Japanese learning through context?


I’ve had this question for quite a while and never really asked anyone.
How well can one learn Japanese through context?

I’m not really a great learner in general. Many, if not most, things I learned in life are through context and context alone. English is a good example. I’m not a native english speaker as you might have guessed. I’m german. Almost every bit of english I’ve learned, I’ve learned purely through context. We have english classes here in germany starting first grade in elementary school (second grade when I was in school) but I never really paid any attention to any of the lessons. I learned the bare minimum of english. How to introduce myself and a few minimum sentence structures. I did horribly in my english classes until I started to use my computer more. Playing games in english, watching shows in english (cause I couldn’t stand the german voice overs in most cases) chatting in english and watching videos as well as listening to podcasts and streamers were my only tools of learning english. I learned everything through imitation and context. Ever since then, I have always gotten better grades than any of my classmates in english. I would not call myself a very good english speaker, but I don’t (personally) know many people that speak english as “well” as I do here in germany.

Now, since I’m really new to learning japanese, I really don’t know how the language is structured and build so I was wondering if someone with more experience could tell me if something like I did with english is possible with japanese. I’m not saying that I want to learn only through imitation and context. I will absolutely study. But learning that way is just the best way I personally can learn.

To clarify what I mean with context: Figuring out the meaning of a word / sentence or learning sentence structure and other grammar through listening to people comparing what they said with the context they said it in.

A very basic example in english would be this:

Through listening its pretty easy to determine that in most (but as far as I know not all) cases if a noun or the adjective connected to the noun starts with an AIUEO sound you put “an” in front of it. Otherwise you put “a” in front of it.

AN automobile

A car

Thank you very much in advance. And sorry for the long post. I don’t know how to describe it in any less detail. :smiley:


I think that learning by context is something that every language learner does to some extent but it is an extremely ineffective strategy if it is your only way of learning. A more effective strategy contains both immersion and more formal “textbook” approaches, in my opinion.

The big limitation of learning through context is that the context already needs to exist. If you read a text and understand 95% of the words and most of the grammar, you can figure out things by yourself. If you are starting from 0, you really can’t because you don’t have a basis on which you can draw assumptions.

Your English classes, which you said you were bad at, at least gave you a basis on which to build on. Think about it this way - maybe you would have been better in those classes if you had reinforced them through video games, movies, podcasts et cetera at the same time?

What I’m trying to say is, if you find it hard to learn from textbooks, vocab lists et cetera, you shouldn’t discard those completely. Learning from them is generally a challenge, but it enables the immersion you need for effective learning from context.


Ohh yes sorry. I forgot to mention that. Before I even try to attempt to learn from context I want to learn at least the basics through a text book approach. With basics I mean elementary school level basics (which is already more than I knew when I did the same thing with english)

And yeah. I won’t stop learning the textbook approach. I might dial it down a bit once I have the basics in since, like I said, I’m really not a good learner (in the textbook sense) but I definitely won’t stop. I feel like now that I understand how I learned english, I really want to learn at least a little through textbooks and similar resources, just so I can increase the rate I learn through context by knowing more about the language in general.

Thank you for your reply. This feels like I can at least learn a little through my preferred method. I feared that the language might be a bit too complex and “unconventional” (?) for that to work properly.

I think you might be underestimating the effect of English classes. We (I’m also German) get 4 hours of classes every week starting from elementary school - I know you don’t learn much during those first few years but I think it’s nearly impossible to sleep through all of that and not take anything away from it.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of immersion learning. I learned most of the English words I know through content, just like you.

But that doesn’t mean that it’s not necessary (or at least much more effective) to have a base to build on.

English is also much closer to German in terms of grammar and vocab, compared to Japanese.

I personally learn mostly through context these days (as in I just pick something to read or watch, and look up things I don’t know along the way), and I like it that way. Figured out that textbook exercises aren’t really for me. So I’m a bit biased here, but I absolutely think that does work - once you have at least a semi solid understanding of very basic grammar.
Though I absolutely look stuff up when I don’t know it - I don’t try to guess meanings from context alone or anything. I feel like that wouldn’t work very well, but who knows.

In the end I’d say if you’re not in a hurry, just try what seems like the most fun for you, if you get stuck you can always pick a different route :woman_shrugging:


Yeah. I really hope I can learn at least some things through anime. But I watched quite a few videos that detailed in what ways the japanese in many anime is wrong / not standard so I will definitely be on the lookout. If I can manage to learn Japanese the same way I did with english it should be pretty easy to spot though. I’m pretty good at spotting mistakes when people write / talk english. Even though I make many of those mistakes myself without realizing.

1 Like

I understand that English classes in general aren’t bad. It’s just that I neither understood, nor cared to understand them. To put into perspective just HOW bad I was in my english classes: From 2nd to 6th my best grade in english was a 5. That was in 3rd grade. I started to get into english media of all kinds around the middle of 6th grade and since then my worst grade in english was a 2 (in 7th grade) I still did not focus on anything in english classes though since I just did not understand the rules. I still don’t “know” a single english grammar rule. I understand many of them, as in, I know how to (somewhat) structure a sentence but I don’t know the rules of structuring a sentence.

