People often ask what is the best way to learn Japanese. It is an important question, because learning Japanese is not a quick process whatever method one uses.
One is sinking many, many hours into it, so it is natural to want to be sure that one is using those hours effectively.
This leads some people to spend more time reading up on methods than actually learning the language, or in some cases it leads people to keep changing methods in case the current one isn’t the best way to learn Japanese.
I really understand this. I went through the same kind of doubts and worries early in my Japanese journey, but I discovered something that can eliminate the whole anxiety of not knowing which is the best method.
I am going to explain why the method I chose works so well, but also, and perhaps more importantly, why, whether it is the best or not, it can remove the whole anxiety surrounding the question of the best way to learn Japanese.
In a nutshell, the best way to learn Japanese is to use and enjoy it. Studying only takes you so far, which is why people can study the language for years and pass exams without becoming proficient in practical terms.
How the brain learns language
There are reasons for this. At one time scientists thought that there was a particular part of the brain that handles language. More recently, though, it appears that the language function is distributed over many parts of the brain. This is because language (not a particular language, but the language-function) is hard wired into the brain.
What this means in turn is that words and experience are intimately bound together. To the brain, saying “It’s been a rough day” and touching sandpaper are somewhat similar sensations.
In other words, language and experience are intimately bound together. Which is why learning words from abstract “vocabulary lists” is one of the least efficient ways we can learn. The brain is not forming sensory or emotional connections with the words.
The best way to learn Japanese is to be in Japan, interacting and using the language for everything all the time. That way the brain builds up all the natural associations of words and grammar with things and experiences that make up true knowledge of any language.
Of course, many of us don’t have the option of being in Japan (and if we are there in an English-teaching environment we still may not have the option of true immersion).
In that case the second-best way is the best way to go.
What is the second-best way?
The answer to that should be obvious.
Getting as near to the best way as possible!
Even if you can’t have every experience in Japanese, you can create a “Japanese zone” in your life where you experience in Japanese.
As you know, when you become involved in a book or an anime, it is an experience. You are seeing and doing things, even though at second hand. You are experiencing emotions, hopes, fears from fantasy adventures to everyday life. Japanese acquired this way works in the brain very similarly to the way “real” language-experience does.
If you communicate and interact in Japanese: not just “practising” but actually discussing things that really interest you in themselves and forming relationships in Japanese, then language is working in your mind like real language and not just “play-language” or “study-language”.
The brain treats real language very differently from the way it treats “game-systems” like algebra or chess or language-study. Real language operates all over the brain, becoming part of its way of processing everything else.
How to go about creating real immersion for your brain is essentially the theme of this site and we have a lot of information on it. You can start from here if you decide to.
Eliminating the “best way to learn Japanese” worry
I think what we have said above is convincing.
And I think it is convincing because it is true.
There are a lot of other ways of learning Japanese online and many of them claim to be the best. Most of them can work (there are a few notable exceptions). You may be drawn to some of them at some time and wonder if they aren’t the best way to learn Japanese.
Of course, I believe immersion is the best way to learn Japanese. At least for some people. But whether it is or isn’t, it is the way to stop worrying about what is the best way of learning Japanese.
Why? What do I mean by that?
I mean that the whole worry about “the best way to learn Japanese” comes from the fact that you are sinking hours into studying the language, and naturally you want to be sure that you aren’t wasting time by using a less effective method.
But true immersion does away with all that.
It does away with the whole “studying Japanese” concept. It does away with the idea that you spend countless study-hours with 10,000 sentences or drill-books or Remembering the Kanji or Memrise or anything else in the hope that one magical day you will know enough to really use and enjoy Japanese.
You can see why people worry about whether their current method is the best way to learn Japanese.
It is an act of faith.
If I do enough of this grueling study I will reap the Great Reward.
But what if I don’t? What if I am on the wrong path?
You can’t know.
