As I’ve already mentioned, I spent 18 months learning Japanese hardcore (still learning it softcore now that I live in Japan), and in that time I learned a lot about both Japanese and just life in general. I have lot to throw at you, and it’s best to do it piecemeal.

Right, let’s give you an overview of the method I used to learn Japanese to fluency in 18 months. There’s no real magic to this way of learning, but it is effective, and you or anyone else could repeat it.

Here’s a visual overview of the phases.

I made this in MSPaint because I'm a masochist...

Phase 0: Belief

This one isn’t on the diagram :D. Start believing you can do it (you’re thinking “that’s stupid; Khatzumoto has been eating stale sushi again; how is this a phase?”, but you’d be amazed how many people set off on the noble journey of learning Japanese, but forget to first believe that they can reach their destination: what a dreadful way to start off!) But not you. You’re going to start believing that you can and will become fluent in Japanese.

Believing in yourself is essential, but by itself it obviously won’t get you anywhere. We know that ability is useless without motivation, but motivation is not a substitute for knowledge and knowledge is gained through daily action.

Phase 1: Get the equipment for daily action

(i) Immersion Environment

This is less a phase and more a continuing…thing. But it’s really crucial. It’s the center around which this “method” revolves. You are basically simulating being raised as a native speaker of Japanese.

(ii) SRS

Language learning involves lots of memorization, and if you want to memorize large quantities of information over a long time, then drop the paper flashcards, mate. You need an SRS: a spaced repetition system.

An SRS is a program that tests you on electronic flashcards (which you make), at a frequency that it determines is best for you. The goal is to make this frequency high enough that you don’t forget, but low enough that you don’t waste your time. So the system will show you the card as infrequently as possible. Sounds like common sense? It is, but it’s very powerful common sense. Truth be told, you could even manage it with paper cards, except that that would be a beastly, medieval amount of work to do. Trust me, I have tried managing paper flash cards in this way and it takes up too much time. Let the computer do it for you.

There are many SRS around and many are free. Let’s focus on the free ones. I wrote a web-based one called KhatzuMemo; it’s web-based only; it’s still under development, so it’s very short on features. Mnemosyne is offline only, no-frills but very reliable. Anki is deservedly the most popular choice out there right now; it works both online and offline and boasts a rich feature set and even supports plugins…with the speed of updates, it can be a bit unstable sometimes, but…I’m just finding fault out of jealousy. Finally, I used to use a commercial (not free) SRS called SuperMemo, it is perhaps the oldest in the field — just about every SRS I know of was inspired by SM — unfortunately, its user interface is buggy and complex.

Ultimately, it matters less which SRS you pick and more that you use one.

Phase 2: Remembering the Kanji

Learn at least 2046 general use kanji in English, using James Heisig’s seminal book, Remembering the Kanji (RTK), Part I. Part II is unnecessary. Part III is good; you can do it right after Part I or mix it in with later phases if you want.

The idea is that given a single English keyword, you learn to write out every general use kanji from memory. Don’t argue with me, just do it. You’ll thank me later. You input the stuff from the book into the SRS. If you think that’s tedious, then you’re right. But the data entry itself may help you remember better. If you want to avoid the typing, you can join the Remembering the Kanji Yahoo Group, people there have typed the stuff up for you. Alternatively, Reviewing the Kanji is a website where people learning kanji using Heisig’s book gather. I didn’t use it myself, but I hear great things about it.

Do not: pause in your kanji study. Do not: start learning Japanese grammar on the side before finishing kanji. Learn kanji first. If you’re going at like 25 kanji/day, then it will take 3 months. At 12 kanji/day, it will take 6 months. And that’s fine; if you’re a busy person with other commitments, then it’s going to take that much time. Stay the course. The sooner you start, the sooner you’ll be done. Start today, and you will thank me later.

Phase 3: Remembering the Kana

Learn the 46 hiragana and katakana respectively using Heisig’s Remembering the Kana. Why do this after kanji? No particular reason…you could do the kana first if you wanted, even though you won’t be using them much.

Phase 4: Sentences

Learn to read aloud 10,000 gramatically correct, native-like Japanese sentences/phrases (confession: I only learned ~7500 in the 18-month period, but you are better than me).

