Mastering Japanese while holding down full-time employment might be tricky — especially if you live far from the gaijin-friendly environs of Tokyo where language schools exist at almost every corner. Deep in Saitama, for example, sometimes the only opportunity to get some language training in person is with the local municipal government that promotes classes organized by volunteers. These lessons are good as a kick-off point when you are new to the country and need something to start with, but as time passes you start to find that it’s just not enough — the lessons are held only once a week and the timing is not very flexible.
I have used dozens of apps, books and courses that promise you can “teach yourself” as well as a couple of pricey online tutors. Some of the apps are good, but lacked the human interaction I was interested in. The DIY books were overly complicated. Many teachers I found boring or uninspiring and the classes cost a little too much for the actual results. I wanted something interactive, dynamic, flexible and — preferably — free. Surprisingly, the best fit for me turned out to be YouTube.
Since video hosting services like YouTube make it possible for anyone with a smartphone and an internet connection to develop and share educational videos for anyone willing to actually learn. What makes it sustainable is if you’re willing to sit through occasional adds placed before or in the middle of the video — and I was.
I didn’t mind viewing (or skipping) that ad once in a while. Studying Japanese on YouTube cost nothing and gave me everything I was looking for: fun, interactivity, a feeling of control and the ability to rewind the teacher! The least I can do is pay that back with a “thumbs up” or by watching an advertisement.
Searching the tag “Japanese language” on YouTube gives you 4,660,000 videos and 18,600 channels. Not all of them work. Some are made by hosts with neither teaching nor editing skills, while official channels of language schools have more built-in advertising than real content.
Good channels take effort, time and money to build. They are usually hosted by professionals or gifted language enthusiasts. They contain enough content to cover two to three levels of proficiency. They are well organized, easily navigated and frequently updated. Below is a list of some of the most effective and professionally built YouTube channels I found for trying to improve my Japanese skills.
I wanted something interactive, dynamic, flexible and — preferably — free.
1. JapanesePod 101
Japanese Pod 101 is probably the best one to start with. Two absolutely genius lessons that can significantly ease your alphabetic torture are “Learn All Hiragana in 1 Hour” and “Learn All Katakana in 1 Hour.” The channel features a well-organized structure — you can easily navigate what you want to learn by your level and areas of interest. Grammar, vocabulary, conversation and even innovative Japanese — all can be found here.
2. Basic Japanese Lessons
The Learn Japanese Beginners channel was last updated years ago and has only three playlists. The course I recommend though — “Basic Japanese Lessons” — is still available and probably one of the best online tutorials of Japanese grammar. It features a total of 24, condensed 10- to 15-minute lessons. Hosted by a language instructor from the New York Japan Society (an American nonprofit organization), these lessons give you a feeling of a real school environment. The teacher is professional, the topics covered are essential and the lessons are fun. An absolute must watch for beginners and intermediate learners alike.
3. Now Learn Japanese
The Now Learn Japanese channel features the seminal YouTube course “Let’s Learn Japanese” that was produced by The Japan Foundation in two parts: the first one was created in 1984 and the second in 1995. In total, it’s a high-quality, old school compilation of 30-minute episodes, with both parts one and two currently still available.
4. Learn Japanese from Zero
“Learn Japanese From Zero” is another well-structured and charismatically hosted course featuring almost 200 instructive videos (with production still ongoing and new videos uploaded every Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday) based on the book by George Trombley (the host) and Yukari Takenaka (his wife, co-author and co-host). Every video takes you through the respective lesson in the original book, making it feel like a face-to-face lesson with the added option of being able to leave the class at any second without being rude. Even if you don’t have the textbook, the material is always presented on the screen for you to take notes. Efficient, fast and — most importantly — entertaining.
5. Learn Japanese from the Streets
The channel “Easy Japanese: Learn Japanese from the Streets!” lets you to learn Japanese… from the streets. The creators interview random people “man in the street”-style, asking them to explain their most commonly used slang words and expressions. Mastering this skill is vital if you want to upgrade your usual izakaya (Japanese tavern) language habits.
I wanted to feel less awkward at work and self-sufficient in daily life. While I may still feel awkward at business meetings, I feel like a pro dealing with my day-to-day tasks.
Does it really work?
Yes, if you take it seriously.
No, if you watch these videos the way you might normally watch YouTube videos — at parties, during lunch, on the train or (heaven forbid) in the bathroom. A good way to utilize them is to slot a “Japanese learning hour” in your schedule, choose a channel that seems to fit you best and approach it systematically because consistency is key.
It worked for me. I never aimed at achieving a specific Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) level or other academic award. Instead, I wanted to feel less awkward at work and self-sufficient in daily life. While I may still feel awkward at business meetings, I feel like a pro dealing with my day-to-day tasks. I make reservations for restaurants, schedule haircuts and other personal needs, make clinic and hospital appointments, apply for point cards or navigate supermarkets and — most importantly — I reschedule my all-to-necessary Amazon deliveries like a boss! And all with the help of studying Japanese via YouTube.
Another way to get the best from these resources would be to combine using YouTube channels that teach Japanese with other options out there — the more resources you make available to you, the stronger the effect. You might think of having a tutor just once each week or two, practicing on an additional app twice a week and having a 30-minute YouTube session once every three days.
If you really want to make the most of your Japanese study, visit the GaijinPot Study Japanese section as another foundation for learning this tricky language!