Some Tips on Learning Japanese – Teachers, Tools, and Attitude

As I keep stressing in various previous articles, Japanese is a very, very difficult language to learn. I’ve been studying for over five years, and while I would consider myself a decently fluent speaker I am still nowhere near-native levels and still constantly encounter unknown words, phrases or Kanji. Unfortunately, learning Japanese is essential if you want to live and work in Japan. Especially when it comes to the latter, you will find it very difficult to find jobs in Japan if you do not speak what’s considered “business level” Japanese. In practice, this most often means holding Japanese Language Proficiency Test (the most commonly recognized Japanese language test) N2 level, or JLPT N2 as it is usually abbreviated. This test is only held twice a year in Japan, and abroad it is often only held once a year, if it is held at all, and it’s considered fairly difficult as far as language tests go.

But if you are set on working in Japan, you will need to study the language and most likely also pass this test, Japanese love their test certificates after all, and this is also applied to foreigners looking for jobs. I am by no means an expert, but still, I thought I would share three things with you, that I consider essential if you want to become any good at Japanese. This topic is near and dear to me, so please excuse the length of this article.

The right teacher

Find someone that enjoys engaging with you

Nowadays, there are many, many different options for you to start studying the language. Most people are probably going to start by taking Japanese classes in university/college classes. Others might go to Japanese language schools, attend online courses or watch lectures on YouTube. But especially if you are just starting out, having the right teacher is very important. Having somebody point out all the mistakes, that you are bound to make as a beginner, is very helpful. This becomes less important as you become more advanced and able to notice your mistakes yourself, but at the beginning, it is invaluable that you have a teacher that takes interest in your progress. If you are at university, and your teacher just stands in front and reads from your textbook then you are probably not going to make any progress. But your teacher does not necessarily have to be someone that’s a professional. Maybe you have a friend that’s good at Japanese, or even better a Japanese friend who is willing to help you. Or maybe you are in an online community where people are giving out advice. Although you should take advice from strangers with a grain of salt, you don’t really know their credentials after all (the same goes for this blog then, I guess).

The right tools

Now let me preface this by saying that I do not believe that there is such a thing as the “right tool” or even “the right way to study”. Everybody will have different tools and methods that work for them. Finding what works for you is also part of the learning process. Thanks to the internet and smartphones, there are now more tools available than ever and finding the right one for you is becoming increasingly difficult. Here are some tools that I used, or still use when studying Japanese.

1. Anki

Anki is an app that lets you create flashcards. And it is very competent at that. You can create large decks of digital flashcards and take them with you, wherever you go. When reviewing your flashcards, you can then choose how difficult a given card was for you. If you had a hard time remember the meaning of a given word, you can let the app know and it will show you the same word when you review again tomorrow, the day after tomorrow and so on until you’ve managed to remember the word. But even if you let the app know that a word was easy to remember for you, it will still occasionally show you that word so that you don’t forget. This method is called SRS, or Spaced Repetition System, and is scientifically proven to work to help with language studying. Anki has a web version, desktop versions, as well as an Android and an iOS app (all are free except the iOS version. I just use the web version on my iPhone). 

2. Wanikani

Now, to be honest, I have not used Wanikani a lot. It’s a website for studying Kanji and comes highly recommended by various people across the internet so I thought I would best include it. You are taught Kanji across different levels and it comes with many useful hints, mnemonics that help you remember kanji and it also teaches related vocabulary. From what I have seen, it seems like a great little website. The reason I have not used it, is simply that there is no option for advanced students to skip the easier Kanji. When I came across the website, I had already been studying for multiple years and repeating all the beginner Kanji from the beginning was not very appealing to me. But if you are a beginner or more patient than I am, then Wanikani seems to be a great tool to use. The first few levels are free but be aware that you are going to have to pay money (subscription) to unlock higher levels.

3. Bunpro

What Wanikani is to Kanji, Bunpro is to Japanese grammar. You can select a JLPT level and are then given grammar points and example sentences to memorize. Afterwards, you can review what you’ve studied and quiz yourself. Just be aware that grammar explanations can be pretty barebones, so do not consider this an adequate replacement for a textbook. The best approach, in my opinion, is to study grammar with a textbook, but then use Bunpro to review and truly memorize the individual points. Basic functionality is free, but to really use the website to its full potential you need to subscribe.

4. NHK News Web Easy

Now, all the studying in the world is not going to make you fluent, if you do not use what you have learned. If you are studying English for example, there is a lot of material aimed at people picking up English as their second language, magazines, books, YouTube channels and so on. But Japanese is a rare language, and therefore material aimed at students of Japanese is scarce and hard to come by. One of the easier resources to access is NHK Easy News, a news website aimed at Japanese children. Usually, there are multiple articles a day, written in a less formal style than normal news. Further, you can toggle Furigana for all Kanji, meaning you do not have to look up every word and can often read articles in one go. There are even some words that you can hover over, to get an explanation of their meaning (in Japanese). Just remember that the service is aimed at Japanese children, i.e., native speakers, so it is likely not going to follow conventions that you are used to from your textbooks. Still, a great website to get yourself started on actually consuming Japanese content.

