There are two halves to learning a language: comprehension and productive ability.
Comprehension is how well you understand it.
Productive ability is how well you can express ideas in your own, original sentences, either in speaking or writing.
In a vague, general sense, the best way to learn Japanese, then, is:
- To get enough consistent, level-appropriate exposure to the language to reach your target comprehension.
- To get enough practice expressing ideas with feedback from native speakers to reach your target productive ability.
The logistics of making this happen are the tricky part. And of the logistics, the biggest problem is not the tool or tools you choose when learning Japanese — which courses, books, schools, etc. — but rather showing up day in and day out for an extensive period of time, a period of time that can be shortened through efficient study methods.
The Best Way to Learn Japanese
Over a decade ago, I wrote a blog post with this title, and I gave a specific, numbered list of activities you should do.
While that was helpful, and many people produced impressive results following it, there is one major problem with such an approach:
The best way to learn Japanese will depend upon what you mean by “learn Japanese”.
Do you just want to play video games?
Do you want to talk to your new in-laws?
Do you want to move to Japan and build a life there?
Do you want to become a professional translator? A professional interpreter?
Do you just want to have fun on your upcoming trip to Japan?
The “best” approach varies depending on which answer you choose.
These goals could be plotted to match target levels of comprehension and productive ability:
- Very high comprehension only (e.g. just wanting to play video games, read books, etc. or professional translation)
- High comprehension, medium productive ability (e.g. wanting to talk to in-laws)
- Very high comprehension, high productive ability (e.g. building a life in Japan)
- Very high comprehension, very high productive ability (e.g. professional interpretation)
- Medium comprehension, low productive ability (e.g. having a more enjoyable trip)
I generally just want to be really good at the language
Then I would say that you should:
- Study with NativShark to get your comprehension very high.
- Regularly attend face-to-face lessons or language exchanges with a native speaker (ideally starting before you’re comfortable doing so), and tell them that you want to sound indistinguishable from a native speaker. Talk as much as possible during your lessons. Find things you want to say and try to say them. A teacher can’t help you much otherwise.
If you don’t want to use NativShark, then you could build out your own study materials. Just be sure to:
- Learn pronunciation, hiragana, and katakana
- Learn thousands of vocabulary in sentences in specific contexts, written as Japanese native speakers write them (i.e. with kanji)
- Learn about 500 or so grammar patterns
- Study how Japanese is actually spoken outside of books and 99% of language courses, apps, etc.
I just want to use Japanese media
Then you could just study with NativShark until you’re good enough to study using the type of media that interests you.
If you have an extreme degree of patience, you could also just learn hiragana and katakana, then study only the type of media that interests you, looking up the meaning of every word and sentence you don’t understand. In other words, you could skip ever using a resource marketed to learners of Japanese.
I just want to have a fun trip
Then you technically don’t need to learn any Japanese. But here is what I would do in this situation:
- Sign up for a free trial of NativShark, then learn hiragana, katakana, and as many useful travel phrases as possible before the free trial ends.
- Attend face-to-face lessons or language exchanges with a native Japanese speaker who speaks English and tell them specific things you want to be able to say during your trip, then drill them until you’re able to recall them from memory and pronounce them naturally.
If all of that sounds like too much work, then just learn katakana (so you’ll be able to read all the English loan words on menus and stuff) and these two phrases:
- すみません (sumimasen), which means “sorry” or “excuse me”.
- ありがとうございます (arigatou gozaimasu), which means “thank you”.
What about kanji?
Isn’t studying all of those thousands of characters a key part to learning Japanese?
Yes, if your study goal involves reaching a high level of comprehension. But learning kanji is a byproduct of learning Japanese words, if you learn them with kanji included. And you can look up meanings of individual kanji whenever you learn a new word, as it might help you remember the word more easily.
It is not necessary to study kanji separately or to make it the main focus of your Japanese studies.
Do you disagree? Do you think I’m missing key details?
Come tell us about them in our Japanese-learning Discord community! We’d love to have you.