Do you speak “native” level Japanese but still lack confidence in your Japanese language skills?
Can you speak and listen to Japanese but feel uncomfortable with reading and writing in kanji?
If this is your case, don’t worry! You’re not alone! Let’s review the easiest way to learn Japanese!
Japanese is considered to be one of the most difficult languages to master. Not only are you required to learn three styles of calligraphy, but you must change your tone and vocabulary to fit various social settings. Unless you have grown up in Japanese society, it’s difficult to feel 100% confident in your Japanese language skills.
Such festering doubts are common among Japanese kikokushijo, or “children of Japanese expatriates who take part of their education outside Japan”. Kids who are kikokushijo tend to have grown up listening to the Japanese language at home, but they are not accustomed to using the language in public settings. These youths often find themselves in a strange position on the Japanese language comprehension scale, whereby their natural listening and speaking skills greatly surpass their reading and writing skills.
How would I know? I’m a kikokushijo myself!
In this article, I will cover the easiest way to learn Japanese for kikokushijo based on my own experience!
The Easiest Way I Learned Japanese as a Kikokushijo
My name is Tamaki, and I grew up in the United States. While I spoke Japanese with my parents at home, my entire education from pre-K to high school was in English.
In the summer of 2019, I moved back to Japan to study at Waseda University in Tokyo. My program is an English-based undergraduate degree program called TAISI under the School of Social Sciences.
While I do not need to speak Japanese (at least in an academic sense) during my studies, I have found that speaking Japanese is crucial when trying to survive in Japan.
My dilemma was that I spoke fluent (though accented) Japanese, and I looked Japanese, but my reading and writing skills were elementary levels. I felt very uncomfortable since society expected me to be a “normal” Japanese person when in reality, I was raised in the United States. I also lacked knowledge in various aspects of social etiquette and proper intonations.
However, by taking the steps that I’ll mention below, I was able to gain confidence in my skills as a “native” Japanese language speaker. I no longer feel afraid to order a meal at a restaurant or make small-talk with my neighbors!
Without further ado, let’s talk about the 10 steps that I found were the easiest ways to learn Japanese!
1. Read Easy Japanese Books…that you’ll enjoy!
Story Time: I once entered a book store and made two decisions. One was smart and the other was purely dumb. The smart decision was that I bought books written in Japanese to improve my language skills. My dumb decision was I chose to buy a book called Today’s Guide to the United Nations. While this academic topic was interesting, the vocabulary used in the book was way too difficult, and I had little motivation to pick up the book.
CAUTION: Don’t start with books that are difficult, academic-based, or simply boring.
My advice is to choose books that have an interesting storyline. This will make you want to read on, prompting you to pick up the book for genuine pleasure. Don’t start with academic textbooks or age-old classics that use complicated words and old-fashioned sentence structure. The goal is to make reading Japanese fun, not tedious!
I’d recommend you to start off with a manga, or a Japanese comic book. Mangas have drawings to assist your comprehension of the storyline when words alone may be too difficult to understand. Moreover, you can read through mangas at a quicker pace, so there is a sense of accomplishment at the end of each book!
You can use the AniList Manga Search Engine to help you find your manga of interest! You can also search for short novels too!
2. Talk with Native Japanese Speakers
Storytime: I had always spoken Japanese at home with my parents, so I was confident in my casual Japanese language skills. But when I first started talking Japanese with people my age, I was surprised to see how different their intonations and vocabulary were! In spite of their casual tone, the conversations that I had with my friend had a certain nuance of youth and “dachi” vibe which was different from the language that I had spoken with my family!
I recommend you to find native speakers that can talk with you on three different levels of social settings.
- The “friends” setting: This is where you can develop your casual Japanese skills. It is also a good opportunity to learn current slang and trends. Some examples of activities to enhance this style of Japanese include joining clubs at your university or making friends through public events.
- The “stranger” setting: This is the casual, yet polite, conversation that you have with strangers on a daily basis. It could be the lady at the cash register or the man driving the bus. Having a relaxed yet polite conversation becomes crucial when living in Japan. By taking responsibility for various errands, you can place yourself in such public settings.
- The “co-worker” setting: This is the dialogue you hold with co-workers or colleagues in a professional setting. While it is not completely stiff, this social setting has a polite air. Perhaps some classmates that you have just met will also talk with you in this tone. Finding a part-time job or getting in touch with a college “sempai” is a great way to boost this style of language skills.
