I’m busier than ever, and coronavirus has certainly made life interesting these past few months, but I’d like to start making regular contributions and updates to the site again.
As a mid-term goal, I’ll be revamping the flashcard app I made, making it a little prettier and adding some more functionality. I’d also like to start reviewing some new resources that may have popped up and gained popularity over the past couple years.
I’ve also taken my grammar “guide” down until further notice, simply because it was silly to keep it up in such an unfinished state. I think in terms of long-term goals, I would rather put my time and effort into something more akin to an app that allows you to practice grammar, conjugation, etc.
In the meantime, I’d like to go ahead and share information about a summer sale over at JapanesePod101. I loved this resource as a beginner and intermediate learner, so I’m happy to endorse it, but I personally feel that you should wait until it’s on sale to subscribe. This particular sale ends on August 21.
Quora, for those of you who may not know, is a website where users can ask and answer all kinds of questions. It’s a community of shared knowledge, not much unlike Wikipedia, and there are lots of questions being asked and answered every day.
Recently, Quora introduced Japanese language support, which means there’s been a sudden, massive influx of Japanese users joining Quora to ask/answer their own flurry of questions.
Prior to Japanese officially being supported, people were obviously able to ask and answer questions about Japanese–the Japanese language “topic” has over 130k followers—but while that has its uses, the mere act of talking about a language will take you only so far in your actual learning. At some point, you have to sit down and get some actual work done using the language.
And that’s what makes this update so great. As a Japanese learner, you now have access to a treasure trove of questions and answers about topics that can be filtered based on your tastes and interests, most of which are asked and answered by native Japanese speakers. Better yet, you can ask your own questions and attempt to answer questions posed by other users, which provides a great opportunity to sit down and practice writing Japanese, and that’s important for a number of reasons.
The key here is that you can learn and think about subjects that are interesting to you, whether it’s video games, international politics, programming, starting up a YouTube channel–literally anything–in Japanese. The pedagogical term for this is called Content and Language Integrated Learning, which involves learning a subject (e.g. geography, science, or history) through a foreign language. While Quora isn’t technically a classroom, you can still learn a lot using this approach, and you can choose to focus on meaning (i.e., getting the gist of what’s being said), form (how specific grammar is used), or some combination of the two.
So, let’s get started!
First, head over to Quora and create an account if you don’t have one already. Upon creating your account, Quora will ask you to select some topics of interest. (Note: If you are accessing Quora from Japan, it will at this point detect your location automatically and ask if you wish to use the Japanese site; for the sake of being thorough, I will continue this guide under the assumption that most people reading it are accessing Quora from outside of Japan.)
Selecting the topics that you’re interested in may take a while–as you select broad subjects, more specific subtopics start to populate the list. For example, if you choose Psychology, Psychology of Everyday Life, Social Psychology, Cognitive Psychology, Psychiatry, Mental Health, and Psychologists will appear as subtopics. If you choose one of those, a whole new slew of even more specific topics will appear, and so on. Take your time and try to create the most meaningful and relevant feed possible for yourself!
Once you’ve chosen at least 10 topics, Quora will ask you what you know about. These can be areas of study, your career, or hobbies–perhaps you’re an avid fantasy football player, or you’ve seen more than a few movies in your life and love to talk about them, or you’re a diehard Marvel fan who will jump at the chance to debate with a DC fan about which universe is better.
Quora will then ask you for any additional languages that you may know and attempt to get you to add your friends from Facebook (skippable). After that, Quora will create your feed.
At this point, you’ll want to navigate to your language settings page. Here are the various ways you might do this based on your device:
Desktop: Click on the generic, blue user icon at the top of the page, which should pop open a new menu. Click on Settings at the bottom. On the settings page, navigate to Languages via the menu on the left side of the page.
Mobile browser: If you can somehow manage to avoid the popup prompting you to download the Quora app, locate the “You” tab and click on it to get to your profile page. From there, in the main description box (where it says your name, blurb, and the number of followers you have), locate the three tiny dots on the right. Tap on that to open a new menu and click on Languages (you can also get here by tapping on Settings first, but you may as well skip a step and save time).
Mobile app: Tap on the “You” button at the bottom of the screen. From there, in the main description box (where it says your name, blurb, and the number of followers you have), locate the three tiny dots on the right. Tap on that to open a new menu and click on Languages (you can also get here by tapping on Settings first, but you may as well skip a step and save time).
Once you’ve made it to the language settings page, you should see a list of available languages.
You can add Japanese to Quora by selecting “Quora日本語版へ参加”. Click on the blue button on the next page that says the same thing, and voilà! Quora is now entirely in Japanese!
At this point, Quora will ask you all of the same account creation questions again. Once you’re back on your feed, you’ll be presented with a variety of questions and answers written in Japanese. It may be a bit overwhelming at first, but you’ll get used to it. And hey, if you know the answer to questions such as 「パスタを茹でる時にオイルを入れるのは何故ですか？」 and want to give answering it a shot in Japanese, go for it!
Make it a habit to jump on Quora regularly, even if it’s just for a few minutes a day. You should automatically receive email updates in Japanese containing questions that are currently trending, so keep an eye on your inbox (of course, you can turn this off if you don’t like it).
The last thing to note is that Quora makes it easy to freely switch between languages by clicking on the globe icon at the top of the page next to your user profile icon. (Mobile users can locate this button next to the “You” button.)
It’s been ages since I’ve added any major content to Kuma Sensei, so first, apologies for the dearth of fresh, new stuff. Life is really good at keeping me busy — you know how it goes. But rest assured, I haven’t just been sitting around stuffing my face with Oreos and binging on Netflix (although I am finally getting into HBO’s The Wire, and man, is it good).
Indeed, one of the things I’ve been doing lately is learning how to program web applications, and I recently created a cool flashcard app that lets you study hiragana and katakana. It’s nothing special, but I’m pretty happy with how it turned out. Here’s a (small) list of the things you can do with the app:
Toggle between hiragana and katakana
Toggle between Japanese and English modes (a => あ or あ => a)
Study simple characters (like あ and ヨ) as well as more complex ones, like voiced/nonvoiced characters (ゴ, ぴ, etc.) and digraphs (じょ, ギュ, etc.)
Study random characters endlessly using the “free quiz” mode, or…
Challenge yourself with the “scored quiz” mode, which keeps track of how many correct answers you’ve gotten
You can take the scored quiz using any combination of the above settings.
The most amount of characters you can study in a single scored quiz is 102 (using the “all characters” setting)
All other buttons are locked upon entering scored quiz mode
Tip: You can continue to the next character by clicking anywhere on the character cards. You can also just click “new character.”
Features I’d like to add:
Audio for each card by a native Japanese speaker (sound can be toggled on and off)
A way to mix hiragana and katakana to study together (right now you have to choose one or the other)
If there’s anything else you’d like to see in the app, or if you come across any weird bugs or glitches, please drop me a line here! I’m still a beginner at this programming stuff, so I’d love to get some more practice by adding more features. In the meantime, I’m going to continue working on making sure it displays properly on all devices and browsers.
If you missed the link above, here it is again. Enjoy!
