Japanese is not easy, let’s get that out of the way. There are so many things to study and everyone has their own methods that work for them. However, I think beginners tend to make some common mistakes when learning Japanese. Check out my list and see if you agree!
Clinging to romaji
This is a big one. You can’t advance far at all in Japanese if you can’t read the actual characters. Don’t live in denial and continue to only know Japanese through the use of the English alphabet. I know it’s a big hurdle to overcome, but it will go by fast if you break up the hiragana/katakana in small bites.
Trying to memorize Hiragana/Katakana in one day
I’ve actually met a person that tried to memorize all of the Hiragana in an entire day. He was able to recall all the characters, but he forgot most of them by the next day or so. Make sure you take your time and allow Hiragana/Katakana to soak into your brain. Cramming doesn’t help! Don’t fall into one of these common mistakes when learning Japanese.
Not caring about pronunciation
This is a biggie for me. I’ve encountered a lot of newcomers that don’t take the time to pay attention to how they read/pronounce words. For example, when you see the word SAKURA, a lot of people unfamiliar with Japanese would pronounce it “SAE-KUR-RUH”, but that’s not correct. If you take the time to learn the pronunciations of Japanese words, you’ll be able to pronounce sakura better as “SAH-KOO-RA” Pronunciation is really important no matter what language, but a lot of people don’t prioritize it. Don’t be that person!
Not learning the stroke order for Hiragana/Katakana/Kanji
Some people get in the bad habit of writing Japanese characters in whatever way they like and develop their own sort of style. I wouldn’t recommend this. Most Japanese resource books usually include the stroke order and ways to write characters. Learn from these and it will help you later when you’re dealing with kanji.
I wouldn’t say you have to be super strict about this, but knowing stroke order really helps when you’re knee-deep in Chinese character land.
Learning lists of vocabulary with no context
It’s great if you can learn a lot of vocabulary through flashcards or lists, but do you actually know how to use the words and how they fit in a sentence? When learning new vocabulary, always try to find an example sentence so you can see how it works in a sentence. Just learning the English definition is not enough because you’ll find out that an English meaning of something can be a different nuance/context in Japanese.
Trying to memorize all readings for each kanji
There are some kanji that are very easy because they have one or two readings. For those, you can pretty much remember them and live a happy life. However, most kanji have numerous readings and you’ll drive yourself crazy from trying to remember all of the readings.
In my experience, it’s better to remember kanji from context and what readings are most common in the words you learn. So what if once in a blue moon a kanji has a totally strange reading? You can learn that once you’re a super Japanese master, not when you’re trying to learn how to read basic things. Learn from context, not from memorizing reading lists.
Learning how to read but not speak or listen
It’s fairly easy to fall into this trap when learning Japanese. There’s just so much involved with reading/writing that you can forget about listening and speaking. When you learn new words or read something, don’t forget to actually say it out loud to yourself so you can process how it actually sounds coming into your brain.
I’ve had my moments where a Japanese speaker said something but I didn’t understand the meaning of the word they used until I saw it written down. “Aha!” I thought. That’s when I realized that even if I know a lot of vocabulary, it doesn’t mean anything if I can’t recognize it when it’s being spoken. Say those words out loud when you learn them.
Learning how to speak/listen but not read
If you’re a tourist in Japan for a week, you’re probably not going to have the time or motivation to learn Hiragana/Katakana while you’re busy traveling around. However, if you know in advance that you’re going to Japan or are studying for a hobby, do not think that you can be fine with just speaking some phrases. This, of course, depends on what you want to do, but nothing is worse than feeling like an illiterate child when you’re walking around Japan.
If you can’t read at least Hiragana/Katakana, it’s going to feel quite frustrating everywhere you go.
Don’t try to literally translate your sentences into Japanese
I think this happens to a lot of people when they first start out. We try to come up with a sentence in English in our heads and then start translating it until it’s some complicated thing that doesn’t even make sense.
The more you read or see translated English into Japanese, the more you’ll see how things are said differently even if the meaning is supposed to be the same.
Start simple and compose your sentence from the vocabulary and the grammar you know. It will most likely turn out better than translating that long phrase you had in your head.
Another thing to help with getting a specific message across is searching for English example sentences translated into Japanese. This has been a great help for me learning to figure out how to get my message across fluently.
I usually use the dictionary EIJIRO on ALC’s site when I want to learn how to translate English idioms, slang, or other phrases I’m not sure of.
Don’t be like these people
Common mistakes when learning Japanese – Final Thoughts
All right, so those are some of the points I’ve compiled together and listed for anyone starting early on their journey to learn Japanese.I hope I haven’t scared anyone off! Just wanted to help people avoid some of the pitfalls if they can help it.
Any veterans want to share their thoughts on their list of mistakes when learning Japanese? Don’t hesitate to leave some comments and share!
5 thoughts on “Common mistakes when learning Japanese”
Hey, thanks for this post.
Would you have any tips on how to practice listening? What were there any listening materials that you first started with and slowly progressed on to other more difficult materials?
Justin, that’s an excellent question and I hadn’t really thought about it until now.
I think I got a little bit of exposure to listening to basic Japanese from the audio CDs in the Genki book series.
From there, I would make online Japanese friends and talk with them through Skype and try to get used to using the basic grammar and vocabulary that I knew. I met one friend through the Lang-8 site and another friend through the Second Life virtual world. Great practice!
After coming to Japan, I would meet a lot of new people so that was great for improving my daily conversation listening. I’m not a party person, but for a two year period I did meet a lot of people at events or bars.
Watching Japanese animation or TV dramas can also help a lot with listening. One thing I used to do was watch a show that I already knew the story to but listen only for the Japanese audio. I had English subtitles just in case I was completely lost.
Being in a situation where you have to listen and speak Japanese is crucial. If you can, try to make Japanese friends that don’t have much experience using English. If you meet someone that knows too much English, he/she will end up only speaking English to you or both of you will get into the habit of using English as the main language.
I recently got my hands on some “Every day listening” Japanese CDs, so I’ll try those out and see if they’re any good.
Great content as usual. I think most of these points apply to learning any language, not just Japanese.
Thanks for the kind words! Yeah, you could almost apply this to most foreign languages except the kanji/kana part.
Great blog! 🙂 So many informations for those who makes preparations for JLPT. I look forward to read more your excellent posts!