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How I study Japanese

I got a question recently via email:

"Um, hey... May I know where you studied Japanese to get so good?"

I'm not sure that I'm "so good", but I'm about JLPT 2 level now, and I thought it might be interesting to people to see where I've studied and what I've done to get here.

It starts

It all started at Reading University. Wanting to make some new friends when I joined the university I looked for the university clubs and societies on the web. Up popped "The Reading Anime Society". In my mind, anime was Pokemon.

While my initial thought was "Oh, no, what a bunch of weirdos", I was determined to find the society's table at freshers' fair, and tell them I had spotted their website.

Reading anime

I found their table, and despite my reluctance, I was convinced to go to the club "Only once, just to try." Trying to be open minded, I went along. Anime addiction followed. :)

I was a member of the anime club for my whole time at Reading University. The club ran several times a week, and I watched a lot of anime. Even now, the episodes and films I watched are quite useful in conversation.

Watching anime, even with subtitles, you can't help but pick up words. Oyaho. Matte! Yuki. Baka! and similar. I didn't understand the conversations, but I could pick out some words.


Somewhere along this path, I decided to learn some kana. I blue-tac'ed a hiragana and katakana table to my wall, and tried sounding out the katakana on interesting websites. I could make sense of a few words, and this gave me a lot of motivation. I made friends with a few overseas students from Japan, and while battling my shyness, managed to send a few simple emails (which took several hours to write), and say a few words.

Pen pals

For writing practice, I started exchanging letters with two pen pals I found on the web. My Japanese grammar was very basic, so I copied out sentences from the Furigana dictionary, changing the words to match my meaning. The letters I received were hard to read, but I was bowled over by real Japanese being written just for me. I tried my best to send the best letters back I could.

As I neared the end of my time at Reading University (I studied Computer Science), I regretted not having taken changed my degree to have some units in Japanese.


I continued my education at Manchester university. I took a MSc degree in Computer Science and started evening classes in Japanese once a week for two hours. While I chose the beginner's course, it became clear it was too basic as I could already write my name, and talk about my hobbies and food I liked. I transferred to the "Post GCSE group", and loved every moment.

I wanted to join Manchester University's Japanese society, but worried that I'd be the only non-Japanese person, I made my own English language posters and convinced a few non-Japanese to join the group. I was still very shy of my speaking, and although I could understand a few sentences, I could only try out my Japanese in letters and over email.

When the Japanese class stopped for the summer, I didn't want to stop. I held a weekly study group at my hall of residence, and invited everyone in my class.

About 6 people came. We studied over summer with word games such as 20 questions, and by asking lots of questions to a Japanese guy called Hiroshi who I'd spotted on my course and managed to make friends with.


As this was happening, I was becoming aware of one Japanese girl. She wanted to get to know me, and me, her. Looking back, I had no social ability, and while I could have dated her if I knew what I do now, it was a massive, painful learning experience for me. She destroyed my mind for several months (by just existing) and then started to date Hiroshi. Japanese ability seemed a useful thing to have.

During one conversation where I was complaining about my poor Japanese, she said "Why not study in Japan?". That thought kept popping back into my mind.


I took a GCSE in Manchester and got an A*. I had forgotten the word "Tatemono", and didn't understand the "Shika~nai" grammar. The rest of the paper was easy. I did the speaking section with no practice and got high marks.

While my grammar was poor, I managed to explain about using Skype to do language exchange, and that I lived in a hall of residence where they fed me. I still felt shy in Japanese, but had more confidence I could make myself understood.


Manchester university ended, and I returned home to the South-East of England. I wanted to continue Japanese lessons, but the closest class was in Brighton, 45 minutes away by car. I took the class.

The class had a very wide range of abilities and a slightly overwhelmed native teacher. While job searching, I continued lessons (but missed most of the homework).

I found a computing job in London, and had to end the lessons. I sent an apology letter in Japanese to my teacher, and started my daily commute to London.


I searched for a Japanese class in London and found SOAS, the School of Oriental and African Studies. Due to my level being on a borderline, I was given the choice of a more basic class (to sure-up my knowledge), or one I'd have to work hard at. I chose the harder one.

The teaching at SOAS was very good. While I didn't do the homework, and crammed for the tests before the lessons, I felt my level improving.

I joined Japanese-English meetups in London, the best being "Hashi no Kai" in regent's street. I was getting more confident with speaking, and struggled through a few sentences. No fluency yet. I also met a few people and did language exchanges in Baker street. More than language study, these were most useful for social skills. From a shy guy, I became more confident to where I could be the centre of attention of a group of Japanese girls. This was good motivation. :)

I got to the end of my course, but was asked to retake the same level. I think it was because I didn't do much homework. I agreed.


Even before starting my job in London, I had a plan to go and study in Japan. My plan was for 6 months, so I needed 9000 pounds. I thought If I could save 1000 a month, I could get there in a year. It took two years, but I left as soon as I'd saved up enough.


I arrived in Japan. I had been planning it for two years, so the excitement of something new was quite weak. I had been planning it for ages, and knew I was was always going to get here; it wasn't a surprise.

One of my biggest mistakes at this time was taking on two freelance programming projects before I came to Japan. The Yamasa course is intensive, and you have no time for other things. You need to study in the evening. Just doing a homestay makes things tough. I didn't do Japanese homework to satisfy the freelance projects, and ended up not progressing to the next class and needing to retake the same level. I was really unhappy, and was thinking of going home, but was convinced to stay for the final 3 months. I studied with book 1 of the "New approach" course (A blue book). The teaching was the best I've ever experienced.

After studying for 5 months at Yamasa, I attended a party and somehow managed to get a job in an eye clinic. I quit Yamasa and moved to Yokohama.

Eye clinic

I started work in Tsunashima in an eye clinic. While my Japanese had improved from odd words to real sentences, I really wasn't fluid with the language yet. I could answer questions and respond If I knew what was coming, talking in the morning meeting and asking simple questions for example, but was not very good when needing to say something in Japanese suddenly with no time to think. I gained this ability as I worked there for 6 months. I listened a lot, and really built up my ability to read common names such as Satou, Kikuchi and Watanabe.

The work in the clinic was only for 6 months, and when the time was up, I managed to find a job in a high school teaching as an English assistant. Since then I've been living in Japan, making Japanese friends, and talking in English and Japanese. My Japanese has improved, but not with the progress of before.

A year and a half on, I'm still working teaching English, but my plan is to become a dental assistant here. I'm taking a distance learning course as I work.


I want to treat the JLPT as a backbone of my study, a reference to test myself against, but I'm not directly studying for it right now. Japanese seems very like a "mirror universe" to me. I'm just doing in Japanese what I like in English. Personal development, web development and meeting new people. Japanese isn't Kanzen Master and a list of vocabulary.

As you can see from this short history, it's taken me a few years to get here, and I've not always been the best student. But the point is I've continued Japanese because it's fun, and it has become more and more of my life. There are better study methods (SRS, Remember the Kanji, Smart.fm), but really it's just doing fun things in Japanese for a long, long time. If you're losing motivation to study Japanese, maybe you're doing it wrong. You don't get bored of your native language, so just do what interests you, but in Japanese.

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