Japanese Learning Loop

No matter what approach you are looking at, to achieve fluency in a language the most important thing is being able to achieve learning independence. (Unlocking Japanese: Tricks#) In other words, being able to sustain your own studies and maintain a tangible process of consistent self-improvement feedback loop.

The basis of this language acquisition loop, I argue, are the same for any language but the specifics may differ.

This is my approach to Japanese learning, I hope it can be useful to you as it has been to me.

Diagram

Japanese Learning Loop

NOTE: The image has clickable links embedded. Click to expand the image to be able to click on them.

While the diagram looks very simplistic, this is done purposefully.

Every person has different preferences when approaching language studies and, while we all share the same baseline, we may prefer one way or the other.

At the end of the day, you should consider this loop as a loose guideline on how to orient yourself in the landscape of Japanese learning, and learn to take advantage of the various Japanese Learning Resources# at your disposal.

Step 0: Foundation

Do not skip this step. It’s really simple, just learn hiragana (ひらがな) and katakana (カタカナ).

You really really really NEED this.

Step 1: Basics

The three areas of Grammar, Vocabulary, and Listening should be done more or less at the same time, they are independent and somewhat parallel, they will all equally help you unlock the path to the next stage, when you are ready.

Grammar

You want be able to recognize word boundaries, which words are particles, how to conjugate basic verbs, how to express the very basics of ideas, etc.

There’s many resources to be consulted at this step. The most common one is to read Tae Kim’s Grammar Guide, or if you want a more structured approach you can try a textbook like Genki or Japanese for Busy People.

NOTE: I also strongly recommend giving a quick watch to these two videos for a basic overview on verb conjugation. They are very good and straight to the point, worth a look for sure.

What is important to remember here is that you are the one to decide how far you want to take this structured approach. However, don’t linger too long on this, the best way to learn grammar is to actually consume native material until your brain gets the intuition for it. This is only a stepping stone to get you there.

Optional: Bunpro

Bunpro is a great helper for grammar retention. Consider giving Fitting Bunpro in your study routine a read as my personal recommendation on how to use it well. As you are still in the Step 1 of the Loop, what you want out of it is to leverage your textbook so you can get used to daily bunpro reviews in preparation for the next step, which requires more independence. Don’t be afraid to add one or more textbooks to your study paths!

Vocabulary

Knowing what words mean and how they are supposed to look is as important as knowing when/how to use them.

I won’t explicitly tell you to skip the next optional step, because it seems beneficial for some people, however I did not do it myself and I’m not very enthusiastic about it, but I’m mentioning this anyway in order to not deprive you of anything that might help you. Just realize that it’s not mandatory and if you aren’t into it, you can skip it without issues.

Optional: RTK

Remembering The Kanji is a specific method of kanji(Japanese writing systems) study so that you can more easily become familiar with the shapes and loose meanings of each and every glyph. This is to allegedely make it easier for you to later learn the actual words as you encounter them in the actual language.

This does not teach you any words, it merely teaches you the overall ideas and meanings of the symbols.

Anki Core Deck

The purpose of a starting core deck for Anki is to get you started with basic words that you absolutely need to be able to start reading native material on your own. Later you will be building your own deck as you learn new words, so don’t get too attached to this one, it is but a starting point to get your feet wet in useful Japanese.

There’s various starting decks for beginners, the most commonly recommended is the so-called core6k deck.

Don’t get too hung up on finishing the whole deck (it’s going to take you a very long time), but adding a good 500-1000 words to your toolbelt will take you a very long way and help you immensely for the next step.

Alternatively, if you want a deck that gets you up-to-speed faster, I recommend the VNCore1250 deck. It contains the ~1200 most frequent words in Visual Novels. This also carries over really well for anime, manga, and videogames too.

One tip for Anki in general is to change the default settings, because they are horrible, so make sure to read up on that (Better Anki Settings) so you don’t suffer from burnout.

Alternatively, if you want to try something that requires less tinkering and is a bit more user friendly, although absolutely optional, you can look at…

Optional: Wanikani

I have never used it myself, and I don’t have any strong feelings about it either way, but Wanikani seems to be a decent paid tool to help with both kanji and vocabulary. It can work as paid alternative to both RTK and a core Anki deck.

Listening

There is no actual step for listening. It’s always good to get acquainted with the phonetics and sound of the language, the pacing of sentences, the modulation or pitch accents of words, etc. However at this stage you can do mostly only passive listening, as you lack both the grammar and vocabulary to immerse in anything yet. If you want, listen to Japanese music, leave some podcasts in the background… it won’t hurt, but don’t expect to get much out of it.

Step 2: The Loop

The Loop consists of one preparatory step, and three core steps to follow.

Sentence Mining Deck (preparation)

There’s an overall guide on sentence mining and sentence cards on the MIA website.

The idea is that you read native material, find stuff that you don’t know, and add it to this deck so you can review it later.

Once you have set up your mining deck and got the workflow down, you can begin looping.

Discovery Phase

Following Krashen’s Input Hypothesis, we acquire language as we are exposed to comprehensible input.

Defining comprehensible input, is quite tricky, but in layman’s terms it simply means don’t bite more than you can chew. You might be tempted to jump into complex material that interests you, but you are not going to have a good time if you cannot find a good balance between consumption and dictionary lookups.

Ideally you want to find material that gives you at least 90% comprehension. Having to look up one word or grammar point for every sentence is a healthy balance in my opinion. I’d recommend staying away from material specifically targeted to language learners (fake conversations, textbook readings, etc). Aim for kid’s material if you’re a beginner, instead.

For possible starting points, refer to Beginner Japanese Immersion Material.

NOTE: As far as I believe that biting more than you can chew can be detrimental to language acquisition, it needs to be said that hard stuff that you enjoy is more fun than easy stuff you do not enjoy. And if you are not having fun, you’ll have a much harder time acquiring the language. Only you know what you find enjoyable, don’t let anyone else tell you otherwise.

Consumption Phase

Once you have found what you want to consume, simply start reading.

I say reading here but there’s multiple ways to consume native content. Do not skip on listening too. There’s all kind of native sources, both passive and active (as listed on the diagram). Do a little bit every day, don’t think of it as studying or a chore that you need to do, simply just do stuff you enjoy but do it in Japanese. Consider giving this video a watch to get an idea of what I mean.

In this step it is fundamental that you become aware that Japanese is a real language. It’s not just something you study in school and drill exercises on. You need to make it a part of your life, and enjoy doing so.

Improvement Phase

Whenever you find some word or grammar you do not understand, look it up using the approaches explained in Unlocking Japanese: Tricks#.

If you are using Bunpro, follow the advice in Fitting Bunpro in your study routine for grammar mining as well. At this step, you are in the Loop for Bunpro too, so don’t neglect it.

As you see fit, add new words or sentences to your sentence mining deck, and repeat. When you run out of material, go back to the Discovery Phase and find something new to consume.

Step 3: Fluency

As you see from the diagram, there’s really no state that can objectively lead you to actual fluency. This is because fluency means different things for different people and its objective definition is not something you should be concerned about. Just keep repeating The Loop and never stop.