This is going to be a tough post to explain…
Like many anime enthusiasts and Japanophiles, I have at some point entertained the idea of learning Japanese…but not really. What I mean is that I know a few languages already and I have a pretty good idea of what it takes to not only learn but maintain a language. And I don’t have the motivation it takes to do that for Japanese. It’s a complex and difficult language that will probably fade very quickly from my memory the moment I stop actively practicing and I honestly don’t need to know that much.
You see I just want to know a little Japanese. I don’t want to be fluent and be able to get a job in Japan, I don’t want to charm an unsuspecting Japanese spouse and I certainly don’t want to be able to write my own manga. I just want to be able to look away from the subtitles for a minute and not completely lose the thread of the story. My most ambitious goal would be to read untranslated doujin with pretty characters and have a gist of what is going on. Something I could arguably do right now since there are pictures after all but I get annoyed that I don’t understand what’s in the speech bubbles. And that’s all.
However, when looking for learning tools, most websites and textbooks will start out by telling you what not to do and how certain methods will never teach you real Japanese or you will end up sounding like a foreigner. Which I am all right with. I have zero ambition to ever pass for a Japanese native and I’m pretty sure I would not even if I spoke flawless Japanese. I’m one pale European-looking lady.
But what do you do with such a half-hearted yet nevertheless consistent aspiration? What methods do you use? I never quite found a guide to learning Japanese but not really.
Big disclaimer, if you want to actually learn Japanese correctly, have meaningful conversations and even potentially go into translation, you really need to look into actual Japanese courses. It’s a language that requires a lot of dedication compared to languages closer to English. For most people, independent learning just won’t be viable past a certain point. However, if you want to learn the equivalent of what a 4-year-old knows… a slow 4-year-old, then I have some tips for you.
First, let me be clear, I do not speak or understand Japanese. This is the progress I have made while putting very little effort in over a lot of years. I can go to the restroom or answer the door while watching a sub and understand what they are saying if I focus. But not consistently. I would say I understand about 3 out of 4 times then the fourth is either just too complicated, quick or uses too much dialect for me to properly pick it up. I can visit Japan and order in a restaurant, read a menu (specifically because I have learned the Kanji for a lot of foods, I can read very little else but food is a good motivation for me) and decipher most street signs and directions. I can introduce myself, do basic survival things like ask for and understand directions, ask for the bathroom and very politely explain in Japanese that I do not speak or understand the language and I am very sorry.
With a dictionary next to me, I can very slowly make it through an untranslated video game. That is probably my crowning achievement. But I need to pause a lot.
To be clear, I have not given up on actually learning the language just a bit more properly. Maybe being able to understand simple sentences every time and figuring out if someone is trying to rob me next time, I visit Japan. Something that doesn’t happen much in that country so I haven’t been too worried about it. Maybe even have a simple conversation with someone without sounding like I’m literally malfunctioning. Basically going from the level of a slow 4-year-old to a normal one, maybe even a precocious one!
But I’m not there yet. I’m still a slow toddler. To get to this point, I have done the following and I will be telling you about each method in case you are interested. Once again, let me stress that these are things to do when you want to learn Japanese but not really. These are probably not going to actually teach you the language, but they could get you started. Everything I did was completely free and required minimal time commitment, depending on how you look at it.
I listened to Japanesepod101 on commutes, I had online conversations with a Japanese person, as previously mentioned I played untranslated games and I recently started Duolingo. Oh, and I watched anime for decades. I guess that is a pretty hefty time commitment.
I will say that if you take the time to listen to the Japanese in subs, you will eventually pick up on common sentences. Chotto maté (wait up – wait a minute) is one of the first things I remember picking up for some reason. The common terms like Sensei, senpai and kouhai, probably itadakimass and daijobu. These little slivers of disjointed vocabulary aren’t going to do much when you’re trying to understand full sentences, but it is really fun hearing something you understand for the first time in an anime. And since you tend to remember the things that are repeated most often, you’re naturally going to build up useful commonly used words instead of obscure textbook ones. Of course, you also run the risk of picking up words ONLY used in anime but I think it’s a risk worth taking. As long as you don’t go out and practice your vocab on real people without running it by a Japanese friend first…
Of course, this is one case where only subs will do. You aren’t going to pick up anything with dubs. And even for subs, it is helpful if you actually focus on the spoken dialogue and not blank it out as you read the subtitles. That’s not as obvious as it may seem. Nevertheless, after a few years I had a few hundred words at my disposal without ever actually trying to learn anything. So you know… maybe a quarter of the vocabulary of a 4-year-old. That is really my measuring stick here! For the record, 10,000+ is what you need in most languages to be considered fluent. So at my speed, I could be fluent in… 97 years or so. Provided I never plateaued or slowed down at any point…
Like I said, watching subbed anime won’t exactly teach you Japanese but it is fun to learn new words and if it’s something you are doing anyway, then it’s just an added perk. Some of you may be a lot better than me at picking up words from anime mind you. Maybe you can be fluent in 70 years or so!
JapanesePod101 is a podcast to teach you Japanese. It’s the first one I stumbled across so I can’t compare it to others but I will say that it has done wonders to improve my listening comprehension. However, you do need to listen to it consistently and it is somewhat time-consuming. I used to do this on walks or during my commute but when I started writing posts on the bus instead, I quickly stopped listening to the podcast. I should start up again. It really did help me understand the spoken language and it explained a bit of the grammar. Basically, it thought me how Japanese sentences were connected so that was a huge help. However, Japanese is sort of fluid in construction and there are many ways to form the same sentence. I found that just listening to a course could occasionally be hard to follow. They do have accompanying written material. However, at that point, you are just sitting down to a course like any other. You can’t really pair it with another activity.
