Japanese Study Methods: Recommendated Language School, Books, Apps


     Learning Japanese can be a challenge; for native English speakers, it is consistently ranked as one of the most difficult languages to pick up. Many assume that moving to Japan would ease this difficulty; however, while it’s true that, to some extent, immersion will help you pick up a new language, if you live in Tokyo, it’s quite easy to stagnate in your path to fluency. 

The sheer abundance of English speakers and options available in the city make it very easy to fall back on your native tongue; however, the determined learner can find ways to pick up the language in spite of these crutches; today, we’ll go through a few of these and explore possible starting points for various levels of fluency.

Language School

     For those living in Japan, attending a focused Japanese language school can be one of the most effective methods of learning. While they tend to be a bit pricey, they can provide a focused experience that is conducive to picking up the language; additionally, there are language schools with various approaches tailored to various types of student; for instance, those looking for a more “sink or swim” learning environment can find schools where students are required to speak Japanese at all times, regardless of level, forcing them to adapt on the fly.

There are also schools that are more relaxed, allowing the students to pick up the language at a more comfortable place, with bilingual teachers ready to answer questions in a student’s native tongue. Many schools offer different time slots for classes, as well, allowing for adaptability with one’s schedule; this can be handy for those already living and/or working in Japan. While perhaps not the answer that is most convenient, proper language schools are generally the most effective method of learning Japanese.

A List of Japanese Language Schools in Tokyo

Language Books

     Of course, many language school curriculums are based on specific language textbooks; two of the most common textbooks used are the Genki and Minna No Nihongo series of books. Genki includes English-language instructions and explanations, making it generally more beginner friendly.

Minna No Nihongo is entirely on Japanese, but is generally paired with audio and visual guides in school curriculums; if you can track down the companions, it can also be useful, though it’s less simple to learn from out-of-the-box.

Both of these can generally be found pretty easily in Japanese bookstores, or ordered online even more easily. There are many other language books, including JLPT study guides, available at bookstores in Tokyo, so it may be worthwhile to stop at your local one and browse for a bit.

Pop Culture

     Many people are most inspired to learn Japanese because of things like anime, manga, and video games, so it can be tempting to try to learn entirely through these mediums; however, while this is possible in theory, it is not generally the most advisable method, in practice. Characters in fiction generally do not speak the way real people do in most countries’ media, and if you learn solely from pop cultural sources, it can be difficult to distinguish what is natural Japanese and what is unnatural.

However, this is not to say that these things are useless for learning the language; when used as companions to more traditional methods of study, they can be quite handy for reading and listening practice. There are a few things to keep in mind, though: for beginners, manga, games, and anime can be a bit difficult. In general, it is better to underestimate your own capabilities when choosing media to practice with. 

Things aimed at younger viewers (elementary and middle school students) or all ages are generally the safest picks, especially for those less confident in their kanji-reading skills. With anime, it’s best to practice with more slice-of-life style shows, as they are less likely to introduce series-specific jargon terms, and if you’re able, putting them on with Japanese subtitles can be more conducive to learning than using English ones, provided you have a dictionary handy.

Group Study / Practical Experience

     As with anything, finding others with whom to study and practice is one of the most effective methods of retention. Apps like HelloTalk offer the ability to participate in mutual language exchange with native speakers, and many wards in Tokyo will have community events, if you’re looking to practice in a real life environment. Though it may be easier said than done, it can also be incredibly helpful to meet Japanese people.

As silly as it may sound, even dating applications like Tinder and Bumble can provide good experience, provided you find matches. Websites like meetup also generally have a user base in Tokyo, allowing you to find not only language exchange, but also opportunities to pressure hobbies. 

In general, if you can speak Japanese in a given situation, it will generally be worth your while to try to get through it that way. Similarly, if you can go through any kind of process in Japanese, it will also generally be worth it, though it is very important to note that matters of money may best be done in a language where there is no risk of misunderstanding. Additionally, it’s better to speak Japanese with people who definitely understand it; speaking Japanese with people who don’t know the language does no good for anyone, and speaking only amongst other learners can reinforce the bad habits of both parties if they aren’t careful.

Photo by Joseph Chan on Unsplash
     While far from complete, it’s my hope that this list provides you with at least a starting point for your language learning journey. Like most subjects, cheats and shortcuts can sound appealing, but it’s important not to be a lazy learner; trying to “cheat” at language study rarely ends well. For the best results, regular and serious study is always the best course of action. As previously stated, Japanese is not an easy language to learn; however, with due time, patience, and determination, it is more a matter of when, not if, you’ll be able to speak with competence. 

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