How to Learn Japanese: 6 Simple Steps to Turn Slow & Painful Study into a Fun & Interesting Lifestyle

I got some REALLY RUBBISH ADVICE from my mentor – a very experienced teacher – when I first arrived in Japan. Or so I thought…

So, it was a sunny September morning and I was in the staff room preparing to teach my first EVER group lesson. Honestly, my mind was as blank as a squeaky clean blackboard.

Feeling steam billowing out of my ears, I begged the teacher to tell me what exactly I should plan to do.

‘Oh, just make it OMOSHIROI*’ she offered, breezily.

No shit, Sherlock! I thought. But how on earth was I going to make learning a booooring foreign language OMOSHIROI for 30 kids stuck at their desks, inside four walls?

Little did I know that what she said was actually PROFOUND advice – and I was about to spend the next 20 years of life searching for the answer.

*Omoshiroi 面白い/ おもしろい is a Japanese word that translates as both ‘fun’ and ‘interesting’. Furthermore, it can mean ‘funny’ or ‘amusing’ (amongst other things). The kanji is a combination of 面 (surface / face / mask) and 白い (white / bright / clear), so the etymology of the word is pretty interesting in itself.

How is it possible to turn slow & painful study into a fun, interesting, funny and amusing process?

They say that to learn a language is to learn a culture, and I believe that is absolutely true. What’s more, injecting culture gives language CONTEXT.

But CULTURE is such a clunky term.

What IS culture, exactly? Well, a quick google search tells me that there is Culture with a capital ‘C’ – that is, the arts. Literature, visual arts, music, performance – aesthetic creations.  In Japan’s case, tea ceremony, martial art, Yayoi Kusama (the dotty artist) might spring to mind. And there is culture with a lowercase ‘c’ – that is, what people do. That is, customs, ideas & social behaviour. Things like going to a shrine on New Years’ Day, bowing, saying and ‘Yoroshiku Onegaishimasu’.

Making learning Japanese fun and interesting is very much about embedding the language learning, and both types of culture, into your own life.

When you’re learning a new language, you’re up against a whole pile of obstacles:

  • Limited attention span
  • Boredom
  • Fear
  • Confusion
  • Information overload

It’s a wonder anyone manages to learn anything at all these days. Especially considering the average human attention span has dropped over 30% in the last twenty years.

Are you a complete beginner in Japanese?

Are you stuck somewhere on the pesky old intermediate plateau?

Nearing that elusive peak of ‘fluency’?

I believe that stepping back and checking that learning is still ‘omoshiroi’ is the secret to success.

I have defined 6 simple steps to OMOSHIROI learning, which I can’t wait to share with you below!

If you are serious about learning Japanese, don’t forget to GRAB THE ACCOMPANYING PLAYBOOK (click here) which contains a fill-in-the-blank worksheets to uncover your UNIQUE visions, goals and tactics to learn the Japanese that YOU WANT.

1. Why Do You Want to Learn Japanese? Define Your BIG WHY

This is the most important question of all. THE BIG WHY.

What is your motivation? What gets your heart racing? What attracts you to Japanese?

Sometimes motivation seems rather obvious – some of the students I have connected recently with tutors of Japanese are learning because they:

  • want to take N2 to get a work visa for Japan
  • love visiting Japan and want to speak to the locals on their next trip, or
  • are actually already married to a Japanese person!

But even if you think you have a very strong reason to be motivated, it’s important to define your why for yourself. Give yourself intrinsic motivation alongside any extrinsic motivation.

Gaining clarity on your BIG WHY forms your overarching vision.

If you’ll permit me a metaphor, I’d like to go with a tree, please. Knowing why you want to learn Japanese is the seed of the idea, of all your potential. Nothing grows without a seed.

Your WHY is crucial – but it doesn’t need to be deep or long-term. If you do want to be fluent, why? What does ‘fluency’ mean to you?

2. What’s Your Japan Story? Do an Inventory

Before we can go further, we need to dig a little deeper. Let’s excavate, and check out the root system. What’s your connection to Japan?

If you don’t have Japanese heritage (and perhaps even if you do) you might recall what was your first ever experience with Japan. That’s the first page of your Japan story.

It was a wintery afternoon in Ontario and I was 11 years old. A neighbour of mine offered me some fishy snacks that her pen pal in Japan had sent her – I think the snacks were those tiny, whole fish with almonds known as:アーモンド フィッシュ(amondo fisshu).

I was totally grossed out, and I refused to try them, but it was a first contact with the culture that I never forgot. I’ll talk much more about my own Japan story later on in this series…

But now, look back into your past, and list your experiences with anything and everything Japanese. Why did you like it? How did it make you feel?

And what about now? What gets you excited? Do a Japan-related interests inventory.

Cooking, film, origami, manga, fashion, MUJI, bonsai… anything. This is such a fruitful way of really getting Japanese culture into your everyday lifestyle, in order to, yes, learn Japanese language and culture, but even more crucially, to ENJOY YOUR DAILY LIFE!

Congratulations.  if you have answered THE BIG WHY, excavated your story and done your interest inventory, you will have defined your VISION. You’ve got the seeds, and a healthy root system!

3. Delete Your Japanese Learning Apps (and What to Do Instead!)

Let’s move on to look at your GOALS. This is the trunk of the tree – the firm foundation. It’s time to get very specific about what you want to do with the language.

