How To Become Fluent in Japanese (日本語).



For both students of one’s native language and students studying a second language like Japanese, moving from conversational to progressively more advanced analytical language can seem rather intimidating or, in some cases, feel downright impossible. Japanese is a great example of this. The amount of material you need to memorize and understand seems to increase exponentially with each step towards fluency! But thankfully you don’t have to try and do it alone, as there are many great methods out there for organizing your studies more efficiently toward your goals. One such method is using the basic steps of critical thinking to truly understand what one reads and/or is attempting to explain in higher levels of conversation.

(Note: Various forms of Buddhism have been, and continue to be, highly influential in Japan and thus a running knowledge of Buddhist history and doctrine in Japan is essential to understanding local and national colloquialisms, and beyond. Thus, I will be referring to Buddhism often. Also, my system of pedagogy or self-study is compatible with all stages of the Canadian Language Benchmarks laid out by Citizenship And Immigration Canada. Thus, the content may be Asia themed but the standards set are CLB positive).

With each step comes a much greater understanding of your subject and you begin to really start saying things that are significant to yourself and others at a higher level: you’re able to get to the heart of a matter, or the point of a sophisticated film, for example. This ability clearly lifts you up to speaking to a level that will be much more personally significant as well, as you will have no doubt gotten tired of just being able to say, “How’s the weather?” or, “I ate noodles yesterday. They were delicious.”

(Note: these steps are designed to help someone who already speaks conversational Japanese move to advanced Japanese. If you are just starting out, your first step is to memorize some words and a couple of sentence structures like “where is it?” or “My name is…” before taking on the more difficult aspects. But knowing these steps will help you prepare to grow significantly once you are ready to commit to full time study. Learning Japanese is fun. But becoming fluent is “hard fun”, meaning it is way more fulfilling, satisfying, uplifting, and existentially enriching).

So the first step is finding information on the various things you would like to talk about; you must become a fact-gather, rather than merely a word memorizer. Memorizing words like onpu, or senritsu does not prepare you to discuss Japanese music let alone speak Japanese. You must have some reason for having these words in your vocabulary, and thus you must organize the information you gather. Can you explain which artists had an influence (eikyou) on the music of your favorite J-pop singer? Can you explain the difference between the (three) definitions of eikyou to someone who does not speak Japanese? You must gather a lot of information on even a single word, rather than just memorize words without context. You don’t need a context for basic words like blue or cat, but you certainly will need to gather information on abstract nouns, or intransitive verbs, in order to use them intelligently.

Then you must be able to effectively analyze the facts/material you gather. This means you must begin identifying patterns, themes, and interrelationships occurring in what you are analyzing. Can you organize and label in your mind the various ‘parts’ of the whole? If the weather is nice, can you relate that information to the overall weather that week? Can you explain to a friend “it is unusually rainy for this time of year, although the summer has only just begun?” This ability to see the weather as part of a whole trend or pattern, and express it as such, is what makes people truly fluent in a second language. It may be hard to learn at first, but it is absolutely necessary if one is going to truly be able to say they are fluent. It is also why many university students in particular taking Japanese give up after taking Japanese 101; the reason why many take 101, but significantly fewer and fewer students take 201 and 301. You have to stop talking about food and start talking about the physiological (internal) difference between a raccoon and a badger. It is not easy if you are not committed to ever increasing levels of hard work. It is not as much fun to study the necessary daily calcium intake of a badger, as it is to tell someone “I love anime.” But you do need the skill to do so.

To begin doing so you obviously must compare things, show how they are alike or different. Comparing things is an act of engaged thought, as similarity and difference are no always as easy as merely saying a tree is not the same as a giraffe. A conversation a student might have with a Shingon Buddhist priest about the goma ritual is going to be radically different from issatsu, the student/teacher exchange in Rinzai Zen Buddhism that can be a very vigorous testing of the student’s knowledge (and interpretation) of scripture and doctrine. The comparison of the two must include the difference between the Shingon and Rinzai worldviews, and how Vajrayana Buddhism differs from Mahayana Buddhism.

