Long before children learn their first あ、い、う、え、お, or A, B, C, they are already fluent in their native language. They understand the grammatical structure and have relatively large vocabularies.
Indeed, the very concept of written language and all that is involved in using it is explained to them in spoken language.
Our ears are made for learning language, and we need to harness them at every stage in the process.
When learning vocabulary we should be hearing it, preferably spoken by a native Japanese speaker, every time we review it. This not only tightens our grasp on the pronunciation, but activates those audial areas of the brain that are designed for language-learning.
How easy is it to arrange this?
Fortunately, it is now very easy.
Rikaisama has a huge database of readings recorded by Japanese speakers for most of the words in its dictionary (you can hear them by pressing the F-key while the Rikaisama definition-box is active).
You can make use of this wonderful free resource to enhance your learning every day.
3. Click the button beside the Saved Audio field and navigate to the media collection in your user-name folder inside the Anki folder. If you have more than one Anki user name make sure you use the folder for the right one!
Note: This will be called collection.media and the Anki folder will usually be in the Documents folder on your computer. If you have trouble locating it, do a search for collection.media.
The next part is to place the saved audio in your card. For this we click the Anki tab and we will see the following:
The Save Format field tells Rikaisama what to put in your card and where to put it. If you have the simplest format, it will read $d$t$r$t$n. This means “put the word in the first field (the front of the card), put the reading in the second and the meaning in the third (both on the back). The $t code tabs to the next field.
So all you have to do in theory is add $a for audio wherever you want it.
Unfortunately, that won’t work. You have to add [sound:$a] in order to get the audio to play.
So, if you have the basic set-up just edit $d$t$r$t$n to read $d$t$r[sound:$a]$t$n. This will place the audio in the Reading field on the back of the card. I put it there because it means the audio for the word will play before any other audio I add to the card.
And that’s it. You’re done. You now have automatic audio added to every card.
Of course if you prefer you can put the audio anywhere you like, including creating a special Audio field. But the method above is simple and it works.
Now every time you make a card, it will have the audio placed on the back and you will hear the word or expression read aloud by a Japanese speaker when you turn the card over.
This helps greatly in activating the automaticity of language in your mind (what you have in your native language that makes you understand words without thinking about them).
Every time you see a word you also hear it, not only in subtitled anime, but also in your Anki reviews. Your mind is able to merge the visual and audial aspects of the word into a single, natural whole just as it does with words in your first language.
We can go a lot further with unlocking the Magic of Sound in our Japanese learning, and I will be talking in depth about that in the next article in this series.
The next steps involve a little more work and start to introduce the concept of Japanese definitions. However, even if you are not ready to make the Big Shift to Japanese definitions, having sample sentences spoken aloud in Japanese can make a huge difference to your understanding and appreciation of the words you are learning.
In our next article I will show you how to auto-add sample sentences to your Anki cards, how to hear them spoken aloud during reviews, and how to use spoken-aloud Japanese definitions.
Even if you aren’t ready for full Japanese definitions yet, there are still ways to make pragmatic partial use of them that can boost your Japanese enormously.
What we have learned today is simple and automatic. Once you have done the set-up process above, all your new auto-made cards will have audio on the back without your doing another thing.
Kind of amazing, isn’t it? But it’s just the beginning!
I suggested that one of the things that keeps our minds tied to romaji is the fact that when we do Japanese typing we do it in romaji even though it is converted to kana and kanji. This maintains the deceptive mental link between Japanese sounds and structure and the roman alphabet.
So I have recently tried the experiment of typing in kana rather than in Romaji. It is a fascinating experience because one has to learn a new keyboard layout that bears no relation to the regular QWERTY one. If you touch-type (I do), in a way it is like starting all over again. But fortunately not as much like as you might expect.
So let me talk a little about the experience, its pros and cons, to help you decide whether it might be right for you.
First of all some basic questions I asked and you will too:
But don’t most Japanese people use romaji for Japanese typing?
Yes they do. But they are thinking in hiragana from the start. They do not have any built-in associations of English sound and structure with the Roman alphabet. If anything typing Japanese in romaji has the opposite effect for them. It is likely to make them perceive romaji in terms of kana rather than in terms of English/European sounds and structures.
Our reason for typing in kana is not that it is more efficient (in some ways it is, in some not. There probably isn’t much in it) but in order to help re-program our minds into thinking in kana structures. This is explained more fully here.
Will I need a new keyboard for Japanese typing?
No. You can get a set of vinyl keyboard stickers from Ebay for a few dollars. You can see a keyboard using them in the picture at the top of this page. This is all you need to get you started. If you touch type you won’t need the stickers forever anyway.
Will I be re-learning touch-typing from scratch?
This is an interesting question. I assumed that I would be. After all it is a completely different keyboard layout. I remember spending weeks of touch-type drill with the redoubtable Mavis Beacon-sensei. My friend Cure Yasashiku looked for online Japanese touch type drills, only to find they are no use because a real Japanese keyboard differs to some extent from a stickered Western one.
What I found was that none of this was necessary. Somehow in learning to touch type in the first place it seems that one has mastered a number of skills that make the second time around a lot easier. I am not even entirely certain what they are.
Part of it is confidence and familiarity, I suspect. When you are coming fresh from hunt-and-peck you really don’t feel comfortable with hitting keys without looking. But when you have been touch-typing for some time you expect to. So as soon as you have an idea where the new keys are, you naturally want to hit them blind. The whole process is quicker and easier than it was the first time around.
