Learn Japanese with Japanese Hip-hop

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You like hip-hop and rap music do ya? Well I do too. You’re also learning Japanese? Ditto.

Did you know the two can be combined into the awesome holy grail of studying — a blend of fun, repetition and intrigue?

This has been my experience with learning Japanese and listening to Japanese hip-hop. I wrote this article to share the insights I’ve had with using Japanese hip-hop as a tool for learning Japanese.

This article also stands as an introduction for anyone who has a love for hip-hop music, but has no idea where to start looking for good Japanese hip-hop.

This should help get you started =)


Why is Japanese hip-hop an awesome tool for learning Japanese?

It makes your Japanese pronunciation awesome

Rapping to hip-hop music is a lot like reciting tongue twisters, only to music. The music is often so catchy you’ll find yourself singing and repeating the same verses all day. Without even realizing it, you are doing speed drills for your pronunciation.

Your Japanese pronunciation, speed, intonation, rhythm, and cadence will all improve dramatically with the rapid, bullet-fire repetition that hip-hop music has to offer. And the best part is that it all happens effortlessly, while you just sit back and enjoy the good music.

Listening to Japanese hip-hop solidifies vocabulary and grammar in an interesting way

We’ve all heard repetition is the mother of all learning. But seriously, repetition is the mother of all learning.

Hip-hop music contains many repeating parts. When we listen to Japanese hip-hop, we hear vocabulary repeated over and over in context. Every time a word is heard, it is reinforced in your mind. If you listen to that song and hear that word enough times, you will not forget that word.

When you listen to and learn to sing Japanese hip-hop music, not only do you get the reinforcement of that much needed vocabulary, but also the reinforcement of grammar patterns. After hearing these patterns over and over again, you’ll find yourself using (speaking) them correctly and effortlessly in the middle of conversation. Of course, this doesn’t just apply to rap music. But again, the volume of repetition that rap music provides often causes you to accidentally memorize the Japanese grammar.

Let’s lay down a quick example using English to further explain this point.

Let’s imagine you are learning English. Let’s also imagine you like Eminem’s music and you especially love the song My name is.

Well, “My name is So-and-so.” is a very basic English grammar pattern. And incidentally, it appears in the song “My name is” many, many times. Do you know how many times? Go ahead, stop reading and take a guess. Then scroll down when your ready to check your answer.

Ready for it?

24 times.

24 times the grammatical phrase “My name is” is repeated.

That means if you listen to the song 10 times, you will hear this grammar pattern delivered with proper pronunciation and in context, 240 times.

If you listen to the song 20 times, that’s 480 times hearing the grammar point. And if you listened to the song 100 times, well, you get the point…

You can imagine the person who has listened and sang along to this song 10+ times will have no problem producing the phrase “My name is So-and-so.” right? Probably even effortlessly. Of course, they’ll have to learn to swap out “Slim Shady” with their own name, but that becomes a cinch once the grammatical phrase has been repeated so many times.

Now, I spit an example using a very basic phrase in English to prove a point. But what happens when you get the same amount of repetition listening to a Japanese song with less familiar grammar patterns? Yep. That sheer repetition causes you to produce those phrases naturally and effortlessly, with proper pronunciation.

Next, lets talk about how to take a frustrating experience that we all have with listening to music, and turn it into an experience that will cause you to learn Japanese on autopilot:

The song-stuck-in-your-head phenomenon

The catchy nature of hip-hop music will often cause a song to get “stuck in your head.” I’m sure everyone knows the feeling of getting a song stuck in their head right? You suddenly find yourself singing the song over and over. You can’t forget the song no matter how hard you try.

Well what if you could use that to your advantage? What if that song that you can’t stop hearing in your head and singing was in Japanese?

You would be constantly drilling those grammar patterns and vocabulary into your brain, despite whether you felt like studying or not.

This is a natural bi-product of listening to Japanese hip-hop.

Next, let’s talk about how listening to Japanese hip-hop changes your psychology.

Listening to Japanese hip-hop associates the feeling of fun with learning Japanese

Most people associate learning Japanese with frustration, determination, will power, and trying really hard. To an an extent, feeling those feelings is probably unavoidable when it comes to taking on a long-term project such as learning Japanese.

However, you can instead attach the feeling of fun to learning Japanese, so that when you think about learning Japanese, you feel good. It’s actually really easy to do.

Let’s briefly review the old psychological principle of classical conditioning. Pavlov trained his dog to salivate when he heard the ring of a bell. Pavlov did this by giving the dog a steak while simultaneously ringing a bell. He did this every day for a period of time. Then eventually, he stopped giving the dog steaks, but when he rang the bell his dog continued to salivate upon hearing the bell, even in the absence of the steak.

Well you can train your self to “salivate”(have the positive feeling of fun) at the ring of a bell (the thought of learning Japanese). If you incorporate more fun activities into your learning regimen. I personally don’t consider listening to hip-hop “studying.” I just do it for fun, and the benefits ensue.

Conversely, if you only do boring things, you train yourself to associate pain and boredom with Japanese, which makes you want to avoid doing what it takes to learn it.

Discipline is an important skill for taking on a long-term goal. Sometimes, for the sake of consistency, you might even need to study, despite the feeling of not wanting to. But don’t make it your main mode. Make it as fun as possible and you will sincerely enjoy the process of learning of Japanese.

Another fun bi-product of listening to Japanese hip-hop music is…

You will learn slang

Dude, who doesn’t wanna learn slang? Nam sayin’ dawg.

Learning slang is a fun part of studying Japanese. Once you learn a new slang word, you hear it everywhere. And being able to bust it out naturally and appropriately in conversation will certainly feel awesome, and make you sound awesome.

Listening to Japanese hip-hop will expose you to new slang, and give you an appropriate context for it. Hearing slang in it’s natural environment is much better than learning it from some random example sentence from some random website made for learners of Japanese.

Although I wouldn’t recommend mindlessly repeating everything you hear in hip-hop music, the mere exposure to the slang will help you become more aware of the pop-culture of words. Then if you happen to hear that same word or phrase being used in real life by Japanese native speakers, you can start to consider using it yourself.

Learning Japanese hip-hop allows you bragging rights

A final reason for listening to Japanese hip-hop is to learn to sing it, and go show it off in karaoke! (especially if you live in Japan). Your Japanese friends will be impressed by the fact you know and can sing some of their favorite Japanese songs. This will create a closer connection with them. In this case, I’d recommend Def Tech, or Kreva, as these Japanese hip-hop artists have been around for a while and are known by almost everyone. Especially, I get a lot of good reactions from singing Def Tech’s My Way in karaoke.

Okay, so I said “bragging rights” but that’s only part of the whole truth 😉

What we’re really talking about here is connecting with Japanese people and the culture.

How to get the most out of Japanese hip-hop music for learning

Wait, wha-? Seriously? You just discovered another awesome, fun way to learn Japanese and you want to go ruin it with turning it into another form  of rigid study?

Just go listen to the music! Enjoy it. Don’t turn something fun like listening to music into another method of self-torture by making it into “study.”

What, you’re still here?

Okay, okay, okay…

If you want to utilize listening to Japanese hip-hop music in a way that will actually increase your enjoyment of it, read on.

A Simple Guide to Learning Japanese with Hip-hop

Step 1) Find good music you like, and listen to it.

Step 2) After listening to that song a few times, pull up the Japanese lyrics and have a read through them. Use the Rikaichan plugin  to quickly look up the words you don’t know.

Step 3) Sing along to the song, reading the Japanese lyrics as you listen to the song.

Step 4) Listen to the song on the go, in your car, or on your iPod — whenever and wherever. Personally, listening to the song a few times and reading along with the lyrics sheet will be enough so that when I listen to the song again with out the lyrics sheet, I will still be able to at least decipher the correct lyrics by ear. The repetition of listening to the song over and over will take take me to a point of having the song fully memorized, and with very little effort.

Listen to the song with the lyrics sheet as many times as you want/need/feel like.

Step 5) Do this step only if you really, really want to. And I mean, really want to (I almost never do it these days). Go through and take the words you had trouble with, or would like to encode into your memory forever, and add it(them) to your Anki (or other SRS app). I really mean it though. This step is not necessary, and should only be used if there is a word or phrase that you can’t live without having memorized.

Let’s keep the process of listening to Japanese music a sacred activity of fun, okay? 😉

Recommended Japanese hip-hop for those getting started

Lastly, I will leave you a list of my recommended Japanese hip-hop artists. It is not an all-inclusive list by any means, but it should get you started if you’re new to the world of Japanese hip-hop.

Note: I have left out links to the songs, as the nature of Japanese music (especially YouTube) is that the Japanese music industry is so strict that videos often go down just as fast as they go up. I’ll leave the Google-fu up to you 😉

Your small investment in finding good Japanese music will produce rewards ten-fold.

Kreva – My personal favorite. Kreva’s music has uplifting lyrics and always puts me in a good mood. From a learning Japanese standpoint, Kreva often uses yojijukugo (四字熟語) which are four character expressions in Japanese, and also kotowaza(諺) which are Japanese proverbs. Have a listen if you want to brush up your “scholarly” Japanese, while being inspired to live a kickass life!

Kick the Can Crew – A 90’s hip hop group featuring Kreva. Super catchy tunes. Check out Sayonara Sayonara, or 地球ブルーズ337.

Def Tech – Self-proclaimed “Jawaiian Reggae” artists. A blend of Japanese rap, and reggae with a tropical Hawaiian feel. My Way or Konomama (re-introducing RIZE) are good places to start.

Rip Slyme – Another catchy, upbeat summer-themed hip-hop group with a jazzy feel. They’ve got a ton of albums made, and with every album their music changes quite a bit. Besides Kreva, Rip Slyme is honestly my favorite Japanese hip-hop group. There is so many good Rip Slyme tracks out there, but I’d wet your chops with One, Under the Sun, or Rakuen Baby.

Dragon Ash – They started out a punk rock group, and turned hip-hop part way through their career. A must check out if you like that rap/rock Linkin Park feel.

