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.

I’ve made my peace with my complexion

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.

Telling people you don’t speak a language in that language is one of my favourite things

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 was going to find an image to illustrate time but I like this one better!

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!

now I can finally order a burger in Japan (it’s pretty much the same word…)

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.

it’s shonen jump…

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.

um no I don’t need to learn how to say you are very sexy in Japanese…

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!

Or it’s just the most precious version of Harry Potter and you need to play it

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.

22 thoughts

  1. Having spent a rather large fraction of my existence on the Japanese language, now with the hopes of passing the JLPT N2 and then on to being a JPN > ENG translator, I’m probably beyond the stage expected in this post, but nonetheless I can tell you some things about my experiences. It…just depends what things we’re after.

    For instance, I could tell you about Anki, the program I’ve been using for vocab/grammar memorisation for years now, but I can’t tell you about a lot of other apps, since my experience is mostly based around physical classes (with some Zoom during the pandemic).

  2. I’d say you’re doing better than I am…and I’m taking formal Japanese language classes!

    In a fit of frustration a couple of weeks back, I asked my Japanese language sensei if it had ever occurred to anyone in Japan that having three writing systems was really complex and that they should simplify it somehow. She just looked at me as though I had spoken Martian and said: “We’re used to it.”

    Even more recently, my sensei asked me: “Nan gatsu, nan nichi, nan yoobi desuka?” (what is the month, day of the month, and day?) to which I replied: “Kyo wa shichi gatsu, ni-juu-shichi nichi, sui-yoobi desu” (literally: the seventh month, the twenty-seventh day, Wednesday) and was immediately grateful I didn’t have to try and pronounce that mouthful while drunk!

    Anyhoo, I figure if I keep saying: “sensei wa totemo kirei desu yo” I’ll get a passing grade no matter how bad I am…

    1. I think your sensei might be politically correct. There are tons of articles about how adult native Japanese speakers sometimes need Kanji doctionaries just to read the newspaper. The writing system is not easy.

      1. Possibly. Or she didn’t really understand the basis of my question. Or she thought I was being rude and in that typically Japanese way of being polite and not making a fuss decided not to respond.

        But, yes, I have noticed when watching the sumo broadcasts on NHK that when the wrestlers’ names in kanji are displayed they are accompanied by hiragana “subtitles”…

  3. This is a great post on a much needed subject. Speaking for myself, I got interested in learning Japanese when I realized that I watched two different subs of Natsume – and in places they were translated differently. So..I’m thinking…which is right? Not that the difference was huge. But it made me curious… and I hear learning a new language is great for us old people to keep our minds from turning to mush, plus I had a personal ongoing project to overcome a lot of the negative programming I had when young and one of those programs was I was too stupid to learn a second language. So off I went, blithely unaware at the time that Japanese is considered one of THE hardest languages for English speakers to learn. Here I am years later and I did manage to stagger through an introduction and very brief conversation with a Japanese person who visited the dialysis clinic (much to the astonishment of my husbands nephrologist who now thinks I’m a genius – ROFLMAO) and yes, I can generally go to the bathroom or turn around for some reason and not lose track of the conversation on my anime. Much. Usually. Sometimes. And that’s fine, really, that was basically the sum of my ambition – to be able to watch anime without subs. I cant’ do that yet, but I can follow simple conversations. I’ve always wanted to try an otome or rpg totally in Japanese. I had one picked but they just went waaaaaaaaaaaaaay too fast for me. I’ll try again.

    I just read a short article where a study found Duolingo was roughly as good as a college level language course. Which is pretty amazing.I found it pretty enjoyable but had to take it off my old phone because it was always out of storage. I just bought a new phone – thanks for the reminder – I’ll download that again. And I have one other recommendation – KawaiiNihongo – a phone app – which is pretty basic but for someone wanting to watch anime is fun. The flashcards feature anime style girls and illustrations – oh and they have a physical flashcard set as well. I’ve got it around here somewhere. It’s free (the app that is), or you can pay the big $5 for a few more features. I think the physical flashcards were like… $15 or so? One other recommendation is Japanese from zero. You can watch a LOT of the videos for free on YouTube. Paying for the website gets you some fun games to play and learn and the ability to ask questions and get video answers, and he has a series of books of which I have two but I find it a lot harder to stay motivated with books as I have confidence issues – that is, I’m never sure I’m pronouncing it right until I HEAR it so a book is a bit inadequate in that situation. However, I’ll say that George Trombley has quite a personality and you’ll either like him or hate him. Most of the time I like him and he’s funny but sometimes he does kind of….piss me off. But at least he doesn’t start out saying that if you watch anime to learn Japanese, or visa versa, you’re some sort of loser. He simply notes that sometimes anime is not the best way to learn Japanese because they use a lot of slang and mostly speak familiarly which you would not want to do at say, a business meeting. Okay…one more…. I got the Pimsleur Japanese course from a library and the first few lessons had the interesting effect of teaching me to automatically answer some of the more common introduction queries, so there might be something to that, but the entire course has always been kind of out of my price range given my lack of need for it. Maybe someone else can weigh in on how useful the whole thing would be. Okay, enough of me! Yay for all of us who make the effort!