It’s the reason I’m so bad at retelling funny stories. (Seriously–you just had to be there.)
But when it comes to language learning, while it’s important to have guidance, the context in which you learn new information has a major impact on your ability to recall that information later.
Let’s take flash cards, a common learning aid, for example. Beginners will find it simple and effective to put a word like「図書館・としょかん」 on a flash card, slap “library” on the back, and call it a day.
Again, simple and effective–especially if you’re just cramming for a test.
But eventually, you’re going to start coming across onomatopoeic words like ガラガラ and ヒリヒリ. After a while, words like this start to pile up, and keeping track of what they all mean without relying on context will quickly become a truly special kind of torture, and indeed, an exercise in futility.
Or, for another example, take「診る・みる」. Yeah, you can just give it a 1:1 translation and say “to examine (medically)”, but it’s far more effective to pair it with something that makes sense in context. Instead of having 「診る」 on a card by itself, try 「脈 ／ 患者を診る」on the front, while highlighting–as I have done here–the main word to be focused on.
See? Now you’ve exposed yourself to a couple of ways in which 診る can be used, and you’re more likely to be able to use it in a sentence (i.e., a real situation — context!) later.
Pretty neat, huh?
Kanji in Context – Overview
This is where the star of today’s show, Kanji in Context, comes in.
It’s a series of three books–one reference book, two workbooks–originally created in 1994 by the Inter-University Center for Japanese Language Studies, which itself was established by Stanford University in 1961. The Center is one of the most prestigious Japanese language schools in Japan and is currently administered by a consortium of 15 American universities which have strong graduate programs in Japanese Studies, including Harvard, Columbia, Stanford, Yale, and a number of others.
The original edition set out to cover all 1,945 常用 (jōyō or “everyday use”) kanji, as well as a couple of others like 誰 and 賄. However, as a new revision of the list was released in 2010, Kanji in Context was updated in 2013 to meet the new standards–now 2,136 kanji–along with nearly 10,000 vocabulary terms that incorporate those characters. Indeed, mastering Kanji in Context is one of the best ways to prepare to pass the current N1-level proficiency test.
Just for good measure, let me say that again: Get the newer, revised edition of Kanji in Context, not the old one. Otherwise, you won’t be covering the current jōyō list of 2,136 kanji. Here’s a visual reference:
Revised Edition (get this one)
The series is written with four key points in mind, as found in the introduction:
The text is specifically designed for intermediate and advanced learners, with clearly stated objectives
Kanji can be learned in a systematic fashion
Focus of study is not on kanji only, but also on kanji-based vocabulary
Kanji can be easily acquired by repeated exposure
To expand each point:
The book doesn’t focus on things like stroke order or radicals (although you can look up the stroke order in the reference book’s entries for each kanji). Indeed, starting this text at the intermediate level or higher will probably allow you to appreciate its contents more as it’s not really beginner-friendly. You will have to read and interpret the contexts in which they appear without being able to rely on any direct English translations, which may prove difficult for a beginner (but it’s a great way to kick off your training wheels). Here’s an example from lesson 2: 「アメリカの景気が日本や東南アジアの国々の景気を左右する。」 Here, the focus is on the two words 「東南・とうなん」(southeast) and「左右・さゆう」(here, to influence or control), but for someone (especially a self-learner) who has only just begun to learn these kanji, it’s perhaps inefficient to be trying to learn these more advanced readings (and meanings) alongside the simpler, more common ones. But once you know that 「左」means “left” and「右」means “right,” the meaning of「左右」makes more sense.
The book’s authors understand that the number of kanji needed by learners rises sharply at the intermediate and advanced level. They present kanji in a systematic way based on frequency and similarities found in the form, sound, and meaning of characters. Other methods often result in exercises in learning individual characters, which makes it difficult to understand that kanji belong to a system, thus slowing down the acquisition process. Kanji in Context, however, teaches kanji in an order that makes sense from the standpoint of an adult learning Japanese as a second language–not as a native Japanese speaker.
The books go beyond the mere study of kanji to include the acquisition of vocabulary as one of its objectives. The main book contains an abundant collection of essential vocabulary words, all of which have been selected with the different stages of learning in mind. The usage of the vocabulary in the main book can be learned in context through the example sentences and related words found in the workbooks.
The book repeats target vocabulary to a certain extent instead of presenting an item once and then never again. Gaining an understanding of basic words and the system of everyday use kanji, and then at the next stage expanding vocabulary while reviewing the basic words, you’ll be able to make orderly progress through the books, with each stage building on the previous one.
The 2,136 kanji appearing in the books have been divided into seven levels corresponding to the following stages of learning:
No. of Kanji
These are elementary kanji that a learner who has completed a beginning course is expected to have already studied.
100 (subtotal: 350)
These are kanji that an intermediate learner is expected to have already studied.
850 (subtotal: 1,200)
These are kanji that are generally taught in an intermediate course.
220 (subtotal: 1,420)
These are kanji that may be covered in certain intermediate courses but are not necessarily common to such courses, or kanji that are generally taught in advanced courses.
412 (subtotal: 1,832)
These are kanji that may be covered in certain advanced courses but are not necessarily common to such courses.
110 (subtotal: 1,942)
These are special kanji which appear only in the vocabulary or terminology of particular fields.
194 (subtotal: 2,136)
These are kanji that were added to the list of Jōyō Kanji when the Ministry of Education revised the list in 2010. Note, however, that in Kanji in Context the character 誰 is presented in Level 1, and the character 賂 is presented in Level 4.
According to a study by the National Language Research Institute, the 500 most often used kanji represent roughly 80% of the kanji found in newspapers, and 94% of newspaper kanji can be covered by 1,000 characters. According to the authors’ reasoning, if you have learned the 1,200 characters in Levels 1-3, you’ll have knowledge of around 95% of the kanji that are used in newspapers today. Tack on Level 4 for good measure, and you should be well-prepared to pass the N2 level of the current JLPT.
The book goes into a lot more detail about how/why information is presented in the text, how to look up unknown kanji/vocab in the indexes (with flow charts and everything!), more statistics, etc., but I’ll let you discover all of that goodness on your own.
The reference book is beefy and wonderful, but the heart of the content is what’s found in the workbooks–this is where the series truly shines.
There are 156 lessons found throughout both workbooks. Each lesson focuses on about 10-15 kanji (about 10-30 for Levels 1 and 2), providing a variety of approaches to help you master the usage of the target vocab and expand your overall understanding of kanji-based vocabulary. It does this by splitting each lesson into three major sections (I’ve included some examples for clarity).
Section I: Double compounds 「和平交渉」, idiomatic expressions「平和を守る」, and sentence patterns that use the vocabulary「議論が平行線をたどる」.
Section II: Related vocabulary and other related words「管理職・平社員」, contrasting expressions「収入・支出」、「ビールを冷やす・ビールが冷える」(the last being an example of transitivity/intransitivity).
Section III: Example sentences using the vocabulary「慌てて家を出ると、必ず何か忘れ物をしてしまう。」.
