Most foreigners living in Japan can speak just enough Japanese to get by. Some of them can’t even do that and rely heavily on friends to communicate for them.
Learning Japanese is a struggle for just about everyone. You could easily be forgiven for giving up on learning the lingo; I know I have stopped and started over and over again during my time in Japan. The thing is that even if you are convinced that you’ll only be in Japan for a year or two, you should still put the time into learning how to communicate. You may end up staying longer than you thought you would, and in any case Japanese is incredibly useful outside of Japan as well (and is the pathway to a lot of high paying jobs in the West).
By far the hardest jump in Japanese is from intermediate to advanced. When you are a beginner there are loads of resources for you and you’ll hear your target phrases and words often in conversation, and be able to use it immediately. However, as you start learning how to talk to real estate agents, immigration officers or tax officials in Japanese, you’ll find it much harder to keep up with the vast amount of knowledge you’ll need to continue chatting away.
Here are some of the most popular resources for Japanese learners:
みんなの日本語 (minna no nihongo; Everyone’s Japanese) – Better than Genki because of the fast reading CDs, but still not ideal. Textbooks are the worst way to learn a language (English teachers in Japan should know this by now).
JapanesePod101 Online – This is one of our favourites because there is just a staggering amount of content for any level. I’ve used it on and off for years, and since it’s pretty cheap it’s a good one to jump into if you’re hunting around for another resource.
iTalki – I use this all the time. I used to have three 45 minute classes per week when I was really pushing my Japanese to get to fluency. Pick a teacher and just try them for one class, and see if you get along. Always pick the same gender so you’ll be picking up natural intonation which is really gender-specific in Japanese.
Memrise App now has Japanese – It’s ok, but apps tend to make you better at doing the apps, not necessarily better at speaking to people.
DuoLinguo has basic Japanese too!
Tofugu has a lot of articles about learning Japanese that are very useful.
Nihongo Shark has a free course to learn how to learn Japanese.
FluentU – I haven’t used it but it has a lot of content from users for Japanese, and I’ve heard really good things from my language geek friends.
Intermediate is by FAR the most uncomfortable stage, and hardly any resources actually help you get through “The Dip” and come out the other side a fully-fledged fluent speaker of Japanese. I’ll talk about some of the reasons why and some ways to progress.
Why is it that people going to Spain or France for a year can learn Spanish or French, but going to Japan doesn’t help you get into the bilingual club so easily?
A big part is the similarity to your mother tongue. If English is your first language, Japanese may well be the most difficult language in the world for you to learn. According to the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) it takes English speaking learners of Japanese 88-weeks (2200 hours) to become fluent in Japanese, compared to 575-600 hours for learners of French or Spanish.
And it’s not like this is a straight line either. Sooner or later you’ll reach your “dip”, the point at which you keep studying and studying but never feel like you’re getting any better. Powering through the dip and out to the other side may take several months and you need to keep going without seeing much if any results.
This is compounded by Kanji, one of the most difficult and challenging aspects of learning Japanese. Even Japanese children take 10+ years to become proficient at the 常用漢字 Jouyou Kanji – the 2000 or so kanji for common use in daily life. For foreign language learners this means at least 3-5 years of diligent study to become proficient.
You got to conversational, but getting from here to speaking fluently seems like a daunting task. Why?
Resources for higher level speakers are few and far between, at least on the surface of it. For beginners there is the Genki series of textbooks, みんあの日本語 (minna no nihongo) and a bunch of apps like Memrise and others. I’ve always learned much faster how to speak and communicate from listening and speaking online courses like Glossika and JapanesePod101, as I could hear how things were said and start using them in conversation the very same day. However, once you get good, a lot of resources become less powerful, and you find that you have a lot of gaps to fill. This is a numbers game, and there are no shortcuts, and no apps that will get you there.
Think of it like the circle of your knowledge expanding to encompass all that you know about the language. At first, every small improvement feels huge because the volume of what you know is getting much bigger. However, once you get to a certain stage these changes are much smaller in terms of volume.
One of the biggest reasons why it can be very hard to learn Japanese is that being accepted as “one of us” in Japanese society is something that may feel completely impossible. It is much harder to feel a sense of kinship and identity with the Japanese people – it’s us “immigrants” and them “Japanese”.
An interesting study was done with Russian immigrants to Canada that found that those who tried to integrate, join in and become one of the local population had amazing English ability in just a short time, even losing their accent and developing a Canadian accent as their cultural identity became Russian-Canadian and their English skills began to outstrip their native Russian. Those who held on dearly to their Russian heritage and identity struggled with the language and in some cases couldn’t speak much at all after years living in a foreign country. People want to find the easiest route that is also consistent with their identity narrative.
