3 hidden tricks to radically improve your Japanese skills

- Paul Gaumer -

We recently had a chance to exchange with Tao Romera Martinez on his strategies to reach fluency in any language. Based on this conversation, we thought you might enjoy a few more tips to help you radically improve your Japanese level.

Mind tricks?

Learning Japanese is tough! You will first have to learn 1 ... no wait, 2 .... sorry ... 3 new alphabets. True, Japan uses romajis, the latin representation of the Japanese language. But romaji is not the norm and most of your daily interactions will involve a good dose of japanese characters, divided into Hiragana, Katakana and Kanji.

Then comes the grammar, the pronunciation and Keigo, the Japanese honorific speech with its thousand variants.

Even after a few months of learning, mastering the Japanese language can appear like a daunting task.

Fear not my dear padawan! If indeed it takes years to reach fluency level, several mind tricks can be applied to speed up the process.

Why mind tricks? Because your brain eventually is the main actor in this story. It needs to be fine tuned in order to process information in the most efficient way.

1) Be comfortable being uncomfortable

This is what conditions everything. Our species tends to favor safety and comfort, and why wouldn't we? This is what ensured our survival for centuries. But active learning comes from experience, and what's an experience if not exploring the unknown.

When you learn and practice a new language, you leave your comfort zone. You leave the certainty of being understood and communicating your ideas clearly. You enter a zone of confusion, misinterpretation and (highly) possible mistakes. You might even curse involuntarily and be laughed at when trying to express serious thoughts. And this is fine!

This is fine because these mistakes are parts of the many steps required in your improvement process. You are walking the tough path of explorers, towards your own language adventure. And no one else could walk it for you.

Accepting the fact that you won't master the Japanese language after only a few weeks of studies goes a long way in breaking down the mental barriers that might appear later on.

blog

2) Immerse yourself in Japanese content

Immersion can be seen as difficult if you don't live in Japan or don't have direct access to Japanese speakers. But I promise I've met new comers who spoke much better Japanese than expatriates who have been living in Tokyo for many years.

Again, it all comes down to what you feed your brain with.

If you don't understand Japanese yet, what is the main benefit of consuming Japanese content from Day 1?

To reset your brain and format it to recognize the patterns of your new language.

Emotions and intentions are conveyed by words but also largely by intonations, accents and rhythms. Your ears and brain need to get used to them and be able to recognize these patterns to later adjust your comprehension.

The idea is to consume Japanese audio content like you would listen to music.

Here are a few resources you could use:

🎧 Listen to the radio

Leave the radio as a background noise. You'll end up discovering new artists and get familiar with regular announcements.

Popular online radios

Other Japanese radios

πŸ—ž Listen to the news

The main benefit of listening to the news is the clear speaking style of the announcers and picking up reusable terms on political, economical or society topics.

TV Japan Live

The NHK has a great weekly program, broadcasting news in a beginner friendly version.

NHK Learn Japanese

🎡 Listen to Japanese music

I would recommend listening to music with easily understandable lyrics.

A personal favorite is Enka, a traditional style of music often singing love tales. Yes, this is what Japanese grandmas listen to, but singers usually articulate their words clearly and rhythmes can be slow enough to pick up their content. Super bonus: they often have Japanese subtitles, karaoke style (again, adapting to their audience)

Youtube Enka Playlist

🍿 Watch Japanese movies

A word on Japanese movies: anime are great for fun, probably less for learning purposes. Sorry to break the sad news...

Again, it all depends on what you are watching. But most popular anime will use slang terms, weird accents and characters will tend to shout quite a lot. Same goes for Yakuza movies.

My pick: Japanese documentaries. You can find plenty on Youtube or even on Netflix. They display real people discussing real topics in daily Japanese terms.

I recently enjoyed the following one on Netflix: Little Miss Sumo

3) Practice Speaking & Listening first

This comes down to personal preferences and some Japanese teachers would certainly argue the opposite.

Visual learners could feel comfortable studying Japanese characters straight away, but Kanji remain the main blocking point for many beginners.

Motivation plays a key role in the learning process and learning a language is usually motivated by the desire to communicate with others. It is much easier to quickly be able to engage in a basic conversation, which will then motivate you to learn even more.

The biggest advantage: listening skills and speaking skills feed each others. It progressively becomes easier to consume Japanese content, surrounding yourself with familiar sounds and intonations (see above).

A great trick shared by Tao is to use one-on-one language exchange sessions with a Japanese person, with one key principle: divide the session in two parts and strictly stick to a language for each part. This detail is where language exchange sessions usually fail, as we tend to naturally switch back to a comfortable communication ground.

But keep in mind that progress comes from uncomfortable situations. In Tao's terms: "For 10 minutes or for 15 minutes, we will only speak in Japanese. Even if I don't understand a word of what you're saying. No matter what, even if the world starts crumbling down, it doesn't matter. You only speak to me in Japanese!".

Yes, your brain might complain during the first few sessions. You might end up starring ackwardly at each others for a few minutes. But again, patterns will emerge. By making it a rule and sticking to it, you'll eventually make faster progress.

How to find Japanese speakers to exchange with?

Check your local communities and universities, they might have exchange students eager to discuss with you.

If not, some online platforms could help you connect with Japanese locals, like Global Penfriends (I haven't used it)

Conclusion

These are the 3 mind tricks I wanted to share with you. Many others could be shared but these should already help you get started the right way.

As you might have understood, I am a big proponent of "brain overload" when facing a new topic offering a steep learning curve. This is a technique I learned attending a coding bootcamp, with 0 programming experience. I've used it with numerous students and it has since helped me dive into brand new fields, including launching this website and podcast.

You can do it!

If you have other favorite tricks, drop me a message, I'd love to hear them!