Start learning Japanese — the right way

hajimeSo you want to learn Japanese, do you? Good! Just follow my advice, and in 2 months, you’ll be perfectly fluent in Japanese and up to your neck in busty, blue-haired anime chicks.

Actually, no you won’t. In two months, you’ll be lucky if you know enough to introduce yourself and ask basic questions. That’s why the first thing you need to know about Japanese, before you get started, is:

Japanese is a really difficult language

Sorry to be a Debbie Downer, but it’s best you know what you’re getting into. Linguists classify Japanese as a language isolate, which means that it doesn’t seem to be related to any other major languages. In fact, the only languages it seems to be related to are the Ryukyuan languages spoken in Okinawa and other southern islands. That means that, right off the bat, Japanese has almost nothing in common with other languages. Some linguists think it might be related to Korean and Mongolian, but the jury’s still out on that. In any case, estimates I’ve read say it takes about 5,200 hours for a native English speaker to learn Japanese from scratch. This is not a weekend project, is what I’m trying to tell you.

Japanese also has three different writing systems; five if you count roman characters and Arabic numerals. Two of those writing systems, katakana and hiragana, are syllabic, meaning that each of the characters represents a spoken syllable. Those two have 47 characters each, plus four functional marks for a total of 51. Then you’ve got kanji, the system of characters borrowed and adapted from China. There are many thousands of kanji, totaling more than 100,000, including all the rare variants. You’ll need to learn about 1,000 of them in order to do day-to-day things in Japanese, about 2,000 to comfortably read a newspaper, and 3,000 or so to be able to read most surnames and place names. You cannot skip the writing and just use roman characters, no matter what you’ve heard. Anyone selling Japanese study materials in roman characters is thinking more about selling to novices than about teaching real Japanese.

And now that I’ve made you want to give up, here’s the good news:

Japanese is a really fun language

raku Japanese has a lot of cool features. It has grammatical politeness registers, which, although initially difficult to master, allow for nuances that aren’t possible in English. It has a very limited syllabary, so once you learn to pronounce the 21 phonemes (5 vowels, 16 consonants), pronunciation is fairly easy. It has tons of onomatopoeia, or sound words, called giongo 【擬音語】. For instance, a light drizzle of rain goes potsu-potsu, while a heavy downpour goes zaa-zaa. There are even sound words for things that don’t make a sound, called gitaigo 【擬態語】, like a scruffy five-o’-clock shadow that’s chiku-chiku.

My favorite point, though, is that once you actually learn the kanji, high level vocabulary is comparatively simple. In English, the word “diabetes” is basically unrelated to any other words, unless you’re really up on your etymologies. In Japanese, it’s 糖尿病, literally “sugar urine disease” — logical, since in the old days they diagnosed diabetes by the sweetness of the patient’s urine. Yet another reason I’m glad I’m not a 19th Century physician.

“All right, Jeff,” you say, “give up the goods. How do I learn this fascinating language, spoken by 128 million people, notably including the members of AKB-48?”

Get the right materials

genkiDon’t do what I did. Start by getting a good quality textbook geared toward beginners. I’ve looked through the Genki series, and it’s excellent. There’s a reason it’s the gold standard in beginners’ textbooks. The pacing is good, the explanations are clear, and the situations and dialogues are pretty natural. Get the workbook as well. I hear that Minna no Nihongo is a good series as well, but I haven’t looked at it yet. Dedicate at least twenty minutes every day to studying this text.

You also need to start learning the kana — the two syllabic writing systems. Start with hiragana, as you’ll find it more immediately useful. Japanese kids learn it first, and it’s never wrong to write something in hiragana. Sometimes it’s better to use katakana, as for loan words and scientific names, but you can worry about that when you get there. has put up an excellent Kantan Kana series on Youtube, and I recommend you practice along with that. Don’t just gloss over the stroke order! It’s actually extremely important. It may look the same to you, but trust me, stroke order makes the difference between legible and illegible when you start writing quickly. Dedicate at least twenty minutes every day to learning the kana.

Give yourself some listening practice, too.  I used Pimsleur’s, and I think it’s a quality resource. If you can afford it, or if your local library has a copy, you should absolutely use it. Otherwise, sign up for I’ve used their podcasts for years, and although I find them a bit chatty sometimes, I’ve learned tons of vocabulary and phrasings from them. Get yourself at least twenty minutes every day of listening practice.

Finally, use Anki and build your own flashcard deck. Every time you learn a new word, make a note of it, and put it into your Anki deck. Shoot for at least 10 new words a day. I use WWWJDIC to get example sentences and definitions that I can copy-paste into my deck. ALC is also a good resource for example sentences once your reading skills improve. The search bar you see on the front page is for their dictionary. Practice your Anki deck every day.

Build a habit

Now that you know what you need to do, all that’s left is to do it. Do it, and keep doing it. Learning Japanese takes a long, long time, but you’ll start seeing real results in the first couple of months if you put in some time each day. The first few days, you’ll have to push yourself. Once you get used to a study schedule, though, you’ll start to settle in, and it won’t even feel like you’re busting your butt to learn a language. It’ll just be a part of your life, and from there, it’ll be smooth sailing to fluency.

Good luck, have fun!



English teacher, student of Japanese, and aspiring linguist.

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Posted in Getting Started, Learn Japanese
2 comments on “Start learning Japanese — the right way
  1. Have you heard of and do you have an opinion on it?

    • gengojeff says:

      I have heard of it! I never signed up for the beta, but given the quality of content that Kouichi and his team put up at Tofugu, I’m sure they’ve got some cool stuff there.

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