It’s been almost 10 years since I started living in Japan and close to 15 for when I started learning the language. And even up to now my Japanese is not perfect – somehow my “r”s sometimes still come out closer to the English ‘rrr’ than the Japanese tap.
But I am proud to say that I at least can say that for professional purposes I am fluent in Japanese – at least I sure hope I am because part of my work involves translation and interpretation. And there are many other foreigners in Japan – and not just from kanji using cultures – who are the same and prove the fact it is perfectly possible for foreigners to become fluent in Japanese.
Actually, my own journey to fluency was not the typical route either – in fact I am one of those people who built my Japanese through tons of TV, anime and music to the extent that I managed to achieve JLPT N1 before coming to Japan. This is without having formally inscribed in any Japanese course. So yes, formal lessons are not even a necessary requirement to fluency.
To be fair, classes do help. In fact people who learnt Japanese through classes came to Japan having a much better foundation in grammar than my TV-and-Anime Japanese. It is rare however to find a full fluent speaker who really only learnt their Japanese in classes. In fact, I think one extremely common problem among Japanese speakers is an over-reliance on formal classes in the assumption that they will make you fluent.
They will not.
This article is therefore my little attempt at warning the limits I observe in just learning Japanese through classes. And I will follow this up with some advice about effectively learning Japanese from perhaps a not-so-common perspective – and one that hopefully adds an additional layer that can help you above the “conventional wisdom” regarding learning Japanese.
As mentioned above, it is very rare for people who have learnt Japanese only through classes to be fluent in Japanese. I’d even dare say that it’s rare that they’d even be functional. Two groups in particular demonstrate this. Firstly, there are many students especially from other kanji-using backgrounds who come to language schools in Japan. They learn a lot and many of them will graduate with a JLPT N1. But there are plenty of stories among hiring managers in Japan of such people who, even with an N1, can’t formulate a proper sentence in a job interview.
The other group are students who are studying in English-languge degree programs. After all, for many such students, their classmates are other foreigners (or English-fluent Japanese) – same as their dormitory mates with which they communicate in English. And since most are specializing in subjects other than the Japanese language itself, despite being in Japan, the only time they come into contact with Japanese are those 3 modules a week – which often get lesser in the later years of the degree program.
There aren’t any statistics around but – just based on my impression and some very rough numbers that I know from MEXT Scholars Association – the average graduating Japanese language ability of such programs is probably around an N3, ie. an intermediate level with some ability in having complex conversations. This is however not enough to get to the point of being able to follow a natural, casual conversation in Japanese nor the average level of Japanese which employers expect. And while the average is N3, my own guess aside from this is that 1/3 will be an N4 or below.
The people who reach higher levels though are often people who have learnt Japanese before coming to Japan. There are other people though who go out of their way to supplement their Japanese learning and with this extra effort, yes they can really get to a high level.
But why aren’t these classes enough? There’s a few reasons for this.
Not enough time
In my honest opinion, virtually no one can learn a language to fluency from just 4.5 hours of classes a week – not even including homework time and especially not starting from zero. Maaaybe if you are in an intensive course of 6 hours times 3 days a week and above, but really the normal number of hours that happen in for example, a Japanese school overseas or in an English-medium course in Japan is not sufficient.
Think about it – a week contains 144 hours and you’re spending okay maybe in total 6 hours of classes plus homework time on a language. That’s less than 5% of the time and if your daily life is in a different language (see the classmates and dormitory mates comment above), that different language is going to be the teflon that stops Japanese from sticking to your head.
Textbook Japanese ≠ Real Japanese
Also, there is a big gap between textbook Japanese and the real Japanese that is used in Japan.
As an example, I will bet you that the above kanji is more useful than 90% of the kanji you learn in a textbook. But 90% of schools will not teach this.
For those of you who don’t know – this means “onion”, the round make-you-weep kind. In Japan right now, you will still see this in online shopping, supermarkets and food labels and thus is very important if you, like one of my good friends, hate it or simply want to avoid confusing the price of one onion with the price of one 人参 (carrot).
In a more serious example, most textbooks, learners will start with the “masu” form when learning Japanese – and with good reason too because it is the minimum level of formality in Japanese speech which is appropriate in most social settings.
That being said though, the plain masu form probably only takes up the minority of Japanese speech. In work settings or even as a customer you’re far more likely to hear (and possibly use) keigo. And in casual settings the plain Japanese form – with all its slang and dialect that schools will almost never teach – comes out in all its glory and eccentricities.
The masu form taught in school is very important as a base, but the point is that unless you supplement your Japanese with actual, real-life examples of Japanese speech, even if you get up to a JLPT level 1, you may get blindsided by people using って instead of と, common slang misreadings of 雰囲気 as ふういんき and 場合 as ばわい and whatever local dialect the people where you live may speak.
This is also one reason why I find that anime-Japanese learners, while often having a semi-comical speech with lots of Shonen manga speech like “ja nee” , often get Japanese conversations much more than pure in-class learners.
Immerse Immerse Immerse
So really, while I’m definitely not saying stop going to school, stop just relying on school classes to learn Japanese. In fact, some exposure to Japanese outside school will probably double or triple your learning speed even in school classes as you get exposed to examples of Japanese in the wild instead of contrived and extremely forgettable examples of Mr. Tanaka saying hi to Ms. Sato on the way to the supermarket.
