Cheat Codes: Japanese Language Shortcuts, Pt. 1

As students of a Japanese art, we all know that learning the language can help us in cultivating a deeper understanding of our training and our teachers. But unlike studying a romanized language such as Spanish or French, English doesn’t provide much of a foundation to draw on. So unless you also happen to speak Chinese or Korean, learning Japanese is primarily about learning from scratch.

After a very interesting first trip to Japan during which I was a happy little functional illiterate, I decided to work on getting at least a basic grasp of the language. The problem was, between work and other obligations I had zero time in my schedule to take a class (like the great ones sponsored by Muzosa). So I started looking for cheat codes – quick and effective methods I could use on my own whenever I had time. I made speaking my priority since I needed to get maximum on-the-ground mileage from the little study time I had. The obvious options were books and audio lessons on CD, but there are a LOT of choices out there ranging from super effective to not-so-much. After wading through a bunch of them, I landed on a combination of learning tools that fits nicely into my busy schedule…hopefully they’ll be helpful to you too!

The Requisite Disclaimer: Remember that these are my personal interpretations, impressions, and experiences on the path to learning the language. Your mileage may vary.

HOW I GOT STARTED: Pimsleur Audio Lessons

The Pimsleur method has been extremely effective for me and is popular with everyone from business people to government agents who need to learn to speak a new language fast. It’s all audio, and you learn the same way you learned English as a child. No parent sits down and conjugates verbs with a 2-year-old, and the Pimsleur approach doesn’t either. The lessons are ½ hour long and from the very first one you can actually speak some Japanese and retain what you learn. Another big plus that books can’t provide: you learn proper pronunciation from the start so you don’t develop the bad habit of speaking Japanese with a strong American accent, a common problem that can make it difficult for a native speaker to understand you.

I started with the 10 lesson Basic set and then got the full 30 lesson set. The 30 lesson sets are a bit expensive new ($345), but you can get them used on Amazon as cheap as $160, and the Basic set is a very reasonable $17 brand new.


Pimsleur gave me a great start, but I found I still had trouble following Japanese spoken continuously at a natural speed. Watching Japanese TV regularly helped enormously – in addition to natural speech, you get the cultural cues and body language that go along with it. As Loren discussed in “In So Many Words”, many common Japanese gestures are different from those we use in the US, and seeing them paired with the appropriate language is very helpful. Other important linguistic elements like the different forms of speech used when talking to a child, a peer, or someone who outranks you in age or position also begin make a lot more sense when you’ve got visuals to go with it. Over time, I’ve found that TV dramas are the most helpful for me – the fact that they’re focused on a single story makes them a lot easier to follow.

Two points to remember when it comes to using TV as a learning tool:

First, with the exception of newscasts, which usually are delivered in relatively formal speech, the language on television can run from polite to casual to street slang to downright salty, especially in comedies, variety shows, and some dramas. The dialogue used in anime can be also be a little heavy on the expletives, slang, and phrases people don’t often use in normal conversation (for me, anime is strictly entertainment-only). Luckily, encounters with less-than-polite language on TV are almost always in context: a conversation between close friends, an argument, an obviously racy joke. Making the context just as important as the new vocabulary is critical to avoid embarrassing mistakes. It’s also important to understand that, while some of the casual language and slang may be OK to use with peers who are close friends, it isn’t appropriate to use with acquaintances, elders, or teachers. And even if you have a Japanese friend you’ve known for a long time, being overly casual isn’t always the thing to do. In my experience, it really depends on the individual and the dynamics of your relationship. If in doubt, I always err on the side of politeness.

The second point: watching TV shows other than the news can make it easy to get used to hearing and speaking more casual Japanese. Until you begin approaching fluency, taking a moment to consider what form of language (casual or polite) is appropriate before you speak will help you avoid blunders like a recent one I made:

In December I was in class in Japan and the teacher called my name. We were practicing a complex technique, and he was about to correct a point I was having trouble with. My focus was on my uke and the technique at the time, so I instinctively answered the way I do most often with my Japanese speaking friends here in New York: ”Nande?” Literally “why”, it’s also a slang expression equivalent to “yeah, what’s up?” I realized my mistake as the word was leaving my mouth but, alas, it was too late. I turned around with an absolutely horrified look on my face and started apologizing profusely. Luckily the teacher is very kind and patient and knew that I didn’t intentionally mean any disrespect, but this was an unsubtle reminder for me not to make casual Japanese my default mode.

That said, New York Metro residents (lucky us) have easy access to Japanese language TV. Below is the Time-Warner Cable schedule for Manhattan — check your local listings if you live in one of the boroughs:


FCI: Fuji TV’s US Broadcasts, WMBC Channel 63, no subtitles

Mon-Fri  7:00AM-8:00AMFCI News Broadcast 
 Mon-Sat 10:00AM-11:00AM News, Sports, Variety Shows, & Dramas
 Sun 6:00PM-8:00PM Variety, Drama

US Nippon, NYC TV Channel 73, with subtitles

Fri 8:00PM-9:30PM News, Drama, PopJapanTV (music show) 


AZN Television (formerly The International Channel), Channel 500

Mon-Fri 10:00AM-11:00AM Fujisankei News 

AZN TV also shows Japanese feature films, check their schedule for more info.

ImaginAsian TV, Channel 560
ImaginAsian is one of the newest Asia-focused stations, and as it’s geared toward Asian-Americans, it often shows programs in English. But sometimes they do show undubbed dramas and movies, check their site for listings.

Coming up in Part 2: books and other tools. Happy studies!

(Originally published in Muzosa Journal on 4/28/06. Author retains all copyrights.)

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