What I learned from learning Japanese for 5 years

What I learned from learning Japanese for 5 years

Japan is a fascinating country that is well known for quality products and artisans who devote their entire lives to their profession. It’s a virtue of Japanese top peers from all different kinds of fields which really made a huge impression on me. This dedication to one thing and the personal wish (let’s just call it that) to really excel in the area you chose is something that really fascinates me.

We probably all have these moments when we struggle with work, our studies just with most of the things we’re doing with our lives. I always welcome these thoughts in a certain sense because it never can be wrong to question yourself and the things you’re doing now and then. But I can be a lazy person and when things get tough after a little while and the first rush of excitement and fast process is gone I tend to let things slide a little.

And then I usually find another excuse to just stop what I’m doing entirely. It happened with the Japanese and not just once. My daily routine for my “real studies” (doesn’t sound perfect but you get the drift) is pretty tough especially when exam after exam in a tight rhythm is coming up. But I still find the time to read the daily news and check Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and all the other sites I’m reading.

I bet 15 minutes of iknow would’ve been in the cards for that day. And then there comes the time again when I think about these Japanese artisans (which sounds a little too uptight for my taste but let’s just call them that) and how they’re devoting their entire life and not just a couple of hours to their profession. Of course, you can now argue that learning Japanese is not my profession but let’s just skip that thought and get all the motivation out of my little example that we can.

The reason why most Japanese students fail

Is because you lack the motivation to really push through the many many frustrating moments when you feel like you can’t understand anything. And unfortunately, this happens a lot. Learning Japanese is a never-ending story but especially for those of you who’re not living in the country things can get frustrating pretty fast. Manga is difficult, books are difficult, and don’t even get me started on Anime. The problem is that Japanese is just so much more complex and not just because of the Kanji (which really makes the whole process a lot more miserable). Japanese is probably one of the more easy languages to quit because you don’t seem to make any progress for such a long time. Again, especially when you’re not living in Japan.

I’ve written about this issue a couple of times now and even mentioned it in my personal guide on how to learn Japanese. Motivation is always key to success and becomes even more important when there is no real pressure in the sense that when you don’t succeed you won’t be able to get the job you want.

Thinking about this I was wondering what my motivators were for learning Japanese in the first place. It came down to the three clichés about learning Japanese: Video games, manga, and movies. But let’s be honest here. This is not enough. Interests change and with that, your love for Japanese anime may fade quickly. And bam, you’re out of one of your essential motivators. That’s the time when most of us quit learning Japanese for a while. Maybe they’ll come back to it at some point but (which leads me to another important point about studying) – consistency is key.

And we’re not just talking about studying Japanese here. Find some long-term motivators that gave you the initial wish to do something and try to b consistent with your work. There is no miraculous way that keeps you on track or helps you find something that captures your motivation for the long term. You have to be that driving force from the start and you have to be the person that constantly reminds you why you got into this in the first place.

What I do

I like post-it notes. I use them for learning (my books are plastered with them, containing little notes), for shopping and to keep my mind on track. Like I said no matter what you do – motivation is key, and so I like to keep my mind on track with short post-it notes on my fridge. I’m always astonished at how often I can read these without being annoyed by their content. This led me to another insight –  you can’t hear or read these little motivators too often.


Like always each person is different and so I’d love to hear your little tricks and experiences about learning Japanese. I’m sure it’s a tough hobby for all of us, how do you guys stay motivated?

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  1. Hi Jakob, thank you for sharing your thoughts about motivation. It’s good to know that I am not the only one trying to find ways to continue Japanese study. I completely agree with everything you mentioned, especially that tastes change and constant need to find new things that motivates you.
    What do you write on the post-it notes? Phrases in Japanese? Thank you for sharing this idea. It’s a good approach to remove “annoying things” and have more rewarding moments “oh, I can actually read this”. :)

    1. Thanks a lot for your thoughts, glad you agree with me. I don’t use the post-it notes solely for Japanese things but when I do I write down example sentences for key grammar points I wanted to remember or just the reading and meaning of a Kanji. It’s nice to be able to just look at the small colorful notes and remember some things you have trouble with.

  2. Thank you for the post, I’m sure I will be returning to it time and time again when I need a little boost to get back to my studies!
    I’ve been studying for about 6 months now. Still making my way through the first Genki book and recently subscribed to JapanesePod101 which I listen to on the way into work. I haven’t had any really serious ‘I can’t do this!’ moments yet but sometimes the onslaught of verbs and conjugations does get to me.
    I agree that it’s very important to keep a long term goal in mind. When I start feeling really daunted, I’ve found it helps to start taking pleasure in the little things, even something as small as learning a new phrase or managing to catch the meaning of something said in an anime. I’m sure you’ll agree that appreciating and being proud of any progress is a great way to make learning seem fun again.
    Also I will definitely be stealing your post-it notes idea! Not sure my handmade flashcards lying around the house are quite enough to annoy my family yet anyway…

    1. I feel you Becky and thanks for all the kind words. Learning Japanese is not very rewarding in my opinion. At some point probably but until you reach that it#s a tough road to go down. And the learning really never ends. Great that pointed pointed out the little things you can have fun with. I should probably be more aware of those.

