7 Steps to Start Mastering the Japanese Language
If you are beginning your journey to learn Japanese, an exciting world awaits you. With Japanese, you’ll be able to live and breathe in all that Japan has to offer.
You can meet amazing people, experience the unique culture, and try some of the best food in the world. Of course, you’ll be able to watch all of the anime and Japanese movies you want too 🙂
Learning Japanese is NOT as difficult as people say it is. I think that overall, Japanese is much easier to learn than English. If you work at it consistently, you’ll be speaking and reading Japanese in no time.
This step-by-step guide has everything you need to get started learning Japanese. There are lessons, book recommendations, resources, and much more. Follow these 7 steps and you’ll have a good foundation of Japanese to build upon. So let’s get started!
Absolute Beginner Japanese Course:
Skills Needed: None
In this guide you’ll learn:
- The exact steps you need build a foundation in Japanese
- Japanese pronunciation
- Japanese writing systems
- Hiragana: Reading and writing
- Useful Vocabulary
- Simple grammar
- Basic Japanese sentences
- Step 1: Master Japanese Pronunciation
- Step 2: Learn Romaji…And Then Don’t Use It
- Step 3: Learn to write Japanese: Hiragana
- Step 4: Learn a Few Phrases to Get You Started
- Step 5: Learn Basic Grammar
- Step 6: Build Up Your Vocabulary
- Step 7: Find an Interest in Japanese
- The Next Level: Learning Japanese for Beginners Guide II
Step 1: Master Japanese Pronunciation
The first thing you need to master is the Japanese pronunciation. This is the most basic step, but it is the most important. Once you master all of these sounds, you’ll be able to pronounce any word in the Japanese language.
The good news?
It’s so easy that you can learn all of them in a few minutes, and remember all of them in a few hours if you put in the effort.
Check out this video from Japanesepod101 that explains some of the basics of Japanese pronunciation.
Many of the sounds in Japanese are similar to English, and there are no complicated rules or exceptions. Unlike English, there are no silent letters, different pronunciations with different letter pairings, or variations in pronunciation.
Here are 4 lessons on Japanese pronunciation. Complete these and you’ll know all the sounds of Japanese.
How to Master Japanese Pronunciation in 4 Easy Lessons
Lesson 1: The 5 Vowels
There are 5 vowels in Japanese: A, I, U, E, O. These 5 vowels are the foundation of all the other sounds in Japanese (with a few exceptions). They are the same vowels we use in English, but they are pronounced a little bit different.
A: “ah” as in “father”
I: “ee” as in “eel”
U: “oo” as in “food”
E: “eh” as in “egg”
O: “oh” as in “oh my goodness!” or “over”
Watch this video to hear how these 5 vowels are pronounced and learn how to say them correctly.
Lesson 2: Vowels + Consonants = All Basic Sounds in Japanese
If you combine these vowels with a consonant (k, s, t, n, h, m ,r, y,w) you’ll produce all of the basic sounds in Japanese.
Let’s look at an example. Let’s take the consonant “k.” If we combine this with all of the vowels, we get:
k + a = ka
k + i = ki
k + u = ku
k + e = ke
k + o = ko
This can be done with all of the other consonants (ex. na, ni ,nu, ne, no: ra, ri, ru, re, ro: ma, mi, mu, me, mo, etc.)
Here’s a great video that will teach you about the basics of Japanese pronunciation. It comes from George Trombley, who is the co-author of the book series, “Japanese from Zero.” While this book can too “fun” for older students of Japanese, the lessons are easy to understand, fun to study, and teach you useful Japanese. If you’re looking for a great book to get started with, this is one of the best.
To see all of the books I recommend for absolute beginners of Japanese, go here: Best Japanese Books for Absolute Beginners
Lesson 3: Exceptions
However, there are a few exceptions. The good thing about these exceptions is that you already know most of them. There are many words that we use in English that actually came from Japanese. Some of these words are spelled using these exceptions of Japanese pronunciation. Let’s check out these exceptions here.
The “S” row: Sa, Shi, Su, Se, So
In the “s” row, you would expect it to be “sa, si, su, se, so.” However, we need to add an “h” to the “si” sound, so it becomes “shi.”