That leads me to possibly the biggest reason is not just that Japanese is hard, but it is the mindset of people studying the language. If you came here to work, as I did, you can find yourself thinking: “I don’t really need to speak Japanese. I’ve lived here for 1/2/3 years and I can read menus and get by in daily life. Even when I speak Japanese people reply to me in English or don’t listen to me, so I feel like Japanese isn’t that useful…”
The thing is that Japanese is incredibly useful once you can speak and communicate, but you get in a mental rut about using it and miss out on all the major benefits. From using Japanese apps that work here, to wanting to being able to negotiate your rent or salary, being competent in Japanese accrues more than just benefits to your wallet. Your whole vision and opinion of your life here can be radically altered by learning the language. What needs to change first is how you think about it.
Instead of thinking “I don’t need Japanese” or “It’s too hard, I don’t have time” you need to commit to making Japanese language learning a priority. “I commit to being a competent Japanese speaker.”
So what can you do to improve your Japanese?
1. Talk to people and make friends in the real world.
This is really the core of learning Japanese and becoming fluent. My biggest “growth spurt” in Japanese was when I started an international meetup group in Nagoya. I made lots of friends and had a Japanese girlfriend, and I felt part of a community, so naturally I wanted to talk to more of the people in my community.
2. Look for opportunities to practice (just like Japanese people do to you).
Tell me, do you find yourself jumping at the chance to make friends with foreigners and shying away from talking to and meeting with Japanese people? How often do you use Japanese in conversations, and not just to say “that is so mendokusai”? Changing the way you think about meeting and being friends with real people is the number one path to having emotional investment in learning the language.
Put in the effort to meet people and talk to them in Japanese, and be clear with them too. Often you’ll find that Japanese people who can speak English will reply to you in English as they want to use it. Tell them straight up: “I like the ease of speaking to you in English, but I also want to practice and improve my Japanese. Would you mind speaking to me in Japanese for maybe half the time, and we can talk in English for the rest of the time?”
3. Start using real Japanese resources, not just ones designer for foreign language learners.
You need to use real Japanese resources. It’s easy to get stuck in Japanese to English translation mode, and using textbooks and resources designed for the language learner. For anyone who has taught English before, in Japan you know that for the sake of using some grammatical term or some useful vocabulary, textbooks will often have very unnatural sounding sentences. That’s equally true of textbooks for learning Japanese.
Find some content you are interested in and dive into it. If you have hobbies or you like fashion or videogames or tech, start taking the time to go through magazines, books or watch videos that talk about those things. You’ll (probably) be naturally motivated to understand them as you have an interest in the content.
For kanji you can also just pick up the study methods that Japanese kids use; the 漢字トレーニング little books for elementary and junior high school children are fantastic as they have tons of examples, they use easy language (because its for kids) and it’s not trying to translate into English, which comes with it’s own huge set of problems.
4. Start with high volume, then correct your errors later.
A lot of people start off wanting to know the precise meanings of Japanese words, and get stuck in translation mode and eventual paralysis. You must learn to be tolerant of ambiguity, especially when you’re just starting to get good at Japanese. Then when you have gotten to conversational fluency, get a private and inexpensive tutor with my personal favourite resource, iTalki. You can pick someone you like the look of (pick the same gender, you’re not looking for dates here guys, you don’t want to end up sounding like a girl).
I’d recommend doing a mix of conversational classes, and then choosing your own textbook for when you are studying more complicated Japanese turns of phrase. Martin bugged me literally for years to pick up the Japan Times’s An Integrated Approach to Intermediate Japanese, and I’m so glad I finally did a year or so ago. It helped me to get good enough to pass screening interviews for individual house rentals, and argue on the phone in Japanese with internet companies and force them to both speed up my internet and cut my price for the months I had suffered with bad internet. I went through it with my online tutor on iTalki every other lesson, and did specific topic conversations in weekly intervals.
Make Japanese friends
Are all of your friends other foreigners? Branch out a little! I can’t even begin to tell you how important community is to learning language. If you’re only ever studying and talking to people who you pay to talk to you, you might as well go to a snack bar. Meet real people and make friendships with them and you’ll become more confident and have more motivation.
Try going to meetup groups (we talk a lot about making friends using meetup in Japan here) or by finding events that you are interested in and connecting with people there. I have met some of the coolest people I know by going to entrepreneur and cryptocurrency events in Tokyo, and in Nagoya half of my friends network were people I met at salsa dancing lessons. It’s really fun and a natural way to meet people and connect with a common interest.
The number one thing you can do
You must change your mindset about Japanese and who you are. If you always see Japan as this zenophobic and closed off place, are intolerant of differences (in the same way many people say Japanese are intolerant of foreigners) and refuse to acknowledge your role and lack of conviction to study, then you will fail. I’m not saying that to hurt you or upset you, I just know that Japanese is an extraordinarily hard language for English speakers (literally the hardest) and I really hope that you’ll put the time, effort and commitment into learning the language so you can open up the most opportunities for yourself in Japan. There are no hacks and while some of the resources above will help you, there is no substitute for hard work and getting comfortable with being uncomfortable.