  3. Thanks Jacob, I really understand what you mean there. I’ve been studying for more than 6 years, and it was a crazy trip. I gave up many times, and I usually can’t keep a consistency. I started during my college days, just because I liked the culture. But this is not enough. My motivation changed once I started to date a japanese girl, we couldn’t talk in my native language very well, so I strongly devoted myself to japanese. Once I got married, this motivation faded, and I gave up just before, and a little bit after my marriage. After one year or so, I started again, because I sensed a felling to be closer to her family, since they were all japanese and we couldn’t communicate. Once I reached N3 I stopped studying again, because I could speek and communicate with everyone. Now I’m trying to build my courage to start again. Kanji is pain, and it’s so frustrating to study for 6 years and you can’t even read a high school book. I’m planning to find time to conciliate my work, with my family and my studies. It’s hard some times, but I think I’ll manage to find a way.

    Good lucky to everyone who is onboard.

    1. Thanks a lot for sharing Renan (even if that sounds like a phrase from an AA meeting now). I think it’s awesome that you’re now trying to start learning again even if you can communicate. In most other languages you would probably just learn by reading and conversing but Japanese grammar is a tough one. Let me know how you managed to incorporate some studying into your lifestyle.

      Btw. ddi you try WaniKani for learning Kanji? I personally think it’s the way to do so. At least for me it works like a charm.

  4. I want to learn Japanese but I need a structured course of some sort (thinking of getting the Genki books but not sure if there is better material out there). And learning different meanings for kanji just seems to daunting. Should I just learn words instead of individual kanji?

    I don’t live in Japan, so speaking Japanese will be difficult for me as well.

    I was able to learn hiragana and katakana fairly quickly.

      1. I was looking at those books. They are not easy to find, unless I import them.

        Since I don’t have any Japanese friends or live in Japan, how do you recommend I practice my speech?

        1. Hello, I have a perfect solution for you – join online Japanese course -Yomuzoku where you’ll get comprehensive knowledge with easy Japanese examples. It is an online accessible tool where students not feel any pressure while they are learning Japanese because we have shared interesting stories, news and gossips on daily basis with meaning.

  5. I think making steady progress is important. No one likes to do things that they think they are not good at (i.e., not making progress.) What I did was – first, got a set of textbooks I like and read through them. I can measure my progress by looking at how many pages that I have studied. Then I studied for JLPT exams. Again, set of books that I can go through at a steady pace. I bought a Japanese manga that I like at early stage of my study, along with an audio book read in Japanese. Every month, I will flip through the manga and listen to the audio book. Every time, I found myself understand a little more. I still remember I opened the book and said to myself: “I studied this just yesterday. Now I know what this sentence meant.”

    After a year and half of painful study, I can understand the manga 100% and the audio book about 70-80%. It serves as a constant reminder of how far I have become. Once I pushed myself to a point that I can read manga, I stopped worrying that I will lose interests in studying Japanese. Since once you reach a certain level, studying a language became so much fun. You can forget about reading textbooks or listening to two people discuss their food preference. Studying by watching anime without subtitles or reading Japanese novels or having conversations with native speakers. I don’t live in Japan, but there are a lot of native speakers on the internet. Use site like lang-8.com or italki.com, I never feel not living in Japan is a problem.

    Japanese is not my second language, English is. I never enjoyed studying English until I studied English like crazy for a year for exams required to enter graduate school in the US. I realized that the reason I hated English so much was that I only understood boring stuff in English. I improved my English vocabulary from 2000 to 10000, and my world changed. I can finally understand stuff – newspapers, novels, books. I can finally talk to people without apologizing for my poor English.

    The longer you stuck at the elementary level of any language, the more difficult for you to stay motivated. So maybe what I am saying here is not traditional, I feel the best way to study a language is to study like crazy at the beginning and get to the fun part as fast as you can manage. I knew that most people will say just take it slow, and you will burn yourself out if you are trying too hard. But for me, study like crazy for six months is a much attainable goal that spreading it out over six years. You have to enjoy it to keep at it.

  6. Hey Jakob, really fun to read your stuff. I can relate each and every bit. I am in the same boat since past one year. After scoring 60 % in JLPT N5 , i will be appearing for JLPT N4 this july, but the preparation is real bad, as I am currently doing self study. For Kanji I started preparing charts with approx 30 Kanjis written on them, and placed it right opposite to my bed, to review daily. But it tends to get difficult after certain point. For me real motivation is to be in the same boat with like minded people. If I did the same process of learning and reviewing, with like minded people like you and others, I would be Highly motivated. I mean the energy would be so high, I feel I could clear the test with full marks. For Kanji I use Anki decks which is really helpful, atleast in learning the meaning of the kanji. I get a great deal of frustration in most of the sections.

    So I took the subscription of Japanesepod101 but it is not working with the motivation. Currently with hardly one month to go, I will have to be serious about the exam. Its really dead dull to study such a beautiful language, like a curse just to clear the exam, but have to as I quit the job to concentrate on my skills.

    Learning japanese through manga is really fun, but tends to get a bit difficult, sometimes. But as you said, ‘You’ yourself need to be the motivation all this while, and also during the future learning stage. I will be getting printout of the manga to learn them. Lets see how it goes.

    Currently, using memrise for vocabulary and kanji review of N4. Gotta start with other parts as well. Its a pleasure to read your blog. Thanks for posting.

  7. I am a website designer. Recently, I am designing a website template about gate.io. The boss’s requirements are very strange, which makes me very difficult. I have consulted many websites, and later I discovered your blog, which is the style I hope to need. thank you very much. Would you allow me to use your blog style as a reference? thank you!

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