When I moved to Tokyo, I was lucky that I already had several friends in the city to help me settle down. I had a lot of opportunities to learn Japanese greetings, basic phrases, and colloquialisms from them.
Meanwhile, some of my classmates came to Japan with almost no Japanese-language knowledge or skills. This is understandable because most of us are taking degree programs that are taught in English anyway. However, even if the course you will be taking is in English, learning basic, everyday Japanese language is still very important.
For example, knowing how to read and write Hiragana and Katakana (collectively referred to as “kana”) before moving to Japan will already take you far. With consistent practice, you can actually learn reading and writing these kanas in just two to three weeks.
It doesn’t matter if you are reading and writing very very slowly. This is normal. You are still growing your vocabulary, hence your mind cannot predict what it is reading so it is really taking time to read each and every letter. This is similar to how slowly you read even in your own mother tongue if you are seeing a new word, or when you are reading a really old book or a complex text with a lot of long words and unusual phrases that you don’t encounter in everyday life. What matters is that if you can read the kanas, you’re already one step closer to understanding the world around you once you move to Japan.
More importantly, you could make friends more easily and gain access to Japanese culture, allowing you to make the most of your study abroad experience. I also worked as a teacher and an educator in my own country, so I hope that these tips will help you as you embark on your language learning journey!
Mindset: Know your motivation
The first thing that you have to ask yourself is why you want to learn Japanese. If you want to study here then that’s already a good reason, but then you have to ask yourself why you want to study abroad in Japan. Why Japan?
You have to know your motivation as this will guide you throughout your learning process. Studying a new language, especially the ones that are very far from your mother tongue can be difficult and frustrating at times (example: The German language is easier to learn by native English speakers because it shares roots with the English language, while Japanese might be more difficult because it shares almost no similarities to English except for English loanwords). When these frustrations arise, your motivation and your goal will keep you from quitting.
Metacognition: Learn how you learn
If you know about metacognition and have applied it on yourself, congratulations! You will go a long way in studying Japanese (and studying in general). If not, I’m going to tell you a trick. Learning how you learn, also called metacognition, is an effective way to master self-directed learning.
Think about how you are, or were, in class, were you more motivated by words, listening and speaking, pictures videos, or interactive activities? Can you study more effectively in quiet places, or do you study in places where there is noise, or maybe you don’t want to study alone but prefer to study with peers? Knowing about these things and about yourself can help you learn Japanese more effectively and quickly. You probably learn better while listening to podcasts, or with Youtube videos, or with written drills. A mix of these is always good but knowing the way/s that are most effective for you can make it easier to choose your go-to resources when you want to take it easy. This will also help you weed out the resources or techniques that just don’t work out for you early on.
Method: How do I Start?
Learn the target language through your mother tongue
Try to learn the Nihongo through your mother tongue. If English is your mother tongue, your lucky as there’s a lot of resources out there teaching Nihongo in English. If not, then you have to look for Nihongo lessons in your mother tongue and see if they are enough. When deciding, you have to find the right balance, if English is your second language and you think you’re pretty good at it, and considering that there might be not enough resources in your mother tongue, you might be better off with English (or any second language that you speak that has superior number of resources to your mother tongue).
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. Knowing what your touchpoint is gives you the advantage of learning not just what the textbooks teaches everyone but you will develop your own unique set of knowledge and information that you can bring up in conversation. This gives you ownership of the language, even if your skills are still very limited.
When you come to Japan, all international students will learn know how to say their name and the country where they are from. But if you’re into Japanese tea, even locals will be surprised if you know words related to this very delicate art. You may even know words that they don’t. This will make it easier for you to make sure that you are able to still express your own personality in this new language, because you are not stuck with “canned phrases” that everyone uses. Afterwards, you can grow your vocabulary by broadening the scope of your interest.
Throughout my research, this video from What I’ve Learned Youtube channel about comprehensible input might be the most interesting and is backed by scientific research on language learning. In summary, it tells us that we learn the language best, not through active studying but through “acquiring” the language. Some tips in this video include watching TV series or movies with Japanese subtitles and then rewatching them with English subtitles. Several tips found in this article are also found in the video such as shadowing and learning through context so check it out!
Now that I’ve learned a few things, how do I move forward?
Practice with native speakers
After learning some Japanese, look for ways how you can practice it with native speakers. Some apps like Duolingo and Memrise have audio of native speakers speaking the language embedded in their lessons. These are helpful in teaching you the right pronunciation but it still is limited in that very few of these apps allow for you to speak and give feedback on whether you said id correctly or not. The other thing is that even if these apps give feedback on your speech, these are still not conversations. The best way to practice Nihongo is to converse in Nihongo. Even if you’re not there yet.
If you have Japanese friends, find ways to talk to them in Japanese. Perhaps you can offer exchange lessons in English as a lot of Japanese nowadays are looking for ways to practice their English too.
Another way of practicing with native speakers is to look for classes in your city or town. Although these might cost you money, having a teacher that speaks fluent or native Japanese may be better for you since they can give you feedback on your mistakes and strengths. Of course, this will also depend on the quality of the teacher and the program where you want to enroll. So do your research. Ask people who have tried these programs before and see for your self if it’s worth the money. Again, there are free ways to learn Nihongo online as long as you have an internet connection.
When learning from native speakers, try to imitate them. Also called shadowing, this technique is a good way to familiarize the muscles in your face and mouth in how to produce the sounds just as how native speakers do. Remember that muscle memory is part of how we learn and speaking uses muscles in our face.
Learn through context
A language does not only entail writing and speaking. Gestures and context through actions and words are important, especially in Japanese culture and language. In Japanese, they have a slang called, KY (Kuuki Yomenai) which loosely translates as “cannot read the air” or the “atmosphere”. This word can be said to a person who cannot read the social context. The Japanese language is very indirect. Generally, they don’t want to explicitly say certain things as it might come off as very direct. Take for example, when asking for directions in Japanese, the usual way of asking is saying “Ano, ikitaindeskedo…” (Uhm, I want to go to this place, so…) Note that there’s an “Ano” (Uhm) there as it eases the sentence that follows. It also does not directly ask for help but expects the listener to get the context that the speaker actually is asking for directions.
Japanese people are aware of this indirectness so they are very forgiving to clueless foreigners. But knowing this fact from the beginning can guide you in learning how Japanese people naturally communicate with each other. This illustrates that learning a language is better acquired through context rather than by memorizing isolated grammar structures.
More practice, some more practice, and then some more!
If you’ve already heard this tip a thousand times, it’s because it’s true. After learning the basics, try to practice what you’ve learned as much as possible. Aside from talking with native Japanese speakers, you can also practice by thinking in Nihongo. By default, we think in our mother language, but you can try to think in Nihongo to practice sentence construction. For example, when you see something amazing, shocking or interesting, try to describe that thing or how you feel about that thing in Nihongo in your head (or out loud if you want!). “Ano kuruma wa subarashiidesu!” (That’s a wonderful car!) or “Tanoshikatta!” (That was fun!). This is an easy way to practice your Nihongo. There are other ways such as writing drills, speaking while reading or repeating what you have heard in movies, television or even in the language learning apps. Find ways how you can practice sentence construction, writing and speaking. Some people even talk out loud to themselves in the mirror, using the target language!
Learning through mistakes
Finally, don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Try as much as you can to speak even if you know that you might make a mistake. You might be surprised how effective learning through mistakes is. Have you heard of the phrase “Fail fast, fail forward”? It means that when we learn through our mistakes, we learn better because it sticks more in our brains.