How I challenged myself to learn JAPANESE in less than One Year!

in #japan5 years ago (edited)

Hi, I am Magnus. I learned Japanese to fluency in less than one year. This is how I did it.

I attended a Japanese language school in Tokyo, immersed myself in the culture, and most importantly I lived in a guest-house, more on why I surprisingly believe that to be the most important aspect later, and what a “guest-house” is.

Why challenge myself? Perhaps because my community college life was going nowhere fast. Perhaps because I did not want to be where I was, geographically. Perhaps because I felt like a failure dropping out of college. I had dreams of becoming an architect, a composer, a filmmaker, but self sabotage and procrastination led me to a place I did not want to be and had to escape!

I had something to prove, not to someone else or society, but to myself! I believed that if I could do what I thought was relatively impossible, learn Japanese within one year, that I could also achieve anything I set out to do after that. And so I committed to finishing something I started, for once.

A little backstory first before I tell you the “How To” of learning Japanese, or any language for that matter. I took two semesters non-consecutively of Japanese at community college, and I barely passed the classes. I then did a two month home stay in Tokyo while attending language school, and it was really great to experience a very different culture with fellow classmates from all around the world! I felt that two months of learning Japanese in Japan was worth one year of Japanese class back home. But it’s not as simple as that. There are various factors at play, the immersion learning, the consistent daily use, the engagement and excitement factor leading to retention, among other things.

However between my home-stay experience and deciding to go back, two years had passed. It had become a distant memory and I had lost all my Japanese ability. My reading and writing skills had atrophied. The adage “Use it or lose it” I felt at a gut level. I was really starting from scratch.

But enough about my history. What I want to get across is my strategic approach to language learning. What I have come to realize about the language learning industry is that it is mostly tailored to the non-serious hobbyist learners. In my judgement many of the methods and approaches are not effective for the serious learner who wants to learn as quickly and effectively as possible. I do not believe there is a quantity vs quality trade-off, one can have both, it is just a matter of method.

I’m not going to argue about which method is best, because I believe it’s context dependent. The learners situation and circumstances dictate what the best method may be for that individual. Although I believe there are fundamentals to learning that apply to everyone. I will describe my approach, and hopefully you can apply it to your own language learning efforts!

My approach was simple:
1-start with the fundamentals
2-control my immediate environment
3-consistent practice and use

I chose to attend a Japanese Language School, this was necessary for my student-visa, enabling longer-term stay. But the traditional school approach was only the base of my studies. It provided structure for learning grammar, vocabulary, listening/writing/speaking practice, everything a typical class would provide.

However from playing chess, sports, or any game of skill I know that I learn much faster when my peers are ahead of me or my opponent is much better than me. If I can bare losing or looking/sounding stupid and still maintain a high motivation to succeed and to not become discouraged then this is an optimal scenario. This is related to the “Failing fast and often” concept, and leads to faster growth, faster than a comfortable class learning pace. I knew I would sound stupid making all sorts of mistakes, but If I were unwilling to put myself into situations where I couldn’t fail then I would only be slowing my progress. Only the basic learning would come from school, most of my learning would be outside school.

In order to develop an environment where everyone was better than me at Japanese, which would force me to learn and grow faster, I decided to live in an international guest-house. Guest-house’s in Japan are sort of like a mix between a share-house and a dormitory. It usually has more residents than a typical share-house and people share everything except their individual rooms. Young Japanese people see it as a way to meet people from all around the world, make friends, practice English.

And so living in a guest-house is possibly the most important step to having opportunities to not only speak Japanese everyday but to make Japanese friends with which to have adventures around Tokyo. Also the other Foreigners living at the guest-house are likely to be intermediate to fluent speakers already. And if the ratio of Japanese to Foreigners is not the ideal, there are thousands of guest-houses to move to and try out, each has a different flavor.

Even though I knew it would be fun to hang out with people in my class and friends at school, I actively denied opportunities to do so, because it went against my purpose of being there, to learn Japanese fast! Same with part-time jobs, I did not do any English teaching in the first year.

I did not use the internet much, no American shows. Although I sometimes went to the movies. I regularly watched Japanese television a few hours a day. Media is context heavy and it is efficient for learning verbal and non-verbal cues.

Consistency does not have much to do with motivation. If you persist you will grow and get better regardless of your motivational level. I used my smartphone to study on the train to and from school, a mixture of Kanji(Chinese character used in Japanese) and listening practice. I used Jishobot App to look up words all the time.

Whenever I felt lost and had little motivation, I remembered to trust in the process, and every time I eventually overcame my learning plateaus. Consistency will pay off, but not always at the same rate. It is natural to hit plateaus in the learning process, but it is important to understand that progress will happen as long as you keep struggling forward.

There are 2000 everyday use Kanji to learn, I could get by learning 1,000, but I was determined to learn the recommended 2,000 or so. I needed to learn around 6 everyday. It is easy at first, but reviewing takes up most of the time. The key to learning the characters is not through rote/repetitive exposure, that works but is not as efficient, it is by creating your own stories between a characters individual elements, the radicals. Each radical might have multiple ways to be written and multiple meanings, but you can use those meanings to build a story in your mind that helps you recognize and recall the characters meaning and how to write it.