Another thing I like about the book is that it will let you know (via special markings) when it’s OK to not worry about studying certain words or characters yet, as you’re guaranteed to pick them up later on. It also marks historical terms with (歴) and specialized terms with (特).
The first volume of the workbook covers Levels 1-3 (kanji numbers 1-1200), and the second volume covers Levels 4-7 (kanji numbers 1201-2136).
How to Use Kanji in Context
Of course, what would a comprehensive review be without a little how-to?
The book assumes you’ve “mastered” (in their words) the 300-500 kanji normally taught in a typical beginning course. Seeing as how the Genki series introduces a little over 300 kanji total, it’s safe to say that you could begin Kanji in Context after completing book 2. However, you will probably want to take it slow, as jumping straight into KiC after Genki might prove to be a daunting task (there are no shiny pictures, and Mary and Takeshi are both sadly absent).
With that said, even if you’re a veteran learner, I suggest starting from the beginning of the series. Although you’ll probably already be familiar with a lot of the content found in Levels 1 and 2, it’s important to note that the material presented at these levels is not confined to elementary vocabulary words, and as I mentioned earlier, the series will continue to build on what you’ve learned in previous lessons. Starting from the beginning will serve as a nice refresher and you’ll be up to speed on what you need to know before digging in to the advanced stuff later.
The authors suggest that you go through the series three times. The first time, you focus on learning the basics (denoted by “key words” printed in red along with other specially marked items). Doing this alone will net you about 3,700 vocabulary words that are considered to be of high importance.
The second run-through covers words unmarked by symbols, but these words still incorporate the kanji you’ve already learned. You will, however, study words marked with an asterisk (*). These are typically words that are important to know but somewhat difficult to use. Since you already have a solid foundation of key vocabulary words at this point, however, you should be able to pick up these new words quickly enough.
On the third time around, you’ll focus on the words marked with the symbols ◊, 歴, and 特. This will get you up to 100% coverage of the jōyō kanji list. As you can imagine, this third stage won’t take as long.
Now, as for how to actually study this material, well, that’s up to you. The books don’t actually have any exercises, per se, but rather a ton of examples of kanji appearing in–wait for it–context.
If you’re familiar with any of my content on Kuma Sensei, you’ll know that I’m a big fan of SRS-based programs (SRS stands for “spaced repetition system”). It’s not a silver bullet that will solve all of your language-learning problems, but it’s a great study aid for moving stuff you’ve learned from short-term to long-term memory for more effective retrieval.
Indeed, my strategy with Kanji in Context was to fire up Anki and start cranking out flash cards. On the front of the card, I put the whole “context” in which the item was to be learned (e.g. the compound, expression, or example sentence) and bolded and underlined the item, mimicking the book’s presentation.
On the back of the card goes English translations of the item being studied — not of the whole sentence itself. You don’t want to get into the habit of translating entire sentences in your head as a learner. Rather, it’s better to train your mind as early as possible to start thinking in the target language.
And when I say “item,” I mean every single item.
Is this excessive? Probably. I think I could have skipped some of the items I had already committed to memory prior to picking up KiC. But being the perfectionist that I am, I just couldn’t bring myself to skip any content. The end result after inputting new items at a rate of about one lesson per day (156 lessons / 30 days avg. per month = 5-6 months) was over 5,500 flash cards, hand-typed, many of them full sentences.
And to be honest with you, I didn’t actually follow the method the authors provide. Rather than going through the book three times, which I’m sure helps with pacing and avoiding flash card burnout, I just went through and created everything in one go. This meant that content started to pile up rather quickly, as I was studying 20 new cards (along with only 50 reviews) per day. My schedule didn’t allow for much more than this, especially considering the time sink hand-typing cards can be.
The reason I mention this is because I don’t want you to burn yourself out using this method. Yes, learners getting tons of input makes Krashen a very happy man, and this method certainly falls in line with popular methods such as the “10,000 sentence” method touted by AJATT-enthusiasts (which I can’t link to here as Google says the site may be infected — you can look it up on your own).
But at the rate I was going, I started to get overwhelmed after a while. You may want to take things a little more slowly depending on your learning goals and personal schedule. After all, learning Japanese is not a race, but a marathon.
Kuma Sensei says…
Kanji in Context is a wonderful resource for ambitious learners who want to take their kanji study to the next level. Whether you’re an intermediate learner looking for a way to break into more advanced material, or a veteran learner preparing for the JLPT N1, Kanji in Context will have something for you.
But where do you start? How do you get there? What do you do when the going gets rough?
I thought it might be useful to create something that I wish had existed when I started learning Japanese almost a decade ago, and this guide is the result. It’s a multi-tiered approach that will tell you what to do at every step of the way (from absolute beginner up to JLPT N1), with literacy as the primary goal.
I hope you find it useful.
Note: Be sure to read the additional sections below the guide. There’s lots of information that’s almost as important as the guide itself.
This guide may change over time as resources become newly available and/or outdated. Keep this page bookmarked!
(iOS only; course is slowly being rolled out to Android users as of June 1, 2017)
Look for an affordable tutor on italki! Having access to a native speaker is vital in language learning, and italki offers some of the best lesson rates I’ve seen. (And enjoy a free $10 lesson credit to get started, courtesy of Kuma Sensei!)
Tier 2 - Build your foundation
Tier 2 Skills:
Read and understand passages on familiar, everyday topics written in basic vocabulary and kanji
Familiarize yourself in Japanese with the topics found in chapters 7-12 of Genki I
Comprehend conversations found in daily life and follow their contents, given that they are spoken slowly
Communicate short messages on highly predictable, everyday topics that affect you directly
The only pre-requisites for learning Japanese are a thirst for knowledge, some hard work, and good study habits.
Remember that while learning a new language can be a long and arduous journey, investing in yourself is one of the most rewarding things you can do with your time. Don’t give up.
There are some alternative resources to choose from. For example, Anki has a free vocabulary deck that has a lot in common with the one offered by iKnow!, but it lacks the smooth user experience and the variety of answer types. For me, the few bucks a month for a much superior service paid off in the long run, but in the end, the choice is yours. I’m not here to sell anything, but I am here to suggest what I think will work best for you.
Skritter does not have a free alternative, unlike iKnow!. Indeed, there is nothing else quite like it. Writing on good ol’ paper is still just as effective for memorizing stroke order for things like kanji quizzes, but the fact that Skritter offers SRS-based study lists that accompany the best Japanese textbooks out there makes it a perfect companion for this guide. You have the option to drop Skritter after Tobira, but you’ll thank yourself for keeping it during the first few critical tiers of foundation-building.
Becoming fluent in any language is no easy task, and Japanese happens to be a language that takes a little more commitment than others. That doesn’t make it harder, necessarily, but it just means you’ll need to put in more time to see gains. With that said, I have no idea how long this will take you. This is for a number of reasons:
Attaining “fluency” depends a bit on your personal learning goals. For example, if you want to focus on being able to speak Japanese, then you will need to actively seek out language partners and speak with them on a very regular basis. You can pass JLPT N1 without being able to hold a decent conversation; a lot of people would not consider that “fluent.” Decide what your goals will be and work toward them as you lay your foundations with this guide.
