first quarter of first year Japanese, so I had to wait until the second quarter to resume Japanese study. The second quarter was a lot of review of my high school Japanese, which was frustrating at first, but I think it reinforced my basic knowledge (and made my homework easier!). The end of the first year began to challenge me again, and I learned more grammar, kanji, and vocabulary.

During university I kept in touch with my high school Japanese friends and made new Japanese friends. I also met American and Chinese friends in Japanese class. I took as many opportunities as possible to use Japanese outside of the classroom and I was comfortable with my moderate Japanese ability. My Japanese boyfriend (at the time) and I spoke in only English at first, but also used more Japanese as we spent more time together. I finished first and second year university Japanese before I applied to study abroad in Japan.

University

Then I arrived in Japan to study abroad, and I quickly realized that I was nowhere near as proficient as I had believed. Speaking was like talking in, well, a foreign language. I had assumed I would understand everything, but I struggled with most conversations. However, I found that as time went on my confidence and ability quickly increased.

In less than 6 months my Japanese ability improved significantly more than it had in the 5 years of classes I had taken so far. So how does that work? It comes down to language immersion. In Japan I was reading and speaking Japanese in my everyday life, taking daily courses in Japanese, making Japanese friends, and participating in a circle (a school club). As a result, my Japanese improved exponentially. Although I still don’t consider myself fluent (will I ever be?), I know that studying abroad was when I improved the fastest.

When I returned from Japan, I took the advanced Japanese course offered at my university, which was focused on reading and discussion of news articles, rather than studying out of textbooks. Most of the students were first generation American children of Japanese parents, along with a Russian guy who had lived in Japan during high school. Critical thinking in Japanese and discussion with native and near-native speakers really cemented the skills I’d picked up during my time abroad. I also made good friends who I could speak Japanese with in daily life in the US.

Sakura in Yokohama

Life After Formal Study

Since returning from Japan I have continued to speak Japanese with old and new friends. I try to improve my Japanese skills daily through continued self-study and less formally through entertainment (movies, magazines, manga, etc.). When I was in graduate school I was a teaching assistant for first-year Japanese. Teaching Japanese to other people really helped me to remember and to better understand the mechanics of the language.

Japanese is an important part of my life, even while living in America. It doesn’t hurt that my husband is Japanese, and we converse almost exclusively in Japanese. My key to Japanese language (or really any foreign language) success? Make it a part of your daily life, and keep using it until it becomes a part of your life. After all, you learned English by using it everyday!

Have you studied Japanese or another foreign language? Did you have formal training or did you learn it by yourself? What are your best language-learning tips? Let me know in the comments!

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27 thoughts on “How I Learned Japanese

  1. That is really motivating! Congratulations on your long term dedication to this language!
    I have been studying Japanese for 2 years and working in Japan for a year now. I agree that you have to make it part of your life, for me Japanese is like a lover who needs a lot of work and dedication to stay together, yer gives as much or even more in return.

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  2. your post was really motivating and interesting to read. I’m japanese but I have only lived about 2 % of my life in japan and i almost totally forgot the language, so now im learning from my mother- an article writer in a well known japanese comapany. I really appreciate ur power and passion to learn the language throughout ur life. ^_^

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  3. Hi Kei! I found this article really interesting. I’ve been studying Japanese for about four years now but I haven’t really gotten serious about learning it until this year. I want to go on an exchange to Japan in a few years so I was wondering: do you have any tips for someone looking to study abroad with limited knowledge of Japanese?
    Thanks,
    -Nico

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    • Hi Nico, thanks for your comment! I apologize for the long silence, but I wanted to make sure to give you some tips.

      I think that studying abroad with limited knowledge is just fine. Your Japanese will improve quite astronomically just from living there. Since you have a few years, I recommend memorizing hiragana & katakana, and learning as much kanji as you can. You’ll want to be able to read everyday kanji.

      If you can find people to speak with, it would be great to practice speaking. Even if it’s just the basics! Just getting used to trying to make sentences and learning new vocabulary will really help you when you are doing it everyday.

      When you finally arrive in Japan, I’d hang out with as many Japanese students as I could. They will probably want to practice English with you, so you can make friends pretty easily. Don’t be shy if you can’t speak well – that’s why you’re there!

      I hope this advice is useful! If you have any other questions, please comment! Or find my e-mail on my “about” page and send me a message.

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  4. Hi Kei! I have just started studying Japanese and just found your blog. I’m learning Japanese through conversation exchange and I recommend it to anyone, no matter what level you are. Not only do you get to create your own classes and choose what you want to learn, you start speaking straight away with ready made Japanese friends. It really is the best!

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    • Hi Josie, thanks for reading my blog! I definitely agree that conversation exchange is a great way to learn a language. Interacting with native speakers really helps your listening and grammar. I’m glad that you are enjoying your language journey, and I wish you the best with your Japanese studies!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. You are amazing! I tried learning Chinese, but since I always got busy with other stuff, I kinda had to drop it. I can barely remember the stuff I learnt so long ago. And that really sucks.
    I also wanted to study Chinese, like formally- in university, but life happened, and I found myself studying something entirely different. Heh.
    As for the other two languages I can speak, it saddens me that once I stopped using one of them, everything sunk. I mean, I can barely hold up a basic conversation any more. So yeah, key to success when it comes to languages, is practice, practice, and more practice. Like you said, make it a part of your daily life.

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  6. I wish there was some institution that taught japanese near where I live :/ I’ve always wanted to learn japanese, it sounds so pretty but all I have is a book and subtitled anime :3
    Oh well. Beggars can’t be choosers. Good job, anyway! ^ ^

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  7. Nice post! I have had a similarly long journey myself with Japanese, though no formal classes or living in Japan (the latter would be nice though). Using it everyday with my family sure helps, though.

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    • Thank you! Reading your posts about your Japanese learning experiences, past and current, inspires me to think about my own learning techniques. I must say that the old saying “use it or lose it” certainly applies with language!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I took Japanese classes once a week for one and a half years during which we were taught conversational Japanese, kanji, hiragana and katakana. Years later, I can still remember bits and pieces of what I learned but most I’ve forgotten since I don’t practice it on a daily basis. My mother lived and worked in Tokyo for a year and with only 3 months of lessons is more fluent than I am after my years of lessons! So, the daily practice is much more effective to embed the language in one’s brain than years of formal lessons, I agree with you 🙂

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    • What an interesting contrast! I think this works for most subjects, even maths and science. If you don’t put it into practice and just do some exercises, it’s hard to know how to apply it in the real world. Thanks for reading!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. You did very well! I wish I would find some Chinese courses here in my area but they only offer beginner level 😦
    Been studying Chinese now for six year but it is getting less and less these days due to too much work and family stuff. Would be lovely to have some intensive 2 week course nearby but for that I need to travel 3 hours there and back :p

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