The traditional way schools teach Kanji is the same order as Japanese children learn them, however this is not the best way, it does not teach you the radicals first. You need to know what the radicals mean to build a good story, and order does not matter! If you learn the radicals first you already know most of the stroke orders and will save a lot of time. This is crucial. I recommend, “Remembering the Kanji” by Heisig.

Motivation is a big factor in any learning because it drives engagement and focus which are necessary for creating higher quality memories with more neural connections. But motivation can come and go which is why immersion is so great because it takes motivation out of the learning equation. While you may not feel like you are learning you are constantly soaking up new information like a sponge into your subconscious.

My motivation came out of a desire to prove to myself that I could do the impossible. I say impossible only because that’s how a daunting task feels when you take the first step. That internal motivation helped to push me, and after achieving my goal of Japanese fluency within one year I had proven to myself that I could do anything I set my mind to!

What is language fluency? I do not believe there is an obvious identifier of fluency, it is dependent on context, who one is speaking with and about what. There is a kind of basic level of conversational fluency, but that is still a matter of degree. I would say with my method I had a basic level of conversational fluency around 6 months, and after one year I still felt there was much I could improve upon. My reading comprehension was much better than my speaking fluency and I wanted to be able to communicate at a deeper level, so I decided to attend a Japanese film school and use the same learning approach to become a filmmaker, while also gradually improving my Japanese ability.

With the law of diminishing marginal return, the more I study Japanese the less I will get out of it, in terms of being fluent, but gradually growing my vocabulary allows me to communicate in deeper and more meaningful ways.

Although I never set out to be competitive in my Japanese learning, though I found there was a underlying competitive nature between peers at the Japanese Language School, in terms of language ability. Some where fluent speakers, but with limited vocabulary. Some where great at reading comprehension, but could barely put a sentence together. I think it is natural to compare yourself against your peers and can be good so long as it is friendly competition.

People just have different learning curves, given their learning styles or methods. My learning leaned more heavily towards comprehension first, and then my fluency grew quickly later on. The thing about language is that you are inherently learning another culture, or should be in order to communicate better. English is more global, so less tied to a specific culture but Japanese definitely has a cultural component in knowing how to speak in various contexts.

How you sound:
You will sound like your peers. The people in your environment will inform how you learn to speak and communicate. So if you have a goal of how to sound, for example, a business person, you should be hanging out with that crowd. If you only speak with other people still learning the language, you may be damaging your progress by ingraining bad habits such as incorrect pronunciation and grammar.

-Immersion forces you to learn fast, motivation is made less important to success, although having both is still better. Speak/read/type/consume as little of your native language as possible.
-Making local native speaker friends is crucial to faster learning, and are gateways to new quality experiences. How to make friends? simple: proximity and doing things together. A club or group activity is the starting point of friendship. Living with locals in a share house or guest-house means there are bound to be somewhat regular planned and impromptu gatherings and parties.
-Consistency is what builds up the neural pathways so that eventually you can speak fluently without taking time searching for the correct words and grammar.

Please feel free to ask questions about learning Japanese, and Thanks for the Upvote!


A little different from how I learned and much faster. I started in 2001 or so, before there were so many tools available on the net. So I did paper Flashcards, audio CDs, plus lived in Japan for a year and a half. Then ended up going back to school and majoring in East Asian Studies. But by the time I started I was already conversational and could read most kanji, so that helped make the classes a breeze.

And you're so right about most of the language learning industry. It seems like every company just puts out some introductory course to make a few bucks. You have to just go past that and dive into genuine materials. I started trying to read newspapers, books, and magazines soon after I had enough kanji down. I didn't care if it took me a whole day to read a single page. Same with listening practice.

And to think I had no interest whatsoever in learning the language the first time I lived in Japan. It all started on the train home from work, looking at the train line map, and comparing kanji to the romaji. I happened upon two towns that had the same kanji in them, so I could see how they were pronounced. And I thought to myself, "This doesn't seem that hard. " Went to the bookstore the next day and bought a set of kanji Flashcards, got addicted to them, and was on a totally different life path without even realizing it.

Yeah, it's funny how it just pulls you in, starting with flash cards to learn hiragana/katakana and then Kanji! It set me down a different, dare I say better, life path too. Learning the language and thus the culture kept opening new doors and my understanding of the culture and communication and people. I find it sad when some people refuse to learn, or don't care to because they can "get by on English". But I'm glad you sparked the interest and succeeded! I really love the international community of Japanese speaking foreigners, there is just a common level of respect and common experience that makes it easier to meet new people.

Nice. You are totally right about how the industry just caters to casual learners. Genki and other Japan Times textbooks were some of the only books I found useful.


I am formulating a plan to get rich being a good person so I can open up something and snatch an investment visa in the process,then I can go back and do my own thing rather than have life dictated by the crazy work hours and company protocols.

Are you still in Japan? Did you ever find a good way to study more advanced vocabulary besides rote memory? I find the basics of language to be really easy now but I still have a hard time remembering such a vast collection of words.