Sentence build-ups

The point of this method is to make difficult things easy.

One of my favorite methods in learning languages is repeating recordings of native speakers, trying to speak as quickly as they do and copying their intonation, rhythm, and other aspects of their pronunciation. I pause after each sentence of a dialog and repeat it at least three times. If the sentence is too long, I pause it after each clause. Another day, I go through the same dialog again. Eventually, the long sentences that were difficult become relatively easy to say.

I believe this method has helped me immensely in my language learning. Not only does it improve my pronunciation–making it easier for native speakers to understand me–but it also improves my listening skills. The rapid speech of native speakers doesn’t bother me as much because I practice speaking quickly via this method. I believe that everybody learning a foreign language should spend part of their study time repeating after recordings–if conversation is one of their goals. It might even improve a person’s reading skills, especially if they’re a beginner.

They don’t even have to be dialogs. They could be individual sentences, such as those used in an audio phrase book such as Book2 or Language/30. Or you could do it with Glossika. Even the example sentences from the grammar section of your textbook will work, if they are also recorded in an audio file or an audio CD. If they aren’t, maybe you can hire a native speaker to record them for you.

Shadowing is a similar method which other people recommend, but which I haven’t tried. Essentially, you’re doing the same thing as I do, except you don’t pause the recording. Instead, you repeat what you heard while the speaker is still saying the sentence. You try to finish the sentence soon after the speaker did. This requires you to listen and speak at the same time. The technique sounds too stressful for me, which is why I pause the recording and repeat three times instead.

Once you have some practice repeating after recordings in your target language, you can even practice with written sentences. That is, you can use example sentences that you find anywhere–in a grammar book, in a textbook that doesn’t include audio, in a phrase book, or in a written article. With this technique, you start with the long words in the sentence and practice saying them until they are easy to say. Then you take short phrases (prepositional phrases, etc.) and repeat them a few times. Then longer phrases and clauses. Eventually, practice the full sentence until it’s easy. Review these same sentences another day. You may or may not need to build them up again.

I often do these steps in reverse order: First, I do sentence build-ups with the written dialog until I can say every sentence somewhat easily (or at least each long clause within the sentence). Then I repeat after the audio, listening for anything I’ve been saying incorrectly and focusing on correcting my errors. However, this way is risky because you can learn to say things incorrectly and then repeat them incorrectly after the audio. Still, it’s much easier (and less stressful!) to do it this way. Stress makes it harder to retain what you’re learning. If you have to adapt a method to reduce your stress, do so.

Don’t try this method for long periods of time. A few minutes here and there through your day will be much easier and give you better results, I think. If it starts becoming too difficult or you start feeling fatigued, stop. Come back later and try again. What’s difficult the first time might be surprisingly easy later or on another day. In fact, that’s one of the mottos I live by: “Everything is hard before it is easy.”–Goethe

The point of the sentence build-up method is to make difficult things easy. This includes speaking quickly, pronouncing long words, sounding more like native speakers so they understand you better, saying complex sentences, and understanding rapid speech.

Adapting an audiolingual course

Don’t feel constrained to learn a course in the way the author intended. That’s what it means to be an independent learner.

In my previous post, I explained the Audiolingual Method and mentioned some courses that use it (most of them being US Foreign Service Institute [FSI] courses whose copyrights have expired). At the end, I wrote, “In a future article, I plan to share ways I adapt audiolingual courses to make them a little closer to a comprehensible input approach, less tedious, and/or more useful as preparation for conversation.”

Before I do so, I want to mention a few trends since the Audiolingual Method fell out of favor. First, a handful of teaching professionals hypothesized that languages are not taught and learned so much as acquired through comprehensible input (CI)–in other words, reading and listening to a language until it becomes familiar. Note that the input has to be comprehensible, meaning that learners understand most of what they hear and read, and can guess the meanings of unknown vocabulary and grammar through context. If the input is too hard, they hunt for something easier.

