Set realistic goals
Learning Japanese, or any other language for that matter is the furthest you can get from those slickly-produced workout sequences that are inspired by superhero movies or dramas. Behind Iron Man’s stylish suffering, backed by a heart-thudding rock soundtrack, are hours and hours of sheer but consistent hard work.
While taking examinations such as the Japanese-Language Proficiency Tests (JLPT) is one way of benchmarking your Japanese skills against one international standard, I do not think that it is the healthiest of goals to strive for when learning Japanese. As students, how many of us have faced the midnight terror when you realize that oh no, you have so much left to study for that 9:00 am examination the next morning, and end up pulling an all-nighter just to mindlessly memorize knowledge that you are definitely going to forget the next day?
‘Life is not a sprint, but a marathon’ is an epigram that significantly applies to learn any language. I prefer instead to study Japanese at a slower and shorter, but at more frequent intervals, and a more consistent pace. For example, I use study apps like Anki (a flashcard app), which allows me to modify repetition intervals for which to memorize kanji. I pair this with my reading and watching materials – i.e., if I am reading manga and come across a new kanji, I will look it up in a dictionary and add it to my Anki deck. This way, I find that I better understand how certain words are used in sentences (which are very helpful when you construct your own sentences).
Trick yourself into ‘studying’ – Recommendations
No one actually likes studying. We like learning.
Rote memorization and test-taking are never fun and are a sure way to kill your interest. Nevertheless, they are often necessary components to strengthen your foundation of the Japanese language. One way that I have found works for me is first, to only do actual rote memorization within short time periods. For example, just an hour a day. This way, not only am I more motivated to do this memorization regularly (for example, every day), but I also have more energy and attention to give to that single hour a day.
Second, is to immerse myself in as much Japanese-language media as possible. Not only is this what first initiated an interest in learning the Japanese language, but it is also the easiest and most convenient way of understanding the patterns and rhythms of Japanese. Television dramas such as Terrace House are not just entertaining – they are great examples of everyday Japanese conversations. The vocabulary and associated slang phrases are often repetitive (good for memorizing!) and are things that you will rarely get to learn in a ‘classic’ Japanese language course.
Another option is to listen to Japanese podcasts, for example, JapanesePod101, which provide bite-size and enjoyable nuggets of information about Japanese culture and language. Podcasts are great for those 15 to 20-minute train journeys or that 10-minute walk home.
A final option, but maybe one for more advanced learners, is to read Japanese books. One of my favorites is Shirokuma Cafe, which features not only the cutest illustrations but also amazing wordplay in Japanese!
Finally, you might already be doing all of the above – short but consistent study periods, interesting and diverse study materials etc., but still, face problems persisting studying Japanese for years and years. Anyone who tells you that you can take an intensive Japanese course and become fluent in one year is discounting the immense cultural and regional nuances that come with any language.
Truth is, studying Japanese is hard. You will give up.
More importantly, however, is to try and find what motivated you to start in the first place. While inspiration cannot be your only driver, returning to your favorite anime (Hi Naruto!) or television drama (Nobuta wo Produce!) once in a while can sometimes remind you why you started this (ultimately) rewarding journey in the first place.