If you want to learn Japanese but have no idea where to start or what to study, this guide is for you. So let’s get started!
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
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 the video below in the next section 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. If you want to hear all of the different pronunciations in Japanese, you can check out our hiragana guide that shows you how read and pronounce all of the sounds in Japanese. 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, y, r, 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 (e.g. 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
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:
2. Flashcards: Hiragana and Katakana Flashcards Set
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 purchase these resources, don’t worry! Here’s how you can do it for free.
Free Ways to Learn Hiragana Online
These 2 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.
1. We published a complete guide to learning how to pronounce, read, and write each of the hiragana characters. This is a MASSIVE guide but goes through each character step-by-step with videos, so you can learn them all easily. Check it out here: The Complete Guide to Learning Hiragana
2. Go through the following 4 lessons below and you’ll be a pro at reading and writing hiragana!
Lesson 1: A Quick Introduction
Check out the first video showing you how to write hiragana from Japanesepod101 here: The Hiragana Vowels
Unfortunately, there are many lessons in this series, but only this first video is free. However, that is enough to give you a general understanding of how to read and write the hiragana characters. If you sign-up for a free account, you can access a lot more lessons for free.
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
Here are 5 reasons why you should practice writing the hiragana 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 Tofugu’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
It takes more effort to practice writing Japanese characters instead of memorizing them from looking at a book. However, you should practice writing these 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 easier. At the very least, it is another tool in your arsenal to communicate with Japanese speakers.
Of course, everything is written in kanji in Japan, but knowing hiragana will help you a lot!
5. Reading and writing in Japanese will take your skills to the next level.
Not being able to write in Japanese can actually hold you back from improving your Japanese when you get to a more advanced level. Writing will help you to learn all aspects of Japanese on a deeper 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.
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 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 this 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.
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). Or you can check out all of these discounts here: Japanesepod101 discount coupons codes
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.