This means you must now be able to classify what you are discussing. You must now be able to sort objects, and ideas into sets of features, attribute, and/or effects. This also means you must be able to explain how and why you classified the material. If, for example, you sort the books Jude The Obscure (1895) by Thomas Hardy and Last Exit To Brooklyn (1964) by Hubert Selby Jr. into a set, people may not understand your choice – until you classify them as books that were considered by some to be obscene when they were first published. Classification will also help others make sense of your choice if you also include Japanese books that have controversial, “obscene” social relationships with their author, such as Decay Of The Angel, and Yukio Mishima’s death by ritual suicide.

I bring up Decay Of The Angel, because in order to properly explain the novel, you must known where the idea of an angel that ‘decays’ comes from. Decaying angels (tenbu), in Japanese Buddhism, are angelic beings with a lifespan, thus mortal. One can tell tenbu apart from immortal angels by various signs of decaying: sweaty armpits, dirty clothes, their bodies cease to give off light, etc. Thus, one must be able to classify tenbu, and this kind of language requires a running knowledge of Buddhism, Buddhist history in Japan, and a variety of religious words – requires a lot more study and analysis than merely memorizing the word ‘Buddhism,’ or ‘angel.’

Classifying things leads to value judgements, determining the quality of what you now know. Are the things you know up-to-date? Are they the latest known facts about an issue? Or are there also a variety of sources that contradict what you now know? If you have read a book on Japanese culture, and memorize much of its main assertions, it is very important to also know what year the book was written. Books written about Japan before 1980 will not contain some rather vital knowledge about Japan one needs to know, as well as books written before the 21st century and the shinjinrui coming into positions of power and influence. To not know who the (1970s) shinjinrui are will definitely hinder your ability to discuss the future of Japan with any degree of excellence, let alone its past. Was it good for the 70s shinjinrui to grow up not knowing first hand of the effects of World War Two? Was it bad or good that they sought a life relatively more material than past generations, and looked to move beyond the much more devoted life to company and nation of their parents or grand parents? That is something you can only discuss if you know Japanese history. Through assessing the shinjinrui you will also discover what is appropriate to discuss, as Japanese people still continue to see potentially controversial political conversation as something one doesn’t engage in often in public, even amongst friends.

If you then have evaluated information – and looked at various ideas related to it – you then interpret them and deduce other facts or potential facts from them. This also can mean making an educated guess as well, one that will at least be as factual as possible, given the evidence available. Interpreting information in your second language is hard, very hard the further you go. There will never be a time when you are completely comfortable interpreting information at the highest level until you achieve higher than native fluency – a position interpreting at the United Nations, for example. But until that time, it is OK to feel a little lost sometimes. Keep in mind, no one is completely fluent in any language, even in their native tongue when compared to a famous professor of language like Noam Chomsky, or existential philosopher Keiji Nishitani. Nuclear physicists speak a very select, complex mathematical language when gathering at their most prestigious conferences, so no one out side of that world would be expected to be fluent in it, or more importantly, need to be.

This also means you must now solve much more complicated problems of logic or reasoning, as you must now explain your interpretations in a meaningful way. If you have seen a NHK special on Japanese youth, and think you now have a potential answer to low unemployment among them, you must have at some level determined a process by which they can survive and compete economically. Just saying ‘they should work harder” or “not be lazy” is in itself a lazy thing to say. It is neither a meaningful or particularly helpful conclusion, and you will be almost literally saying nothing. Language fluency is also intellectual fluency, so it is up to you to think quality thoughts, even if they are theoretical.

To solve something means to now have the means to describe your conclusions and persuade others of their veracity.At this point it is vital to make sure that you and your audience or conversation partner knows the difference between fact and opinion. You must be clear whether you are (a) speaking figuratively, or (b) literally, as one is factual while the other is open to further interpretation.

Unfortunately, it is extremely common to see people and corporations run with suggestion or opinion and use it as fact. This occurs all too often with any scientific study that “suggests” something – like eating bananas “may” slow the growth rate of certain cancers. Thus, almost within minutes seemingly, several new diet pills based on banana extract will appear being hailed as the “cure the government doesn’t want you to know about,” or someone will want you to go to their website to check out “this one weird trick for reducing your weight (with bananas)…” The words SUGGEST and MAY clearly state that this is not even close to a conclusion or fact, nor is it even a meaningful statement about bananas or cancer. Very often, too, another study within weeks will come out suggesting that NOT eating bananas may slow the growth rate of certain cancers; neither study has made any definitive or authoritative statement on bananas or cancer, or anything related. But then you see yet another round of misinformation and commercial interest connected to this new non-event, and hundreds if not thousands of people are duped into buying more useless crap from con artists disguised as health practitioners. It is easy to know the truth about these fake claims, but it can be very hard to persuade some people to acknowledge the truth. Thus you must be very well prepared for debate or outright resistance.

