What three years of Japanese study has taught me

Today, I had a one on one session with my sensei. I try to do one per month for as long as I can afford it, and we just have a conversation in as much Japanese as I can manage to muster up. It’s very helpful to me, in a way that study aids such as wanikani, etc, aren’t.

Recently, I’ve been having a really hard time studying Japanese. The very idea of studying vocabulary and grammar made me feel a little queasy. I think it’s possible that I was just burning out on the mechanics of it. I continued taking lessons and consuming Japanese media, and looking things up as I was curious, but my study - including wanikani - just stopped in its tracks.

This morning, I told my sensei that I don’t think that grammar is important, and I don’t think vocabulary is important. I mean, they’re essential, but knowing all the grammar and all the vocabulary in the world isn’t really going to get one anywhere near fluency. My sensei actually agreed with me. Fluency comes, instead, from internalizing the concepts of Japanese language in such a way that English, as a crutch, is no longer needed.

That is what three years of Japanese has taught me. I just cleared out a backlog of 700 wanikani entries now, and I don’t think I’ll have as hard a time doing them, because doing my “revision” is, in my opinion, no longer tied to my success in learning Japanese.

There are many words in Japanese that are actually concepts, and have no direct translation to English. I think that where beginning learners trip up the most is thinking that Japanese is just another form of English with different rules. It’s not. And it’s making that conceptual leap that begins to turn one from a novice to an intermediate learner.

In my opinion, anyway.


Well, the question is “How to learn these concepts?”
By studying grammar and learning vocabulary.
You cannot get the essence of the language by some miraculous way. You cannot study it directly. You just have to learn a lot of information and then analyze it both conciously and unconciously.


Actually, I don’t agree. I have found that learning vocabulary serves to point to a reality that is only dimly seen when learning it through the lens of English. Therefore, it’s not really all that useful until English can be discarded as a tool.

I’m not there yet, to be frank, but I’m only now realizing that it’s necessary.

When English can be totally discarded and vocabulary and grammar can be learned from a foundation of knowledge solely in Japanese, then I’ll be more inclined to agree with your statement. However, novice and intermediate learners generally aren’t there. In fact, today, with one particular word, I actually had to say “okay, that’s a concept that is not directly translatable to English, so I’m going to have to set it aside until I can approach it from a more Japanese perspective”. No amount of learning those kinds of words as vocabulary from an English base is going to do anything but cause confusion.


i agree. being able to define all the functions of grammar in a sentence doesn’t mean you understand the sentence. i can’t tell you how “the” is used but i can use it effortlessly. i look back at how Japanese concepts are explained in English in basic dict of Japanese grammar and it is just so difficult to comprehend. then you realize it’s because they writers are trying to make native English readers to understand Japanese through English! in the end you spend more time with fumbling with Japanese grammar in English rather then just interacting with the language. it just feels like a lot of Japanese learners are having a hard time because they put pressure on themselves to understand every single bit of a Japanese the come across and be able to explain why it is that way in great detail (IN ENGLISH!!). You have nothing to prove to anyone so you shouldn’t worry about needing to be able to teach it. Your ability will improve the more time you spend DOING Japanese.

ramble 🤪

i also try to push hard for monolingual dictionaries because there’s no other way to separate the word from English concepts unless you’ve seen that word used a million times in context. the best thing i did was watch a lot of anime. that way i could see what sentences, onomatopoeia, etc, looked like. now that i read a lot more, i can go back to a vague reference in the back of my head. when you were young we learned words by seeing pictures and applying words to them. when you aren’t using monolingual definitions, you will always remember the translated word for it but not what it is really. when you jisho 唇 you get “lips” not :lips:. it just adds another step.


I’m confused. You say that learning grammar and vocabulary is basically pointless unless/until you can approach it entirely in Japanese. But you also say that novice and intermediate level learners can’t take that approach. So how can people get beyond intermediate level without learning grammar or vocabulary? Short of literally throwing them into Japan and having them learn as infants and children learn their first language.


I feel like Japanese to English translations are useful for quickly learning approximate meanings. This is often insufficient as you reach a higher level and need a deeper understanding, but I feel like it’s unnecessary (and impractical) in the beginning. And I still think Japanese to English dictionaries are useful at higher levels, as long as you supplement it with a monolingual dictionary when more clarification is needed.


i don’t think OP is advocating to not do any grammar and vocabulary study in the beginning. we all have to start somewhere. i interpreted what OP is saying as don’t let it be a crutch. using your native language to become fluent is like looking at the world with horse blinders. at least that’s how I understood it


Pretty much exactly what I’m saying. Of course you have to bootstrap the language somehow. There’s nothing wrong with learning basic grammar through English. But eventually, if you don’t start to deal with it on its own terms, the baggage of trying to interpret it into another language is going to cause more damage than it will help.

i definitely agree with you here. i still use jisho from time to time because there’s no reason for me to try and decipher what the japanese definition for 脊髄 is :sweat_smile:

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I think you know when you start to butt up against the limitations of a Japanese to English dictionary. I hit that wall this week, with the word “yappari”. Jisho translates it partly as “too”. I went over it with my sensei, and we agreed that that was not a good translation and that the word boils down to expressing a concept of “equivalence” that’s not quite translatable to English. And I think those are the moments when transcendence starts.