I have no idea how much time per day you can devote to studying, nor do I know your aptitude or propensity for checking Facebook every few minutes. (If you have problems with staying focused, I recommend a Pomodoro-style app to break your work down into intervals.)
Nothing beats a living, breathing teacher. If you have access to a classroom or private tutor, consider yourself lucky and take advantage of it. Go to office hours and talk with your sensei. If you live in Japan, well, go outside. For the rest of you, it may be worth checking out Craigslist or sites like italki to get access to private tutors for as little as $10/hour. You could do a monthly or bi-weekly lesson to touch base with a native Japanese speaker as a way to stay motivated and monitor your progress. Using the link I’ve provided, you’ll earn a free $10 in credit to get started.
Terms like “beginner,” “intermediate,” and “advanced” are only used for organizational purposes in order to represent otherwise fluid concepts. Likewise, the JLPT isn’t the best way to measure your Japanese ability (it doesn’t even include speaking, for Pete’s sake). Regardless, it is a widely-renowned benchmark used in many professional and academic settings and remains a great way for self-taught learners to stay motivated and keep structure in their learning goals. For these reasons, I have decided to incorporate JLPT study materials into this guide as well as the points at which you should be safe to attempt each level of the JLPT.
Learning a language is not a race, but a marathon. Pace yourself!
Study frequency matters a LOT when learning anything new. One hour a day will produce far better results than one 5-hour cram session every Sunday.
Bookmark Kuma Sensei’s Resources page for additional goodies. There are loads of amazing resources that I had to exclude here for the sake of keeping things trim and neat – and the list is constantly growing.
Take advantage of iKnow!’s built-in study target tool. It’s up to you to figure out your study pace, i.e. how much of a workload you can handle without getting stressed or burned out. All you have to do is set the number of hours per week you want to shoot for, and iKnow!’s algorithms will do the rest. With that in mind…
Don’t fall behind in your flash card reviews. While using iKnow!, my policy was to never add new flash cards until I finished all of my reviews. By doing this, you’re ensuring that all of the stuff you’ve been learning is as fresh as possible before moving on to new content. SRS will only work if you stay on top of your reviews.
Shadow your flash cards! Using flash cards with built-in audio and example sentences is so resourceful, it’s not even funny. Listen to the example sentence over and over, repeating the audio and trying to mimic the native pronunciation as closely as possible (speed and pitch accent). If people are giving you weird looks on the bus, you’re doing it right. Repeat EVERYTHING you hear and mimic it to a T. This will do wonders for your pronunciation and ability to memorize words.
Take notes on what you’ve learned. You can keep a Japanese dictionary, a blog, scribble on some napkins at Starbucks, whatever. But keeping inventory of what you’ve learned can be a good motivational tool.
Find a community of learners to join! For example, the /r/LearnJapanese subreddit can be a good place to go to connect with other learners and ask questions. Of course, it’s Reddit, so you’ll run into the occasional jerk from time to time. Such is life.
At least once a month, try to do two of the following activities using Japanese:
Write in a personal blog or a forum post. It can be anything from a self-introduction to a critique of the latest novel you’ve read in Japanese. Just get writing and listen to the feedback you receive!
Seek out conversation partners. This guide doesn’t really cover “speaking” per se, because you can only practice that by actively looking for people to speak with (or by being in a classroom). Shadowing will only take you so far; being a good Japanese conversationalist takes practice, and lots of it.
There a few ways to do this: See if your school has a Japanese conversation club or make some buddies on Lang-8, for starters. You could also check your local area for meetups or cheap classes. Not living in Japan is not an excuse!
Do something you like in Japanese. Read a manga, watch an anime/drama/movie, or play a game you like in Japanese. It might be overwhelming at first, but you’ll be surprised at how quickly you start to comprehend more and more!
Live stream what you’re working on for an hour, or drop in to a community and help someone who needs it. Teaching Japanese to someone else, even something rudimentary, can demonstrate whether you really understand a concept or not and can open many doors for learning opportunities.
Motivation is a big factor in learning anything, and when learning something that takes a long time to see growth, it’s not uncommon to have days where you will sit there and wonder why you even bothered to start. When you have those kinds of days, reflect on your life and remind yourself why you’re learning Japanese. For me, it was being able to go to Japan and participate in real conversations and make my way around on my own. Sometimes, I’d go on to Google Earth and wander the streets of Tokyo or watch vlogs of people living in Japan. Sometimes I’d watch Japanese movies and lose myself in the atmosphere. I was also unhealthily infatuated with kanji and had a gigantic kanji poster hanging above my desk every day. All I needed to do to get pumped up for a multi-hour study session was brew up some Rooibos tea and glance up at that huge poster to see all of the kanji just waiting to be learned. Something about seeing that insurmountable mountain in front of me made me want to climb it even more. Do whatever it takes to get yourself in the zone, even if it means blasting J-pop and dressing up as Sailor Moon.
Motivation will get you far, but discipline is the real name of the game. This echoes what I said earlier, but even if you have all the motivation in the world, it won’t help if you can’t make yourself sit down to put in an hour of study, particularly on those rough days when you’re just not feeling it. Just like forcing yourself to go to the gym on those days when you have no motivation, taking that first step out the door is the hardest part. But once you do, it’s just the same old routine from there. I think that’s the big difference between the learners who really mean business and the ones who are just doing it for fun: If you can find it in yourself to stick to your study plan and learn even on those “off” days, you will make great strides in this language.
Indeed, all across the world, we differ in the way we think about politeness because of what’s taught and ingrained in our cultures.
Take greetings, for example. In Western cultures, it’s common to greet someone using a handshake. It’s a symbol of trust, respect, balance, and equality, which is why you often see it in business, sports, and politics.
In Japan, however, bowing is the way to go.
The phrase “礼に始まり礼に終わる” (rei ni hajimari rei ni owaru) translates to “bow at the beginning, bow at the end” and finds its roots in martial arts. It’s all about showing respect and gratitude.
In these arts, when you face an opponent, you bow to show respect and equality for one another. Just like the handshake after a tennis match, it’s a sign of good sportsmanship.
If you think back to when you took karate or tae kwon do classes as a kid, you were likely taught to bow before entering and exiting the dojo. In doing this, you’re thanking the carpenters who built the dojo for their hard work, your sensei for maintaining the school and teaching you, and your peers for showing up to class and doing their best, and so on.
Even at Japanese schools, students bow to their teachers before and after every single lesson, as a way of showing respect and gratitude.
Anyway, the point is, bowing is found everywhere and is deeply embedded in Japanese society and culture.
But why do some cultures have handshakes while others have things like bowing? How did bowing originate and come to be known as a form of politeness?
Well, let’s hop in our magic time machine and head back a few hundred years to feudal Japan. Now, imagine that you’re bowing in front of an armed samurai.
At any moment, he could slice your head clean off your shoulders, but by showing your neck and leaving yourself vulnerable, you’re communicating that you trust he won’t do such a thing.
This show of respect is considered polite, and the samurai returns the favor.
(Congrats, you survived!)
Anyway, similar to a handshake before a business meeting, it’s basically a means of setting a foundation of trust.