Steady & Co. – A Hip-hop group from the early 2000’s. Check out Stay Gold or 春夏秋冬 if you like that classic hip-hop flavor.

M-flow – Another catchy hip-hop group that’s also been around a while. M-flow loves to collab with other popular artists. Check out M-flow loves Chemistry / Astrosexy.

Cream – A newer music duo that does covers of western hip-hop and R&B, done with Japanese lyrics. I like their cover of Omarion – Post To Be. They also do their own original music. Check out Money Money Money.

童子-T – Smooth hip-hop and R&B. I like Better Days (featuring 加藤ミリヤ and 田中ロウマ).

環roy (Tamaki Roy)– One of my favorite minor label hip-hop artists. Tamaki Roy Has a lot of  dope instrumental tracks. Check out 830 Morning and Breakboy in the Dream.

銀座DOPENESS (Ginza Dopeness)– A unique and catchy underground hip-hop artist. Check him out!

That’s it for my recommendations for now. I know I’ve left out a ton of great artists. Maybe I’ll continue the series later and go more in depth on various Japanese hip-hop. Like I said, this is just barely scratching the surface on all of the awesome stuff that’s out there.

Also, if you wanna share your favorite Japanese hip-hop artists, feel free to drop them in the comments!


That’s it for now. Happy learning! And remember, enjoying the journey is just as important as the destination =)

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What Lifting Weights Has Taught Me About Learning Japanese

So, I accidentally made a body transformation picture. It’s not very scientifically rigorous, but it still proves a point.

Tony Michael Head transformation picture.

I never even meant to make this. I was milling through old photos and found this picture of  me three years ago.

I was completely shocked at how different I looked. The one on the left was taken August 2012. I was 55 kilos (121 lbs). The more current picture was taken August 2015 and I was 68 kilos (150 lbs) at the peak of my bulk.

Quite a difference, huh? Now I’m not claiming to be huge, because I know compared to many dudes, I’m not. But it was eye-opening to see for the first time actual progress I had made – 13 kilos (29 lbs) of muscle and a big improvement of strength was gained during the last three years.

I have no idea what is typical of a natural lifter who has been putting in his time consistently for three years; I hear a lot of different ideas.

But seeing this change made one thing clear in my mind…

Consistency…even to the point of blind faith will inevitably lead to results.

The most shocking thing about all of this was that the entire time, I never felt like I was making gains. I often felt frustration when I went to the gym because I wasn’t sure what I was doing was actually working. And to be honest, it wasn’t in the beginning. I wasn’t doing it right. I made a ton of mistakes.

If I had had the knowledge I have now, who knows… maybe I could have made the same progress in one or two years. Like I said, I have no idea what is typical of the average person.

But, despite the maybe slow progress, despite the mistakes I made (not counting calories or macros, not sticking to programs long enough) I had the faith to stick to it. The faith that no matter what, as long as I kept at it, things would straighten out.

And eventually, it did straighten. Things started to  come together.

Learning Japanese (or any language) is a lot like weight lifting

You spend lots of effort over a long period of time with minimal return on investment. You spend the effort doing it consistently. Both are strenuous(weight lifting on the body, Japanese on the mind) but you rarely see progress as it’s happening.

In other words the progress is glacial. It happens so slowly and incrementally that you don’t notice it. But it’s there. As sure as global warming is in effect and the polar icecaps are melting, you are gaining muscle and getting bigger. You are also getting better at Japanese, provided you are making that consistent effort and showing up every day.

Now I know I’m not the best Japanese speaker in the world. I still have tons of improvement to make. Just as I have yet reach my fitness goals. As you can see by the picture, I haven’t reached マックスパワー(max power) yet.

I don’t have a before an after pic that lets me readily view my results with learning Japanese, but looking back

there was a time when…

  • I was afraid to hang out with Japanese speakers who couldn’t speak English because it meant I had to rely on my terrible Japanese.
  • I would watch Japanese movies/anime with subtitles because I couldn’t understand it.
  • I couldn’t read and write 2500 kanji characters from memory. Heck, there was a time when I couldn’t even read the kana.
  • Shonen manga (children’s manga) in Japanese was too difficult for me to read.

There was a time when I couldn’t talk my way out of a friggin’ paper bag.

I’ll stop now because I’m really worried about coming off braggy. Compared to where I want to be, I still really suck at Japanese. Nevertheless, looking back now in retrospect, I have made great improvements in my ability to speak Japanese. Just like I was able to transform my body, I was also able to transform my mind from someone who doesn’t speak Japanese, into someone who does.

And the common thread was consistency in my daily actions combined with just a little blind faith that if I just put my head down and kept moving forward no matter what, I would eventually see progress.

So that’s it. That’s my spiel for today. I hope some people will read this and feel a bit motivated to just commit to being consistent in their endeavors, even if when they feel like giving up.

If it was possible transform my body from being a skinny and weak dude, into a slightly less skinny, much stronger dude in a few years, the same is possible for you – whether that be lifting weights, learning to speak Japanese, or any other long-term endeavor.

 

Improvisational Exercises for Speaking Japanese that Make You a Better Conversationalist!

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String and tin can telephone-*

I’ve been wanting to share a few exercises for speaking Japanese that will not only improve your Japanese, but your overall conversational ability. In fact, some of these exercises are used in improvisational classes for improving your ability to be creative and talk on the spot.

If done every day for a long enough period of time, these techniques will improve your “fluency” in Japanese (how quickly and fluidly you can speak Japanese).  They will also train your ability to chatter away, hopefully making you a more interesting person.

In fact, the reason I started doing this exercises was because I wanted to develop the ability to speak Japanese quickly, while generating new conversational threads rapidly. I was feeling a little sluggish in my conversational ability before (yeah, not just Japanese, even English). I found these exercises really helped.

Conversational ability is a muscle, and these drills are like weights that build the muscle up.

Maybe some of you are already adroit socializers who can talk up a storm without the need of any extra practice. That’s fine. But these exercises will help get you up to speed in Japanese. Best of all, they give you an aim and avenue for Japanese speaking practice without the need of a partner!


Free association (sentence chaining) exercise

The purpose of this exercise is to train your brain to rapidly generate conversational topics in context based on the previous topic.

Step 1) Say a sentence in Japanese. Anything is okay.

Step 2) Pick one word from that sentence.

Step 3) Make a new sentence using that one word you picked from the previous sentence.

Step 4) Repeat for a predetermined amount of time (I usually do chunks of five minutes). Make sure you set a timer.

The goal of this exercise is to keep generating new sentences and talk continually and smoothly without long pauses in between sentences. When you first begin doing this exercise you might find yourself taking  a long time in between sentences thinking about what you’re going to say next. That’s totally okay at first. After a few days or weeks of doing this daily, you will find yourself rapidly generating new sentences quickly and automatically without much thought. An example in English would look as follows:

Notice how the words in bold are selected and reused in the following sentence.

I am writing an article right now.

I haven’t read any good news articles recently.

Recently, I’ve been studying more Japanese than usual.

I think I am so lucky to have like-minded peers that are good at speaking Japanese!

…  * continue nonstop for five minutes or for whatever time span was predetermined*

That was an example in English; doing this exercise in English alone will explode your conversational skills. Do it in Japanese and you have an excellent way to expand both your conversational muscles AND your spoken Japanese.


 

“Rambling” AKA monologue practice

Whereas the last drill was for exercising your ability to generate and talk about new topics very quickly, this one is its polar opposite. Rambling practice is choosing one topic, and talking nonstop about that same thing for a given amount of time (again, I like to do five-minute chunks).

Like the last exercise, the goal is to successful talk about the object for the full five minutes without any long pauses in your speech. Also, try not wander to far from the topic.

For example, if I’m rambling about my snowboard, I might start talking about my last snowboarding trip in the Toyama prefecture. I could also branch off and talk about my favorite brands of snowboard equipment, or how I like snowboarding fashion. However, talking about surfing or going to the beach would be too far off topic. Or going deep into how winter is my favorite season might be too far off topic.

Use your judgment and bring the monologue back to the chosen topic if you begin to wander too far.

I like to pick random objects in my room such as an article of clothing that I bought, or a decorative piece in my apartment, or whatever.

Also, abstract topics can be chosen: what you did (or what you will do) for winter vacation last year (this year), how to play guitar, or the origin of the cosmos.

I like to balance the free association exercise with the rambling exercise because whereas the former trains your brain to generate new topics quickly, the latter teaches you to go deep with any given topic.


 

Telling stories in Japanese

This is one of my favorites. First you brainstorm a list of interesting stories from your life. I actually have a bank of them in my journal that I will refer to when I do story telling practice.

Choose one interesting story, and tell it. You can set a timer for five or ten minutes, or whatever you feel is appropriate. Or, you could even just practice telling the story naturally with no time restraints.

This technique is quite versatile and you could use it with different objectives in mind. You could…

~Just focus on practicing a handful of stories over and over, until you can smoothly bust them out at any time, any place. You can get all the details and intricacies of your story worked out until you can deliver with perfection.

 ~Practice telling a wide variety of different stories so that you get better at improvising on the spot in general, but in the context of using stories from your own life.

~You could even record yourself so that you can play it back and become aware of idiosyncrasies in your speech, and parts of the story you’d like to improve on or change for the future.

What I’ve done before was a mixture of all of this. First, I brainstormed the top ten most interesting stories from my life. Then I wrote them down and in Japanese and had it corrected by a native speaker of Japanese.

Then later I practiced telling the stories (off the top of my head) and recorded myself telling them so I could analyze the way I spoke.

Really the possibilities with this drill is endless.


How to unify these improvisational speaking techniques into a daily practice

Now we’ve talked about a few useful techniques to improve your conversational skills in Japanese, but how do we unify those into a daily practice that will help you improve over time?

I love these techniques, and I use them often. But it’s not like I have done them every single day since the beginning of my studies. Instead, I do them for a fixed period of time (2 weeks or a month). Within that period of time I will do some or all of the activities for a certain number of minutes each day.

