Japanese Tips

How to Master Any New Japanese Word, Phrase, or Structure in 5 Steps

Jul 18, 2023

Mastering Japanese vocabulary and grammar can be challenging, and the road up Japanese Mountain can be steep at times. But there is a clear, predictable path to follow. Once you have the right map, you just have to keep walking. Many learners waste years zigzagging all over the place, but here is a simple 5-step journey you can use to master any new Japanese words or structures you encounter and get fluent far faster.


Step 1: Immersion


The first step in acquiring new Japanese vocabulary and grammar is immersing yourself in the language. Fortunately, Japanese "immersion" no longer requires jumping on an airplane. Instead, you can get all of the exposure and practice you need online, may it be watching Japanese shows on Netflix, jamming to Japanese music on Spotify, reading Japanese blogs, etc.


You can choose to read and listen to whatever content you want. There are only two rules:


  1. The content needs to be interesting. If you find a given article or video boring, move onto something else that "sparks joy" (ときめく) as author KONDŌ Marie (近藤麻理恵) would say.
  2. The content needs to be (mostly) comprehensible. As linguist Stephen Krashen argues, "We learn when we understand." Choose content that is just slightly beyond your current level for optimal enjoyment and learning.


+ For tips and resources, see my post How to Immerse Yourself in Japanese Anywhere in the World


Step 2: Capture


While immersion is essential, it is not sufficient. You need to capture new words, phrases, particles, and structures for later review. There are some excellent tools out there to help you save and study content with ease:


  • Language Reactor: This amazing Chrome extension allows you to quickly save words and phrases you encounter within subtitles while watching videos on Netflix and YouTube. The extension also lets you display English and Japanese subtitles at the same time! And with a Pro account, you can instantly export saved words to the Anki spaced repetition app (more on this app below).
  • LingQ: This powerful language learning platform was created by the polyglot Steve Kaufmann, a septuagenarian who speaks 20 languages! The site and mobile app (iOS & Android) allow you to easily look up and save new words and phrases (what they call "LingQing") using content from their expansive library or from custom content you import from Netflix, YouTube, blogs, etc. using the LingQ Importer extension for Chrome, Firefox, or Safari.
  • Nihongo or Japanese dictionary apps: These two excellent dictionary apps allow you to quickly look up and save Japanese words, phrases, idioms, etc. I like that both apps allow you to bulk paste text and quickly look up and save words in-context. Both also offer SRS flash cards (see Step 3 below). The Nihongo app is available for iOS only, while the Japanese app has versions for iOS and Android.


Step 3: Repetition


Next up, you need to systematically review and repeat these new Japanese words, phrases, and structures until they are committed to long-term memory. You will get some repetition naturally through your Japanese immersion activities, but you will learn much faster if you use a "spaced repetition system" (or "SRS" for short).


SRS apps like Anki use algorithms to automatically schedule reviews based on how easily you recall the information. Less familiar or more difficult information will be shown sooner and more frequently until mastered. Easier, better known information will be pushed back.


+ For more on using Anki and spaced repetition, see my post 3 Ways to Supercharge Your Memory and Master New Japanese Words, Kanji, Grammar & Beyond.


Step 4: Application


Ample doses of repetition will make even the slipperiest Japanese words, phrases, and structures stick in your memory. But there is just one problem: this knowledge will remain fairly passive until you activate it. You will be able to recognize a given word when it's said or written, but you will likely still struggle to produce it in conversations.


So how do you activate your bank of passive Japanese knowledge? The answer is simple though certainly not easy: tons and tons of Japanese speaking and writing practice.


But wait... How in the heck are you supposed to practice speaking Japanese if you don't live in Japan? Who will you communicate with if there are no native speakers in your town, county, or state?


Fortunately, you can practice communicating with native Japanese speakers anywhere in the world (assuming you have a decent internet connection) using the following tools:


  • italki: As of writing, this online language tutoring site boasts 1,184 Japanese teachers! Many are 5-star certified Japanese language teachers who have taught thousands of lessons. Unlike traditional classes with dozens of students, you can get one-on-one tutoring focused completely on your needs.
  • HelloTalk: This free chat app allows you to practice Japanese via text messages, audio messages, and voice and video calls anywhere in the world. Best of all, the app's built-in translation, pronunciation, and transliteration tools help you get your message across when you're stuck.


Step 5: Feedback


Practicing with native Japanese speakers will do wonders for your Japanese fluency. It will help activate the stockpile of passive Japanese words and phrases you have learned through immersion and spaced repetition, and identify gaps in your vocabulary and grammar. And most of all, it can be fun! It reminds of you why you started learning Japanese in the first place.


But simply talking and typing is not enough. Many argue that "practice makes perfect," but the reality is that "practice makes permanent." If you don't fix your mistakes and get personalized feedback on your performance, you will create fossilized mistakes that are very difficult to undue later.


Instead, make sure to get feedback from native speakers early and often. Ask your italki tutor to point out any errors you make in pronunciation, word usage, grammar, verb endings, keigo (敬語), etc.


💡 Pro Tip: Ask your Japanese language tutors to use famed basketball coach John Wooden's "M+, M-, M+" approach to correct your mistakes (nicknamed a “Wooden”). During UCLA basketball practice, Coach Wooden would help correct player mistakes using a 3-process:


  1. He would modeled the correct way to perform a move or play.
  2. He would then model the incorrect move a player did.
  3. He would again model the correct behavior.


Researching studying his coaching approach labeled this sequence as M+, M-, M+. 


You can use the exact same approach in your Japanese language tutoring sessions. Instead of wasting lots of time going over a specific mistake, your tutor can simply model the correct utterance, repeat what you did wrong, and reinforce correct usage once more.


This way:


  • You get much more bang for your tutoring buck.
  • You maintain your momentum and motivation.
  • You are more likely to actually remember the corrections.
  • You will be better equipped to use the correct form next time.


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So there you have it: five steps to master any new Japanese word, phrase, or structure.


  1. Immerse yourself in interesting, comprehensible content.
  2. Capture new words, phrases, and structures for later study.
  3. Use a spaced repetition system to commit this content to memory.
  4. Apply and activate this knowledge by communicating with native speakers.
  5. Get personalized feedback on your performance and mistakes.