Learning to touch type in the first place there comes a point where you make the decision to use touch-typing for your real-life typing (knowing that it will be slower for some time). With kana Japanese typing, I was using it for everyday work almost from the beginning. Instead of hunt-and-peck I was doing touch-and-peek, with the peeking diminishing quite rapidly.
Having said that it does slow one down for quite a while. However, do you actually buzz along as fast in Japanese anyway? I am thinking there may be a good case for starting kana typing very early, when Japanese typing is very slow whatever method you use. By the time your Japanese has warmed up, you also know the keyboard intimately.
The whole exercise also raises some interesting considerations about the whole learning process. Touch-typing has this in common with language-learning: that you are aiming at automaticity – the point where you don’t need to think what key is where in one case, and what word means what in the other.
I found from very early on that automaticity in the sense of “finger-memory” was developing quickly. Often I would not know where a key was but my fingers would go to the right one. This is closely analogous to what you want to do (on a much larger scale) in the language itself. It is also an indication of why too much conscious and explicit study is not necessarily as helpful as we tend to think. Massive exposure is what gets our mental “fingers” hitting the right words and expressions without quite knowing why, and understanding sentences even when we didn’t consciously remember all the words as individuals.
One thing I find is that even though I am by no means a full-speed kana typist yet, the kana keyboard exists in my mind as something separate from the roman keyboard. If I accidentally try to type kana with the keyboard in romaji, I am usually surprised by the letter that appears. While my finger-mind knows where the “c” key is in romaji, it doesn’t associate that with the “そ” key in kana, even though they are the same key.
This is interestingly analogous to how language works and again an indication of how conscious memorization only takes us so far. To speak Japanese you have to be able to throw the “Japanese switch” in your mind. You really don’t want to be translating everything from Japanese to English and back in your head. And this is how the mind wants to work. We can see that from the microcosm of the keyboard. It naturally throws the “kana switch” and deactivates the other paradigm that it has for the same keyboard.
Is kana keyboard necessary for your Japanese typing?
Returning to the practicalities of the question, should you be switching your Japanese typing to kana input?
There are several questions to ask yourself. Do you touch-type? Because if you hunt-and-peck anyway you might as well do it in kana. It won’t take long to get familiar with the keyboard on a hunt-and-peck level.
If you touch-type, how much will this slow you down? My finding (somewhat to my surprise) is that you really don’t need to do keyboard drills (and they aren’t available anyway). You will be typing slowly from very early on – the first day – if you are anything like me.
But it is slower and it will take at least some weeks to get up to full speed. So practical questions are: How much do you type Japanese? How fast do you type Japanese now? Are you doing Japanese typing enough for the slow-down to matter?
Also, do you actually hand-write Japanese a lot (perhaps for school)? If so, the keyboard problem is probably less important for you.
How important is it? I think it is definitely helping me make the final break from romaji-based thinking and this is important not only for pronunciation but for thinking about the way Japanese fits together in the way Japanese people do.
Shadowing Japanese is recommended by many people as one of the best ways to learn the language.
There are a few versions of Japanese shadowing around, but they all involve speaking at the same time as a native speaker, saying what she (or he – you should use a speaker of the same gender as yourself) is saying at the same time she is saying it.
Everyone agrees this is difficult, but I suspect it is a lot more difficult for some people than others. Those of us who have very poor short-term memory or lack a certain kind of vocal extroversion can find Japanese shadowing pretty much impossible.
And this is unfortunate because it really is a valuable technique. It doesn’t only improve your speaking. It improves your sense of Japanese rhythm and your ability to hear what a speaker is really saying rather than post-process it into sounds you are more familiar with.
So let’s suppose you are like me and find shadowing to a live speaker or trying to shadow from a text to a speaker in real time prohibitively difficult. Is there a way to get over this problem and get the benefits of shadowing?
Using Anki to shadow Japanese is even more unorthodox. We are not going to be using it as an SRS tool at all. The only role it plays in Harmonizing is that of a box for throwing up random sentences spoken by Japanese speakers plus text of what they are saying and a convenient one-button method of having them repeat the phrase as many times as you want.
This is why I call it harmonizing. We aren’t trying to shadow long or even medium texts. What we are doing is taking a short phrase spoken by a native speaker and getting used to speaking it in harmony with her. It may take several tries if you are poor at shadowing, but it is a nice contained way of doing it. You will get the sentence with a little practice and be able to say it at the exact rhythm of the speaker.
I aim to do each sentence in perfect harmony five or ten times, then move on to the next sentence. One interesting thing you will find is that some sentences that felt really hard to come to grips with the first time will be easy days later (even with the Anki SRS gap). You have picked up the rhythm of that sentence.
This is super important because the rhythms of Japanese are not the same as English rhythms and that is one of the main reasons Japanese is so hard to hear. By shadowing/harmonizing you are forcing yourself to catch the actual rhythm and pronunciation. With harmonizing you are trying to get your voices to “ring” together like a choir. That won’t happen unless you have the rhythm and cadence very close to right.
Once you have this it becomes easier to pick up what Japanese speakers are saying because your brain is not (or at least is rather less) trying to do what it has been trained to do for years, to translate all vocal noise into English-like sounds. It has become viscerally aware of another kind of spoken rhythm.
