5 Steps to Learn Japanese Anywhere in the World
Many dream of learning Japanese, but their journey often ends before it even begins thanks to one or more of these five limiting beliefs:
- “Japanese is the hardest language in the world.”
- “I’m too old to learn a language.”
- “I don’t have time to learn a language.”
- “I can’t afford to take Japanese classes.”
- “I can’t move to Japan.”
I provide a lengthy rebuttal to the first belief in my Fluent in 3 Months guest post Is Japanese hard? Why Japanese is easier than you think, and Benny slays the second in his post Why adults are better learners than kids (So NO, you’re not too old). For great tips on creating more time for language learning, see his post How to make time if you are too busy.
But what about the last two objections: the high cost of classes and the infeasibility of moving abroad for most people? If you don’t take Japanese classes, you will forever speak like Tarzan, right? And everyone knows that you can’t reach a high level of fluency unless you live where the language is spoken. Right?! Luckily, but both of these are widespread myths, not concrete facts. And if you let yourself believe them (as many would-be learners do), you will create a self-fulfilling prophecy and never reach fluency in Japanese.
Can language classes help? Sure. Is living in Japan advantageous? Of course. But in today’s internet-connected world, neither is a requirement for success. With a little creativity, discipline, and intelligent use of technology, you can reach conversational fluency in Japanese without ever setting foot in Nihon or spending a single yen on classes. Read on to see exactly how.
Before we get into the details of how to learn Japanese anywhere in the world, I want to first establish a few primary principles for success in independent language learning.
Fluency in Japanese Depends on Attitude, Not Aptitude or Latitude
I’ve interviewed nearly fifty of the world’s best language learners for my podcast The Language Mastery Show, including polyglots, linguists, missionaries, and more in an effort to understand how they manage to acquire multiple foreign languages while so many fail to learn even one.
Most non-polyglots assume that the answer is natural talent. And yes, there certainly are a small number of outlier intellects in the world (e.g. Daniel Tammet) who can go from zero to basic fluency in a matter of weeks. The truth, however, is that nearly all of the polyglots I’ve met and interviewed have brains and abilities just like you and me. The common denominator turns out to be attitude, not aptitude; psychology, not ability. Though their preferred methods differ, the hyper-successful language learners I’ve met all have one thing in common: they have a positive attitude and truly believe they can learn any language if they do enough of the right things for a long enough period of time.
As Benny puts it in his book Fluent in 3 Months: How Anyone at Any Age Can Learn to Speak Any Language from Anywhere in the World:
“…where you are isn’t what decides whether or not you’ll be successful. Attitude beats latitude (and longitude) every time. It’s more about creating an immersion environment, exposing yourself to native speakers, and doing everything you can in that language.”
Fluency Requires Only Two Basic Ingredients
So what are those “right” things that polyglots do? Simple: they get ample doses of the two basic ingredients of language acquisition: exposure and practice.
That’s it. Specific details vary from polyglot to polyglot, but the broad strokes are the same for everyone: getting all kinds of input (listening and reading) and a metric ass-ton of output (speaking and writing).
To paraphrase the Jewish philosopher Hillel the Elder, “the rest is commentary.”
But this is one case where the commentary matters. Simply knowing you need something and actually getting it are two very different things. Many language learners never get sufficient exposure and practice even after years of language study or even years spent living abroad:
- If you follow the language learning methods used in traditional schooling, it’s unlikely that you will ever get the quantity or quality of exposure and practice you need to reach fluency. This is why so many emerge from years of language study unable to communicate. But don’t blame yourself. The traditional academic approach―reading grammar rules, memorizing vocabulary lists, and taking tests―is simply not an effective way to learn languages for most people since the vast majority of time is spent learning about the target language instead of immersing learners in it.
- And even living in Japan won’t necessarily provide the exposure and practice you need to reach fluency, especially if you surround yourself with other English speakers and let Japanese-speaking friends or romantic partners do all the heavy linguistic lifting for you. I’ve met many expats who’ve lived in Japan for years (and some even decades!) who can’t order an ocha to save their life.
Though these facts may be hard to accept, deep down everyone knows they are true. The cold hard truth is that we get better at what we practice. Taking classes makes you better at . . . taking classes and passing exams. Having your English-speaking Japanese girlfriend or boyfriend order for you . . . helps them get better at English. If you want to learn how to understand and speak Japanese, then you have to actually listen and speak. If you want to learn how to read and write the language, you have to actually read and write. Instead of wasting your precious time, money, and energy on safe, peripheral activities that feel like learning, learn Japanese for real by directly practicing the skills you want to master.
The good news is that you can now immerse yourself in Japanese and practice all four language skills anywhere in the world from the comfort of your home, your office, your car, your devices, or even your bathroom! Instead of traveling to an expensive language class or hopping on an airplane, you simply need to design an immersion environment right where you are. This approach―which I call “Anywhere Immersion™”―is more fun, more convenient, more effective, more affordable, more natural, and far more personalized than the traditional classroom and textbook-based learning.
How to Create a Japanese “Anywhere Immersion” Environment
The basic goal of “Anywhere Immersion” is to flood yourself with opportunities to hear, read, speak, and write Japanese throughout your day. You want to make Japanese the default instead of having to constantly choose to seek it out or select materials in Japanese over those in your native language. Instead of relying on fickle willpower and motivation, you instead rely on the power of convenience and momentum.
As Khatzumoto of All Japanese All the Time puts it:
“Make sure that Japanese is visible and audible in your life. Perpetually, prominently, repeatedly, more-often-than-not, visible and audible. Ask yourself: ‘What am I seeing? What am I hearing?’”
Step 1: Create a Japanese Immersion Environment at Home
They say that home is where the heart is, but I say, home is where the best immersion is! Though you can immerse yourself in Japanese anywhere you happen to be, you have the most choice and control in your house, apartment, room, cave, secret lair, or wherever you happen to call “home.” Here are some ways to optimize your home environment for Japanese exposure and practice throughout your day:
- Include only Japanese content in your “watch next” queues: Whether you use Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, YouTube, DVDs, etc., make sure to include only Japanese videos (ビデオ), anime (アニメ), TV shows (テレビ番組), and movies (映画) in your queues. Remove any content in your native language to ensure that Japanese input is the default choice when you have a hankering to plop down on the couch to watch something.
- Place paper flashcards on your nightstand: This ensures that Japanese is the first thing you see in the morning and the last thing you see at night. Moreover, sandwiching sleep in between review sessions helps solidify memories and improve retention. Why paper you ask? While digital flashcards have their advantages (e.g. automatic spaced repetition), paper still has its place in the modern world: it’s faster, more tactile, eliminates potential digital distractions (e.g. clicking over to Instagram), and won’t blast your eyes with blue light (which can negatively affect your sleep if studying before bed). When possible, I recommend making your own flashcards based on authentic content you’ve read or listened to, including example sentences to model usage and collocations, and adding some simple drawings (stick figures are fine) to further increase comprehension and retention.
- Practice writing kana or kanji as you shower: Instead of spending your bathing time zoning out or scaring the cat with your singing, use the time to practice writing out the three Japanese scripts: hiragana (平仮名), katakana (片仮名), or kanji (漢字, “Chinese characters used in Japanese”) on the steamed up glass or wall. And if you do want to work out the golden pipes, make sure you’re singing in Japanese. My go-to tune for shower karaoke? Ue-wo muite arukou (上を向いて歩こう, “I Look Up As I Walk,” also known by the unfortunate and somewhat racist title of an earlier age, “Sukiyaki”).
- Place Japanese reading material in the bathroom: As the beloved children’s book says, “Everybody poops.” So we might as well capitalize on our time in the “throne room” and get some useful Japanese input while doing our business. Any Japanese text is fine, but I recommend manga (漫画, “Japanese comics”) since you can get through a few pages quickly in each go. Moreover, the visual context and use of furigana (振り仮名, “hiragana reading guides next to kanji) makes them easier to understand than many other forms of Japanese reading input. And hey, it’s more interesting than reading the back of a shampoo bottle…
- Label household objects in Japanese: Use sticky notes or removable labels to tag various objects around your house. Use Tuttle’s Japanese Picture Dictionary or the Japanese version of Google Images to find the Japanese terms you need. Depending on your level, you can write the words in romaji (ローマ字, “Romanized Japanese”), kana (i.e. hiragana or katakana), or kanji. Writing out the labels provides some useful writing practice as you create them, in addition to the subsequent reading practice you get each time you walk by the object. Just don’t put a Post-It on the cat; they don’t like things stuck to their fur nor do self-important felines like being pigeonholed with “labels.”