I will create a progress bar for the activity in order to track it easier. This practice is of course done in addition to sentence collecting, Japanese immersion, and other deliberate practice.

What follows is a few sample plans for how to incorporate these exercises into your normal routine.

Every day for two weeks:

Free association 5 mins

Rambling 5 mins

Story telling 5 mins

Or perhaps…

Every day for one month:

Free association 10 mins

Story telling 10 mins

Or even….

Every day for three weeks:

Story telling 25 mins

So basically it’s up to you to choose the combination of exercises you want to do, the time span, and how long you want to do them each day.

That’s all I got for now! Feel free to post your comments, suggestions, or questions if you have them!

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Acquire Japanese Vocabulary and Grammar – Collect 10,000 Sentences

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Ancient stairs to a castle
Your journey to fluency in Japanese begins here.

Okay. You’ve set up your Japanese immersion environment. You’ve learned ALL the jōyō kanji. You’ve also learned all the kana. Give yourself a huge pat on the back for getting this far. You are cool. You are awesome. You are a beautiful person. You’ve already done what most people could very easily but don’t do.

With the preliminary steps taken care of, let’s get into the core of this method of studying Japanese now. The sentence collection phase.

You will collect 10,000 unique Japanese sentences and enter them in your SRS. Don’t look at me like that. I know you can do it because it’s not difficult at all. It’s a repeatable process that is easy to implement, and if you stay consistent, 10,000 will go a lot faster than you think.

But before getting into the how, let’s talk about why on earth anyone would want to embark on this seemingly impossible (but actually stupidly easy) mission of collecting 10,000 Japanese sentences .

How collecting and reviewing 10,000 sentences will make you fluent in Japanese

Reading is at the heart of the sentence collection process. You find a unique Japanese word (perhaps multiple words) in a sentence and decide you want to know that word forever. Then you enter that entire sentence into your SRS program (i.e., create your own custom flashcards). When you review the card you will be reading the sentence aloud, checking to make sure you understand the whole sentence, and writing it down by hand. (There are actually multiple potential card formats you could use that I will share with you in a future post).

You will be reading tons and tons of Japanese. You will be giving a home to all of that juicy, native Japanese you encounter in your immersion environment so that you can study it later.

Oh, and don’t worry about spending too much time on reading Japanese! Your learning will be balanced out by other forms of practice (speaking, listening and writing). These will come from being in your Japanese immersion environment and also the supplemental practice you will do (shadowing, dictation, speaking with native speakers, etc.).

Listening to the experience and wisdom of those before me

The idea that collecting 10,000 sentences and reviewing them in your SRS will make you fluent in Japanese is not my own. I discovered that by taking the advice of other adventurous and creative people who discovered this wonderful combination of theory + technology, I could learn Japanese quickly with very minimal effort. Not to mention having a lot of fun!

I first got the idea from Khatzumoto, the dude who got fluent in Japanese in 18 months. Khatzumoto got the idea from reading Antimoon, a blog written for learners of English using a similar method. Also, there was a group of Polish people who used this method to get fluent in English (tried to link their website but either its unavailable or I just can’t find it!)

Stephen Krashen and the magical input hypothesis

It all started when a guy called Stephen Krashen came up with the input hypothesis which states that one learns a language by lots of comprehensible input – which is language that you read or hear that is understandable to you but slightly above your level. It is reasoned that getting lots of this comprehensible input is what eventually leads to the output of correct language (i.e., speaking and writing).

I’m not here to argue whether I think this theory is “right” or “wrong”. All I know is there has been a growing body of people that have applied this method via SRSing, such as Khatzumoto, or Antimoon, and have been successful in learning a second language. I also had success with this method, which is why I’m excited to spread the word and share it with you today.

Have you ever heard a song over and over again, and suddenly one day you realized you knew all the words by heart, even though you never practiced singing it before? It’s a lot like that. You hear and read enough Japanese and one day you will realize that you accumulated so much time getting the correct language in your head that all the important components like grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation will just be there.

This is not something we think about much, but it’s also how we learn words in our first language too. Often we will hear a new word (maybe a slang word) over and over until one day we find ourselves saying it in conversation. It’s not like we hear the word once in the wild, write it in a notebook, and go home and practice saying it aloud over and over again until it’s memorized. No, the accumulation of hearing it many times causes us to learn it (often unconsciously). We learn our own language with tons of comprehensible input so why don’t do the same for learning Japanese?

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t use output oriented activities (such as speaking or writing practice). In fact, I think they are very important! I’m just saying, getting tons of comprehensible input is a huge component to becoming fluent in a language. And, it’s quite easy – much easier than exerting yourself to the stress of conversing with a native speaker when you don’t yet have a great command of the language (again, I think speaking the language is very good practice when you’re ready for it).

And here’s where the SRS comes in: essentially everything you enter into your SRS becomes comprehensible input. When you go through the process of looking up the words you don’t know and creating a custom flash card for them, the once unfamiliar becomes comprehensible to you. Then you are able to get that same input over and over again as your SRS program does the work for you  and schedules when you need to review that card in order to retain it in your memory.

This is why I love the SRS program so much (I personally use Anki). You can take little snapshots of the Japanese you hear or read in your environment, create your own little “teacher” robot that knows exactly what you want to learn and when you need to review it in order to keep it in your long-term memory.

I absolutely recommend that the bulk of the sentences you collect come from real-life Japanese, i.e., the Japanese you hear and read in your Japanese immersion environment (coming from Japanese native speakers). Hearing real Japanese as opposed to textbook example sentences is what is going to give you the most natural sounding Japanese. Conversely if the majority of the Japanese you study comes from a textbook you will start to sound like a textbook.

Now maybe in the very beginning you will want to use something a bit more structured, like a textbook or something to get the basics down. You might try this for the first couple hundred sentences  or so just to get a basic feel for how Japanese works. This helps you transition in to using “real Japanese”, which can seem daunting at first. I recommend Tae Kim’s Grammar Guide, as the example sentences are exceptionally natural sounding. And they teach you natural Japanese from the start (common verb contractions, emphatic sentence endings, etc.) – stuff that you’ll almost never see in a textbook. I actually went through the entire guide and took one example sentence from each point and added it to my Anki deck.

I say don’t ever use textbook examples of Japanese to build your SRS deck but actually what I mean is use them sparingly, and let the bulk of the sentences you collect come for your Japanese immersion environment, IE, from the books/manga you read, or from the Japanese movies/anime/drama you watch. Almost every guideline I have laid down in this guide I have broken, or will break at some point. Use whatever resources you need to get you wherever you need to go, when the time comes.

Collecting sentences is a fun way to learn Japanese

Another cool thing about studying Japanese this way is that because the bulk of your sentences that you will be collecting and reviewing will be coming from your Japanese immersion environment (i.e., the Japanese comics, movies and other media that YOU love), your brain associates Japanese with having fun. Because your brain associates Japanese with fun, you are much more likely to do Japanese just because you enjoy it, not because you have to.

When I think back to my earlier “hardcore days” of studying Japanese, I mostly reminisce about all the Studio Ghibli I watched and all the Dragonball manga I read. Good times.

Oh I put in the work reviewing my sentences in Anki too. Around five hours of adding and reviewing sentences a day. But guess what, I barely remember that. I mostly just recall the fun I had being in my Japanese immersion environment I created.

I believe that because I associated the Japanese language with having fun, I was able to put in five hours a day into SRSing. Had I been adding boring textbook examples to my sentence collection rather than fun movie dialogue and lines from manga, my tolerance for how much Japanese I could have reviewed in a day probably would have went down a lot. The lesson? Fun is a priority.

Why 10,000 sentences?

Well, I suppose somewhere around 9,000 would have you sorted. 12,000 would also be good.  Somewhere around 10,000 just seems to be the critical amount of exposure it takes to become fluent. And 10,000 is a nice round number to shoot for as a landmark. I first got the idea from alljapaneseallthetime.com and decided to give it a shot.

When I hit 10,000 sentences I was able to consider myself fluent in Japanese. I was able to converse with native speakers comfortably on a wide range of topics, read Japanese novels written for adults without the aid of a dictionary (as well as newspapers, manga, etc.), I was able to write comfortably (although admittedly in Japan, handwriting things does not come up a whole lot with the exception of filling out forms) and I was also able to watch Japanese movies, drama, and anime with a 70-80% comprehension rate (depending on the content and what audience it was aimed for).

Now of course 10,000 sentences doesn’t have to be the end of your journey. For me it was just a landmark. I’m currently at around 15,000 (not including kanji cards) and intend to keep going! I have a friend who’s sitting at around 30,000 sentences that speaks phenomenal Japanese.

I would recommend hitting that 10,000 mark first to get a solid foundation in Japanese down. Then if you want, you can decide to either slow down on the new card adds and use that time to focus on other learning activities, or learn Japanese through osmosis (chillin’ in your Japanese immersion environment and loving life).

At any rate, 10,000 sentences wont make you a god but it will give you a handle of Japanese that most people would dream of!

The basic sentence card format

Okay, so you are watching a Japanese movie that you bought (with Japanese subtitles turned on) and you come across a sentence in the dialogue you would like to add to your SRS. How should you format your card?

What follows is the most simple and effective card format I believe. It is what I used for a long time (I will describe card format variants in a later post).


FRONT:

sentence in Japanese (containing one, maybe two words you aren’t yet familiar with)


BACK:

pronunciation + definitions of words

(+ translation of sentence in English if absolutely needed)


In reviewing this card, your task is to read the card aloud, understand all the words and the meaning of the entire sentence. You should also write out the sentence by hand (maybe not for all your reviews, but some). Set a quota like twenty sentences a day to write by hand.

Let’s check out a concrete example taken from my personal Anki deck (thanks Wikipedia!).


FRONT:

食事とは、基本的には栄養、すなわち人間が生命を維持し活動し成長をするために必要な栄養素をとる行為である。


BACK:

しょくじとは きほんてきには えいよう、 すなわち にんげんが せいめいを いじし せいちょうを するために ひつような えいようそを とる こうい である。

維持 いじ sustain

栄養素 えいようそ nutrient(s)


The definitions I added (sustain and nutrients) were the newly encountered words.