How to Shadow Japanese by the Anki Harmonizing Method
Here is the step-by-step guide.
1. Get a deck that has spoken sentences. You will find several in Anki’s shared decks service. Less than there were, since Anki has become more strict about copyright material, but still plenty for your purposes.
2. Start using the deck in the regular way. If the sound is on the back, pass the card immediately. You are not using Anki to test yourself in the ordinary way. If the speaker is the wrong gender or for some reason you don’t want to do that sentence, hit “easy” and make it go away.
3. When you have a sentence you want to work with (you should be able to work with most sentences spoken by someone of your own gender), use the R key to repeat the audio. It may take several tries at first before you get a reasonable harmony. Don’t worry. They are short sentences. Just ganbaru. Don’t despise single-word audio. You can get a lot from shadowing one word exactly right. You will find you can build up to longer sentences.
When you get that satisfying “ring” use the R key several more times to really internalize the rhythm you have now caught.
You are actually training your mouth muscles as well as your ear. There are hundreds of muscles in your mouth and different languages use different ones. You may well find you physically tire quite quickly at first. Don’t worry. It is more important to do a little regularly than to tire yourself with a lot in one session.
4. If you like the sentence and want to shadow it more, hit “hard” to make it come back more often. Remember this is NOT a right/wrong test. Forget everything you know about using Anki when you are harmonizing!
These are the basics of the technique and all you need to know. But let’s have a few
Extra Japanese Shadowing Tips
• It is a good idea to start each session with the Amenbo no Uta. If you can say it reasonably fast, or if you only use part of it, this takes less than a minute. It is not used by just about all Japanese speaking professionals for nothing. It really does help you get your tongue around the sounds of Japanese.
• Things to concentrate on are mora, and the length of “vowels”. I have talked about this at length in the Amenbo article. Remember that もう is two morae, not one syllable. ラッパ is three morae, not two syllables. The Amenbo will help you with this, but as you harmonize, be aware of it. It will be vital to getting that “ring” with your partner’s voice.
• Relatedly, be aware of how very short single vowels are, especially at the end of words. At first, if you get them right, you kind of feel as if you are clipping them off half-way through saying them.
• Try to feel the quality of vowels. Notice, for example, how お is somewhat like a shortened version of the sound we make in “door”, not the one in “hot” or “hoe”.
• Note that the T sound is made with the tongue on the back of the teeth, not the alveolar ridge, as in English, and that just about everything is pronounced further forward in the mouth than in English.
Not More Anki…
Shadowing is a fundamental technique for helping you to truly get Japanese into your blood. But you may be thinking you don’t wnt to take on another time-consuming Anki obligation.
Fortunately this is not Anki in the usual sense. You don’t need to do it every day, and you don’t need to clear your deck. You don’t care if you get a massive build-up. This isn’t SRS, it is your personal shadowing box.
Yes, if you are building a core vocabulary and learning kanji you need a solid commitment to Anki or some other system. But using Anki for Harmonizing or shadowing Japanese doesn’t work like that.
It is good to do it pretty regularly, at least at first, but you are always in control. Do as much or as little as you feel you need. The SRS algorithm that is so important to the long-term learning of Kanji in particular (vocabulary should be at least partly handled by massive exposure) is irrelevant here.
So if you want to shadow Japanese (and you should) but you find the regular methods tie you in knots, here is the key to the magic door.
There comes a time when one has to start thinking about retiring the Japanese-English dictionary.
How and when one does this has been a matter of some discussion among the Japanese learning community. Some extreme immersionists recommend doing it quite early on. This tends to go hand in hand with the 10,000 sentences method, which I have never used, though I do have my own sentences method, but it is not central to my method and I am increasingly trying to use massive input to contextualize and naturalize words.
The argument for making a “cold turkey” switch to pure J-J definitions is that it makes one think in Japanese, and define words in Japanese terms rather than referring it back to English all the time. The problem with it is that at first it is very difficult and time consuming. It involves “branching”, which means that looking up one word may lead to a definition in which one does not know three more words. Each of these words may do the same. So looking up one word can “branch” into learning 50 words or more.
The reasons I have not done this are partly my own and partly common to a lot of other people who haven’t, I suspect. They are:
1. I learn words on the fly, while watching anime, reading etc. This is already quite a disruption but it works for me (I am not the kind of organized person who can put words aside for later). Going into a massive branching session that could take the rest of the day just wouldn’t work with the way I do things.
2. Relatedly, my way of going about things involves minimal “study”. As I am always saying, one should use Japanese, not “learn” or “practice” it. Now in a sense, all that branching is using Japanese. One is using it in the way a Japanese child uses it when she looks something up. She can’t go to another language. On the other hand she never encounters 50-deep ramifications. My technique has been to spend one’s time living in Japanese, not buried in reference books. I “do Anki” but that is the major part of my “pure study”. Branching would change the balance completely. I am not saying I shouldn’t do it, but it would be quite a change of approach.
3. I have very poor short-term memory. I have never been able to do simple math because by the time I have done the smallest sub-calculation I have forgotten the main calculation. I have a very difficult time putting details together. Therefore I suspect I would get into a hopeless tangle pretty quickly.
Now, having said all this, I am also an extreme immersionist and my aim is to make Japanese my language. So for me, and all of you who are dedicated to Japanese and in this for the long haul, the question is not whether we switch to all-Japanese and the use of Japanese-Japanese dictionaries etc. The question is simply when we do it.
