The best way to learn Japanese

As someone who now has a decent grasp of the language, I often pondered this aforementioned question. What is the best way to learn Japanese? Over time I’ve come to realize that this is the wrong question to ask.

The right question to ask is:

How bad do you want it?

Take a minute and think about it: How bad do you want to learn Japanese?

Hang in there with me here as I explain.

The high school I attended required me to take two years of foreign language classes. My mom suggested that with my love of certain periods of history and a dad that lived in Japan as a kid, I might sign up to take Japanese. I’m slightly ashamed to admit it now, but I wasn’t all that interested. But if I had to learn a language, might as well be Japanese. I mentally shrugged, thinking that if this was one more hoop to jump through to get out of high school, so be it.

I can’t say that I tried particularly hard to learn Japanese while in class. While I made okay grades, it didn’t translate into learning to speak, read, write, or even understand a complex language. Upon graduating with two years of Japanese under my belt, I could read and write hiragana and katakana, say good morning, hello and goodbye. And…that was about it.

A year after graduation, I found that I would be living in Japan for two years with the need for speaking Japanese on a daily basis. Right afterwards, I found that a large city nearby had a small Japanese population and held a little Japanese festival every year. I drove to go see it for a taste of the culture and hopefully to practice a little Japanese.

It was neat seeing a Japanese drum group performing when I pulled up. I found a spot to observe, and spent several minutes fascinated by their skills. After the performance was over, I went to take a gander at some of the food and trinket booths. I went up to one that was manned by a middle-aged man I assumed was Japanese. I looked over the items in the booth, and prepared myself to greet the gentleman in Japanese.

Then, for the first time, I realized that after I greeted him I couldn’t carry on a conversation. Even if he understood something through my thick accent, I wouldn’t understand a single thing he said if he replied. I had an excellent idea of what I could say to him after that though; absolutely nothing. As soon as I said “konnichiwa” the conversation would be about over.

My mind raced and protested vehemently. Surely this couldn't be right! "I shouldn't be in this situation," I silently screamed in my head. I had two YEARS of Japanese under my belt! And then, it hit me. I had gotten exactly what I wanted out of my Japanese study. In high school, I wanted to pass the class. I didn’t really want to learn Japanese. And now, all that Japanese that I hadn't wanted to learn, couldn't come save me now.  I got what I had wanted back then. And it came back to bite me with a vengeance. As I stood there in front of that booth in the middle of a blocked off parking lot, I suddenly found myself regretting the lackadaisical manner in which I took my high school studies. Seriously regretting.

Right then and there, my desire to learn Japanese increased by about 1200%. Before leaving for Japan, I spent about 2 1/2 months studying the language intensely. Six days a week and a minimum of 6 hours a day. I studied grammar and made vocabulary flash cards. I memorized paragraphs and once a week spent an hour or so talking to a native speaker. At one point, a friend of mine said that he woke up in the middle of the night to hear me reciting Japanese phrases in my sleep.

During that time, I became quite ill. I thought stress was the culprit. Little did I know that I suffered from an appendix problem. For two months I felt like garbage. However, I determined to let nothing stand in the way of me learning Japanese.

Inside a Japanese hospital

Upon arriving in Japan, I was promptly hospitalized. Two days after getting to the city of Kumamoto, I received an emergency appendectomy and had my appendix, as well as three calcified stones, removed. For the next three days, I was all but paralyzed. I remained in the hospital for another two days beyond that.

My hospital experience further fueled my desire to learn Japanese. Countless times the Japanese nurses came into my room to check my condition and see how I was feeling. And every time they came in, I ended up reaching for the dictionary. They caught on pretty quick, and would look up the main words for me. They seemed to get a kick out of it. I couldn’t stand my inability to communicate with them. And you should have seen the blank look on my face the day a lady came to ask about insurance.

Once out of the hospital, I began meeting other gaijin and asked everyone what they though was the best way to learn the language. I received a ton of advice from many many people. Every study method, every trick, every gimmick, I heard. And quite frankly, not much of it did me any good.

Nowadays if someone asks me the best way to learn Japanese, I respond with “How bad do you want to learn it?” After hearing their reply, which generally goes something to the effect of “really bad,” I say “If you want it that bad, you’ll make it happen.”

Two suggestions for learning Japanese

Now, as I am not entirely heartless, I do go on to make a few suggestions.

The first thing I suggest is to find out what works for you. 95% of the advice I received did not work for me. Maybe it worked for whoever gave me that advice, and good on them for sharing that with me. I sincerely appreciated their advice when they told me. But it wasn’t until I found out what worked for me that I started making progress.

To this day I personally do a few things to continue learning the language.
**Note of caution: What works for me may not work for you**

#1 - Carry a dictionary everywhere - No matter where I go in Japan, I have a dictionary with me. And don’t just carry one around; use it constantly. And not just for words I hear. If I think of a word I don’t know how to say, I look it up. An amazingly simple thing to do and yet for some reason, very few do it.

My Japanese vocabulary study area.

#2 - Write down new words on sticky notes - I write down new words on sticky notes, and hang those sticky notes in the bathroom of my apartment. It may sound weird, but I know I am going to be in there a few minutes every day, and it works for me.

#3 - Use your fingers - When I hear a new word and my dictionary or my pencil isn’t immediately handy, I take my pointer finger and on the palm of my hand, write that word down in hiragana three times. After a minute or so, I write it again. By doing so, it keeps the word in my head for a few minutes so I can look it up and write it down when I get the chance. I can remember the word much better when I write it down. I am much more likely to use it too.

Another thing I will suggest is that you do whatever works for you consistently. Every day you need to be learning. Every day you need to progress. It doesn’t have to be a lot every day. But it needs to happen every day. Some of the most successful men in the world, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, both state that focus was the secret to their success. If you are not focused on Japanese to the point that you spend time every day learning something new, the likelihood that you will one day be fluent is quite small.

For the remainder of my two years in Japan I studied the language for an hour 6 days a week, and spent a good portion of each day speaking Japanese. Now that I am living here once again, I still have my sticky notes in the bathroom and treat my dictionary like a Hollywood CIA agent treats a firearm; always within reach.

Once again, ask yourself how bad you want to learn Japanese. If you want it to the degree that you will willingly spend only 15 hours of your next 90 days (90 days x 10 min = 15 hours) studying it, may I suggest that your time may be better spent on other endeavors? Because that level of effort will give you the same level of results. If you really could learn Japanese that easy and fast, wouldn't a lot more people speak Japanese fluently?

If you really want to learn Japanese that bad, you will make it happen. You will take the time and effort required. If your desire is initially fueled by the excitement of arriving in Japan, or wanting to read anime, great. If you realize after a while that learning Japanese is ridiculously hard and you start to consider quitting, you need to ask yourself how bad you want it. If you decide that you don’t want it that bad, that’s okay. Find something new that you do want to learn--and determine beforehand just how bad you want it.

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