How I’ve Been Learning Japanese

Friday, December 16, 2016

It’s been a little over two years since I’ve started studying Japanese. And here I am today fluent in reading Hiragana and Katakana (two of the basic syllabaries in Japanese) and confident in reading about 1900 of the 2136 Joyo (common use) kanji (characters borrowed from Chinese). I can read the Japanese I see going out everyday with ease and often find myself buying and reading Japanese books without Furigana (the hiragana to the side of a character to tell you how it’s read).

But by no means am I fluent in Japanese. I would consider my level to be conversational, or in terms of the Japanese Language Placement Test (JLPT), my estimated level would is currently around N2. N5 and N4 being basic Japanese, N3 being everyday Japanese, N2 being “business” or “novel-reading” Japanese, and N1 being (near) fluent Japanese.

Feeling comfortable with Japanese, I recently decided to start learning Korean, another language I’ve wanted to learn for a while. But, the contrast of being comfortable reading furigana-less books in Japanese while screaming over how to read Hangul, Korean’s writing system (one much simpler than Japanese), has made me realize just how much work I’ve put into learning this language and just how much it’s paid off.

I’d like to write about how I’ve been learning Japanese from the motivation to what I used for studying and for practice. And I hope that you find it interesting or useful, especially for those of you learning Japanese or another language.

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The Motivation

The most important part to learning any language is the motivation to start learning it along with the motivation to keep learning it.

Although I had been introduced to manga and anime by friends in the past, I didn’t actually feel an interest in learning Japanese until I was introduced to some Japanese music a couple years down the line. When I could hear the language and see the written portion at the same time, along with people arguing over why one translation is more correct than another is when I became interested in learning it.

Thoughts like “I want to know what they’re saying” and “Those characters are so beautiful I want to be able to read them” along with “What a pretty language!” and “I wish I didn’t have to rely on translations” were among the reasons I decided to learn it that continued to be my motivation throughout my studies.

And as I progressed through my studies of the language, I also learned about Japanese culture, history and current events, lending even further to my motivation to be able understand Japanese documents that have not yet been translated, such as novels, historical documents, or works about Japanese mythical creatures called yokai that have very little information about them translated to English.

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Elementary Japanese

Beginning a new language from nothing, not even knowing how the syllabary is read, is a very daunting task. Especially with Japanese in which there are three different writing systems. Hiragana (ひらがな) for specifying grammar along with Japanese words. Katakana (カタカナ) for loan words from other languages. And Kanji (漢字) which are characters borrowed from Chinese used mostly for nouns and verb stems.

I started out learning Hiragana by finding a chart online and just memorizing it a row at a time. After about a week of studying, I practiced my recall ability and found romaji (romanized Japanese) lyrics online and started transcribing them to hiragana.

I also tried listening to songs and reading along with the Japanese lyrics at the same time. But Japanese song lyrics aren’t just hiragana; they use lots of kanji and the occasional katakana as well. Needless to say it wasn’t easy to keep up with the lyrics with gaps in reading ability, but I persevered.

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As for grammar, I started off using an app on my phone called Tae Kim’s Guide to Japanese, which also has an online site. I used this for grammar before I started classes at my university, but, if I’m being honest, not much I learned from this site stuck with me.

When I started taking classes in University, my class used the Genki textbook series. It was very well explained and the pacing and order of grammar made sense. It also has a separate workbook on top of practice exercises included with the book itself. There is also a CD included in both the main book and the workbook for some level-specific listening practice.

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As for kanji, I just picked up kanji that I often saw in my song lyrics of songs I would listen to. The first kanji I learned was 痛 (ita-i, tsuu) which means pain. I learned it from a song that used it in pretty much every other line. (And if that doesn’t describe my kanji learning experience from that point onward I don’t know what does).

But after that I picked up on kanji like 声 (koe, sei) for “voice,” 夢 (yume, mu) for “dream,” and then (one you actually use often and isn’t just an obscure word mostly heard in song lyrics) was 見 (mi, ken) for “to see.”

And if you’re wondering why those kanji have more than one reading, it’s because kanji was adopted from Chinese along with Chinese readings. Japanese words were assigned kanji and then some Chinese words also were adopted that use the Chinese readings instead. For example 強い (tsuyo-i, strong) and then 勉強 (benkyou, study). The Japanese reading is tsuyo and the Chinese reading is kyou.