Preferably, the input should also be compelling. Examples include a story which draws the reader or listener in–or a fascinating non-fiction article. As the evidence allegedly accumulates (I can’t verify this because I don’t read scholarly journals), more teachers accept this approach, but it’s still not widely accepted. Also, even Stephen Krashen (its most famous proponent) admits that he doesn’t practice the comprehensible input approach consistently. In a nutshell, people don’t learn languages, they get used to them, as Olly Richards is fond of saying.

A more popular trend (which was very popular when I was earning my post-bac certificate in Teaching English as a Second Language in the early 1990’s) was called Communicative Language Teaching (CLT). In CLT–which I practiced as I taught English in South Korea for two years and Japan for three years–the teacher creates activities for pairs of students, small groups, and sometimes the whole class to do together. These activities require students to speak with each other in their target language. For example, handouts might require two students to take turns asking and answering each other questions. It took me a long time to figure this out, but I eventually realized that many of these controlled speaking activities were essentially Audiolingual grammar drills in disguise.

The language teaching profession and the international polyglot community have independently reached the same conclusion: Different students favor different approaches to learning. Although research has discredited the “learning styles” and “learning strategies” paradigms, eclecticism is still widely favored. In other words, teachers are urged to teach the same material in a variety of ways until most of their students understand or can use new grammar and vocabulary.

Meanwhile, the polyglot community recommends that independent learners try a variety of courses and methods until they find one(s) they’re comfortable with–and these courses/methods vary over time and from language to language. In other words, a method that worked well for you when you were a beginner might not work well for you as an intermediate student. Likewise, a technique that worked well for learning Spanish might not work well for Russian or Japanese. Experiment, watch YouTube videos in order to learn new methods, expand your horizons, leave your comfort zone–and you will become a better language learner.

With this background of knowledge, what are some ways that audiolingual courses can be adapted by independent learners in order to take advantage of these trends? First, don’t feel constrained to learn a course in the way the author intended. You don’t have to do every exercise in each chapter. You don’t have to memorize every word or understand every grammatical point or pronounce everything perfectly before continuing to the next chapter. Experiment. Change up your methods from time to time. Memorize only words that you are likely to use in conversation.

Recently, I studied from John DeFrancis’ Mandarin Chinese textbooks–but in my own way. The textbooks put the dialog first, but I chose to study other parts of the chapter first (vocabulary and sentence build-ups) and then the dialog. The textbooks and audio were meant to be studied together, but I studied the textbooks first before the audio (because the audio is spoken quickly). The textbooks teach a limited vocabulary in each chapter. I didn’t memorize those words, but looked up words in the dictionary that I wanted to know, memorized those words instead, and made my own sentences using the grammar drills in the textbook with the words I looked up in the dictionary. Also, DeFrancis’ textbooks came in pairs: one textbook using the Latin alphabet (pinyin) and an identical textbook using Chinese characters. I alternated between the two textbooks in a way which made sense to me. All of these adaptations made the course easier and more interesting to me.

In the past, I used the Beginning Japanese audiolingual textbook by Jorden and Chaplin. My focus was mostly on repeating after the audio in order to get used to speaking Japanese at native speed. I also used the audio for listening practice (after reading through the chapter). By simply reading and listening to the dialogs and drills, I received a lot of comprehensible input at native speed. Granted, it’s not compelling input, but it is comprehensible for beginners. My point is, it’s not necessary to speak to benefit from audiolingual courses. You can just read and listen, then just listen.

I also studied the FSI German Basic course. But in this case, my focus was on the dialogs rather than the drills. I printed out a chapter’s dialog, kept it on my desk, and occasionally mumbled a sentence or two until they became easy to say. I resumed my work and later studied another sentence or two. I brought the papers with me to the microwave and studied them while my lunch was cooking. I did not try to study whole chapters, but merely practiced sentences from the dialog to improve my speaking fluency (fluidity).