For me, Japanese is my language. English is just a foreign language I happen to know. I certainly do not intend to be looking up words via some foreign language all my life, any more than I intend to be using Anki all my life.
If any of this resonates with you, then we all have the same question:
When and how do we make the change?
Currently I am in what I regard as a bridging stage, and I would like to share some of the techniques I am currently using to ease the transition to J-J and stop it turning into a monster.
Use a simple dictionary. If you are using an online one I recommend the Sanseido dictionary. It has brief and simple definitions.
The purpose of the dictionary is that of the mounting-block that helps you get your foot in the stirrup. The dictionary can’t ride the horse for you. What you need is enough information to get a preliminary grip on the word. Sanseido will give you this most of the time.
Another important value of Sanseido is that it is supported by Rikaisama. What this means is that you can go to the Sanseido dictionary online, enter the words you want, and if there are unknown words in the definition, then you can use Rikaisama to get Sansiedo’s definitions of those words without opening new tabs.
I have heard people talk about having 50 tabs open pursuing the trail of one word. I know that I can’t possibly juggle layers of information in that way. I may be the only one with that disability, but I suspect I am not.
With the method I am suggesting, if the definitions of definitions contain unknown words you can choose whether to open a fresh Sanseido tab and whether, and at what stage, to take a Gordian-knot-cutting peek.
I will do this sometimes, because essentially what I am doing is watching an anime or reading a book. This dictionary business is all peripheral, and my aim is to learn the words by meeting them.
1. If you get an English definition, make it at the second level at least. In other words, what goes into your Anki is a Japanese definition even if you “cheated” a bit to understand it. You will only do that once. Thereafter the definition you learn and are tested on is Japanese. You will be hearing that Japanese definition for a while to come. The English “leg up” will quickly fade but the Japanese definition will stay with you.
2. Yes I did say “hearing”. This is a matter of personal style, but I like to use Kyoko to have the definitions in audio on the back of my cards. I seem to be quite largely an audial learner, so on the front of the card I have the word in kanji. On the back the pronunciation of the word, and its Japanese definition are written and reinforced aurally. This is another reason to prefer succinct definitions.
I used to find that I often unconsciously remembered pretty much the exact words of a definition in English (even though I didn’t use audio for them). Why waste that surplus memory function by stuffing yet more English into the mind when it could be Japanese?
3. Exceptions. There are a few cases where you may want to give a word an “English pass”. If you really can’t understand a Japanese definition you can decide that you are not yet “old enough” in Japanese to know the word. You can also simply use the English definition. You don’t have to transition all at once. One of the cures here is currently at 25% J-J. I am probably just reaching around 75%.
There are also special cases where you may want to think about making an exception for a while. Two possible cases for this are:
a) Very abstract words. I have a hard time with these in English. It may be worth using English definitions until you have enough grasp of abstract Japanese words to use them in defining other abstract words.
b) New kanji. If you are using our approach of learning words, not kanji, you will encounter new kanji from time to time. In these cases, I tend to write a little story around the kanji elements to glue the kanji in place in my mind. This all goes onto the same card as the word definition (later I will tend to think of the kanji as 〜の漢字, 〜 being the word I first learned it in, or the one that has since become most prominent in my mind and seems to represent the kanji’s essence). I think it is legitimate to write the kanji-structure story in English if you need to, though increasingly I do it in Japanese. Which brings us to:
4. Mnemonics. Do you use mnemonics? Not everyone needs them. Frankly, while I have a better than average English vocabulary I am hopeless with new words unless I know their etymology. I can have trouble calling to mind the names of friends I meet online regularly. Therefore I pretty much need, in many cases, to give myself a handle to grasp a word by, that links its kanji, pronunciation and meaning. I write these on the back of cards because that’s the way my mind works. I sometimes need that extra reminder two or three times. Then it usually sticks.
But, and I believe this is important, If you are at the stage where you can even think of dabbling in J-J definitions, you can make your mnemonics in Japanese.
This is connected with the wider question of making Japanese your default language. You may not want to do it wholly as I do, but you certainly must do it in the “Japanese zones” of your life.
So don’t be one of those people who, the minute they aren’t actually buried in a dictionary naturally make their mnemonics in “real language”. For you, Japanese is real language. Why would you make mnemonics in a foreign language just because you happen to know it better?
Even if you have to borrow a foreign word for your mnemonic, frame the story in Japanese. Here is an example:
This is Sanseido’s definition of 駄々, conveniently exported from Rikaisama to Anki with a single keypress. I add mnemonic notes in red. Here I have used English baby-talk “dada” (＝父親）to link the sound to its meaning, but the mnemonic is in Japanese. I also remind myself that the repeated kanji is the だ of both ダメ(駄目）and 無駄.
It is best, though to use J-J mnemonics wherever possible. This can seem a little strange in that you will be using Japanese words in punning ways not connected with their real meaning. Is this confusing? I have to say I have never once found it confusing. It reinforces the word used as well as the word being “learned” and deepens one’s friendship with the familiar word. You have shared a little joke together.
And making friends with words is really the crux of all this. The dictionary and Anki parts are not the process. The process starts where they end. Of course you can be making friends with a word while it is still current in your Anki, but Anki isn’t where true friendship is made. True friendship is made through living, loving, laughing, hoping, fearing and experiencing together. This is why we always talk about using Japanese, not just practicing it.