The right attitude

頑張ろう!Do your best, but don’t overdo it

I have saved the most important and most difficult point for last. Having the right attitude is incredibly important when studying Japanese. You have to accept that this is going to be difficult. You have to accept that there are people out there who are better at speaking Japanese than you. You have to accept that you are probably going to keep studying regularly over a long period of time to see any results. It can be incredibly frustrating. I have studied Japanese for five years, lived in the country for three. I have probably never invested more time and energy into a single activity. But still, I come across words and Kanji that I’ve never seen when I read the news or watch TV. It can be tempting to say, well if I just study for four hours every day, then I will be fluent in no time! But in my experience, obsessing about studying often has the opposite effect and you will instead burn yourself out and maybe even grow to hate the language, and by association everything Japanese. I have seen it happen to other people. Learn at your own pace. Do not compare yourself to others. The internet provides us with great tools for language studying, but it also shows us success stories of other people. You will come across people saying they studied eight hours every day and became fully fluent in a year. Do not listen to these people. Find your own way, your own pace. If you have the drive and energy to spend eight hours a day studying something, you should probably use it to make the world a better place.

The Working Holiday Visa

Chances are, you have already heard of the Working Holiday visa. Working Holiday has become a catch-all term for a temporary visa (usually one year, though it depends), that allows visa holders to work in a foreign country. As the name implies, the idea is that you only work to finance your holiday, and not use the visa for work as the main purpose. But after you’ve received the visa, there are usually no checks on whether this is actually and if you are free to pursue working or holidaying in any capacity that you see fit. To be able to obtain a Working Holiday visa, there has to be a mutual agreement in place between your home country and the country that you wish to go to. At the time of writing, 26 countries are holding a Working Holiday agreement with Japan. 

I do not know about other parts of the world, but if you are from a European country (I am from Germany), then Working Holiday, Work & Travel, Au pair and many other similar offerings exist, allowing for a temporary stay in a foreign country. As more and more people take gap years between high school and university, the popularity of these offerings is also rising. Getting some experience in a foreign country will always look good on your CV (regardless of whether you actually work or not), and it may also give you a new perspective on life. Where I am from, many people go to Australia, America, New Zealand or the UK for their Working Holiday/Au pair experience to improve their English skills. If your English is already good enough, or you are simply not interested in any of those countries, then I can not recommend Japan as a Working Holiday destination enough. 

Japan is a highly developed nation that is similar enough to other “Western” (whatever that means) cultures that you will not feel completely lost, but still unique enough that you can experience living in a different culture firsthand. If you are fresh out of school and know nothing about Japan apart from Anime, it might be sometimes hard to adapt, so this is definitely a destination that will require some preparation beforehand. First, you need to check whether you are from a country that is eligible for application (as stated earlier, at the moment there are 26 countries from where you can apply). You can check here -> Ministry of Foreign Affairs Japan: Working Holiday

If you are from an eligible country, there are a few more restrictions that apply if you want to obtain a Working Holiday visa. These include but are not limited to the following:

1. You must be between 18 to 30 years old (varies by country).

2. You must be a citizen AND resident of the country that you are applying in.

3. Your primary goal should be the holiday part of the visa, not the working part (though again, this is not checked or enforced past the application process).

4. You must hold a valid passport and possess sufficient funds to purchase a round-trip ticket to Japan, as well as enough money to finance your first few months in the country (usually around 300.000 Yen).

5. You cannot be accompanied by your spouse/children/other dependents.

6. You must be in good health.

7. And finally, it must be your first time applying for a Working Holiday to Japan (it’s a once per lifetime deal)

Depending on where you are from there might be other restrictions that apply, so please make sure to check with your closest Japanese Embassy to verify what conditions you have to fulfil. In some countries you might be required to submit a doctor’s statement, stating that you are in good health, while in other countries you might not even be asked about your health when applying. Some countries only permit a limited number of people to apply each year (as low as 30 and as high as 10000), while other countries have no limit at all. If you are from a country that limits applicants, remember that the Japanese fiscal year is from April 1st to March 31st, so applying in early April might be your best bet. In general, the application process is not too hard and should not be too competitive, as Japan is still a niche destination after all. As long as you make sure to give the impression that you have no intention of using the visa as a steppingstone to aim for a career in Japan (regardless of whether this is your true aim or not), you should be good. The only real deal-breaker that I have heard of is having a criminal record. Depending on the severity of the crime, it may still be possible to obtain a Working Holiday visa, but if you have a criminal record it might be best to be prepared for being rejected. Again, confirm with your nearest Japanese Embassy regarding the details. 

A working holiday is a good opportunity to take your first steps in Japan and get to know the country. If you are considering moving to Japan in the future, I highly recommend doing a Working Holiday first and figure out whether you actually like the country or not. Moving here on a full-fledged working visa, without knowing the country and being thrown into the Japanese corporate world right away is a good way to lose motivation quickly and become one among the many disgruntled ex-pats, drinking and complaining at HUB on a Tuesday night.

I have done a Working Holiday to Japan myself, so expect more to come on the Working Holiday visa in the future.