Learning Japanese (and other languages)

Learning another language can be a daunting task. According to Ethnologue, there are over 7000 languages in the world with 40% considered endangered.

There are many benefits for learning another language – people who speak more than one language even have different brains to their monolingual counterparts1,2. But, what’s more amazing is that these brain changes don’t care about when you learn a language, but how fluent you are!3,4 So it seems that people who have similar proficiencies in a langauge have similar types of brain activity, regardless of whether they learnt as children or as adults.

Here are some basic strategies I’ve used with a particular focus on Japanese, a language I’ve been learning for over a decade. では、皆さん、始めましょう!(Let’s get started!)

Top tips

  1. Use the language as much as you can
  2. Find available resources
  3. Have a goal or structure to motivate you and measure your progress
1. Use it or lose it

The more you practice your language, the more you’ll remember and reinforce those connections in your brain. Try and find ways to build it into your daily routine. Are there any activities where you can include Japanese? For example, listening to Japanese music, watching shows, playing video games in Japanese. I’d also recommend finding a language exchange buddy or someone you can write or speak to – languages are there to be shared.

Find something you enjoy and do it in your target language. At one point, I was singing Disney songs in Japanese at Karaoke.

The more you immerse yourself, the more you’ll learn.

Completely immerse yourself in the target language and you’ll naturally pick things up. So definitely if you have the chance, go and visit the country! Put your language skills to the ultimate test. Wander around, get lost (responsibly, please) and see what you can find.

2. Useful resources

Find a local cultural centre. France has the Alliance française (their main website is completely French so you’d best Google your local centre) and Japan has the Japanese foundation. This is an organisation started by the Japanese government to promote cultural exchange. There are 25 centres worldwide and if you’re lucky enough to live nearby, you can borrow a range of Japanese books and resources. They also have a website where you can find out more about local events and access free online Japanese lessons.

There are also many online resources like language learning websites, blogs or mobile apps.

For example, Japanese! is a smartphone app available on both iPhone and Android. It’s completely free but there’s an ad-free upgrade. The main features are that it’s a dictionary where you can search for kanji using radicals or handwriting them. You can create your own vocabulary lists or use pre-made lists with flashcards for JLPT and Kanji Kentei (漢字検定; a kanji proficiency test for native Japanese speakers, read more at tofugu.com).

There’s also Rikaikun, a free Chrome extension that gives you the reading and meaning of Japanese words you hover over in your browser. It’s useful for learning new vocabulary, kanji and their readings while you’re browsing Japanese sites.

Using Rikaikun on the Kanji Kentei website
3. Having a goal or structure

When learning anything, I think it’s useful to have a goal to guide and motivate you. This could be achieving a certain level in a standardised proficiency test (e.g. TOEIC or IELTS for English) or something more flexible. Maybe you want to be able to watch a show in the original language without any subtitles, understand the lyrics to your favourite song, or read books in their originally published language. Think about why you want to learn this language.

For me, I wanted to travel Japan by myself without worrying about getting lost and I had the JLPT (日本語能力試験) as a rough indicator of my Japanese abilities. This test is completely multiple choice with 3 sections on reading, vocabulary and grammar, and listening. Obviously, it’s not the be all and end all since the test only looks at your passive language skills and not the active ones like writing or speaking.

The inner completionist in me demands that I get my N1 (it’s about time…). I’d planned on doing it after I came back from Japan (makes sense cause that’s probably when I peaked haha). But life got in the way. Instead, in December 2022 I’ll take the test with a friend. Let’s see how we go…

Conclusion

Consider learning another language – it can be challenging but you will definitely reap the rewards. If not for the cool ability to talk to an entirely different group of people then do it for your brain!

  1. Find any opportunity to use the language and build it into your day.
  2. Look for resources (you can find many free ones online or in libraries and cultural centres).
  3. Think about why you want to learn this particular language and what do you hope to do with it.

頑張って!(Good luck!) and I’d love to hear how you go or if you have any tips as well.


References
  1. Buchweitz, A. and Prat, C., 2013. The bilingual brain: Flexibility and control in the human cortex. Physics of Life Reviews, 10(4), pp.428-443.
  2. Marian, V. and Shook, A., 2012. The Cognitive Benefits of Being Bilingual. [online] PubMed Central (PMC). Available at: <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3583091/&gt; [Accessed 31 July 2021].
  3. Abutalebi, J., Cappa, S. and Perani, D., 2001. The bilingual brain as revealed by functional neuroimaging. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 4(2), pp.179-190.
  4. Perani, D., Paulesu, E., Galles, N., Dupoux, E., Dehaene, S., Bettinardi, V., Cappa, S., Fazio, F. and Mehler, J., 1998. The bilingual brain. Proficiency and age of acquisition of the second language. Brain, 121(10), pp.1841-1852.

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