Learning Japanese on your own is at heart a question of motivation. Maintaining that motivation is the primary key to success, and one powerful way is to find some element of the culture that will give you a payoff: something that you flat out like. Finding some element of the culture that gives you that spark is what I mean by finding your niche.
Going Beyond Pop Culture
One of the primary motivators for those learning Japanese these days is pop culture. Anime, manga, pop music, and such are all very good ways to get into the language and culture. At the same time, focusing solely on such can be very limiting. The language of pop culture is often idiosyncratic, reflecting styles and usage that simply aren’t that natural. Thus, relying solely on these avenues for language motivation and practice can actually result in some bad habits.
Instead of pop culture, then, I would recommend looking at local culture. Engaging in the ways that people around you live gives direct access to the real language as used in Japan, and also will help acclimate to living here. Exploring Japanese culture as it is lived is beneficial in so many ways, I can’t list them all here. And the great thing is, there are so many ways to get involved, you’re sure to find a perfect fit.
When you are first starting out in a new country, even if you’ve been studying the language for a while, you simply won’t be able to communicate on a smooth, adult level. It’s just the way things are. And so, it is a good idea to start where children start.
This means don’t be afraid to browse the children’s books at bookstores and libraries. Visit classes and exhibits for kids at museums, community centers, and more. The process of learning language and culture for adult learners is not so different from that of children. Use that to your advantage!
Learn by Learning
Once you’ve established some fundamentals of the language and are approaching intermediate skills, a great way to expand real working knowledge of Japanese is by taking classes in other subjects, in Japanese. This will push your skills toward more natural fluency in both active (speaking and writing) and passive (listening and reading) roles. Classes of all kinds are available for free or for a fee, and are not only great ways to practice your Japanese, but to meet people and learn about the culture. But what kind should you look at? Here are some areas to investigate to find your own niche to practice the language and engage in the culture.
There are always a variety of creative and artistic classes, and your local area is sure to be no exception. Community and cultural centers are great places to find information about drawing, painting, photography or pottery classes.
Outdoor activities are quite popular here, and with the close proximity of both mountains and the sea in most of Japan there is a huge variety of classes in around natural world. You can find diving and snorkeling classes, guided hiking tours, classes on plants and animals, and more. One thing you might notice is a huge number of activities centered around bugs. Japanese kids all seem to be budding entomologists, and it’s a great thing to jump into.
Get up and Move
There is a deep variety of amateur sports practiced everywhere, so active types are sure to find something to get them moving, and help learn some Japanese. In addition to enormously popular sports like soccer/football and baseball, there are classic Japanese sports like Judo, Kendo, and Karate. Gyms are usually quite welcoming to beginners and practicing these sports is a great way to meet people, communicate, and stay fit all at the same time!
A Matter of Taste
Cooking classes are not only a great way to learn how to cook, but they can be a really good introduction to food culture and Japanese ideas about eating, which are fundamental to every culture. A great thing about learning Japanese through cooking is that things like recipes have a very specific language, making them easy to pick up after a little study, but the opportunities to talk and interact with your classmates offers great natural Japanese practice.
As you can see, there are all kinds of things you can do to engage yourself naturally with the Japanese language and culture. Try to push yourself to get away from what’s comfortable, and have some fun while you learn!