Learning Japanese may be a big challenge, but doesn’t have to be complicated.
Ultimately, learning a new language can be boiled down to a short equation: [time invested] X [method quality] = [progress]. You could obsess (translation: procrastinate) for days, weeks, or even months about finding the perfect system for mastering Japanese — but you won’t actually learn anything until you sit down to study. At the same time, you could spend countless hours on DuoLingo or RosettaStone exclusively without much to show for it after a certain point.
But what I love about the study system I’m sharing here is that it remains a useful tool for learners at a wide range of levels. This may sound gimmicky, but it’s been a long-lived staple of my learning diet that has pushed me much farther than pretty much any other method I’ve tried up until now. It’s also perfect for anyone trapped in the dreaded “intermediate plateau” who needs long-term tools to help make it through.
However, remember that the best learning methods are the ones that are both effective and that you can get yourself to do consistently. There’s no point in trying to force yourself to use a system that makes you dread sitting down to study, after all. This system works well for me because I happen to enjoy reading the news, but you should be able to adapt this to other online materials.
I’ll start by explaining how I use NHK News Web Easy to study Japanese on a daily(ish) basis, and then I’ll break down how it can still be useful for those at a lower level of Japanese.
What You’ll Need:
- an internet browser
- a notebook and sharp pencil/fine-tipped pen (yes, we’re writing kanji!)
- optional: the browser extension rikaikun (link for chrome) or similar alternative (rikaichan, yomichan, etc.)
- a dictionary (I use jisho)
- flashcards, electronic or physical (I use the free open-source software Anki, but any flashcard website or app that is based on a spaced repetition system (SRS) should work just fine)
Step One: Find an article that looks interesting.
Personally, I like this method enough that I read all of the articles every day. But if your time is more limited, or if you find this system too time-consuming at your current level, you should definitely focus on the topics that you are most curious about. Your brain is much more willing to retain information it finds interesting, after all.
Typically, NHK News Web Easy publishes four to five short news articles on every regular working day in Japan. This means that there won’t be any new articles on the weekends, or on most public holidays.
But remember: just because the website title has the word “easy” in it doesn’t mean that it’s for beginners. It’s written in やさしい日本語 (yasashii nihongo), or “simple Japanese.” This essentially means that it’s written to be understood by Japanese middle school students, or foreigners living in the country who aren’t native speakers of the language. So, try not to be discouraged if you find the website challenging while you’re still at a more basic level of Japanese.
Step Two: Read through the article with furigana, writing down unfamiliar words.
This is where the browser extension rikaikun comes in handy. Because you can find definitions of words by placing your curser over them, it saves you the trouble of using a paper or electronic dictionary every time you encounter new vocabulary.
[Note: Especially once you’re at an intermediate level, you should develop the discipline of at least attempting to guess the meaning of words and pronunciation of kanji before checking them with rikaikun. But that’s a whole separate topic for another day.]
If you suspect that you haven’t yet captured the vocabulary word in your flashcard deck, quickly write it down in your notebook. You technically don’t have to write anything by hand if you don’t want to, but the physical act of writing kana and kanji by hand keeps them fresh in your mind and helps protect against confusing look-alike kanji and kana. I like to write the kanji, hiragana, and definition:
(やった！Now I get to have terrible handwriting in two languages!)
One reason I prefer to use jisho is because it also lets me easily look up how to write kanji — dreaded “stroke order” and all. However, I’m not too fussed about writing them perfectly (see above for proof), so I rarely take the time to do that.
Step Three: Remove the furigana and read along with the audio recording.
This is the step that I think really sets this resource apart from others. First click the button on the right, 漢字の読み方を消す (kanji no yomikata wo kesu), to erase the furigana. Second, click the button marked ニュースを聞く (nyuusu wo kiku) to have the article read aloud to you.
Don’t panic. I’m not going to tell you to try shadowing the voice (though feel free, if that’s a helpful method for you!). Instead, I just want you to try and silently follow along reading the text while listening to the audio. It may not feel like studying, but it gives your brain the chance to associate kanji with how they are read in the given context.
And, if you’re someone who is as terrible at rote memorization as I am, trust me when I say that this sort of exposure is a game-changer.
Step Four: Turn the furigana back on (optional) and read aloud.
Now that you’ve listened to the article read aloud to you, it’s time for you to try reading it out loud yourself. You may not need the furigana depending on your level. But personally, I turn them back on by clicking the 漢字の読み方をつける (kanji no yomikata wo tsukeru) button so that I can focus more on intonation and pronunciation while reading the article again aloud. I get my kanji-reading practice from articles without audio recordings available and instead use this resource to help improve my cadence, pronunciation, and accent.
Step Five: Watch accompanying video, if available.
Many of the news articles also include video excerpts from the Japanese news. Since you have been exposed to the news story three times by this point, you should have a pretty strong grasp of what it’s talking about. So, although watching the news in Japanese may ordinarily be outside of your language ability, your brain is already primed to understand what is being discussed in the video.
You will likely be able to pick out familiar words, or even intuit what they’re saying because the vocabulary and topic are fresh in your mind. Also, since the news in Japanese usually includes a fair amount of text on the screen, you will also be able to pick out familiar kanji and even follow along with what is being said at times. It also gives your brain the chance to practice inferring meaning based on context rather than getting stumped on unfamiliar vocabulary, which is invaluable once you’re actually in Japan.
Step Six: Make flashcards using the captured words.
This is where I personally fall short, since I tend to read a lot of content in Japanese and end up collecting many more new vocabulary words than I have the chance to enter into my Anki deck. I won’t get into too much detail about flashcards here, but I’ll just offer a few suggestions.
Usually, I will make two flashcards for each vocabulary word:
- vocabulary / definition
- example sentence / translation
This can be a little bit controversial, as many language learners insist that it’s important to only learn vocabulary in context and not as individual units. However, since words can have different meanings based on context, I like to also have a flashcard with a complete list of definitions as well.
For the example sentence, you can use the sentence you originally found it in if you wrote it down. However, I usually use the “sentences” function on jisho, since it takes me a while to get around to making a flashcard anyway.
Step Seven: Be consistent.
What makes this tool great is that it’s consistently updated, while at the same time gives you a manageable amount of content. While everyone’s level and available time is different, it’s a great addition to your study arsenal if you’re looking to supercharge your reading skills and support your kanji learning. All that you have to do to make this system work is show up regularly to study!
What makes this the ultimate multi-level tool?
The reason I love this method so much is that works for both intensive and extensive reading, depending on your language level.
If your Japanese level is still more basic, it’ll be a lot of work just to get through one article. You’ll probably feel you left your brain steaming in a rice cooker at times — and that’s really what is meant by “intensive.”
Once you get to a higher level, however, you’ll start breezing through the articles. You’ll find a few unfamiliar words every once in a while, since the topics covered are quite diverse, but it won’t take much effort overall. You’ll be giving your brain an easy win, which is why I like to use this method as a warm up before moving into more difficult methods.
Need more resources to study Japanese? Check out my previous article here.