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What is hard about learning Japanese?

What's the hardest part of learning Japanese?

Let’s analyze various parts of learning Japanese and the common difficulties with them. 

Kanji

Kanji is often the first “bump” that people run into when they start learning Japanese. Most people think that these characters are incredibly hard to learn; and they are if you go about doing so in the wrong way, which is a common beginner trap. However, once you get used to the characters, Kanji are an incredible cheat code for learning Japanese and make it much easier to learn new vocabulary.

So what is the different between efficient and inefficient methods for learning Kanji? 

Inefficient methods for learning kanji will focus on having you learn to write the characters by hand, and learning various “readings” for each kanji out of context. Let me provide an example of why this is a horrible idea. Have you ever seen the character 「生」? It has at least 17 different readings*; even if you learn all of them, how will you know which one is used where? It’s simply impossible to know without already knowing the vocabulary that the character is used in (which you could have learned without wasting time learning multiple “readings” for one character).

Efficient methods for learning kanji will simply have you focus on recognizing the most common ~500 characters to get your feet wet and used to the shapes. After that, you don’t need any Kanji study at all! You can learn to read Japanese simply through learning new vocabulary while mining vocab/sentence cards from your reading immersion. Through learning new vocabulary, you will naturally learn new characters and become able to read Japanese without any problem. The process is as simple as going “This word is read like this, and means this“. Memorize each word as an individual “unit” and you will have no problem understanding your listening content or being able to read Japanese. 

If you do want to learn how to write Kanji by hand, then you should do it after you are already able to read Japanese novels with little to no difficulty (which usually happens after a couple of years of doing hardcore immersion learning). At this point, you will have foundational knowledge for thousands of characters (most likely anywhere from 3000-4000) by knowing multiple words that each character is used in.  At this point, adding on the knowledge of how to write the characters from memory is incredibly easy.

*Here is a list of words that use 「生」. Use Yomichan to look up the readings yourself and confirm that each one has a unique “reading” (it’s better to just remember each word as a separate entity). 

生い茂る、先生、生き物、生クリーム、生涯、芝生、生憎、生まれる、生え変わる、瓜生、弥生時代、柳生、生す、生る、壬生、生地、平生。

Vocabulary

Learning new vocabulary is one of the biggest parts of learning a language.

 You will need to know ~30,000 words in order to have 99.99% comprehension of almost all Japanese content you come across. This is a huge number! 

However, you can get ~70-80% comprehension of the spoken language by just knowing the most frequent ~2,000 words in a language. Fortunately, there are many beginner/pre-made Anki decks that cover these words systematically. I personally recommend using the Tango N5 Deck and the Tango N4 Deck Anki decks, while you also mine a basic grammar guide such as The Dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar.

Unfortunately, that last 20-30% is where all the details are and learning all the words required to understand it will take a lot of time reading, listening, and studying Japanese.

After working your way through the above pre-made decks, the best way to go about learning vocabulary is to  ‘mine’ new words and grammar from the material that you read and listen to. This means that you learn from the content that is interesting and relevant to you, making the process more fun and enjoyable. If you also use a frequency list, then that will help you learn the words that are going to boost your comprehension the most for that material, making the process more efficient.

I use both sentence and vocabulary cards for Anki; they both have their advantages and their drawbacks, and you should use the card type that best fits the word you are trying to learn. 

I like using sentence cards in order to see the words/grammar used in context. I’ve found that this helps to increase my retention, although they take longer to review.

Vocab cards are really great for learning words that have a single meaning, like nouns, and some adjectives. They are quicker to review than sentence cards but often have a lower retention rate due to the lack of context on the front of the card, which makes them harder to review. 

So while learning vocabulary is probably the longest part of learning Japanese, the issue has been solved and the algorithm is simple: Read, Anki, and Listen. 

Grammar

The Dictionary of Japanese Grammar Series

The mysterious and dreaded Japanese grammar!? This is what they would like you to think: in reality, Japanese grammar is incredibly straight forward and is pretty simple to learn given the right approach. 

So, what’s the right approach? More importantly, what’s the wrong approach? Do we even need to study grammar at all? 

Let’s start with what not to do (often just by avoiding common problems, you will find yourself starting off on the right foot). Let’s make this very blunt and clear: don’t focus on doing grammar tables and/or workbooks. This is a waste of time and completely misses the purpose of what grammar study is used for: it is for increasing your comprehension of the material that you are reading and listening to. Grammar study (nor any active study for that matter) is not used for learning how to formulate sentences in your head, and is not for translating between Japanese and English. Grammar study exposes you to new sentence patterns to look out for when immersing so that you can better understand the content that you engage in with less dictionary look-ups. The SRS (Anki) is used to accomplish this goal by studying efficiently so that you can learn and remember what you come across while immersing.  

