How I started learning Japanese

I started out by doing the Pimsleur Japanese course while I was visiting Japan for the first time. You’ll hear mixed reviews of the program, but I absolutely loved it. Pimsleur got me speaking in basic phrases really fast, and understanding everything I was doing. It’s ungodly expensive, but I can’t think of a better way to start the language.

At the same time, I had a book on basic grammar. It was just one I’d had on my shelf since high school; I think I picked it up for a dollar at a used bookstore. It was entirely in roman characters, which is bad bad no good very wrong. That said, it got me going in Japanese grammar and vocabulary. Having looked through a few other resources since then, I’d strongly encourage beginners to pick up the Genki series.

The spot where I really screwed up was in writing. Man, I picked the worst possible way to learn writing. See, in Japanese, there’s such a thing as “stroke order”, meaning that you’ve got to write the strokes of each character in the correct order. This applies to all three writing systems: hiragana (ひらがな), katakana (カタカナ), and kanji (漢字). I didn’t bother with this, because I thought there was no way it could actually matter. I was so very wrong. You absolutely must learn the writing correctly, and if you want to be smarter than I was, do it right the first time. Learn the stroke orders, learn which strokes have stops, strokes, and sweeps, and pay attention to the proportions of the characters. This includes the kana!

I eventually gave in and took the common advice offered on Reddit’s /r/learnjapanese forum and started using James Heisig’s Remembering the Kanji. Here again, I made a huge mistake, and spent way too long on this. It’s a good book, but I spent nearly nine months on this monstrosity. That’s nine months in which my speaking skills, vocabulary, and grammar barely budged an inch. Really, it was a terrible use of my time. If you’re going to do Heisig, don’t spend so much time on it. Better yet, use it as a reference when you’re learning the kanji some other way.

Sometime after I finished Heisig, Reddit directed me to Anki and Kanji Odyssey, and that’s when my Japanese really took off. In a future post, I’ll write in detail about how to use those two resources to become magnificent in Japanese vocabulary.

A few of the resources I've found helpful

A few of the resources I’ve found helpful


English teacher, student of Japanese, and aspiring linguist.

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Posted in Learn Japanese
3 comments on “How I started learning Japanese
  1. […] do what I did. Start by getting a good quality textbook geared toward beginners. I’ve looked through the […]

  2. malcolm says:

    Interesting point about the stroke order. I remember learning such things as a 5 year old in the USA, and getting upset about the inefficient stroke orders of the Arabic numerals. Screw ya’ll, I start my fives from the bottom, it flows better that way!

    Can you elaborate on why the brush strokes are so important? Is it a mnemonic device for learning characters? Artful reverence for the written language? Building block for more complex characters similar to how one must understand multiplication before exponents?

    • gengojeff says:

      Can you elaborate on why the brush strokes are so important?

      To make a long story short, the characters look subtly different if you change the stroke order. It’s not hugely important when you write them neatly and carefully, but once you start writing quickly, they’ll start to break down and change shape. If you use the correct stroke order, they’ll break down in predictable, familiar ways, so that even quickly or artfully written characters will usually be legible. Use the wrong stroke order, and they’ll break down differently, rendering them illegible. Roman characters are few enough in number that we can deal with reading another person’s handwriting most of the time, even if their stroke order differs from our own. Japanese uses a little over 2000 characters for everyday words, so it’s not really feasible to familiarize oneself how each character would break down if written differently.

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