Let’s take inventory for a moment: Rei refers to bowing in the context we’ve been talking about, which is a means of showing politeness, and thus respect. Rei thus can be considered “courtesy,” and it’s something that all meetings begin and end with.
In fact, it’s taken so seriously in Japan that there are different types of bows for different degrees of politeness (ranging from 15 to 70+ degree angles).
…all the way down to dogeza (土下座).
Let’s consider another case:
This is a pretty infamous picture of President Obama greeting Emperor Akihito in 2009.
What do you notice?
As you can see, they’re mixing the greeting styles by bowing and giving a handshake at the same time.
Furthermore, while Mr. Obama is bowing at nearly 90 degrees, the emperor is barely bowing at all.
If you ask me, I think they just wanted to show respect to one another by performing their greetings in each other’s culture, and the exchange ended up being a bit awkward as a result.
Honestly, though, I’ve gotta give credit where it’s due; Obama’s got the bowing thing down. After all, it’s better to be too polite than to risk coming off as rude or disrespectful.
In fact, this is why textbooks often teach the polite form first.
Politeness is so important in Japan that companies will often have new employees practice bowing as part of their training!
To wrap up, rei (礼) has various translations, including courtesy, politeness, etiquette, manners, and bowing.
But sometimes, studying a language isn’t about knowing exact translations. You sometimes get so caught up in trying to be a walking dictionary that it becomes easy to miss the forest for the trees.
In other words, proper use of the Japanese language goes beyond just knowing grammar and vocabulary. It means understanding the context in which all that stuff exists.
Actions speak louder than words, and if you want to want to truly understand Japan, you have to master the art of being polite.
With millions of users and an offering of nearly 20 languages (with another half-dozen in development), Duolingo is one of the most popular language learning apps on the market today. And best of all, it’s free.
But is it actually going to help you learn Japanese?
Well…yes and no.
There’s a lot to unpack here, so let’s look at what’s covered in the course.
What will you learn?
Upon opening Duolingo and selecting Japanese, I’m greeted with this screen.
We begin by learning numbers through hiragana. The audio is recorded by a native speaker and sounds fine.
Pretty standard fare, albeit on the less-challenging side.
We continue along, learning more numbers and more hiragana. I actually kind of like this method of learning hiragana, to be honest.
We start getting into multiple choice questions, which Duolingo unfortunately relies a lot on.
My recommendations here:
Instead of a static image, insert a repeating animation of the character’s stroke order that you can tap to replay to your heart’s content. This way learners can practice writing out the character on their own.
Ditch the multiple choice for a short answer blank that forces you to type out the individual keys “y” and “o” for better reinforcement. Multiple choice really doesn’t do learners any favors in terms of retention.
In any case, let’s press on. We finally learn our first phrase: “Good morning.”
All right, now we can greet someone in Japanese. Neat!
Duolingo begins introducing some basic vocabulary words: vegetables, alcohol, our first verb (“to read”), and certain times of day.
We also see the introduction of katakana, which gets mixed in with the hiragana we’ve been learning. A little confusing, considering there’s zero explanation for this second character set. The vast majority of learners probably won’t even realize that katakana is a totally different writing script, which is a little worrying.
Duolingo goes a step further and tosses in a kanji for good measure, just in case you weren’t already blissfully unaware that you’ve now encountered 4 different writing scripts.
I wouldn’t necessary call this a good or a bad thing–it’s just another way of teaching–but I don’t always like having to deduce what I’m learning.
We encounter the polite copula です for the first time, but unfortunately, we still don’t have a clue how to say or write our own names, which makes the language feel less personal.
We also start running into some hiccups in the system. The correct answer in the picture below is “ちゅう” (chuu), but when you click on the sound, the speaker responds with “なか” (naka). I know we’re still in beta, but it points to one of the current issues with Japanese and Duolingo: how it programmatically handles the variety of possible character readings.
Duolingo also has no choice but to pronounce は as “ha,” even though it should be “wa” when used as a standalone particle. I make some nitpicks in this article, but this is a pretty serious issue and I’m genuinely surprised it made it through to the beta.
We also start running into strange translations.
Pretty soon, we run into our first particle question.
Speaking of particles, we run into a new one, が, which is introduced alongside and seems to function in a similar way to は, but for some reason, we’re using が here instead. Maybe we can just use both interchangeably? Maybe they’ll clarify later?
(It’s also apparently advisable to start learning the potential form alongside basic vocabulary like “bag” and “cat.”)
Alluding to my previous problem with Duolingo’s treatment of syllabic sounds, we also encounter weirdly segmented chunks of language such as this:
Moving forward in the course, we start learning demonstrative pronouns (こ・そ・あ・ど, as in これ・それ・あれ・どれ・etc.) and common food names. We then learn to tell time, coming across some more katakana and household vocab along the way (e.g. テーブル, プール, and トイレ).
Next, we start picking up more pieces of the self-introduction puzzle, like 大学生 and 年生. I think we’ll be able to start speaking Japanese soon!
More segmentation weirdness for your viewing pleasure:
Oh, but now we’re getting into the good stuff. Finally, the chapter about restaurants! Now I can order some delicious ramen in Japanese like Duolingo said I’d be able to…
…wait, what? How is this going to help me order food?
Oh well, let’s press on.
We start talking about activities like studying and going to parties, making plans, learning the days of the week, etc.
Some directional words are also thrown in for good measure.
Next up, we learn how to talk about basic hobbies (listening to music, reading, etc.), as well as some modes of transportation. It’s useful content and pretty par for the course.
Then come clothing and weather. We’re still apparently learning colors, but at least we’re expanding our vocabulary base with words like rainy, sunny, and snowy. Again, pretty useful stuff.
We pick up some more food words like “spicy” and “tasty,” as well as more vocabulary for asking directions.
We also finally learn かわいい. Took long enough!
The third section (of four) is rounded off with the “people” category, which introduces a few more ways to describe those around you: boy, girl, he, her, grandma, and grandpa, among others.
We’re making good progress, but I’m starting to notice that as sentences become more complicated, Duolingo becomes way less flexible and understanding; It does not know how to recognize context.
Anyway, bugs and quirks reported, we put on our hiking packs and head out into nature with new words like mountain, tree, and river.
Then we learn a little classroom Nihongo, which will probably only serve to remind you that you’re not in a real Japanese class.
…sorry, I didn’t mean that. I can be bitter sometimes.
Anyway, we learn how to express our feelings (fun, scary, tired, and even the explanatory ～んです) and pick up a few other useful shopping-related words (necktie, blouse, business shirt, and…butter!). We’re also apparently still learning katakana.
A couple of sections later, we arrive at the grand-daddy of all categories: Vacation!
How is any of this going to help me make my way around Japan!?
Luckily, the “subculture” category offers a glimmer of hope for us to cling on to:
Indeed, we actually begin to see some real, USABLE sentences appear:
The final stop in our journey lands us amidst the hype Japan is trying to drum up before the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
Indeed, the land of the rising sun will see plenty of visitors in the coming years, with ever record-breaking numbers coming over to visit ancient temples, go city-hopping by bullet train, and eat the some of the best food the world has to offer.
