When I first started on this journey to learning the Japanese language, I was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. I was super eager and impatient to just be fluent already, and I did everything I possibly could to race to that perceived finish line.
Welp, I’ve survived an academic year (3 quarters) of Japanese classes, and I have learned a lot of things about myself, my learning style, what it takes to successfully learn and study a language, and so much more.
Here are a few things I would have told myself when I first started my classes and this journey in general.
There’s no substitute for time
As much as I dreamed about a shortcut to learning, a la Rocko’s Modern Life, learning a new language simply takes time.
When I first began studying, I wanted to learn as much as possible as fast as possible. I researched tips and tricks for studying, bought several tools and books, and was generally in a big hurry to learn. But it simply doesn’t work that way. No amount of study hacks, tools, or anything else could help me learn as fast as I wanted.
Learning a new language is a long road, and time is a valuable part of the learning process. If I had accepted that sooner, I would have saved a bunch of money and frustration.
Start with small habits and build on them
When I first started studying, I studied as much as I felt like. Turns out “as much as I felt like” for an obsessive person like me meant hours every day. But because the brain can only take so much, only a small portion of that time was actually productive.
What I found most effective were the little things I did each day that helped. Using a vocabulary app a few minutes every day, tutoring once per week. Consistency is not only the most important of studying, but it’s also more sustainable when you aren’t trying to study for hours on end.
Plus, when you’re learning a language, lots of different activities will help you learn.
The most successful method I found for studying every day was tying it to another activity I do every day. When I made it part of my nighttime routine, it was easier to remember and complete.
The path to fluency is long and requires gentle patience
I’ve completed Genki I, which is the first of two textbooks we’ll be studying as I earn an associate’s degree in Japanese language. But I’ve just barely begun to scratch the surface of this language.
Fluency is a goal that will take years to accomplish, and even people who have been studying for many years are still learning new things every day. Even people who live in Japan and work for Japanese companies have anime they won’t watch without subtitles.
Language is incredibly nuanced and it takes time and effort to learn the textbook version, let alone the very different version that’s actually used in casual conversation.
A journey like this is, to use an old adage, a marathon, not a sprint. It’s ok to take breaks and not study sometimes. It’s ok to study a little less or to not know the answer.
Being kind and patient with yourself is healthier and will take you a lot farther than scolding, punishing, or being hard on yourself. This is a process, so you won’t always know the answers or the right word. You may not get it right away, and that’s ok.
Set realistic expectations with exposure
Exposure to the language in all forms is incredibly important. Even if you’ve been watching subtitled anime for years like I have, listening with the ear of a learner — and without subs — is a totally different experience than watching a show for entertainment. (If you want to read more about listening to your target language, check out The Game-Changing Language Learning Advice That Eased the Pressure.)
Exposure to the written language has been important too. When I first started learning, I tried to read manga, but it was discouraging to see how little I could understand and it was overwhelming to see all those characters together. What I figured out was that it’s important to look at the text without trying too hard to read or understand it. What’s important is to get used to what it looks like so when you’re ready to read, it’s not overwhelming.
So although I still don’t know enough Japanese to read most of it, looking at Japanese text via news, manga, and books, or even following Japanese influencers on social media was really helpful in getting acclimated to seeing text. And it’s a special treat when I actually can read something that’s posted.
It’s kind of like when you first start listening to your target language, it sounds so fast and you can hardly pick up any words. But as you’re exposed to it more and more, you start being able to pick out words and, later, entire sentences.
If you’re ready to start practicing reading in Japanese, check out Hiragana Times.
Enjoy the journey of learning a new language! Your needs for studying and engaging with the language will grow and evolve as your understanding of the language increases.
One of the most useful things I’ve learned to do is recognize when a study method isn’t working anymore and adjust as needed.
Keep an open mind, get creative, and be patient and gentle.