- Change the language on your devices: Changing the display language to Japanese on your computer, TV, Apple TV, Chromecast, etc. provides useful, contextual Japanese reading input each time you use the device. Likewise, changing the input language for Google Home, Alexa, Apple HomePod, etc. provides chances to practice speaking, too! See Step 4: Create an Immersion Environment on Your Devices below for step-by-step instructions.
Step 2: Create a Japanese Immersion Environment While Commuting
Most people spend more than 150 hours commuting to and from work each year (the equivalent of 19 workdays!). This doesn’t even include all the extra time we spend running errands, attending classes or sports practice, traveling to and from social engagements, etc. While cars, buses, trains, or bicycles might not be the ideal language learning environment, we might as well leverage all of these otherwise wasted hours acquiring Japanese. Here are a few suggestions depending on your mode of transportation:
- Car or bike: Since you will need to keep your eyes on the road and your hands on the wheel or handlebar, audio-based resources are your best option when commuting on two to four wheels (or one wheel for you unicycle riders out there). The car can actually be a great place to practice listening and speaking Japanese aloud (assuming you’re commuting alone or don’t mind annoying your fellow passengers). Same goes for riding a bike, though you may get some stares from passers-by. There are many great audio-based courses available today, but I recommend starting with one of the following three: 1) Michel Thomas, 2) Pimsleur, or Glossika.
- Bus or train: Since you will have your eyes and hands free, use your time on public transit to listen to a podcast such as JapanesePod101, read a manga like One Piece, text with native Japanese speakers using HelloTalk, or look up new words you encounter using a dictionary app like Nihongo or Japanese.
Step 3: Create a Japanese Immersion Environment at Work
Most people spend between 40 and 50 hours a week at work, so this is a big chunk of potential time for Japanese immersion if you play your cards right. But how can you possibly get Japanese exposure or practice if you don’t work in a Japanese speaking environment?
- Talk to a Japanese tutor online during your lunch break: Talking to a Japanese tutor a few times a week is the single most important Anywhere Immersion activity of all. If you only take action on one suggestion from this post, make it this one! Websites like iTalki allow you to work with Japanese language teachers and tutors no matter where you live. You can either do a free language exchange where you split the time between English and Japanese, or pay for a Japanese tutor for a ridiculously low amount of money given the quality and personal one-on-one attention you receive. I recommend scheduling your sessions during your lunch break so that they happen at the same time each week (meaning you are more likely to show up and make consistent progress).
- Take meeting notes in Japanese: Instead of wasting away hours of your day in pointless meetings, why not transform the time-suck into a useful chance to practice vocabulary and writing? Use whatever Japanese words and structures you know to write out meeting notes, ideas, follow-up tasks, etc. Don’t worry about writing every single word in Japanese or using perfect grammar; just write as much as you can in the language and then make a note of what words or structures you want to look up later or talk over with your tutor.
- Study flashcards or listen to a Japanese podcast during breaks: Skip the watercooler or coffee shop and instead work through a few flashcards in Tinycards or take a short walk as you listen to an episode of Nihongo con Teppei. While each session may not represent a big chunk of learning time, the little scraps can add up to a significant amount of time over weeks and months.
Step 4: Create a Japanese Immersion Environment on Your Devices
According to RescueTime, the average smartphone user spends 3.25 hours every day on their device, and the top 20% spend 4.5 hours! Holy shiitake mushrooms! This is a serious chunk of time! But instead of beating ourselves up about it, why not leverage the time for language learning with one simple tweak: changing our device display language to Japanese. This way, each time we unlock our phone, tablet, or laptop, we’re exposed to meaningful, contextual Japanese input. And assuming we’re are already familiar with how to navigate our devices, we can easily guess and internalize new words and phrases with minimal effort.
