What to Focus on When Learning Japanese (for all learners)

Learning Japanese is a big task that requires a significant time investment, but it is tough to know what to focus on in order to keep advancing your level. If you are just getting started, you will first need to build your foundation. Once your foundation is built, your next step is to really dive into Japanese and get yourself understanding it to a high level. To do this, there are a couple key things on which to focus.

When learning Japanese, at the beginner stage learners should focus on building their foundation in grammar, vocabulary, and basic communication ability. At the lower intermediate level and onward, learners should focus heavily on taking in input in all Japanese and take time to study kanji.

If you are just starting to learn Japanese, you first need to focus on build a well-rounded foundation in the basics. You’ll want to learn hiragana, katakana, a few hundred kanji, and plenty of basic grammar and vocabulary. A great way to do this is by working through the Genki textbook series. I have written about Genki here.

By the end of Genki, you will have conquered the beginner level of Japanese, and have built up your basic communication ability. Genki is well worth the investment, but if funds are really tight and you were hoping to self-study for free starting from absolute beginner, I have written in detail about what resources to use here. If you are able to invest a little money, I touch on several other paid resources here.

Whether it is Genki or another resource, what you really want at the beginner stage is a well laid-out and structured path to work through the material you need so that you are able to start reading and listening to more and more content in all Japanese. This is your real goal, to get to a point where you can start understanding content, that is appropriate for your level, in all Japanese.

After the Beginner Japanese Level, It’s All About Input

Once you have passed through the beginner phase, your main focus should now be on taking in as much input as you can, both audio and written. In the video below, the amazing linguist Steve Kaufmann, who at the time of writing this article has over 55 years of experience learning 20 languages, lays out a guide for how long you should be continuing to focus mainly on input and what amount of output you need as well.  

Linguist Steve Kaufmann explains the critical role of input for learning a language

In terms of Steve’s key recommendations, you should be focusing on input until you can get to a point where you can listen to and read content in the target language, Japanese in our case, such that the amount that you don’t understand is less than 10%. There are two components to understanding, one is knowing a sufficient amount of vocabulary, the other is being able to understand the meaning of the content as a whole.

So how do we get down to less that 10%? Or positively stated, get over 90% understanding? They key is to take in input that is appropriate for your level, which is called comprehensible input. Comprehensible input is part of Input Hypothesis which was developed by linguist Stephen Krashen. Fortunately, there are many great resources available for listening and reading at every level.

To give a couple of examples, NHK News Web Easy is a great place for lower intermediate reading practice (and listening as well). You can read (or listen to) real and current news articles from Japan written in simplified Japanese. For pure listening practice, I highly recommend podcasts. One of my favorites is Nihongo Con Teppei.

Teppei has created several podcasts for both upper beginners and intermediate learners. His podcasts are in all Japanese and he speaks about a variety of everyday topics. Teppei is an ardent proponent of listening as the most effective way to learn a language. For more listening and reading resources, I would like to refer you once again to the resources I have written about here.

Both listening and reading are important for input. They take away body language and other visual clues which you would otherwise get from video or a live interaction. Without these clues you need to focus on just the language and its meaning. With listening, you are forced to process in real-time as the input comes in, and you can hear the way the language is pronounced and the rhythm at which it is spoken.

With reading you can take more time to analyze the input. If you do not understand something right away, you can re-read it. You can easily highlight and lookup unfamiliar words and grammar. Another benefit of reading, particularly for learning Japanese, is exposure to kanji. Many words are directly related to the kanji used to write them. I go into more detail about the importance of kanji below.  

Focusing mainly on input is especially good for those with introverted personalities and prefer this mode of study. I have written in detail about learning Japanese as an introvert here. But balancing the input with a certain amount of output, even at an earlier stage, is also important.

The Role of Output at Earlier Stages When Learning Japanese

Getting back to Steve Kaufmann’s advice on input vs. output, he mentions a couple reasons why some output is important even at earlier stages. In terms of speaking output, one reason is that it helps keep you motivated! I totally agree. Being able to say something in Japanese and be understood is an amazing feeling!

Another reason is that when you are speaking you come across things that you have trouble saying. The best thing you can do for yourself is to work with a private tutor that can help you produce the output you are struggling with in a correct and natural sounding manner. The best place to find your tutor is italki. I have written in detail about the benefits of using italki here.

In terms of writing output, it is important to write because this is where you will really pick up on where your structural problems are, and also because you have a record of where you struggled. Exposing your problem areas and getting feedback to correct them is critical. An amazing place to go to get feedback on your writing is LangCorrect. I have written in detail about the benefits of using LangCorrect here.

The Importance of Focusing on Kanji for Learning Japanese

The biggest thing that has hindered my ability to learn Japanese more quickly than I have has been my lack of focus on kanji. Early on in my studies, I made the poor decision to not actively study kanji. Through a lot of repeated looking up if words in dictionaries during my reading practice, I managed to get to a point where I recognized enough words pass N1 of the Japanese Language Proficiency Exam, but this was nowhere near enough.

Many words in Japanese are jukugo words, which are kanji compounds of often two, but could be more, kanji characters. When you encounter a jukugo word that you don’t know, but you do know the individual kanji and their onyomi readings, then you will likely be able to read and pronounce the word correctly and also predict it’s meaning.

You have probably been told that when encounter a new word that you can’t read in English, you should “sound it out”. With Japanese kanji, as alluded to above, you should “kanji it out”. Furthermore, you probably want to remember the new word as well. Well, if you already know the underlying kanji, it becomes a memory key to be able to remember the meaning of the word.

How do you learn kanji? There are a few ways, including rote memorization which although is painful can be effective. But the most enjoyable and effective way I have found to learn kanji is with mneumonics. In particular, I use Wanikani which is an amazing mnemonics-based system for learning individual kanji and associated vocabulary words.

Before we wrap up, you may be asking, can I learn Japanese without kanji? Can I learn Japanese without being able to read it? Can I at least just type when I write Japanese so that I do not have to handwrite kanji? These are fair questions as reading and writing in Japanese are daunting tasks. I write about the answers in detail here.

To bring it all together, what you need to focus on when learning Japanese is taking in a lot of input to increase your ability to understand it for meaning, and for written input in particular, you should take the effort to learn kanji as it is key enabler to your ability to read and a valuable tool for learning new words to build your vocabulary. Once you’ve built your level of understanding and vocabulary high enough, you can focus more on output and you will find yourself a more confident user of Japanese.

Colten Dumonceau

My goal is to provide information that will help you learn Japanese as quickly and effectively as possible. I have spent more than ten years learning Japanese, mostly self-taught, from absolute beginner to an advanced level. I believe its possible to go much faster than I did. Please let me share with you the best learning strategies I have uncovered.

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