The final level of fluency rests in your ability to integrate what you have learnt and your analysis of it into a coherent whole, making clear the difference between what is known and what you personally are now adding to the world of language and facts. You know exactly which are your opinions about what you have learnt, which are reasoned, factual arguments about it, and which of these arguments are authentically your own (and not stolen/plagiarized from others). Being able to integrate the previous eight steps into a language whole means you are definitely, without question, fluent in your new language. It also means you will have the ability to do the same in your native tongue, making you a better student, doctor, lawyer, musician, sales associate, mother, brother, etc. It is a hard, lengthy process. But it is 100% guaranteed to work.


Since you have read this far, I am going to let you in on a little secret. One of the keys to advancing strong and efficiently in Japanese is to learn as many Speech Act Verbs (sav) as you can right from the start of your journey towards advanced Japanese. A sav is something you can only do by saying something, i.e. condemn, praise, etc. English is loaded with savs so learning how to say/use them in Japanese will give you an amazing advantage over your competitors if you are planning to work in a field that utilizes English and Japanese predominantly. Other useful savs include: ask, promise, thank, boast, insist, exclaim, suggest, persuade, convince, advise, accuse, offer, console, order, etc. Savs will be your secret weapon in getting jobs, passing Japanese exams, getting language certificates and so on, so start working them today. 



6 thoughts on “How To Become Fluent in Japanese (日本語).

  1. You touch on a few things here that i think i have badly used as examples of exactly why i am less willing to debate with people. You mention ‘economic instability among Japanese youth’ & that people who first learn about it from one source form an opinion, without really knowing anything about it. Now i find this problematic, because those people have a source & if they are a know-it-all, which is very common these days, it is difficult to have a discussion, because they hold fast to what they learned, as if it is something precious they won’t give up on easily. This in more delicate topics, like the Muslim population of Britain & terrorism, means you have people who want 3 million Muslims ejected from our country. They don’t know anything about Islam, never read the Koran, attended a mosque & know nothing of the logistics or consequences of ejected 3 million people from an island. It is insanity. But they have sources to back themselves up. They’ll quote media, tables all sorts of stuff & this reinforces them. i have quoted facts back at them, reasoned arguments, but nothing will counter them. My aunty is a horrendous racist & Islamophobic person & i cannot get her to see sense. She will not hear reason.
    This links in with your remarks about the ‘bananas’ fiasco. It seems when fact counters fact, or attempts to rectify it, unless the original source, rectifies itself, it just creates confusion & a repeat of the defense of what someone has learned. People are proud of themselves for learning something & don’t give that pride up easily.

    i may have focused on the wrong thing here, & i am not criticizing you, but i do wonder how, in a world where a politician like Michael Gove, who was the Education Secretary under David Cameron, can say during the campaign for Brexit “people are sick of listening to experts” & mean it, we can ever really change minds, or get to a point of truth, when it is so easy to lie & get away with it because it is a drop in an ocean of information. That was the Education Secretary said that.

    This is why i won’t debate with people, it is like screaming at a bird not to fly. & i only say this with you because i feel in a safe place & i trust the integrity of your mind enough to talk with you. i am also not so egotistical that if i am wrong, or if i can see the other’s point has validity, i will stubbornly remain unmoved for fear of chagrin.

    Great post by the way. i think you may be a legitimate genius. i can’t wait to meet you someday.

  2. The problem has been and will always be the emotional attachment people have to “being right”.

    1. If for example I know that Tokyo is a city in Japan, I know a fact. That leads me to believe “I am right”. But “being right” and knowing facts are two different emotional states. “Bananas contain manganese” does not make me feel any particular emotion, but “I am right about bananas containing manganese” does, what you might call happiness, or comfort or superiority or part of a group that is right about things (not alone!).

