According to official data from June 2020, there are currently 2.829.416 foreigners residing in Japan holding some kind of non-tourist visa. The majority of these foreigners are from China, South-Korea and Vietnam and the capital of Japan is home to more than 500.000 non-Japanese residents. Most of these expats are potential learners of the Japanese language, because we are all aware of the fact that Japan is much more enjoyable if you can speak 日本語. In addition to these quasi-locals, there are millions of Japan enthusiasts outside of the country and they all want to learn Japanese. But how do we do this in 2020 when our options to travel to the country are almost as limited as they were for Matthew Perry during the Sakoku period (鎖国時代)?
Learning Japanese in 2020
Technology keeps improving and new inventions are given birth almost on a daily basis. Currently there is no such knowledge that you would not be able to find on the Internet, including Japanese related materials. For some you have to pay but most of the educational content is for free. Let’s see some of the elements of learning Japanese in 2020 and let this short guide be an eye-opener for those who still believe that Japanese shall be learnt from Genki or Minna-no-nihongo on lengthy and boring Japanese lectures.
If you are from China or South-Korea you do not have to spend too much time on learning Kanji and practicing the stroke order, but Japanese grammar will still be a challenging task. The first steps for any learner usually encompass the Japanese writing system. It is out of the scope of the current article to tell you how to write Japanese hiragana and katakana, but as soon as you are kind of confident in your Japanese writing skills, you can use the free hiragana test on the site to build up your solid hiragana knowledge. With this hiragana test online you do not have to waste your A4 paper stockpile and you can do the test developed by me anytime you wish to do so. Test your hiragana skills effectively without paying a penny! The test on the site can serve as a hiragana test sheet because you can even print out the test page. If you refresh the page you will get a completely different combination of Japanese hiragana so that you can practice these letters in a different order.
Katakana is just a different set of characters in the Japanese language, therefore the learning process is identical to that of the hiragana list. Be sure to practice the stroke order and when you feel like you know them all, utilize the online katakana test on the site so that you never forget these beautiful characters!
Now that you are confident in your katakana and hiragana knowledge you are ready to move to the next level. You will find a staggering number of Chinese characters on this level. In Japanese these are called 漢字 or Kanji in English. The majority of the initially enthusiastic learners give up on this level, because they get overwhelmed by the complexity of the Japanese writing system. The only way to combat this frightening issue is to follow a certain ordering and for this I would recommend the official JLPT N5-N1 list of Kanji.
The JLPT list is supposed to be a logically structured classification of Japanese characters that can be followed by fellow Japanese learners. The first list, which is denoted as JLPT N5 consists of the least number of Kanji and the hardcore level at N1 contains so many Japanese characters that you will need a few month to go through the N1 list.
So beginners shall start from N5 and gradually proceed to N1. You can find a JLPT N5 reading practice on this site for free. The structure of the test is very similar to that of the hiragana and the katakana reading practice. You will find 10 Japanese words with their meaning in English and you will have to choose the correct reading of each word. At the bottom of the page there is a button to evaluate the test and with that you will be able to find out the number of correct answers. Currently, there are 7 N5 reading practice tests on the site and every time you visit a certain test page you will find the words in different order and this will prevent you from solving the test by simply memorizing the sequence of the words.
To my thinking, this online method is much more efficient than just simply going through the same handwritten list of Kanji all the time, mainly because by filling out the form you force your brain to think and this interactive way will definitely help you to memorize the Japanese writing system on a much deeper and indelible level of consciousness.
The online test to practice Japanese reading shall be done on a daily basis. The higher the frequency the better. Do it until you feel like you have grown sick of it! That’s the point when you can confidently say that you have mastered Japanese reading and writing.
If you can do most of the tests on the site with few to no mistakes you can decrease the frequency, but it never hurts to come back to the site from time to time to refresh your biological RAM.
I think this process should not take much longer than a few months if you are committed to it and practice every day. And now you are ready to go to the next step to start learning Japanese grammar.
I am still working on a comprehensive online material to aid your learning process, but you can already find some basic information on Japanese grammar. If you are interested in learning more, don’t forget to check out my article on “How to connect verbs in Japanese?”. I have written this post for those who already know some Japanese words, but they don’t know how to put the Japanese “AND” word between them. The main issue here is that there is no general-purpose “AND” word in Japanese so you will have to carefully read the article on the link I mentioned before if you want to uncover the secret of connecting verbs in Japanese.
There are several hundreds of expressions in Japanese to express certain grammatical structures and these vary with context. If you want to speak native-like flawless Japanese you will need to understand the differences between these forms and what’s more difficult is that you will have to withdraw this knowledge from the back of your mind when you are making a conversation in Japanese.
Just to tell you a simple example, するべき、しなければならない、する必要がある and しないとダメだ can all be translated into English as “must do”, but depending on the context and other factors you will have to choose one of them and this choice is not at all easy.
As a start, you can have a look at the た-form and the て-form of Japanese verbs by reading the following two articles:
Make sure you understand the classification of Japanese verbs, because this will be of extreme importance in the future when you want to master advanced grammatical structures in Japanese. You will have to allocate at least 2-3 years to Japanese grammar and you have not yet spoken a word of Japanese so in the meantime you can find ways to practice your spoken Japanese. There are several useful applications for that purpose, but I will try not to name them, otherwise this article would sound more like a marketing material.
Spoken Japanese can be improved not only by making conversations in Japanese, but also by listening to Japanese speech. If you know how to read and write Japanese characters you can utilize the video sharing platforms, such as YouTube to search for the content you are looking for, but this time not in English, but in Japanese.
If you are a devoted learner, in 4-5 years you will accumulate enough knowledge to understand Japanese news and enjoy Japanese TV programs. This will be a turning point, because from here your language skills will improve exponentially. If you are in Japan you will pick up words and expressions to fill your holes and you will gradually approach an almost native level Japanese knowledge. Until then, 頑張ってね〜