Although I only studied a few chapters of each of these courses–never finishing any of them–they all helped me to learn these languages. The key was to select a strategy for studying each course rather than feeling obligated to do everything as designed. For example, instead of doing a grammar drill, you can just repeat the correct answers. In the process, you’ll encounter the same grammatical form in many sentences, and this will make the grammar easier to learn.

Another thing you can try is studying a course together with another learner or tutor or language exchange partner (even over Skype, if necessary). In this case, you can create communicative (CLT) activities together. For example, you can take turns asking and answering each other’s questions in order to practice the grammar and vocabulary in the audiolingual course.

As an independent learner, you can decide if and how you will adapt each course, and you can quit at any time and use a different course or method. That’s what it means to be independent. Go be independent!

What is the Audiolingual Method?

Audiolingual courses are extremely dry and tedious by nature, but even completing a few chapters can be helpful.

The Audiolingual Method of teaching languages was popular in the mid-20th Century in the United States. The most well-known examples today are the Foreign Service Institute’s (FSI) courses freely available on the Internet (because their copyrights have expired) or available for purchase from Barron’s “Mastering” series, Monolingual Books, and other sources. But some are university textbooks, such as Modern Russian 1 by Clayton Dawson, et al., Beginning Chinese by John DeFrancis, and Beginning Japanese: Part 1 by Jorden and Chaplin. Many of these courses are taught using the Latin alphabet rather than the language’s writing system, though separate readers are available to learn to read the language.

When completing a course, learners know a thousand or two thousand words and a lot of grammar. They can’t use the language yet (in conversation, for example), but if they continue their studies independently or in a country where the language is spoken, they can allegedly learn very quickly, having already mastered the grammar. That is, they can focus on meaning–having already mastered the form–instead of having to think about both at the same time. In short, a learner using an audiolingual course starts off learning more slowly than someone using a modern method, but has the potential of surpassing other learners later. The tortoise transforms into a hare–eventually, after completing a long, tedious course. I believe it because I learned French grammar first in high school and college and couldn’t use the language, but later I could master French through reading, listening, and conversation and ignore the grammar because I already knew it.

The method was designed to be used with a teacher, a class of students, a textbook, an audio recording with hundreds of hours of audio, a language lab (because MP3 players and smartphones didn’t exist yet, and these courses were originally recorded on reel-to-reel audio tape) and some homework. Nowadays, some ambitious language learners like myself use them independently, but keep in mind that they were intended to be used with the support and guidance of a teacher.

Here’s the method: Memorize one or more dialogs which include examples of the new vocabulary and grammar taught in the chapter. Memorize it really well before continuing through the chapter! The better you memorize it, the less stressful the grammar drills will be. Also read the dialog’s notes and the chapter’s grammar explanations, but only as much as you find them helpful—that is, they aren’t the primary means of learning grammar. Then do a lot of grammar drills with the teacher and again with the audio recordings, using the textbook sparingly. That is, the drills are mostly audio. Everything is spoken at native speed even from the first or second lesson, so that you can get used to the rhythm, accent, intonation, etc. (prosody) and so that you can understand native speakers sooner. At the end of each chapter, for review, the course may or may not direct you to translate sentences and/or engage in extremely limited conversation activities.

The grammar drills are of various types. In Transformation Drills, the teacher or recording says a list of sentences and asks learners to make them negative, change them into questions, or change them in some other way. In Substitution Drills–the most common type–the teacher says a sentence and then a word. The learners take a word out of the sentence and put the new word in, changing word endings as needed to make the new sentence grammatically correct. In Expansion Drills, the teacher starts with a very short sentence, then keeps adding phrases to make longer and longer sentences.

The method is based on the behaviorist approach to psychology: Repetition and correction were believed to be the way to learn any skill, even grammar. Behaviorism is no longer commonly accepted, but the better audiolingual courses continue to be useful nonetheless. They provide many example sentences to demonstrate each grammatical form and force learners to speak and listen at native speed.