Here, I didn’t add an English translation of the entire sentence (as I didn’t need one). Although, adding the English translation for the entire sentence is optional (if you have one). I personally don’t add full-on sentence translations too often because I want be able to understand the Japanese, as opposed to associate it with an English sentence. Although sometimes an English translation might be required, particularly if you are studying a grammar point and need some clarification.

As far as the basic card format goes, that’s it! Pretty simple right?

Theres a few other points to making sentence cards I’d like to mention…

Monolingual definitions AKA Japanese only cards

Whenever it’s convenient for you (and the sooner the better), I’d recommend adding monolingual definitions. This means rather than adding a Japanese to English definition for unknown words as shown above, you add a Japanese to Japanese definition (definitions of Japanese words in Japanese). This is in order to eliminate English from the equation entirely so that you are thinking in Japanese as much as possible.

So the example card from above that I gave from my own deck actually looks like this:


FRONT:

食事とは、基本的には栄養、すなわち人間が生命を維持し活動し成長をするために必要な栄養素をとる行為である。


BACK:

しょくじとは きほんてきには えいよう、 すなわち にんげんが せいめいを いじし せいちょうを するために ひつような えいようそを とる こうい である。

い‐じ〔ヰヂ〕【維持】[名](スル)物事の状態をそのまま保ちつづけること。「健康を維持する」「現状維持」

えいよう‐そ〔エイヤウ‐〕【栄養素】生物体が、栄養のために体外から取り入れる物質。緑色植物では窒素・燐(りん)・カリウムなど、高等動物ではたんぱく質・炭水化物・脂肪・無機質・ビタミンなど。


Definitions complements of http://dic.yahoo.co.jp/ – a great dictionary with lots of example sentences as well. The Sanseido Web Dictionary is another good option for adding monolingual definitions.

It’s actually quite easy to go monolingual, and you can do it at a much earlier stage in learning Japanese than you think. In order to keep this post as concise as possible, I will write about making the conversion to monolingual cards in an easy, systematic way, in another post.

If your just starting out, no need to stress about this! But after adding maybe a thousand sentences or so you might want to start considering going monolingual.

Where to get your sentences

First priority – Your Japanese immersion environment

In case I’ve done a poor job at making this clear (highly likely), I want to reiterate one more time. The majority of your sentences will come from the Japanese immersion environment that you created for yourself.

This means most of your sentences will be real Japanese, as opposed to Japanese from textbooks. This is because your sentences will come from Japanese you read (manga, novels, newspapers, magazines, internet articles) or from Japanese you hear (movies, anime, television, podcasts, audiobooks, YouTube, or real life conversations).

If you want to enter Japanese that you heard from an audio source, I recommend that you only enter sentences in your SRS that have confirmed, written transcripts to accompany the dialogue, such as a Japanese movie that has Japanese subtitles, or an audio-book that has the accompanying transcript with it. This is to eliminate potential errors when adding it to your collection. If you can, you want to avoid studying incorrect Japanese.

One “hack” I use to get around this, is if I hear a word in some audio with no provided transcript (perhaps a movie with no Japanese subs or even a real life conversation) I will write the word down that I think I heard and look it up. Then I will add the example sentence from the dictionary.

TIP: Sentences coming from electronic sources such as internet articles are generally the easiest and quickest to add because all you have to do is copy and paste! And they will be generally less susceptible to typographical errors.

Medium priority – Japanese you pick up in everyday life

If you have Japanese friends that you speak Japanese with (especially if you live in Japan), or if you happen to encounter words in your everyday life somehow, you will probably want to keep a little memo pad (I use my iPhone) of words that you encounter and would like to remember. That way, you can go home later and look up the meanings of those words and add the sentences. Either you can actually write down the sentence that you hear in conversation word for word, and then check with that native Japanese speaker, or, you can just write down the word and go home and later look up an example sentence containing that word and add it.

Again, whatever you add, make sure you have some kind of confirmation of what you heard. Either being from the person you heard it from, or just that you copied and pasted it from a trusted source such as a dictionary.

Low priority – Word lists and other study resources such as textbooks

Again, adding Japanese sentences taken from real Japanese is the shiz. Not only do you learn the word intellectually, but getting the whole context (the visual images, the tone of voice, the background story), you make a real emotional connection with the words you learn.

However, there will be times when you will want to add sentences from textbooks or other study resources for whatever reason. Especially in the very beginning (maybe up two 200 sentences or so) when indulging in something like a Japanese book made for a Japanese native speaker might seem intimidating. There also might be a time when you want to use a vocabulary study list for a very specific outcome (I recently I went through all the JLPT vocab lists N5-N1 and added all unknown words).

Now, I didn’t use JLPT vocab lists in the beginning, mind you. I did this AFTER I already considered myself fluent. This is what I mean by “use for a specific outcome only.” My outcome being to ace the heck outta JLPT N1.  besides using Tae Kim’s Grammar Guide in the beginning to get the basics of Japanese down, I didn’t use anything but real-life Japanese in the beginning.

I’m sure during your journey of learning Japanese you will come up with many unique situations that will fit your own life/circumstances, and you will find your own crude, yet clever solutions to them.

When it comes to creative pursuits (such as learning a language) it is better to never EVER talk in absolutes (such a joker… 🙄 ) and always be willing to keep an open mind and bend the rules if necessary.

Turning learning Japanese into a game

The best thing about the 10,000 sentences process is that it bears a clear path with an achievable object. It turns learning Japanese into actionable steps. A process. A game. And knowing the exact plan of action is what makes a goal appear achievable to us and thereby, allows us the motivation to take the steps to achieve it.

Furthermore, 10,000 sentences can be broken down into daily goals. For example, if you did 20 sentences a day, you would reach 10,000 in 500 days. I heard somewhere that your daily reviews in Anki will average out to your number of added cards per day, multiplied by ten. This means if you add 20 cards a day, you will have about 200 reviews due per day.

I find this to be an accurate rule of thumb because I personally currently add 20 cards a day and I see around 200 reviews every day. It takes me roughly an hour to do my new card adds and my daily reviews.

Of course, how many cards you want to add a day and how much time you want to take SRSing will be totally up to you! Using the same logic above, you could spend two hours a day instead of one and add 400 cards, and reach 10,000 sentences in 250 days.

So that’s it!

Once you get the hang of it, you’ll find that adding new sentences is really easy. Just make that commitment of doing it every single day, and as you close that gap between where you are at now and 10,000 sentences, your Japanese will noticeably get better and better, and all this Japanese that you’re exposing yourself to in your immersion environment will suddenly make sense.

Wow, this was a lengthy, probably confusing post! Feel free to ask any questions in the comments 🙂

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Shadowing: a Powerful Tool for Learning Japanese + Bonus Technique “Echoing”

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The awesomeness of shadowing

Shadowing is one of my favorite and most customizable tools for learning Japanese.

Sheep with headphones

Shadowing has many different forms. It’s often referred to as “mimicking” or “parroting.” Recently I came up with a silent, mental variation of it which I call echoing.

In its simplest form, shadowing is listening to and repeating the spoken dialogue of a language that you are trying to learn (Japanese for example). This dialogue can come from anything such as an audio book, a podcast, a movie, or any kind of spoken Japanese which you can clearly hear and repeat.

Shadowing spoken Japanese has so many benefits its ridiculous. The exact way you shadow the material emphasizes what benefits of the practice you will maximize.. However in general, all forms of shadowing will do the following:

  • Improve your Japanese accent. Constant repetition and focusing on reproducing exactly what you hear will give you more native-like intonation, rhythm, stress and accent, and pronunciation.
  • Improve your listening ability. There are many strategies for listening to and understanding Japanese. In real life, you can’t usually pause and rewind the Japanese you hear. You must continue focusing on what you hear no matter if understand it or not. When you shadow Japanese, your focus on listening becomes a pinpointed laser beam, as you are focused intently on the spoken Japanese in order to reproduce it yourself on the spot.
  • Repeated listening and speaking of the same material will cause you to internalize the dialogue and the vocabulary as a side effect.  For example, if you shadow the same two-minute dialogue without breaks for 15 minutes, you will have listened to and repeated that dialogue with all its juicy vocabulary, all its tasty grammar, all its delectable ways of pronouncing words and expressing ideas in Japanese – seven and a half times. If you repeat it enough times, all of those intricacies of the language (especially vocab and grammar) become second nature to you as you memorize the dialogue. It’s one thing to know a vocabulary word. It’s another to have heard it and repeated in context many times over and over (not to mention, copying the pronunciation of a native speaker). It’s a lot like memorizing a song in Japanese. The lyrics become imprinted on your brain forever just because of the sheer repetition of that song.
  • It causes you to think in Japanese. After I have done a 30 minute session of shadowing, my brain gets used to Japanese because it just spent the last  30 minutes hearing, processing, and repeating Japanese. So ,even when you take the audio away, the momentum will keep your brain naturally continuing to think in Japanese. For that 30 minutes, the Japanese you shadow replaces your English thoughts to a degree. In my experience, it happens regardless of your current Japanese level.
  • Boosts listening ability and spoken fluency in the short-term. This is an expansion of the last point. But because after a session of shadowing your brain gets used to thinking in and producing Japanese, your listening comprehension is temporarily improved.  You are warmed up to listening and are therefore able to catch up with the Japanese you hear more easily – much more than if you hadn’t been shadowing. You are also able to speak Japanese and produce sentences more quickly and fluidly.
  • Modified a bit, the technique of shadowing can be utilized to study Japanese anytime, anywhere! Especially the nonverbal shadowing technique I call “echoing” which I will go into more detail about later in this post.

Professor Arguelles has created and explained a thorough technique for shadowing on his website which I highly recommend you check out as it will give you a deeper understanding of the technique. Although I’d like to note that I don’t follow his technique to the T. In fact, I pretty much just borrowed parts that suited me and was convenient for my own situation. I will explain my basic method for shadowing now, which then can be modified for different situations and for emphasizing different areas learning.