I’ll just try getting a basic understanding of japanese and from then on start learning through context as well. But I will by no means stop learning through textbooks and similar resources. Now that I’m a little older I understand just how important proper learning is. Even though I’m not good at it.

1 Like

That sounds like a good plan :+1:

Depending on what you count as a “textbook”, I don’t think you have to stick with them forever if you don’t like them. It’s one valid way to advance but not the only one.
I think when it comes to learning new grammar there are a couple ways to do it, e.g.:

  • textbooks, the traditional way, including grammar exercises
  • reading a grammar guide (explanations like a textbook, but no exercises) in advance and then just reinforcing that by trying to recognise and understand that grammar in the wild
  • looking up the relevant grammar points when you come across them in the wild, and then trying to remember it for next time

I personally do a mix of 2 & 3, and so far that works well enough I think. At least in terms of reading/listening.
(I used a textbook/Genki in the beginning, but I quit about halfway through the first one)
Speaking is much less important to me right now, though - if you want to be able to speak within a short time frame a different approach might be better, idk.

I’ve also seen people say they’ve only used the latter two options from the beginning, and it seems to have worked out for them.

In the end you’re going to have to figure out what works for you personally. There is no one correct way to learn a language. Find out how you like to learn and what helps you the most. As long as you stick with it, it’ll work out :smile:

̶I̶’̶m̶ ̶s̶o̶r̶r̶y̶,̶ ̶t̶h̶a̶t̶ ̶w̶a̶s̶ ̶u̶n̶n̶e̶c̶e̶s̶s̶a̶r̶i̶l̶y̶ ̶l̶o̶n̶g̶

1 Like

Ohh and I definitely look words up as well. I just try to figure out the meaning myself before I do so. If I figure it out correctly it’s incredibly easy for me to remember a word. And even if I don’t, I remember it better than just looking it up if I at least try to figure out the meaning myself.


I think you should have more faith in your abilities :slight_smile: If you think you’re not a great learner, and you think that your written english is not indistinguishable from a native speaker’s - well you’re definitely underestimating yourself.

(I can’t answer your actual question. But I reckon if you apply yourself to Japanese as you have to learning English, you’ll be all right…)

1 Like

I consider Textbook approach basically everything where I have to read / write something and remember it. I mainly dislike that approach because everything get stored in short term memory first before it gets to long term memory… and even though IMO my long term memory is incredible, my short term memory is REALLY REALLY bad. Basically everything that I learn is almost completely gone in about an hour or two. This made school especially hard. Once I KNOW something, it stays. For good. It very rarely happens that I forget anything that has been burned into my mind. I don’t know my current phone number since I rarely have to give it to anyone and I forget it shortly after. But the phone number I had 13 years ago… that one I still remember.

Thank you :smiley: I really hope you are right.


Well, I have done exactly what you’re asking about.

I have learned nearly all my Japanese from context, or rather immersion learning. I’ve never taken any lessons. Never had a teacher. Never read any books on the subject. I only learned the bare minimum of grammar (the particles bit), hiragana and katakana - then I jumped right in.

Fastforward 15 years later, I’m doing WK to finally learn kanji.

I had definitely hit a wall as to what I could learn on my own. I really needed to formalize some of my knowledge. And kanji was the only way forward - the key to starting to read real books in Japanese.

I won’t recommend doing what I did. You can certainly get to a good enough level to do the JLPTN5 like I did some years ago. It doesn’t require much either way. And you can read furigana text just fine. Or, I have really good hearing comprehension thanks to all that immersion listening I’ve done over the years.

But, if you’re serious about your studies: just buy Genki or something.

Because, while immersion learning is a useful part of the learning experience - it takes a really-really-really long time and insane amounts of exposure to the language before you start to notice patterns, can draw conclusions about possible translations to vocabulary, understand grammar intuitively etc.

There are just so many easier and faster ways to learn Japanese. :sweat_smile:

Well, if you have nothing better to do, sure…like I never had a real goal learning Japanese all this time, but most people do wanna make use of it. ^^;

Don’t do this at home! :joy:


Yes, that is how short-term memory works.


I think a lot of points here are definitely valid, as are your concerns. There are numerous individual differences that can affect how you acquire a second language, including the methods it is taught. Obviously, people successfully acquire an L2 amidst these differences, but how long it takes and the level at which a student attends varies heavily.

The challenge I’ve found with Japanese is that the writing system cannot be easily intuited by someone whose first language used a Roman alphabet without some kind of guidance, whether that be a textbook or a tutor. Further, the sentence structure differences and reliance on particles plays such a big role in meaning that, at least as an adult, without some explicit guidance to direct attention to them, I feel it would be very difficult to acquire with context alone.

Japanese learning materials are nice in that they can show kanji pronunciation to the learner, which helps break the kanji barrier ever so slightly. But, as you begin entering compound sentences, it’s easy to get lost without an understanding of particles or grammar. It may be helpful, as others said, to look at a textbook (I am also a Genki user) and classes or a tutor who can talk to you about the language and provide opportunities for production and feedback. Whether that be explicitly teaching along with the textbook or guided conversation classes is up to you.

