It’s always been a goal of mine to learn Japanese so I can watch anime while eating without missing anything connect more with Japanese media, which has had a huge influence on me throughout my life. Now that I’m finally out of school (kind of), I’ve decided to devote a good amount of time every day to studying Japanese.

I suppose the end goal is to understand both Korean and Japanese media. But since I already know Chinese I thought I’d start with Japanese since 漢字 (kanji) is essential for Japanese. I thought that coming from knowing some Chinese would help with that.

The Study Plan

As a “psychology” major in college, anything that’s rooted in well-researched learning theory and knowledge acquisition research always piques my interest. One of the premiere theories in language acquisition is this idea of comprehensible i+1 input which makes a lot of sense to me. There’s someone on YouTube called Matt vs Japan (MIA) who has put together a lot of videos going over the psychological theories that are super interesting if you’re into that kind of stuff. He also made a more detailed guide on his website called Mass Immersion Approach for studying new languages in general, which I’ve been mostly adhering to.

Kanji

I figured that kanji wouldn’t be too bad since I already have a pretty good base with Chinese. Turns out that assumption was correct in some cases but also screwed me over in other cases. I’m an American-Born Chinese American so my Chinese isn’t the greatest, so there’s plenty of words I didn’t know. And sometimes with the words I did know, the meaning between Chinese and Japanese are different so sometimes it would take a while to separate the two different meanings.

To actually study Kanji, I used a Anki flash card deck created by Matt on MIA for studying the 常用漢字 (Jōyō kanji) which are the “common use kanji.” There are ~2000 Jōyō kanji but the deck only contains ~1000 kanji and encourages the learner to use these as a base and pick up more kanji from immersion activities. The flash cards have kanji on the front and a “key word” plus other meanings on the back.

Unlike Chinese, Japanese kanji have multiple readings. (Okay some Chinese have multiple readings but it is the exception, not the rule). I did not learn any readings with the kanji since the specific readings are so context-dependent and is really much better learned along with vocabulary.

To help better memorize the kanji, I write the kanji down in a notebook. Three time for every new kanji that’s introduced, twice every subsequence time I see it, and three times again if I ever fail to recall the meaning. So on average that works out to writing each kanji about 20-30 times before “committing it to long term memory.”

After three months I’m currently about 2/3 of the way through this deck.

Vocabulary

To study vocabulary, I used an Anki deck that contains the JLPT N5 (a Japanese proficiency exam) vocab words. This deck presents the words in the i+1 format where each new flash card (usually) only contains one new vocab word or grammar concept.

The flash cards have just the Japanese on the front and a translation + audio transcription on the back. I will usually attempt to read the card out loud (making sure to get pronunciation correct), confirm that I understand it, and then flip it around. I also write down the entire sentence down in my notebook, just once though. So that comes out to writing each sentence roughly 5-7 times before “committing it to long term memory.”

What’s really interesting is binding pronunciation to kanji based on the meaning. When actually reading Japanese out loud, the process my brain seems to go through looks something like: read the kanji, understand the meaning, figure out the vocabulary word, remember the pronunciation of that vocabulary word. Since kanji reading changes based on what word it’s a part of, this process only happens after I’m able to parse out where words start and end. It feels really bizarre and I’m still getting used to it.

I’m studying less of these cards every day compared to kanji since I have to write a lot more per card, so right now I’m about halfway through the ~1200 vocabulary words.

Immersion

One thing that’s preached a lot in the language learning community is spending copious amounts of time in your target language, and MIA is literally named after that concept.

So I usually spend about 1 hour doing all of the flash card stuff, and then another hour doing “active immersion.” During this hour I will watch Japanese media with my undivided attention and use contextual information and anything I’ve retained from before to parse what’s happening.

I’ve been revisiting a lot of old favorites in terms of anime mostly. However I find that a lot of the shows that I have enjoyed are way too difficult to understand. I generally only pick up on about 2-5% and most of that are phrases that most weebs anime fans already know.

One thing I read was that Slice of Life shows and shows that generally fall under the category of “cute girls doing cute things” have much simpler and commonplace vocabulary. So while I’m not generally a huge fan of these types of shows (I do enjoy myself a good narrative), I decided to start giving these types of shows a try.

I’m watching K-On! right now. As of today, I can roughly understand 40% of what’s said in this show (shows just how basic the language is) and with context that comes out to just about understanding everything that’s happening.

Hibike! Euphonium is next on my list, a show very similar to K-On!. I’ve already watched Dumbbell Nan Kilo Moteru? which was processable but I think I’ll understand more if I watch it again. I’ve also watched Violet Evergarden which is an amazing show but also uses a lot of difficult vocabulary.

Outside of that hour of active, full attention, immersion I also spend as much of the rest of day I can in Japanese. I’ve downloaded a bunch of Japanese audio: anime, dramas, audiobooks, podcasts, etc. sync’d them to an iPod Shuffle and just left it play through earbuds 24/7. Whenever I’m not in a meeting (hello Coronavirus) for work, I’m listening to Japanese dialogue. Usually I’m not paying attention but I’ve found that as the days of studying go by, I am pulled back into the audio more often because I’m understanding what’s happening and it happens to be interesting.

I’d love to know more suggestions for easier to understand anime or other Japanese media, but for now I’ll just go through every moe show.

Also, although this isn’t very useful, I’ve been listening pretty much exclusively to Japanese music. I’m really glad I did since there’s a ton of amazing Japanese music out there that I would’ve never gotten to listen to otherwise. It’s extremely difficult, however, to follow lyrics.

What’s Next?

I’m hoping to finish the Kanji flashcards and JLPT N5 vocabulary flashcards soon and move on to sentence mining vocabulary from the shows I’m watching. Basically turn on Japanese subtitles for the shows I’m watching and make i+1 flashcards from those subtitles.

I still haven’t formally studied any grammar yet but I can already start to feel some of the basic grammar come naturally to me just by going through the vocab flashcards which are all in sentence form. I think before I get into sentence mining I should spend at least a little time getting a quick, formal understanding of Japanese grammar even though “instinctive” grammar is much more powerful.

So going forward it will probably still be a lot more of the same thing, though once the basic kanji and vocab are done I can start to transition to making cards myself from the content I’m immersing myself in.

Overall I’ve been pretty happy with the progress I’m making since I can actually understand some stuff in anime now. Just gotta keep grinding. And I’m happy to say that overall I’m still always looking forward to studying.