5 Fun Ways to Learn Japanese

Studying sucks. There’s no need to sugarcoat it. If you are reading this, then you have most likely read through your fair share of textbooks and whatnot. Perhaps if you are paying tuition to learn, the student debt and classroom environment will help push forward on your quest to be a kanji master, but if you are just winging it at home, your patience might wear thin over time. Having a few fun ways to learn Japanese will help you with those rough patches, where another day of reading Kanzen Master just might make you want to jump out the window and scream.

Personally, I can only learn something if I’m having a good time. It’s all psychological. Sometimes you really want to learn, but you just can’t stand the material. I find that picking hobbies that immerse yourself in the target language, as well as making friends with people who speak that language, will always trump another Thursday night textbook routine. Keep like-minded people in your circle of friends and study partners, and you’ll be well on your way to improving your Japanese language ability.

Volunteer & Make Friends

Studying doesn’t have to be all textbooks and flashcards. Not that those are bad. I tend to find flash cards and flash card apps very helpful, it’s just I lose my patience real quick, and you need to be able to do it over and over. Anyway, it’s always easier to have a go at it with your friends. What’s that? You don’t have anyone to study with? Well, take to the internet and make some friends. There’s a vast amount of people who want to study the same stuff as you do, so hop to it. I recommend checking out your local go-to spots first though.

Volunteering can be a very fulfilling experience, and a great way to make new friends. Depending on where you are situated, if you are motivated enough, you should be able to find a place where you can volunteer or join a group that is enthusiastic about learning language and culture. Some cities have a Japanese cultural center and plenty of schools have language exchange programs and other similar events. If you are already in Japan, just check out your city’s local gymnasium or city hall for notices about group events. You never know who you’ll meet and how your lives will change.

Read Manga & Online News

If you’re a fan of comics and Japanese pop culture, then you may have already consumed your fair amount of manga. I’m a fan of the horrors of Junji Ito myself. There’s no reason to limit your reading practice to old Japanese new articles. Think about what interests you and you’ll find new and more fun ways to learn Japanese. The amount of manga outside of Japan has really blown up lately, but when you come here, the amount available is insane. There is something for everyone, so I suggest you start now. Bilingual English/Japanese manga has also become a thing lately.

All you need to do is think about what you love to read and read it in Japanese. If your Japanese is extremely limited, you may need to limit yourself to certain manga aimed at a younger audience. Shonen Jump is marketed to kids and all of their kanji has furigana, so that’s always a good place to start. If you are more advanced, you’ll have a bigger selection to choose from. Also, it’s not just manga. Anything you go to read online, just switch to Japanese and google it. You have no limits and anything you read becomes practice.

Manga Pile
Ready to browse some manga? Just click it. [Photo by Michael Lemmone]

Watch Japanese Movies & TV

You already have Netflix or Hulu, but even if you don’t, YouTube is arguably better and free. There is a ton of Japanese media out there, and it’s up to you to consume it. You might be a huge movie buff, but you are doing yourself a disservice if you are limiting your movie intake to just western movies. Japanese TV makes for great listening practice. Real people having real conversations.

A lot of movies are coming out of Japan, and Netflix and Hulu are getting their fair amounts, and with Japanese subtitles, you are golden. Reading and listening practice right there. If you area in Japan, then you are probably already overloaded with Japanese media, but for those who aren’t, you can always try a VPN.

Manga and anime pretty much go hand in hand. The average anime starts out as manga and it’s really interesting to read one and then see it later gets the green light to get it’s own anime, TV drama, or movie. Drifting Net Cafe, a more obscure manga, was a favorite of mine. It eventually got a TV drama adaption, so always keep an eye out.

Play Video Games in Japanese

We all need an escape every once in a while, and of all the fun ways to learn Japanese, video games is definitely among the top few. Not every game you play today will be coming out of Japan like back in the day, but do yourself a solid and try to stick to at least one. Pick up Japanese game, whether it’s something modern or an old classic like Chrono Trigger, and set the language settings to Japanese.

If your Japanese is on the more advanced side, you should have no trouble getting through the story and improving your vocabulary on the way. For those still picking up the basics, but are comfortable with casual conversation, try a game with simple dialogue and less kanji intensive. Games aimed at children, like Pokemon, tend to hand an option for kana-only and kanji with furigana. It’s definitely worth a shot if you just plan on sitting around playing Nintendo all day anyway.

The Chrono Trigger DS remake has an option to switch languages. [Image by Square Enix]

Listen to Japanese Music & Karaoke

We all love ourselves some good tunes, so before you flip over to the next song, I suggest you get yourself acquainted with some music from Japan. At some point or another, we all discover out first song. Maybe you watched My Neighbor, Totoro as a child, or perhaps the soundtrack from one of your favorite JRPGs got stuck in your head. There are loads and loads to choose from. If you are into 80s, start with X-Japan. The first time I heard them was during the closing credits to one of the Saw films.

Karaoke might just be one of my favorite things that ever came out of Japan. If you are already in Japan though, you are aware of karaoke boxes, a private room for you and your friends to sing, or just sing alone, if that’s your thing. The best thing about this is you are nailing listening, reading, and speaking practice at the same time. Albeit you are really singing, but you get the idea.

You find the songs you really love, and you listen to them enough times the words start to stick. The next step is to find the lyrics and save them to your phone, PC, or print them out if you like. Make sure you have the furigana if you need it. With enough listening and reading practice, your karaoke events become a lot more fun. It’s not only just being able to ring the lyrics on the screen, but also sing them and keep up with the songs pace. The ultimate interactive learning experience, right there with your friends and a few drinks. Go give it a shot.

Do What Works For You

At the end of the day, you get out what you put in. Considering how Japanese is a level five language, and considered one of the most difficult to learn (the others being Korean, Mandarin, Cantonese, and Arabic), it will certainly take its toll on you some days. Foreigners in Japan with a linguistic disadvantage can really feel the pain, so take the steps now to work through it. There are loads of fun ways to learn Japanese, and those mentioned above are just a small handful. You need to figure out what works for you, and only then will you start seeing the results you want. There’s a method out there for everyone. Go out there and see what works for you.

[Cover Photo by Michael Lemmone]