How should I start to learn Japanese?

Learning Japanese was one of the best decisions I ever made in my life, even if in my case, it was completely accidental. On the one hand, I am thankful I decided to do it because it molded me as a professional, but the experiences I’ve lived thanks to knowing Japanese more than tip the scale of why I love this language. I’ve read some amazing books, met some incredible people, travelled “on the cheap”, eaten the yummiest food, laughed with the wittiest comedy, and visited places that simply look out of this world. Above all, it’s opened the door to a culture that is the polar opposite of mine.

What am I saying here? I’m saying that if you have a chance to learn Japanese, you should.

I started learning this language when there weren’t quite as many interesting resources as there are nowadays. Due to this, the first part of my Japanese learning process was a decidedly mechanical process, which made me realize there are a lot of benefits and downsides to both types of learning, supported by analog and digital means. This is why, on this occassion, I’d like to recommend the best resources and exercises that worked for me (and some that came after I was done studying and made me go “where have you been all my life?”). With that said, レッツゴー!(Let’s go!)

Absolute newbie? Start here.

This is the only tip I will not budge on: for the love of all that is good, learn your hiragana and katakana.

A lot of people think that if their focus in learning Japanese is only speaking the language, they can skip the process of learning to write it and there will be no consecuences. Why learn hiragana and katakana if you can get by using romaji (romanized Japanese, or what’s the same, Japanese written in the roman alphabet)?

Here are two good reasons why you should:

hira-puzzle
  1. Learning hiragana first will give you a pretty good idea of what Japanese sounds like. With the notable exception of some words ending in the -n sound, almost all Japanese words are a reliable combination of vowel or consonant+vowel blocks that are easier to memorize once you’ve actually learnt these blocks. There are several different ways of romanizing Japanese, and none of them reflects Japanese pronunciation as accurately as hiragana.
  2. If you’re learning with a Japanese teacher, be it face-to-face or on sites such as Italki, your learning will be supercharged by the mere fact of being able to communicate with them comfortably. Keep in mind that most Japanese people can read romaji, but after asking several native friends, I’ve realized that they either feel really weirded out by it because it’s not a natural part of their language, or they feel that it’s bothersome to have to do the conversion in their heads. Do you really want to start your learning relationship with a Japanese person by showing you don’t care about their language? Think of learning hiragana and katana as a courtesy to all future Japanese relations you’ll make, even if you don’t intend to learn kanji afterwards.

Lastly, remember that although it may be cumbersome to learn 90-something new symbols, you’re actually learning 48 sounds twice. There’s no need to learn any new sounds when you’re done with hiragana and going on to katakana, or viceversa.

The express learning method I recommend, if you have no resources of your own, is to find yourself a hiragana/katakana chart to support yourself with (such as these awesome hiragana and katakana charts you can download for free from Textfugu). Find yourself some simple words (and later on phrases) through dictionary sites like RomajiDesu or dictionary apps like Imiwa, and start writing them down right away, using your charts as support. Learning this way has the added benefit of kick-starting your vocabulary right away while you’re learning to write.

Been studying for a few weeks or months? Read this.

If you feel you can let go of the training wheels, let’s get started on the good stuff.

Writing, reading

As you might’ve assumed from earlier comments and tweets, kanji is very much an acquired taste. I happen to like it; the mental workout that learning kanji for a few years provided me with has been worth it, and it also means I am able to interact with Japanese literature and written culture on a somewhat deep level. This may not be your goal, and if you’re learning for the sake of a trip or somesuch,  but if you’ve learnt the syllabaries and want to learn the basic, can’t-live-without-this-one, even-six-year-olds-know-this kanji, then I suggest you start by making friends with the Kyōiku Kanji (教育漢字), or Education Kanji: why? Because this  list of the 1,006 kanji learnt during elementary education in Japan is divided by school year, which means you can actually keep track of how many kanji you’ve learnt. You can find one of the best lists at About.com; Imiwa also has a kanji index based on the kyōiku kanji. One of the online resources I recommend the most, Kanji Alive, also has special search terms with which you can get the app to show you kanji per school year.

before-after
Before and after.

As a greenhorn Japanese learner, I went about learning kanji by creating my own handwritten dictionary, learning each kanji individually, including number of strokes, and radical (both of which, I later realized, are somewhat useless information). After having done this for a while (more exactly, for 257 kanji) I realized I had a big enough base of basic kanji, through which I started learning compounds: that is, words made of two kanji or more. The on- and kun- readings came naturally from the base I’d built with my first attemp at learning kanji, and when I didn’t know the reading of one, I usually knew the reading of the other, so finding them in the dictionary was usually quick work. By the way, if you’re the kind of student that prefers paper dictionaries or don’t have access to a tablet or smartphone, by far the most useful one I ever had was Kodansha’s Kanji Learner Dictionary.

I now realize my way of learning kanji went through several iterations and improvements before I found a method I was completely comfortable with, but this much I will state for the record: writing down kanji compounds is much, much, MUCH more effective than simply doing visual work through flashcards or the such. There’s something about the mechanic aspect of writing kanji that helps all the information contained within these compounds take root much more quickly.

Before we leave this subject: if you’re into Japanese because you love manga or anime and are having trouble because your classes don’t focus on the kind of vocabulary found in your favorite series, there’s a resource made specifically for you: the Japanese in Anime & Manga site. Regardless of your level, it has contents related to the kind of Japanese that only anime and manga characters use (and therefore, you won’t find in real life).

Grammar

Although I actually started learning Japanese with the Japanese in Mangaland textbooks (which are a pretty decent series for beginner autodidact students), no resource was ever quite as useful as Tae Kim’s Guide to Learning Japanese. It’s incredibly useful and goes from complete beginner to high intermediate, not to mention it’s completely free. It’s such a well-loved resource that a huge community sprouted forward from it: you literally can learn anything related to Japanese grammar that you need from this guide.

However, if you feel like splurging, get yourself a copy of the Essential Japanese Expressions Grammatical Points Dictionary. It’s difficult to find and not particularly cheap, but it’s useful at any level and a purchase you’ll pat yourself in the back for. It explains how and when to use an incredible number of grammatical patterns (a feature of Japanese called 文型 or bunkei), chunks of a sentence that you’ll benefit from knowing as wholes rather than individual vocabulary.

Listening and speaking

Here’s where matters get sort of sticky. I always recommend that learners start speaking about as soon as they learn their first few sentences and greetings because Japanese pronunciation is almost always hard to master for foreigners (I had a lucky break in this particular sense: Japanese and Mexican Spanish use relatively similar phonemes).

There are two resources I recommend above all for improving your listening: Erin’s Challenge, a very versatile video-based course meant for people of all ages and backgrounds, and JapanesePod101, which is part of the successful (and proven) podcast and video-based courses created by Innovative Language. Both of these courses base themselves off of practical Japanese, used in real-life situations, so you won’t find yourself wondering what use learning all of this is for.

Of course, using these sites would be all for naught if you don’t actually practice, so as soon as you have confidence in being able to say “hello, I’m learning Japanese”, get yourself to Italki and book a 30 minute lesson with a Japanese teacher or tutor. (If you don’t mind trying out a trusty, experienced, non-native teacher fully certified to teach Japanese, you can always book a session with me first, though!)

Finally, always remember that even if you’re studying on your own, this language has an immense learner community all over the globe. If you can, get in touch with the Japan Foundation office nearest to your location, and if there isn’t one available, look for a student group near yourself through Facebook. They can always point you to more local resources, if you feel this guide isn’t enough for you.