Last time, I shared some of the tools I use to solve the remember the Kanji problem and what I use as my dictionary. It’s been a little over 10 years since I started my quest to learn Japanese.
As expected, I learned some things during the past 10 years. So, with that, should you learn the language?
Why have I decided to Learn Japanese?
In 2011, sure, I would say the reason I want to learn Japanese is to play Japan-exclusive games that will never receive a localization. However, there is more to why I decided to learn the language.
In high school, Asian languages were not even an option. I took Latin for three years in high school, and it was boring. Sure, people think that learning Latin will help one on the SATs, but I doubt that. While I could learn Chinese related to my heritage, I’m not going to do that for various reasons.
Since I am a 4th-generation Asian American, most of my cousins don’t know Chinese (Cantonese or Mandarin). Given political tensions and lack of good media (since we are talking about an authoritarian country here) to immerse, it’s not an appealing option.
So, why did I decide to learn Japanese? Sure, it’s a difficult language, but I am interested in their culture. So, it’s not surprising that video games and Anime played a big part in my childhood and teenage years. I started listening to Japanese Pokémon music in the mid-2000s. However, it was not until I got into college that I began to watch Anime again.
Lastly, I don’t want to learn the language. I also want to prove my skills. One way to do this is by taking the JLPT, the Japanese Language Proficiency Test. The JLPT tests vocabulary, grammar, reading and listening comprehension skills. Of course, even passing the JLPT doesn’t prove you can speak or convey ideas in Japanese well. After all, it only tests comprehension skills, which is only one piece of the puzzle.
When I started in 2011, I started learning Hiragana and Katakana first. Kana is very easy to pick up, and it took only two weeks. You can probably know it in 8 hours or less and reinforce it using an SRS flashcard program. While you can read anything just in Kana alone, getting the word’s context would make it challenging since many words use the same reading in Kana. Then, there is the Kanji, which is probably the most taunting part of Japanese.
As for grammar, it’s different in Japanese since it uses a different sentence structure than English. Most of the Japanese grammar is easy to grasp after practicing. However, things like conjugations require some practice to get the hang of it. Not to mention, Japanese doesn’t have plurals and only has two irregular verbs (来る、する) compared to numerous in English.
Of course, when I finished all the Grammar in Genki and started work on the Intermediate Level textbooks, I started playing video games in Japanese only as part of immersing myself in the language. This aspect is crucial as textbook Japanese is not the same as real-life usage. Therefore, you will struggle by having to look up many words in a dictionary and put them in the SRS at first. However, once you know more Kanji and vocabulary, it will become easier to read Japanese materials.
As expected, since I started learning Japanese in the early 2010s, more resources are available than before. In addition, web apps like WaniKani and Bunpro make it easier for people who are self-studying Japanese.
Moreover, there are now online resources for Genki someone made that make it easier to practice the course content in a self-study setting. Also, there are YouTube videos that explain the course’s content. The number of resources available to learn Japanese is endless.
Some Other Things I Learned While Learning Japanese
Kanji is Very Important
Obviously, like most people trying to learn Japanese, I neglected Kanji as my SRS approach in Anki was not working. I had the Kanji on the front of the card. I also had the readings and some example vocabulary on the back. However, I am not a visual learner, and I tend to forget them.
Most times, I hit the difficulty buttons and did not learn anything. After a while, I gave up on the Kanji deck, and it was a decrement as I must keep looking up Kanji, which slowed things down. Also, it became difficult to remember the vocabulary without knowing the Kanji since I didn’t learn the Kanji used in them.
I get that Kanji is a taunting part of Japanese. Kanji is the Japanese version of Chinese characters from China during ancient times. Some Kanji represents objects (e.g., 木 for a tree and 日 for a sun). However, they are only 3-4% of the total Kanji. Next are indicators, which describe ideas like 上 for up, 中 for middle, etc. Again, only probably a small percentage.
Most of the Kanji you will see are semantic-phonetic combinations. The left side describes some meaning, and the right side represents the possible phonetic onyomi reading. While you can make a good guess of the onyomi reading in most cases, some combinations use different readings.
In addition, radicals are essential as one Kanji is composed of parts of other Kanji or components of one. Breaking it down makes it easier to remember, possibly through mnemonics or guess the meaning.
While there are different ways to learn Kanji, such as learning in context, using mnemonics (Remembering the Kanji), or using both (WaniKani), of course, you can brute force it by using flashcards.
Still, the most effective method and fastest way are WaniKani since you don’t need to create mnemonics for the meaning and reading of each radical, Kanji, and vocabulary since they already made them. Also, the fact that you need to type each answer makes it easier to reinforce the knowledge. Overall, one should use the method that fits one’s learning style. Either way, one shouldn’t neglect the Kanji as it will make learning new vocabulary and reading Japanese easier.
