Want to learn something truly gratifying? Learning languages will do that for you. Even my favorite topics, the things I (like to think) I know more about than anyone else, become brand-new when presented in a language I’ve barely got a handle on.
Immersion is the fastest way to cover new ground while studying for the JLPT, though not the easiest by far. Bilingual friends are clutch, especially those prone to poke fun at your mistakes (so you won’t make the same one twice!) Take reading real books (not manga) or all-Japanese websites as a close runner-up.
Learning languages with Wikipedia
Published in over one hundred languages, Wikipedia counts as a “real book.” With over a million unique articles, Japanese Wikipedia (ウィキペヂィア日本語版) is one of the most robust encyclopedias in the network. With so many diverse articles to choose from, you can almost guarantee you’ll find something more interesting to immerse yourself in than the standard-fare “Bob-san and Sally-san go to the store” narratives from textbooks. (Also, it’s free! Can’t argue with that!)
This article will mainly focus on Japanese, but you can take advantage of these tips for learning languages from any region, even if you’re starting from scratch. I use Japanese Wikipedia to improve my intermediate grammar, Korean Wikipedia for examples of basic sentence structure, and Spanish Wikipedia for learning new vocabulary.
Before we continue, look out for the following words or phrases in the language of your choice. They’ll be super helpful when frolicking down Wikipedia rabbit holes. (If you’re studying Japanese, I’ve done the work for you already):
- footnotes – 脚注【きゃくちゅう】kyakuchuu
- editor (“person who edits”) – 編者 【へんしゃ】hensha
- related topic – 県連項目【けんれんこうもく】kenren-koumoku
- reply – 返信【へんしん】henshin
Got those down? Great. Let’s get started!
Learning languages with Wikipedia: choosing a topic
Japanese Wikipedia can be intimidating, especially when you’re used to seeing just one or two short sentences at a time. When looking for articles, it’s important to ignore the impulse to abandon hope and run back to your comfortable textbook lessons.
Be fearless and ease yourself into it, for just a few minutes. (Trust me; the water’s fine.) I’m not asking you to prove anything; you’re taking a simple stroll down Memory Lane. This Memory Lane just happens to be in another country!
Find something you loved as a child.
Go back to basics. All the way back, to the simplest thing you know and love. Did you enjoy Legos as a toddler? Model trains? Learning about the different flowers in your grandma’s garden? Sugary cereal, maybe?
Like most little girls raised on American Girl, I loved horses (馬).
Jot down words you know, and those you kinda know.I can’t read most of the ウマ article without staring at it for ten minutes, but I can identify some kanji I know. For example, the kanji for “old” (古い; furui) is one of the first ones English-speaking students learn. That’s why I honed in on 古 in the first few paragraphs, except the editor was actually writing “formerly” (古く). BAM. New vocabulary word acquired!
Something (basic) about your favorite hobby.
When asked what I do for fun, I almost always answer with poi, the performance art that involves a pair of balls on a chain. (Make of that what you will.) It’s a fun way to blow off some steam and get your body moving, even on a lunch break.
Poi (ポイ) was somewhat popular in Osaka when I visited (which gave me one more reason to never leave), but the article for poi is relatively sparse. Great! Short articles (not stubs) are nice for picking out vocabulary, but they’re fantastic for nailing down grammar and proper sentence structure. If you know most of the words in a sentence but you’re stumped on its actual meaning, write that sentence down to refer back later.
Sometimes you’ll find that Wikipedia pages with common names need to be differentiated. When searching for “poi” I initially reached a disambiguation page, which describes all the different poi-related subjects you might be into. If you find yourself at a disambiguation page and you’re feeling ambitious, take a look at other topics and think about how you would describe them in Japanese using the words you already know.
Learning languages isn’t all about vocabulary. Even short articles offer simple but informative sentences that a beginner could read without breaking a sweat (after looking up a phrase or two!)
Your favorite show from their country — or your own.
Articles about television from your home country are full of loanwords, making them easier to read. The Game of Thrones article? Loanword salad! All you need is a basic knowledge of katakana and you’re off to the races. Spend some time looking up kanji you don’t know in smaller sections, then go back and get in the “flow” of reading katakana-laden sentences quickly. (Make sure you can understand what you’re reading!)
Shows from Japan are leagues harder to read about. I’m obsessed with Neko Zamurai (猫侍), a television show about a surly unemployed swordsman who’s down on his luck and a cat who teaches him to love whilst not actually giving much of a shit about him (as is the way with cats.) The Wikipedia page for Neko Zamurai is…quite lengthy, but I honed in on the section about the show’s characters (登場人物; toujou-jinbutsu) to see if I could understand how they’re described.
On Japanese Wikipedia you can read about shows, books, video games…anything, really. This includes anime, if you’re into that (I certainly am.) Articles on Wikipedia are written in an academic format, no matter the topic. One of the joys of learning from Japanese Wikipedia is you won’t have to worry about whether or not the sentence you just read is actual Japanese or the cutesy cartoon-speak so prevalent in anime.
I highly recommend delving into something that isn’t anime. After all, you are an interesting person with diverse tastes; find something you like that you suspect a stranger would be interested in hearing about! Introducing yourself to a native Japanese speaker, then diving into conversation about anime is a great way to get labeled weeb trash (unless you’re already know they’re into that).
Protip: When learning languages for fun, don’t search for anything work-related! Even if you’re learning languages to bolster your career, spare yourself the stress. This exercise is meant to be fun!
Language is a city to the building of which every human being brought a stone. – Ralph Waldo Emerson
Want some recommendations for fun Wikipedia pages to practice with? Let me know which language you’re learning in the comments.