The dictionary is where you are formally introduced to a word and both say a nervous hajimemashite. Anki is where you see it on the bus sometimes and learn to recognize its face. None of this has much to do with making friends. I suppose that is part of the reason I am disinclined. to get too tied up in dictionary-based work.
Having Anki’s interface itself in Japanese is important here too, I believe. This goes deeper than just J-J definitions. It is also a question of whether you are seeing Japanese as a “foreign language” that you work with through the medium of “real language”, or whether you see Japanese as real language so that everything that is “meta” to your anime or your learning is naturally in Japanese. Because what other language is there?
There is that funny foreign English that some level of my mind seems to know quite well. It can be useful at times, but the moment it has served its purpose, obviously I revert to Real Language.
Update: I am happy to report that this entire article is now out of date. So long as you have a recent version, you can now change Anki’s language by simply going into the Preferences as shown in the pictures below.
Anki’s language can seem pretty much fixed. There is nowhere in the settings to change it.
So if you started with it in English as a newbie and now have a set of massive decks, it looks like you’re stuck with an English interface.
That can be pretty annoying once you have your computer’s system in Japanese, your browser in Japanese, your Kindle in Japanese, your smartphone and iPod interface in Japanese. This doll even worked out how to get the back end of this site into Japanese.
So it’s kind of ironic to have Anki, your biggest single Japanese learning tool (after VLC for anime, of course – that’s easy to put into Japanese), staring at you in English every day.
Fortunately, even though there is no obvious way to do it, and you have to use a slightly scary hack, it can be done.
How to Change Anki’s Language: Step by Step
1. Sync and quit Anki. If you don’t have an account to sync to, you are best advised to get one (they’re free).
2. OK. Here’s the scary bit. Read this carefully before you do anything.
What you have to do is get rid of Anki’s preferences file.
On a Windows system you will find this at:
On a Mac you will find it at:
But don’t delete the file. Rename it to, say, prefsold.db. That way if something goes horribly wrong you can go back to your original prefs file. You really are best advised to make copy the of entire Anki folder in a folder other than Documents. This is probably not necessary in most cases but it makes sure you are absolutely safe.
3. Restart Anki. It will start by asking you your language. Annoyingly, you don’t get the chance to change it at any other time, which is why you had to do this.
Anki will insist on syncing. Depending how big your decks are and how much audio you use (I use a ton with my Dolly Sentences Method), it can take a while.
4. Don’t panic. Once this is complete, everything may be all right but it may also not be. When I got to this point, my Anki interface language was in Japanese but my Japanese-named decks were suddenly in English. Anki had reverted to a very old state with very old versions of my decks. I still don’t know why (I’m just a doll), but it just about scared the paint off me. I have a ton of self-made audio cards and I’d rather not lose them.
Don’t worry. I just synced again and everything was back to normal except in Japanese. Be sure to sync down, notup if you have to do a second sync. Anki won’t delete anything from your computer. But make sure you have the old prefs file to return to in case things do somehow get messed up.
This is how your Anki should now look:
I won’t talk you through the interface as you already know it. But if there’s anything in the screenshot you think might cause you a problem, make sure you make a note of it in your English version before you make the change. Going back is possible but probably not something you will be over-anxious to do!
Interestingly, if you are dabbling in J-J definitions this will give you a little push along the way. English definitions will feel decidedly out of place in your new all-Japanese Anki!
Can you learn Japanese free? Absolutely. We can show you how to get to native-level fluency without spending a single penny.
Let’s assume you have no resources at all other than a computer or a tablet (you are reading this after all). You can’t travel. You can’t buy anything. Can you learn Japanese to complete fluency?
Absolutely you can. We’ll explain how.
It will be hard work, but any method by which you really learn Japanese, free or otherwise, is hard work, even if you spend fortunes on it. The methods we recommend have the advantage of being fun as well.
The best way to learn Japanese, or any language, is immersion. This is how children learn. But can you have Japanese immersion without living in Japan?
The answer to that is yes. The internet has made it possible. Ironically enough many learners who do live in Japan find it difficult or impossible to have Japanese immersion. This is because they are often teaching English and living in a heavily English-language environment in Japan. You could well find that your chances of Japanese immersion are better outside Japan than living there.
So if you want to learn Japanese free, how do you go about this?
Using the power of the internet it is absolutely possible to immerse yourself. YouTube is full of Japanese material. You really don’t need to watch any English media at all if you don’t want to. I don’t.
You can fill your iPod with Japanese songs and stories and anime soundtracks. Hukumusume is a really good source of Japanese stories both written and downloadable audio.
You can and should fill your ears with Japanese all the time. If you need to concentrate on something, turn it down, not off. Only when you really need to concentrate very hard do you have to stop the flow of Japanese completely.
Learn Japanese Free: how to get started
Maybe you don’t know any Japanese, or only a very small amount. Is it going to help filling your head with sounds you don’t understand?
There are different views on this but my view is “probably not”. You need to find a way to get a foothold in Japanese before you start. But don’t worry. You can still learn Japanese free. This doesn’t have to cost anything.
These techniques will guide so that you will be able to immerse yourself in Japanese and build your understanding step by step.
Thinking in Japanese
Japanese immersion isn’t just about reading and hearing Japanese. It is also about communicating in Japanese and thinking in Japanese. There is only one way to learn Japanese. You only learn a language by using it. Everything else is just learning about the language.
