My continued adventures in Japanese self-study

After taking my last formal Japanese class in mid-2009, I’ve only had self-study to rely on in keeping up my study of the language. Starting in 2010, after graduating college, returning from my second trip to Japan, and getting settled in my then-new job at the YMCA, I decided to have my own periodic Japanese self-study sessions so I won’t forget the things I’ve learned and also so I could continue to learn more of the language, albeit at a slower rate than I did when I was taking actual classes. And surprisingly, my passion for the language has allowed me to keep up the motivation for those study sessions since, though the rate did fluctuate. I recently fell behind on my studies due to the long hours at my new job, but the other day I decided to finally make up for lost time and spent all day hitting the books and flashcards…and much to my surprise, I didn’t forget that much =D So today I want to share how I conduct my Japanese self-study sessions, which may perhaps be helpful to those of you who are also learning the language…

How I conduct my study sessions has changed a bit over the years, though my goal has been the same since I started: because my years of taking Japanese classes in college helped me get a good grasp of the grammar of the language, my main focus in self-study is learning new kanji and new vocabulary, with grammar practice on the side. When I first started self-studying, I used three sources to help build my kanji knowledge – two kanji dictionaries and a set of kanji flashcards.

The two kanji dictionaries are each helpful in their own way. “A Guide to Reading and Writing Japanese” lists all the 2,000 or so kanji along with their different pronunciations, meanings, and a few words they’re used in (it’s also romaji-friendly). “Elementary Kanji Dictionary” also has all the kanji, but is more like a dictionary in that it simply lists a whole bunch of words each kanji is used in and you can look up each kanji by radical or stroke order, as well as pronunciation (and there’s no romaji in it). That set of flashcards I have wasn’t all that useful since it’s only the beginner set and I already knew a lot of the kanji in it. But it still had a bunch I didn’t know and the cards were good for quizzing myself and learning a few new words.

So what I would do as far as kanji study was get out my notebook of lined paper and simply write down one kanji after another, as well as some of the words listed for each that I found in the dictionaries (I focused on the words I didn’t know so I could learn both kanji and vocabulary at the same time XD) I would leave space for each kanji so I could practice writing it over and over. For each session, I would review and practice writing the kanji I had learned in the previous session and then start on some new ones. After spending a while with kanji, I would then move on to rereading my old Japanese textbooks from college.


The head of the Japanese department at my university actually wrote that yellow book there =)

It’s really good practice rereading Japanese books you used in school as you’ll recall many things you may have forgotten since learning them in class. I would go through a lesson or two in the book, place a bookmark, and then come back to that spot for the next session. And once I finished reviewing one textbook, it’s on to the next one! I would also review the lessons and do the self-quizzes in a few other Japanese grammar books I have, pictured below.

And lastly, to finish up my study sessions with something fun, I would spend a little time reading one of my Japanese anime-related books, whether it’s a manga, artbook, or something of the sort.

That’s pretty much how my study sessions went until about a year ago. I didn’t get much studying done in summer of 2011 due to lack of time and motivation…I maybe had one study session a month at the most. After quitting my old job soon after, unemployment bestowed me with a ton of free time and thus I decided to seriously get back into Japanese study and revise my old study methods.

The first thing I revised was my kanji approach. I realized that I was learning them rather slowly in my old study sessions because I was focusing too much on being able to write them. While being able to write Japanese is still important, in this technological day and age, it’s not nearly as important as being able to read them, especially for someone not currently living in Japan. So I decided to just focus on being able to read and recognize the meanings. Thus I ditched my old method of writing the kanji on paper and made my own flashcards.

On the front of the card I write the kanji, along with up to three words that use it, while on the back I’ll write the meanings and pronunciations. So far the flashcard method has been a great help and it makes it a lot easier for me to quickly quiz myself =) In each study session I’ll review the kanji I learned in the previous session and, depending on how well I do, I’ll decide whether I’m ready to make more flashcards for new kanji or not. I also separate the cards into three piles: one is “kanji I know very well and don’t need to study as much,” one is “kanji I sort of know but still need to work on a bit,” and one is “kanji I’m still struggling with.” Thankfully the latter two piles are not very big…yet =P

And, like it has been since I got it in 2008, the above DS Kanji Dictionary has been extremely helpful, mostly because I can look up all these kanji and words I learn and see them used in many sample sentences. It’s one thing to learn a word on its own, but seeing how it’s used in an actual sentence with context is indispensable.

Though I did change my method of kanji study, I’m still continuing to reread my old college textbooks. I’ve reached the most difficult book I have, the textbook I used in my last Advanced Japanese course.


I had to scribble a lot of notes in that book!

