Despite its difficulty, more and more people are learning Japanese. Not only is it a beautiful language with a long history, but it can also come in handy if you are planning to study in Japan. What’s more, speaking fluent Japanese is a must for almost any kind of professional position in Japan. If you’re thinking about working here, better take up some Japanese—the sooner the better!

Three years ago, I came to Japan to attend Sophia University with my nonexistent Japanese knowledge. As the program that I was enrolled in would be taught entirely in English, Japanese language skills were not required. I couldn’t speak a word in Japanese on the day I arrived. However, I decided I would try to learn the language as quickly as I can so that I can fully experience Japan and its rich culture. Three years have gone by since then, and I managed to pass JLPT N2 with plenty of margins to spare. 

So how hard is the N2 level? According to the official JLPT website, N2 level measures “the ability to understand Japanese used in everyday situations, and in a variety of circumstances to a certain degree.” In other words, in order to pass N2, you need to be able to comprehend everyday conversations, street signs, and general news programs on TV. That said, I am nowhere near mastering Japanese, as there are still so many things to learn. Actually, the more I learn, the more I realize how little I know about this beautiful language. 

How did I learn Japanese and achieved N2-level proficiency within such a short period of time? If picking up a new language is on your new-year resolutions, try out these tricks!

1. Listen to Japanese

Person Reading Japanese Book

If you want to pick up a new language as quickly as you can, make sure to familiarize yourself with the language by hearing and seeing your target language as often as possible. In my case, I found that creating a habit of listening to morning radio and podcasts in Japanese really helped me absorb the tones and recognize each syllable more easily. Listening to radio programs and podcasts in Japanese was also very helpful with my pronunciation since there are so many unfamiliar sounds in Japanese that don’t exist in my other languages. Don’t worry if you understand absolutely nothing at the beginning, just keep the radio/tv on as some sort of background noise. Your brain will slowly familiarize itself with the language, even when you’re unaware of it!

TIP: Learn Japanese Pod is a great source for listening to online podcasts in Japanese!

2. Watch Japanese Media with Subtitles

If you prefer a more proactive learning method, try out watching movies and TV shows in Japanese. If you already know some basics like katakana and hiragana, I recommend turning both Japanese subtitles and the translation on.

TIP: Language Learning With Netflix is my favorite Google Chrome extension that allows you to use multiple subtitles at the same time. I binged watched animations like Fullmetal Alchemist and popular shows like Terrace House while using LLN. To my surprise, I found myself picking up words and phrases from the show and even use them in my daily conversations sometimes. 

3. Practice, Practice, Practice

Woman in Yellow Shirt Studying

I can’t stress this enough. Traditional language practice using textbooks can come in handy when you want to make sense of what you have learned or heard. Of course, grammar is not everything, but knowing the concepts can really help you organize your thoughts and learn languages more efficiently. 

TIP: You can also spare a few minutes each day for language practice using mobile applications. My favorite one so far is Duolingo, one of the world’s most popular language-learning app. What’s more, it’s free!

4. Keep a diary

Opened Notebook With Three Assorted-color Pens

Keeping a diary might sound like a boring task. However, it is proven to be a great habit to have. Keeping a diary in Japanese offers two birds with one stone: not only that it has therapeutic effects on your emotional wellbeing, but it also helps you put your thoughts into a new language and discover new words and expressions along the way. Again, just forget about perfection – allow your diary to be as messy as it can be. Making a few grammatical mistakes in your journal won’t hurt anybody! 

TIP: Since I want to broaden my vocabulary, I always try to incorporate one new Japanese terminology into each diary entry. This way, I know that my Japanese language skills are improving by at least one word per day!

5. Make learning Japanese part of your routine

Pen on to Do List Paper

The four steps I mentioned may seem easy and straightforward. However, the real challenge is to integrate all these habits into your daily life. Learning a new language needs constant effort, and Japanese is no exception. 

TIP: For instance, putting post-it notes on everything in my apartment with its Japanese name has forced me to encounter Japanese in every area of my house. As you get better at recognizing the Japanese name for each item, start saying it out loud each time you use the item/appliance. This will get you very familiar with the names of everyday items in your home!