- The “boss” setting: Perhaps the most intimidating social setting is one where you must speak with a superior. This social setting requires you to take a very polite tone, almost to the point of robotic. Talking to your professors in Japanese and speaking to your boss at work may be the best ways to learn this style of Japanese discourse.
I also encourage you to text or email these native speakers to foster your skills in written dialogue. Especially in the case of talking in a “boss setting”, (as coined above), you must pay attention to how a written text uses certain polite jargon for emails to superiors. Placing yourself in the midst of a Japanese social setting is the easiest way to learn Japanese!
3. Read the Daily News in Japanese
Storytime: I used to struggle with making “small-talk” with my Japanese neighbors and casual acquaintances. Once I started reading the news in Japanese, I was able to build my vocabulary on various topics regarding current events. This helped me to create “small-talk” with Japanese natives!
Reading online news articles and listening to news broadcasts are great ways to hone your Japanese skill. You can keep up with current events while building vocabulary in topics that you’ll most likely encounter in the near future!
I recommend you download a Japanese news application on your mobile. I personally used Easy Japanese News on my phone, especially when I had just started reading news in Japanese. There are translation features that allow you to look up and memorize each term in the article! As I got used to the Japanese article structure, I moved on to regular Japanese news applications like Yahoo! ニュース.
Here are some other online sources that you could use to get news in Japanese:
- PODCASTS: やさしい日本語で“今週の日本” Weekly News in Simple Japanese | NHK WORLD-JAPAN Learn Japanese
- ARTICLES: NEWS WEB EASY (nhk.or.jp)
- MAINSTREAM JAPANESE NEWS ARTICLES: Yahoo! JAPAN
4. Learn 3 Kanji a Day
Storytime: I tried learning three kanji a day for a month. Each day, I drilled the three terms throughout the day as much as I could. I typed it on my phone so that I could glance at the three kanji from time to time. I repeatedly imagined the kanji strokes and voiced their meaning and pronunciation. The next day, I would move on. I didn’t stress over the words from the day before and focused on three new terms each day. In 30 days, I had memorized 90 kanji!
The tip is to focus on only three terms per day. I’ve tried the accumulation method, whereby I add 3 terms to the growing list each day. While this ensures that I remember the terms from the previous days, it became quite cumbersome, especially as the list grew longer.
I recommend you to try my “pick and release” method of memorizing kanji, whereby you drill three kanji per day and move on to the next three words with a clean slate the next day. It is easier to do consistently, and you will be surprised by how much you’ll remember the 3 kanji by simply obsessing over them for a whole day! Memorizing kanji will surely make it easier to learn Japanese!
5. Transcribe Japanese Songs
Storytime: I wanted to learn Japanese songs for karaoke, so I decided to transcribe my favorite jams. Since I could associate certain imageries of the song with the vocabulary that appeared, I was able to memorize new words with more ease than from my usual textbooks.
Transcribing Japanese songs is my favorite method of learning Japanese. For one, it forces me to write on paper in Japanese, which I don’t get to do often with online work and schooling. Secondly, I am in a great mood while listening to my favorite songs and writing down their lyrics. I’ve come to understand the intentions behind my favorite tunes with more clarity than ever before!
I recommend that you use YouTube to listen to music. There usually are videos with lyrics, so that you can watch copy the screen as music runs. At first, you can learn the Japanese lyrics by directly copying them off the screen. As you memorize the words, you can try transcribing the lyrics without looking at the screen. My tip for learning Japanese through transcription is to adjust the “playback speed” feature on YouTube. You can slow it down to x0.75 or even x0.50 speed to give yourself the time to think and write. This is definitely one of the most comfortable and easiest ways to learn Japanese.
6. Enter Speech Events and Competitions
Storytime: Approximately a year after arriving in Japan, I entered the Miss World Japan beauty pageant. I was forced to audition in front of judges, introduce myself to media, post Japanese Instagram sponsorships, and make speeches in front of a large audience…all in Japanese! In the two months that I spent competing in the pageant, my Japanese had improved the most drastically!