    1. Wow – if DuoLingo is as good as a college level course (and it probably differs depending on the languages) that’s really awesome. You save a lot of money there

  4. Yes, I’ve been using Duolingo for years for quite a few languages, and you’re right it is a lot of fun and great for refreshing a language you’ve already learned. Thanks to Duolingo I’ve managed to keep up my Spanish language skills that I first learned way back in middle school! The Japanese course has some hiccups, but it’s much better than it used to be. When Duolingo first introduced Japanese language as an option it was a very short course and it didn’t have most of the features that other language courses had. It didn’t even have stories, and some of the voices were quite bad. I’m glad that it’s improved and hopefully it will continue to improve!

  5. I will say, as someone who took Japanese for two years in college, you are right in saying Japanese is not a language you learn casually. It involves a lot of repetition, paying attention to context and specific sounds, etc. even after two years I was nowhere close to understanding someone talk at native speed, let alone understanding an entire conversation without some form of translation. This doesn’t even include the hundreds of Kanji that you would have to learn to read even somewhat competently. These are definitely good resources and overall a great article!

  6. I’ve used Duolingo for learning, and so far it has brought me from not knowing a word in Japanese to introduce myself, count up to 100, (I do have trouble counting beyond that though.) And tell whether an object is mine or not.

    I don’t have the option of learning through subs, but I actualy am using the same strategy I used for learning English. Get good enough with basic stuff, then watch lots of anime, picking up the conversation in the way. And know, I don’t mind the slow learning process. Language learning is not going to be fast unless you can download a language to your brain, and anyone telling you otherwise is a liar.

    Apart from that, I wish to bring something to your attention. I used to be able to comment using my wordpress account, but recently your site asks me to log in into my wordpress account, which fails.

    Then I comment using my email and name, but I then can’t follow the conversations, because I do not get notification if someone replies to my comments.

  7. I’ve used Duolingo for learning, and so far it has brought me from not knowing a word in Japanese to introduce myself, count up to 100, (I do have trouble counting beyond that though.) And tell whether an object is mine or not.

    I don’t have the option of learning through subs, but I actually am using the same strategy I used for learning English. Get good enough with basic stuff, then watch lots of anime, picking up the conversation in the way. And know, I don’t mind the slow learning process. Language learning is not going to be fast unless you can download a language to your brain, and anyone telling you otherwise is a liar.

    Apart from that, I wish to bring something to your attention. I used to be able to comment using my wordpress account, but recently your site asks me to log in into my wordpress account, which fails.

    Then I comment using my email and name, but I then can’t follow the conversations, because I do not get notification if someone replies to my comments.

  8. I can totally relate!! I have also definitely picked up a lot of words and phrases from watching anime, many of which I later find out I only knew from how they are pronounced because eventually I’ll be reading something and I come across an unfamiliar word in kanji which I have to look up and when I do I am pleasantly surprised to find out that I already knew that word, I just didn’t know how it was written! haha I’ve been playing a whole lot of games on DMM (both browser games and download games [i.e. games that launch as their own application on a computer]), which has really helped me learn a whole lot, although whenever someone is speaking in a dialect (which from what I understand there are a whole lot of them) then I occasionally don’t quite understand everything but can usually pick up the general meaning (although some are harder to decipher than others). I actually studied Japanese in college (I ended up doing a Japanese minor with my bachelor’s [a double BA in Spanish and German Studies]), and I also lived in the Japanese House at the FLSR (Foreign Language Student Residence) for one year (technically 2 semesters, fall and winter, from the end of August through mid-April or so) so having that background has definitely really helped a lot, but even with all that I feel like my Japanese proficiency is still relatively basic, or intermediate at most. I also speak several other languages, and Japanese continues to be the most difficult of all the languages I have ever studied, and by an extremely large margin at that. Also, I’m curious as to what other languages you speak; I’m assuming French since you live in Canada?

    1. Wow, that’s impressive. French would be my every day language. I also speak Bulgarian and Russian. Spanish badly and some Swedish for some reason.

          1. Well, given how Swedes desecrate their bananas… I occasionally question the worth of their existence.

            However, credit where it’s due — they do make a mean cinnamon roll. Y’know the IKEA on Cavendish? As a teen, I used to blow half my salary on these beauties. Läcker…

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