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.)
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?