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Intermediate Japanese

Defining what level “Intermediate Japanese” is is an interesting task. There’s no specific textbook for “Intermediate.” Some people say it’s after the first Genki textbook, but I would argue for Intermediate Japanese being after the second Genki textbook. Once you finish the Genki textbook, you know all verb conjugations and have an introduction to basic Keigo, Honorific Japanese, while being comfortable which casual and polite Japanese.

At this point I was comfortable with hiragana and katakana and knew about 400 kanji when I thought I had reached the intermediate level.

Getting this far included lots of listening practice from listening to Japanese songs and active listening to Japanese anime or drama. I also followed some of the Japanese singers I listened to on social media. (It was much more motivating to try and read something singers I liked were saying instead of reading watered down Japanese in my textbook).

At this point I was comfortable enough to play games in Japanese as long as it included furigana. (400 kanji sounds like a lot but it’s not nearly enough for one to read without a hitch). I played Yokai Watch, a game released in English a few months after I played it in Japanese. I wasn’t able to catch all the grammar, but the difficulty in grammar here forced me to learn at a much quicker rate. And, as it was a fun game, I had more motivation to actually learn what I was reading. (If you’re interested in playing, the second yokai watch game is much better than the first in terms of story and overall enjoyment).

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As for kanji, I learned about 300 on my own before I decided that learning the rest of the 2136 joyo kanji would be too much on my own, so I did some research online for kanji learning resources and found a site called Wanikani (lit. alligator crab) that teaches you 2027 kanji (along with 6,288 vocabulary words that use the kanji you learn) in about a year and a half. I recently reached Level 60, the final level the other day and let me just say I don’t know what I would have done without this website.

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For a textbook at this level, I used the Tobira’s Gateway to Advanced Japanese. It’s not as nicely formatted as the Genki series, but I found the explanations of the grammar to make sense. The reading level is a large step up from that of Genki, but it really forced me to learn and understand what was I was reading.

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Advanced Japanese

I didn’t think I was advanced in Japanese until I arrived in Japan and tested into the second highest level of Japanese at the University I attend here. After taking the written test, I was given a slip that said “You’ve passed into advanced Japanese” and I almost started crying. My time spent studying grammar that made me want to scream at first and over a year of studying kanji everyday on Wanikani has paid off!

As far as I know, there are no official Japanese textbooks for advanced Japanese. My school uses textbooks made by the professors themselves, but they’re not of the same quality of Genki or even Tobira in my opinion.

There are textbooks to aid studies for the JLPT test. But, having used the Sou Matome series, I wouldn’t quite consider them textbooks, but instead test-prep books containing neatly organized groups of things you should already be somewhat familiar with.

What I use in lieu of textbooks though is novels. I looked up book recommendations online and bought a couple books at the store. One of the books I bought was 僕は明日、昨日の君とデートする (boku wa ashita, kinou no kimi to deeto suru, Tomorrow I will Date the You of Yesterday) and, although it was an easy read, I absolutely hated the book.

Just today I picked up vocabulary books for the N1 and N2 level for the JLPT test. Flipping through the N2 book I feel as though I know the majority, but it never hurts to review, especially since it’s all important vocabulary. But my goal is be around N1 level for the JLPT test next December. 頑張ります!

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At this point in time I don’t have much of a problem understanding Japanese. I understand the everyday grammar and, when I come across unfamiliar grammar, I can often figure it out by context or a quick search on google. I have about 1900 kanji comfortably under my belt and when I’m actually done with Wanikani I’ll be comfortable with a little over 2,000.

But when I’m reading a Japanese novel or just overhearing people’s conversations as I walk by outside, I often forget how exactly I got this far. I forget that I worked hard everyday to get this comfortable with the language.

And for those of you learning languages, don’t give up no matter how discouraging it may be at times. The results of hard work are definitely worth it. みんながんばってね!


One thought on “How I’ve Been Learning Japanese

  1. I have always wanted to learn Japanese. I start with basic phrases and words but then I realise that unless I could actually read and write the basics, there’s no point for me. I wish I could stay in Japan for a long period which would hopefully force me into really learning and studying it properly.
    Good luck to you,


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