The basic method of shadowing:

  1. Get a segment of spoken Japanese audio, preferably one long stream of continuous, uninterrupted dialogue. Something like an audio book would be perfect (although I like to sometimes use back and forth dialogue between two speakers such as a podcast conversation (Japanese Listening (Advanced)) and put it on your iPod/mp3 player/computer so that you can listen to with headphones if possible. If there’s some sort of break or commercial like in a podcast you might need to edit it out so that it can be looped seamlessly without interruptions. Ideally the audio will be 2-15 minutes long.
  2. Play the audio on repeat, and mimic aloud everything that you hear as best as possible right behind the spoken audio. Ideally, you would listen with headphones to eliminate other noise distractions and get the best, clearest input of the language into your ears as possible. Do your best to copy the musicality of the language: the intonation, the rhythm, and the pronunciation. Try to make what you say a carbon copy of the language that you hear. Literally be like a bratty little two-year old and try to mimic everything you hear in the exact same voice.
  3. Continue to follow along with the audio, following slightly behind what you hear and repeating it as best as you can. The audio should be continuous so you should have no time to stop and repeat if you slip up. Just keep going no matter how little you are able to produce  correctly or how little you understand. Then main point of the exercise it to practice listening and reproducing the language.
  4. Set a timer for a predetermined amount of time and loop the recording for that time. I usually like to do 15 minute sessions. For example, if the audio recording was two minutes long, I would set the timer for 15 minutes, and put the recording on loop and shadow it for that amount of time without breaks. If the audio was 15 minutes long, then I would just go through the recording once.

Why it’s important to shadow Japanese, even if you don’t understand it

An important thing to remember with shadowing is that it actually doesn’t matter if you understand what you are producing or not. Of course it will be better if you do, but in the beginning, its possible that you will have ZERO comprehension of what you are repeating. Nevertheless, do your best to continue to repeat exactly what you hear just the same. Doing so will develop your abilities to listen to attentively early on, so that you get better at separating the sounds of the language. Also, you get used to hearing what the language sounds like, even if you don’t understand much or even any at all, yet. You soon will. And once you do understand enough to start comprehending and speaking Japanese, your accent will sound closer to a native Japanese speaker from the very beginning.

Just reproduce the same sounds that you hear with your mouth. This is exactly what babies do. If you use shadowing as a tool along with other Japanese learning strategies like collecting sentences in your SRS and extensive reading, you will soon come to make sense of these sounds.

An example of shadowing

I will link up a video of Professor Alexander Arguelles demonstrating his technique of shadowing. I’d like you to be aware that there are major differences in his method of shadowing, and my loosely adapted version of shadowing. Part of his method is walking “briskly” with good posture while repeating in a loud clear voice.

While I do think those are all fantastic components of his technique, I live in an apartment and do not have access to a secluded place where I won’t look like a mad man in public. Also, I think speaking in a loud clear voice is great for developing the muscles and vocal projection for good, clear pronunciation of the language. However the reality is I usually shadow much quieter as not to disturb my neighbors, which, living in a Japanese apartment with paper-thin walls, can reasonably so, be a bit sensitive to loud voices.

I generally practice shadowing sitting in a chair in my apartment with a medium-level speaking volume. The same volume I would use if I were talking to my friends in my apartment.

Anyway, what I want you to take from the video is the fact that Professor Arguelles is listening to the audio (Chinese) on his mp3 player and repeating everything he hears clearly, word for word, while continuously speaking with no breaks.  Notice how there are no pauses in the audio except for the brief gaps between sentences.

Now that you understand how to perform the basic core method of shadowing, let’s go into some variations I love and use even today.

Shadowing Variations

Shadowing with focus on comprehension

The purpose of this exercise is to shadow with a strong focus on building listening comprehension as well as internalizing the components of the language such as the vocabulary and the grammar. Basically, one implements the basic shadowing method as shown up above but places the most importance on understanding what they hear. This might mean if you are listening to an audio book with a story, visualize whats happening in the story as you repeat it. Try to understand the content and imagine it as you are repeating it.

When you shadow to focus on comprehension, it helps if you have a script that goes with the audio that shows word-for-word exactly what is being said. That way, you can read through the script first, look up and add any vocabulary necessary to your SRS first so that you have full comprehension of the article when reading it. Then go through and shadow it with focus on comprehension.

Shadowing with focus on pronunciation (mindless shadowing)

Another shadowing strategy I use is one that focuses on pronunciation while ignoring whether or not you understand what’s being said. This is exactly the opposite of the previous strategy. You literally disengage your thinking and just listen to the pure sound that’s entering your ears, and try to reproduce it as exact as possible. Pretend the language is like a song and you are singing that song, matching the rhythm, pronunciation, stresses, intonation, as best as you can.

The cool thing is that if you’re already at a level of Japanese where you can at least understand some of the Japanese you’re shadowing, even if you’re mindlessly shadowing and not focusing on the meaning of the words, you will often understand it anyway, on a visceral level. Even if you are not trying to piece together the meaning of what you are shadowing in your brain, of lot of times the comprehension is just there and consequently you STILL get listening comprehension practice benefits as a bi-product. This happens even though you are not actively listening, but rather focusing on pronunciation and accent. Pretty cool.

This is actually the variation that I use the most. I almost never shadow with the intent of trying to comprehend everything I hear. For where I’m at in my journey right now, real life conversation in Japanese takes care of that 😉

Mimicking television

Not really so much of a focused type of practice, but rather, anytime I’m watching TV/Movie/ etc., something funny will catch my ear and I’ll just try to imitate. Again, think two-year-old obnoxious child imitating everything they hear.

Try it, its fun! And you get better at imitating voices and accents. Because I frequently do this, I got a reputation for doing yanki impressions. てめー何見てんだよ!?

Shadowing and modeling TV characters

Based off the last variation, only much more strategic. Find a TV personality or some kind of celebrity, musician, or artist whom you think is cool and you want to speak Japanese like. You will model them in attempt to learn their accent and way of speaking. This is a good drill for guys learning Japanese who have too girly of accents (big problem for male learners of Japanese – probably from talking to too many Japanese women ;)) or perhaps women who want to make their Japanese a bit more feminine (or perhaps masculine). Above anything, it’s just a good way to really nail down that Japanese version of your voice. Pick someone who you would want to sound like and stick with it!

After selecting a person whom you want to imitate, try to find some sort of audio clip of them speaking. Preferably the longer and less interrupted, the better. Maybe like a television interview or some kind of audio in which your selected person is doing a lot of talking. Of course, shorter clips is okay as well, but ideally you would want to get longer material so you can see the person expressing a wide range of emotions and ideas so that you can get a feel for how that person talks and moves in certain situations.

Put this audio clip on your mp3 and do the basic shadowing method as described above. If you can get the video clip as well, then you could shadow that character while watching and modeling their behavior as well. Their body language, posture, facial expressions, hand gestures. Literally shadow the character with your whole body.

The follow-up to this exercise is to go out in real life and continue doing your “impressions” of this person you have selected, only, for reals. Try to always be in character until it becomes your natural way of speaking.

Actually doing this will actually make you more Japanese, if you were so inclined.

Echoing: silent mental shadowing

This one I created for my work environment, in which I hear a lot of spoken Japanese.

You literally shadow Japanese in your head, with out vocalizing aloud with your mouth. For example, do you have a long train ride and haven’t gotten in your shadowing practice for the day? Shadow on the train! But silently.

Do you teach English? What about all those assemblies you go to when the teachers and students diffuse their sweet, native Japanese in the air? Wouldn’t it be nice to utilize that Japanese in the best possible way (as a fun variation to plain old listening)? Echo it.

Echoing, or silent mental shadowing, can be done anywhere, anytime! When you echo you could just perform it silently by repeating back the dialogue in your head without moving any muscles in your mouth. However, what I like to do is make the shapes of the sounds with my mouth closed as if I were actually speaking the words. Try this while reading right now. As you read the words on this post, vocalize them only in your mind, and let your tongue move to form the shapes in your mouth as if you were speaking them out loud.

Using this method will solidify that mind to mouth muscle connection when speaking Japanese.

Although it’s not as good as pronouncing the words aloud, as you don’t get that audio feedback, I still think it’s a great exercise for your tongue and mouth muscles anyway as they still must move around a lot to keep up with the pace of the material you hear.

Seriously, echoing is awesome. I have used it so much since I first came up with it. Especially in my dead time at work when I often hear a lot of Japanese, but don’t have the opportunity to speak.

Even for a beginner with zero knowledge or comprehension of Japanese, I still think echoing would be a great way to train your brain and ears to hear Japanese, especially for someone who works in an environment where there is tons of spoken Japanese all around, such as a public school.

Give it a shot!

Shadowing is a fantastic tool for learning proper pronunciation, improving your Japanese accent, improving your listening comprehension, and internalizing new vocabulary and grammar patterns.

There are many variations to shadow that emphasize different aspects of Japanese that you want to learn or practice.

Shadowing can even be performed silently so you can use it as a tool to improve your Japanese literally anywhere!

Give shadowing a try! I’m sure within a short amount of time of making it a habit to do everyday, you’ll notice big improvements in your listening comprehension as well as overall fluency.

I’ll leave you with some awesome resources for shadowing

There are so many good resources for shadowing, so in order to not waste your time by giving you all the options and making you sift through all of it, I will give you my absolute favorite ones.

Fantajikan (ふぁんた時間) – An incredible, well put together podcast that provides a massive selection of children’s stories. Not only are the stories voice acted, but there is also usually sound effects and background music to go with it. And best of all, there are word-for-word transcripts of the stories on the website so you can go through and read the stories while shadowing and look up any words you don’t yet know and add them to your SRS!

Japanese Listening (Advanced) – This one was mentioned above. It is another podcast series in which two native speakers record an unscripted conversation, then upload it (with word for word transcripts on their website). It appears that they are in the process of moving over to Twitter so make sure to check that out for their newer episodes.

