This article originally featured in the April 2021 issue of Connect.

by Shea Sakamoto (Chiba)

How do you make the most out of your Japanese language learning while in Japan as an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT)? Well, the quick answer is to study every day. With a basic textbook on hand, learning Japanese can seem like a straightforward concept, but, as you progress into your studies you will feel the need to use better learning tools and techniques.

When living in Japan, you are likely to get a lot of speaking and listening practice. However, when it comes to vocabulary-building, learning kanji, and memorizing grammar concepts, it is best practice to find ways to solidify what you’ve learned. Anyone who tells you you will get a hang of those things through “osmosis” either is a savant or has never seriously studied a foreign language before.

According to America’s Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center (DLI) and Foreign Service Institute (FSI), both of which train U.S. government employees with com-prehensive immersion classes, Japanese is the single most difficult major language on earth for English speakers. The FSI estimates 2,200 classroom hours of guided study to reach general professional proficiency. In contrast, Spanish would only take around 600 classroom hours to reach the same level.

Unless you are planning to live in Japan long term, one to five years can zoom by without you realizing. There will eventually come a time where immersion and having native speakers around you is no longer an option. If you want to take full advantage of this opportunity, here are a few ways to study smart.

Total Beginner Level

Cover the Basics
If you are someone like me who moved to Japan with zero Japanese skills, the first thing that you should do is learn kana. Knowing part of the writing system and phonetics is crucial. Japanese is a phonetic language and having a grasp of hiragana and katakana is exactly where you should start. Not only is this a good foundation for the language, but it is also very helpful to know how to properly pronounce the names of your students and colleagues, even if you can’t say a lot else.

Tofugu has a free and easy guide that makes use of mnemonics for hiragana and katakana. Alternatively, if you would like more of a gamified version of learning, Dr. Moku’s Mnemonics has both lite and paid apps. I remember using Dr. Moku years ago and was delighted to find that I memorized both hiragana and katakana in a day.

If you would like to practice your handwriting, Happy Lilac has free various printable hiragana and katakana worksheets.

Pick Your Foundation
Fortunately, there are various ways to learn Japanese. You can choose from websites, YouTube videos, online courses, textbooks, and language apps, all of which are excellent sources of basic information. Pick what you think suits your learning style and experiment with a few different ones to see what you like best.

Team Japanese has compiled an ultimate list of Japanese learning resources for 2021 that is worth checking out.

Turn Lessons into Study Materials
Every ALT experience is unique, and I had the chance to be the main teacher in my co-teaching team for four out of my five years with the job. This experience has forced me to learn what I taught in Japanese while I prepared for my lessons so that I could properly review my students and check for understanding. I could also better support the homeroom teachers I worked with by knowing exactly what I was teaching.

There was a year that I taught in junior high school and my Japanese Teachers of English (JTEs) only utilized me around 60% of the time. When I wasn’t teaching but had to be in class, I tried my best to decipher what the teachers were saying in Japanese and jotted them down as if I were also a student. Taking notes of certain phrases and keywords has helped bridge the communication gap with lesson planning and other work-related discussions with Japanese teachers (which makes for awesome speaking practice as well).

High-Beginner Level

Learn Kanji Early On
To read Japanese fluently, a student must be able to understand at least 2,000 kanji. There is also an official list called the jōyō kanji (常用漢字, meaning “regular-use kanji”) that contain 2,136 kanji that all Japanese children learn by the end of secondary school. If you are planning to take the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) exams, learning kanji as early as possible is a good idea. You can use the JLPT lists as your guide, starting with N5 and working your way up. My biggest regret is not learning kanji earlier because it feels inefficient having to learn words twice (first in romaji/hiragana then in kanji).

Additionally, the sooner you learn kanji, the earlier you’ll notice it all around you thanks to the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon. Also known as the Frequency Illusion, this experience is when something you recently learned suddenly appears “everywhere.” This occurs because increased awareness of something creates the illusion that it is appearing more often.

Implement a Spaced Repetition System (SRS)

Spaced repetition is a technique for efficient memorization, which uses a repeated review of content following a schedule determined by a spaced repetition algorithm to improve long-term retention that is often used with flashcards. Newly introduced and more difficult flashcards are shown more frequently, while it shows older and less difficult flashcards less frequently in order to exploit the psychological spacing effect.
Utilizing a spaced repetition system (SRS) is a good way to learn a lot of vocabulary efficiently. Because an SRS will adjust cards you review based on your performance, you develop a better memory. The go-to SRS system is Anki because it is free and there are hundreds of user-created decks available for use.

If you would rather not go through the hurdles of learning how to set-up Anki to best suit your learning, there are a few other options for pre-made decks such from other sites such as:

Consider Sentence Mining
Sentence Mining is the act of collecting sample sentences from your studies and putting them into your SRS. By studying words and sentences that come directly from your own content that you have created, you are focusing your study on what is most relevant to you.

If you search around the web, you would find that people usually recommend any native audio or text source for sentence mining. Since you will handpick which words and sentences to learn yourself, you will have a stronger connection to them.

So, how do you sentence mine?

  1. Find sentences that contain examples of the grammar or vocabulary concept you wish to learn.
  2. Input these sentences into an SRS program.
  3. Study until you understand all kanji, grammar and vocabulary as it’s used in the sentence.

Again, this all can be set up with Anki. There’s a great video on this from BritVsJapan. On my end, I have been doing this with Kitsun by using their Integrated Dictionaries feature. If I hear my colleagues say a term a lot that I am unfamiliar with, I look that up and put it on my study deck. I also utilize their Reading Assistance Tool to parse native text and instantly make flashcards.

Immerse Yourself
A study published by Georgetown University Medical Center in 2011 suggests immersion learning may be more effective than only learning with more traditional classroom methods because of how our brains process grammar. Being in an environment where you are constantly exposed to the language forces you to learn more.

Stevi, a Japanese language learner, achieved basic fluency in Japanese and passed the JLPT N1 in just over 18 months through immersion. He talks about it in this highly motivating YouTube interview.

Hopefully, these tips will give you some momentum as you begin your Japanese language learning journey. As long as you plan around your goals and set a daily habit, you will start seeing ways to seamlessly integrate your language learning routine into your daily life!


Cover: Unsplash


Shea is a licensed Japanese public elementary school teacher, M.Ed. in TESOL student, and a Japanese language learner from Los Angeles, California, U.S. In her free time, she likes to write about her teaching and language learning experiences on PenPenPenguin. You can follow her on Instagram