This is the story of how I became fluent in Japanese, including the ability to read novels, within a year.
Most people go about learning Japanese the wrong way, studying as Japanese elementary schoolers do. But this brute force method does not produce fluent speakers unless you have as many years to give to it.
I am convinced that anyone with a half-decent level of intelligence can become fluent inside of a year if you have 2-3 hours to give it each day using the method I am about to tell you about.
How I became fluent in Japanese in a year
I moved to Japan in September 2005. Each year I would tell myself that I didn’t need to study because I would be leaving within a year and so the time spent doing so would be a waste. This is a typical story and explains why so few foreigners ever start to make a real effort to gain proficiency. However, by the start of 2010, I decided that I had procrastinated long enough and decided to do something about it.
1. I memorized the ‘everyday use’ 2042 kanji characters
I spent January to March 2010 memorizing the Japanese characters using Heisig’s ‘story’ method. To do this in three months involved learning 20-25 per day. I knew would be hard, so I had friends bet against me achieving this to keep me committed. I used this website’s story-sharing flashcard system to organize my daily reviews.
This gave me the ability to recognize the characters and have one English language meaning associated with them. It did not teach me how to pronounce them in Japanese, but that would come in phase two.
2. I ‘stole’ 20 new words a day from TV shows
I like watching TV, so instead of trying to study from textbooks as I had tried and failed to do in the past, I chose a long-running detective TV drama to watch, put the Japanese subtitles on, and ‘stole’ 20 short (or partial) sentences containing new vocabulary that I felt would be useful.
If I liked the word but not the sentence I created my own. This taught me the Japanese pronunciation of the characters in a natural and fun way.
If you do not live in Japan, you can stream Japanese dramas online, but the simplest and most reliable way to do it nowadays is to use a VPN, set your location to Japan and then watch Japanese dramas on Netflix.
Cultural note: The ability to use polite language in Japanese shows sophistication and garners respect. If you can do that, the rest of the more casual forms follow. Ultimately, the only way to be accepted as an adult in Japanese society is to master it, so, noting how the one detective could run rings around people with his thorough logic, all while maintaining politeness, I decided to copy his mannerisms and language style. (The show is popular with older people, and taxi drivers fucking love it when I tell them that I learned Japanese from the TV show Aibou.) I do not recommend you try to learn from anime or manga if you are serious about learning Japanese to fluency. You stand a high chance of learning some really weird words and phrases that people never actually use, and you’ll sound like a child, at best.
3. I put the sentences into a memorization app called ‘Anki’ on my phone
On the front side of each flashcard, I had the sentence in kanji, and on the backside, I had the same kanji but with the phonetical spelling (furigana) above them.
I used it as a test of reading, so no English was used on the I cards. Thus, if I forgot the meaning of a word I was forced to look it up, but I used a Japanese dictionary first with an English one only as a last resort. (Hat tip to Khatzumoto of AJATT.com that idea.)
4. I did my daily reviews in the App and never missed a day
I watched nearly all of the eight seasons (available at that time, there are 14 now) in April to July and various other programs recorded off of TV, forcing myself to get 20 sentences each day before going to bed.
During each review, I would imagine using the short sentence in a real situation. I believe this is key. I did not miss a day so the reviews never piled up. Commit and stick to it no matter what.
5. I started reading novels of a famous author in a genre that I liked
In August went to a bookstore and asked the clerk what popular novels were currently out in the detective/murder mystery category and then asked who the most famous author was. I figured the most popular author probably wrote in a way that wouldn’t be too hard to understand (think Dan Brown vs. Shakespeare), and if I liked them, they would have more books I could read. I chose a Higashino Keigo novel.
It was hard and slow going at first, but by the end of the year, I was reading at half the speed that I can read English books and I enjoyed them. This was before digital books were mainstream, so looking up vocabulary took a long time. Now, with the ability to download TV on demand from Netflix and double-click on ebooks to look up vocabulary, things are a lot easier.
The daily time spent was 3-4 hours.
PS: Being in Japan so long has changed me into a stuffed-toy-loving idiot. You have been warned.
Just kidding, I’ve always loved stuffed toys. #Cookiethealpaca