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Aug 29, 2013

So you want to learn Japanese (Part 1)

Many of the people that I talk to about learning Japanese are in the earliest steps of the process. Unfortunately, most of them have some interesting notions for what is required in order to learn Japanese, and clearing up some of those excuses misconceptions will help the people that really want to learn. This was originally going to be a single post, but it's turned into a series. This is the first post in the series and covers the issue of...

I really want to learn Japanese, but I can't find a class to take!

I would honestly be more surprised if there were classes available near you. You really don't need a teacher or a class of other students, in fact, I'd say they are more of a burden in the early steps. There are plenty of textbooks and free resources online (such as this site) that can help you get started. Once you have a foothold in the language, immersion becomes your teacher. If you read a sentence and understand it, then you pass. If you can't read it, then you study a bit for the “make-up test” and try again.

Language classes are only ever a supplement to your individual study – a language course will NEVER make you fluent. The people that you may know who have taken language classes and become fluent put in a lot of time outside of the classroom and their assigned work to get there. Learning a language requires an independent effort, so I find it's best to focus on that aspect over class-oriented content.

If those manga were in Japanese, this would count as individual study.

For a personal example, I began learning Japanese entirely on my own at home. I didn't know anyone who had any connection to Japanese, but online resources and tools (mostly free) helped me get started. A year and a half later I began taking classes in Japanese, only to discover that my independent studies had accelerated me far beyond the scope of the class lessons (I skipped the first three semesters). The classes gave me a place to practice speaking and learn some of the finer points of grammar, but my focus never strayed from my individual study plans.

During my time in these classes (I took 3-4 semesters of Japanese courses) I witnessed the huge gap in ability between students who only did assigned work and those who developed their own individual study routines. The ones who I often saw with additional (unassigned) textbooks or with raw Japanese media would show up semester after semester, often knowing the content covered in class before it had been introduced.

"Yes, I studied Japanese with the 'Sailor Moon' text series. "

Meanwhile, the students that only did the assigned work often struggled with older material and had even greater difficulty with new material. What makes it worse is that many of these people were majoring in Japanese and wanted careers using the language, but they had the belief that language classes alone would be enough to get them to fluency. Their knowledge of Japanese began and ended with canned phrases from textbooks and speaking exercises.

Don't talk like a robot: learn real Japanese!

While language classes are a great way to get practice with the language, they will only ever be a small part of your studies in the language. In fact, the first semesters of a Japanese class are required by necessity to focus largely on learning the kana and kanji. The huge downside to this is that kana and kanji cannot be taught, they have to be memorized – and language classes almost always employ brute-force memorization to get the job done. You can learn all of the kana and all of the basic-use kanji (over 2000 kanji!) in three months of individual study, but it would take years to do the same thing in a classroom.

All of this sums up to a single point – do not use the excuse of not having access to a Japanese class as your reason for not learning Japanese. You can learn so much on your own, and the internet makes finding the tools and media you need so very easy. 
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  1. "You can learn all of the kana and all of the basic-use kanji (over 2000 kanji!) in three months of individual study"

    I agree with everything else you've said (through the same experiences), but this is simply false. As in, impossible. That's ~22 kanji a day, every day for 3 months.

    That's memorizing the: on, kun, stroke order and general meaning of each kanji. That's (on average) 88-132 separate things you'd have to memorize DAILY. Not only memorize, but retain for the following days on top of the previous 88-132 of the day before and much more prior.

    I'm not trying to demotivate anyone, but you should have realistic expectations. A language isn't something you learn in 3 months, a year nor 10 years. It's something that you'll be learning for the rest of your life. There's no rush.

    1. I understand what you're saying, but in this case I think the problem is that our definitions for what it means to learn a kanji are different.

      For the learning method I recommend and talk about here on the site, you don't learn any of the readings for kanji. With the Heisig method your focus is purely on associating a kanji with a key word (which is a general meaning for that kanji in most cases).

      So for that definition of learning kanji, it's perfectly reasonable to learn 25 kanji or so each day. However, I wasn't trying to make any grand promises. The point is that using a focused method that employs mnemonic devices (or some other strategy) is likely to get you much better results than just cramming facts.

      As a side note: For stroke order, you shouldn't really have to memorize that at all. Every kanji follows a general set of rules for how to write it out, so you shouldn't have to learn them all as individual cases. Just keep an eye out for any that have a deviance from what you'd expect.

      Thanks for commenting! Other viewpoints and ideas are always welcome, and you're very much right that this is a lifelong process. Cheers!

  2. so, in that case, the kanjis can be learned in three months, as you said, not its reading but its stroke orders and how to memorizing it all by the heisig method, am I right ?

    1. Yes, that's right. The Heisig method is a more structured way of learning the kanji that makes the process easier and faster. You'll have to review the kanji for a long time to retain what you know, but you'll be able to learn vocabulary much faster.