Dou iu imi? Tips for Japanese Language Learning

Whether you find yourself in Japan for travel, work, or study, being able to communicate clearly in Japanese will transform your experience. The U.S. Foreign Service Institute ranks Japanese as a Category IV language – the most difficult for English-speakers to learn – taking on average 88 weeks (2200 class hours) of study to reach proficiency. So – what is the best way to spend those 88 weeks to maximize your Japanese learning?

The Science of Language Acquisition

There are several major theories that attempt to explain how humans acquire language. The Cognitive Theory compares our brains to computers, explaining that the more times we use new language, the deeper it is “saved” into our memory, eventually becoming automatic.

The Innatist Theory argues that we acquire second languages the same way we acquire our first, and that humans have a built-in instinct for language learning, known as Universal Grammar. Sociocultural Theory says that humans learn by interacting with an interlocutor (someone who knows more than they do – a more advanced student, or a native speaker), and by negotiating meaning together. 

A Japanese instructor teachers with a whiteboard and textbook at the front of the classroom, while adult students at their desks.

Students in Japanese class at the Tokushima Prefectural International Exchange Association (TOPIA).

Fortunately, the debate of which theory best captures human language-learning can be left to academics researchers.

Most successful teachers and students of a second language incorporate elements from each of the major theories into their practice.

Japanese-Specific Study Tips

Keeping the Cognitive, Innatist, and Sociocultural Theories in mind, here are four of the strategies I’ve found most effective for language learning, both as a student and licensed teacher of Japanese.

1) A Good Textbook

A textbook titled Shin Kanzen Masutaa Bunpou (N1)

Kanzen Master’s guide to N1 grammar. The series includes books for every level and section of the JLPT.

While not always the most exciting, a good textbook serves as a necessary foundation for grammar, vocabulary, and kanji. I recommend Genki I and II for elementary and low-intermediate students, and Tobira Gateway to Advanced Japanese (上級へのとびら, Joukyuu he no tobira) for high-intermediate level learners.

Fortunately, the debate of which theory best captures human language-learning can be left to academics researchers.

Most successful teachers and students of a second language incorporate elements from each of the major theories into their practice.

2) Authentic Materials

Because the language in textbooks is written for learners, it’s best to balance it with as many authentic materials as possible, in order to hear how native-speakers use the language in everyday situations.

Six Japanese people stand outside a house and a trees with fall colors, the title “Terrace House: Opening New Doors” written above them.

The Japanese reality TV series Terrace House also makes for great studying.

For intermediate to advanced learners, I recommend the Opening New Doors season of Terrace House on Netflix, NHK’s Weekly News in Simple Japanese (やさしい日本語で今週の日本, yasashii nihongo de konshuu no nihon), and the podcast シノブとナルミの毒舌アメリカンライフ (Shinobu to narumi no dokuzetsu amerikan raifu, Shinobu and Narumi’s Sharp-Tongued American Life). If you enjoy cooking, practice Japanese at the same time with recipes from Kurashiru.

3) Formal Study

Sometimes self-study can only get you so far. Working with someone fluent in the language – especially someone who teaches that language professionally – gives you the opportunity to ask specific questions about grammar and vocabulary, and external accountability.

Find an online teacher through a website like italki, or sign up for local lessons. Most cities (even rural ones) offer free Japanese classes to foreign residents. Check the website of your local international center (here’s Tokushima’s), or google your prefecture’s name + 日本語教室 (nihongo kyoushitsu, Japanese classroom).

4) Experiences & Relationships

It has been proven again and again that using the target language to communicate about real-life situations is an incredibly effective strategy for learning. I remember writing the kanji for 炭 (sumi, charcoal) over and over again in my notes, only to forget it by the next day; it wasn’t until I had a barbeque with friends and was tasked with buying the charcoal that I was actually able to memorize the word.

Relationships go hand in hand with experiences. “Make Japanese friends” is often frustratingly easier said than done, but actually using the language to communicate with people you care about changes everything. When you form deep, genuine relationships with someone, the learning comes automatically. The words you’re hearing are not out of a textbook – but from someone you love telling you about their life.

Two women drink coffee at a counter, and one poses behind the counter.

Conversations with friends, possible thanks to Japanese.