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How to self-study Japanese effectively

If you are a new Japanese learner and have been asking yourself the same question: “is it really possible to self-study Japanese?”, don’t worry, you’re not the only one. To be honest, I thought it was really insane to think that anyone can learn one of the hardest languages in the world all by themselves without the help of real teachers.

After graduating from college, I decided to challenge myself with this tough goal, and I actually achieved it (in some way). I passed the Japanese Language Proficiency Test Level N2 after 1 year of full-time self-studying, only to realize that it was not THAT big of an achievement as I thought it would have been. I’ll go into details about that later, but first let me tell you exactly how I learned Japanese all by myself and passed the JLPT N2 with the score of 97/180 (the passing mark is 90).

Guide to self-studying Japanese effectively

THE BEST BOOK TO LEARN THE KANJI

Remembering the hiragana and katakana charts is probably the easy part, the hard part is to learn 2000 Kanji characters. In the first month of my 1-year journal, I decided to just temporarily skip learning the Kanji for a while because it just gave me a headache. I thought “why don’t Japanese people use only hiragana in their writing system, like how Korean people use the hangul?” That’d save everyone a lot of trouble. I really hated the Kanji, yet later I totally fell in love with it.

You might have heard of the famous book Remembering the Kanji by Heisig. It’s a must-have book for all Japanese learners who want to save time and effort learning the Kanji. It teaches you how not to forget the characters by using your imagination to create a story or image for each Kanji. Though there’s no guarantee that this book works for everyone or you’ll become a Kanji expert after using it, it certainly is the best book among hundreds of books dedicated to learning the Chinese characters out there.

One of the downside of this book is that it doesn’t provide you the on and kun reading for each character. I think the author wants to focus on teaching us the best way to remember the characters because he knows that we can easily learn to read each character somewhere else. If you’re a serious learner, googling the on and kun reading of each character shouldn’t be too troublesome.

A good way to remember how to write the Kanji is to practice writing as many sentences and short essays as possible. Try to use the same word in various sentences repeatedly until you finally remember it. You should also type your sentences to your computer and ask someone to correct the grammatical mistakes for you. Lang-8.com is a good place to do that.

THE BEST SITE TO LEARN THE GRAMMAR AND VOCABULARY

Japanesepod101.com probably is the best website to self-study Japanese. This is a paid site but it also offers a lot of free content. You can get access to all resrouces of the site for 7 days and pay for premium membership if you like it. Japanesepod101’s popularity proves that the learning resources it provides are much more useful than the free sites.

Guide to self-studying Japanese effectively

First, the good things about Japanesepod101.com

They have thousands of lessons in audio, video and pdf format. You won’t probably find any site that provides more Japanese lessons than this one. They divide the lessons into 4 main categories: Absolute beginner, Beginner, Intermediate and Advanced. Each category has several seasons, each season contains 20+ lessons. You can learn online from the website or download the pdf and mp3 files to learn offline.

 They explain the grammar for each lesson very carefully. Each lesson comes with a detailed lesson note, which includes dialog transcription, vocabulary list, sample sentences and grammar explanation.

The dialogs are good. The dialogs are recorded by professional voice recorders so you’ll feel like listening to a drama. I like how the dialogs are connected in a carefully written story. Sometimes the stories were so thrilling that I wanted to learn the next lesson to see how things would turn out. In my opinion, the stories in the Beginner series are better and more interesting than the ones in the advanced series. You can try one of their free audio lesson here.

The video lessons are useful for beginners. If you are a complete beginner who finds learning with audio and pdf files a little boring, you can always check out their collection of video lessons. They uploaded many of their free videos on youtube. I find the hiragana, katakana and Kanji lessons really useful, especially how they teach us to write the characters the way Japanese people do. Many foreigners write the very basic characters the wrong way (myself included). This is one of their free videos:

The bonus courses are very helpful. Their JLPT prep courses are really helpful for those who want to review the grammar and common sentences for level N3, N4 and N5 of the JLPT before taking the big tests. I don’t know why they haven’t updated the courses for level N1 and N2 yet.


