Pass JLPT1 in 2 Years

And how to teach yourself any language

I passed JLPT level 1 with two years of study, and was convincing enough that I got a technical sales job in Japan after 16 months of study, of which only 6 months involved formal study in a classroom. I also speak French and 3 dialects of Chinese. Some people ask me how I did this.

At first, I was not interested in learning to read and write Japanese, but only to learn to speak. By trial and error, I arrived at an effective way to learn: Here are the steps involved in my learning to speak Japanese. This is the same method I used to learn several other foreign languages.

See the bottom of this page for Japanese textbooks that I used, or click on "Books" in the menu for a list.
Choose material that comes with CDs for listening practice and learning on the go.

With any given lesson:

  1. Listen to the dialogue, and try to figure out what the speakers are saying. The courses I recommend have sound effects, so it's possible to guess the location, and some of what's going on. Sometimes, I'd try to speak along with it.
  2. Read the dialogue, and look up any words I don't know. I would often play a dialog line, pause, and read it.
  3. Listen to the dialogue, until I can understand all the words that are spoken.
  4. Shadow the dialogue, until I can actually speak faster than the participants.
  5. Listen to dialogues during my commute. This would allow me to review past dialogues, as well as giving me a start of step 1 for future dialogues.

The key to fast learning is to have several lessons going on parallel, and getting started on step 1 as soon as possible. I may be studying three lessons at once, each at different stages of the pipeline, getting first-exposure to new material, even as I'm still polishing another lesson. This ensures multiple exposures across several days, and allows your subconscious mind to absorb the sounds of the language. You can actually do stage 1 while walking, ironing, or cleaning around the house. It's low-stress, fun, and inspirational because you know if you work steadily, that what sounds like incomprehensible gibberish will be stuff that you will master.

Learning according to the pipeline above gives you these skills automatically
  1. Your ear will become accustomed to the sounds of Japanese. By listening before looking at any written material, you step away from using written material as a crutch. Afterward, when you read, you can check to see whether you heard all the sounds correctly. I found that in quickly spoken Japanese, I couldn't hear the "r" sound because it's a sound that didn't exist in any language I'd studied up to that point. Having a good ear will be helpful in your conversations, as you'll be able to pick up new words.
  2. Your mouth will become accustomed to Japanese pronunciation and intonation.
  3. You will learn actual conversational Japanese, and avoid sounding book-ish.
  4. You will ingrain certain grammar patterns and responses. This was funny because I would speak slowly when creating new sentences, but if it was a grammatical pattern or turn of phrase that I had learned, I would be able to speak it at native speed. This was fun because the the Teach Yourself course had funny turns of phrase, like "He's smart, but not very handsome." and "The dish didn't break, you broke it, didn't you?"

Learn Japanese: Recommended Books and Materials

Here are the materials I used to learn to speak Japanese. Study these in order, and you will give you a wide range of spoken fluency. They are available on Amazon Japan and Use this website as the basis for learning kanji and written Japanese.

Berlitz Basic Japanese

Teach Yourself Japanese

Living Language Basic-Intermediate Course (Book and CDs)

An Integrated Approach to Intermediate Japanese (Book and CDs)

Japanese for Professionals

Halfway through the Japanese for Professionals book, I convinced Intel to give me a sales job in Japan.

Living Language Ultimate Japanese Advanced (Book and Tapes)

Cowboy Bebop
Tokyo Bilingual Toastmasters
Joining any sort of a club gives you chances to interact with people in your language of choice, and toastmasters is a club for people interested in speaking!