You can be told that someone else became native-level fluent in X-months using Y-supermethod. But you don’t know if that person is being 100% honest with you (or himself). Nor do you know if he isn’t some kind of prodigy who just happens to be very good at languages (and whatever anyone says, such people do exist). Nor do you know if the method that worked for this person is the one that will work for you. People learn differently.
So how can you find out what really is the best way of learning Japanese?
I don’t know if you can. But what you can do is do away with this whole act-of-faith approach.
When you do that, the whole “best way of learning Japanese” approach suddenly becomes irrelevant.
When you were picking up your native language as a small child you weren’t worrying about the best method of learning it. You weren’t even particularly concerned with learning the language at all. You were concerned with getting on with life. You were concerned with expressing your thoughts, enjoying movies, understanding what people were saying.
That wasn’t called “language study”. That was called “living”.
Our approach is to do the same thing with Japanese.
You do need to learn some basic grammar. We show you how to do this. It doesn’t have to be a lot. The rest you will pick up as you go along.
At this stage you don’t need to worry about the best way of learning Japanese. Learning basic grammar is very straightforward and there is no mystery about the fact that you are learning it.
Once you have learned the basics you start using Japanese. Watching Japanese-subtitled anime, reading for-Japanese-children’s books, playing video games in Japanese, communicating in Japanese.
This isn’t an easy, no-work method. It is hard, especially at first. All methods are hard. But as you ease into it, it is fun. You enjoy the anime. You enjoy the games. You enjoy reading. You start to interact with people in Japanese. You start to carve out an area of your life where Japanese is Language. The only language.
I believe this is the best and most natural way of learning Japanese. But whether it is or whether it isn’t, can you see how it has made the whole worry over “the best way to learn Japanese” irrelevant?
This is not an act-of-faith method. You aren’t slogging away at flashcards, classes, Kanji books, SRS sites etc in the hope that one day you will be able to use Japanese.
You are using Japanese right now.
Slowly at first. Strenuously at first. But you are using it. And every day you use it, it gets easier and more fun.
There is no mystery here. There is no waiting for the “destination” and hoping you didn’t board the wrong train. The destination is here, now. What you are doing is learning to get around that destination. First of all crawling like a small baby. Then standing up, holding onto the legs of chairs. Then being able to toddle.
It’s a long job. Any method is a long job. Get-fluent-quick schemes don’t work, or only work for a certain kind of person (and a certain very limited definition of “fluent”). Really learning a language takes time. It takes children time to learn their native language. Many, many, many “study hours”.
Except that they don’t call them “study hours”.
And neither will you.
They call it “living”.
And so will you.
Is this the best way to learn Japanese? I think so, but I can’t prove it and I could be wrong.
I don’t really care.
And neither will you.
The real point is: suppose doing 10,000 sentences and learning 2,000 kanji in the abstract were “the best way”.
Suppose spending every night working through drill-books were the best way.
Would I do it?
First of all, no one really knows whether or not they are the best way for any given individual.
But more importantly, I don’t want to put off using and living Japanese into some future that may or may not arrive.
If I was doing that I probably would be feeling desperate about whether all this slog was the best way to learn Japanese. It is like walking blindfold and just praying you are headed in the right direction.
Right from the first few months I was starting to use Japanese. It wasn’t a thing that would happen one day if I was diligent enough. It was something that was happening right now if I was diligent enough.
(That’s right, I’m afraid we can’t skip the diligence part)
Other approaches make using and enjoying Japanese a future-thing. True immersion makes it a now-thing.
And you know that the more you do it, the better it gets. You learn more words. You learn more of the ways that words are put together (“grammar”). Every single thing that you watch or read or play puts you one step further forward than the last one.
But you don’t need to worry about “the best way to learn Japanese” any more than a growing child needs to worry about the best way to learn her language.
To get started with real immersion, take a look at these articles:
How to Learn Japanese Online – a basic introduction
Japanese Immersion: How to Get Started