The correct sounds are sa, shi, su, se, so.
A perfect example of this can be found in a Japanese dish that has become popular all over the world. This wonderful Japanese dish consisting of rice and fresh seafood is not “susi.” It is “sushi.”
The “T” Row: Ta, Chi, Tsu, Te, To
In the “t” row, you would expect “ta, ti, tu, te, to.” However, the “ti” is changed completely, and becomes “chi,” as in the Chinese martial art, “tai chi.”
The “tu” is also changed. We need to add an “s” to it, to change it to “tsu.” So the correct pronunciations for the t row are “ta, chi, tsu, te, to.”
Do you like baseball? Two of the most popular players from Japan in the MLB are Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui. If we didn’t change their names to the correct spelling, it would be Itiro and Matui.
The “H” Row: Ha, Hi, Fu, He, Ho
In the “h” row, you would expect the sounds to be “ha, hi, hu, he, ho, but the “hu” in the ha-row becomes “fu.”
For example, “tohu” is a word that most of us have never seen before. But since “hu” changes to “fu,” this word in Japanese would then be “tofu,” which has become a standard food in many countries around the world.
If you want a more detailed look into these exceptions, you can check this video out from Pocket Japan. The explanation of Japanese pronunciation stars from about 1:30 and goes to about the 7:30. You can skip the writing section since we’ll be learning that in detail in step 3.
Lesson 4: Additional Sounds
In addition to these basic 46 sounds in Japanese, there are 68 other sounds found in the Japanese language.
68?!? That’s more than the number of basic sounds!
Once you master the 46 basic syllables, these 68 other sounds will be easy to learn. The reason for this is because all of these additional 68 sounds are built from the basic sounds. Creating these additional sounds are very systematic and logical, so it is easy to learn.
For example, the “h” row of Japanese sounds (ha, hi ,fu, he, ho) can also be changed to ba, bi, bu, be, bo or even pa, pi, pu, pe, po.
It is much easier to see how this works when we learn how to write the Japanese characters. Just keep in mind that all of the sounds in Japanese can be made from building off of the basic sounds you just learned.
In step 3 below, we’ll learn how to write out these sounds using Japanese characters. When you learn to write all of the characters, you’ll see in detail how to create all of the other sounds in Japanese. Complete the lessons in step 3 and you’ll master all of the sounds in Japanese in no time.
Step 2: Learn Romaji…And Then Don’t Use It
Romaji is one of the four writing systems that is used in Japanese. It is the English spelling, or Romanization, of Japanese characters.
See the examples listed in step 1 (sushi, tofu, Ichiro)? Yep, those are all written out in romaji. You have already read tons of these Japanese romaji words in your everyday life as well. Words like tsunami, karaoke, karate, ramen, etc.
Since romaji is written in English, we want to spend as little time as possible using romaji and jump straight into the other Japanese writing systems. Using romaji can actually hurt your learning and remembering of Japanese. Reading and studying Japanese should be done IN JAPANESE.
Most intermediate textbooks are written mostly in Japanese, so we need to be able to read Japanese characters if we want to attain fluency. So let’s jump right into learning some written Japanese characters!
Step 3: Learn to write Japanese: Hiragana
Hiragana is one of the four Japanese writing systems you’ll need to master. The other 3 writing systems in Japanese is romaji (explained in step 2), katakana (characters used mostly to express foreign words), and kanji (Chinese characters).
While kanji can be quite difficult to learn (because there are so many of them), hiragana and katakana is actually quite simple. We’ll start by learning hiragana, and then learn katakana in the next guide.
There are 46 basic characters in hiragana. If you have mastered Japanese pronunciation in step 1, then you already know how to pronounce every basic character in hiragana. You just need to know which character goes with each sound.
There are tons of ways to learn hiragana. But here are the best ways I have found to learn them.
Paid Methods: Costs a Few Bucks for Materials
If you want a complete guide for learning hiragana, and you don’t mind spending a few bucks, here are two resources that making learning hiragana easy:
These are two excellent resources that teach you everything you need to know about hiragana. However if you don’t want to or can’t afford to purchases these resources, don’t worry! Here’s how you can do it for free.