Free, Full-Length Novels in Japanese – Credit to AJATT for recommending this one =) This database has J-translated western classics like Lewis Carroll’s Adventures of Alice in Wonderland and selections from Edgar Allan Poe, to famous Japanese classics like Natsume Soseki’s I’m a cat (吾輩は猫である) and Shikibu Murasaki’s Tale of Genji. Of course, word for word transcripts are provided for the most of the audio books.

Let me know of any other cool resources you recommend for shadowing in the comments!

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Learn all of the General-Use Kanji First Before Doing Anything Else

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Stones with kanji written on them
Credit to Jeff Laitila
over at https://flic.kr/p/4JAsmr

The best thing I could have done for myself when first starting out with Japanese was learning all of the common use kanji, the Jouyou kanji(常用漢字) first. Not that there aren’t other methods that work. There certainly are. In fact any method you use that brings results, will bring success as long as you are consistent.

That being said, the method that follows is one that I recommend because it is exactly what I used and had fantastic results with. It is the method I used to learn 2136 kanji in 5 months (you are smarter than me, so you will do faster 😉 ) I was so glad I took a leap of faith when I read about it on All Japanese All The Time and decided to implement it myself.

The method goes as follows:

  • Learn all the jouyou kanji first BEFORE studying vocabulary. All 2136 kanji.
  • “Learn” in this context means to be able to write the kanji by hand with the proper stroke order by hearing the keyword in English. For example, you hear “character” and you write 字 from memory.
  • For now, don’t worry about learning readings for the kanji, as you will pick them up later through your vocabulary study.
  • Highly recommended: use Remembering the Kanji, Vol. 1: A Complete Course on How Not to Forget the Meaning and Writing of Japanese Characters in order to learn the kanji in a sequence that makes sense, in which each piece of the kanji builds off of each other and new kanji are learned from the building blocks of the previous kanji learned. On top of that, kanji are learned through mnemonic devices or visual stories that you use as cues to be able to produce the kanji from memory.
  • Use your SRS to create cards for all the new kanji you learned, so that you can review it continually and remember it forever.

Why the heck would you want to learn all the kanji first, before studying vocabulary, grammar and other important components of Japanese?

The biggest benefit IMHO is that once you get it done, its done. And that just feels awesome. Like I said, I took a blind leap of faith and learned all the kanji first before studying any Japanese. It was probably the best decision I’ve ever made. Living in Japan, I get to hear so many other foreigners talking about how hard it is to learn kanji and how there is too many to learn. The truth is, I don’t understand, because I don’t even relate to that complaint having learned all the kanji in few months (vocabulary is another story 😉 ). Well, the meanings and how to write them. Was this because I was smart? Hell no. Good memory? Far from it. It’s actually because I applied consistent effort every day using a good efficient system to learn them.

Why learn only kanji the first few months, when you could be studying vocabulary/grammar side by side?

Because when you use your time to focus on the kanji only, you can get it done twice as fast. 2136 seems a lot, but when you actually go to work on it, it goes quicker than you think. If you were to learn just 14 new kanji a day and made cards for them to review in your SRS, you’d be done in 5 months. And 14 new kanji is a relatively few considering the efficiency of the Heisig RTK (Remembering the Kanji) system. If you if you were to add 24 cards a day, you’d be done in 3 months. If you add 36 new kanji a day  you would be done in 2 months. Particularly ambitious learners of could do more.

A lot of people learn kanji and study Japanese simultaneously, only to get a few hundred kanji in and get lazy and rationalize about how they don’t need to study the kanji as much as they need to study the spoken language anyway. Then years go by and even though they live in Japan and speak Japanese from time to time so their spoken Japanese might improve, they never quite seem to be able to make time to finish learning all the necessary kanji. This won’t be you.

Knowing the kanji helps you learn vocabulary

The cool thing about learning the kanji BEFORE vocab is that once you learn a bit of vocabulary, the kanji actually becomes a sweet memory aid that helps you learn new vocabulary faster! There are many examples to give, but a simple one would be this: suppose you encounter the word 無礼(burei – rude) for the first time. If you know that the 礼 in お礼 means manners, and the 無 in 無礼 means “none” then its easy to remember the word 無礼 upon the first time hearing it because it’s literally 無+礼 (no + manners) which equals “no manners” or “rude”. So in order to recall the word, you can first visualize what kanji makes up the word, then literally read it in your head.

Another good reason to study the kanji first and only the kanji, is because in all the time you spend on the process of going through the RTK book and creating the stories and cards for your SRS, you actually get faster at that mechanical process of making those cards. You become like a well tuned machine for creating and reviewing kanji cards because of the time you spend repeating the same actions over and over again. Rather than dividing up your time into two processes (making and reviewing kanji AND making and reviewing sentence cards), you specialize in the kanji first – getting it done in the fastest time possible before adding in any new tasks to your overall Japanese learning process.

Now that we’ve discussed why to study kanji first, lets talk about how to actually do it.

The Heisig Remembering the Kanji Method

Heisig’s RTK is a book that contains the method to learn all 2136 of the common-use kanji. It is quite famous and has been around since the seventies. The cool thing about RTK is that it breaks down the kanji by their radicals (parts). It then assigns names for these radicals so that you can create stories with them to help you remember the kanji. Additionally, the book introduces an order of learning the kanji that is most logical considering the parts of the kanji.

The traditional order of kanji (the one taught in school to Japanese children and also by most systems for foreigners learning Japanese) is taught in order of frequency. Basically, the most frequent kanji that pop up in literature, newspapers, etc. are the first kanji you learn and the most infrequent kanji you learn last.

Unfortunately, although it makes sense to learn the most commonly used kanji first, in the context of learning 2136 isn’t the most time efficient because rather than learning kanji in a progressive way, building off each previous kanji you learn, you learn kanji that use unrelated parts and are therefore harder to remember. Plus we are gonna learn all of the kanji before moving on to vocabulary study anyway, so frequency doesn’t really matter. Using the RTK method, each new kanji you learn is expanding off of the previous one learned.

The other really powerful component that RTK has that helps you remember the kanji quickly and efficiently is the use of mnemonics in order to learn the kanji. Mnemonics are an aid that helps you cue your memory to recall certain bits of information. One example of a mnemonic is Every Good Boy Does Fine, which helps you remember E-G-B-D-F – the line notes of the musical staff. RTK has created mnemonic stories for almost all of the kanji, and gives you the tools to create your own. Coupled with using the SRS to create cards for review and store in your long-term memory, this is absolute gold.

Let’s give an example

Heisig calls the components of kanji primitives. And these primitives each are assigned their own meaning which will help you create a story in your head that you can visualize. For example, lets say you are learning the kanji 昇(rise up). It is made of two primitives, 日(sun) and 升(measuring box). In order to remember that 昇 means “rise up”, you would imagine a story where the sun (日) in Japan (land of the rising sun) is rising up out of a small measuring box (升) so “rise up” (昇) = sun(日)+measuring box (升).

It’s much more effective to use a visual story to recall the parts of the kanji rather than to try to remember each kanji as a whole picture.

Although there are many methods to learning kanji out there, I highly recommend you give this one a try as it has worked very well for me and countless others. Also, you can use the Kanji Koohii website as it offers a database of user submitted stories for all the kanji (including ones that aren’t covered in the book). This can be extremely helpful if you don’t care for the stories the book offers or you are stuck creating your own for whatever reason. Plus there is a big community of Japanese learners sharing resources, knowledge and support in the forums there. And as far as I know, it’s still free.

The Kanji Koohii website has its own built-in web applet for learning the kanji but I’d recommend using Anki or whatever SRS program your using so that you can keep all your cards together and managing them later when your making and reviewing your sentence cards.

The format for your kanji cards:

One cool feature of the RTK is that it assigns each kanji a unique English word in order to keep all the kanji distinct and separate. For example 私 when translated to English can mean “me”, or “I”, or “private” but in order to avoid confusion, RTK assigns it the keyword “private” and other kanji with similar meanings get their own distinct keyword. Your card format will look like this:


FRONT:

English keyword


BACK:

kanji

kanji primitives

story


From seeing the English keyword, you should be able to recall the story from memory, then write out the kanji by hand.

Lets look at a concrete example:


FRONT:

Morning


ANSWER:


mist + moon

There is a delicate mist in the morning that causes all the greenery to be covered in dew. Through the haze you can barely make out the moon fading off in the distance.


Now there are different views on if you should put the story in the front of the card in order to make it easier or if you should put it in the answer side of the card so that it prompts you to recall the story from memory. I personally made all my kanji cards as just shown, with the story in the answer side. I actually tried it with the answer in the front of the card first, as Khatzumoto prefered to make his cards, but I found it too easy and was actually unable to recall the kanji in a non SRS setting, so I went through and reformatted all my previously made cards.

What I’m offering is the exact format I used to learn all 2136 and about 500 additional kanji as well. I have found it to be the most effective for me and I think it would be most effective for most. However, obviously the point is not to learn all the kanji using RTK, but the point is to learn all the kanji period. So feel free to do whatever you feel works best for you 😉

You should always take all advice with a grain of salt and do things the way you want to if you feel its right.

What about learning all the kanji readings?

The readings will all be learned later through your sentence card creation phase/vocabulary acquisition. Dare I say that the readings are almost learned on accident. Whereas in the traditional method of kanji study you first learn the character 木, how to write it, the meaning, then all the possible readings (き、こ、もく、ぼく) all in one shot. You can see how learning one kanji can be quite a headache?

Well in the method I am describing, in the “kanji phase” you just learn the meaning of the kanji and how to write it from memory. Then in the “sentence phase” you pick up the readings through exposure to the vocabulary. You learn the word 木 which means tree, and is pronounced ”き”. Then later you might learn the word 大木 which means large tree, and is pronounced たいぼく. Then you might notice that in this case its read “ぼく”, so you begin to make the connection that it has other ways to be read. You then pick up the other readings for for 木 when you learn new words containing the kanji at a later point in time.

In this way, you always learn kanji readings in the context of new words that you learn, rather than learning arbitrary readings for words you don’t even know yet.

What to do if you’re already an “advanced” learner of Japanese, but have never finished the kanji

I recommend doing the same as a beginner would: temporarily delay learning any new vocabulary (unless you are already invested in doing reviews in an SRS then I’d suggest continuing the reviews but not making any new cards). Buy a copy of Heisig’s Remembering the Kanji Vo. 1, and start fresh. Even if you have already learned 500 or 1000 kanji before, start from the beginning with RTK because getting the proper foundation in the RTK method is important, and the extra review for studying the kanji you think you already know will help you, not harm you. Since you already know it, you’ll be that much faster at completing the kanji.

Learning kanji is easy. It just takes time…

Lets close out by saying, kanji is said to be “difficult”, but it’s really not at all difficult to learn. It just takes time. If you’ve already learned even just one kanji, then you already know you can do it. Just repeat that process again and again until you have them all. The fact that you will be learning them all in one shot, focusing only on kanji for a short period of time until you complete them means you will finish learning them in record time. Remember, 3-5 months may seem like a long time but that time is going to pass anyway whether you spend that time learning kanji or not, so I say learn the kanji! You don’t want to be that guy who spent 5 years+ learning Japanese and still complains that he “needs to study more kanji.”

I’d like to stay that I was able to accomplish a lot with learning the kanji in a relatively short amount of time because I am super smart and intelligent but the truth is that I feel like RTK + using an SRS to solidify it in your long-term memory makes learning kanji so easy that it’s almost cheating. All you need is the grit to do it consistently every day without fail, and a little bit of trust in the system that it works.

When you suddenly realize that you can recognize and read kanji from the books, manga, and movies and other media in your Japanese immersion environment, the feeling of accomplishment will be more than enough to motivate you to keep going. You will feel like a badass.

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Japanese Immersion Environment: Why You Need It and How to Make It

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What is a Japanese immersion environment?

A self-made Japanese immersion environment is the attempt at taking every piece of consumable media that surrounds you, and turning it Japanese. Take all of your English movies, replace them with Japanese ones. English books? Not anymore. Now you got Japanese ones. Do you know any good Japanese music artists? No? Go out right now, and begin building your new mp3 player playlist today.

The building of this Japanese environment is where we start our Journey. And it is so important because your entire learning experience of Japanese will be predicated on the amount, quality and interestingness of the Japanese you surround yourself with.

Why would we make all this effort to fill our lives with all this Japanese in the beginning when we can’t even understand 1% of it yet? I can’t explain it in real, PhD psychology terms, but the short answer is because it just works. Exposing yourself (especially listening) to Japanese 24/7 will prime your brain to better retain the Japanese for when you actually sit down to learn it. Which do you think would allow you to learn better, hearing a word 50 times over and over as you expose yourself to Japanese all the time (which takes very minimal effort) and then studying the word? Or just studying the word for the first time having never heard it before?

I can guarantee getting that massive exposure beforehand will work wonders on how fast and effectively you will learn that word when you actually sit down and study it for the first time. Having heard it many times before, your brain will go “Oh yeah, I know that word, let’s just attach the meaning to it now and we’re  good.” Additionally, you will have heard the proper pronunciation, rhythm, and intonation over and over again, so there is a greater chance that you will be able to pronounce it correctly from the start.

It’s not just the constant exposure to Japanese audio that has an impact on your learning, but visual exposure as well, such as seeing and reading the kanji. Let’s go into detail a bit more on all the ways your Japanese immersion environment will help you.

Why creating an immersion environment is critical for learning Japanese

It gives you tons of free Japanese “input”

What is input? Input is the mother of all language learning. Basically, hearing spoken Japanese or reading it = input, whereas speaking Japanese or writing Japanese = output.  Input is essentially how you learn everything when it comes to language learning. There are different views about the importance of input and much input/output equals the golden ratio for fluency in a language, but I would say that it is at least VERY important. In anything you ever learn, input always comes first. If you never heard or read a word in Japanese, how would you be able to memorize it or reproduce it?

There is also a widespread theory that you will eventually get fluent in a language and be able to produce it correctly, even in the absence of output based activities like speaking practice and writing practice if you get massive amounts of comprehensible input (hearing tons and tons of Japanese that is only slightly above your level).  I’m not here to argue what I think is “correct” or even to take a stand in any direction, but for the first year of learning Japanese, I exposed myself to massive amounts of input only (lots of watching Studio Ghibli films and reading manga). When I finally made some Japanese friends for the first time, I was already “conversational” in the language despite not having ever practiced speaking before (aside from mimicking lines from my favorite movies and reading my SRS reviews aloud).

Getting tons of Japanese input and using it by speaking Japanese whenever possible will ensure that you learn Japanese as quickly as possible, while having correct native-like pronunciation.

Your immersion environment is where you collect your 10,000+ sentences

A central component to the method I used for learning Japanese is collecting 10,000+ sentences and throwing them in your SRS application (Anki, or some other form) for later review. I will go into more detail about the sentence collection process in another post. But for now, suffice it to say that you will collect the bulk of your sentences, if not all from the Japanese you hear and read in your immersion environment. If your Japanese immersion environment sucks, i.e., you constantly expose yourself to boring movies, boring books, etc., all of the Japanese vocabulary, kanji, and grammar study which is done through the sentence collection and reviewing process will also be boring. This can cause you to resent learning Japanese.

Although, I encourage each individual person to do what they like, I wouldn’t encourage adding pre-made vocabulary decks or using vocabulary lists too much, as it tends to get boring because the sentences don’t really have any emotional impact on you.

Back in the day, for the first two years of my Japanese study, I only used real sentences I found in the wild (AKA sentences I heard or read in my Japanese drama, movies, or books that I read). Apart from the first 200 sentences from the Anki core series, and sentences that I added from Tae Kim’s Grammar Guide, all of my cards I reviewed in Anki were real Japanese sentences from movie dialogue and books, and not textbook examples. This was cool because that meant all the Japanese I studied came from my favorite western movies dubbed in Japanese like Men in Black or Hook. Also, I watched the heck outta Studio Ghibli films so a lot of my first sentences and vocabulary I learned came from Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle.

Here’s a list of other ways that your Japanese immersion environment accelerates learning

  • Mass exposure causes Japanese to become non-mysterious. You just get used to Japanese.
  • Reinforces already learned material and paves the way for new material to be learned.
  • You learn about Japanese culture in an interesting, fun way.
  • It motivates you to study because want to learn Japanese faster so that you can understand everything around you.
  • Its fun. Makes you associate learning Japanese with having fun.
  • You psychologically become Japanese in a way. Being a speaker of Japanese becomes infused with your identity.

How to set up your immersion environment

Japanese audio and video

At this point, you pretty much know what to do. Go ahead and go out and find some new good Japanese music! YouTube is awesome for this because once you find an artist or a song that you like, recommended videos will pop up on the side and you can click away until you’ve built a playlist you love.

Find Japanese movies that you like, and buy them! I used to order movies either from Ebay or even from the Japanese version of Amazon. I realize it can get pricey when you order from Amazon, considering the shipping, but the cool thing is even if you only have a couple really good movies, you can put them on repeat and watch and hear the same movie over and over again. This is what I used to do. On top of buying Japanese movies, you can actually order Japanese dubbed movies of your favorite western movies! In fact, that made up probably half of my listening practice back in the day. I watched the Japanese dubbed Hook, Men in Black, and even Home Alone! The benefit of this is that because you already know the plot and generally what they are saying in the movie (perhaps even have the English memorized) it provides a ton of context to hear and understand the Japanese. This actually boosts your comprehension without needing to use English subtitles (I recommend not using them if possible.)

One thing about English subtitles: Some people advocate NEVER using English subtitles because it can be hard to ween yourself off of them. I actually agree with this, although, what worked really well for me was if I was watching a Japanese movie that I didn’t know for the first time, I would watch it with English subs just ONCE. But then, I would watch it over and over again without English subtitles (or using the Japanese subtitles instead). This means that after understanding the story by watching it with English subtitles one time, I would watch the movie over and over (probably all my movies have been watched 50 to 100 times plus) just using Japanese only.

One more small tip coming from something I used to do: use audio software to rip the sound from the movies, then cut it into five-minute chunks, then download it to your iPod. Once you have five-minute chunks of Japanese dialogue on your iPod, you can put it on shuffle so that you hear these dialogues repeated over and over randomly throughout the day.

When it comes to Japanese audio, just make sure you are hearing Japanese 24/7, whether it’s music, movies, audio books in Japanese, or even free Japanese podcasts on iTunes (switch your iTunes store into Japanese to be able to see the podcasts).

Good Japanese speaking comes from tons of exposure to good Japanese audio.

Japanese reading material

You are gonna want to buy as many books as possible. Manga, novels, ebooks and internet articles are all really good options. Especially in the beginning, it’s going to be hard to add error free sentences to your Anki just by hearing the Japanese audio, so the bulk of your sentences are going to be from written down sources like books (internet articles are even better because you can just copy and paste!).

One tip is to get the free Fantajikan (ふぁんた時間)podcast series on iTunes. They are children’s stories which are really well made with voice acting and music. They also have the written scripts word for word so you can look up all the words you don’t know and add to Anki! Bonus!

How to further perfect your immersion

  • Put your computer and your cellphone’s operating system in Japanese. I did it after finishing learning the kanji and never looked back!
  • Make cool Japanese friends to practice Japanese with as well as get cool recommendations for popular Japanese music/media.
  • Use chopsticks all the time! I used to eat cereal with chopsticks =p On top of being good practice for using them all the time when you get to Japan, it’s a good psychological trick to make you feel more Japanese.
  • Got any Japanese restaurants nearby? Go to them!
  • Japanese posters for your room, Japanese wallpaper for your computer. Good for passive exposure to written Japanese. Also constantly seeing Japanese things also serves as a reminder to help you stay focused on your goal of learning Japanese.
  • Check out the resources page in this guide for a few places to find good, fun Japanese content.
  • Brainstorm more ways! I have given you a few of the most important ones I used in the development of my Japanese, but I’m sure with experimentation and a little creativity you will find the ways that you like/that serve you the best.

