While I’m still working on a queue of articles I want to post in the coming weeks, I thought I’d write about helpful resources to study Japanese. Why not take advantage of all the great resources currently floating around online for free during your time at home?
I’ll also have useful tips every now and then in the Newsletter I plan on launching this summer. Feel free to sign up if you’re interested in having new tips emailed straight to your inbox monthly!
Okay, without further ado…
Previous: Learn Japanese through Manga
Genki Study Resources
As some of you may know,I learned formal Japanese using the Genki textbook series. I studied the first book during college in an intro Japanese class, its next volume in a language school. So, I currently own Genki I & Genki II. There are other language books that have compelling arguments for their ease, usefulness and modernity – but as that is what I learned on, Genki is what I will go with.
I should note, that I am by no means fluent in Japanese. I am still learning. However, if I were plopped down into Japan today, I am confident in my ability to: Go to stores and order items, go to restaurants and express my shellfish/seafood allergy, go to a temple and follow proper social customs, order train tickets at a booth in Japanese, find my way around town, and complete other basic tasks.
I am confident in my ability to read hiragana, katakana, and even certain kanji due to studying Mandarin before Japanese. Often while watching anime and Japanese television shows, I can pick up most words or colloquial phrases before looking at the subtitles. With that being said, I’m not writing all of this to “flex”.
I’m not sure of your own background or degree of fluency, but this is what got me to the point I’m at.
If Genki happens to work for you, that is great. If not, I’ll continue to look for and try to write guides that may aid your language journey.
Link to (free) Genki Study Resources online: x
Note: One of the arguments against Genki is that it is very partner-centric. If you are self-studying alone in your room, it may be difficult to complete many of the exercises expressed in the book. You could always listen to the included CD with the reading passages, repeat the phrase aloud once, and then record yourself a second time repeating the phrase alone.
This method does get tedious, but if you can’t find anyone to study with in your own household, it’ll hold you over.
You could also make recording an opportunity to critique your pronunciation against the native speakers – but just remember that like in your own country, Japanese also have prominent accents. So, don’t be too hard on yourself if you don’t sound exactly like the narrator! ☺
Chances are, many native speakers do not even sound that way themselves.
So, funny story regarding this one. I don’t think I’ve mentioned this in any posts before as it embarrasses me, but I actually failed my first formal Japanese course.
After years of anticipating taking formal lessons for the first time, I finally had an opportunity to go for it.
Back in college I had limited electives, and in order to graduate on time I couldn’t dilly-dally. So it was decided: I’d major in cinema studies while minoring in Japanese.
Then…I found out from my department academic counselor that I couldn’t minor in a non-film related elective. But, I did have the option to double minor. Privately to myself, I chose to do so. There was time before I had to formally declare, so I decided to first enroll in the course. When I finished the two beginner level courses successfully – I’d make it official.
It never happened.
Hearing rumors through the grapevine that the language courses at that particular university were militaristic, and actually experiencing it yourself are two totally different things. In the past, I had enjoyed courses others hated so I thought to myself- really, how bad could it be?
It was awful.
To those of you who have gone to college and taken early morning courses, you can already imagine how terrible that alone can be. In addition to commuting a few hours to university, I was up bright and early for an hour and fifteen minute course four days of the week.
I didn’t really talk to anyone in the class, (as everyone already seemed to know each other – the university had a reputation for being “clicky”) and only made one friend – an artist from South Korea.
I tried pouring the years of passion I felt into my studies. But, somewhere along the way…learning started to feel robotic.
“Okay, study this brief passage in hiragana. We will have a pop quiz in 5 minutes.”
“You had 5 minutes to study, some of you are doing very poorly on these quizzes. You should give more thought into why you are here.”
Things like that were the daily. Eventually, I started hating the course. No matter how hard I tried, I rarely did well on the tests. No matter how much I practiced, I fumbled the speaking exercise when called on by the sensei. Despite keeping my hand as straight as possible, my kanji were never quite clear enough.
There was never a day where I didn’t have a bunch of ugly red correction marks on a kanji assignment. For even the tiniest of things, like an end stoke being a millimeter longer than the workbook diagram…
One day, I remember my Korean friend being called on for an exercise. Although getting the answer right and the teacher praising her, the girl’s face had turned beet red. The artist then hung her head in shame. Confused, I asked her what was wrong. From what I could tell, she got the answer right and the teacher praised her – so why was she so embarrassed?
My friend then explained that the teacher did not approve of her answer. I asked why not. Then, she began to explain to me her body language and that in most Asian cultures disapproval was nonverbal.
Soon, I started noticing each time the sensei crossed her arms when she was annoyed, or stood to the side while calling on certain students. For the remainder of the semester, I observed the sensei’s changes in posture, fascinated that it had been so obvious the entire time. I just wasn’t fluent in that particular nonverbal language.
There was a meeting just before the big final, where I had a one on one with this sensei. She asked me, quite bluntly, why I was not succeeding in her course. I listed the methods I used to study, and detailed a bit of my years’ long passion for Japanese culture. She told me that “pop culture was not the same as traditional culture”, and if I was “really passionate about it but did not have the skills to succeed”, maybe I “should rethink double majoring” in the language.
If I wasn’t depressed enough from failing at the one consistent hobby (and emotional outlet) I had cherished for 10+ years at that time, it was certainly the final nail in the coffin.