Free Ways to Learn Hiragana Online
These free ways to learn hiragana aren’t as complete and detailed as the paid methods, but contain more than enough information for you to learn all of the characters. Go through these 4 lessons and you’ll be a pro at reading and writing hiragana!
Lesson 1: A Quick Introduction
Check out the first 3 videos showing you how to write hiragana from Japanesepod101 here: Learn How to Write Hiragana
Unfortunately, only the first 3 lessons are free, but that is enough to give you a general understanding of how to read and write the hiragana characters.
Lesson 2: Complete the Online Hiragana Course
Go through the free online hiragana course from Japanese-lesson.com here: Complete Hiragana Course
The material that they teach is excellent, and will help you to read and write all of the hiragana characters. Be sure to go through both the reading and writing lessons for each lesson.
Lesson 3: Practice Writing All of the Characters
For writing practice, download the hiragana practice sheets. They will help you to remember each character as well as improving your writing skills.
Get the practice sheets here: Hiragana Writing Practice Sheets
Lesson 4: Having Trouble Remembering? This Resource Might Help
If you are having trouble remembering some of the characters, check out Torafugu’s learning hiragana page.
They provide an illustration for each character to help you remember them. Mnemonics aren’t for everyone, but this is a good resource to use if you need help remembering characters that give you a hard time.
The only thing that I disagree with is that they say NOT to practice writing the characters. Sure, if you just learn how to read them, you remember them faster. However, this will actually hurt you in the long run.
Writing in Hiragana: Why it’s Essential for Mastering Japanese
Here are 5 reasons why you should practice writing the hiragana characters.
1. You’ll learn them better and actually MASTER each character if you practice writing them.
If you only know how to read the characters, you won’t have a complete understanding of them. By learning the basic strokes of hiragana now, it will help you to understand how more complicated characters are formed later.
2. Writing will actually help you to read each character better.
You’ll be able to understand other people’s handwriting better if you know how to write the characters yourself.
3. You’ll learn correct stroke order.
Unlike English, each written character in Japanese is written in a specific stroke order. Why is this even important? The correct stroke order helps you to give the character balance when you write it by hand. Besides looking beautiful, a well-written character is essential since there are some characters that look very similar to each other. Also, when you learn kanji (Chinese characters adapted and used in Japanese), knowing the stroke order will be even more important. You’ll need to know the stroke order to look up an unknown kanji in a dictionary.
4. Unlike a lot of kanji, you will actually USE hiragana.
If you visit Japan for a long period of time (long vacation, studying aboard, job, etc.) you will definitely run into a situation where you’ll need to write something in hiragana. Knowing how to read AND write hiragana will make your stay in Japan much better. At the very least, it is another tool in your arsenal to communicate with Japanese speakers.
5. As your Japanese improves, you will find that reading and writing in Japanese is a very good way to take your skills to the next level.
If you don’t know how to write, you won’t be able to improve your Japanese in this way. This can actually hold you back from improving your Japanese when you get to a more advanced level.
Final Note: Imagine you’re teaching English as a second language to someone. Would you tell them NOT to practice writing the alphabet?
Sure, typing and texting has replaced many of the things we used to write by hand. But it is still very common to use handwritten English in everyday situations.
Wouldn’t it be weird if you met someone who spoke English fluently and could read their name in English but couldn’t write it? Would you consider that person truly fluent?
The time it takes you to learn how to read and write hiragana now will benefit you in the long run.
Step 4: Learn a Few Phrases to Get You Started
If you want to become fluent in Japanese, you’ll need to learn grammar, vocabulary, reading and writing, and most importantly, using what you learn in conversation by speaking.
But before we dive into learning basic grammar and words, let’s have a little fun and learn a few useful Japanese phrases you can use right now.
How to Introduce Yourself in Japanese
In Japan, introducing yourself to others is a rather formal process when compared to Western countries. If you stay in Japan for a while, or especially if you find a job in Japan, you will be introducing yourself A LOT.
