The best way to learn Japanese

What's the best way to learn Japanese?

Especially as a beginner, this is quite the question to consider.

Nobody wants to spend years just finding the answer to this question so their studies can truly begin.

But the more research you do, the more study methods, resources, and differing opinions you come across.

But what's the most effective? What will truly help me? And what won't?

What can get me from not knowing how to even say "good morning" to being able to read and carry on conversations like a native speaker?

Many of our team members, including myself, have spent years searching for the answer to this question.

Throughout all of our journeys, we've all done things that were terribly inefficient, in addition to things that really got our Japanese to the next level.

Let's take a look at some things we can do to improve our study methods.

Study natural language

100% grammatically correct Japanese is definitely an important thing to learn. Obviously, we want to know the proper way to build sentences, so strapping down and learning the rules is an important step to take.

But it's not the only step we should take.
In everyday spoken Japanese, saying things in a 100% grammatically sound way will often make you sound very unnatural.

As students, we need to learn both grammatically correct Japanese and the types of Japanese people use when speaking. Be sure that the source of your study materials differentiate between the two (like NativShark does with formality markers).

If you don't see these distinctions being made, it's safe to assume that you're not being taught the way people actually speak.

Use natural-sounding audio

A lot of resources, especially those aimed at beginners, have a tendency to slow down and over-pronounce sentences to ensure that us learners can catch everything. Which maybe doesn't sound like a big deal at first.

Thing is, native speakers don't slow down their speech in normal conversations.

Even when you ask them to slow down and repeat what they just said, they may very well just say it at the same speed again without realizing it. And that speed causes some sounds to be dropped completely, which is something that slow and over-pronounced audio does not prepare you for.

This applies to media too.

Imagine watching a show in your native language where everybody talked at a slower-than-normal speed, and pronounced everything absolutely perfectly. I don't know about you, but I would go nuts trying to watch that. It just isn't how people speak.

So we shouldn't train ourselves to listen to this unnatural speech.

In order to improve our study time, we'll want a resource that has audio recorded by native speakers who are talking at a normal speed, and therefore giving us normal intonation and pronunciation.

Otherwise, we won't be ready for the real world when we venture outside of these resources.

Choose a path that reaches advanced levels

Finding a resource that takes you from no knowledge all the way to advanced, let alone beyond advanced, is pretty difficult.

And sadly, it's pretty inefficient to have to switch resources, especially at the intermediate level and up.

Switching methods and resources again and again can put a hold on your progress. There may be too many things in your new resource that you already knew and you burn precious study time until you finally find out where it is you should have started in that resource.

On the other end, you might find a resource that you're not ready for yet.

A resource that is too far above your level can feel like you're drowning from the amount of new unexplained information that it assumes you know.

For efficiency and minimizing frustration caused by resource switching, it's generally best to find and stick with a resource that can take you all the way to the top.

Not a resource that drops you off before you can reach your goals.

Reinforce and review what you've learned

Learning a lot is great. Forgetting what you've learned, not so much.
So we'll be wanting to use a system that lets you review what you've learned in an efficient manner.

One effective way is to use a spaced repetition flashcard system, which shows you material that you've learned just before you become in danger of forgetting it. You don't have to think about when to review what. The system handles that for you.

A system that builds upon itself is extremely useful for this, too.

It will get chaotic in a hurry if the resource you're using sections off vocab to individual, separate lessons, and rarely uses it again outside of that lesson. Or if it teaches you grammar and uses example sentences with grammar that has not been brought up to you yet, without giving even a quick explanation of what is going on.

A system that only introduces one new piece of information at a time will keep things calm so you can focus solely on the information that the lesson wants you to focus on.

Even better if it builds upon those pieces of information while keeping them relevant and fresh in your mind moving into future lessons.

The same applies to vocab.

Lessons that use example sentences with only one new piece of vocab help get you get more of it into your brain without overwhelming you and leaving you just trying to understand the meanings of the words, rather than how they work together to form a sentence.

Study curated content

A little too often, a word you use a lot in your native language ends up never being used in Japanese, or vice versa.

Sometimes, those words don't even exist, or are expressed in a completely different way that you won't find in your average dictionary.

Us learners tend to have a pretty hard time differentiating what words are useful and what ones are plain old useless. We need a native speaker to key us in on that one.

So whatever vocab list you're using, you'll want it to be hand-picked by a native speaker.

There are plenty of vocab lists out there, with near-endless words that you can memorize to your heart's content. But!

We'll want to skip over the auto-generated ones that pull from as many sources as possible because they end up catching a lot of weird words in the process.

For similar reasons, you'll want to be cautious about making your own lists for yourself too.

As a non-native speaker, you'll have tendency to choose words that are useful in your native language, but not Japanese.

Similarly, you may find yourself skimming over some of the most useful words out there that Japanese natives use all the time, but are uncommon or don't exist in your native language.

Learn kanji and vocab in specific contexts

Language works in context.

Learning things in isolation means that not only will you have a harder time remembering a certain word or kanji, you won't have learned how to use or apply it at all.

The most efficient way to learn kanji is with vocab examples.

Breaking kanji down so you can understand how they're made is extremely valuable for helping us piece them together in our head, and mnemonics can be used to keep these parts all lined up in our memories.

But, if we have no vocab to help us remember all these characters, we didn't really learn how to use it, and therefore did not fully learn said kanji.
Similarly, the most efficient way to learn vocab is with example sentences.

Learning vocab out of context will do you no good. Due to the highly contextual nature of Japanese, you'll want to be looking at natural sentences made by native speakers so you can fully grasp the many meanings of a given piece of vocab.

Otherwise, like with kanji, you will not have fully learned said piece of vocab.

Fill low-quality study time

Even if we'd like to, we can't be sitting in front of a screen or holding a book all the time.

Bummer, I know.

We have to go places, drive cars, cook meals, sit on trains, exercise, question our existence on this planet. All types of things that we do every day require portions of our attention, meaning that we can't be full-focus studying Japanese all the time.

But that doesn't mean we can't get in some low-focus study time.

During times like those listed above, we can have some earbuds in and we can be getting listening exposure to Japanese. This could be done with Shadow Loops or things like podcasts. Then you can be getting passively more used to the flow and intonation of Japanese while you're busy doing other things.

The best way to learn Japanese

To recap:

The best way to learn Japanese is to study a single, comprehensive resource with curated, natural language presented in specific contexts, and to fill your study time efficiently.

The little details will differ a bit from person to person.
But this is not an excuse to go designing your own study method from scratch.

Most people think that they are being productive by spending lots of time designing their own personal study system, or switching to a new one after they've made a bit of progress in the language.

Usually, this is just procrastination in disguise.
Be sure you're being productive, not just active.

And if it all seems like too much to think about, you could always just use NativShark, and we'll carry this mental load on your behalf.