So should we study Japanese grammar? Yes. Studying grammar is very useful for increasing your comprehension of written and spoken Japanese. The question is, then, “How should I study Japanese grammar effectively”? 

As a beginner, I believe that you should quickly skim through a quick/short grammar guide like Tae Kim or Sakubi. Read through it quickly: take no more than a week. Skim if needed. Just read it and see what sticks. This is just to get yourself acquainted with the basic particles and conjugations. After you finish this, you should sentence mine “The Dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar” and make Anki flashcards for new grammar patterns and new vocabulary that is introduced in the book (also available on the internet if you know where to look). Using sentence cards for this is ideal because it lets you see new words and grammar points used in context and helps you to reinforce the various patterns. 

Ultimately, grammar is best learned through reading a lot of Japanese content and seeing how it is actually used. Using a dictionary can be a good reference if you need to look up what something means when you come across it in your immersion. All Japanese grammar can be looked up in J-J dictionaries such as 大辞林 or 新明解 if you know how to look for it (usually you can just type in the pattern or the base word that the pattern is derived from). 

For intermediate learners, I highly recommend reading through 国語の文法 and learning how to think about Japanese grammar just like Japanese people are taught in school. 

Another good website for Japanese grammar is JLPT文法解説まとめ. It covers N5-N1 grammar in Japanese and has multiple example sentences for each pattern. Sentence mine the website and make cards for new patterns and vocabulary. If you want to solidify this information, then you can grind the Kotoba quiz bot on some discord servers with the following codes:

JLPT N2 Grammar Quiz: k!quiz gn2 nd 20 mmq=2

JLPT N1 Grammar Quiz: k!quiz gn1 nd 20 mmq=2

Listening Comprehension

Listening comprehension is one of the hardest abilities to work on  when learning Japanese, solely because it requires so much time investment — much more than any other skill here. You may be able to read a sentence, but if you hear the same sentence in audio form, you might have no clue what it means.

Sorry to tell you, but there isn’t any solution to this problem other than brutal force. You simply have to pour in a lot of hours into listening to raw Japanese: anime, drama, movies, podcasts, YouTube videos, and audiobooks. Pick your poison and start listening to raw Japanese whenever you have the chance. Don’t zone out! “Passive” listening isn’t “passive” at all: you must try to pay attention and understand your target language! Leaving Japanese on in the background or while you sleep as noise (and ignoring it) is not going to help your listening ability at all. 

So I just said to listen to a lot of raw Japanese audio, but what about using Japanese subtitles?

Go ahead! I am a big fan of using Japanese subtitles to learn from anime, dramas, movies, etc. In fact, this was a vital component of my routine when I was first learning Japanese and beginning to build my vocabulary count into the thousands. Using Japanese subtitles allows you to look up unknown words and grammar while watching and clear away ambiguity while watching your favorite shows. I highly recommend using Language Reactor so that you can use Yomichan to look up things as you watch Netflix/YouTube. I use ShareX (Windows only) to add sentence audio and images to my Anki cards that I create while watching Japanese content

Next up is “Intensive Listening”, a technique that you can utilize to bridge the gap between your listening and reading ability, pushing your listening ability to the next level.

  1. Watch a show with the JP subtitles blurred out (use Language Reactor in Netflix). This allows you to listen to the show one line at a time.
  2. If you don’t understand the audio as you watch, then you can check the Japanese subtitles simply by hovering over them. You can see if there was an unknown word preventing you from understanding, or if your listening ability is just lagging behind your reading ability (if you can perfectly understand with JP subtitles, then this is the case). 
  3. In the second case, you can replay the same audio line multiple times until you can hear the line clearly and understand it.
  4. In the first case, you can make audio sentence cards for Anki using ShareX. 
  5. After you finishing watching the episode, download the audio (or see if it is already uploaded somewhere) and listen to it repeatedly for about a week. This is great “Passive” listening material. 

Bonus Tip! Listen to the audiobook of books in order to take your listening ability to the next level. Reading the book and then listening to the corresponding audiobook allows you to mine new vocabulary and grammar and get repetition of content, allowing you to solidify and absorb the things that you learned while reading. 

*Matt has a great video on developing Listening ability here: Why you still can’t understand your TL

Reading Comprehension

Reading comprehension is much easier to build compared to Listening Ability.