In closing

Japanese people learn Japanese through their immersion environment and so should you! The only difference that we will be doing as adult language learners is using our hard learned focus and deliberately practicing Japanese by using SRS (Anki or whatever). By combining deliberate practice with the immersion environment, we can actually learn Japanese faster than the average Japanese child can.

Creating my Japanese immersion environment was the most important influence on my entire learning experience and I think it will be the same for anyone who chooses to apply it. Don’t take my word for it, start now and see what a couple of months of mass exposure Japanese will do for your Japanese ability!

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Overview of the Process – Your Bread and Butter of Learning Japanese

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Folks, here it is. The the nuts and butter – er… the bread and bolts of what I think is a fantastic method or “process” for learning Japanese. The one that I used in the beginning and continue to use even today.


The Process

  • Step 1) Set up your immersion environment, and leave it running all the time.
  • Step 2) Learn to read and write all of the common use kanji.
  • Step 3) Learn the kana.
  • Step 4) Use an SRS (Spaced Repetition System) to collect 10,000 sentences.
  • Step 5) Be fluent.
  • Step ∞) Expose yourself to Japanese 24/7 through your immersion environment.
  • Step ∞) Sprinkle in/alternate other forms of deliberate practice.

A visual model of how to learn Japanese


The Breakdown of the Steps

Step 1) Set up your immersion environment.

Whether you already live in Japan, or you live abroad have never lived in Japan, you need to set up your immersion environment. This means filling your life with Japanese in every way possible. Acquire Japanese movies, Japanese drama, anime, whatever you are into and set it up to play constantly – even when you are not actively paying attention to it.

Also, this means filling your bookshelves with Japanese manga, books, magazines, etc.. Replace your music with Japanese music. Get Japanese versions of video games if possible (I used to play Pokemon and Final Fantasy 7 in Japanese back in the day!).

Of course if you are a complete beginner, you will do all of this despite not being able to understand any of the Japanese! Doesn’t matter. That’s the point. You will grow to understand it someday in the near future.

Your immersion environment is super important because

  1. It motivates you to learn Japanese so that you can understand the Japanese around you.
  2. It gives you rich sources to learn your Japanese from and shapes how you will learn Japanese.
  3. In finding Japanese media and things that you like, you learn about Japanese culture almost on accident. Which is cool because when the day comes that you are hanging out with Japanese people, and speaking Japanese, you know about cool Japanese music/manga/movies etc. that other Japanese people like, and you have will have more to connect on and talk about.
  4. You learn a lot of Japanese unconsciously through exposure to massive amounts of Japanese in your environment. Couple that exposure with the deliberate practice of reviewing sentences in your Anki and this is SUPER SUPER powerful.

Step 2) Learn to read and write all of the common use kanji.

Yeah, just do it. First, before anything else. Learn your vocab after you finish learning the meaning and how to write all of the common use kanji, all 2136 of them. You’re gonna want to use Anki and make a card for every kanji, so that you can actually remember all your kanji.

I would highly recommend using James W. Heisig’s famous book Remembering the Kanji.

I hunkered down and completed all the common use kanji in about 5 months (and you can to!). I’m sure you could do it even faster. This is why I advise learning the kanji first, because in the beginning, focusing on the kanji only means you can spend all your effort on just getting it done as quickly as possible. If you are trying to learn vocabulary as well, you won’t have as much time to spend on kanji and therefore will learn it much more slowly.

Once you actually finish the kanji it feels amaaazing as you will never need to focus so much effort on learning kanji ever again. Plus learning the kanji first before learning vocabulary aids the learning of new vocabulary massively because the kanji actually becomes a visual aid in your head that helps you recall the vocabulary.

Step 3) Learn the kana: katakana and hiragana.

I suppose you could learn them before learning the kanji, but whether you learn kanji first or hiragana first doesn’t really matter since you will need to complete both first before starting your vocabulary/grammar acquisition.

Might as well get the seemingly hard part down first. Then you will be amazed at how easy learning hiragana and katakana is. You could actually learn them both completely in one or two days.

Step 4) Use Anki to collect 10,000 sentences.

This is your meat and potatoes of studying. Use Anki(or another SRS program like it) to collect 10,000 unique sentences in Japanese. This is how you will learn your vocabulary and grammar, as well as reinforce the kanji. There are many different card formats to choose from, which I will go into detail later. Anyone who is familiar with AJATT knows this method well.

Why 10,000 sentences? Well, around 10,000 seems to be the magic number it takes in order to be fluent. AJATT promotes this. I started claiming fluent at around 10,000 cards. Plus its just a nice round number to aim for 😉

Actually, 10,000 is not even the end of the journey. I’m currently at around 12,000 as I type this (and still climbing). I have a friend who is bad-ass at Japanese, and he’s sitting at around 30,000 cards right now!

You are going to custom make your cards based on the Japanese that you see and hear in your immersion environment that you created for yourself. This way, all your cards are completely personal based on Japanese that you experienced in “the wild.” This makes your cards more memorable and you will have an emotional attachment to each card, rather than it being some pre-made deck you downloaded in which the cards are most likely not so relevant to you.

There are many ways to collect these juicy little sentences, in which I will go into detail about later.

The beginner starting from zero will probably start with some sort of structured Japanese guide such as Tae Kim’s Grammar Guide (a wonderful free resource) or some other resource for learning the basics of Japanese and making your first cards.

The intermediate person who already has a basis knowledge of Japanese grammar will jump straight into collecting sentences from real Japanese material made for native speakers!

Step 5) Be Fluent.

Relax. This is the best part. Just be. Fluent. Honestly, creating the process of Japanese and letting it run on autopilot will bring you to fluency. Of course, you initially have to put in the effort to create the habits, but once you have your habits created and your system streamlined, the Japanese basically learns itself.

Of course, “being fluent” is just one landmark in your study of Japanese and does not end the journey. It also depends on how you define being fluent and how you will know when you’ve achieved that goal. This is why there will be an entire section dedicated to how to set goals for learning Japanese in this guide.

Step ∞) Expose yourself to Japanese 24/7 through your immersion environment.

While doing steps 1-4, expose yourself to Japanese constantly through your immersion environment. This means always listening to Japanese in some form (music, podcasts, television, etc.), reading Japanese, watching Japanese, doing whatever you can in order to make sure you are exposing yourself constantly.

It is shocking how much Japanese you will accidentally pick up if you give yourself massive exposure of the language. Back in my hardcore phase of learning Japanese, I used to have my headphones in 24/7 (except for work) and I would loop audio from my favorite Studio Ghibli films that I ripped to my iPod, over and over again; I even listened in my sleep every night.

What can you further do live like a native speaker? I set my computer’s operating system as well as iPhone interface in Japanese after my first 5 months of learning Japanese; I never looked back.

Do not skimp on this step – create an awesome little Japan to live in and it will shape your entire experience learning Japanese in a positive way.

Step ∞) Sprinkle in/Alternate other forms of deliberate practice.

In addition to using Anki for the deliberate study of vocabulary, grammar, and kanji, sprinkle in other forms of deliberate practice here and there. Whereas your collection of 10,000 sentences is your main form of deliberate practice that you will do everyday without fail, you will also be cycling in other forms of practice for shorter periods of time. This will help switch up the way you study Japanese and what areas you focus on. It will also keep things more interesting!

I define deliberate practice as anything that takes focused effort to do. For example, watching a movie in Japanese and trying to understand it is deliberate practice. Passively hearing Japanese in a movie playing in the background while you talk to your friend is not (although you may incidentally slip into active listening from time to time which is the power of always having your immersion environment running!).

I recommend shadowing as your go to supplemental practice because it is sooo awesome for development your fluency, listening comprehension, and other aspects that will make you sound native-like such as intonation, pronunciation, and rhythm.

Potential supplemental forms of practice include:

  • Actively listening to Japanese such as a movie, podcast, or audio book.
  • Dictation: listening to a dialogue and writing what you hear word for word.
  • Shadowing: listening to Japanese and mimicking aloud what you hear.
  • Reading books, manga, newspapers, internet articles, children’s’ stories, etc.
  • Playing text-based video games in Japanese (like Final Fantasy 7)
  • Writing essays in Japanese and getting them corrected by a native speaker
  • Perusing a grammar book or guide
  • Any other form of practice that you want to experiment with!

While collecting sentences is my main journey, I also like to have a side journey. The side journey would be a shorter term goal like “read 30 minutes every day for one month.” Or perhaps “Shadow Japanese audio for 15 minutes a day for one month.” Then I will use a journaling method I call progress bars to make sure I carry out those goals.

When it comes to throwing in the supplemental deliberate practice, I would recommend just doing one supplemental activity in addition to your SRS. For example, you collect sentences and as well as do one short-term goal such as read 30 minutes of Japanese everyday, for one month.

I’m not telling to avoid extra deliberate practice if its fun for you. That is totally to be expected, especially if you have a fun immersion environment. There will be lots of times where you will want to read manga for fun, or watch anime or Japanese movies for fun, and that is totally cool, as long as you are not doing it with the intention of “studying.”


Well thats pretty much it! I like to call this method a “process” because it helps me imagine learning Japanese to be like a machine with inter-working parts that eventually lead you to being fluent in the language.  All of this sounds hardcore to the first timer but I can tell you from my own experience, once you set all of this up, it becomes a habit. Almost automatic. Like a machine.

From then on, its your job to make sure you are maintaining that machine. Finding new cool movies or books in Japanese to collect your sentences from. Or switching up your supplemental practice to keep things interesting. Or even monitoring your results to make sure the process is taking you in the direction you want to go in.

In my journey of learning Japanese I took a lot of good advice from a few good sources and made it my own. This entire method is built on my own trial and error, and I’m sure you will find things about it that you like and don’t like.

Best thing to do is to experiment and find what gives you the results you want!

Happy learning = )

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