How I became fluent in Japanese
First of all, I never studied as I was told I should study to learn perfect Japanese. And I still became fluent.
As you might know, I currently live in Japan and I write this blog together with a Japanese person (Japanese version here!) but I’m not, definitely not originally from Japan. However, I have no problem with my life in Japan language-wise. I passed the highest level of Japanese profiency test JLPT a few years ago and I can read novels and academic books without a problem, discuss about pretty much anything I can speak in my own language as well and I understand almost everything when I read or listen to news.
I started my Japanese journey in 3rd class of Elementary School. I didn’t really study at first, I just watched anime and listened to Japanese pop but this was useful for learning the sound and rhythm of Japanese. 4 or 5 years later I started “actually” studying. I attended Japanese class for a few months and learned hiragana, katakana and the basics of grammar. I got busy and stopped going to classes pretty soon though and started studying by myself.
The most important points of my journey in learning Japanese are gathered below.
1. I started by studying hiragana, katakana and the basics of grammar.
I went through only the basics, approximately the content of Minna no Nihongo I textbook first. I didn’t even attempt to continue studying right away after finishing, I just studied Japanese in other ways and very rarely looked at any textbooks. I think studying the basics was vital for me though and I would recommend everyone else as well to actually study a bit before the next step. Some argue that studying katakana would be unnecessary at first but in my opinion katakana is incredibly important and knowing katakana can really help you on a trip to Japan (menus in restaurants often have a lot of katakana). It’s also fun to be able to read all the weird katakana words so there’s really nothing to lose – and there’s only around 50 katakana characters anyway!
2. I immersed myself in Japanese for years.
I listened to music in Japanese and watched Japanese drama series & other TV programs. As soon as I was able to read hiragana and katakana, I started reading the blog posts of my favorite Japanese celebrities, desperately trying to understand what they were writing. I used a browser plugin (rikaichan for Firefox) that showed the reading and the meaning of a kanji when hovering on one and I found it very useful. I also read some books and magazines even though I couldn’t really understand anything at first. By the way, if you are looking for something to read, I really recommend a book called Street Smart Trivia I found recently. It has the same articles written in both English and Japanese, explaining some interesting mysteries of Japan and the Japanese society. For example, have you ever wondered why the green traffic light is called “blue” in Japanese? Or why so many Shinto shrines use pea gravel to pave their grounds? The creators of this book have also investigated on things like the lawful definition of indecent clothing so, ehem, it could be useful for a Japan trip too. If you can’t find the book in your local bookstore, you can buy it here.
In case you are wondering where to start with Japanese dramas, take a look at this post!
3. I never really studied how to write kanji.
I only started studying the writing of kanji a few years ago when I entered University. Although this means that I still can’t write all of the most common 2000 kanji symbols by hand, I honestly think that studying kanji is not the first priority when studying Japanese. If you love studying kanji, go on and study, but for those who consider giving up studying Japanese because of kanji, I would recommend studying kanji through words. I studied kanji mostly through words, concentrating on the reading of symbols in context instead of studying the readings alone.
I would never recommend anyone to study kanji readings or meanings alone without context unless you are very interested in kanji itself (and don’t really care whether you’ll learn how to actually communicate in Japanese or not). Knowing the names of radicals and the meanings of kanji symbols might prove to be useful at some point but they might also make you confused. Also, studying the readings alone will get you nowhere since you won’t know which reading you should use.
4. I practiced for JLPT with Memrise word lists and by watching YouTube videos.
I used Memrise for cramming my head with different words but I don’t recommend this as an only method of studying Japanese. About 90% of all the words I studied with Memrise for JLPT N3, N2 and N1 were words that I already knew from somewhere: I had either heard them in a Japanese tv program or read about them in a magazine. In fact, I actually just reread with Memrise and youtube. Nevertheless, I’m still thankful for nihongonomori since they helped me in filling my head with grammar patterns and those specific rules of grammar you won’t learn just by watching tv.
5. I spoke aloud as much as possible.
I have someone talk with now but I didn’t have before and I still practiced speaking. Saying you can’t practice speaking because you have no one to talk with is a very bad excuse. I read aloud everything I could find, repeated after the characters of drama series, spoke by myself, reacted to tv programs like an idiot, tortured my family by singing in Japanese often – and the list goes on. Only chances I had for actually speaking Japanese with other people were my yearly Japan trips which I started when I was on 2nd grade of High School. If I had only opened my mouth those times, I definitely wouldn’t be fluent by now.
What I wish I had done better:
- Paying attention to intonation right from the start. I still can’t really pronounce some differences in the intonation, like the difference between 雨 and 飴 (both pronounced as ame with different intonation) although I understand the difference when someone else is talking.
- Studying more and better. I’m not sure what kind of image you get from this post alone but I actually never really studied Japanese with my utmost effort. I just watched tv programs, listened to music, read some magazines and just chilled. I would have become fluent a lot faster if I had actually studied. However, by studying I don’t mean that I wish I had wasted my time on those mechanical sentence generation tasks in textbooks – they’re something I would recommend to no one.
That’s it for the most important point of my journey in studying Japanese. I’m not a perfect example but I’m an example of someone who got fluent having fun, never forcing myself to study. What I wanted to stress on the most is that you shouldn’t be afraid of kanji and you shouldn’t relay on textbooks or teachers too much.
I hope someone will find my journey in studying Japanese useful – both in good and bad.
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