Japanese Learning Guide
To understand what input-driven immersion-based language learning is, we must first consider the traditional approach to learning a language.
Traditional language-learning methods
Suppose Alice decides to learn French. She asks her friend Eve learning French what options she has. Here are the options given:
- Go to a library near her and look for French textbooks.
- Sign up to her local French classes.
- Find a private tutor.
All of the methods above have their pros and cons. For instance, the first method has the advantage of not being too expensive in comparison to the other two, and it doesn't require other people to interact with. The second one is less expensive than getting a tutor, but you still get guidance from an expert (hopefully) who is both skilled at the language and at teaching the language. The third option is the most expensive, but you get exclusive time with a teacher that can focus all their attention on you. Yet, many people go through language-learning classes and never reach fluency in a timely manner or at all. This is true even for school children, some of which genuinely want to learn the language but never go beyond a basic or intermediate grasp of the language. Some people get nowhere at all.
It is easy to dismiss this issue by saying that those people are not talented at learning languages, whatever that might mean. It's not clear what talented at learning languages means. A better possible reason is that some people realize they do not want to put in the amount of work necessary to learn a language, or simply do not like language learning as a whole. This is fair but let's put this aside for now because there is nothing we can do about it. Why do some students learn better than others, and why does it seem like it usually has little to do with learning the language in school?
The answer is simpler than it seems. The students who end up using the language outside of class are usually those that retain the language. While this is anecdotal evidence, one particularly good example of this is students whose native language is not English. Those that engage in video games, discuss on social media (such as Discord or Reddit) and actively engage in those communities tend to have a better grasp of the language than those that simply passively learn the language in school. This should be of surprise to no one, yet it is not clear whether they are learning more in the classroom or on their own.
The Input Hypothesis
The core principle behind this guide will be the input hypothesis. We emphasize the following three core tenets of the method:
- Input (reading and listening) is more important than output (writing and speaking) for a beginner, and should be the main focus of language learning.
- It is best to confront material that is only slightly more difficult than one currently knows.
- Language learning and language acquisition are two separate things, and mastery of the language comes from acquisition first and foremost.
In its original formulation, the input hypothesis theory developed by Stephen Krashen in this paper does not discuss output too much, although it doesn't consider it harmful either unless it is forced on the students. Yet input alone does not lead to proper language production. What this means is that just reading is not enough to be able to write well, but being able to read well is necessary to be able to write well. In other words, input is necessary but not sufficient for proper output.
Language acquisition and language learning
One major point of the theory that needs further explanation is the idea of language acquisition as opposed to language learning. Language learning is the traditional way people learn languages: by studying vocabulary, grammar and syntax. In other words, they are studying the shape of the language, what it looks like, what it sounds like. Language acquisition is the part of language that is concerned with meaning itself, and is developed subconsciously as one starts to interact with the language. The main thesis of the theory is the following:
Comprehensible output and language mastery is the result of language acquisition.
What this means is that one needs to get as much language input as possible, in order to speed up language acquisition which leads to proper mastery of the language, including proper output (talking and writing). I strongly believe that comprehensible output does matter, but it is also much harder to come by. If you have a friend who speaks the language you're trying to learn natively, interacting with them in the language seems to have positive effects. Similarly, if you cna get your writing checked by natives, it helps get better at writing well. The thing is, it's much easier to get a lot of input than it is to get a lot of output. Picking up any book or listening to any kind of audio in the target language technically counts as input, so it's cheaper to find. This explains the first part of the method, input driven.
The second part of the method is immersion-based. As we saw in the section above, getting a lot of input seems to be the key to learn languages effectively and what better way to get this necessary input than to immerse yourself in the language everyday? This is the idea behind the All Japanese All The Time method. Basically, what the author figured out is that by spending all his time in a Japanese environment, he would be getting input all the time. One way to achieve this is by setting all your appliances in your target language, reading, watching and listening only to content in your target language and using it as much as possible. This is why many people believe that you can't truly learn the language unless you go live in a country that speaks it. But this is not true. You can artificially create immersion. Effectively, you are forcing your brain to consume large amounts of native media in your target language and thus get the input necessary to start acquiring that language.
While such a drastic method is not necessarily practical for everybody, the idea behind it is a powerful force that we can harness to quickly get better, at least relative to the traditional textbook methods. Setting your phone in Japanese aside, what we need is large amounts of native material to read, watch and listen. Media recommendations can be found on this page.