The one drawback I found to JapanesePod101 is that they have a lot of paid options and they are very aggressive in their advertising. I haven’t used their services in many years but I still receive emails from them almost daily despite having unsubscribed numerous times.
I would say that this is a good step two. If you are diligent, I think you could start understanding simple conversations (not necessarily participating in) within a month or so. However, I find that there is a steep learning curve from simple conversations to even slightly complicated ones. The jump is huge.
Then we have getting a Japanese buddy. There are forums you can go to that have Japanese people wanting to learn conversational English on them. I was lucky enough to be introduced to someone directly from a friend, but they told me they had used these types of forums before. You can meet someone who will teach you Japanese in exchange for teaching them English. Usually, you meet up virtually a few times a week and have either a text or voice conversation. Sometimes people pick one day where both speak Japanese and one where both speak English or the Japanese person will be speaking in English and you have to reply in Japanese. There’s no real set way to go about it.
This is great in many ways. First, you will learn actual conversational Japanese. Second, you get to ask questions, something only possible with a person on the other end. And it’s nice to get to know someone. If you are the social or the extroverted type, this will certainly help motivate you. And it’s also a way to keep you accountable. It’s a lot tougher to skip a course if someone is waiting for you.
There are some pretty big drawbacks though. Both of you tend to limit the other. The person teaching is basically setting the pace of learning and if it’s too slow for you, you will likely be bored. You can of course simply let the other person know that you are ready for more challenging material but teaching is also tough. This brings me to point two. It’s a give and take, so part of the time and effort you are putting in is actually teaching someone else to learn English. This is very fun and rewarding if you ask me, but you might not be interested in doing that.
This was not at all the case for me, but I do have a friend that would regularly be a conversational partner for Japanese students and she told me that it wasn’t unusual for men to get a bit inappropriate with her. It was always over the internet so she didn’t feel threatened in any way but it was still very awkward.
Finally, there is always the possibility that your buddy will drop the conversation. My buddy was a young lady who had just gotten married to an American and they were moving to the States. She wanted to get as much practice speaking English as she could before moving but once she did, she no longer needed the courses. We still keep in touch, we send each other emails and talk about our lives but I’m pretty sure her English is better than mine now and she simply doesn’t have the time to be teaching me Japanese.
Still, if you are the social type, this is a method I would recommend. It’s a bit harder to come by and you might have to go through a few people before you meet someone with who it clicks but when you do, it’s actually a lot of fun. Don’t try to talk to them about anime too much, they’ll think you’re a nerd. Or maybe that’s just me.
This is a personal thing, but playing Japanese video games, especially visual novels and otomes was really what made me learn the most. I should warn anyone who tries to do this, it can be extremely tedious, especially the first time. Even if you can hold a basic conversation in Japanese, you’ve never had the types of conversations they have in otomes. Or maybe you have.. maybe that’s a very average conversation for you. Maybe your life is way more interesting than mine and I wish we could be friends. I had to look up everything all the time…
But the thrill of the game kept me going and the pretty colourful pictures gave me the incentive to move on to the next. The interactive aspect made it more fun and added stakes to my lessons. If I fail at Japanese I will break the heart of my beloved…NOOOOOO! These types of games often have repeated phrases and you can even repeat entire bits of dialogue so you get to see the same language a few times allowing you to learn it better. The sentences are usually shorter and much more to the point than dialogue in manga which makes them a bit easier to tackle. And the stuff that doesn’t get translations is usually wild! Like completely cuckoo pants. You need to see it for yourself!
Lastly, we come to Duolingo. I’ve only been using it for a few weeks now and… I like it*. I like things about it. The app is divided into units, each unit having a bunch of specific modules like countries, numbers, introductions, etc. The modules are also separated into 5 levels and each level is made up of about 4 to 7 individual courses. There are tons of gamifying features. Points for each course completed and crowns for each module. Leaderboards to compete against other learners and leagues you can get into by getting a certain number of points. There are rewards for completing courses daily (like a gatcha game would have) even in-app currency you can use to get more lives or unlock certain things. Oh and you have lives that you lose each time you make a mistake but don’t worry, you can always watch ads to get more…or practice the language.
It is fun to do and the gamifying features have kept me well motivated. It only takes a few minutes a day and I never forget to do it. I have gone through a full unit and finished 18 full modules and so far, I’m not really learning much I didn’t know already but it has been a marvellous refresher and it is probably the best tool I have personally used to learn Kanji. It’s the only tool I have used to learn Kanji aside from the dictionary. But it works well for me.
However, there are some drawbacks. It can be a bit inconsistent. It does occasionally give you wrong answers which are very frustrating. The voices are computer generated and sometimes they sound pretty odd. It’s less helpful than a real voice for listening comprehension but more helpful than nothing! And sometimes it’s too gamified. I once found myself trying to whizz through lessons as quickly as possible just to get more points and I realized, that’s probably not at all conducive to learning a new language. If you’re very competitive, you could find yourself trying to “win” at Duolingo rather than actually trying to learn Japanese.
This said, for a completely free app, I think it’s a pretty cool starter. If you guys are interested, I could do an actual review once I have completed the whole thing. I have only seen people who already speak Japanese reviewing the course (usually not very positively) but if you want to know what a noob with the quarter vocabulary of a slow 4-year-old can get out of it, I’ll be happy to tell you.
And that’s all I got. This is my guide to learning Japanese but not really! I hope you liked it.