Sometimes, pressure is the best stimulus to learn Japanese. This may not be the easiest way to learn Japanese, but it will surely increase your confidence in your Japanese language skills. Having to prepare and present a Japanese speech in front of an audience is nerve-wracking. However, it offers an opportunity to hone your Japanese speaking skills.
I recommend that you record yourself saying the speech when you are practicing. Not only will this help you catch your foreign accents, but it will also help you to memorize the script by playing back your voice as audio. Strange or lacking facial expressions and hand gestures will also become apparent in self-recordings. I personally tended to use too many hand gestures for the tranquil Japanese language!
7. Find a Part-time Job
Storytime: I started working for Schoolynk Media in February of 2020. It is an English-based job, but I’ve been using Japanese to converse with coworkers and hold meetings with my boss! This “office setting” allows me to practice my Japanese speaking and messaging skills in a professional atmosphere!
Be it to work the register at Starbucks or organize paperwork as an intern, taking on the responsibility of a part-time job in Japan is a great way to learn Japanese! You gain unique language skills that can only be experienced by taking part in the Japanese workplace culture.
I recommend you to check out my article on Study and Work in Japan: Jobs for International Students. This article includes a list of possible jobs for international students and residents in Japan!
8. Post on Social Media Using Japanese
Storytime: I began posting Instagram captions in both English and Japanese. Although it took me FOREVER to come up with the caption, it really forced me to write interesting content in Japanese. In other words, I had to consider how the Japanese caption would be interpreted by my friends on social media. It allowed me to find a casual writing style in Japanese that reflected my individual voice.
I recommend you start posting social media captions in Japanese. It is a great practice for finding your unique voice in the Japanese written language.
Moreover, having Japanese captions connects you to social media users who speak Japanese. Just by adding Japanese translations to my posts, I immediately gained over 100 followers who were Japanese native speakers!
The most important lesson I learned from posting Instagram captions in Japanese was the difference in nuance between direct translations and idiomatic parallels. Finding the distinction between situations where I should directly translate the phrase and situations where I should use a different phrase with similar undertones became helpful in everyday conversations.
9. Take Advantage of Japanese Language Courses For Foreign Students
Storybook: As most of my kikokushijo friends, I am not required to take Japanese language courses for my undergraduate graduation requirements at Waseda. However, I have started taking themed Japanese language courses as extra credits that do not count towards my GPA. This helps me to learn Japanese with international students…and its costs are included in the tuition!
Currently, I am taking two Japanese language courses at my university. One is about essay writing in Japanese, and the other is about reading popular Japanese short stories. Both classes are meant for international students with high Japanese comprehension levels.
Having a structured class for practicing your Japanese skills is important for native and non-native speakers alike. I have noticed that my Japanese writing skills have improved through the class. I am also becoming familiar with taking university-level courses in Japanese!
My advice is, if possible, to take the Japanese language courses as extra credit. In other words, make sure that the class does not affect your GPA. Using up credit space with Japanese language courses can be wasteful, and grades can become stressful when the score counts toward your GPA. At Waseda, I register for the course under “excess credit” so that the courses do not affect my credit and GPA.
10. Record Yourself Talking Japanese
Storytime: The very first time I recorded myself talking in Japanese, I was devastated. I had never noticed how accented my Japanese was! I also caught instances of twitching and mumbling when I lost confidence in what I was saying. Since then, I have tried fixing these accents and twitches that keep me from sounding like a native Japanese speaker.
A simple activity that you could try is to record yourself reading a passage for one minute in Japanese. It could be any type of text. After recording for a minute, you can listen to your short clip and learn from it! With audio features available on phones and laptops, this method has become one of the most practical, effective, and easiest ways to learn Japanese.
Another method is to record a conversation that you have in Japanese. Of course, you would need to ask for permission to audio record from the other party involved in the dialogue. This is a great way to capture your casual tone of speech in Japanese!
Try These 10 Hacks: the Easiest Way to Learn Japanese!
Please try these 10 hacks which I think are the easiest ways to learn Japanese for kikokushijo speakers!
Perhaps the best option is to start with 2 or 3 of the tips mentioned above that you’d like to try. You can gradually incorporate more of these tips into your daily routine to further strengthen your Japanese language skills!
For further insight on the easiest ways to learn Japanese, you can read this article by a successful JLPT test taker to get more tips and tricks on studying Japanese!
Let’s learn Japanese together!