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The best ways to Learn Japanese

I've mentioned all over this site why you should learn Japanese if you plan to live in Japan long-term, but never actually given any pointers as to how to go about doing so.  I'll to my best to try to point out some Dos and Don'ts here.  

Learn At Home
The first point to note is that there are many "Learn at home" type kits.  These aren't bad - in fact, some of them are quite good.  Yet, these should be in addition to class-room instruction, not a substitute for it.  There are numerous reasons for this, but if teachers weren't necessary, then there wouldn't be schools, everyone would learn everything at home from a book.

Still, do-it-yourself learn is a great supplement to what one can learn in class, and it's a great way to get started if you aren't ready to take the plunge into classes just yet.

Web Sites:
  • One of the more accessible sites is JapanesePod101.com.  Although some of their jokes and the large amount of advertisements they send out get old, there is real useful content for beginners in some of the lessons, and it can be accessed for free.  The good thing about this is that you can listen to MP3 files on your iPod or such while on the train, etc.  It means you can make just about any time useful.  The bad thing is that it sometimes seems they have a large amount of content, but it isn't well organized, and it's hard to track what you have completed / need to study next. (and the pushy ads, of course)
  • There are other, more academically oriented sources as well, which you can find by searching iTunes U.  You can also get some course materials from colleges online through things like MIT's OpenCourseWare.
  • The Meguro Language Center's web site has a lot of useful free study material and information, but it can be overwhelming, and so will take a lot of self-dicipline to decide what and when to study on your own.
  • By far the most practical web site I have found for studying languages (including Japanese) so far is smart.fm.  This web site focuses on vocabulary, rather than grammar, but has a wealth of high quality content, including sample sentences and photos.  The best thing is the testing method, which uses spaced learning to automatically pick what you need to be refreshed on, and re-quiz you on it around the time you would have forgotten it.  You have to try it to see, but it's a bargain at their price - free.
  • I would suggest getting a real dictionary, or an electronic dictionary, but the excellent WWW JDIC site is very useful as well.
  • Genki: As for books, one of the more accessible beginner books that actually teaches in a modern style is Genki.  There is also a companion workbook which you can buy to use practicing writing.  Some professors feel this book, and it's sequel are too easy, but it's better to learn 100% of what's in Genki, than to learn 10% of what is in the less accessible books that students dislike enough to avoid.
  • Remembering The Kanji: An interesting book called "Learning the Kanji" is available, but teaches kanji independently of Japanese.  While it's true that any language could be written in Kanji (even English), since the pronunciation doesn't have to be tied to the meaning - learning only the Kanji is a wasted opportunity, as you will have to go back and learn the actual words later anyway.  To me, it's like learning to drive with only the gas pedal, saving the steering and brake lessons for after you have mastered acceleration.  Still, some of the stories in the book are useful to help remember some of the more abstract kanji.  I know a number of people who have used this method, and they can skim something in Japanese and catch the essence of the meaning (assuming it isn't heavy in kana), but they can't actually speak Japanese.
  • Kanji Pict-o-graphix:   This book is similar to "Remembering the Kanji", but somewhat more stylish and simple.  Besides an actual study aid, it is light enough to be an entertaining coffee table book for when your friends come over.

Flashcards are also useful, and can be bought from various outfits, such as White Rabbit Press.

In many cities, there are Japanese conversation clubs available.  These are great, but not that useful until after you have already learned enough to talk.

Also, once your ability level is high enough, you can start to watch Japanese movies, etc. (first with, and later without subtitles). Beware that if you are watching Japanese gangster movies, you might not want to copy their speech patterns lest people think you are a goon.  Likewise, many Anime geeks start copying things that 16 year old cartoon girls say, and well... let's just say it doesn't portray them as manly.

Whatever you do, if you are serious, you will eventually want to take classes.  There are a few options here:

1. Private schools - These are places like Berlitz.  These aren't bad for an overview, but they tend to try to teach some useful phrases fast rather then going into depth into the mechanics of grammar, etc.  This is somewhat like the phrasebook style of teaching.  If you got bored in high-school a lot, this might be the place to start.  Any class that doesn't teach you Hiragana relatively quickly isn't very serious about you really understanding Japanese.  If you are in Tokyo, check out the Meguro Language Center mentioned above.

2. Japanese High Schools - There are Japanese high-schools in Japan, as well as in the US and other countries.  Domestic or international, the primary purpose of these schools is of course to teach Japanese children, but many will allow foreigners to take classes as well.  The pros include cheap prices since the school is supported by the Japanese government, as well as the pride of going to an official Japanese run school.  The cons include being forced to partake in activities designed for children.  Ready for the school play?  Some schools have a separate class for foreigners and others behind in the skill vs. age ratio, so you won't get stuck with all 1st graders if you are 35.

3. Colleges - Whether it's a Japanese college, a foreign college in Japan, or a college in your home country, if you are serious, this is a great place to start.  If the prices of the local colleges are high, look for a community college first.  Japanese in general value credentials and paperwork, and if you go to a college, you get real actual college credits to prove you learned something.  Even if you take a non-credit course, it still gets listed on your transcript, and it's still taught by professors who are experts in the subject matter.

If you want to be taken seriously in the Japanese job market, (or take normal classes at a Japanese college) you probably need to take and pass one of the major tests available.

JLPT -  This is the gold standard, and what most schools ask for.  This is roughly the equivalent of the TOEFL test for English.  The JLPT consists of four levels, with 4 being the easiest, and 1 being the most difficult.  Note that these are not 4 grades, but actually four different tests.  Rather than receiving a score, each level is basically pass/fail.  For this reason, you need to know your level before you take the test.  If you are a level 3 and you take the level 4 test, you should pass, but you really want to have the level 3, and now you have to wait another year to take it.  On the other hand, if you are a level 3, and you take the level 2 test and fail it, you get nothing to show for you work (and you have to wait another year to take level 3 again).  My advice is simply to start at level 4, and once you pass it move to level 3, etc.  This way takes at least 4 years, but you will have a good idea of where your ability lays, and always know what test to take.  In other to apply, you should pick up the application packet at a local book store if you are in Japan.  

JETRO/JBT - This test is business oriented, and many companies will ask about it.  Although not as important as the JLPT, it has several advantages to the test-taker.  First, it is offered several times per year.  Secondly, there is only one test, so you don't have to worry about which one to take, you can simply check your score and hope it improves each time until it reaches the level where you are satisfied.  If you are in Japan, you can request an application kit by mail.

Much like the GMAT and other standardized tests, there are preparation guides and practice tests for both of these, and I advise trying them before spending good money on the test.