A Japanese Learning Roadmap
How then should one go about learning Japanese? There have been multiple guides written discussing this exact issue that you can read in the resources page. In this section, I would like to propose a simple learning roadmap that will take a complete beginner to a place that where they can read anything they want.
By far the longest step will be consuming native Japanese content, but it's also the one that should be most fun to you, considering that you're the one choosing what media you consume. Let us break down each of these steps one by one.
Japanese technically has four main scripts it uses.
- Hiragana (平仮名)
- Katakana (片仮名)
- Kanji (漢字)
- Romaji (ローマ字)
Hiragana and katakana are similar to the English alphabet, although instead of representing single letter sounds, they represent two letters sounds like ka and ri. Kanji is what most beginner think of when they see Japanese, these are originally of Chinese origin and are used to describe words, nouns and so on. The last script isn't really a standard script, it is just the English alphabet (the Roman alphabet as the name implies.) The first scripts one learns are the first two as they represent the same sounds and are simple to learn in comparison to kanji. In contrast, you might learn new kanji for a very long time but you should know all hiragana and katakana (collectively called kana). You can learn to write them too if you'd like, but unless you practice often you'll eventually forget how to write them, even if you can tell how to read them.
Setup Anki and Yomichan
This section is technical and takes a long time so you can find a detailed explanation on this page. The basic tools we will use are a spaced-repetition system called Anki that will be used to learn and remember things (mostly words, but later on possibly grammar, kanji or other things) and an interactive online look-up dictionary manager called yomichan. Anki uses Anki decks, collections of flashcards to help you remember things, and it is usually those decks that will contain the bulk of our language learning.
On the topic of isolated kanji study
It is not fully clear how useful isolated kanji study is to the development of Japanese mastery. Isolated kanji study refers to the act of studying kanji readings on their own, without studying words directly. Some people have never studied kanji in itself and instead learned words using kanji directly. Some people have started their Japanese journey by using a tool such as Remembering the Kanji or the Kodansha Kanji Learner's Course. I would personally advise against going through the entirety of either books, even in the form of an Anki deck. Instead, I would suggest people skip this step for now and start working through a vocabulary deck, usually Core2.3k. If the vocabulary deck is too hard, it might then be worth using the shortened form of Remembering the Kanji, usually called RRTK450. The deck can be found here. If you're the kind of person that likes learning from textbooks, I actually really like the Basic Kanji Book I and II.
Another useful tool is the kanji map website, which lets you input a kanji character and see it get broken down into radicals, the building blocks of kanji. It also allows you to see if it is used as a building block in other kanji. Learning kanji takes a long amount of time, do not get discouraged if learning Japanese feels very hard in the beginning. A lot of the difficulty in learning a language like Japanese is front-loaded: Once you learn enough words and kanji your reading experience gets much smoother. English speakers are usually discouraged at the fact that one requires learning thousands of kanji to properly read Japanese. But remember:
English too requires learning word readings!
If you're not convinced, please try to read this poem. In the first four sentences, we see the digraph gh multiple times, and it isn't read the same in every word. Effectively, English also requires learning how written words sound. Tough is not the same as though, yet both words end in ough.
Learning basic grammar and vocabulary
This step is the first one where you will really get a feel for the language. You can find multiple grammar guides in the resources page, but I suggest using either Cure Dolly or IMABI. For Cure Dolly, watch until lesson #39, we will be using another grammar resource after this, although you are free to watch more.
I recommend you do not spend a significant amount of time doing grammar exercises. You will not be able to master the language before you get large amounts of input anyway. It is thus inefficient to spend a lot of time trying to master basic grammar before you even start to read. Instead, you should aim to get familiar with grammar and see how it is applied in real Japanese, which you will encounter in the next step. Spend some time writing down what Cure Dolly teaches if you'd like. There is a partial transcript (be careful there are a few mistakes) you can use here. Some people dislike the android-like voice of Cure Dolly or find her speaking a bit too slowly. For those people, I recommend either speeding up the video or reading the transcript.
Another legendary grammar guide in the Japanese learning community is Tae Kim's grammar guide. While everything is rather basic and alright for a primer in Japanese grammar, some of his explanations can be confusing. He also seems to misunderstand some basic concepts, specifically the distinction between the が and は particles. The titles of the sections also make it seem like the grammar in Tae Kim is advanced, but everything is pretty basic and you should not expect to have mastered Japanese grammar by the end. Nonetheless, it is still a useful resource. I personally do not recommend it but I know many people like it.
