Go it Alone: How to Learn Japanese on Your Own (for Intermediate Learners)

So you've been diligently working through your Japanese textbook series of choice. You've mastered hiragana and katakana and notched up quite a few kanji besides, not to mention all of those grammar points and phrases you can comfortably use. You’ve done a great job of making it this far, but now you're starting to struggle along. Language learning is a marathon, and your legs are getting tired.

Well, we’re here to give you a boost. There are many things that you can do by yourself at this level to refresh your study routine, start pushing your Japanese in new directions and really become an independent learner. So it’s time to get your second wind. Here are some ways that you can learn Japanese all on your own at the intermediate level.

Where are you going?

We don't want to start running in the wrong direction, so let's take a moment to stop and think before we set off again. Where are you going with your Japanese studies? Perhaps learning is its own reward, and you’re happy to just keep piling on the new phrases and vocabulary to become more and more proficient. Maybe you just want to understand your favourite Japanese drama better. If so, then that’s just fine. But if you find your motivation waning and you're wondering where all this study is leading, it might be time to reflect on your goals to chart a course going forward.

How does Japanese fit in with your career goals? Do you love listening, talking, helping people communicate and breaking down cultural barriers? Maybe you could aim to become an interpreter or a bilingual worker in a company. Do you like sitting quietly in a room by yourself, pondering the meaning of a word or phrase, reading between the lines and imagining the intent of a writer as they try to convey a message through text? How about aiming to become a translator? Perhaps you’d like to combine your skills in another field with your passion for the Japanese language by working for a Japanese company in Japan, in your own country, or remotely? Whatever your career or personal goals, the intermediate level is a good time to hit the pause button and think about what you want to use your Japanese for in the future, as this can inform choices about how to study and what materials to use.

Sing a song

If all that hard thinking about the future furrowed your brow, don’t forget that language learning should still be fun! Do you have an ear for music? Are you an auditory learner? Finding a few Japanese rock bands or pop groups that you like the sound of, getting hold of some song lyrics and singing along might be a fun way to shake up your study routine, practise your kanji reading and work on your singing voice all at the same time. I would suggest getting hold of a few friends for some karaoke, but this is a guide to learning Japanese on your own. Unless that is, you enjoy a bit of ヒトカラ (hitokara) - going to a karaoke box and singing by yourself!

Go casual

Textbooks are excellent when it comes to teaching you polite, formal Japanese and leading you gently by the hand from beginner to intermediate. As you go forward, you may find yourself in situations where you will have to understand more casual forms of Japanese, for example, when talking with friends, when being told something by superiors in a Japanese workplace or when watching your favourite TV drama or anime. For this reason, there comes a time when you can benefit from leaving the calm shelter of the textbook and venturing into the deeper waters of authentic materials.

One gentle introduction to casual language through Japanese manga comes in feline form with Doraemon, Japan’s lovable cat-like robot. Publisher Shogakukan has a series where the iconic character is used to teach history and geography to elementary school students, complete with skits that feature furigana on all the kanji for ease of reading.

Listen to easy news

Perhaps you've gained some confidence when it comes to understanding words and phrases as long as they are right there on the page, but being able to read something doesn't mean that you can immediately recognise or understand it when it’s spoken to you. So at some point, you're going to have to take away the training wheels of the written word and start listening to the authentic sounds of the Japanese language.

Now that we have the Internet, it's possible to access all manner of authentic listening materials to learn Japanese, for example, radio shows and podcasts, but it's important to find something that isn’t so difficult that it will leave you feeling overwhelmed and discouraged. One example of authentic recorded material that is suitable for intermediate learners is NHK Radio News, which offers a ゆっくり (slow) option. The speed is much slower than the regular news, and the high difficulty will keep you reviewing the words you've already learned while offering up plenty of new vocabulary to scribble down as you listen.

Another great resource by NHK is 手話ニュース (sign language news), which offers subtitled news videos with furigana on all the kanji, and judicious gaps in between sentences to allow for the sign language translation, giving you that bit of extra time to wrap your head around the news story at hand (no pun intended). The great thing about the news is (naturally) that it focuses on current events, so something that you hear in the Japanese news broadcast, you're likely to catch in the English media as well, helping you to fill in those gaps in understanding. The news also offers a steady stream of revision opportunities as the same stories are often followed up over the subsequent days and weeks.

Learn Japanese like an elementary school student

Perhaps you've had a go at listening to the news in Japanese, but you're finding the going a bit too tough. Well, guess what? Japanese people don't learn Japanese overnight, either! With this in mind, there are resources aimed at gradually building the reading comprehension, vocabulary and kanji reading ability of school-age children. One that I like is the 毎日小学生新聞 (Mainichi Shogakusei Shimbun), a newspaper for elementary school students.

There are a few great things about this resource. Like the sign language news, the furigana is generously written above all of the kanji so that you can confirm the reading of any characters that you haven’t learned - no more fruitless counting of kanji strokes in the hope of finding the reading in a kanji dictionary. Secondly, rather than using the condensed language and concise vocabulary that typically appears in real Japanese news bulletins, the words and phrases here are much more likely to be used in everyday spoken Japanese, which makes it a great way to build your vocabulary without making you sound like a newsreader.

Don't forget the flashcards

As you venture out of the comfortable safety of textbooks you're going to encounter a wealth of new words, and you’ll need a place to store them for future revision. This very site offers the means to record audio of the words and make some handy vocabulary lists. If you'd like to go paper-based, one thing that I would suggest is using a binder ring to stick the flashcards on your keyring, making them easy to find when you want to do some quick revision on the go. Whatever flashcards you use, you’d do well to employ spaced repetition (reviewing the words repeatedly with increasingly longer intervals in between) to etch those words into your long-term memory.

At this level, it might be tempting to write down every single new word that you encounter, but personally I often wait for a word to come up several times, or perhaps even allow a word to bother me before I look up the meaning and make a flashcard. If I find myself wondering what that word is and what it means, it seems to be a signal that my brain is ready to acquire it, and I'm therefore more likely to remember it. Everyone learns differently and benefits from different strategies, but I hope this advice works for you. And remember, missing or forgetting a word is not the end of the world - if it’s really useful, you’re bound to hear it again!

Summary

The intermediate level is a great time to branch out into some fresh and fun new ways to learn, using some authentic materials such as news, music and manga. Flashcards can help you to store and review all the new words that you find, but don’t forget to think about where you would like your Japanese studies to take you. After all, what could be more important in a marathon than knowing where the finish line is?

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