This means doing the things you used to do in English in Japanese. Watching movies, reading books/manga, playing games etc. It also means communicating with others in Japanese, and thinking to yourself in Japanese. And outer communication is the key to to inner thoughts.
This is the aspect of learning Japanese that most online, lone-learner techniques ignore. And it is very important. Language is a means of communication. The mind does not process input-only language as “real language”. You need to be using language to communicate thoughts and develop relationships before your “linguistic mind” can start firing on all cylinders.
Fortunately we have you covered there too. The Kawaii Japanese Forums are there for people to talk about Japanese or anything else, play RPGs or word games, or do anything else they want in Japanese. It is an easy stress-free, friendly way to ease yourself into the waters of Japanese communication. And (as you probably guessed) they’re free.
The Forums are the perfect bridge to get you across the psychological barrier between feeling Japanese as a “foreign language” and feeling it as something you actually live.
Learn Japanese Free – or very cheap
You probably have an iPod, phone or some kind of MP3 player already. But what if you don’t? Can you still learn Japanese free?
We can’t recommend a way of getting a free MP3 player, but you can get a cheap Chinese player on eBay or a local fleamarket for well under $5. It may lack some bells and whistles but if you want to keep the flow of Japanese into your ears and listen to stories and songs, even the cheapest player will do the job.
If you have a little more money to spare you could (if you don’t already have one) get a Nintendo DS. This game machine is “obsolete” so you can buy it very cheaply. It has a ton of excellent Japanese games with a lot of text, often with furigana. Unlike its more recent sister the 3DS it is not region-locked, so you can buy second-hand Japanese games cheaply on eBay or elsewhere.
But assuming you can’t even afford this, you absolutely can learn Japanese free.
Basic Japanese Grammar is the key to learning Japanese online or anywhere else.
If you are learning Japanese online, we recommend immersion tactics like the Japanese-Subtitled Anime Method. Learning basic Japanese grammar and vocabulary won’t teach you the language. It will only teach you about the language.
To learn Japanese online (or anywhere) you need to use it, both passively and actively. Children don’t learn grammar by theory in their own language. They learn naturally and organically.
Can you do this? Yes. But you shouldn’t.
Why? Isn’t it the best way? Yes it is. But you still shouldn’t.
Why not? Because it takes thousands of hours and true immersion. That is why pseudo-immersion methods like Rosetta Stone don’t work.
People imagine that small children learn language quickly. They don’t. Think of how long they are “studying”. Almost every waking hour for years before they become “fluent”.
Also, small children have the massive advantage of not already knowing another language. You need something to make up for this. And since you have the disadvantage of knowing another language, you should leverage its (lesser) compensating advantages. The main, and only significant, one of those is your ability to learn grammar.
Grammar is a quick and dirty shortcut. But you should use it. It is going to help you enormously when you start to actually learn Japanese online by immersion methods.
How to Learn Basic Japanese Grammar Online
Assuming you are not in a class, how do you learn basic Japanese grammar, and what do you need to learn? Let’s walk you through how we did it:
2: Get the Inside Secrets! Official grammars are necessary, but in some areas they set you on the wrong path and make grammar seem much harder than it really is. I strongly recommend getting Unlocking Japanese, which does just what the title says! Yes, it’s our book, but it came out of seeing how seriously misled most students get by some aspects of official grammar and what problems that creates later on. It’s only a small book and quite cheap, but it will really make Japanese far easier to understand. Take a look at it now!
3. Get the Cheat Sheet! Download the Nihonshock basic Japanese grammar cheat sheet. It’s free (unlike the other Nihonshock products) and it is a work of genius. Get it, print it, laminate it and keep it with you at all times. It gives you the whole of basic Japanese grammar in one two-sided sheet (plus kana and basic kanji). At first it won’t all make sense, but as you learn grammar you can use it as a quick-check reference and brush-up learning tool all the time.
4. What about exercises? Textbooks have a lot of drill exercises. If they suit you you can use them. I didn’t (I never went to school and don’t understand exercises). Also you don’t have anyone to correct them. But you might need to drill some grammar points, notably verb and adjective conjugations. The Japan Times has a barebones but really excellent system of random quizzes on everything that really needs drilling. We don’t recommend a lot of time on drills. You should plunge into Japanese subtitled anime from pretty early. But you do need to get those conjugations firm and the Japan Times quizzes will cover that.
Note that on some browsers you may need to change the character encoding to Shift-JIS in order to see the quiz text. If you don’t like the technical stuff just use Firefox which handles it automatically and is the best Browser for serious Japanese learners anyway, because of Rikaisama.
Also, read and re-read Unlocking Japanese, it is short but it will leave you knowing how things like Japanese particles, adjectives and tenses really work. Actually understanding in depth the is far better for your memory than brute-force drill-learning. And for some reason the textbooks never tell you these things.
But remember: What is going to make Japanese grammar stick in your long-term memory and become instinctive is not artificial exercises, but real encounters and use of it in anime, books conversation etc.
3. At what stage can I start learning Japanese, not just learning about it?
How dedicated are you? I started the anime method around the end of Genki 1. Did I have enough grammar by then? No. Not to understand everything, but enough to just barely manage. I watched Karigraushi no Arietty and it took hours. But I really loved it. I was moved to tears by Japanese words for the first time.