You’ll probably have to do a self-introduction of yourself in front of your co-workers on your first day of work.
Even when you meet new people at a party or even a bar, you’ll be using the Japanese you learn here to introduce yourself.
So let’s take a look at a simple and effective way to introduce yourself in Japanese!
Check out the self-introduction lesson here: Introducing Yourself in Japanese
The 25 Most Common Phrases Used in Japan
If you are feeling up to it, this cute video about the 25 most common words and phrases used in Japan is also great: The 25 Most Common Phrases We Use in Japan
Step 5: Learn Basic Grammar
Learning grammar is the backbone to mastering Japanese. You’ll be able to have small conversations in Japanese just by learning a few basic grammar patterns.
I highly recommend that you get a book and/or an online learning program that teaches you the most useful Japanese grammar. Using a good textbook or learning program with the resources below will give you the best results in the shortest amount of time.
However, if you can’t afford to buy any learning materials, don’t worry. I have found and used excellent online resources online that are completely FREE.
While it’s hard to find free online lessons for intermediate or advanced students of Japanese, there are some outstanding resources for beginners.
Here are 3 lessons with the best resources I have found for learning Japanese grammar.
The Basics of Japanese Grammar in 3 Lessons
Lesson 1: A Quick Introduction to Japanese Grammar
Lesson 2: Learn a Few Basic Conversational Grammar Patterns
These free audio lessons with printed guides from NHK is an excellent resource to learn some useful Japanese grammar and expressions.
There are 48 total lessons, but you don’t have to complete all of them. Complete the first half of the lessons (the first 24 lessons). Make sure you listen to both the audio files and read the printed material as well.
Go to the NHK lessons here: Easy Japanese Lessons
While the lessons are very good, they aren’t 100% complete. This course teaches very good conversational Japanese, but it is missing a lot of material that you should learn to build up a solid foundation of the basics.
Let’s go the next lesson to see how to fix this problem.
Lesson 3: An Excellent Written Reference
To fill in many of the gaps that the NHK lessons have, check out Tae Kim’s online resource for learning Japanese.
As a beginner of Japanese, using this online guide alone would be a little difficult. Some lessons assume that you already have some knowledge of the Japanese being taught.
Using Tae Kim’s guide along with the other resources in this guide will help you to learn more effectively. The other resources in this guide has audio and video files that features native Japanese speakers. You’ll be able to hear the correct pronunciation as well as learning how to use the grammar/words in the right context.
Honestly, this will take a lot of effort to study all of the free materials in this guide at the same time (NHK audio lessons, Japanesepod101 lessons, and Tae Kim’s online guide). That is why I recommend getting a book , which organizes all of the information in one place.
But if you put in the effort, the information in these free resources are enough to take your Japanese to the next level.
Lesson 4: My Favorite Resource: Japanesepod101
My favorite resources that I have mentioned a few times in his guide is Japanesepod101. While you can pay for a premium membership to have unlimited access to all of their material, you can get by without it.
There are tons of video and audio lessons on the website, ranging from complete beginners to advanced learners. The lessons are organized by topic. The first 3 lessons of each topic are free. This means you can have access to dozens, if not hundreds of lesson for free.
The only negative is that you don’t have access to all of the lessons in each topic. However, just by studying the free lessons, you can learn TONS of beginning grammar and expressions. Check out their video and audio lessons here.
If you want to know more about the lesson at Japanesepod101, or are interested in signing up, check out my review here: Japanesepod101: Can You Really Learn Japanese in a Few Minutes a Day?
At the bottom off the review, you’ll find two special discount links (65% off a premium membership, or $117 off a premium plus membership)
Disclaimer: I am both a member and affiliate of Japanesepod101. This means that if you were to buy a paid subscription to this service through one of my links, I would receive a small portion of that sale.
I will never recommend a product or service that I don’t believe in just to make a buck. I have been a member of Japanesepod101 for over 5 years (and still a member) and I truly feel that the lessons there have been a huge reason for improving my Japanese.
I can also provide special deals to the readers of my blogs. (65% off premium memberships, which is the biggest discount out there. Even when the company has special sales, it usually is a 30% discount or less).