The book is all in Japanese except for a few grammar explanations and English definitions in the glossary. It basically contains just excerpts from various Japanese newspaper, magazine, or other articles. My class struggled big time with this book and I’m still having difficulty with it now…but I’ll slowly get better at it with each reread ;)

I also decided to add listening comprehension to my studies. I did do listening practice occasionally in my old study sessions because I had a couple of CD-Roms that had software games for learning Japanese vocabulary and taking quizzes. They were fun when I first got them many years ago, but most of the material was below my level by the time I graduated college, so I began using them less and less. So now I’m using something else.

The above book is one I got as a gift several years ago when my Japanese level was not very high. Since the book is all in Japanese and is aimed at a high intermediate level, I couldn’t understand how to use it back then, so I put it away for a long time…until just about a year ago when I finally took it out again and realized that I could now understand it! It’s a listening comprehension text that uses audio CDs for its lessons. It starts off with practice on being able to distinguish the differences between syllables that are very similar such as “おと/oto” and “おっと/otto” or “りゃ/rya” and “りや/riya.” Then the majority of the first CD has a bunch of mini chapters where you first listen to vocabulary words involving a certain topic, such as “deciding on college classes,” and then you listen to a dialogue that uses some of the words, putting a check mark next to the ones you hear (and the speakers talk very fast!) I haven’t yet gotten to the second CD, which does something totally different, but it looks like it’ll be good practice too. I’m so glad I rediscovered this helpful book =D

And lastly, I’m still continuing to read various manga and other fun things as a way to end each study session.

In addition to manga in Japanese, I also read random things like the Weiss Schwarz instructions and the Japanese version of the Disneyland Park guide =)

And as a sort of extension to my study sessions, I occasionally write on Lang-8, which is a site where people learning a language can write journal entries in that language and native speakers will correct their writing. I only write there once in a while and not as part of my study sessions, but it’s still quite helpful. After all, being able to correctly construct your own Japanese sentences completely out of your head (with the occasional help from a dictionary) is very different from just practicing through textbooks and kanji cards ;)

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And that’s pretty much all there is to say about how I’ve been doing my Japanese self-study over the years. I hope you found what I said helpful to you if you’re also learning Japanese, or at least interesting if you’re not ;) Even though it’s going to be a struggle to keep up my studies now that I have my almost-full time job, I’m going to try. I just downloaded a Japanese-learning app for my phone called Obenkyou, which has been very helpful for quick bursts of kanji practice. I shall continue to 頑張ります! ^_^

28 Comments… read them or add your own.

  1. Shikon says:

    It’s always interesting to read your posts on learning Japanese, even though I may never set out to learn the language it’s nice getting some insight into the language and how you learn it through your posts.

    I would imagine it would be gratifying to read a manga or watch an anime in the language that it was originally produced in , that is pretty awesome.

    Good luck and keep up the studying! =)

    • Yumeka says:

      Thanks! Learning a language as an adult is one of the hardest things to do and probably the only way to achieve anything close to fluency is to live in the country, or at least spend a good year or two there. Not sure if I’ll ever do that but it’s a possibility =)

      The only anime I watch without subtitles is Pokemon, and a recently aired kids anime called Arashi no Yoru ni. Watching kids anime raw is great practice. I probably could understand a good amount of other anime without subtitles, but I like understanding everything that’s going on =P

  2. chikorita157 says:

    I have finally cracked through the first few lessons of Intermediate Japanese (the book I decided to buy is 中級の日本語, which is published by The Japan Times, who also done Genki series) and it’s not too bad as it builds upon the basics. However, Hurricane Sandy came and kind of messed everything up with having no power for nearly a week and the unsought of final semester college work taking some motivation away. However, I’m catching up and I plan on using winter break to catch up and perhaps finish half way by the end of this year with Lesson 5 or 6. Aside from that, I do review the lessons from the previous level and what I learned so I don’t forget it although I got most of the elementary level stuff done already.

    As for Kanji and Listening comprehension, I have been neglecting that since I been focusing primarily on vocabulary and grammar. However, I only got like 100 down because I haven’t made the other 200 on physical flashcard. I do plan on working on that sooner than later once the semester ends. But aside from that, I still play Japanese Games and translate what I read. I find that the PSP and PSVita are more friendly than Nintendo 3DS because the ease of importing games despite being two times the price of American games. From what I picked up, I have a lot of content at my disposal (Shining Hearts, Little Busters Converted Edition, Atelier Elie Pokemon Black 2 and Atelier Totori Plus (which is a Christmas Present)) to practice what I learn while discovering new vocabulary and put them in a list so I can add them to a Anki deck later (along with Text to Speech audio). From playing games without Furigana, I got a bit more efficient at using radicals, which is probably a good thing. The only big drawback is that it takes a long time to translate and I have a hard time finding some of the more complex Kanji so I can find the meaning of a word. But the bottom line really is that if you know a good amount of common words used along with the 2000 kanji (which will probably make memorizing vocabulary a bit easier). My goal is basically to just get a general understanding of Japanese though listening and reading. Writing is not my main goal for me since I don’t plan on studying abroad in Japan, but I think for people who learn by doing, writing Kanji could make things easier. Despite this, I can write Hiragana and Katakana pretty well, although it’s slightly better than my usual handwriting.