The grammar guide I actually like most is IMABI. The author understands Japanese grammar extremely well and you can find a lot of information on the website, even for classical Japanese. That being said, the structure isn't perfect and it is definitely not for everyone because it is rather verbose. Still, I suggest you check it out because it actually is worth it. No matter which grammar guide you choose to use (except maybe for IMABI), you will have to follow it up with more grammar anyway.
Regarding vocabulary, the recommended Anki deck is Core 2.3k. I highly recommend going through a phonetics deck at the same time. Phonetic radicals are the part of kanji that indicate sound and learning them can be very useful to read new, unfamiliar kanji. It is not an exact science most of the time, but it is still worth learning. You can do the phonetics deck before or after Core 2.3k. If Core 2.3k is too difficult for you, I instead suggest going through the Tango N5 and Tango N4 decks which you can find here.
Consuming native content
If you're done with Core2.3k (or well on your way), give yourself a pat on the back. You're not a total beginner anymore. You have some words under your belt even though you still fail a lot of your Anki reviews, and you probably feel like you still don't know any Japanese. That's normal. You haven't really acquired much Japanese yet, but you have learned a good deal. It is now time to start the real journey. This step never technically ends as you will hopefully keep consuming Japanese content as you get better and better at the language. The main aspect of this section is to setup a mining deck. A mining deck is an Anki deck you create yourself using Yomichan on content that you read (or potentially watch with subtitles) where you "mine" words from sentences you see in the wild.
Creating a mining deck is a topic that deserves a thorough explanation and this task is undertaken on the setup page. I also recommend you start listening to Japanese actively as soon as you can. As said previously, media recommendations can be found on this page. Find a medium you like, be it anime, visual novels or Japanese TV and start listening. Do not be surprised if your ability to listen is wildly inferior to your ability to read at first. When reading you have a written support you can look at any time. Kanji provide some meaning and help you read. If possible, try to find native speakers to output with. It's fun and motivating.
At this stage of the journey, it would be useful to consult some more advanced grammar resources. My favorite one is the Dictionary of Japanese Grammar. The way I would study grammar is by doing the following:
- Come across a sentence using unfamiliar grammar in your reading.
- Look up the grammar in this master reference.
- Note down the grammar item you have encountered in a list somewhere.
- Review it from time to time.
Talking and writing to Japanese natives (further output)
Once you have a good grasp of the language and can read more comfortably, it's a great idea to start speaking with Japanese natives often. Likewise, I recommend you start writing in Japanese (not necessarily physically of course) and have people correct you. This is not to say you cannot start output much earlier. If you have the opportunity to output earlier, do it and try to get corrected as often as possible, because getting good at reading is not enough to get good at writing, and likewise getting good at listening is not enough to get good at speaking. You need to actually produce (what we call output) and work in the language with others.
On the topic of writing kanji
Many Japanese learners are surprised to hear that a lot of people do not consider writing kanji physically to be important. In this day and age, most people interact with Japanese online or while speaking, very rarely do they have to write kanji explicitly. If you are interested in learning how to write, I highly recommend reading this guide. The best way to learn how to write in my opinion is to follow the Kanken deck found here. This deck will go up to Kanken level 2, which covers all the so-called 常用漢字 jouyou kanji, the kanji characters designed as common use by the Japanese Ministry of Education. These kanji characters are usually not the only ones you will see when reading, but knowing how to write all of these is already a tremendous achievement. In a street interview video, YouTuber That Japanese Man Yuta interviewed native Japanese people and many of them forgot how to write certain characters.
Whatever you want. Go take the JLPT N1 if you'd like, it's a nice achievement and you get recognized for your efforts. If you're really motivated and want to learn even more, try to pass the Kanji Kentei. You are now free to do whatever you want and enjoy the language in ways you would have never imagined!
Here's a simple checklist of things you should do, in order:
- Learn kana.
- Finish a first vocabulary deck and grammar resource.
- Setup Anki and Yomichan properly, including a mining deck.
- Get input and mine from Japanese content and try to get output with natives.
- If desired, learn how to write kanji.
Thoughts on immersion
In this last section, I would like to discuss immersion as a whole. Some pitfalls, some tips and hopefully some encouragement.
How can I get a Japanese routine going?
I suggest not spending more time on Anki than necessary, and spending the rest of your time studying grammar, reading or listening. Ideally, get progressively more difficult reading and listening materials and keep on grinding. It really is that simple. This is both reassuring and demotivating: There is only one trick, and it works every time, but it requires dedication. The best way to setup a routine is to use (micro)habits, a concept I learned from this book. Start with simple habits and build on them progressively. The goal is to get used to having Japanese as a part of your life, not to burn out learning all the kana in one day just to get to reading faster. If you can that's great, but it's not necessary. Instead, take your time.