Anki didn’t work, at least for me
While some people might find Anki an effective tool for memorizing words and Kanji, it didn’t work for me. While I created various decks and used them for 8 or so years before giving up, regular flashcards don’t work with my learning style. Although I can learn things by listening effectively, since I work in IT, I know things more effectively by doing it. Learning by doing is how I pick up new technical skills quickly.
From this, I find WaniKani so practical as you need to type the answer. With that, I wanted to replicate the same SRS system. While it’s possible to do this in Anki, and there are deck templates to accomplish this behavior, I find the implementation clunky. Even after typing the answer, the user must press the difficulty buttons, which is not ideal.
Of course, there is Kitsun, which is a paid SRS flashcard service that can accomplish this. However, I decided to take the DIY route. I developed a native open-source SRS flashcard app built for learning Japanese called KaniManabu on macOS. I plan to make a mobile version soon while adding more helpful Japanese studying tools. Overall, I find this more effective than Anki.
In other words, I don’t think Anki is the best tool just because it’s popular and free. Instead, check out other SRS flashcard systems that might work better for you, even if you need to pay for them.
Learning Japanese is a Marathon, Not a Sprint
Like with learning any language, you shouldn’t rush yourself. So many people tend to give up on learning Japanese because of the overwhelming SRS reviews and the frustration of having to look up words, etc. It’s always best to take a break while maintaining what you have already learned.
Immersion allows you to apply the grammar points you learned in the textbooks and vocabulary to how people use the language in real-life media and conversations. You will also gain exposure to new vocabulary not taught in textbooks. On the higher levels of JLPT, notably N2 and N1 uses real-life materials for reading comprehension.
I would start reading stories involving romance, school life, or slice of life stories. It’s because it will use Japanese that you will hear or experience in real life. You can do this by playing video games in Japanese, reading raw manga/light novels (from legal sources), Anime, Japanese podcasts, live performances, Seiyuu web shows, etc.
Sure, I have mentioned that you shouldn’t learn Japanese just from Anime. However, I still think that is true because one can’t depend on English subtitles to understand what one says in Japanese.
When a translator translates something from Japanese and English, some things disappear in translation. Also, translators tend to add things that a character might not necessarily say. The problem with Anime is that there are no Japanese subtitles, which reduces the usefulness of Anime without knowing enough vocabulary. However, Netflix has Japanese subtitles for its anime titles, which can be a good option.
Regardless, since listening comprehension is another aspect of the JLPT, Anime (without English or Japanese subtitles) can become a good source for listening comprehension practice.
Lastly, it’s okay to read manga or light novels that don’t have furigana. However, it’s advisable to do so as most, if not all, media in Japanese will not have them as it forces you to use Kanji. To me, furigana is just a clutch. Regardless, you should read or watch media that you enjoy. Just be prepared to struggle a lot, especially if you read specific genres that use complex vocabulary like the science fiction genre.
Is Learning Japanese Worth It, and Should You Do It?
Absolutely. While Japanese is not an easy language, it’s interesting to learn various aspects that relate to Japanese culture. This includes honorific speech, which plays a big part in their culture. While I do not plan to live or work in Japan, I hope to visit the country someday. Knowing the language will make getting around a bit easier when I decide to visit.
Also, people tend to complain about the translations, with it being political and such. While playing Blue Reflection in English, since I wanted to review it, I noticed the questionable translation quality in the translation. If that bothers you, playing it in Japanese might look appealing.
Lastly, while most new Anime receive a localization these days, this is not usually the case with light novels and manga. Only a good portion of Japanese media outside of video games and Anime receive a localized release. For instance, only a handful of Manga Time Kirara titles that received an anime adaptation had their manga localized to English.
Moreover, there is a lot of media to immerse yourself in, besides Seiyuu live performances and web shows. I have started collecting and watching these live performances. It can become an excellent source for practicing my listening skills.
My Current Learning Goals
While there is a slow return to normal, I feel that it’s still unsafe to attend conventions. Believe it or not, Covid still exists, and cases are still high. Also, someone died recently from attending one, so I’m going to wait until next year. I want to spend more time on my Japanese studies for the summer as I am on a roll.
My overall goal is to know all the Kanji and grammar necessary to take the JLPT N3 or N2 for next year’s exam dates. With grammar, I plan to read all the grammar points in the intermediate textbooks I have and eventually start doing Bunpro. I plan to supplement my studies by reading more raw manga or video games while practicing listening to YouTube videos and live performances, but not from Anime.
With that, I want to hear from those who are learning Japanese. How is your experience, and what resources do you use to learn and practice Japanese? Feel free to share your experiences in the comments.