    Aside from that, good luck with your self-study.

    • Yumeka says:

      Thanks for sharing your self-study adventures =) I commend you for keeping up the motivation despite having your regular college work to deal with too.

      Besides a few doujin games, the only games I’ve played in Japanese are Pokemon Pearl and Black. I understood most of the dialogue (though it takes me longer to read it than in English of course =P) and didn’t have any trouble with the gameplay, mostly because I’m already so familiar with Pokemon games. Someday I should try a brand new game in Japanese and see how I do.

  3. Alvin B. says:

    My problem is that, lacking any formal class work in Japanese, I don’t have a grasp on the basics of the grammar and flow of the language. So while self study has given me quite s but if vocabulary, I find it difficult to actually put together an intelligible sentence.

    • Cytrus says:
    • chikorita157 says:

      From my experience, Genki series is probably the best way to know all the elementary level stuff as they go over the basic grammar in detail along with selected vocabulary, listening and writing exercises without resorting to just romanji (which is bad since one will become dependent on it and will never use actual writing in ひらがな、カタカナ、and 漢字) while having the short forms as well. It took me about 10 months to finish learning all the basic grammar in that book.

      But the bottom line, you need to study it every day whether is going through flashcards, writing sentences, reading Japanese material or listening exercises. Otherwise, you won’t become better at it.

    • Yumeka says:

      The link that Cytrus provided and the Genki series of books that chikorita157 recommended could be helpful to you. What I think you should do is just try and make your own sentences even if you have to practically copy the sample sentences you get from textbooks or online. Try and change a few words if you can, and submit them to a site like Lang-8 where native speakers can correct you. If you practice that way long enough, you should be able to make up your own sentences, even if they’re very simple =)

  4. Kal says:

    It is really commendable that you can reserve some time in a busy schedule to keep up with your Japanese studies. I’ve been wanting to start studying at some time, but there is always something better to do, or I’m too tired after a long day at work, or I just want to relax… I hope you can keep it up, and it’s good that you have a mix of heavy studying, with listening, and even some fun stuff to avoid burnout. I hope I can follow your example and finally start… Someday… :S

    • Yumeka says:

      Yeah, there’s no way I could have a study session after work, but whenever I have a day off and there isn’t anything else I want/have to do, I’ll try to study =P Getting that app on my phone is good because then I can get in some practice during my break time at work ^^

  5. Frootytooty says:

    It’s really encouraging to see that you’re still self-studying years after stopping learning Japanese at university. We were offered the chance to do a diploma of languages this year on top of our university degree and I chose to do Japanese (which I’d previously studied in high school). Sadly I won’t have time to continue it from now on at university, but I’d still like to self-study in the future like you.

    One thing I found useful in my own self-study this year is that I worked towards a goal at the end of the year, which was the N2 JLPT exam last week. Once I’d decided I was going to take the exam, I started using N2 vocab, kanji and grammar flashcards from Anki and learned about 10 new vocab and kanji everyday. I found that that’s really helped with my reading because before, although I’d get the gist of the text because I can read Chinese, it was always a pain because I didn’t know how to pronounce the kanji or its actual Japanese meaning. As for listening, I’ve had years of practice with anime, haha. But I do think it actually helps, since listening continues to be my strongest area.

    The JLPT doesn’t require writing or speaking so I didn’t practise writing myself (though we did a few essays and whatnot in university), but I did want to improve my speaking, so I found a speaking buddy through lang-8 and we talked to each other in English/Japanese over Skype. It was only a few sessions, but certainly better than nothing, and it’s especially good since the other person knows about as much English as I do Japanese so it’s more difficult to cheat and revert to English to explain yourself.

    Anyway, I hope next year I can continue to learn more Japanese myself! It might be hard without a class twice a week and a goal to work towards, but I’d hate to waste the effort I put in this year. And the feeling of actually being able to understand things you never could before is amazing!

    • Yumeka says:

      I almost took the JLPT this year but I decided not to since I was just getting settled with my new job and didn’t know if I’d be able to make it to the test site on the day it’s held. The last time I took it was in 2007, and my Japanese has greatly improved since then! I want to take it again at some point, just not sure when.