So if you do sign-up, you’ll get the best deal and save the most money. And I would be very grateful too 🙂 If you do make a purchase, I thank you in advance. If you don’t, I hope that the information in this guide will give you everything you need to start learning Japanese. You can also ask me any questions about learning Japanese and I’ll do my best to help you.
Step 6: Build Up Your Vocabulary
Once you learn the Japanese pronunciation and how to write in hiragana, learning new words becomes much easier. Just like in any other language, Japanese has thousands of words in their vocabulary. So where in the world should you start?
Go through these 2 lessons to build up a good foundation of Japanese words.
Learn Japanese Vocabulary with These 2 Lessons
Lesson 1: You Already Know Lots of Japanese Words!
There are lots of words used in English that come from Japan. The only difference is that in English, some of these words are pronounced differently. But now that you know how to properly pronounce Japanese, you can say these words correctly.
For example, if you like martial arts, then you might have tried “karate” before. In English, this is pronucted like “kah – rah -dee.” But we now know that the pronunciation in Japanese is different.
I bet you also have heard of words like karaoke, tempura, bonsai, haiku, samurai, and probably much more!
There are also words in Japanese that are taken from other languages. Many of these words are from English, and the pronunciation is very similar. You’ll learn a lot more of these words in the next guide.
For a quick introduction to these foreign loan words, check out this video. The Japanese displayed in the video is katakana, which is one of the writing systems in Japanese used to express foreign words. We’ll learn how to read and write katakana in the next guide.
Lesson 2: Learn the Most Common Words
If you’re going to take the time to learn new words in Japanese, you should start off with common words used in everyday Japanese. These are the words that are most frequently used everyday conversations.
Here’s a great list to get you started. It is a list of 100 common Japanese words that you’ll hear often. Each word also has examples and audio files so you can hear a native speaker pronounce them. The best thing about this list is that there is a picture for each entry on this is. This makes it easy for you to instantly know the meaning of the word you are studying.
Check out the word list here: 100 Common Japanese Words
If you want more words, or want to check out tons of vocabulary words that are organized by topic, check out this list: Japanese Vocabulary Lists
6 Tips for Remembering Japanese Vocabulary
You probably already know memory techniques like mnemonics or repeating something over and over again. While these techniques can be effective, combining them with these 5 tips will make remembering Japanese a lot faster and easier.
1. Spaced Repetition Practice
This is one of the best ways to remember anything! This is basically reviewing what you studied over and over again in set intervals of time.
For example, if you study the word for dog (inu) in Japanese, and you remember it, you’ll review it again tomorrow. If you still remember the word tomorrow, then you’ll review it again a in a week. If you still remember it after a week, then you’ll review it again in a month. If you don’t remember it, you’ll go back to the beginning and review it again.
This goes on until you correctly remember the word you are studying over a certain period of time.
This sounds really simple, and it is. But don’t underestimate the power of this technique. It a very effective and quick way to remember Japanese, and I use it all the time. You just need to be sure to use this method CORRECTLY.
The tried and true method is to make flashcards of the material you are studying. You then organize them by the time you want to review them again.
This is a pretty big pain in the butt, and it takes a lot of time to make your own flashcards and an organizer.
That is why I highly recommend the app “Anki.” It does all the work for you. Just open the app, load what you want to study, and review the material. That’s it. It takes care of all the organizing for you.
The desktop version is free, but the app version is around $25. 25 bucks?! That is pretty expensive for such a simple app right?
That’s what I thought, but when I finally got around to buying it, I wish I bought it sooner. It has helped me remember a ton of Japanese words much faster than when I was studying them on my own.
2. Don’t Remember a Million Words at Once
Instead of remembering dozens of words a day, break it into smaller chunks.
Studying words in small groups makes it easier to remember, and keeps you motivated. Even if you remember 1 new word each day, that is much better than studying 30and forgetting them all.
Think about it though. If you study 5 words a day, you’ll know 150 words in a month. That is a great start!
3. Learn Useful/Situational Words
It’s easy to remember things that interest you. This is even more true if you actually plan on using what you study.
