TL;DRSo, how am I learning Japanese? SLOWLY. Haha. 2x/week Skype classes via iTalki, language exchange meetups at least once a week and apps (Anki, HelloTalk, VoiceTra and Google Translate). Practice makes…super far from perfect, but any progress is still progress!

The Starting Line

I can’t believe it, but we’ve been in Japan for nearly FIVE months now. FIVE MONTHS! If I’m being completely honest, I didn’t start studying or taking any classes until July, though. The first few months were dedicated to finding an apartment, then we spent a week on a Cruise through Alaksa and another week back in Hawaii for work before coming back and feeling out of sorts. My first order of business upon our return was to take classes and figure out what my new normal would be like here.

To give you an idea of my starting point – I could get around (granted we’re in Tokyo where all the signage is in English) and order at restaurants. I could have some pretty simple conversations, like – the weather, or directions, but beyond that – it was all a guess. I took 2 years in high school and 1 semester in college – but in college, I started in 101 because I wanted the easy A. My understanding of particle usage and basic grammar has been mostly forgotten. I sort of just guess which particle sounds right. Hahaha. My vocab is also super tiny and mostly useless, even for everyday conversation.

Finding a Teacher

I started off by taking a once a week part time class (the full-time classes are all in the morning or middle of the day, so they didn’t work with my schedule) – but the class was too easy. There was no homework, tests or any motivation to study between classes. When it comes to learning Japanese, I have a history of being lazy and need that forced accountability to be productive. So I stopped those classes after the first four weeks and dove head first into finding an online tutor. I figure it’d save me a commute into central Tokyo, and I could be more flexible since I’d just need to be at home.

I spent a LOT of hours reading teacher bios on iTalki, watching their videos and trying to figure out how they run their classes. After a ton of research, I decided I needed trial classes and booked 6 of them in a week. I weeded out teachers that didn’t specifically mention being able to provide curriculum and homework / tests then spent 30 min – an hour with my top picks. The results were mixed. If ya’ll are interested, I can write up the individual teacher assessments (I have a bunch of notes) and link to their bios in italki. Lmk in the comments.

The teacher I decided to go with was awesome – super strict with pronunciation, provided a clear curriculum for where we’re headed and assessed me during our initial call to figure out what my current level was (he tested me, ack!). It’s been a few weeks and while I sometimes find myself getting annoyed when I’m tongue-tied trying to pronounce san-zen-en correctly, I’m still super happy with my choice.

How I’m Learning Japanese

So – here are the various channels that I’m using to learn Japanese. I’ll check in at the end of the year with an update (for sure this will change as time goes on).

  • iTalki (Classes / Video Chat) – I have a 1 hour class on Tuesdays and a 1.5 hour class on Fridays. My Teacher: https://www.italki.com/teacher/1040742. I also met a few people on iTalki that want to just video chat to practice, so since mid-August I’ve been meeting weekly for an hour or so with a language partner (we swap languages every 10 minutes).
  • Genki I and Minna No Nihongo (Textbooks) – These are the books recommended by both my teacher and basically everyone I’ve talked to. I actually completed Genki in High School and College (HA) but that was a good 15 years ago. My memory (and my previous studying habits) are pretty much the worst. Haha. I’m going through both textbooks during my classes with my iTalki Sensei.
  • HelloTalk (App) – You post “moments” which are just like status updates and people can hop on and correct you. My only concern is that varying levels of Japanese (similar to folks correcting English) could mean you might not always get corrected, correctly. Either way, for my level, it’s 1000% better than my guesswork. The only downside is that it sometimes feels like a dating app when only guys are messaging you. LOL. I think if you’re cool with ignoring direct messages (I only use it for moments, tbh) then you’ll be fine.
  • Watch Japanese TV Shows – (wait for it…) with JAPANESE subs on. Don’t cheat with the English subs! SUUUURE you’ll pick up a few words here and there, but if you want to level up, you need to put in the work. Japanese subs which mean a ton of time spent looking up translations. Anime also doesn’t really count, since the words that they use are typically not the way people speak in real life. Reality shows have been my go-to (Terrace House, Midnight Diner, etc). I have a Netflix Japan account, but I’m pretty sure Netflix US has a bunch!
  • Anki (App) – If you’ve ever tried to learn a language, you already know about this app. However, #protip – create your own decks. While using someone’s pre-loaded 2,000 core words deck SEEMS great, for me, I learn organically. So I input phrases that I’m learning in class or with friends, plus corrected sentences from HelloTalk and phrases from shows like Terrace House and Midnight Diner. While I might not hit on every “core” word in order, it’s been much easier for me to remember things like “niku jiken” (meat incident) LOL.
  • WaniKani (webapp – I’ve just recently started using this app to learn radicals and kanji. I’ll check back in at the end of the year for a real review.
  • Read NHK Easy News – I try to read at least 1 article a day. It’s also helpful in keeping tabs on what’s going on in Japan!
  • Meetups – My goal was once a week and I’ve been surprisingly consistent so far. These focus on blocks of time (15 minutes) spent alternating between speaking English and Japanese. It’s a good place to practice actually USING Japanese with real people, in person!

My Weekly Schedule

Here’s a pretty basic outline of what I’ve been doing every week. My weekends are Sunday/Monday, so I typically don’t schedule any daily study time on those days:

  • Tuesday – Saturday (90min/day):
    • 30 min writing practice
    • 10 min reading practice
    • 20 min grammar/notes review
    • 30 min reviewing Anki/WaniKani flashcards before bed
  • Tuesday (1 hour): iTalki Class
  • Thursday (1 hour): Skype with Language Exchange Partner
  • Friday (1.5 hours): iTalki Class
  • Sunday (2 hours): IRL Language Exchange Meetup

I’m currently struggling with finding structure beyond just switching between English and Japanese during my online language exchange sessions. If anyone has any suggestions, let me know in the comments. We usually end up just chatting about daily life and I stay within my comfort zone of vocab, which I feel may not be super productive.

Find Your Why

I think the most important thing to do before you start learning Japanese (or any language), is to figure out WHY you want to learn. Unless you’re in school every day, it’s tough to stay motivated with self-study! For me, even when I knew we were going to move here, I didn’t make the time to study much before we moved. Now that we’re here, the struggle is real. There’s a lot of motivation behind wanting to read the mail, the menu at restaurants and just being able to express myself to the people I meet.

Heck, even WITH these reasons, I sometimes find myself unmotivated! Especially when I spend a bunch of time studying and I don’t feel like I’m any better. It’s all relative though – and I just have to compare my level to that first meetup I went to last December when I swear I sat there and smile/nodded through most of the 15-minute Japanese sessions. These days, I can at least figure out the gist of what people are saying! Haha.

In any case – get to the heart of your motivation and burn that in your heart and soul – cause at the end of the day, it’s the small consistent actions that will lead to big changes over time!

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How I'm Learning Japanese
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How I'm Learning Japanese
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A breakdown of my plan for learning Japanese for the remainder of the year.
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