Before you choose, first assess the following:
Self-discipline means how much you’re willing to discipline yourself to learn Japanese or any language. This is the #1 indicator of success. Whether you take a class or choose to self-study, self discipline is required in both.
None of the above are mutually exclusive. You can spend all four to learn Japanese if you’d like. Some, however, will yield greater returns than others.
Maximizing cost, sociability and time don’t guarantee success. I met someone who said they spent $10,000 on a class in Japan to learn Japanese and had very little to show for it. I’ve also met people who regularly attend group study and have very little to show for it. I’m going to guess that I’ve even met people who have spent a lot of time learning Japanese and have little to show for it. Going through a bunch of flashcards or learning kanji over and over without context can take one only so far.
Self discipline is the only one where maximizing it achieves results. Self discipline means learning to focus on the mechanics of the language and learning how it all fits together. This also means practicing what was learned. Reading, writing, listening and speaking practice guarantee progress towards Japanese proficiency.
Another aspect which should be considered is learning modality. Everyone has different learning modalities. Some people like to read while others like to listen. Some like to write while others like to talk. If you like all four, your chances of learning go way up.
After assessing what and how much you’re willing to expend on learning Japanese and evaluating your preferred mode(s) of learning, it’s time to choose a study method. Study methods include the following:
Again, this list isn’t mutually exclusive. You can choose all six ways if you want and can.
Local universities often offer language classes to community members. This means that you don’t have to be an enrolled student to take the class. Some areas have community education classes which offer Japanese language instruction and there are probably online institutions which offer Japanese classes. Whichever you decide to choose, make sure that the class is based in hiragana and not rōmaji. More on that later.
If you’re lucky enough to have family and friends who speak Japanese, woo hoooo! The easiest way to start out is by texting your limited knowledge of Japanese to them for practice. I’ve scrolled through some of my earlier stuff and, wow, was it bad. I didn’t even understand enough to answer questions most of the time. The thing is, they never made me feel as if I were “less than” and — only somewhat annoyingly because I realize they don’t want to trounce on my spirit — rarely corrected me. I continue to text them in my bad Japanese but I can tell I’m getting better and they’ve said I’ve gotten better. :)
Groups interested in learning and/or speaking Japanese can be found on meetup.com or facebook or even from an online search in your region. Groups are great for meeting others who are interested in learning Japanese, practicing Japanese and even making friends.
Language exchange partners are awesome! A language exchange partner is someone who wants to learn a language in which you’re proficient and, in exchange, is willing to teach you a language in which they’re proficient. I’ve mentioned Chang at least once in my blog and I’m sure I’ll mention him again. :)
You can find a language exchange partner online, through your local university, or through Japanese conversation or study groups. Chang and I found each other through a university program, a meetup, and a friend in the university program and the meetup who knew us both. Hi, Keith! Thank you!
I would go to the Japan America Society to find a tutor. If you don’t have one near you, you can also try finding one through a local college or university. There are also online programs which match people with tutors. I haven’t hired a tutor so ymmv (your mileage may vary).
My one big recommendation is this: if your tutor gives you a choice of whether to learn in hiragana or rōmaji, choose hiragana or find another tutor. I probably have met around 200 people over the past two years of learning Japanese and I have yet to meet someone proficient in Japanese who based their learning in rōmaji. Put in the effort at the beginning, learn hiragana.
My one big recommendation is this: if your tutor gives you a choice of whether to learn in hiragana or rōmaji, choose hiragana or find another tutor.
I've tried all of the above except for tutelage. I've taken two classes with Saint Paul Public Schools Community Education while living in Minneapolis. I no longer take classes though I still learn from all the rest: family and friends, group study, language exchange partner, and self study. I can't say which is the best because I like them all but I definitely need self-study the most.
These are the study methods I can think of so far. If you know of one not mentioned here, please feel free to leave it in the comments below. Thanks!