And the trend will only continue to build until the Olympics. Frankly, I hope it never stops, because Japan has so much to offer the world as well as benefit from as it continues to open itself up to more and more travelers.
Alright, we’ve come a long way, so let’s a moment to look at everything Duolingo’s Japanese course has to offer.
Hiragana and katakana
Numbers (including 百, 千, 万)
Time of day
Basic food names
Basic expressions and greetings
Locations around town (bank, library, post office, etc.)
Basic self-intro (My name is…, I’m a student, I live in…, etc.)
Demonstrative pronouns (こ・そ・あ・ど・this one, that one, which one, etc.)
Basic questions (How much is…, Where is…, etc.)
Home life (pets, names of certain rooms, stuff around the house, etc.)
Other opinionated banter (spicy, sweet, tasty, disgusting, hot, cold, expensive)
Days of the week
Comparatives (bigger than, smaller than, etc.)
Position words (left, right, up, down, next to, inside, outside, etc.)
Adverbs of frequency (always, sometimes, never, usually, often, etc.)
Expressing feelings (scary, in love, happy, having fun, etc.)
Health (headache, have a cold, various body parts, etc.)
A pinch of subculture specific to Japan (names of areas in Tokyo and things found in Japanese pop culture, like ninjas, cosplay, and manga–pretty nifty, IMO)
The following kanji:
That’s 97 kanji in total. Honestly, you know what? That’s not too bad.
In terms of JLPT levels, that puts you right around an N5, and the grammar forms and vocab (which I’m admittedly too lazy to count), just from eyeballing things, are similar to what’s covered in Genki I. In other words, Duolingo may just be what the doctor ordered for people who absolutely loathe using textbooks and would rather just sit down and start learning Japanese for free.
In that sense, I think this course is pretty successful. (yay)
And with that said, I think we can finally start getting opinionated. My favorite part!
It’s fun. Duolingo makes learning fun thanks to the effective and subtle use of gamification. Motivation plays an important role in learning any language, especially for self-learners, and Duolingo does a great job of keeping you coming back for more.
It’s smart. It knows where your weakest points are and gives you more practice in those areas.
It’s repetitive. You’ll revisit topics and retrain skills to keep them sharp thanks to its use of spaced repetition (SRS).
It DOESN’Toverly rely on rōmaji, which is great. Rōmaji isn’t really used in everyday Japan, and when it is, there’s almost always English right next to it, so you never really need it. Best to kick off those training wheels early!
It’s free. Can’t beat that.
Computer-generated audio clips and sentences, while not terrible, means you’re not listening to authentic spoken Japanese, and you end up getting a lot of nonsensical sentences that you would never hear in real life. In my opinion, this can be a waste of precious time that should be spent listening to, you know, actual Japanese speakers.
Duolingo is teeming with language errors. Every resource is prone to having mistakes, but content in Duolingo isn’t vetted as thoroughly as, say, a published and peer-reviewed textbook. Learning incorrect Japanese: also probably not a great use of your time.
It doesn’t teach you what you actually need to know to communicate. Given that things like travel are huge motivating factors for many learners, it surprises me how little Duolingo actually prepares you to use Japanese in real life situations. Bring your phrase book on your upcoming vacation; you’re gonna need it.
Duolingo relies heavily on translation and a practice-drill-practice-drill format for learning. There’s no spontaneous creative output and there’s hardly any emphasis placed on communicative aspects of the language.
It doesn’t teach grammar. Duolingo assumes you’ll pick up on grammar rules via its inductive approach to teaching. If you liken it to learning how to drive a car: Yeah, technically, you can just get in, turn the key, play with some buttons and knobs, and you’ll probably figure out how to make it go. But if you’ve never driven a car before, it’s probably best to learn about the rules everyone follows and a little bit about what’s going on underneath the hood. This way, you’ll become less likely to get in an accident or break down in the middle of nowhere. Duolingo does almost nothing to prepare you for the language learning equivalents of these situations–which will happen to you at some point–and Duolingo may even be working against you by being overly reliant on multiple choice. The inductive approach to learning can be a powerful tool, but it tends to suit more advanced learners who already have a decent grasp of the language.
As mentioned above, it’s currently onlyoptimized for iOS, which leaves Android and web users in the dark for now. This is problematic for a myriad of reasons, including the fact that Duolingo is best experienced in a web-based (desktop) format. I imagine that other platforms will be supported after beta, but it’s still unfortunate that only iOS users have the chance to take Duolingo for a spin.
*Update #1: According to an AMA on Reddit with the Founder/CEO of Duolingo, Japanese for Duolingo will be coming to Android in 1-2 weeks! There’s no available estimate on the web version, but it is confirmed to be on the way.
*Update #2: As of June 1, 2017, the Android version is confirmed to have begun rolling out! It’ll be a gradual process, but at least it’s finally here and should be making its way to your Android device without much further delay. Still no ETA on the web version, sadly.
…but hey, it’d be a bit depressing to end the article on that note, don’t you think? After all, any schmuck can sit there and point out what’s good or bad about something. And while I may be your average Joe, I certainly ain’t no average schmuck.
So let’s be constructive. Rather than talk about if you should use Duolingo (because the fact is, many people are going to anyway), let’s talk about how to use Duolingo to enhance your learning.
How to Make the Most of Duolingo
We’ve established that Duolingo isn’t enough on its own. However, I think Duolingo has a lot of potential to make Japanese, which is a notoriously difficult language, more accessible and enjoyable for new learners. And honestly, let’s face it: Anything that makes you want to study is a powerful motivational tool that should not be underestimated.
The key to using Duolingo effectively is to take advantage of its strengths and make up for its shortcomings.
Here are a few tips to make the most of your study time.
Tip #1: Study every day
Duolingo makes learning addictive. Meeting your daily learning goals will earn you some of those sweet, sweet Lingots, which you can exchange for things like power-ups and bonus content. Duolingo also seems to be rolling out achievements (still limited to the Android platform as of May 18, 2017). I hope they continue to expand on the achievement system in the future, as it’s one of the more compelling aspects of gamification, in my opinion. (Everyone likes having nice, shiny badges to show the world how hard they’ve been working.)
Duolingo also keeps track of how many days in a row you’ve reached your daily goal, represented by the fiery “streak” mark that appears at the top of most screens. Set a reasonable goal and get cracking. Find some time to study every day–no exceptions. Even 5 minutes is usually enough time to knock out a quick session.
Tip #2: Keep your basic skills strong
Like I mentioned before, Duolingo is smart. It knows when you’re starting to get weak in a certain skill and will push you to review things you’ve learned in the past. Before you start tackling new content, make sure your skills are freshly topped-off. Everything you learn in the early stages of Japanese ends up being the foundation upon which you continue to learn. It’s like Bruce Lee always said: “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who had practiced one kick 10,000 times.”
Take his advice and don’t skip leg day–er, your reviews.