There are exceptions–such as the FSI Korean course because of weaknesses in its design and because Korean grammar has actually changed a little in half-a-century. Since FSI courses were designed for foreign service personnel, they use formal registers of speech–which is not a problem in most languages, but I think it is a problem in Korean. Native Korean speakers say they don’t talk anything like the FSI Korean course teaches.

Also, some FSI courses (notably for Portuguese) use a “programmed” method which involves listening to a lot of short language segments and selecting answers in order to make learners notice features in grammar and pronunciation. Programmed courses can still be helpful for complete beginners but they are designed very differently than the courses I’ve been describing. FSI also has pronunciation courses for French and Arabic, which are freely available for download from websites such as Yojik. I’ve never used them, so I can’t review them.

Audiolingual courses are extremely dry and tedious by nature, but even completing a few chapters can be helpful. The Russian grammar I’m the most comfortable with is the grammar I learned from Modern Russian 1. I could understand Japanese native speakers more easily after completing a few chapters of Beginning Japanese: Part 1. And now I’m studying Beginning Chinese because of its use of sentence build-ups to give me practice with very short sentences before I have to learn to pronounce longer ones (and because the course includes optional books which teach Chinese characters gradually with a lot of review).

In a future article, I plan to share ways I adapt audiolingual courses to make them a little closer to a comprehensible input approach, less tedious, and/or more useful as preparation for conversation.

My story, part two

I had three dreams to chase after

A TV miniseries changed my life. When I graduated from college with a BA in French, I was planning to return to Oregon, earn a teaching certificate, and teach French to high school students in my home state. What changed my mind was remembering something I watched on TV back when I was in junior high school (also called middle school). It was called Shogun. Starring Richard Chamberlin, and based on a novel by James Clavell, it covered a turning point in medieval Japanese history as witnessed by an English captain who was shipwrecked there. The movie portrayed the Japanese culture as exotic and the locals kept everything clean and organized, despite its barbaric aspects during that time period. As a teenager, I had never heard of manga, J-Pop, etc., though maybe we had a little anime on TV. Most of my impressions of Japan were from that miniseries, but it was enough to make me want to go there and see what the Japanese culture was like today.

I forgot to mention that I had had another dream since junior high, and that was to be a translator or interpreter. I interviewed a multilingual translator for Career Day. He read newspapers in several European languages every day in order to maintain his languages at a high level. In college, I used a short school break to fly to Monterrey, California to visit Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterrey (which went by a different name back then). MIIS has a two-year Master’s degree program in Conference Interpretation which I wanted to learn more about. Frankly, I didn’t want the lifestyle of an interpreter (working evenings and weekends, concentrating for hours, being social, etc.), but I did want the intellectual challenge of simultaneously interpreting from Japanese to English. Also, after mastering Japanese, I would have had to study in a Japanese university for a year or two before I was ready to enter MIIS, so the whole plan would have cost me too much money. Nonetheless, the dream was very strong when I graduated from college.

I still wanted to teach a foreign language. That meant I had three dreams to chase after (teaching, mastering Japanese for interpreter school, and experiencing Japanese culture). The obvious solution was to teach English in Japan. The problem was that teaching jobs in Japan were competitive, so I went to Busan, South Korea first for teaching experience for a year, then started my Master’s degree in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) at Portland State University. I ran out of money and was itching to go overseas again, so I quit PSU after a year, but I had earned enough credits for a post-bac certificate. The program was offered by the Applied Linguistics department, so many of my classes were in linguistics. After one more year of teaching in South Korea (this time, in a small town called Gunsan), I landed a job at a junior college in Nagoya, Japan, where I taught for three years.

Things went wrong in Japan. First, my Japanese was progressing too slowly. I had to speak English all day. I only knew textbook Japanese, not colloquial speech–much less the Nagoya dialect. When I went out to Japanese bars in the evening, I couldn’t understand what anyone said. So, I usually went out to westernized bars and restaurants instead, or I bought a bento on the way home and studied Japanese reading at home. Second, I thought I was losing my hearing, and I was only in my twenties! It was only after returning to the US that I found out that it was because of ear wax buildup, and I wasn’t really losing my hearing. Third, I was still homesick for my family and for the variety of restaurants and groceries in Portland. Discouraged, I returned home and started my current career in IT. I knew that I would only be able to find part-time work as an ESL teacher in Portland, so I gave up on teaching. But computers were another interest of mine, so my career change worked out all right.

In the next installments of “My story,” I’ll go into more detail about my life and teaching experiences in Korea and Japan.

Give longer answers

If you only give short answers, you will always be a beginner

When practicing conversation in another language, if you only give short answers, you will always be a beginner. For example, if someone asks, “Where do you want to travel?”, and you just answer, “France” or “I want to travel to France,” you’ll never reach intermediate proficiency in speaking. Get used to volunteering extra information, and your proficiency will grow quickly.

The most obvious way to add information is to give reasons for your answers. “France because I love the French language, and everyone says Paris is wonderful.”

Another way is to compare two things. “Either France or Mexico. In France, I can practice my French, but in Mexico, I can get more sun. I can’t decide.” In fact, a good exercise is to compare two or more things as a conversation topic. For example, you can compare two countries you’ve visited or two cities you’ve lived in. You can compare schools you attended or homes you lived in. You can compare yourself with your siblings or with your parents. You can compare sports you like or foods you cook. This will stretch your language skills and will help you to reach the intermediate level much faster.

You can lengthen your answers by giving specific examples. “I want to travel to Paris and see the cathedrals there. Especially, I want to see Notre Dame before I die.”

You can also lengthen your answers by telling a story. “I want to go to France again. I went to Paris as a teenager and loved it. My family traveled there for a weekend. I saw the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre. Now I want to see more of France.”

In summary, whether you talk to yourself or practice conversation with someone else, always get in the practice of giving longer and longer answers. If you practice by talking to yourself first, you can look up words in a dictionary as you speak. This way, you can learn specific vocabulary you need rather than the general vocabulary taught in textbooks. If you also study and practice grammar, you can go from beginner to low-intermediate level quickly.

Strategies for avoiding kanji

Supposing you only want lower-intermediate conversational skills. What can you do?

This post is a complete antithesis of my last one.

Recently, someone wrote to me, “[In my opinion] trying to learn Japanese without learning the Kanji is futile.” Well, actually, if a person only wants to learn Japanese for travel or for the goal of attaining lower-intermediate conversation skills, they can avoid all of the Japanese scripts—kanji, hiragana, and katakana. They can just use romaji (the Latin alphabet—similar to English, Spanish, French, and German).

Supposing you only want lower-intermediate conversational skills. What can you do? Surprisingly, there are a lot of study materials you can use. I expect that there are websites and apps that can help you. Since I learn languages almost entirely from books and audio courses though (many of which cost money), these are mostly what I’m going to talk about below.

First, I would start every language with fun courses. I say this because it’s hard to be truly committed to a project in the beginning. (See my article, “A honeymoon for language success”, for more information.) In this regard, I recommend starting with Dr. Blair’s Japanese in No Time, an audio course available from audiobook clubs such as eStories and Audible.

I also find JapanesePod101 entertaining, at least in some “seasons.” Different levels and seasons have different writers and hosts. If you try a season and don’t like it, try another. (My favorite is Beginner Season 1.) Those podcasts are free for the first week, and include PDF documents if you want to read along with the dialogs. If you like them, my personal preference is to get a Basic membership for $21 every 3 months (automatically renewed until you tell them to stop). Keep going with podcasts for as long as you can because they’ll help you with your listening skills, without which you can’t carry on a conversation.

If you can afford the Premium membership for JapanesePod101, you can listen to a podcast episode and then listen several times to the dialog-only track in order to get away from the English and listen only to Japanese. You can even download the dialog-only tracks to an MP3 player and play them in shuffle mode to improve your listening even more. To save money, I prefer to study it for a few months with the Basic membership, then switch to Premium membership for a couple of months to listen to the dialog-only tracks.

When you’re ready for serious studies, try the (completely audio) Michel Thomas series. It breaks the grammar down into small pieces and gets you speaking and creating sentences. (I wrote a review about it last month.) An audio course I enjoyed less but still learned from is Pimsleur. You can download the first lesson for free from the official Pimsleur website. If you choose to continue, either search your public library or you can buy lessons cheaply if you join one of the audiobook clubs I mentioned earlier. There are books for learning which only use romaji, but I would study audio courses first so that you learn good pronunciation skills. Some learners have purportedly ruined their Japanese pronunciation by starting with books, and then native speakers couldn’t understand what they said.

If you want to improve your pronunciation, the Fluent Forever website sells an inexpensive course (Pronunciation Trainer) which is written both in Japanese scripts and in a phonetic script (International Phonetic Alphabet) somewhat similar to the Latin alphabet. I haven’t tried it, so I can’t comment on its quality or usefulness.

A course book which uses romaji from beginning to end is Teach Yourself Complete Japanese. There are some reading passages, but you can skip over them. Other options include Japanese in 10 Minutes a Day, Get Talking Japanese, Japanese for Dummies, and probably many more. I enjoyed Japanese in 10 Minutes a Day–which is in a workbook style–and I used Complete Japanese for listening practice, but I haven’t tried the other courses in this paragraph (so I don’t know if they’re any good).

Most of the beginning grammar reference books are written in both Japanese scripts and romaji, so you can get by with just the romaji. In fact, my favorite is written entirely in romaji (even the example sentences). It’s called Japanese Verbs and Essentials of Grammar. What worked for me was creating my own sentences aloud over a period of weeks until the grammar became easy, and then I could remember it to use it in conversation. The book summarizes all of the basic grammar of Japanese in about 100 pages, including hundreds of verb endings to help you communicate many nuances of meaning. This book helped me to achieve lower-intermediate conversation skills earlier this year.

You also need vocabulary. Topical vocabulary books are perfect for conversation practice. Two I use are Barron’s Japanese Vocabulary by Nobuo Akiyama and Japanese Vocabulary for English Speakers: 9000 Words by Andrey Taranov, both of which include romaji for every word. Bookstores also have paper dictionaries entirely in romaji, but they tend to have few words. However, you can always use Google Translate and look at the romaji down below. There’s even a button that allows you to hear the word or sentence in Japanese.

Finally, you need to practice conversation. Hire a tutor if you can (for example, from italki) or find an exchange partner. Or use an app such as Amikumu to find another Japanese learner near you that you can practice conversation together with over a cup of coffee. Or find a Meetup group near you that practices Japanese conversation together. Italki tutors are the most expensive but most efficient resources I’ve found so far without living in Japan. However, in my case, I couldn’t find tutors early in the morning when I wanted them because early morning for me is nighttime in Japan.

If you follow these steps (or use other resources which others recommend or which you find yourself), you have the potential to go all the way to the lower-intermediate level without learning any kanji, hiragana, or katakana. Personally, I started Japanese in a high school class, so I was forced to learn the Japanese scripts. Also, I want to read novels in Japanese, so this was never an option. Nonetheless, I’ve found romaji-only and completely audio resources helpful along the way.

Strategies for mastering kanji (for beginners)

Take it slowly and enjoy the language.

This article is for anyone who has been learning Japanese as a beginner. As you would have found out by now, Japanese has three writing systems: two alphabets called hiragana and katakana (about 50 letters each) and thousands of Chinese characters (called kanji). Once you’ve learned the hiragana and katakana (which doesn’t take as long as total beginners might expect), you need to choose a strategy for learning kanji. Actually, this is done for you in beginner textbooks, but eventually you’ll have to take up the responsibility for mastering kanji yourself (unless you’ve chosen to avoid them completely and stick to conversation skills only).

Because kanji are used both for native Japanese words and for borrowed Chinese “words,” the characters have multiple pronunciations and sometimes multiple meanings. In my experience, it’s almost impossible to memorize all of those pronunciations and meanings at the same time, so I end up learning each character multiple times before I feel that I really know it.

Actually, I consider these various pronunciations and meanings to be merely intellectual constructs–that is, they exist in scholarly studies of the language, but not in real life. What exists in real life is words. Sometimes, one kanji can be used by itself to represent one word. Sometimes, it’s combined with hiragana to form a word. But usually, two or more kanji are combined to make a word. A kanji’s pronunciation varies depending on which word it’s in. In reading and writing, people don’t read and write kanji, they read and write words. So, my strategy is to memorize words.

Specifically, I memorize from one to three example words that contain the kanji I want to learn. I can always come back and memorize more words later in order to learn additional pronunciations that I didn’t learn the first time. Fortunately, as I’ve said, both the kanji to learn and the example words have been chosen for you in beginning textbooks and readers. You ought to learn how to read and write (or at least, read and type) individual characters, but then if you’re going to memorize anything, memorize the vocabulary in your textbook, and you’ll automatically start getting used to the kanji in words.

Learning to write (not just type) is helpful in preparation for reading handwritten Japanese, which often looks very different from typed Japanese. It also helps you to get used to recognizing character parts, so that complicated characters look less complicated.

There is something more important than kanji, and that’s grammar. Even if you set aside a year and memorize 2000 kanji–enough to read a newspaper–Japanese will still be gibberish to you unless you also know the grammar. So that’s where I prioritize my studies: grammar first, then kanji. Grammar is essential for conversation skills, too. You can’t say or understand much without grammar. In fact, in Japanese, sometimes a sentence will seem to say the exact opposite of what it means until you understand the grammar.

My advice, then, for beginners, is to buy a two-volume beginning textbook series, such as Genki, Yookoso, or Elementary Japanese (my personal favorite). These all teach about 300 kanji–but more importantly, grammar. There’s still a lot more grammar to learn after you finish these books, but they’ll give you a good foundation. In fact, I would start with the Michel Thomas series first, as it breaks down the grammar into small pieces and forces you to make sentences aloud. If you can’t afford Michel Thomas, Duolingo will do, as long as you also make up your own sentences in Japanese using the grammar which Duolingo teaches you. Then buy one of these textbook series and continue your studies.

If you would like additional help with kanji, many people have found success in a series of textbooks called Remembering the Kanji by James W. Heisig. Nobody recommended that series to me until recently, and I already know around 600 kanji. By now, I’m familiar with the character parts introduced in Heisig’s books, so I don’t need the books. But other people swear by them.

What helped me was Reading Japanese by Eleanor Harz Jorden and Hamako Ito Chaplin. This university textbook introduces only one kanji at a time, 25 per chapter (425 total) and then gives a lot of reading practice with it, while reviewing earlier kanji at the same time. Each chapter ends with more reading practice, so that each kanji is reviewed multiple times. When I studied that book, I never needed to memorize anything. It also provides a little practice at reading handwritten Japanese, a skill rarely taught elsewhere.

For beginners, strategizing learning kanji is simple: Select your textbooks and readers. It’s only when you finish those textbooks and readers and ask yourself, “now what?”, that you’ll need to take the initiative in your kanji learning. Focus on grammar first, then kanji. Learn conversation and practice listening, as with any other language. Mastering Japanese requires patience and persistence. There’s no need to rush and fret. Take it slowly and enjoy the language.