Let’s be frank. The anime method is not easy in the early days and you have to be pretty dedicated to use it, even if you leave it a bit longer. Any method of learning Japanese is tough unless you are prepared to learn at a snail’s pace and only know about Japanese at the end of it. If you want to do immersion you have to be ready to ganbaru.
Look, I’m a Precure/Ninja. Just tell me the mission. How much do I need to know?
OK, hero (and I mean hero). You need to know:
(Preferably some basic kanji) The basic particles: wa, ga, wo, ni, he, to, de, mo, ka, no Plain present Plain past (-ta form) Plain negative Plain past negative -te form Masu form Adjectives present, past, negative, past negative
All this is on your cheat sheet (you do have it printed and laminated, hero?) You won’t learn it from there but it will be your friend and companion once you have learned it. Keep Unlocking Japanese by your side too. It will help you to know what is really going on in the sentences you hear.
With this and some vocabulary and a huge machete (in the form of Jisho and a willingness to research phrases you don’t understand) you can start slogging through some simple subtitled anime. You will have to let some things go.
You can also wait till you know everything on the cheat sheet. I didn’t. Whether you do or not you should be continuing to learn basic grammar. You need the other conjugations (you can probably manage without causative-passive. By the time it becomes an issue it will be logically obvious anyway) and the other things in the basic Japanese grammar texts.
You may be starting to learn a lot of this ad hoc by watching and looking things up. I found that by the time I got to Genki 2, as I came to each lesson I already knew more of it than I didn’t. I was mostly using it as a grammar checklist.
Are you having problems? Need help? Any questions? Did I miss anything? Use the comment form below.
1. They don’t want to. In my view this is the best reason not to. In fact, it is the only good reason not to.
I “know some French”, as people (wrongly in my view) say. But it is not my default language or one of my default languages. Why? Because I am not in love with French. To me it is a foreign language. It is not my language. Japanese is my language. English is just the language I happen to know well.
I can read books in French, slowly, if I have to, but I can’t hold much of a conversation. I wouldn’t say I “know French” at all. I only know about French. And that is where I am happy to be with French. If that is where you are happy to be with Japanese, that’s fine. You don’t need the rest of this article.
2. They feel uncomfortable in Japanese and want to return to “real language” as soon as they have stopped practising it. Mostly they don’t say, or even explicitly think this, but actually it is what is happening.
This is the second biggest reason after 1, and I strongly suspect that all the other reasons are largely rationalizations of this.
English (if you are a native English speaker) feels like “real language”. Anything else feels like a sort of game. That is why the internet is full of sites talking about Japanese in English. [Don’t we do this too? Yes, but we are (amazingly) the only one that is also trying to create a place for everyday interaction in Japanese].
There seem to be endless people who are genuinely fascinated by Japanese and sometimes quite advanced in it who still return, as a matter of course, to “real language” (English) in order to talk about their enthusiasm for Japanese.
Now if you already fall into category 1, this is quite natural and proper. I don’t talk about French in French either. But if you are serious about making Japanese your language, if you are serious about learning Japanese and not just learning about Japanese, you must overcome this first and most serious barrier.
This means you have to:
Step outside your English comfort zone and
Create a new comfort zone in Japanese
And, of course, at first the Japanese zone won’t feel comfortable at all. Making it comfortable — making Japanese the (or a) default language that you actually use, and not a foreign language that you “practise” — is largely a matter of changing your perspective and getting used to Japanese as a (or the) primary means of communication.
3. They are afraid of making and/or hearing mistakes.
As I said, I believe this is to a large extent a rationalization of 2. If you fall into category 1, you don’t need excuses. Embrace it, as I do with French. But if you really want to make Japanese your language, you need to be aware of the problems caused by 2. So let’s break 3 down into some of its sub-departments:
A) I am embarrassed about my poor Japanese
This can be a good reason for using it among non-native speakers. We are all learning and happy to learn together. Embarrassment has to do with seeing Japanese as “a language”. One can retreat back into the “safe haven” of English. But if one is establishing zones where Japanese is the only language, then you just have to manage it, mistakes and all.
Small children make mistakes all the time. What do they do? Cheat back into a language they know better? They can’t. They don’t have one. They just have to ganbaru. And if we are serious about this, so do we.
B) But won’t this cement my mistakes and make them permanent?
In one word, no. In five words, only if you let it.
If you are continually imbibing Japanese material, you will keep learning. All of us can look back on what we wrote in Japanese six months ago and squirm a bit at how awkward and unnatural it was. Just the way you might squirm at baby videos of yourself. We are all growing children. And gosh, we can be at that bashful age at times!
But we are growing. And let me add a very important thing:
You do learn by your mistakes. What? Even when no one is correcting them? Absolutely. You can hear a particular speech form a dozen times (in anime, manga, books etc) and still not get it right when you try to use it.
But when you have tried using it, you become aware of the problems surrounding it. Next time you encounter it, you will hear/read it much more clearly and be thinking “Ah, that’s how to say it properly”. In fact, you will be doing just what small children do.
Input alone will not teach you these things. You also need output experience, however flawed, to make you aware of the issues and teach you to listen for the right things. Now, every time you encounter this speech form it will be consolidating your knowledge and comfort with it in a way that would not have happened if you hadn’t tried to output it.
Input and output are inextricably intertwined in real language. One in isolation will not make language become natural. Textbooks and classes know this and try to compensate with book exercises and stilted “conversation practice” that is kept nice and sterile and mistake-free by following the book.
