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.