Learning Japanese on Your Own

by David Ockey

Learning Japanese on your own can seem like a daunting task. But it is possible. I know, because starting in 2003, that’s exactly what I did.

I had taken Japanese classes at California State Universtiy – Fresno, but they didn’t do it for me, so I had to figure it out on my own. Really, it’s not hard and anyone can do it. But you do need to have the right methods becuase not all methods work. For example, my university Japanese classes didn’t help me much at all.

Humans Learn Languages Naturally

If you are wondering how possible it is to learn Japanese on your own, remember that learning languages is natural for humans. With the right learning methods, materials and motivation, you can and will learn Japanese. Biology has stacked the language learning deck in your favor. But your desire has to be strong enough and your methods have to be good enough.

Don’t waste your money

I have bought many Japanese textbooks, even after coming to Japan. Some of which are still sitting on the shelf, collecting dust. Many of my students have asked me which textbook they should use to study English. My advice to them is simple: the textbook that you find interesting. If you are surrounded by things that bore, you will give up. Don’t waste money. If you find a good source that you find interesting (even if it’s not a great one) chances are that you will be coming back to it again and again.

Don’t waste time

I tried to force myself to learn “proper” Japanese as it was in the textbooks. After coming to Japan, I quickly learned that people don’t talk that way. That’s why when developing our Japanese lessons, I chose the way people really speak. I had spent many years forcing myself to learn dry (and ultimately useless info) but you don’t have to: and shouldn’t! If you have seen Japanese textbooks, you’ll notice a stark difference between them and our lessons. I wanted our lessons to help people to be able to really communicate.

Follow your passions

Textbooks aside, whatever it was that drew you to the language in the first place is the main way in which you should expose yourself to that language and culture. For example, maybe learners of Japanese as a second language are interested in anime or manga. That is an excellent place to begin. Although using comics and animation may not be the most accurate representation of language and culture, it is a part of a larger system of study. For me, one of the beginning ways of learning Japanese was cooking. Even though I really couldn’t read anything, I bought some Japanese cookbooks. It was a subject that I was already familiar with, and there were plenty of pictures, so I could work my way through simple recipes and learn along the way.

Don’t limit your experiences

One of the things that interestingly helped me the most was watching TV commercials. The messages are simple and they are easy to understand. Especially since many Japanese commercials are quite crazy and some are even hilarious. I still remember them! So learn about the entertainment of the country or countries that speak the language that you are trying to learn. Look at their cinema, TV shows, and music. As you get more ability in the language things like poems and books would also be helpful. The list of possibilities goes on and on.

However it is that you connect with the language, the important point is this: frequency, frequency, frequency. Your brain needs to get used to the new language.

See how the language works in different situations

After having lived for 16 years in Japan, I still find it difficult to explain or describe some things. It’s not enough to simply directly translate words into a different language. You must learn how things are expressed. Now you might think, “of course, there are idiomatic expressions.”But this point is far deeper than that. It’s not just about culture, but it’s about a way of thinking. This way of thinking not only determines how something is explained but also the mechanics of the explanation itself. On top of that, what aspects you are trying to explain: what points do you consider to be important or interesting. And of course beyond that, how things are described in terms of expressiveness. English has a large number of words that mean “big”: for example, large, giant, humongous, enormous… and there are many more. The concept of “big” is very important in our culture. Simply translating the word “big” into a language isn’t necessarily going to give you the same effect.

When in Rome, you have to learn what the Romans do

In this case, textbooks can actually be useful for reference. They aren’t exciting, but they could be useful to you to help give an idea of differences. A textbook can explain to you in your native language how your target language actually works. It can show you examples of how the two languages differ. Of course there is one caveat: many textbooks, I have found, are a little too much like their native language rather than the target language. This was my experience with my first text book when I began learning Japanese at University. Every sentence had the Japanese equivalence of a subject. But after having come to Japan, I was very confused. ‘Why was no one using any subjects?” It took months for me to figure out that in Japanese (and in many Asian languages) a subject is not necessary.

Give your brain something to work with

Giving your brain something to work with is really important. You need a place to start and stock phrases are simplest. When I develop-ed our Japanese lessons, I made sure learners had phrases for situations they would actually be in, or even imagine themselves in.

In the beginning, when trying to speak a new language you will find yourself tongue-tied. It’s excruciating to sit there waiting for words to come out of your mouth and watching people around you patiently stare at you. Memorizing words for basic knowledge is good but also phrases to use in response to someone is a great way to begin trying to communicate with someone.

Of course I highly recommend Spaced repetition has been shown to be very effective. It gives you phrases to use, the situation and the type of practice helps your brain to produce learned phrases more quickly than simple flash cards.

Of course you have to try it out

Trying out your new language is worth mentioning again. Regardless of where you live, you can find someone to practice with. There are various ways to connect with people from around the world.

A good way to connect to a language partner is online. I use a service called “Italki” to practice the languages that I am studying now. It can be fun and interesting to make a new friend, especially when they are half way around the world. But if you are fortunate enough to have people in your community, by all means, try to make some new friends! If you are an expat living in a foreign country, my advice is to spend more time with native people. All too often people living in foreign countries gravitate to those that speak their native language. Here in Japan I know many such people who have lived here as long as I have, or longer, and don’t speak a word of Japanese. When I ask them how they spend their free time, it’s always with other expats.

Although it can be lonely, especially when you are in a new place, if your goal is to become proficient, you should speak your new language as much as possible. It took me about six months to become functional in basic conversation.

Learn by listening to native speakers talk to each other

This is the point where I think most people fall short. Listening to the way native speakers talk to each other and copying them is the absolute best way to become more natural. You can experience not only what they say, but how they say it, express it and even what they talk about. You can see how they express the same situation. Simply translating what you want to say directly often doesn’t work and can even lead to large misunderstandings.

Talk to yourself

This is something that I often do, even now. I imagine myself having a conversation and I basically practice what I would say. Of course when you’re just starting out, the conversations will be very short. Imagining the situation can help you prepare for it emotionally. That may sound strange, but I’ve often found it a little embarrassing trying to express myself in a different language. Your imagination can help you get ready and practice, which will build confidence. It will also help you to remember words and phrases.

Learning a new language by yourself is possible. Even if you study with a teacher, many of the points I made will be necessary to become fluent. It’ll take awhile and timing is different for everyone. But remember, learning language is something that we are all wired to do naturally.


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