Here now are instructions for changing the display languages on the most popular operating systems to Japanese (and back to English if need be):
- iOS: To change the display language to Japanese on your iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch: Open Settings. > Tap General. > Tap Language & Region. > Tap on the language next to iPhone Language. > Select 日本語 (Japanese) from the list. > Tap Done and then Change to Japanese. > The screen will then turn black and display 言語を設定中 until the process completes. Your phone interface will now be in Japanese, as will any apps that support the language. To switch back to English: Open 設定. > Tap 一般. > Tap 言語と地域. > Tap on 日本語 to the right of iPhoneの使用言語. > Select English (英語) or your preferred language from the list. > Tap 完了 and then 英語に変更. > The screen will then turn black until the process completes.
- Android: The exact steps may differ slightly depending on what version of Android you’re using, but here are the basic instructions for changing the display language to Japanese on Android devices: Open Settings by swiping down from the top of the screen and tapping the gear icon. > Tap General Management. > Tap Language & Input and then Language. > Tap Add a Language. > Tap 日本語. > Tap Set as Default. Voila! Your Android is now in Japanese! To switch back: Open 設定. > Tap 一般管理. > Tap 言語とキーボード. > Tap 言語. > Drag English (or your preferred language) to the top of the list. > Tap 適用.
- macOS: To change the display language on macOS to Japanese: Click the Apple icon in the upper left corner of the screen and then select System Preferences from the dropdown list. > Click on Language & Region. > Click the + icon in the lower left below the list of currently installed languages. > Select 日本語 (Japanese) from the list of options and click Add. > Click Use Japanese on the dialogue window that pops up. > Restart your computer to make the changes take effect. Your entire operating system will now be in Japanese, as will native macOS apps like Pages, Keynote, Photos, and any third-party apps that support Japanese. To switch back to English: Click the Apple icon once more and select システム環境設定 from the dropdown list. > Click on 言語と地域. > Drag English (or your preferred language) to the top of the list. > Click the red circle in the upper left to close settings. Click on 今すぐ再起動 when the dialog box pops up to restart your computer.
- Windows: Here’s how to change the display language to Japanese on Windows (note that the exact steps may differ slightly depending on which version of Windows you’re running): Open Settings. > Click Time & Language. > Click Language. > Click Add a preferred language in the Preferred languages section. > Search for Japanese (日本語) and select it from the results. > Click Next and then check both the Set as my display language and Install language pack boxes. > Click Download and then Back once it’s finished. > Select Japanese (日本語) from the Windows display language menu.
Step 5: Face Your Fears & Overcome the Resistance
You now know a number of ways to immerse yourself in Japanese whether at home, at work, commuting to and fro, or using your devices. And as G.I. Joe taught us when we were kids, “Knowing is half the battle.” But what about the other half? Knowledge can be power, but it remains nothing but potential energy until acted upon. You have to take action to get results. Knowing in your head that talking to your tutor will help your Japanese is a far cry from actually jumping on Skype and talking with him or her. The problem is that we often fail to act because of fear and what author Steven Pressfield calls “The Resistance” in his book The War of Art, an evil force that sabotages our efforts and keeps us from reaching our loftiest goals:
“Resistance is not a peripheral opponent. Resistance arises from within. It is self-generated and self-perpetuated. Resistance is the enemy within.”
Fear and Resistance are especially common blocks to speaking in Japanese. Real-time, real-world communication can be messy and unpredictable. You don’t have the option to “pause” the conversation like you can watching anime or stop to look up an unknown word when you’re face to face with a living, breathing human. It’s far easier, safer, and more comfortable to stay in one’s little “input bubble” and study Japanese alone. I totally get it! And have been there myself. But the truth is that “easy,” “safe,” and “comfortable” are not adjectives that describe how the world’s best language learners acquire languages. Sure, they engineer their learning environments for maximum fun and convenience, but they also constantly push themselves outside their comfort zones to speak with native speakers, apply what they’re learning, and make (and learn from) mistakes. If you want to make your fluency dreams come true, you too must do the same.
