This article originally appeared in the February 2024 issue of Connect.

Justin Andrew Dobbs (Ehime)

When it comes to getting groceries, reading the mail, or most other daily activities in Japan, you can generally get by with good ol’ Google-sensei. However, in the classroom, you can’t always rely on an app to do all the heavy-lifting. That’s why knowing even a little bit of the most common phrases/vocabulary can make a world of difference. From building better relationships with students and JTEs, to helping you adapt to school life, finding even a little time to study is essential for every ALT. So, in this article, we will focus on a few key ways you can best fit language learning into your busy schedule.

The Keys to the Kingdom

First and foremost, learn hiragana and katakana. If you haven’t already, I can’t stress enough how much of the language will instantly be unlocked by taking this first step. Since they are phonetic, you don’t have to worry about memorizing meaning, like with kanji. Instead, all you have to do is sound them out like you would with the alphabet and you’re all set. Not only can it be done in about two-four weeks, but they make up a lot of what is seen in the classroom. From nametags, vocab words, textbook material, and more, knowing these two writing systems gives you so much more agency to teach and help students.

Find Your Method

Now that you’ve completed what’s essentially the game tutorial of Japanese, the way you learn becomes much more customizable. Like a “choose your own adventure” story, there are certainly faster and slower ways to the end, but what’s most important is that it’s enjoyable and fits your life. For instance, I know an ALT who spent two years working through James Heisig’s Remembering the Kanji textbook series and can read nearly anything at school or elsewhere because of it. I, on the other hand, got burnt out after two months and ultimately changed course. If you’re like me and squirm at the thought of diving into another textbook, there are plenty of other easy ways to start learning.

The Podcast

Ah yes, the humble podcast. It might not seem like much, but regularly listening to podcasts in Japanese is one of the most versatile ways to learn. This is because you can turn one on while driving, out for a run, cooking, etc. The point is there is almost never a time outside of work where you can’t get some valuable listening practice.

Not only that, but the more you listen, the more you’ll be able to understand. You’ll also slowly build up an arsenal of useful phrases like “どういう意味” (What do you mean?) (1) and, “名前は何ですか” (What’s your name?) (2). It’s simple, easy to learn phrases like these that help you engage with students. My personal favorite is asking, “これは日本語で何と言いますか” (How do you say this in Japanese?) (3) when a student is studying vocabulary or drawing a picture. This reverses the rolls, allowing the students to teach you new words that are relevant to your class.

Which Podcasts?

While there are thousands to choose from, the hardest part is knowing which podcasts are at your level. Some of the best ones I’ve found for beginners are “Japanese with Shun”, “The Bite size Japanese Podcast”, and “あかね的日本語教育” (4). These tend to speak around the N5-N4 level and make use of really practical, everyday conversation. For mid to higher levels like the N3-N2 I’ve used “Miku Real Japanese” and “YUYUの日本語Podcast” (5). With less restriction on what they can say, both get into more entertaining topics and let you really challenge your listening ability. Plus, all of these I’ve mentioned have video versions for even more immersion.


Another really convenient way to study is YouTube. While you may think you’ll need to spend hours of your week at a language school to properly study, the reality is nearly everything you’ll need to know about Japanese and for your class is already online for free. Unlike podcasts, though, the video element is invaluable since you can see the words on screen, as well as the context behind them. Even just a video of someone walking down the street in Tokyo having a chat can be great for learning. This is especially helpful for the many onomatopoeia which often have a very visual image attached to their meanings.

These are perfect to pop on real quick while having a meal, riding the train, doing laundry, and more. The best part is many of the channels are very entertaining, which helps studying feel less like, well, studying. My personal favorite is a channel called “Game Gengo” which uses video games to teach Japanese. Currently, it has videos covering every single grammar point needed to pass the JLPT N5-N3, as well as most of the vocabulary. It even has recommendations for games to play in Japanese yourself, which is a whole other way to learn in your downtime. While this is just one example, there are hundreds of other language learning channels to fit your interests.


Let’s face it, we all love to kick back after a long day and relax with our favorite shows. There is nothing like spending an hour or two getting lost in a good story, right? However, that time actually presents a golden opportunity. Instead of watching things you already know, why not try finding a show or film in Japanese? I’m not just talking about anime either. Recently, there has been an explosion of high-quality productions that are just as fun to watch as they are to study with.

Once you find one you like, then you can start what’s called shadowing. This just means you repeat what the characters say on screen the best you can. You can begin with English subtitles, but as you get better you can switch to Japanese ones. If Japanese media isn’t your thing or you just want to watch your favorites, you still can. For instance, Netflix has tons of shows like Brooklyn Nine-Nine that can be watched all in Japanese with your preferred subtitles.

Doing so will help you remember those key everyday phrases which you can use in the classroom and to strengthen your speaking muscle memory. This “have your cake and eat it too” approach works so well since you’re not sacrificing your downtime, you’re just making better use of it. While it’s not quite as convenient as just throwing on a podcast, it might just become the most fun study method in your arsenal.

Being Relatable

Perhaps more importantly, though, is that you’ll be learning language your students actually use. Words like: kimoi (disgusting), sugoi (amazing), maji (seriously), are all common slang words I’ve become familiar with from casually listening to podcasts, videos, and shows. In a formal setting, you’d almost never need these, but in the classroom with excited kids, they can become the bread and butter of the conversation. That’s why getting to know the informal language used outside of textbooks can give you such an advantage at school.

The Main Point

Ultimately, the main benefit of using these study methods is that you’ll be learning Japanese that can be directly related back to your students, all in time you never thought you had. While serious sit-down study with things like WaniKani, RTK (Remembering the Kanji), or the Genki series should never be shunned, taking advantage of these little windows of opportunity throughout your day just might be your easiest path to better learning and teaching.

  1. どいういみ – doiu imi
  2. なまえはなんですか – namae wa nan desu ka
  3. これはにほんごでなんといいますか – kore wa nihongo de nan to iimasu ka
  4. あかねてきにほんごきょうしつ – akane teki nihongo kyoushitsu
  5. YUYUのにほんごPodcast – YUYU no nihongo Podcast

Justin Dobbs is a first-year JET in Ehime Prefecture. He is determined to pass the JLPT N2-N1 while making it fun and practical. On the weekends, you can usually find him cycling around the Shimanami Kaido or getting lost finding new trails.