I’m learning Japanese, and along the way, discovering new systems for learning it faster, way faster 💨
I can currently speak two languages, English and Spanish. To become fluent in Spanish I did what most people do, I took it in school for a long time, twelve years in my case. I started taking Spanish when I was five and finished when I was seventeen and looking back I realized that the way we have traditionally learned languages is broken…okay maybe not completely broken, but it sure is slow.
About a year ago I decided I wanted to learn Japanese, motivated by two things:
- I want to be able to do business in Japan (in Japanese)
- I want to be able to travel around Japan and visit destinations that tourists never venture to and actually have a conversation with people about life
My first thought was, how can I learn Japanese in a different way than most people would in school because from my experience, the traditional classroom approach to learning a language is time-consuming and slow. There were two things I wanted to do to accelerate my learning — find a system that embraces a more modern approach to learning Japanese and then start surrounding myself with the language more and more.
Like most people, I have been bombarded with advertisements for Rosetta Stone for most of my adult life so I thought that would be the place to start. After a frustrating month moving at a snails pace and feeling like I was still missing out on the fundamentals I turned to a private tutor.
There are a lot of places to find a tutor online and given how busy my schedule is I didn’t want to add another in-person meeting to it. I found a tutor in New York (I’m in SF) who had his PhD in Japanese. He confirmed my suspicions about Rosetta Stone and gave me a bit more direction — “you need to learn how to read and write Hiragana first,” he said — you can’t truly learn Japanese by learning with romaji, your pronunciation will never be correct.
Okay, let’s pause here because I know I likely lost a few people. So what the heck is Hiragana?
Hiragana is the basic Japanese phonetic script and it is absolutely necessary to learn it forwards and backwards in order to learn Japanese, period. There are no shortcuts here — you need to memorize it. To memorize Hiragana I used an app, aptly named — Japanese! It looks like this:
The app breaks everything down into groups so you can learn one group and a time, memorizing each until you move onto the next one.
I’ll admit, this took me a lot longer than I thought it would but that was more a factor of the amount of time I put into it. If you really applied yourself I think you could memorize everything in a week, but I was only able to spend 10–15 minutes a day here and there on it so it took me about six weeks to really get it all in my head.
After I learned Hiragana I went to Japan with my Dad for two weeks. Being in Japan meant I was surrounded by Hiragana and pushed to use the language as much as possible. This not only really made me challenge myself to recall Hiragana (and quickly) but also helped me realize how far away from being conversational I was…which was a good motivator.
When I got back from Japan things got so busy at work that I had to take a break and my Japanese learning lapsed. Then a work trip for Japan materialized and inspired me to dust off my Hiragana, start learning Katakana (I’ll explain what that is in a minute) and add some more basic words/phrases to my repertoire.
Okay, what’s Katakana you ask?
Well, what I didn’t mention about Hiragana is that it’s used specifically to write Japanese words, to write foreign words (like “Computer” or “Smartphone”). While both Hiragana and Katakana describe the exact same phonetic sounds, they use different characters to do it…here’s an example.
In the above example you can see ma, ha, and na — are all pronounced the same but the characters that represent them (called kana) are different in Hiragana and Katakana. This means that while you’re memorizing the same thing phonetically, visually your actually memorizing twice the kana.
I’ll be honest, learning Katakana has been a pretty frustrating process. It felt so good to finally have Hiragana down…so to essentially have to start from scratch learning what felt like the same thing all over again felt in many ways like taking a step backwards.
Then I went to Japan again, this time for work and again for two weeks. I can tell you that it is very different being in Japan on vacation vs. being in Japan for work, in many different ways, but I’ll save that for another article.
This time around I knew more Japanese words and phrases, and I could read the Hiragana on signs while wizzing past them on the train, okay maybe not the Shinkansen (bullet train) but the normal trains. I was able to do most of the basics from ordering at a restaurant, asking where the bathroom is, and seemingly getting people to think I spoke Japanese until they responded very quickly in Japanese…and I looked at them confused and admitted that I only knew skochi (a little) Japanese.
After spending another two weeks in Japan I was more inspired than ever, it’s time to learn Japanese, and faster. So I started doing research (while I was still in Japan) on how to learn Japanese in a less conventional way. I found quite a few articles that mentioned that the way Japanese schoolchildren learn Japanese isn’t the ideal way for adults to learn, in short — it’s a lot slower.
Most articles seemed to point me in the direction of something called WaniKani, so I thought I’d see what all the hoopla was about.
My jaw dropped. I had always thought that learning ~2,000 kanji (what most people say is necessary to really start reading Japanese) would take 5–6 years, WaniKani says they can do it in just over a year.
Of course, it sounds too good to be true but go online, search for reviews, you’ll find tons of people that have learned 2,000 kanji and 6,000 vocab words in little over a year.
Done — I was going to get started right away, I was so excited I started while I was still in Japan. Coming back to the US I went through the culture shock I imagine all Americans go through when they come home — trains full of people on their phones, litter, and the most annoying part — all the signs in English so no easy way to practice my Japanese while going from one place to another. Okay maybe that’s just me.
After spending about a week going through WaniKani I was impressed. It was a but I was actually learning and can now actually identify some Kanji, not many, but some. At the same time, I felt like I wasn’t doing anything to improve my ability to actually have a conversation. Essentially the way WaniKani works is you take a lesson, learn some things, and then get quizzed on them at various time intervals.
What’s unique about WaniKani is that you can’t just blast through the material as fast as you want. Instead, the method relies on you trusting the system to space things out so you end up likely going longer than you’d like between reviews. This apparently pushes your brain to recall information in a different way than if you just tried to cram a bunch of kanji into it all at once.
While I’ve been enjoying WaniKani, I started to feel like I wasn’t making enough progress at improving my conversational skills. I definitely want to learn Kanji, and the 6,000 vocabulary words will be fantastic to know, but if I can’t use them in a sentence I’m not going to be able to really leverage what I’m learning.
So…I started to look on the WaniKani community forum and found a recommendation for Pimsleur as a good learning solution to run in parallel with WaniKani. In many ways Pimsleur is almost the exact opposite of WaniKani which is to say, rather than teaching you individual characters or words and getting you to memorize them, they focus on understanding complete conversations.
Now you’re pretty much in realtime since I just completed the first lesson in Pimsleur yesterday. It’s too early to share much of a review outside of saying that I liked the first lesson and it feels like using Pimsleur alongside WaniKani will be a nice way to both learn to read Japanese and build up my conversational skills.
On last little nugget that I thought was worth sharing. I’ve found the WaniKani community forums to be a treasure trove of information. In particular this thread was incredibly inspiring — in it a student shares his study log which gave me even more ideas on how I can amp up my studying.
I’ll do my best to write an update every month on Medium as I continue to learn more. If you’re trying to learn Japanese yourself I hope there was at least a nugget or two in here that can help you take your learning to the next level. Until next time, さよなら 👋