  • Do not: learn individual words. Learn sentences
  • Do not: translate sentences. Understand them instead.
  • Do not: learn grammar rules. Do get a feel for grammar, do read about grammar if you feel like it, but learning grammar rules in order to use a language is like learning quantum physics in order to drive a car. Sure, grammar rules are the rules of a language like quantum physics is the rules of the physical world. But it’s not practical. You shouldn’t be thinking of grammar rules as you try to speak any more than you should be crunching Schroedinger equations as you speed down the highway. Grammar rules are best kept to as demonstrative knowledge (“I can do it”) rather than declarative knowledge (“I can talk about it”). To put it Japanesely — 「身體で覺えろ!」・・・そうだ、正統字だよ・・・どうだ?文句あんのか?!

You’re not a computer compiler, evaluating expressions based on rules. You’re a human being, and humans use a different logic. When you speak your native language, you generally are mixing and matching entire sentences/phrases. That’s what you want to do in Japanese — learn sentences, because not only do they give you the grammar, but also vocabulary and usage.

There you go, it’s that simple. Read on to find out more about each of these phases.

  23 comments for “Overview

  1. Pedro Augusto
    August 24, 2011 at 18:51

    Something is weird here! how can u train your listening and speaking skills with this tools? SRS and books only make u memorize the kanjis and relate it with a meaning in english, but u dont listen to the sound of it

    • rigabamboo
      February 3, 2012 at 10:17

      That’s what the immersion environment is for.

  2. September 8, 2011 at 01:27

    This single article has basically transformed the way I learn Japanese — and I first read it over a year ago! 

    Now I’ve started creating my own website to help people in my area stay motivated and enjoy the process. Thanks for being so inspiring and sharing your ideas Khatz! 

    – J.P. from JapaneseOttawa.com 

  3. Marshall
    January 31, 2012 at 06:43

    Hey Kahtz, I’ve read quite a few of your entries now and I’m starting the learning process. So, basically what I do is immerse myself in Japanese, but in between watching/listening to things with Japanese dialogue and reading Japanese material, I read the book “Remembering the Kanji” and I associate each kanji character with an English word?

  4. May 28, 2012 at 09:00

    Hello , I’m really grateful to you for everything that you’ve shared with us ,but there’s one big problem I’m having here .My location doesn’t allow me to buy any of the books you mentioned, so I’m currently stuck and I’m only able to learn Hiragana and Katakana. As for remembering the Kanji , I still haven’t found an effective way other than those books you recommended , which I can’t buy .I wouldn’t mind buying them even if they were expensive , problem is , I can’t . :S So if you or anyone else would be awfully kind and inform me of another,”book-free” technique , I would be extra delighted !!

    • 名前
      May 28, 2012 at 14:18

      There are shared decks on anki that follow the order of RTK and some have stories in them. If you don’t like the stories of particular cards you can always change them.
      The one I personally used was the Lazy Kanji Mod V2 by Kendo. 
      The lazy book-free method. ^^  I’ll admit, it would probably be better if you came up with your own stories and made them as memorable as possible, and that I had to change a few of the stories to work for me, but I found it to be pretty decent overall.

      • May 29, 2012 at 06:37

        Thank you soo much !! You kind of saved my life ! 😀 I’ll try those methods right away 🙂

  5. Liam
    June 22, 2012 at 07:35

    This may come off strange, but when I discovered this site..man…I actually felt something in my chest. I guess it was excitement or maybe relief but damn, talk about mind blowing. Ive been attacking my studies in a very structured way and by studying the balls of the rules of Japanese, I’ve gotten pretty damn far, but I have the dry spells when I dont speak, and its not as crazy sexy cool as it once was and I guess i get rusty because the rules are just fine, but the actual usage gathers dust on the shelf. Now I think I think I;ve found what I need to get to the next level. I’m goin hard from now. Im going Jake Sulley style native…letting my body do the work and just f-ing around with it. I’ve evacuated the notion of impressing people and now Im just gonna get back to having fun. I guess the short of it is that Im thankful for the site becuase it legitamely saved my life as a l2 learner. The biggest of ups to Khatz.

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  7. Gustaf
    October 14, 2012 at 23:27

    “Do get a feel for grammar, do read about grammar if you feel like it, but learning grammar rules in order to use a language is like learning quantum physics in order to drive a car.”

    This might be the most sensible thing ever written about language learning in the history of the world. It should be painted on walls and broadcast from buses. And I say this as linguist and lover of grammar books.

  8. joe
    July 12, 2013 at 07:27

    How are you supposed to read books and stuff when you understand absolutely nothing

    • 俺の名前は
      June 25, 2018 at 00:32

      just read it.

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