What should you do then? Well in short the more you are exposed to Japanese, the faster you learn. And the more small tweaks that you do in your learning journey, the faster you’d learn as well. These are my own recommendations – both based on my own experience and that I know from people around me.
Find something that you love … in Japanese
There’s one reason that anime lovers can often learn Japanese quickly – the motivation is clear and they instinctually like the Japanese language. On the other hand I know multiple cases where people enter Japanese classes or school only to have the school, homework and exams kill the interest.
What a waste! The fact is that if you find something that you like in Japanese or in Japan, latch on to it. It can be Japanese culture wise – like martial arts, anime, literature and stuff like that. Or it can be just simply like a basketball circle in Japan. Learning about, or actively participating in these in Japanese to the best of your ability will greatly expose you to how the Japanese language works.
The internet is your friend
Linked to the above is fiding the appropriate entertainment or tools for you to fully speed up your Japanese. Just some recommendations of tools that can gretly help your learning of the Japanese language.
The above two free brower plugins are invaluable in learning Japanese. They are automatic dictionaries which tell you not only the meanings but also the readings of words, phrases of words as you scroll over. The next time that you surf the internet in Japanese, try using these over Google Translate to try to piece together the logic of Japanese yourself instead of having a (often inaccurate) text being fed wholesale to you.
- Double subtitling plugins
Watching TV is a very good way of learning a language – in fact that was how we probably picked up a large part of our vocabulary for our native languages. And you can do it in Japanese too – by displaying both the Japanese subtitles and another language’s subtitles together so you can get both the meaning of what is being said but also compare how the Japanese text reads.
Very well regarded by users and entirely free too for its way of scooping up vocabulary that you’re about to forget. Great for building vocabulary lists of the Japanese that you get exposed to from the above.
Kanji has logic
So I also speak Mandarin Chinese and have learnt it from young. And because of this I’ll get sighs and looks of envy and people saying that I’m lucky.
Not denying that, but it is precisely because of this that I am quite shocked by the way that some schools teach Japanese by brute force memorization. Ie. this kanji is written this way, it is read this way. Go memorize.
No. Kanji has logic. It’s not a fully comprehensive and logical system but then again which language (except for Esperanto) is? I’m talking about firstly the radical system, where you learn to break down kanjis into their constituent parts to get clues about their meaning and their pronunciation. This is why…
召、昭、詔、招 – all have the on-yomi reading of しょう (notice the shared right part) and
購、財、貧、貨 – meaning “buy”, “wealth”, “poor” and “goods” respectively all have meanings linked to money due to sharing the 貝 element (which literally means “shell” but shells were used in ancient china as a form of currency).
If the above is news to you, you should really do yourself a favor by learning the radical system. Learning this system will at least double if not triple the speed of you learning Japanese. Maybe a tool such as Wanikani with its radical system of teaching Kanji would be a good option.
Less talked about is how important it is to understand the logic that is found in kanji phrases (熟語). Basically, if you see a pair of kanjis together and this forms a word, these will often follow common patterns of logic. For example, you will find:
- Repeats: eg. 購買, to buy (both kanji mean “to buy”).
- Opposites: eg. 上下, often used to refer to the rising and falling eg. of prices or referring to hierarchy (the kanji literally mean “up” and “down”)
- Qualifiers: eg. 愛情、友情、苦情 – 情 means “feeling”, the word before describes what kind of feeling it is. Respectively “love” + “feeling” – the emotion of love, “friend” + “feeling” = “friendship”, “bitter” + “feeling” = “bitterness (which is used to mean ‘complaint’)”.
- Direction: eg 登校、下校 – 校 refers to school. The 登 “to climb / rise” refers to attending school, and the 下 “to climb down” refers to leaving it.
There’s a few other patterns around but in this way, compound kanji words often have their end meaning make some logical sense with relation with their component words.
The fact is that things that make sense stick in memory easier. Despite it seeming like more work, understanding that “friendship” actually means “friend” + “emotion” in Japanese actually makes the word 友情 stick much more than just remembering it without context. Once you get this system you can even make chains of understanding. If you know that 愛情 is “love” + “emotion” then if you see the adjective 愛しい you can probably guess at the meaning – “lovely” – even without knowing how it is read.
One last thing I will say to advise everyone is to stop thinking that Japanese is a difficult language. The more difficult you think it is the harder it gets.
Also if you are a native speaker of English, you are already speaking natively one of the most annoying languages to learn in the world – with it’s thoroughly tough non-phonetic pronunciation (why are the two “ough”s different??) and how minute changes in phrases mean different things – eg. “get on” vs. “get over” vs. “get up” vs. “get up to” vs. “get to”. If you are not a native speaker of English and are still reading this – congratulations! English hasn’t killed you. Japanese won’t.
I want to point out that if you’re having less progress than you have, it could be both a quantity and quality issue. If you are just taking classes, then supplementing it with some effort outside could pay huge dividents. If you are self-learning then conversely maybe classes conversely can help. And if you are getting blocked despite putting enough time in maybe examining how you are learning Japanese can help.
But anyway, hope this article convinces you that simple classes aren’t enough and gives you some ideas to make your Japanese learning not just quicker but also more fun!