So how can we overcome our fears and kick Resistance in the nether regions? Here are three methods I have found to be particularly effective:
- Name your fears: As the great sage philosopher Yoda once said, “Named must your fear be before banish it you can.” Before we can conquer our fears, we must first define what they are. We can’t fight something if we don’t even know what it is or where it lives.
So what scares you most about learning and practicing Japanese? We are all unique individuals, and what scares the kimono off me might not intimidate you in the slightest, and vice-versa. That said, there are some common language-related scenarios that induce anxiety in many people. Do any of these fears sound familiar? “I’m afraid of not understanding (or not being understood by) native speakers.” “I’m afraid of not being able to express my thoughts and feelings.” “I’m afraid of making mistakes, looking foolish, or committing a linguistic or cultural gaffe.” “I’m afraid of making a bad first impression or offending someone.” “I’m afraid of ordering the wrong food, getting on the wrong train or bus, etc.” “I’m afraid of wasting money or being swindled.” “I’m afraid of doing poorly on a placement test critical to one’s academic or professional career.” “I’m afraid of not landing a Japanese-related job or losing a business deal.” Whatever the fear, identify it clearly and write it down on paper. Miraculously, the simple act of writing down our fears often takes away much of their power. Our fears feed off of uncertainty, ambiguity, and nebulousness, so putting pen to paper can shine the light of certainty, clarity, and specificity, which are all toxic to fear. But even after writing them down, some fears will still remain sufficiently strong to block action and progress. For these, we need to proceed to the next step.
- Take baby steps: Instead of giant leaps, we should take “baby steps” like Bill Murray’s affable character Bob in What About Bob? “Baby step to the elevator. I'm in the elevator. AHHHHH!!!” “Baby step on the bus… Baby step on the bus…” “Baby step to 4 o’clock… Baby step to 4 o’clock…” The movie took the baby steps concept to the extreme for comedic effect, but this shouldn’t discount the life-changing power of incremental change.
Breaking our fears down into tiny, manageable chunks allows us to gradually build the confidence and competence we’ll need to face even greater fears. Each micro-exposure to fear and challenge makes us that much stronger, that much more antifragile. The key is to choose a small enough step that you can easily manage it today. If it’s too big of a jump, you will find an excuse to put it off. But if the step is just outside the ring of your current comfort zone, it will be easier to take action and build the confidence you’ll need to take a slightly bigger step tomorrow. And then an even bigger step the next day. Before you know it, you will have strengthened your change muscles to the point where you can easily “lift” extremely uncomfortable and unfamiliar experiences without breaking a sweat. While others are panicking, you will be calm, collected, and enjoying the moment.
- Build courage and competence: Once you’ve identified your fears and broken them down into manageable baby steps, the final step is building your confidence and competence through sufficient practice. Many people put off action until they feel confident enough to act, but this is actually ass-backward from how the universe works. As Tim Ferriss puts it, “You do not think your way into confidence. You act your way into confidence.” The hard truth is that no amount of thinking or studying will ever produce confidence. Somewhat paradoxically, we can only attain confidence after taking the very actions we wish we had the confidence to take in the first place. In other words, we get the courage to jump once we’ve already jumped! It’s also important to note that our fears never really go away. In fact, you may notice an interesting phenomenon each time you speak with a native speaker: you still feel the same fear as before, but it doesn’t both or control you as it did before. It no longer stops you from taking action. The bad news is that we can never escape fear, but the good news is that action makes us braver, empowering us to act and practice despite our fears.
So what steps are you going to take toward fluency in Japanese today? Don’t wait for the “perfect” time or conditions (they won’t come). Don’t wait until you feel “ready” to start communicating (few ever do). Just start putting one foot in front of the other and before you know it, you will have climbed Japanese mountain and reached your fluency goals. Happy trails!
Want more like this? Then check out Master Japanese. This epic guide is by far the most comprehensive book we've seen on learning Japanese. It's written by John Fotheringham, the author of this guest post. He’s a passionate, hard-core Japanese learner, and you can feel it in every page.