But if you want to make Japanese your language, you have to step outside these artificial arenas and start getting your hands dirty with real use.
Mistakes are not inherently bad. They are part of the learning process.
C) If I am interacting with non-Japanese people in Japanese won’t I be learning unnatural ways of speaking?
This is a small problem but nowhere near as big as the problem of not using your Japanese. If you have plenty of native input (whether people, anime, novels, games, television or what), you will learn. Having Japanese moving around in your head helps you to learn. Even incorrect things help you to learn. Learning loves to have something to “stick to”. That is how the mind works.
Part of the reason people can, and often do, study so much and never really become proficient in a language (even if they can pass exams) is that the language is locked away in the little “study” compartment of the mind rather than being a part of life.
This is far, far more dangerous to your Japanese than learning wrong things. A senpai who has passed JLPT1 and is fluent tells me that her breakthrough came largely because she talked only Japanese with her German roommate. Did she hear a lot of bad Japanese? Certainly. But her mind was working in Japanese a lot of the time.
Mistakes are not some fatal disease. They pass if you give them a chance to. They sound funny to you after a while, as you grow in Japanese.
But guess what? You don’t grow in Japanese unless you are in Japanese to start with.
Japanese is like swimming. You can read about it and take dry-land instruction and play in the shallow end with water wings till the cows come home; but you won’t really start to learn it till you dive right in and get wet.
The idea of learning to think in Japanese—actually switching one’s “inner monologue” from English to Japanese—is one I have been thinking about and working with for some time.
I have read advice on this, which essentially boils down to making yourself say the things you normally say to yourself in Japanese. Like “what a nice day”, or “where did I put that pencil?”
Eventually, because the mind is a creature of habit, Japanese will begin to dethrone English as your default means of thinking.
That is the theory and, given a lot of determination, I think it works. But it is possible to make the process much easier and more effective.
Let us just think things a little further and wonder to what extent does one actually have an inner monologue? In English or Japanese?
Having an inner monologue to a large extent rests on being alone. If you are in company you say what you think to those you are with. If you are alone you say it to yourself. Maybe.
We all work differently, so I can only talk about my own experience. I am an extravert and a person to whom communication is a paramount need, even though circumstances lead me to mostly live the life of a hikikomori (sometimes it is hard being a doll in a human world).
My word-world revolves around communication. When I think things in words it is usually because I am thinking in terms of communicating them. Otherwise I tend to think in a vague non-verbal kind of way.
Now when I say “thinking in terms of communicating them” I don’t mean that I am necessarily going to communicate them. Often I am not. But I am thinking them in words with a view to their potential communication. What I might have said if such-a-person was there. How I might tell the story. How I might blog it. If I used Facebook, I would probably think what I might post there. Etc.
You might state things in a somewhat witty or sardonic manner. You are not trying to amuse yourself. You are saying what you might say to amuse someone in your circle if they were present.
Now you may not be the same. I don’t know how other people are. But in my experience “inner monologue” insofar as it is really “monologue” (i.e. verbal) at all is actually potential outer dialogue.
In practice—at least if you are anything like me—this has important effect on how (and whether) we can change our thinking to Japanese.
When I am thinking about writing or talking, to a person or an audience, in English, I think in English. When I am thinking about writing or talking, to a person or an audience, in Japanese, I think in Japanese. It really is as simple as that.
The “brute force” method of making myself say things to myself in Japanese is really doing it the hard way, and it only lasts as long as I am actually thinking about it. But if I think in terms of expressing it, say, on the Kawaii Japanese Forums, or to someone with whom I habitually communicate in Japanese, it comes out in Japanese naturally.
Language is made for communication, and communication (at least in my case) determines our language. Even in English, we will think differently, make different kinds of joke, be more or less formal, depending on what kind of person we are (vaguely) thinking of speaking to when we verbalize to ourselves.
Mentioning the Kawaii Japanese Forums sounds a little like self-advertisement, but it isn’t as if we make any money out of them, and no one else seems to be doing anything similar. They absolutely aren’t the only way of doing this, and it is good if you have various people that you regularly speak to/correspond with in Japanese only. In my experience that only is important because it determines Japanese as the pure default language in that relationship. When I think about A-san I think in Japanese.
Set up as many such situations as possible. Then when you find your inner monologue is in the wrong language, instead of thinking “I must think in Japanese”, just think of speaking to A-san about whatever you are thinking, or posting it on the Forum (even if it is something you might not actually post). If you have Japanese-only Twitter, think about tweeting it. Or do. (I don’t tweet a lot myself, but if you tweet at me in Japanese, I’ll tweet back). But you don’t have to do it. You just need to gear your mind into that communication-sphere, which is Japanese.
But for that, of course you must establish Japanese communication-spheres. And keep them regularly active. If you don’t know where to start with that, I really do recommend popping along to the Kawaii Japanese Forums. And join in! Really, we welcome newcomers of every level, and we are all learning, so don’t feel shy. えんりょしないで！
Language is communication. Communication is people. Inner monologue is outer dialogue internalized. Thus (certainly in my case and very possibly in yours) the key to inner monologue is outer dialogue.
A doll friend of mine has just made a video explaining how to pronounce the u sound in Japanese.
The difference between Japanese う and English U is actually very straightforward and easy to achieve if you just understand the difference. Strangely, this information is relatively scarce, so do watch this video.