We continue on with TP's experiment in learning Japanese with the specific target of being functional in the language to the point where he can work in Japanese and do business with Japanese-only colleagues. TP is a consultant and entrepreneur and is obviously used to breaking life problems down into logical steps, which I find quite fascinating, and appealing.
As I have mentioned previously, I recommend learning how to listen and speak first, or at least along side the written language. The reason for this is simple: because 90% of bilingual jobs for non-native Japanese speakers don't require much more written fluency than some email. That said, TP's study program, if integrated with plenty of speaking practice (such as living with your Japanese in-laws for 6 months) is a good one and certainly a recipe for establishing a strong foundation in the language.
[TP] I decided early on to learn on my own rather than attend a language school. I did this partly because it's cheaper for the number of hours involved and partly because I found self-study more motivating. I decided to make my program quite intense, and set a goal of 40-80 hours a week, depending on the week.
I studied reading, writing, grammar, kanji, and vocabulary by using Kumon's Nihongo self-study program, albeit at 5 times the normal pace. Foreigners can either study through Kumon's Kokugo program, the same program Japanese kids study by, or by Nihongo, created by and for foreigners. (1-2 hours a day)
2) Volunteer Programs.
Meguro-ku at least has a great variety of volunteer programs that range from one-to-one language classes with retired salary men and others, to small group classes with trained teachers. (My weekly schedule included around 20 hours of volunteer time as primarily one-to-one study.)
3) Paid Teachers.
Because a really good teacher can provide valuable training as well as input into your overall study plan, I regularly worked with paid teachers a couple of times a week. I tried out new teachers on occasion and continued with the best ones. Many paid teachers are little better than an average Japanese volunteer teacher, but the best ones are worth more than 10x the time spent with a normal Japanese person. (Weekly 2-6 hours)
In addition to Kumon, I tried a variety of other self-study methods to try and make use of every spare moment.
* Textbooks (Minna no Nihongo, Japanese for Busy people, etc.), Manga textbooks (I find the illustrations useful for effectively understanding the usage in particular situations), grammar explanation books (Dictionary of Japanese Grammar, Dictionary of Particles) (1-3 hours a day)
* Tapes to listen to over and over to engrain key grammar patterns and pronunciation, making use of time spent shopping and doing other errands. (30-60 minutes a day)
* Real Life Practice - Try to speak as much as possible with Japanese at every possible opportunity (except for my wife, who told me that needed to gain a foundation before starting with her). I found it very important to not to be afraid of making mistakes – hard to do when you've been successful in a previous life before coming to Japan. But you have to jump in over your head initially in order to keep improving. I also did multiple sink or swim home stays, living with Japanese families who did not speak English as well as day trips with Japanese-only groups (time depends on the day)
* Listening, Listening, Listening - Listen to all of the conversations around you to try and pick up and reinforce vocabulary and natural speech patterns. ALWAYS carry your electronic dictionary around and get into the habit of using it to look up and save in memory as many unfamiliar words as you can.
* Palm Pilot Memos - Keep a running list of questions and words that you want to know more about, and save them up to discuss with tutors. Also keep a log of useful expressions, a list of frequent mistakes, etc.