• Kwok Cheng Leng

Speed Learning Japanese, Or At Least Attempting To

Before I went on a trip to Japan years ago, I took some time to learn some Japanese thinking that it might help my family when we were overseas. However, I didn’t really learn much back then besides memorised phrases and key questions like 英語が話せますか? (eigo ga hanasemasu ka) which means “Can you speak English?”.

After managing to use my arsenal of prepared sentences in Japan, I have been wanting to properly learn Japanese. Unfortunately, as I am that kind of person with a thousand and one things on my to-do list, I never really got around to it and the idea slowly sank into the depths of my mind.

This summer, I accidentally chanced upon a free online beginner’s Japanese course, and decided that I was going to attempt to pick up Japanese again, but with a twist … I was going to try speed learning basic Japanese (key word being try) and see what progress I can make.

According to the website, you’d need about 5 weeks to finish the content if you spent 3–5 hours per week on the lessons. Since this is a speed-run, I challenged myself to finish the course within 2 weeks. Place your bets now regarding how my learning journey went.

Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji …?

Japanese has three different alphabets — hiragana, katakana and kanji. Hiragana and katakana are syllabic alphabets. While hiragana is primarily used to represent Japanese words, katakana is used for imported words. For example, when saying “sports”, we’d use katakana to write スポーツ (supōtsu) as it is a borrowed word from English. Lastly, kanji represents abstract concepts, general words or names, and are based on Chinese characters. There are thousands of kanji, but only 46 characters each for hiragana and katakana.

Hiragana and katakana chart

I started off by learning hiragana and katakana. It was a pretty smooth journey is what I'd like to say, but it was a struggle. The course provided videos explaining how to pronounce and write each alphabet. Although I practiced writing out the characters like a deranged madman, I could not really seem to memorise or recognise all the characters. I kind of expected that it’ll be tough, but I didn’t expect to not remember all the characters even after at least a week of revising them almost every night. Perhaps my brain was not working well under pressure? I even started vibing to the Hiragana and Katakana Song by Cyber Bunny, but I felt that it didn’t really help me in terms of recognising the characters.

Instead, what helped me more were the mini quizzes I found online to test my kana knowledge. Considering that I only managed to get around 70% of the main hiragana and katakana correct in a recent test, and that that didn’t even include dakuten and combination kana, it is safe to say that I definitely still need to work on remembering all the various characters.

Hiragana characters

Since I haven’t gotten my syllabic alphabets down, I didn’t bother to learn too much kanji! I learnt a little like 私 (watashi) or “I” and 学生 (gakusei) or “student”, but I’ll slowly learn more when I’m completely familiar with hiragana and katakana.

Grammar Structure and Stuffs

I then went on to learn some grammar. As I previously had a minuscule background knowledge of Japanese, I knew some grammar rules like the basic sentence pattern and how to ask questions. Some new things I learnt, for example, were how to use the particle の (no) to either show possessiveness between two nouns or to connect a description to a noun. For instance, 私のケーキ (watashi no keiki) would mean “my cake”, and if I wanted to describe myself as an NUS student, I would say 私はNUSの学生です (watashi wa NUS no gakuseidesu). の in this case connects “NUS” to “student”.

However, after Google searching Japanese grammar patterns, I realised that the basic course I did did not even cover 50% of all the necessary grammar rules. I probably should have looked up more grammatical structures before the end of my two weeks, but I also think that what I learnt in the course during my speed-run was pretty nicely paced. Any more cramming of grammar patterns would likely have resulted in further brain cell and memory loss.

About Vocabulary

The course refreshed my memory on several Japanese greetings and expressions, such as いってらっしゃい (itterasshai) or “see you later” and また明日 (mata ashita), “see you tomorrow”.

I think the course might also be tailored for exchange students going to Japan, as it covered classroom phrases like 書いてください (kaite kudasai) which translates to “please write” and how to say your school faculty in Japanese. For example, 文学部 (bungakubu) would refer to “Department of Literature”, and 社会科学部 (shakai kagakubu) would mean “Faculty of Social Sciences”.

More relevant and applicable vocabulary I learnt for day-to-day interactions would be about food and places. For instance, to exclaim that something was spicy, you’d say that it was 辛い (karai).

Going Wild at Don Don Donki and Daiso

To practice my Japanese, I came up with an insane but perhaps genius idea of visiting Daiso and Don Don Donki to casually stand at shelves and read product labels. This was when I realised that Daiso could be a pretty good place to learn kanji because there were hiragana or katakana in tiny print, called furigana, beside the kanji in some labels. My friend and I went through a bunch of Daiso toys together, and while revising what we know, we also learnt random kanji like 家具 (kagu) from 家具セット (kagu setto), which refers to those dollhouse furniture sets that might have been a part of your childhood.


This has slowly become some sort of habit, and attempting to read Japanese product labels has extended to other stores. I think this practice is very useful for reinforcing characters that I keep seeing over time, but it’s not as helpful when it comes to practicing characters that I cannot remember.

So, How Successful Was I in Speed Learning Japanese?

I’d say I was 15% successful, and 85% unsuccessful.

Before I elaborate, let’s unpack what I would have considered successful. According to the course outline, after finishing it, I would have learnt how to say greetings, introduce myself, order, and ask about food. I thought I had about 50% of the work down since I was already familiar with some basic greetings and introductions, so my goal was to be 100% comfortable and familiar with the course content by the end of it.

On top of that, I aimed to be comfortable with reading hiragana or katakana, and be able to understand some typical expressions and sentences, including how to tell dates and time, how to count, how to ask for directions and the ever quintessential small talk about weather.

Now, let’s review my speed-run. One major issue is that I am still unable to confidently and completely read hiragana or katakana, which goes without saying, are basically the foundation to Japanese. I did not manage to learn about the weather, and while I did cover vocabulary on direction-asking, I honestly do not even remember what is left and right in Japanese … So, I’ll consider direction-asking a fail since I would not even vaguely understand a response given to me after asking for directions.

More positively, I am quite comfortable with basic numbers and counters. Though I cannot recall all the stuff I learnt surrounding the topic of food like the back of my hand, I should still be somewhat able to order food. I’m not confident with dates and time, but I recently watched a video of an idol sharing about their concert details in Japanese, and surprise! I could actually understand when the concert was happening, so I’ll consider telling dates and time a lowkey pass.

Generally, as you probably can tell, much more revision and consistent work is needed, but I feel like I did successfully gain a deeper understanding of Japanese, hence the 15% success. Moving forward, I am not sure if I can stay focused on learning Japanese by myself, but I might take up the language under NUS’s Centre for Language Studies in the future.

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