As some of you may already know, I’ve started to learn Japanese. It’s one of my New Years Resolutions, and I can happily report I’m doing ok! Since a lot of people showed interest, I’ve put together a guide on the easiest ways to learn Japanese using methods and study tools I’m currently using.
Learning a language is hard. Especially hard if you’re bad at linguistics like me. Japanese is one of the hardest languages I could have picked as well, because it doesn’t use the roman alphabet which I’m used to. It’s a daunting language to try and tackle by yourself, but it is possible to self learn Japanese.
I’m only a beginner myself, in fact, I haven’t gotten that far yet. My problem is that there are just so many options and resources out there for Japanese. It’s both a gift and a curse. Because Japanese is such a complex language that can’t be taught like you would German or Spanish, people have come up with different ways of approaching the subject.
Finding the easiest ways to learn Japanese for me took a lot of trial and error. I’ve gone through a lot of the online blogs and resources, checked out Anki flashcard decks, researched available books, and have come up with which ones work for me. I’ll explain which ones work, and why they work for me.
Learning the Alphabet
The best way to start is learning the alphabet. Japanese comes in three sets of alphabets. Hiragana, Katakana and Kanji. Hiragana and Katana are like our alphabet. Each letter represents a sound, and putting several letters together makes you word.
Both Hiragana and Katakana describe the same sounds.
Why do they need two sets of alphabets for the same sounds? Well Hiragana is used when writing Japanese words, and Katakana is used when writing words taken from foreign languages. It’s actually super useful, as there’s tons of words taken from english, so once you know how to read Katakana you’ll already know loads of words in Japanese (like coffee, or cake)
Kanji on the other hand is the devil. Taken from Chinese writing, these are complicated symbols that you need to memorise. People say you need to memorise 2000 of them to get by in Japanese, which is an insane number of things to remember.
With that explained, the way I have personally started to learn Japanese is to first memorise Hiragana and Katakana.
Hiragana is best to study first, then Katakana. With these memorised, you’ll be able to at least know how all the words you read are pronounced. Kanji symbols often have little hiragana above them in books so you know how to pronounce them.
Resources for learning Hiragana and Katakana
You can find lots of websites, or even google image for the Hiragana and Katakana alphabets.
Yosida has a great chart that also shows you the stroke order for writing the letters.
Tofugu has an interesting guide to learning Hiragana and Katakana. I don’t personally use it, as they discourage writing the letters down, and I personally believe writing things down help you remember them better. I do however love their charts, which I believe are well structured. You can download the charts, print them off and stick them on your wall to help you remember.
Remembering which symbols represented which sounds took a long time for me. I found the phone apps “Dr. Moku’s Hiragana” and “Dr Moku’s Katakana” by far the best way to memorise the alphabet. It makes a picture out of each word and gives you a story/mnemonic to remember each letter. You do have to pay for these apps, and I know a lot of people don’t like that. However for me it was completely worth the few dollars I spent on it.
There are lots of Anki decks already available, you can search for them from the Anki desktop app (which is free). Having Anki is a must in my opinion. The flashcard app will help for every aspect of learning the language. I personally made my own deck, which is very simple to do. I recommend you make your own deck as well.
There are so many schools of thought on how to tackle Kanji. It’s complex, there’s a lot of it, and it’s basically tons of hard work you can’t avoid. Some people like to study through books, and learn Kanji as they go along. Others like to learn a lot of Kanji before they get started, so that they can read better when they do start.
As there are around 2000 Kanji you’re meant to learn to have a good grasp of Japanese, it can be daunting figuring out where to start. Some like to learn the most common Kanji used, sorted by frequency. Others like to start with the most simply drawn, and work their way up by most complex.
The method of learning also varies. Whilst it’s best for some people to repeat, repeat, repeat. Others use the Anki flashcard app extensively. There are a lot of books available to teach Kanji, in various orders. Heisig’s book is very popular for learners, as he writes stories to go with each Kanji to help remember.
I’ve been following the KanjiDamage. The website works by using math logic, learn the most simple Kanji, and build up from there. A lot of a Kanji is made up of other Kanji, so this method makes the most sense to me. KanjiDamage has a very “yo mamma” humour approach to memorising the Kanji which some people find too crude, but I personally enjoy.
Don’t try and learn a lot of Kanji straight away. I’d say aim to learn a new one every day, and tackle no more than three at once. There are a lot of Kanji Anki decks available, but once again, I really recommend making your own as you go along.
Learning the alphabet and building up your Kanji vocabulary might take a while, and in that time you might feel as if you’re not making progress. However, once you get “started” properly, everything is going to be 50 times easier.
I’m studying through Genki Volume 1, which is a very popular choice for self-learners. The Genki series is great because it starts from 0 and takes you to a good intimidate. Each volume also has a companion work book which is useful practice. There are also matching phone apps, consisting of flash card decks with everything you learn in each chapter.
A lot of Japanese courses however prefer students to use Mina Nihongo. Unlike Genki, this textbook is entirely in Japanese, so you will need to know how to read Hiragana and Katakana beforehand. Many believe that this method increases the pace of study and memorisation because you don’t have the crutches of english text to help you.
Textbooks however can be expensive, and for lots of people it’s not a practical choice. You can still learn loads without a textbook though! I use Tae Kim’s Guide along with my textbook, but his guide teaches you everything to you need, and it has regular updates. A fantastic part of his guide is that there’s a whole section heavily dedicated to grammar. There is also a companion phone app.
The best way to learn a language at the end of the day is to speak to natives. Even if you go through every textbook there is, you won’t get the full benefit until you physical speak and converse with someone else in Japanese.
There’s loads of ways you can do this. Firstly, if you live in the city, there’s probably already groups who meet up for language exchange. There might be Japanese specific groups or classes you can join in. Meetup.com isa great place to search for these groups.
Secondly, you can always find penpals or rather Skype pals online. If you have already have a friend who’s Japanese you can simply ask them to help you practice your vocabulary. There’s always the option of finding a Japanese tutor, maybe spending an hour or two a week together.
Finally, ask if any of your other friends want to learn Japanese with you. Studying together with someone is fun and keeps you both motivated to continue, even when it feels impossible.