Ideally, a good learning experience should include a variety opportunities to read, write, listen, produce, and receive feedback. And I don’t just mean learning phrases as a unit; I mean opportunities for you to think about and produce language in novel ways. Genki is helpful as it builds on the grammar gradually, but I would argue that having a teacher or tutor who can help you reinforce old concepts over time will help with the memory concern.

Outside of that, having a teacher or tutor to talk about things like, “what is the difference between する, やる, and できる,” pronouns, etc is great. The more you engage with the language formally, the more opportunities you find to raise questions about how or why someone said something.

Regarding anime or immersion, once you feel comfortable, as silly as this sounds, I’ve actually found watching or listening to Japanese vtubers to be really helpful for picking up pronunciation and casual, everyday speech. They’re very good at things like implied subjects, adverbs, emphasis, and tone. Anime writing generally doesn’t capture spontaneous output like they can. But, this is all very unstructured, so without practice around particles, familiarity with word boundaries in speech, or vowel length, it won’t be very comprehensible.

Terrace House, as unfortunate as the last season was, is also an interesting context to hear actual speech. Especially interesting to me is the shift house members have from formal speech when they move in to casual after they become comfortable with each other.

I’ll toss this out there as another resource. Not sure it fits your need exactly, but it’s a great opportunity to get a taste for the language and hear conversations about it: Easy Japanese, free audio & text lessons | NHK WORLD RADIO JAPAN. I listened to the 2015 version back when I first started and it was a nice precursor to formal instruction.

1 Like

Well… yeah :smiley: But I don’t exactly mean it that way. I don’t really know how to describe it.

Just to give an example: You have maths class on monday. You learn a few new formulas solve a few problems. On Tuesday you have maths class again. Most people remember at least some of what they did on monday. I don’t. I don’t remember the topic we had, I don’t remember any of the formulas or where I can look them up since I don’t remember the topic. Everything we did the day before is gone. I had to do most topics 4-5 times outside of school to be able to remember them enough to take tests. I had to take an incredible amount of notes even for the simplest of topics, just so I can learn at home since I didn’t remember what we did in class that day. Thats what I mean with bad short term memory. Not only that its gone after a short while, but that it takes in incredible amount of work to get anything into my long term memory. What most of my classmates got it 2 to the classes took me 5-6 plus the same amount of trying to remember it at home. Though I did still remember most of the things we did in school years after my classmates forgot it.

Thank you very much. Vtubers are actually a reason I wanted to pick up learning japanese again. I’ll definitely heed your advice. I have to look up what particles are first though :smiley:

Sadly learning Japanese is a different beast than learning English as a German L1 speaker. Its grammar is very different, and Japanese’s writing systems exacerbate the difficulty.

It should also be noted that English is in the same language family as German (Germanic) which makes learning English as a German L1 speaker much easier, and vice versa, while Japanese is not, so picking up Japanese will likely be much more different and difficult. Also, you’re farther from what’s called your critical period for language learning now than when you learned English, meaning an adjustment in method is necessary.

This is all to say that I think you should keep going with those more conscious methods for learning JP like taking notes on grammar, going through textbooks, etc. Immersion is still critically helpful though, and becomes more useful the more you know

1 Like

That’s basically how I learn. A minimal course of grammar and vocab (16 lessons of French 45min each, 7 lessons of Polish 1h each) and then right after I move to actual content. Usually it’s videogames, because they let you move at your own pace. Besides, if it’s a familiar one you get more context. The problem with Japanese though is that it’s just too different and there’s a lot to know before you can move to any kind of content. I watched about 80 vids of Japanese from zero on youtube and did a bit of duolingo and some similar stuff, but when I tried to play TES Skyrim I couldn’t, because I had to look up every kanji which is a pain. If you are any familiar with that game, the cart ride at the start took me about 3.5 hours or more. So now I’m here. I should be able to get back to my initial plan when I’m at least about 2/3 done here.
As for you method in general, I use it myself and find it to be the best one, because it is the natural way of learning a language. Yes it takes more time usually, but learning while doing something at least semi-fun is not as tedious and you have less risk of burning out. Besides, learning vocab fast is never my goal because if you learn it fast, you usually unlearn it just as fast.

1 Like

Btw as a German speaker you shouldn’t have too many problems with japanese particles because the way I see it they have a very similar function to grammatical cases, which is why those might be tricky for native English speakers I feel like. You should also have an easier time with pairs of transitive and intransitive verbs, which are a big problem for some native English speakers as well. George Trombley (from the Japanese From Zero youtube channel) was strugling superhard to explain the difference between “hajimeru” and “hajimaru” which both mean to start, but one is transitive and the other is not. It was a German guy btw, who explained to him how transitivity works. :slight_smile:


Thank you very much :smiley: So Skyrim was a problem… Well that put this whole situation into quite the context for me, considering that Skyrim was one of the first games that helped me learn english. Hmmm.