OK, I’m not really serious about deleting your apps. We have the technology, so we should use it. However, if you have been frustrated by your progress in the past, this can be due to dabbling about on apps, without having SET YOUR OWN GOALS FIRST. Don’t rely on the tools to teach you, rather, use them as stepping stones towards goals you have defined yourself.

It’s time for another inventory. What Japanese language have you learned so far, and what would be the next step?

Think about the four areas: reading, writing, speaking and listening. Think also about vocabulary and grammar. Get specific.

Do you want to read and write the language? Do you already know hiragana? Katakana? Have you started studying kanji? Sometimes people fear learning basic Japanese (for a holiday, for example, because the writing system seems too complicated). Psssst – let me tell you a secret… you only need to learn the kanji that you want to.

Finally, keeping on with the tree metaphor: it’s time to branch out. Socially! I have an important announcement:

You’ll learn to speak better Japanese by… speaking Japanese.

Simple, right? So who do you speak to in Japanese? Who would you like to speak to in Japanese? Look at your life, your friendships and your community.

I connect learners of Japanese to private, 1-1 native-speaking Japanese tutors.

Apps will only take you so far.

Language is about communication, with other humans, right?

Even if it has to be mostly online, connection and communication is so important to our well-being.

4. Get the Resources & Tactics Ready to Teach Yourself Japanese

After having defined your VISION and your GOALS, it’s time to think about TACTICS.

You’ve got the seed, the root, the trunk, and are branching out socially. The tactics & resources I am going to liken to the blossoms, which will later bear fruit!

Now, I KNOW I’M NOT THE ONLY PERSON in the world who has bought a ‘Teach Yourself’ book, and in fact, NOT taught myself.

I know for a fact that I’m not the only person because there’s a specific word in Japanese for buying books which you don’t actually read, but allow to pile up: tsundoku 積ん読 (literally ‘stacked reading’).

It’s true – blossoms are beautiful but what do they actually DO?

My Japanese learning books, apps, flashcards, etc. are so lovely to have and to hold, but these blossoms will not bear fruit if all I do is gaze lovingly at them!

I know that the key to successful learning for myself is to take responsibility. Even if I sign up to a class, I am, nonetheless, ‘teaching myself Japanese’. The teacher or tutor will guide me along a path strewn with blossoms. I have to tend my own tree in order to get the fruit.

Now, it’s time to get very specific and make the tactics which fit into your lifestyle. Granular. For example, how many kanji will you learn, how, and by when?

Keep your interests and hobbies firmly in mind. If I’m tired on a Friday evening, I’ll schedule in a Japanese film night, rather than banging my head against the wall for not hitting the books?

5. Understand Why People Fail at Learning Japanese

The main reason people fail at learning Japanese is the basically same reason why anybody fails at anything in life – they are trying to eat the fruit without even having planted the seed.

Skip the learning and get straight to the results… it’s so tempting, but we know that it’s impossible.

If we could get Japanese ability implanted in our brain, would we even want it without having gone through the process of learning it? We wouldn’t be the same person without the PROCESS.

‘It’s too hard’ means that there is a vision, a seed of desire to learn Japanese, which has not been broken down into realistic goals and tactics. When someone says ‘it’s just too hard’ to learn Japanese just for a holiday, for example, that’s perception is totally understandable. BUT just learning 10 key phrases can open so many doors of connection. A tiny, short term goal is just fine!

‘It’s overwhelming’ is often the result of a headlong rush at ‘Japanese fluency’, without having clearly defined what that slippery term means to you, personally. People are often surprised when I tell them I’m not ‘fluent’ (although my mum thinks I am, shhhhh, don’t tell her). I’ll talk more about ‘fluency’ what it means, and what it means to me on my podcast series that goes along with this playbook.

‘I don’t have the time’ means that learning Japanese is not a current priority. This decision needs to be an intentional choice based on your long term goals. Time will march on, whether Japanese learning is part of your life or not.

Time is a created thing. To say ‘I don’t have time’ is like saying ‘I don’t want to’.

– Lao Tzu

6. Get Accountability: The Real Reason Why You Procrastinate on Learning Japanese

It’s SO HARD to self-motivate. This year I had all sorts of plans, but it wasn’t until I joined several, specific online communities that I really started to make progress.

This year I have taken courses and joined groups in writing, marketing, podcasting, putting together online communities and writing a book proposal (run by the brilliant Beth Kempton, author of Wabi Sabi). I met other people like me, doing what I do, and the group leaders keep us all on track with our visions, goals & tactics.

I also have joined a coaching programme for busy mums (run by the inspiring Ri Justin) & taken on a private, native-speaking Japanese tutor for weekly 1-1 lessons online.

I’ve got accountability, inspiration and encouragement. Major wins ahoy!

Ask yourself: Who am I accountable to? Who am I learning with?

List any classes, learning partners, programmes, memberships, courses.

How will you measure, record & celebrate your learning journey? i.e. keeping a weekly wins notebook? A checklist? A treat?!

When you’re done writing your vision (your BIG WHY & interests inventory), setting goals, and making tactics, make sure you email me them, and I’ll send you my feedback on your plan, and any recommendations I have.

If you are serious about learning Japanese, don’t forget to GRAB THE ACCOMPANYING PLAYBOOK (click here) which contains a fill-in-the-blank worksheets to uncover your UNIQUE visions, goals and tactics to learn the Japanese that YOU WANT.

To read the other articles in ‘The OMOSHIROI Method’ series, click the links below:

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