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Since you brought up Dictionary of Basis Japanese Grammar, I wanted to share two resources you might find useful.

The first is a grammar dictionary with the English title “A Handbook of Japanese Grammar Patterns for Teachers and Learners”. There is a version fully in Japanese, which you might like. I don’t have a link for you, but I’m sure you can find it.

The second is the following website: https://www.kokugobunpou.com. I particularly like it for reading about parts of speech and conjunctions from the native Japanese perspective.


That sounds useful, thanks. I’ll have to look at those resources.

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I’m going to be a brat and say “this is impossible for someone who already knows a language”. I’m not saying that immersion doesn’t work, but anyone who is already communicative can’t learn the way a baby does. An adult especially can’t. The brain of a baby is quite different from an adult in many ways.

Anyway, I know you didn’t mean that literally, it’s more just “for the record” in case someone believes that is possible for an adult to do.

Anyway again, there is a point where one needs to flip over to not translating and simply perceive in the new language. This is a jump that is made after the initial novice stage. Some people can start to do this sooner and more easily than others before true intermediate level (I’m meaning that as knowledge and comfortable use of what would be considered intermediate level grammar concepts). To be able to do this and make the switch is climbing the intermediate wall. I would say whether or not one has to ditch the native language in the acquisition of new grammar is debatable (I’ve seen success from both options). Being able to think in a new language and not simply be translating, however, is absolutely essential. The sooner you start doing this the better. Which is basically being described here. (Not saying anyone here doesn’t know this, but maybe someone reading will find this helpful)


I completely agree, and agree with OP @duskglow’s perspective on grammar and vocabulary.

I’d like to posit, however, that there are a few aspects of how babies acquire their first language that we can put to use as adults learning a second language:

  • Immersion: The more you surround yourself with the language, the more opportunities you give your brain to create and link the neural pathways needed to internalize the language. They work better now because you can consciously draw up memories of where you hear specific words before.
  • Start talking as soon as you can, and make plenty of mistakes: What you cannot make up for with grammar lessons, you will learn through experience and develop an intuition for those rules that you can’t put into words.

I think it might be helpful for you to do sessions more than once a month. Perhaps you might join a Japanese conversation club or do italki or something.

Agreed with this … but not with your idea that grammar and vocabulary aren’t going to help you achieve fluency. In fact, I completely disagree with the idea that accuracy isn’t related to fluency.

Your issue is that you are translating ideas into English in your head instead of internalizing the grammar and vocabulary as a way of expressing yourself (and hearing others express themselves) in Japanese…

I do agree that study aids like WaniKani do not on their own in any way shape or form lead directly to fluency. They are a tool to help other fluency exercises become less of a hassle.


Well, i always say that I leaned English through video games and not through school.

That is just partially true. I learned the very foundation of the language formally, as well as basic vocab. The rest developed over time.

I’m sadly not quite there yet in Japanese.

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I totally disagree with the op. You need part of vocabulary and grammar then you can switch to immersion not the other way around.


Grammar does help, though :wink:


Try reading novels or just a japanese twitter feed without vocabulary :sweat_smile:

If you want to surpass the level of basic spoken language for daily life, you can’t help but get to learn that vocabulary somewhere. It’s especially true as a lot of vocabulary have their sounds determined by their kanji (jukugo words).

I tried to rely on learning vocabulary over time solely when I encountered it instead of daily with WK. As a result, you just keep seeing kanjis that you don’t know for months / years, and you accept that you don’t know them, you just skip the word. But you don’t make any progress towards the goal of handling any japanese that come at you. And you keep using Rikaichan every 3 words that is not N5/N4…

I regard all the time I’ve spent waiting the vocabulary to come at me as a waste of time for many years, when I think I could have continued using WK ever since 2015 when I registered, and be at an awesome level today that would have allowed to me to read/hear anything today…


My family is a good example of this in that my vocabulary and grammar are so far behind their native level that my immersion with them still means that I miss quite a bit of what they’re saying. Also, they slowly understand my English, but some conscientious and directed instruction would be much more effective at providing the kind of meaningful and comprehensive i+1 language that even the Krashens of the world encourage. We’ll see how our respective language levels are impacted in the years to come.