Tip #3: Use the desktop version over mobile when possible*
While the mobile app is impressive in its own right, it’s lacking one major component found in the browser version: the ability to hand-type answers. Instead, the mobile app features questions in which you drag and drop answers from a finite set of options, few of which actually make sense in the context of the question (thus often making it mind-numblingly easy to guess). With the browser version of Duolingo, however, you’re giving yourself more of a challenge–this is a good thing–because by typing in the answers to every question, you’ll have better retention of vocabulary over the long term. In addition, the web versions of most languages on Duolingo include at least some degree of grammar explanations, and I’m sure Japanese will be no exception.
*Edit: After finding out that Japanese for Duolingo is only optimized for iOS and Android for the time being, I had to add an asterisk to this tip. Thankfully, until the web version arrives, there are plenty of ways to supplement your Duolingo study. Read on!
Going beyond Duolingo
Now that you know how to get the most out of Duolingo, what should you be doing outside of the app to get the most out of your study time?
Plan for success
Having a solid goal in mind and a roadmap to help you get there will do wonders for you as a learner. The 6-step study plan here on Kuma Sensei is a good place to start. It’s chock-full of study tips and important factors worth considering for anyone wishing to learn Japanese.
I recommend a hearty helping of flash cards every day, even on top of the daily reviews that Duolingo asks you to complete. Anki is a great option that’s free (except on iOS) and comes with plenty of room for customization and pre-made, shared decks that you can download. Try out the Core 2k (and eventually Core 6k) deck–though I prefer the much more user-friendly equivalent found on iKnow!. The Duolingo stream on Tinycards might also be a decent place to keep an eye on as the course becomes more popular.
If you’re interested in improving your kanji reading and writing abilities, Skritter is a good option. There’s a plethora of study lists spanning from absolute beginner to advanced Japanese, and a number of these lists are taken directly from widely-used and popular textbooks in the field, which is a boon for self-learners who may find textbooks daunting without the guidance of a teacher. Skritter uses the power of SRS to feed you content only as much as you need to see it, and its beautiful and intuitive writing interface makes for a great user experience. It’s available on both iOS and Android, so give the free trial a shot and see what you think.
For additional grammar explanations to supplement what you’re learning in Duolingo, there’s a number of resources you can turn to.
First and foremost, I have to recommend getting a textbook if you want to take your learning seriously. Genki is a good place to start. Make sure to also pick up the accompanying workbook for extra practice!
Having reliable points of reference can also make a world of difference.
Tae Kim’s Grammar Guide is a free resource that can come in handy for explaining certain grammar concepts.
Perhaps the most useful grammar resource I’ve ever used is the Dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar by Seiichi Makino andMichio Tsutsui. I’ve dubbed this 600+ page monster the “Yellow Bible” for a reason. You can read more about it on my Learning Resources page in the beginner section.
At the end of the day, grammar is best learned through exposure to lots and lots of input, so while these resources are useful for getting into the nitty-gritty of things, you should also be inadvertently coming across new grammar forms in your flash card program of choice and pushing yourself to learn at the i+1 level.
Nothing beats a living, breathing teacher when it comes to learning a language, and conversing in a new language is indeed something that takes practice–and lots of it.
italki gives you access to private tutors for as little as $10/hour. You could do a monthly or even weekly lesson to touch base with a native Japanese speaker as a way to stay motivated and monitor your progress. italki boasts a wide selection of teachers and price ranges, so you’ll likely find something that’s a good fit for you. Using that link, you’ll even earn a free $10 in lesson credit to get started!
Join a community
Joining a community like the one found on Reddit can be a good way to get involved in the learning process with others and help bring Japanese to life. You can often find interesting discussions about learning methods and resources, as well as ask questions of your own!
You can also join a study club right in the Duolingo app. It’s a nice little way to team up with others learning the language. In fact, you can even join club Kuma Sensei!
Here’s the club code: XRCVWN
There are only 14 slots, so it’ll fill up fast, but feel free to make your own club and invite others! Leave a comment below with your club code if you want others to join.
I know that some of the language in this article has kind of an edge to it, but consider it tough love. I’m saying these things because I appreciate the hard work the creators have put into the course and want them to keep striving for greatness. I also want to encourage learners to be critical of the resources they use to learn.
In any case, Duolingo is a well-made app with a smooth, clean user interface. It does a great job of keeping you motivated and hungry for more learning, which should make it a popular study resource among beginners.
However, the reality is that Duolingo’s Japanese course leaves a lot to be desired for serious learners.
Frustrating though they are, the abundant errors found in hints, acceptable answers, audio, etc. are forgivable, as the course is technically still in beta…
…but the course’s biggest downfall is perhaps the format of Duolingo itself. As I mentioned before, Duolingo falls short in teaching you how to actually communicate in the language. I would be legitimately surprised if someone could even manage to order food at a restaurant by the end of the entire course. It also teaches grammar from a top-down method, lacking detailed explanations about how stuff works under the hood. This is a matter of teaching style, and I personally prefer to think of grammar structures as tools in my language toolbox; I want to know what each tool is capable of and how to use it. Disappointingly, we can probably expect none of these aspects to change in the full release.
At the end of the day, Duolingo itself is a tool, and while you shouldn’t solely rely on it to learn Japanese, I think it’s still one of the more enjoyable ways to begin your language learning journey.
Kuma Sensei says…
Duolingo is a fun, free way to get your feet wet as a Japanese learner. While it can help you build a foundation for more serious learning, it ultimately won’t leave you with the skills you need to make your way around in the language.
What do you think of the course so far? Share your thoughts below!
This morning, I was busy turning some old class notes on Japanese grammar into material for my under-construction Japanese Guide–pretty par for the course, as far as my mornings go.
But as I was writing, I had an epiphany: Japanese is like a ham sandwich.
Let me explain.
Consider the components that make up the Japanese language: vocabulary and grammar. I’m gonna go the extra mile here and throw in the writing system, which is made up of hiragana, katakana, and kanji, as well. Roughly speaking, vocabulary is the content, grammar decides how that content is put together to create nuanced meaning and context, and the thousands of squiggly characters that make up the writing system are used to visually represent that content.
It’s safe to say that these components all play a major role in your Japanese making any sense.
But when you’re knee-deep in a conversation, your kanji-writing skills aren’t really going to help compared to having a rich, deep vocabulary pool to draw from. And given that some learners are more concerned with their ability to hold a conversation or read a menu, and couldn’t care less about the stroke order of 鬱, I wonder: Is it possible to prioritize and isolate certain components to fit your needs? And should learners spend more time on any one thing in particular?
The Four Skills
It’s true that in language learning, we often split “ability” into four categories: reading, writing, listening, and speaking. Learners also tend to rate themselves in each category. For example, I would consider my reading skills to be much higher than my speaking skills, and this usually affects the way I approach both how I study and use Japanese in real life. This has its benefits and drawbacks, but that’s a topic for another day.
The point is that you can indeed separate language learning goals into digestible chunks.
If you want to work on your speaking, and you live in Japan, go outside and talk to people. Engage more with your co-workers. If you don’t live in Japan, there are plenty of websites that will match you with an affordable tutor, or you can try to make a Skype buddy on Lang-8.
If you want to hone in on your listening, watch more TV and movies. Even better, if your goal is to be able to watch a specific kind of entertainment, like anime, then guess what you should do? Watch anime.
