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The best-ever tips on learning Japanese

by Amy Chavez

If you want to learn Japanese the fastest way possible, read on. Notice I did not say the easiest way possible. If you think learning Japanese is easy, well, you can stop reading now. Presuming you want to learn Japanese, I offer the following best-ever tips:

1. Stop whining

I don’t want to hear about how hard it is to learn Japanese, nor that it is one of the hardest languages in the world to crack, that it has three different alphabets, or that you need to learn over 2,000 kanji just to read a newspaper. The truth is that no foreign language is easy to learn and all languages have some aspects that make them harder to learn than others (giving objects genders, for example? Oh, c’mon!) and other aspects that make them easier to learn (no singulars or plurals? Yay!). So just accept that learning a second language is going to be rough, especially if you are learning it as an adult.

2. Stop thinking it should be easier

Nothing in life is easy, so why should learning Japanese be? Even for those who enjoy learning languages, they do not enjoy embarrassing moments brought on by language faux pas. No one likes it when people laugh at their mistakes. No one relishes that wince a Japanese person gives you when your accent is so harsh it clearly hurts their ears. You can learn Japanese, but you’ve gotta be tough. Tougher than the language, anyway.

3. Stop blaming others

Whether it be your significant other who won’t speak to you in Japanese, or the cashier at the store who insists on practicing his 6th grade-level English despite the obvious fact that your Japanese is waaaaaaaaay better, never forget that you — and only you — are in charge of your language learning. If you need to enroll in Japanese classes or private lessons to get the practice necessary, then do so. If you need to immerse yourself in a Japanese-only environment, then go for it. But blaming others for not speaking Japanese with you is unfair, and surely puts a strain on any relationship.

Although there may be times when it seems everyone is doing their best to make sure you don’t learn Japanese, remember that these devils are everywhere in your life — not just language learning. You’ll encounter similar obstacles in your job, in team sports, and in everyday activities. Achievement, by nature, implies being able to break through barriers, whatever they may be. Nothing should stop you from learning to communicate in Japanese if that’s what you want to do.

4. Stop the excuses

“I’m no good at languages,” you say? Well, maybe not. But it doesn’t matter how bad you are at learning foreign languages — you can still learn them. Look at the Europeans: many speak several foreign languages. And I doubt all of these people enjoyed learning them, or were even good at learning them. Yet they still acquired foreign language skills.

If you live in Japan very long, you’ll hear the Japanese say, “Japanese are not good at learning foreign languages.” Yet English teachers know this isn’t true. Many Japanese people learn to speak beautiful English. Sure, some people pick up languages much faster than others, but why should that concern you? You’ll get there. You just need more time (and maybe more chocolate rewards).

5. Understand that speaking Japanese is a skill

Learning to speak a foreign language is a skill, which is why people put them on resumes. Just like other skills, a foreign language has to be learned, practiced, developed and perfected. From my observations, the reason some people pick up languages faster than others is simple. It’s not necessarily that these people are brighter, or have more of a knack for them. But they do one thing better than everyone else — they study more. Waaaaaaaaaaay more. You cannot become a mathematician without studying math. Nor can you become a soccer coach without first learning to play soccer. So why would you think you can learn Japanese without studying it? A lot.

The key to success in anything has been the same forever — effort. Hard work pays off, and languages are no exception. In addition, the rewards for studying Japanese are extremely high — once you’ve mastered the basics, you will never have to learn them again. This allows you to start communicating while moving on to the next level of the language — a win-win situation.

But even if you don’t move on, the bonus is that you can now communicate, even if only at a basic level. Communication is a life skill. And a much better skill than for example, bowling, which may come in handy at times, but less so in everyday Japanese life.

Even if you live alone and never come into contact with a Japanese person to practice your Japanese with, you can still eat kanji for breakfast, lunch and dinner. You have all that kanji — all that Japanese language — all around you. It’s on your cereal box in the morning. It’s on the lunch menu in the afternoon. It’s in the supermarket when you’re shopping for dinner. Kanji is all around you — so master it! At least the everyday stuff. Because no one else is going to master it for you.

6. Just do it!

Remember the Nike phrase? The phrase is not, “Just do it, but only if you’re good at it.” There is no asterisk next to the phrase that says “*but only if you feel like it.” There is no small print under it that says, “Warning: do not try this at home.”

7. Study

Now that you know you can do it, go study. And when you’re done studying, study some more. And some more. Had enough? Study another five minutes. C’mon, you can eke out another minute now, can’t you?

8. Want it

Like most things, if you want it badly enough, you’ll make sure you get it. And you won’t mind doing all that studying to get it.

How do I know these are the best-ever tips for learning Japanese? Because I am living proof. My first year in Japan I was forced to sit through boring Japanese company meetings every Wednesday, even though I didn’t understand a word. If the meeting went past two hours, as they often did, tears of frustration would well up in my eyes — every time. It was so difficult.

But three years later, after eating kanji for breakfast lunch and dinner, after studying Japanese every day on the train, even in the rain and on the plane, I had only one more level of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test to pass — level 1. I had mastered 1,000 characters and could speak some form of fluent Japanese. And I’ve never looked back. I’ve never studied since.

I’m happy with my kanji level, and I speak fluent Japanese. I’ll admit my Japanese is riddled with grammatical mistakes, bad pronunciation and at times incomprehensible intonation. But I am so utterly fluent in bad Japanese that most people manage to understand me. Ha! Victory for me, because I can communicate, even at the most polite levels!

Now, go ace that Japanese Language Proficiency test! If I can do it, you can. I know you can.