How I Study Japanese

slice of life

I mentioned in my previous blog post my Japanese progress. Here is a bit of the methods I use to study it. I wanted to share it because it was a fun and rewarding journey so far - so if you struggle with more common communication-based approach popular nowadays, this might be somewhat helpful.

I took a road that a lot of people nowadays snub at: got a text book (in fact five of them, the whole JFZ series) that has a lot of grammar, exercises, texts, etc. in it, and worked my way through the whole thing. I’m currently at the lesson #10 of the last book. Compared to the “JUST SPEAK” approach that everybody is so excited about and that I tried (and failed miserably with) in German, this worked way better for me - I can study very hard when the material presents sufficient mental challenge (and Japanese got plenty of that, both grammar and vocab/hieroglyphics-wise) and I feel progress & actual learning. That never happened to me with the “communicative” approach, but worked just splendidly with the trusty & old-school language learning method.

Being an introvert also means that I in general don’t feel especially interested in approaching random people / talking for extended periods of time. Additionally, when your start you won’t be good at pronunciation and it will be very hard to understand native speakers - at least for me with German it worked as negative conditioning of sorts. You kinda always get this dose of embarrassment and awkwardness that doesn’t work well for me mental health wise and serves as a major demotivator. Even now, though my German did improve substantially and I can speak with people I feel comfortable with (like my boyfriend’s Austrian family), I still get this unpleasant feeling when I try to use German in the wild. I didn’t want that to be my experience with Japanese.

The typical classroom talk and tortoise speed of learning in groups were never sufficient for me either. Plus, I hate meetings / appointments of any kind, so I decided to solo it at least in the beginning.

So I remembered how I learned English, the language in which I feel more fluent than in my native Russian nowadays, and tried to transfer that to Japanese. So here’s a bit of how I’m going about it.

Learn the Damn Grammar

The whole thing. For somebody with a love to formal systems in math this is really not that hard. Even though the Japanese verbs have seemingly infinite number of possible conjugations, modal verbs, and different levels of formality, it turned out to be quite approachable if you go step by step and give it time.

Also, learning Japanese grammar in particular is especially fun because of the so called “explosion” effect. Since Japanese is an agglutinative language, different pieces of grammar work nicely together, and you quickly start getting multiplicative effect of your learning, which allows you to build more and more complex sentences quite quickly and in turn decipher more complex texts / speech.

It’s not realistic to expect to remember everything from the first try. I sometimes forget “simple” stuff still. However, having a decent overview from the get go of what is possible in the language, and encountering those forms daily helps to cement them in your memory. Eventually, they become very natural and you don’t need to think about it anymore most of the time. But when you encounter some complex piece of content, you have the tools to analyze and understand it.

Find Content You Enjoy

Do the textbook content (since it’s often tries to model normal everyday situations), but also find and surround yourself with the content you find enjoyable on its own merits. This was very easy because I love contemporary Japanese music (and yes, listening to Eminem was a life-changing experience in my English learning journey all the way back), revived my anime watching habit (and there’s a lot of new epic stuff!), and now trying to finally read manga in the original form turned out to be challenging, but also very exciting process.

I went from struggling through one chapter of よつばと! with dictionary for hours in the beginning to being able to read several chapters of ハイキュー on an hour long flight back to Berlin scarcely needing to look up words nowadays. BLEACH and ベルセルク are still a bit too above my level, but they went from being completely incomprehensible to something that I can realistically attempt in a couple of months.

GACKT, Keiju, KOHH, Necronomidol, etc. turned out to be highly useful in both improving my listening skills and having a lot of fun enjoying the music.

I also discovered that Japanese TV dramas became quite good! And a lot of stuff is available on Netflix nowadays. Really enjoyed 夫のちんぽが入らない (no, it’s not what you might think it is if you look up the translation, a very wholesome show despite the somewhat edgy name :), currently watching 舞妓さんちのまかないさん which is also quite nice. And watching the shows you already know with the Japanese audio & Japanese subs works very well too - I’m currently re-watching Star Trek DS9 in this fashion.

Plus, Japanese youtube is full of interesting content and even some learning full-Japanese channels are amazing. I can sincerely recommend Miku Real Japanese for example.

Use the Language Every Day

Ultimately, to keep up the language when you live outside of the country where it is the default language is hard as long as you don’t have a use for it every day. In my case with Japanese it turned out to be quite simple so far - it’s just moving from consuming translated Japanese content to consuming non-translated Japanese content. I also discovered during the pandemic that I both enjoy and somewhat capable when it comes to cooking - so finding new recipes and ingredients using my new abilities turned out to be an additional reinforcement point. With English it was also straightforward - programming does happen in English most of the time anyways.

There are still some things that you cannot really naturally integrate - in case of Japanese, the big thing is writing. I’m not obsessed about it, but I would like to be able to write stuff by hand - I’m trying to keep a journal in Japanese, but I’m very inconsistent. Writing on computer is not an issue, thankfully.

Reading kanji turned out to be less of an issue, since I’m reading manga anyways and it works for both learning vocab and kanji - didn’t really feel the need to rely on Anki or similar software so far.

I also switched my phone to Japanese about 2 months in, and that solved the katakana issue that some of my friends struggled with - since katakana is underrepresented in most textbooks, people struggle with learning it. Thankfully, UIs are usually katakana non-stop, and if you see it every day, you learn it very quickly.

Voice Input

Since I didn’t feel comfortable trying my budding language skills on a random Japanese person, I used the modern technology instead - turns out that auto-dictation software embedded into every smartphone nowadays is quite good and can help tremendously when getting the grips of consonants gemination, vowel lengthening, and other funny phonetic artifacts a new language presents. I use everything from Siri to just voice typing - and as a result Japanese is probably the only language in which I can reliably make my phone write what I’m saying to it.

I plan to start working more on it and improving my conversational skills next month on Italki - since I have a bit more confidence, and have a vocabulary that covers every day topics, and I can follow quite a bit of dialogue on Miku’s channel without looking at subs nowadays, it should be a significantly less stressful experience vs. me trying to do it from the get go.

I neither worry nor care about the whole pitch accent FUD. None of the examples of its usefulness ever sounded realistic to me, and I believe that this is primarily a distraction. I also don’t think that having perfect pronunciation is a goal in my case anyways - I want it to be good, but it’s not like anybody will mistake me for a Japanese anyways, no matter how precisely I hit the tones :)


In the end, even if I stopped studying today, it still would’ve been worth it - I enjoyed this tremendously, learned a lot of interesting stuff, etc. But because this method I customized for myself & my character is so easy to keep up, I have no intention of stopping. I’m not fluent yet, but I notice more and more that my mind starts to switch to Japanese from time to time, and that’s a good sign.


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