“How did I get here?” is a common question of existential crises, but in our case I will merely talk about how I reached my current level of Japanese language study, and how you could, too!
This Blog is NOT about the Basics
Just to get something out of the way, this blog is not about The Basics of Japanese. However, there’s a chance you wandered upon here by accident and you’re keen to learn a few basics. How do you reach an intermediate level of 日本語？Well, I got your back. I’ll talk about what I did! Also, what I wish I didn’t do…
Before we Start…
As a quick preamble before we get into the meat of this post I want to talk about a few things to keep in mind…
- Studying vs Practicing. it’s one thing to ‘study’ Japanese and another to ‘practice’ it. A person can spend their lives buried under Japanese Textbooks (I feel I have) and listen to all the NHK News Easy podcasts they want, but it’s probably helpful to get some conversation and writing practice too. It’ll definitely accelerate your learning. The earlier you practice writing and speaking, the better.
- This is a long, long road. I know you want to be able to do the most perfect Hiroshi Abe impression or understand anime shows on Netflix without subtitles in 5 minutes flat, but this will be difficult and hard. It will also be very fun and rewarding. Don’t get discouraged, and don’t sweat feeling stupid because you don’t understand something right away.
- The books and other resources I mention are ones that I am familiar with. By no means are they intended to be “authoriative” or the last word in what someone should choose. Look up the resources I list online and reviews to decide if they are a good fit for you!
Japanese Textbooks: Get your Hands on Some Books, Somehow
Get your hands on some books somehow! Even if you can’t afford any, try having a look in your local library’s foreign languages section. The following are some books I’d reccomend for beginners to Japanese:
Japanese for Busy People:
This series comes in volumes I, II and III. I never used volume I (more about that later in the Best Avoided section…) but due to the quality of volumes II and III I will assume it is just as solid. The series doesn’t shy away from using proper Japanese script like Hiragana, Katakana and Kanji instead of all romaji. The grammar complexity ramps up gradually and the accompanying CDs have decent voice acting. Each Chapter doesn’t tread water too much and introduces enough new concepts, but not too many to be overwhelming. I worked through Vols. II and III in about a year to 18 months and they gave me a lot more confidence in talking in Japanese than the textbooks I used before.
Honorary Mention: The Genki Series
I have a lot of acquaintences and noticed many online teachers that are familiar with the Genki series of books. As they are popular and well liked by people I know they’re worth a look. I’ve had a thumb through some of the first volume and it looked solid, albeit I found out about these books after the “Busy” series so felt like I would just repeat myself.
Japanese Podcasts, get listening!
In the modern world, podcasts are plentiful and very useful as a starting point. Don’t get lost trying to keep up with native-level language use in anime, drama and movies. There are many free podcasts that cover similar things that can be found in the textbooks I mentioned above, but one series I’d definitely recommend is Japanese Pod 101. I only found out about JPod101 after a few years of study and a few months of actually living in Japan.
The format of a typical episode of JPod 101 is a scripted scenario, with conversations by the show’s hosts giving more context about the scenario, grammar and vocab explanations. There are follow up audio files that help drill the material for each lesson and other great tools on the website. There is a free membership that gives listeners access to certain things, but I recommend the “Premium” tier for $10 a month as it gives access to all audio and bonus lesson materials. I see that there is a “Premium Plus” tier and I may try that this year myself!
When I originally registered on the site, I jumped in at the “lower intermediate” level and learned all about a Japanese monster that licks bath tubs clean with it’s poisonous tongue. When I started listening to and practicing the material from JPod 101 the Japanese staff at my eikaiwa school quickly commented on how more natural my Japanese was getting. I ended up having a two year sub to JPod 101 and will invest again soon to pick up on upper intermediate where I left off. Heavily recommended!
They have a youtube channel too:
Honorary Mention: The dozens of other podcasts…
There are many, many podcasts suitable for Japanese beginners, do a google search for some more but here’s a few to get you started:
Get a Teacher! Now!!
Ok, I understand that getting private lessons may be a little pricy for some people to have regularly, but even as a beginner you should definitely look into getting some lessons. Failing that, at the very least find a Japanese conversation partner via an online community. You will be able to engage with either choice via online chat like Skype or other VOIP services, so don’t worry if you live in the middle of a desert.
Why I am so adamant about getting lessons and practice as a beginner? I’ll refer to my experience as an eikaiwa (English Conversation) teacher in Japan. Japan has somewhat of a bad reputation when it comes to English ability compared to other Asian countries and I believe that’s mainly down to their education system. Japanese school kids have to go through about 5 or 6 years of compulsory English study but only really cover vocabulary and grammar, not conversation practice. As a result I found many of my students having trouble. Some of them, shockingly, even included high school English teachers. Having catch ball, simple conversation even as a beginner can get a person’s brain used to listening, responding and using creativity to improve at their English.
Regarding the conversation partner vs teacher debate, any native speaker can help point out mistakes and make suggestions. A teacher, on the other hand, can easily identify common problems and solutions to errors a student makes. They’ve seen the same problems dozens of times before and know how to encourage and nurture a student’s potential.
I started my online lessons via J-OS (Japanese School Online), but after moving back to England I found that the teacher schedules were typically a bad fit for me (if you live in the US or Asia it may be a good fit for you). After searching online I found iTalki, bought some points and found a variety of teachers that fit my schedule. Most teachers I found on iTalki were likeable and professional, but there are a few that are a little inexperienced and couldn’t really help me much – as always look at the teachers’ profile to see if they are a good fit for you.
Real Life Experience
If you are serious about getting a good level of Japanese Language ability then there’s a lot worse you can do by getting some actual “live” experience, whether via a meet-up or by finding a study buddy online to talk to, or even by going on a holiday to Japan and trying to speak to anyone and everyone that you possibly can!
A homestay is always a good way of getting a lot of speaking practice, I was lucky in that my homestay family was awesome (I just played lots of guitar and drank beer with my homestay dad and talked about movies all the time with my movie nerd homestay sister), but I hear about a lot of bad experiences too. Again, do your homework and use your common sense to make a good call about who to stay with, it’s usually easy after a few emails with a prospective homestay family if they are the type you would like to live with or not. For some potential homestay families search on google for homestay websites where there are profiles ready for perusal.
I think I’ve given you some things to chew on for a while and enough to get started with if you’re a Japanese language n00b. Next time I will be detailing exactly what I intend to do to get over the hole I’ve been in for quite some time regarding my progression in Japanese.
Until next time, stay keen, stay curious!