Your biggest bottleneck with your reading ability is going to be the amount of words that you know. Books use a much wider and more complex vocabulary than spoken Japanese, and there is no simple way to go about approaching your first novel (first few novels) other than brute force and determination. Sit down and read for an hour or two each day and start working your way through books (this means Novels, Light Novels, and Visual Novels). 

However, reading allows you to go at your own pace, re-read, and look up unknown words and grammar using Yomichan very easily. All of these factors make reading an optimal approach for increasing your comprehension of the language compared to listening.

Due to your large deficiency in vocabulary, you are going to be confronted with a large quantity of unknown words anytime you read authentic Japanese materials, and especially novels. Should you look them all up? Should you limit how many words you look up per page?

Here is my solution: look up as many words as you desire based upon your energy level. If you are motivated then you might want to look up words more frequently; conversely, if you are tired then you might skip looking up something and just move on through the text because that word didn’t seem that important. Eventually you will reach a point where you only come across a new word every couple of minutes anyway, so looking up everything new won’t be tiring anyway. 

One other topic that I would like to address is “speed reading”. This is largely a myth: natives tend to read between 30k~40k characters/hour. Anything over this is “skimming”, which means that they are skipping over parts of the text and losing comprehension. This is exactly what you do not want to be doing as a language learner. Focus on comprehension, and the speed will come naturally as you read more content in Japanese.

Note: Don’t forget to read News articles, Wikipedia, and blogs too. 

*Matt has a great video on Why you should read Novels

Speaking Ability

The time has come. You must now talk to Japanese people (either out of interest or necessity). Can you even learn to talk at all solely through an immersion approach? 

Fear not, fellow immersion learners. I’ve found that speaking ability is largely based on listening ability and that I was able to jump straight into having conversations with natives speakers after about 18 months of hardcore immersion learning without too many difficulties (~3000 hours of active immersion/Anki). If you are able to understand a wide variety of your immersion content, then you should have a similar experience. 

I hear your laments and moans now. “I can’t speak for a year and a half? That’s way too long to wait!”.  Don’t worry, you can start speaking to native speakers much earlier, it just won’t be as smooth as a transition: start whenever you want to start talking to natives. I don’t think that fossilization or “early output” is a problem to worry about as long as you are getting a sufficiently large amount of input every day. Speaking to natives is a great motivational boost, and a great way to “pressure test” your actual language ability. 

Speaking will highlight your weaknesses in understanding and production: you will misunderstand/not understand your partner, and you will mess up grammar and vocabulary. These are all signs that you should focus on trying to notice these specific things when immersing: pay attention to the correct ‘form’ of these phrases when reading and listening so that you can lessen the gap between your input and output ability. 

Starting to output creates a giant positive feedback loop: you learn from your immersion, use your ability to talk to natives, notice your deficiencies when outputting (either by yourself or via native corrections), and go back to your immersion to correct your weaknesses. 

Accent

Pitch Accent is perhaps one of the most controversial subjects in all of Japanese learning. 

“Pitch Accent is useless as long as I can be understood”. 

“Pitch Accent is absolutely necessary if you want to sound like a native speaker”. 

“You should learn Pitch Accent from day one. You shouldn’t read at all until you are already fluent in Japanese in order to avoid improper sub-vocalization and prevent bad habits”. 

“You can just fix your Accent later after you are already fluent, just list Matt, Dogen, Darius, and many others did”.

There are a lot of strong opinions about Pitch Accent and I am going to cut this section short because I am working on a more in-depth post about the topic that will tell you to develop a natural, native like accent for free (but it will cost you in time and effort). 

I will just say that if you want to sound like a native Japanese speaker then expect to put in a lot of work on pronunciation, accent, and intonation. I will leave it at that for now. 

Writing Ability

I’m going to be very blunt: I see no reason to handwrite Kanji, and it is the least useful skill out of everything I have listed here. Your time is much better spent reading, listening, and speaking Japanese. 

However, being able to type is incredibly useful and is incredibly simple to do since it is largely phonetic. 

Working on writing essays (or texting/tweeting) is a great way to work on your output abilities when you are first starting to do so since you can take your time forming your thoughts as well as look up the difference between words/phrases. I recommend using Discord, Twitter, and Italki.

As mentioned in the Speaking section, doing output is a great way to see where your current level of language ability is and where your shortcomings are. Use writing to communicate with natives, voice your thoughts and opinions, and receive native corrections to fix deficiencies via immersion. 

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