One of the things I have always wanted to achieve is fluency in the Japanese language. A web search for how to learn Japanese led me to Tofugu’s I want to learn Japanese! This page provides a guide for learning Japanese. The page also builds a strong case for purchasing Tofugu’s product, WaniKani.
Tofugu motivated me to pick up Japanese again by linking Derek Sivers’s story about the potential to learn quickly outside the limits of classroom instruction: There’s no speed limit. Tofugu also recommends taking an approach that would be difficult in a classroom environment. Tofugu recommends first building a vocabulary while learning to read kanji before using a textbook to study grammar.
Tofugu makes an observation, which I have experienced firsthand and I attribute my lack of progress toward fluency:
A lot of a beginner’s time when using a textbook is spent looking up kanji and vocabulary. This takes your focus away from the grammar you’re trying to learn and makes progression slow and frustrating. Learning (some) kanji and vocabulary first makes learning grammar a lot faster and, more importantly, easier.
To further streamline learning Japanese, Tofugu goes against typical classroom instruction and recommends typing Japanese rather writing Japanese at first:
While it is important to learn how to hand write Japanese eventually, right now it will slow you down immensely with very little payoff. Typing covers 99% of modern day writing so you will learn how to type hiragana (and katakana and kanji) instead.
Tofugu spells out the theory of the kanji-vocabulary-first approach:
When learning something new, you should already know 80% of it.
This means that each new thing you learn should be a 20% (or smaller) incremental step. A +1 from where you are, rather than a +20 or +100.
Most people go into a textbook with zero knowledge and wind up spending a large chunk of their time looking up words they don’t know. How much of a sentence is vocabulary? Depending on the length, it’s easy to answer “more than 80%.”
So when you’re learning grammar with a textbook, coming into it with prior vocabulary knowledge brings you to that 80%. Leaving you just the grammar, which you can then point your laser-like focus towards. Instead of constantly flipping to the index to look up a word or kanji and deal with context switching when you finally get back to the lesson, all you have to worry about is learning the grammar and nothing else.
After thoroughly providing the motivation to gain vocabulary by reading kanji before studying grammar, Tofugu provides a process for gaining vocabulary. The process involves collecting words encountered daily and processing collected words into a spaced repetition system (SRS). Tofugu recommends that processing collected words involve associating mnemonics to ease committing the words to memory. Populating an SRS to develop vocabulary requires a lot of effort.
To streamline my journey toward fluency, I signed up for WaniKani, Tofugu’s commercial platform for learning kanji and vocabulary. WaniKani provides a spaced repetition system (SRS) that supports the keyword mnemonic method. The service offers an SRS that is pre-populated with what Tofugu feels are the “most important meanings and readings” of their selected set of kanji as well as a set of vocabulary that covers the less common readings. WaniKani teaches “around 1,700 kanji and 5,000 vocabulary words in about one to two years.”
The following video is queued to start where Chris Lonsdale talks about the effectiveness of a small functional vocabulary, but the rest of the video is worth a watch since it provides a guide on learning any language quickly:
The next step after gaining enough vocabulary and grammar is exposure to the language. Yuta Aoki talks about the importance of comprehensible input in detail with examples: