Exactly one year ago, to the date, I decided to get on an accelerated timeline to become fluent in Japanese in 12 months. I even created a calendar reminder to mark the end of the “experiment”:
Let’s talk about:
- My final results
- What I did right
- What I would do differently
- My plans going forward
It’s amazing that I’m writing this.
What I achieved
I wanted to pass the N2/N1 in one year, by spending 2-4 hours per day studying Japanese.
That did not happen. I didn’t take the JLPT (but I know I’m not at the N1 level yet) and I didn’t spend that much time on Japanese. I started a new company this year (totally unforeseen at the time of starting my Japanese), and naturally, the startup takes precedence.
What did happen: I made a huge breakthrough even by studying only ~30 minutes per day. My known words on LingQ went from ~500 to ~4,500 in one year.
Today, I can comprehend a surprising amount of speech in Japanese. Most sentence patterns are drilled into my brain to an extent that when I speak simple everyday phrases, native Japanese speakers are shocked at how pera-pera (=fluent) I appear to be.
This is one achievement that I’ll sincerely cherish. It’s like the language has *activated* forever in my brain, and I can officially count Japanese among the languages I speak. Now there’s no looking back.
What went right
- I focused on reading and listening to lots and lots of authentic content. Didn’t follow any structured courses.
- I consumed content that I genuinely enjoyed. No children’s stories.
- I also didn’t consume content that was too complicated / so far out of my comfort zone that I couldn’t read a single sentence without a dictionary. Examples: classic Japanese literature, by authors like Osamu Dezai. Sticking to upper-intermediate content is my sweet spot. Most of this is in the form of slice-of-life anime such as Bakuman etc, which also have formal speech.
- I used LingQ, and fought to maintain a daily streak of activity.
- I stopped trying to fixate on grammar, instead choosing to pick it up “organically” from real content as much as possible. Getting familiar with patterns through sheer repetition beats any grammar textbook, any day.
- I started focusing on phrases over individual words. Phrases make sense, and are easier for the brain to remember.
I analyzed my results in more detail here: No Plateaus in Language Learning.
Here are the overall stats on how much work I put in:
What went wrong
- I started a new company in February, which meant that Japanese fell in priority — that is, instead of maxing out, I did the minimum I could while still staying consistent.
- Missed a whole month of study (trip to Europe in Dec-Jan).
- Did not maintain the same discipline with Anki flashcards (for kanji). I still haven’t finished the deck, and am very inconsistent with flashcards. Learning the kanji has been the main bottleneck to my acquisition of new words faster.
- Did not spend as much time studying as I originally thought I could! My new startup has been the main reason for this, but also other factors. Life gets in the way if you let it.
- I changed my approach to kanji mid-way — first doing keyword on the front, and then doing kanji on the front.
- I tried keeping a daily writing habit (writing small sentences). It didn’t stick. The biggest issue was simply deciding what I’m going to write about. Facing a blank page depletes your mental energy really quickly, and subjecting yourself to this every single day does more harm than good if you’re an entrepreneur whose livelihood depends on it.
My plan going forward
I’m now at a stage where I can understand most of the patterns in Japanese. My constraints at this point are my vocabulary, and the ability to discuss complex topics.
- More flashcards. I’ll spend 20-30 minutes on flashcards daily, to get through the deck as quickly as I can.
- Active reading/listening. I’ll keep up my daily habit with LingQ — I feel like it is the “minimum effective dose” that I just cannot go without, and that I’ll regret breaking my streak (255 days as of today) anytime soon.
- More passive input. I recently started listening to Japanese content passively, while doing chores like cooking and laundry. I will continue to do more of this — even though active listening is always better, passive listening can be extremely valuable, as long as you mostly comprehend the content. It helps “grease the groove” in your brain, making the language stick.
- More output. I am moving to Japan for a few months soon, so I will get more and more opportunities to practice speaking and writing in the language. While I believe that most beginner/intermediate learners should focus on input rather than output, I’ve reached a level where that is no longer the case.
My main reason for starting the Japanese learning journey in the first place was this:
I strongly regretted not having learned Japanese in the last 8 years. I didn’t want to wake up 5 years later and still be thinking, “what if” or “if only.”
I’ve learned that the combination of a strong motivation, deciding on a clear and simple strategy that you don’t change, confidence in yourself, and patiently focusing on the process as opposed to results, can help you achieve anything you set your mind to. The aforementioned things help you build up a habit and stick to it, and habits are what matter.
I can confidently say that learning Japanese everyday was the most influential habit I created in 2022-2023.
I’m now looking forward to applying this into other areas of my life, such as fitness, business, etc.
How much more could I achieve in life with strong habits? I guess we’ll find out!