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It’s easy to download the files. You don’t need to click on each lesson to download each file (that’d take forever if you wanted to download everything, including the videos). If you are a premium member, you can download all files easily with Itunes.

The extra resources are useful. Though you can find pretty much everything you need from their pdf lesson notes, you can reinforce what you already learned with their Japanese resources and study tools, including dictionary, grammar bank, core 2000 word list, flashcards, etc.

You can learn with your smartphone or tablet. You don’t need to open your computer whenever you want to study. They have a very nice app that you can use to access all lessons from your mobile device.

Guide to self-studying Japanese effectively

The bad things about Japanesepod101.com

They talk too much in English. When you learn Japanese, it’s obvious that you want to be immersed in Japanese as much as possible. Sometimes when you listen to Japanesepod101’s audio lessons, you’ll find that they gossip too much about things you don’t really want to know. The best thing to do is to just skip that part, or continue to listen if you want to learn English as well.

They send out too many emails. When you sign up for 7-day free trial, you’ll automatically be added to their mailing list. In that 7-day period (and after the trial is over) you’ll receive many emails from them, mostly about upgrading to premium member.

Is Japanesepod101.com worth the cost (if you decide to upgrade to their premium membership)? The best way to know is to check the website and find out yourself. But the more important question would be: what will your level of Japanese be after you’ve studied with them?

I’ve tried all of their courses including the advanced level (audio blog). Though it might be enough to help you read manga, novels or pass the JLPT tests, it’s still not enough if you want to become really fluent at speaking Japanese.

The main reason is because they don’t teach you speaking skills. That’s one of the downsides of self-studying a language. That’s why I said that passing JLPT N2 wasn’t that big of a deal to me. However, after studying for 1 year at a Japanese Language School in Tokyo, I realized that even if you have the environment to practice Japanese daily, especially with native teachers, it also isn’t enough. The teachers always try to speak slowly and clearly with foreign students, especially those who just started learning. Though they speak with normal speed with advanced students, most of the things they talk about is of course, grammar explanations. You will mostly listen and hardly speak, which doesn’t do any good to your speaking skill at all.

Furthermore, many of my fellow friends only interacted with people from their own countries, either in class, outside of school or at home. This is what you should try your utmost to avoid if you want to improve your speaking skill. You didn’t go to Japan to learn English, you went to learn Japanese so what’s the point in spending most of your time speaking your mother tongue? In order to really practice speaking, you need to find a part-time job (if you live in Japan) to interact with as many Japanese people as possible.

What if you don’t live in Japan and don’t know where to find Japanese friends? Skype Community is the perfect place for you. A lot of Japanese people go to this forum to find native (or non-native) English speaker to practice English with. You can offer to teach them English for free and in return, they’ll teach you Japanese. By talking every day with a native, you’ll see that your communication skills will improve significantly! Remember that all teaching offers must be free.

Another way to improve your speaking skills and earn some money along the way is to become an English (or any other language) tutor if you live in Japan. There are many websites where you can register an account and just wait for students to contact you. Remember that in order to get chosen by many students, you need to be a native English speaker because most people don’t want to hire a non-native tutor. Of course you’ll still be picked if you can prove that you’re a good and experienced teacher. Price is very competitive so don’t charge for more than 3000 yen an hour. Though you usually use only English to teach the students, you can try to explain English grammar in Japanese if they don’t mind. It might be hard at first, but your students will always help you out. They’ll even correct your grammar and teach you many useful Japanese phrases. My students actually turned into my amazingly good friends who taught me a lot about Japanese culture.

Some good websites to look for students you might want to check out:

http://www.senseinavi.com
http://www.my-sensei.com/sensei
http://hello-sensei.com/en/sensei
http://www.enjoy-lesson.com/provider
http://www.getstudents.net
http://teacher7.com/t/

Although I also used other methods and resources like Pimsleur or Rosetta Stone, I think the ones I provided in this post are the best tools for you to self-study Japanese effectively. If you follow these instructions and have great determination, I’m sure you’ll find that learning Japanese all by yourself is not as hard as you think.

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