6. Think in Japanese

Think in Japanese
Think and have self-monologue in Japanese

We often hear the saying “think before you say”, and that’s why thinking in Japanese is one of the easiest ways to improve your Japanese language skills! Allowing your mind to wander in Japanese is a great way to be more responsive when you speak the language since you would form your expression directly from your thought in Japanese.

TIP: It’s interesting to learn the neurological process behind learning a language. Grosjean offered me a great perspective on how bilingual and trilingual people think in his article Thinking and Dreaming in two or more languages. Who knows? In no time, you may start dreaming in Japanese as well!

7. Find a touchpoint

Another tip is to find a specific touchpoint in a language. After you have found your motivation. Look for specific things that interest you–it may be watching anime, reading manga, or listening to JRock. Maybe you really like Japanese food or you are interested in Japanese martial arts. Having a touchpoint develops your own unique set of knowledge and information that you can bring up in conversation during your studies abroad in Japan. This will make it easier for you to still express your own personality in this new language because you are not stuck with “canned phrases” that everyone uses. Afterward, you can grow your vocabulary by broadening the scope of your interest.

Here’s a quick list of possible touchpoints that have a connection to Japanese culture:

  • Tea Ceremony
  • Japanese literature or poetry
  • Japanese folktales and folkmusic
  • Japanese cuisine
  • A specific city or area in Japan
  • Anime or manga
  • J-pop
  • Recreational activities

The touchpoint need not be connected to Japanese culture, and it can be as simple as taking yoga classes in Japanese or reading Western books translated into Japanese!

TIP: I personally found my touchpoint in Japanese traditional culture. One of my favorites is Japanese poetry, since it involves cultural symbolisms and unique word usages that deepen my understanding of the language in a very artistic way. Furthermore, being knowledgeable in Japanese poetry is sure to impress even the local people in Japan!

8. Rely on a Japanese Language Book

This one may seem obvious, but its often overlooked by students trying to find creative ways to learn Japanese. Japanese language books that are written by professionals who teach the language is a great way to sculpt your foundational knowledge in the language. Having one language book at hand also allows you to have a quick but reliable source for checking grammar and sentence structure.

TIP: Check out this article on “The Best Japanese Language Books for Beginners! Rankings and Review” to find your perfect match!

9. Attend a Japanese Language School…in Japan!

Japanese language schools are institutions that offer short-term and long-term Japanese language training for foreigners in Japan. By traveling to Japan, you can immerse yourself in the Japanese language while learning about the unique mannerisms, social norms, and culture of this beautiful country! Japanese language schools offer technical advantages as well, since you can stay in Japan with a student visa.

TIP: Perhaps starting with a short-term Japanese language program would be more feasible for beginners. Once you feel ready, you can get a student visa and travel for a long-term study abroad experience in Japan!

TIP: Check out our recommended Japanese language schools through the article “Looking at Japanese Language Schools in Tokyo? Here’s our advice and topic pick“.

10. Interact with Japanese locals

Back view of unrecognizable trendy female travelers in stylish clothes walking in traditional famous Nishiki Market in Kyoto

If you are already in Japan, whether it’s for work or studies, make the most out of it by getting out there and meet new people. Getting part-time jobs that require active use of languages such as working at restaurants or cafes will force you into sink or swim mode. The first few days into my part-time job at a restaurant, my head almost felt completely numb because I had to learn so many new phrases. (Told you, I really knew ZERO Japanese when I came here.) However, once I got through the torment in the first week, I became much more comfortable speaking Japanese (and making tons of mistakes along the way.)

TIP: If you want to speak Japanese in a less stressful environment, try out some volunteer activities or attend local language meetups. You’ll find yourself exploring another side of Japan that you would not get to experience at school. You’ll get to expand your social connections and might even find great language buddies!

TIP: If you’re not living in Japan, there are many other ways to hone your Japanese skills as well! Check out some cool language exchange apps that can help you find language buddies.

Let’s learn Japanese!

Even though you might be excited to try out the things I have suggested all at once, remember that consistency is key. There is no point cramming hours and hours of language learning into a day if you can’t keep doing it. Start by introducing a few minutes of Japanese into your life, and gradually increase your language exposure when you start feeling comfortable. After a while, you won’t even realize how you end up binge-watching all the latest seasons of Terrace House

The key to learning and mastering a language is to have fun! Good luck with your Japanese learning journey and let me know your thoughts via!