    People like “being right”. They don’t like “being wrong”. I like knowing facts. I also like changing the facts in my head when I discover they are not facts. One is about “me” the other is about truth. But anyone who values fact WILL encounter a BILLION “I’m right” people in his or her lifetime. People will LOVE IT when you make them think they can think. Those same people will HATE you when you actually make them think! It is because they fear something. Not being right makes them feel insecure, or scared of the future, or threatened, or whatever. We fear tigers in the same way people fear hearing that their god is not the right one: they are both existential threats… especially if one lives near a streak of atheist tigers! 🙂

    2. Thus, fear is the other side of that comfort. The idea that people who wear “weird” clothes or eat “funny” food takes certain people away from comfort, because the weird clothes and funny food are not “normal” ergo “wrong”. The fact that “Islam is a religion” is offensive to no one because it is not an emotional fact. What will get certain people angry is “removing Muslims from the UK will NOT solve it’s national safety issues”… as you will certainly alienate, completely disenfranchise and possibly radicalize patriotic, peaceful UK Muslims who share the exact SAME values as any other Brit. But that FACT has an emotional resonance that some people would rather kill/die for than actually accept… because they are AFRAID of terrorists. So their fear will actually lead to MORE of the thing they are afraid of. Emotional Reasoning is the greatest weapon major corporations and fascists and various types of government and so on exploit very effectively, especially nowadays. Way too many people “know” they are right because they feel (insert emotion here). And this willful self-blinding is a gold mine for the unscrupulous.

    So when you say “This is why I won’t debate with people, it is like screaming at a bird not to fly” I TOTALLY understand the frustration and the cynicism over trying to point out that holding a fact in your head is different than being right, and that your fact is NOT a threat to the people that frustrate you unless they cannot give up being ruled by their emotions. It is also why I am happy to hear that you feel this is a safe place to discuss such things. I try to make my points from a place that is as objective as possible, while knowing that, as a social scientist (ethnomusicology is a branch of anthropology) I MUST see all the sides of an issue if I am to be worth at least more than the paper my degrees were printed on! You also make so many good points I would be crazy not to consider them.

    If I may be so bold as to offer advice… I think you just need to not waste your time on those who clearly have no interest in leaving emotional reasoning. You could really help out the world of facts by sharing them with those who show at least a shred of interest in thinking about facts with their minds and not their feelings. Also, it is one of my favorite things to debate ideas with people who refuse to discuss things in a reasonable or rational manner. It is the best training one can ever get. Nothing sharpens one’s intellectual iron any better, because one must not lose their temper, or get caught up or lost in the various fallacies thrown at you 20 at a time. Besides, you are VERY VERY VERY intelligent, and if there any geniuses on this blog they are you and Okaji Sensei. I am of the opinion that the world needs the adamantine weapon of your mind. You could inflict some major damage on stupidity by being a patient and positive-force debater.

    Emotional reasoning (over climate change and religion) will be the end of humanity… but you and I absolutely have the intellectual power to delay it in our lifetime…. so don’t give up! 🙂

  3. Emotional Reasoning Delay factor is important. My range of ERD .4mS – 20 years. Control yourself. Drinking coffee, champagne, beer decreasing that time to zero. What next? You are naked as animal.

    Internet made us knowing everything. Our behavior got digitized and our response is matter of emotion. Keep your emotion for kids and closest. Your social response now is the world resonance engine. Save Planet.

    Thank you, Daniel!

  4. Even though I find some of what you’ve written quite discouraging, it does inspire me to learn more of the cultural if I expect to learn a language. Thank you for your insight.

    1. I am not sure why you would find it discouraging. Most people give up on language learning because they just study it and have no idea what they need to DO with it as they are learning it. This approach I laid out is not “hard” if one prepares and strategizes their pace and learning materials, once they know what they need to do with the Japanese they learn.

      I can teach ANYONE functional Japanese conversation in two weeks, if they study with me two hours a day for those two weeks. Not because I am smart or better than anyone, but I know how to organize my language study, and WHAT I need to be able to DO… because my students instantly know what they have to DO with it.

      I have never actually “taught” Japanese and my students have never “studied” it. I/we have used it effectively until we all became Japanese language users. And the way I describe above is how it works.

      So I encourage you to not be discouraged. There is nothing wrong with having fun and learning a few words of Japanese. But NO ONE gets fluent in Japanese without utility.

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