The sensei then inquired as to which school I belonged to in the (unspoken) university’s hierarchy. After stating my school, she then must have realized that I was not a complete loss. A few inquiries into whom I knew later, the meeting ended.
I failed the final exam, but passed the course with a D+ in the long run.
To be honest, I’d like to think it was who I knew. For the most part, the professors in my school liked me. Aside from Japanese, film was the one other constant in my life I consistently cared about. So naturally, I excelled in those courses.
Is it fair that I passed based on who I knew, and not what I knew? No. But, I had to have a C+ or higher to continue on to the next elementary beginner tier of the courses, so Japanese as a minor was out.
The remainder of that year, I did not study Japanese. I did not read manga, I did not go to the library to read cultural books. I did not watch anime. I did not attend any cultural events around the city. I even stopped making the trek down to Sunrise Mart from the university to browse snacks and try to eavesdrop on casual Japanese language interactions.
I truly rethought my life-long passion for Japanese culture, and how if I couldn’t even grasp the language’s fundamentals, I didn’t deserve to enjoy that hobby anymore.
Another year and a half passed, and I graduated on time. That one blemish aside, my grades had kept up. I even made the Dean’s List a few times!
But, after graduation I was floundering. And, old habits were calling to me.
I went on YouTube, thinking I could learn a few things, and try again at Japanese. I found a few web shows, but one really stuck.
Uki Uki NihonGo! was a lot of fun to watch. Energized by the easy-to-understand teaching methods and colloquial Japanese, I decided to pick up the language again.
As fate would have it, not long after that (maybe a year and a half later, or so) I found myself studying under Kurahara-sensei in real life. Yes, the same sensei from the videos that revitalized my interest in studying the language once more.
It was strange, studying again.
I thought that I just wasn’t cut out for the classroom setting, but it turns out maybe that particular old environment truly just wasn’t for me.
I thrived in the laid-back, no pressure courses. In conjunction to working at a cultural center, I picked up Japanese faster than I ever could in my college learning environment. It came to a point where I realized what worked for me: immersion and face-to-face interactions.
I loved being surrounded by a culture I dearly adored. From listening to spoken Japanese all day, reading it, witnessing festivals and even eating bento and other snacks from the local conbini I began to thrive. Suddenly, I could see the merits in authentic, organic interactions and feedback to mindless drills and passive-aggressive “encouragement”.
Interactions like this:
(Tanaka-san has lost his sweater for three chapters now. When is he ever going to find it?)
“Hmmm…good answer but it should have been more detailed! You should study harder, Shannon.”
[Shannon, where did Mr. Tanaka leave his sweater?]
[Tanaka has lost his sweater for three chapters now. When is he ever going to find it?]
[Yes! Umm…Mr. Tanaka’s sweater is on the table.]
[Hmmm…good answer but it should have been more detailed! You should study harder, Shannon.]
[Kobayashi, where is the customer’s bento? Please hurry up and deliver it.]
[Where are the scissors?]
[Umm excuse me…please take (these).]
[Huh? Oh, thanks for those. Wait a minute, you can understand Japanese?]
Link to Uki Uki NihonGo!: x
Note: Many Japanese organizations will offer free introductory lessons online, or ongoing “conversation café” events depending on your local area. Some of these are just advertisements for their language courses, but they do have quick, informative foundational lessons or info that is great for building your vocabulary.
In the case of the conversation café’s, you can meet others who are trying to learn the Japanese language. It can often feel comforting to struggling and bumble along with someone who is on the same level as yourself. Native speakers can appear too intimidating if you still lack confidence.
This is a bit of an oldie but I’m sure not everyone knows of it yet. Erin’s challenge is run by The Japan Foundation, and lists 25 web episodes of Erin, (a “転校生”, or transfer student) who arrives at a new school in Japan.
The lessons follow Erin introducing herself to the class, going to a conbini, taking public transport, riding the train, visiting seasonal festivals, gettingアルバイト (part time job) and even working as a maid during the school festival.
Erin definitely goes on an adventure, and you can travel with her. There is a script written in hiragana & kanji at the bottom of the current video being watched, little anecdotal tips and even a stress-free quiz at the end to make sure you are retaining what you learned.
Link to Erin’s Challenge: x
Note: There is romaji of the script, but if you want to improve those critical reading skills and fluency, I would suggest you don’t use it. It might be better to get the mnemonics of the characters, rather than an anglicized version of the Japanese vocabulary words.
The last resource for today’s article: Harvard Online Learning courses.
Yes, that Harvard.
As with Nikon, Harvard is offering free courses. They are attributing this generosity to the pandemic, although some of these have been available for quite some time….
Nonetheless, you can of course browse the entire selection at your leisure. But since we’re talking about Japan, let’s focus in on one particular course.
Japanese Books: From Manuscript to Print takes you through the facets of visual and textual storytelling. I’ve just started the 9-week long course, so I’ll give an update in a few weeks about what I’ve learned so far if anyone is interested!
I’ll have more resources coming down the pipeline soon, be sure to follow us for more updates. Also, if you’re into traditional Japanese culture or anime culture, feel free to browse these pages and see if you find something to your liking.
What are some of the best ways to learn Japanese online for free that you’ve found?
If you found this article useful, why not leave suggestions or free resources you have knowledge of in the comment section below. Together, we can all be semi-fluent in Japanese by the end of this! ☺
☆ In Asian Spaces