If you are into Japanese food, remembering words about this topic will be enjoyable, which will make it easy to remember.
So try to find topics that you like and study words related to it. Check out the vocabulary lists page for a lot of different topics.
When you are studying a new word, don’t only try to remember it’s meaning. Use your imagination to bring this word to life.
Imagine a scenario where you can see yourself using this word in conversation. And make it big and grand! Maybe you’re a movie star or a superhero. The more fun you have with this the easier it will be to remember what you study.
5. Sticky Notes
Another technique that can help you to study is sticking notes where you’ll see them all the time. If you are always at your computer, why not stick a note there with Japanese words relating to electronics.
This can take a lot of time when you are trying to study a lot of words. So I suggest you only do these for the words that are really hard for you to remember.
6. Using Google Images
Now that you know how to write in hiragana, a great resource you can use is Google Images.
If you want to learn a new word in Japanese, reading the definition in a dictionary might not be enough.
For example, if you look up the word “pants” in a Japanese dictionary, it might give you this definition: パンツ (pantsu) . You might think, “oh, pants in Japanese is the same as in English.” However, if you searched forパンツ (this is written in katakana, which we’ll learn later) on Google Images, you’ll get results with some very interesting underwear pictures.
That’s because “pantsu” in Japanese means “underwear.” If you want to talk about pants, as in slacks or dress pants, the Japanese word for this is “zubon.”
So searching for a word (in Japanese) in Google Images can be very helpful in seeing what a word actually means.
If you want to be able to type in Japanese on your computer, check out this guide that shows you how to do it: http://www.guidetojapanese.org/learn/resources/setup
Step 7: Find an Interest in Japanese
Although this is the last step in this guide, this might be the most important (and fun!) step. If you really enjoy doing something, learning becomes easy. You won’t need motivation to study or force yourself to learn something new. It will happen naturally and you’ll have fun doing it.
That’s why it’s so important for you to find something you love about Japan. Do you like manga or anime? Or maybe you are into Japanese history or culture? How about Japanese games, food, people, or travel? The possibilities are endless.
Japan offers something for everyone. I have friends who love reading manga and watching anime. They started to learn the language so that they could read or watch their favorite series in Japanese.
I’ve also have friends who love J-pop music. They would try and translate the lyrics into English. I even have friends who just liked the food in Japan (me included) who learned Japanese through food.
There are tons of crazy and fun Japanese shows you can watch on YouTube now. These are great for learning Japanese as well.
If you already have an area that interests you, then great! If not, try and find something that you enjoy that ties into Japan. You can use this interest later to learn Japanese while having fun.
Jim Breen: Awesome Japanese to English or English to Japanese online dictionary. Also has a function to translate words from pages of text.
Anki: One of the best apps for studying and remembering anything. This app works on a spaced repetition system, which means you will be quizzed on material at specfic time intervals, depending on if you answer correctly or not. The desktop version is free. The app version is pretty expensive, but worth every penny if you use mobile devices to study.
Japanese by Renzo: This is the best Japanese-English dictionary that I have ever used. It used to be expensive. I believe I bought it for around $20.00, and am very happy with my purchase. However, this app is available for download for FREE every now and then. As of this writing (August 26th, 2016) the app is free. So get for free while you can!
I hope that this guide helped you to get started learning Japanese. If you complete all of the 7 steps listed in this guide, you’ll be ready to take your Japanese to the next level. In the next guide, I’ll go over all of the material you need to know to take your Japanese to an intermediate level.
Japanese takes time to master, but believe me, anyone and everyone can do it. The most important thing is that you are consistent in your study (even if this means 5 minutes a day) and you use what you learn (speaking to native speakers, or even just to yourself out loud).
If you do this, you’ll be speaking and reading Japanese in no time! A whole new world will open up for you. You’ll meet new people (or maybe even find a significant other) and get to experience a totally different culture in a way that only people who can speak Japanese can.
The Next Level: Learning Japanese for Beginners Guide II
If you mastered the material in this guide, you’re ready for part II!
If you have any questions or comments, feel free to leave them below. Thanks and good luck on your journey to master Japanese!