How I learned to speak Japanese fluently in one year

My 3 point method for learning the language

I first started learning Japanese in the Fall of 2013. I was an exchange student in Ireland with very little to do during my 50-minute bus ride to my university and since I would get motion sickness from reading books inside vehicles, that was out of the question. So, I decided to learn a new language using a method that would allow me to not throw up on everybody else around me: audiobooks.

Step 1: Michel Thomas

If you have never heard of Michel Thomas, he was a polyglot born in Poland during WW1 who developed the Michel Thomas method for learning languages. Today, the method is offered in 18 languages including German, Chinese and Japanese. This is what I started with when I first learned Japanese. The entire course is done through audio lessons, with the main goal of being able to speak the language. You are listening to Michel Thomas teaching two students (one who is very adept and one who isn’t) and you are asked to repeat alongside to learn along.

What is great about Michel Thomas is that you are not only learning set phrases, but also the grammar that forms them in a very intuitive way, which allows you to form more complex structures later on your own.

The entire course is structured into Foundation Japanese and Intermediate Japanese, and both should take around 40–60 hours in total to finish. What I would recommend, if you are a bit of a slow learner like me, is to do two lessons (both lasting around 45 minutes each) per day: repeating the one from the previous day and doing a new one. This way you can easily repeat and drill the last lesson into your brain and learn something new as well. And again, since these are audio courses you can listen to them while cooking/commuting/or working out.

The slight downside of Michel Thomas is that, while it teaches you how to form sentences using grammar rules, it is a bit lacking in vocabulary. But that’s when the next method comes in!

Step 2: Pimsleur

Another audiobook learning method developed by Paul Pimsleur, another polyglot and linguist, Pimsleur offers more than 50 languages including Japanese.

Pimsleur is split across five levels with 16 hours of content each (according to my bad math that should be 80 hours overall) and unlike Michel Thomas, focuses much more on vocabulary and phrases rather than teaching you the grammar and reasons why certain things are the way they are. But that is okay because, if you finished the Michel Thomas course, you will have already understood all the grammar that is being thrown at you.

A Pimsleur lesson lasts for around 50 minutes each, and I did two of them per day (reviewing the one from the day before plus a new one). After finishing the Pimsleur audiobook, I had a broad range of phrases and vocabulary that would have probably already allowed me to have basic conversations. But I didn’t stop there and went the extra step with method no. 3.

Step 3: Anki

If you have ever wanted to study any language (or even a different subject), you might be familiar with Anki (which means “memorize” in Japanese), the flashcard learning program. This famous app is used by many students across different fields to quickly drill vocabulary and other information into their brains.

For Japanese, I first started by learning Hiragana and Katakana, the two basic writing systems of Japanese. These aren’t all that complicated and should take you a couple of days to memorize. After that, you are ready to leap into the true monster that is Japanese language learning: Kanji, aka Chinese characters. These will allow you to not only learn how to read Japanese but also greatly expand your horizon when it comes to vocabulary.

I used a premade Anki deck (which can be found here) called Core10k, which essentially forms the basic 10,000 words of Japanese. I will be completely honest, though: I never finished the entire thing. But, I will say that with around 2000+ words learned, you will be able to have something resembling more complex conversations in Japanese.

I tried to learn around 50 new Anki flashcards every day and continued this for around 9 months before I finally went to Japan to try my Japanese in a real environment and not just muttering to myself like a weirdo.

My first time speaking Japanese

After around three days in Japan, I actually haven’t really spoken Japanese past simple thank-yous in konbinis and supermarkets. My first conversation came when I participated in a very traditional Japanese cultural activity: visiting one of Akihabara’s Maid Cafés. There, you are treated like a god while cute Japanese girls wearing maid costumes serve to entertain you with chit-chat and small games. It was in this shop where I first truly spoke Japanese to another person (although in retrospect, my Japanese must have been horrible). This gave me the confidence boost to continue using my Japanese in my travels from there on and now, 7 years later I use the language in my everyday life (speaking with my wife in Japanese) and while I was living in the country.

The audiobooks can be pricey, but if you compare them to a full Japanese course at a language school, I think they offer great value for money and are yours to keep, should you want to repeat certain things in the future. If you studied Japanese before, what other methods did you try and how did you like them? Let us know in the comments!

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Adam Rifi

Lover of Japan, Travel, Food & Cooking and Frugality. New to blogging but always wanted to try it!