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Seven Best Resources for Learning Japanese2012.05.14

    What is the best way to learn Japanese? Every time I get asked that question I try to figure out how to manage expectations, and still provide genuinely useful shortcuts. I began studying Japanese 40 years ago in 1972, and most of the resources I recommend today did not exist then. There were no books with visual mnemonics for learning Kanji, no electronic dictionaries, no iPhone Apps. We learned Kanji by writing them down hundreds of times. We learned to speak Japanese by making thousands of mistakes and trying to figure out what was wrong. It was like being a baby in an adult body-intensely engaging, exhausting, and exhilarating, learning how to do everything all over again.


    The teaching style in the International Division at Waseda University was traditional, but we loved our teacher, and it was just incredibly cool to be in Japan at that time, living with a Japanese family in total immersion. The best thing about the way we learned was not the learning materials at all, but the experience of being in an all Japanese environment where you had no choice but to communicate in Japanese. It was paddle like mad to stay afloat, or slowly drown. It worked for me, and a number of fellow students who became Japan specialists; but not for everyone, as some dropped out, or managed to survive for a year by hanging out with other foreign students without learning even basic Japanese conversation.


    Over the following four decades I tried every means and method I could get my hands on, and in the process collected my personal favorites, the resources that helped me become fully bilingual, to read without a dictionary, to work as a professional translator and interpreter, and as a journalist in business and technical Japanese, to teach as a professional instructor of Aikido and Shodo, to lecture and teach seminars in Japanese, to be a commentator on television, and even to write books in Japanese.

    I am happy to share my seven favorite resources for learning Japanese, including the ones that I would have used had they been available at the time.


    Favorite Apps (for iPhone and Android)


    Remembering the Kanji (Mirai LLP), based on the book by Dr. James W. Heisig, with over 2000 Kanji characters, and incorporating the brilliant mnemonic system that he pioneered, by which he mastered reading and writing of the characters in an incredibly short time. User-friendly with amazing interactivity and creative practice features.


    Kotoba! (Japanese dictionary), by Pierre-Phi di Costanzo, a multi-lingual Japanese dictionary to study words, expressions, phrases, and Kanji, with cross-references to all major Kanji dictionaries.


    Favorite Dictionaries


    A Guide to Remembering Japanese Characters, by Kenneth G. Henshall, a brilliant book with an original system of key word mnemonics for each of over 2000 Kanji, showing the origin of the character, and how its radicals fit together to form a comprehensive story picture.


    Handbook of Modern Japanese Grammar, by Yoko M. McClain, readable, comprehensive, and will help fill in all of the gaps that are not taught in typical classrooms.


    Modern Colloquialisms Revised Japanese-English, by Edward G. Seidensticker and Matsumoto Michihiro, a dictionary of colloquial expressions that is both fun to read, will help you sound natural in conversation, and which shows how different the two languages can be in the way they express the same idea.


    Nihongo Notes Vol 1~10, by Osamu Mizutani, short essays and key lessons on communication in uniquely Japanese situations, based on a long-running newspaper column.



    The Michel Thomas Method, Japanese Foundation Course, and Japanese Advanced Course, (audiobook, audio CD by Helen Gilhooly), based on the Michel Thomas Method, "no homework, no writing, no memorizing, learn effortlessly through listening and speaking." Michel Thomas was a polyglot with a genius for learning and teaching foreign language rapidly and effectively, who personally taught many Hollywood stars, diplomats, and executives.


    The resources on this list range from state-of-the-art to now-out-of-print books, but all should be available. However, they are just tools, albeit the top of my list of favorites. No tool will help you if it sits on the shelf. They are made to be used and enjoyed, and for this there are five fundamental mindsets that will keep you in the game long enough to become flexibly fluent.


    1) A love of language-both of Japanese and of your own native language.

    2) Continuous curiosity-the desire to discover, overcome shyness, to learn with all of your senses.

    3) Ability to sketch and visualize-to think in pictures and metaphors, especially for Kanji.

    4) A good sense of humor-to appreciate and enjoy language errors and cultural differences.

    5) A strong sense of purpose-more than just a goal, a strong motivation that is internally driven.


    If you live in Japan, or have Japanese colleagues and friends, there is no shorter path to the heart of the culture than the language.



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    Article Writer

    William Reed

    William Reed is a renowned author-speaker who coaches physical finesse and flexible focus for a creative career path. A certified Master Trainer in Guerrilla Marketing and 7th-dan in Aikido, he combines practical wisdom of East and West to help you learn personal branding at the Entrepreneurs Creative Edge.

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