      Glad to hear you found a speaking buddy! I’ve been tutoring a Japanese guy in English on and off these past few months, but since I’m helping him with English, there’s little chance for me to practice Japanese with him XD

  6. Kai says:

    I memorized hiragana and katakana some time ago, and only used whatever I heard from Japanese anime, drama and even my instincts for grammar and sentences structure. I originally planned to play visual novels as a meant for discovering new kanji, quickly got demotivated though, lol. Might pick this up again soon, or buy Danny Choo’s moe kana card or something, we’ll see.

    • Yumeka says:

      Well, learning kana is a step in the right direction =D And of course, watching anime is very helpful for retaining whatever vocabulary you have. Hope you decide to get back into studying someday =)

  7. Cytrus says:

    With Kud featured proudly at the top of this post, I am afraid your foreign-language study is in grave danger indeed :P.

  8. Arktavious says:

    I’m glad you’re still working on your Japanese. I thought with all the time you put in for work, you’d fall behind, but you still got it. I can still read katakana when I watch credits in anime, even though I haven’t practiced in a while. I happy you posted this because now I’m motivated to pick up the hiragana flash cards and work on those!

    • Yumeka says:

      Heh, I did fall behind just until a couple of days ago – I hadn’t touched my Japanese study materials since August until I finally decided to get back into it the other day. It’s ’cause of my job of course, but I’ll try and find time once in a while…just won’t be as often as before =P

      Cool, we’ll have to practice Japanese together next time we meet up XD

  9. Yuriko says:

    Wow, that’s a lot of books. I see there’s a big selection in english dictionaries and learning books. Remembering kanji after not learning them for some time o_O… I got a problem with remembering all kana T_T. Yes, but that’s the truth. If you want to learn japanese you need to go by these damn kanji. I got a short course with japanese and most teachers ignores kanji when learning in the basic course, but the truth is it’s very important to learn kanji even if it is for basic subjects, even learn them just after kana.
    You said you watched some kodomo anime. That’s a good way to learn too. Have you tried to listen to CD drama? I like to learn that way.

    • Yumeka says:

      It’s good to learn kanji right from the beginning, starting with the simple ones of course. Maybe it doesn’t need to be emphasized as much in early courses but it should be used as soon as possible. Romaji shouldn’t be used for very long =P

      I listened to a drama CD one time…I should give one a listen again ;)

  10. Marow says:

    Interesting!

    I’ve started reading a basic course on Japanese, which will start again in spring, and I somewhat got the hang on kana now (I still mess katakana up because I don’t see it as often as hiragana). I doubt we will learn much kanji in spring, though. Most likely it will be continuing teaching basics, which is fine by me (gotta learn it well, you know).

    Surprisingly, Japanese hasn’t been too hard to get the hang of, at least its basics. It’s a downgrade from Swedish, when I think of it more closely. And when comparing on German, it feels really easy, haha (yes, I hated learning German).

    It feels as if self-studying will be a pain, though, which is basically what I am doing since the course is distance-based. I will probably continue learning more advanced Japanese if time allows it, but learning a language is much easier if you have a teacher you can ask for direct response.

    • Yumeka says:

      That’s great that you know and are learning a lot of languages ^_^ You already know Swedish and English, and some Japanese and German! We’re not really required to seriously study another language here in America, so most Americans just speak English XD

      Good luck with your Japanese studies~

      • Marow says:

        We start learning English in first or third grade (for some reason I cannot find any information about it) and we read it up until the first year of high school. If we want to continue the remaining two years, we can.

        When we reach sixth grade we have to choose a third language. German, French, Spanish and, depending on the school, Russian and sign language. Depending on what you study in high school, you either drop the language after the first or second year (as with English, you can continue studying it if you want).

        They really like teaching us languages :p

        • Yumeka says:

          I had some Spanish classes in my early years of schooling before taking Sign Language in high school, and then of course Japanese throughout college. But nowadays I don’t think children in the US have to take any foreign language classes until at least middle and high school, and even then they can choose which one. I don’t know about the rest of the country but here in southern California we’re very racially diverse so there are tons of people who are bilingual without learning it in school.

  11. Luxor says:

    Obenkyou huh? I’ve been using that even before I started taking Japanese classes in school. But here I am, after my first semester of Japanese in college, and it’s fun and easy so far! Anyways, this is a late comment, so I’ll keep it short.

    Happy holidays!

    • Yumeka says:

      You can set the difficulty level for the kanji and vocabulary words in Obenkyou, either by JLPT level or schooling grade. I’m a little under the highest levels myself ;) Anyway, good luck with your studies.

  12. Thanks for sharing how you studied Japanese. You have show me many ways I have never thought of before.

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