It sounds like common sense, but you’d be surprised how many learners I’ve seen over the years ask, “How do I learn Japanese so I can watch anime?”
The answer is pretty simple. Just start watching it. As long as you’re sticking to a solid study regimen and have a road map laid out in front of you, you just need to keep watching anime. Get used to the sounds and start listening for common words. Eventually, your ear will start becoming attuned to the things characters say and the way they speak. Things will start making sense.
While I think it’s generally harmless to focus on particular skills based on your learning goals, it’s possible to overdo it. Grammar, kanji, and vocabulary are intertwined and should be studied together, if only for the sake of efficiency. You can’t meaningfully study grammar forms without understanding the meaning of the words in a sentence, and you should be including kanji on your vocabulary flashcards.
(While you’re at it, include audio in your flashcards. Shadow along with the native speaker in order to improve your pronunciation and practice listening to example sentences on new flashcards before reading them, as a means of testing listening comprehension.)
Actually, studying kanji outside of context (i.e. vocabulary, phrases, sentences) will hurt you in the long run. This rote-style of learning will, in the end, only improve your ability to memorize individual characters, not to actually read kanji. This is why I’m not a big fan of the Heisig method: I think there are more efficient ways to invest your time as a learner.
The only people I would recommend to go out of their way to concentrate on something as specific as grammar forms is someone who is preparing for a standardized test like the JLPT. On the N1, for example, your ability to differentiate between rather obscure grammar forms will be tested. Note that these grammar forms aren’t that rare; it’s just that you would be hard-pressed to find uses for them in everyday Japanese, hence the need to isolate them and study them on their own.
Vocabulary is Key
As for the question of whether learners should spend more time on any one thing in particular, well…
I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that vocabulary is the most vital component to language learning. Some people will disagree with me, and that’s OK. But hear me out.
If you’re reading a newspaper article or participating in a conversation and cannot recognize a certain percentage of the content you’re being exposed to, then you’re stuck guessing. And guessing based on context only goes so far. Grammar, body language, and tone of voice are all useful for putting unknown pieces of the puzzle together, but the most important part is the actual content, the vocab: the nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, onomatopoeia, all that good stuff.
So when you think about it, Japanese is kind of like a ham sandwich. The vocab is the meat of the sandwich. Without it, you’ve got a pretty sad looking sandwich that doesn’t have much meaning. Kanji isn’t absolutely necessary to communicate in Japanese, but it sure makes everything look nice and neat, not to mention easier to understand. Japanese just wouldn’t be Japanese without it, just like a sandwich isn’t quite a sandwich without the melted cheese, the grilled onions, the juicy tomatoes, and the crispy, fresh lettuce.
And of course, grammar and syntax make up the bread that keeps it all together. Some learners pride themselves on being walking dictionaries, but if you can’t string any of those words together to communicate ideas in a coherent fashion, then why are you bothering to learn another language in the first place?
Just the same, if you’re just going to throw together some meat, veggies, and cheese without any bread to hold it all in place, can you really call it a sandwich?
I know you don’t want to hear this, but if you want to get good at Japanese, then you’ll need to invest some time in flashcards. Your knack for languages and the degree to which you want to excel in Japanese in a given amount of time will determine how hard you need to hit the SRS.
SRS stands for spaced-repetition system and it’s pretty much all the rage among language learners nowadays.
Here’s what it boils down to:
Using SRS, the more often you get a certain flashcard “right,” the less often you see it. This means that more difficult cards, the ones you keep constantly forgetting, will show up more often.
Thanks to this initial drill-like high frequency, you eventually start getting them right, and once you start getting them right, you won’t see them as often. This also means that a card you haven’t seen in days might pop up and catch you off guard, and if you get it wrong, the algorithm will (rightly) assume that you haven’t quite committed it to long-term memory yet and will shuffle it back into the deck for more short-term review.
Of course, the kicker with this whole system is that you have to be honest. If you didn’t totally nail an answer right off the bat, you probably shouldn’t say, “Oh, yeah, I knew that one, duh!” and then count it as being correct. While you should never doubt yourself, don’t overestimate your ability lest you waste the potential the program has to offer.
That sounds great! How do I get started?
Anki(暗記) is the Japanese word for memorization and happens to be probably the most well-known and widely used SRS application/software out there, with a sweet price tag to boot. (The desktop version is free!)
The iOS version is obscenely expensive, so if it’s your only mobile option, I would hold off until you know for sure you’re going to invest enough time to get your money’s worth. For dedicated learners, it’s worth it, considering it’s one of the most convenient ways to get some studying in during your commute or between classes (and it sure beats wasting time on your Facebook newsfeed). Android users, rejoice; your version is free.
Alright, so how do I use SRS effectively?
Algorithms used in SRS have multiple degrees of accuracy. For the sake of example, I’ll use Anki’s design.
After an answer is shown using Anki, you can choose from “Again,” “Hard,” “Good,” and “Easy.” The first suggests that you had no idea or completely forgot the answer. You will likely see this card again in the next minute or so. “Hard” implies that it was, well, hard to come up with the answer, or maybe you got it mostly right but not quite 100% (although personally, I file anything I didn’t get 100% right in the “Again” category). “Good” means you got the right answer, and “Easy” means you knew the answer as soon as the flash card appeared. In other words, it took virtually none of your mental resources for the answer to pop into your head.
Now, linguists like to define fluency in a couple of ways (stay with me here).
Broadly as “overall speaking proficiency”
Narrowly as the “smoothness and ease of oral linguistic delivery”
Of course, you can spit out random strings of Japanese words like 花見, スカート, 牛乳, and 根性焼き all day with smoothness and ease, but you might get some pretty weird looks. Using the right words in the right contexts with the right constructs is important, as you can imagine (bonus points for anyone who can come up with a coherent sentence using the above).
But accuracy means nothing if it takes you 30 seconds to come up with the right answer.
Just as the key to unlocking the full potential of your Japanese is the marriage of fluency and accuracy, so does the formula for good studying and SRSing lie at the intersection of speed and correctness.
You can’t pause a conversation and make the other person wait for half a minute while you think of the exact word you’re trying to say, so why get into such habits during practice?
Imagine you’re a professional baseball player under the lights. If a baseball flies past you because you were distracted, or you simply weren’t prepared for its direction, pace, or spin, you can’t just ask the pitcher for a do-over. You have to learn and adapt and be ready for the next one. And the more balls you hit, the better you get at it. Here, though, you get the advantage of hitting the most difficult balls the most often. Eventually, the hard ones become easy, and before long, you’re knocking them out of the park.
I know you aren’t a robot and you probably think of language as a fluid, living thing that is probably the most amazing thing humanity has ever come up with.
It is. It totally is.
And it’s even more enjoyable if you get the chance to partake in that language’s culture and learn about the ways other people around the world live their lives. That kind of experience makes you more human, and we need more people like you.
But at the root of it all, language is basically a tool, and some people get way better at using that tool way faster than others depending on the frequency and method with which they hone their skills and train with it.
You can compare various SRS programs in the Resources section.