12 April 2021

How I Started to Actually Learn Japanese for Real

As a Brit I was never given a legitimate opportunity to learn a second language. Back in Highschool we did do Spanish and briefly French, but my year 8 teacher was retiring and she no longer cared for the profession so we found ourselves in the library computer room almost every class. Spending our time reading Uncyclopedia might have made us experts in memes, but certainly didn’t teach us any Spanish. But alas, even my friend who did GCSE Spanish cannot remember any and he even did a Spanish performance of Nightmare Before Christmas once. I remember saying in that year 8 Spanish class “why can’t we learn other languages like Japanese?” to which the response from the teaching assistant was “what would be the point?”. Depressingly I have found that to be a very common attitude across the British education system as a whole, never mind our schools approach to language learning. With this attitude it does make it difficult to even comprehend the idea of ever learning a second language; it is an uphill battle to even know where to begin.

During my visits to Japan I lacked the confidence to even attempt speaking Japanese and found myself saying “cheers” as a response to everything. Thankfully I did find that Japanese people are amazingly patient and I managed to survive just fine, even having several sudo-conversations with people despite not knowing each other's language. Such as the time I was sitting outside Himeji castle and an elderly woman chatted to me for a solid 15 minutes despite neither of us having any idea what the other was saying. She was still friendly and we laughed, I would love to one day know what she was saying.

I have had an interest in learning Japanese for a long time but any attempt I made never went anywhere, no matter what site or video I found I could never take my feet off the ground. I’d be told the same first 5 letters あいうえお over and over and maybe a phrase to introduce myself but nothing would stick or feel like I was learning. Language learning is a tough mountain to climb and many of us start the journey without being prepared or with the correct tools for success. At least this was the case for me until 2020 when I came across the website Tofugu. Their guides to Hiragana and Katana WORKED and they worked with intense speed. Using Tofugu’s mnemonics and worksheets then practicing using tools such as Kana Bento and Real Kana I steamed through Hiragana in a matter of days. This gave me the confidence to continue learning Japanese but I finally knew I first must develop a set of tools and figure out an approach to tackling language learning.

I watched a good few YouTube videos but found many skilled language learners seem to have an innate ability to learn language and the absolute inability to truly teach their methods. They’d start off simple, miss a thousand steps and you’d be lost, or they would get stuck on specific things like using flashcards to remember Kanji and before you know it they’re not really teaching language rather a complex game of match the pairs.

Many guides to language fail to make it clear that language isn’t one single skill, rather it’s many with the four main being speaking, listening, writing and reading. With each requiring different approaches to learn properly. 

As children we learn much of language through the repeated exposure of hearing our parents and TV however there is much more going on there (which I am sure to talk about in future articles). The important first step of learning a language is to understand how it actually works. Some skills such as memorisation might need to be refined before you can go further (Broad, 2013). Exposure is important for learning a language, methods such AJATT focus on this idea, but there’s a lot to learn before you can sit back and listen to NHK Radio whilst working or having a bath. 

The difficulty of Japanese stems from the use of different alphabets. With 3 to juggle, Hiragana, Katakana and Kanji, it can be a nightmare for beginners. Consider European languages English, German, French, Spanish and Italian all share commonalities in both the use of the Latin alphabet and the use of similar words. Using the same alphabet is a huge advantage. As an English reader you can already read a Spanish book, you might not understand what every word says, but you can look at the words and make the sounds with your mouth and that is a fantastic place to start off and get to grips with learning a language.

Look at table 1 above. Even if you didn’t know the Spanish word for Dog is Perro, you can still read and say Perro. You have a starting point. Additionally, those words are connected. They’re all fairly similar to alternative English words of Dog (Perro: Pooch, Chien: Canine, Hund: Hound) so it could be possible to understand without much effort.

If you look at table 1 long enough you might be able to memorise that ネコ means cat and next time you’re wondering Tokyo and see a sign that includes ネコ you might know you’re at a cat cafe, but you won’t know that ネコ is pronounced Neko. Books like Remembering the Kanji (Heisig, 2011) teach one thing, allowing you to build a schema of kanji where you can understand what symbols mean but not how they sound. This creates a starting point for Kanji and breaks the process of learning down into manageable chunks. The author of Remembering the Kanji recognised that Chinese students learning Japanese had the advantage of already having an understanding of Kanji (considering it comes from their own alphabet and all). So he wrote the book in the hopes of placing English speakers at the same starting line as fellow Chinese speakers. So yeah, only after you’ve read and memorised the 2000 Kanji in the book are you ready to truly begin learning Japanese! Luckily we can multitask and practice other aspects of Japanese at the same time.

I’ve still got a long way to go with learning Japanese but I can say for certain, if you want to start go on over to Tofugu and start learning Hiragana and Katakana, their methods work extremely well and will give you the much needed confidence to keep on learning Japanese! My own lack of motivation has been the main thing holding me back learning Japanese, but I now have the tools to start traversing that mountain.

I look forward to writing more about learning Japanese whilst also talking about the psychology behind language and language acquisition.

Broad, C. (2013). How to Learn Japanese Kanji the Fun way. Abroad in Japan. Retried April 12, 2021
Heisig, J. W. (2011). Remembering the kanji (6th ed., Vol. 1). University of Hawaiʻi Press.
Tofugu. (2021). Learn Japanese: A ridiculously detailed guide. Retrieved April 12, 2021, from

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