7 Essential Principles to Get Fluent in Japanese
“As to methods there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson
Here are 7 essential principles you can follow to get fluent in Japanese (or any other target language for that matter). You can play with lots of different methods to find what works best for you, but violate these universal principles at your own peril!
1) You can immerse yourself right where you are.
Have an internet connection? Great! You have everything you need to immerse yourself in Japanese, Mandarin, etc. right at home. (Or in the car. Or on the bus. Or at the gym. Or walking to the store.) Use Japanese TV series, anime, movies, podcasts, blogs, social media, news, etc. to get meaningful input, and then use a tutoring site such as italki to practice communicating with native speakers.
If you want step-by-step tips for setting up a Japanese immersion environment right at home, check out my detailed how-to guide Master Japanese: How to Learn Japanese Anywhere in the World.
2) Maximize fun (if it ain’t fun, it won’t get done).
Nobody has to force us to play Candy Crush, binge House of Cards, or shovel Cherry Garcia ice cream into our face hole. We do such things willingly (and often without thinking) because they are inherently fun and addictive.
If you find yourself needing to “force” time with your target language, chances are that you have not yet found the right materials or methods. Ditch the boring textbooks and traditional courses and try out some of the following fun, immersive methods instead:
- Watch some foreign language tutorial on YouTube showing how to learn a skill you’re passionate about. (Pro Tip: Change the country setting for YouTube first).
- Get sucked into a foreign series on Netflix. (Pro Tip: Use the Language Reactor extension for Chrome to help increase comprehension and mine useful vocabulary.
- Play a video game that has foreign language audio or subs. (Pro Tip: Browse games available from Steam and narrow by language in the sidebar).
- Take an in-person or online class taught in that language.
Spending enough time with a language to reach fluency will of course require discipline, sacrifice, and sometimes doing things that aren’t exactly as fun as ice cream. But if you are doing things right, it should be an enjoyable, enriching experience most of the time.
3) Stop calling languages, words, or grammar patterns “difficult.”
When describing a language like Japanese or Mandarin Chinese, use the word “different” instead of “difficult.” The former word leads to curiosity and progress, while the latter breeds struggle, resistance, and resentment.
When it comes to words or structures, use the word “new” or “unfamiliar.” The vocabulary or syntax in question isn’t inherently “hard,” you just haven’t heard, said, read, or written it enough times yet to make it familiar.
This may be mere semantics, but how we think about a language affects our ability to learn it. As the hyperpolyglot Steve Kaufmann puts it:
“In language learning, it is attitude, not aptitude, that determines success.”
4) Learn directly, in context.
Practice the language skills you want to improve as directly as possible.
- Doing lots of reading, for example, will get you better at reading, not speaking.
- Cramming for tests prepares you for tests, not communication.
- There is little transfer between conscious language study and the unconscious competence needed to understand and participate in full-speed, real-life conversations.
To get better at communicating with native speakers, you have to actually practice speaking with them. A lot. It can be messy, uncomfortable, embarrassing, and ambiguous, but there is no other way.
Which leads us to the next principle…
5) Face your fears and realize you can’t skip “the suck.”
Though there is a lot we can do to maximize fun and joy in language learning, all learning adventures inevitably entail fear, discomfort, and growing pains. You can’t build up your muscles without first tearing the muscle fibers through lifting heavy things, and you can’t get fluent in a language without first going through occasional periods of uncertainty, ambiguity, embarrassment, frustration, and perceived plateaus.
For most learners, speaking is the most intimidating language skill since it happens in real time (you can’t “pause” a person like you can a video, and you can’t “hover” over the unknown word they said to look it up in your browser. You find yourself instantly transformed from an articulate adult to a babbling infant. But as I said above, we get better at what we practice, and the only way to improve your speaking skills, is to practice them directly.
I know it’s scary. But I know you can do it. The 50+ polyglots and hyperpolyglots I’ve interviewed on The Language Mastery Show endured the same discomfort and faced the same fears. They eventually got good at their languages not from being rare geniuses or outlier intellects, but by choosing growth over comfort.
6) Optimize memory with mnemonics, stories, and spaced repetition
Many people write off the possibility of language learning since they believe they “have a bad memory,” when the truth is that their memory is just fine; it’s their method that needs work.
When a person’s only exposure to language learning is cramming for tests or trying to remember random lists of words through tedious rote memorization, no wonder they assume their memory sucks.
But very few people can actually retain new information this way. In fact, memory enhancing techniques are another not-so-secret secret of most polyglots. Instead of trying to force words, phrases, Chinese characters, etc. into their heads through tedious rote memory, successful language learners rely on powerful mnemonics, imaginative mental stories, and spaced repetition tools that automatically schedule reviews just before they’re about to forget something.
7) Take responsibility for your own learning.
No app, book, course, teacher, or tutor can get a language into your head. This is not the Matrix, Neo-san. In fact, by their very nature, languages cannot be taught; they can only be acquired (i.e. internalized) with sufficient exposure and practice. It’s up to you to make sure you are giving your brain the input and output it needs to get used to the sounds and patterns of the language. And that’s where all the above principles come into play:
- When you create an “Anywhere Immersion” environment at home, you flood your brain with the meaningful input it needs to decode and encode the language.
- When you make learning fun, more of this input sticks and you are more likely to keep putting in the time day in and day out.
- When you overcome your fears and practice speaking with natives, you solidify what you’ve learned and find the remaining holes in your vocab and grammar.