Immersion gets easier over time
Your first reading material is going to suck. You will spend a lot of time on basic grammar patterns. Almost every single sentence you will encounter will have one or multiple new words. This is normal. The key is to trust the process: The more you read, the easier it becomes.
Similarly, the first time you sit down in front of a drama episode, it will probably going to be difficult. People talk fast, the video doesn't necessary help you that much and your ear is not very well-developed yet. As you keep doing it and as you get better at reading, your listening ability will grow as well. Both reading and listening are important skills to have and you should polish them both.
On the topic of motivation
There will be days when you just don't want to read. This happens to everyone. Motivation is a powerful drive to start doing things, but it is usually not enough since it can fade away with time. What I suggest is to turn immersion into a routine, something you do everyday without thinking too much about it. The same is true for Anki. After doing it for a few months, Anki fatigue can start to settle in and you will possibly find your time reviewing cards to be quite boring. This is when having a proper routine in place will help tremendously, as you will just do it naturally, in the same way that when faced with a door you have to go through, you don't think for a minute on the right course of action; you simply open the door.
To summarize, it is necessary to be very interested your reading materials and to then use that excitement to get into a daily habit of reading. It is this daily exposure that will ensure your continued success.
Is it okay to watch anime with non-Japanese subtitles?
Sure, why not. Just make sure that you're actually listening to the Japanese and not spending all your time reading the subtitles. If all you're doing is reading English subtitles, then you're not actively immersing in the language. I actually suggest using Japanese subtitles though, because it's fun, it gets you better at reading Japanese and it's still great to help you understand what's being said. You can also have both and only glance at the English subtitle from time to time if you're totally lost. But don't compare the translation to the original, it'll most likely be way off.
On the topic of pitch accent
You may or may not know that Japanese is a pitch-based language. This means that words have a different patch associated to them. While it is important, there is no need to stress out over it. Unless you're tone deaf (in which case you can train it a bit at the beginning), we will have pitch accent on the Anki cards we are going to use. Provided you listen enough, you will hear pitch and will be able to replicate it. You shouldn't fail an Anki card just because you did the wrong pitch. Instead, simply re-read the word with correct pitch and move on. I highly suggest you train pitch early on. A wonderful website where you can learn all things pitch accent can be found here. I highly suggest starting by using this tool.
Is it bad to do output early on?
It's only bad if you don't understand what you are outputting and have no way of checking that what you are saying (or writing) is correct. This means that corrected output is good at every stage of the learning process. What is bad is forcing students to output early on and this is what Krashen talked about. The myth that output is bad has nothing to do with Krashen's input hypothesis and seems to stem from this infamous article.
Passive and active listening
Passive listening is listening to the language without paying active attention to what you're listening to. It is not entirely clear to what extent passive listening helps you learn languages. It is however pretty clear that active listening does help, however. Active listening requires you to focus on what is being said and to try to properly understand what is going on. You might argue that passive listening can get you better at recognizing the sounds of the language, but many people sing in other languages and their pronunciation is closer to Animal Crossing's Animalese language than to proper pronunciation. You might then argue that input is not output, but at this point we're both confused and not sure what to do so we drop the argument and conclude that you should do passive listening if you like it, but you probably shouldn't expect to get massive listening gains from it.
Is studying grammar even worth it?
This question is more profound than it looks. Gaining a deep and meaningful mastery of a language requires recognizing the structures that are inherent to that language. Grammar helps you familiarize yourself with them. It also gives you vocabulary to discuss these structures. That being said, it is only through practical use of the language (be it via input or output) that you will truly internalize them and become fluent. In other words, grammar is useful because it lets us articulate how and why the language works, but it is not actually the language per se: It is simply an analysis of the inner workings of the language. What this means for most people is that we should be familiar with basic grammar patterns at the very least, with further grammar study done periodically as one encounters new grammar structures through immersion. Nothing wrong with going all in with grammar either and reading everything in IMABI though. Likewise, while not necessary to be fluent at all, knowing some basic classical Japanese can inform certain modern structures, for instance why is が acting like の in the phrase 我が国?
Should I get Japanese classes or a tutor?
If you'd like to, but it's not necessary by any means. Getting a tutor to correct your pitch accent would be a really good idea if you're interested in having really good pitch accent.
I feel like I'm reading too slowly!
Read this. The TL;DR is that you should read more. Actually, this is almost always the solution to any Japanese-learning problem you might encounter!