Chapter II: Where to Start Learning Japanese
In this chapter, we’ll show you what you should study for each level. If you don’t know where to start learning Japanese, this guide will help you.
If you have never studied Japanese before, you’re in for a treat. The beginning of your journey to learn Japanese is awesome because everything is new and exciting. So let’s get right into it!
Focus: Learning pronunciation, hiragana, and basic grammar.
Type of Studying: At this stage, you’ll be drilling yourself and doing active learning techniques to learn the material.
What to Study:
Step 1: Pronunciation and Writing
The very first thing you need to learn is Japanese pronunciation. The good news is that it’s easy. In fact, it’s much easier than English.
Another great thing about Japanese pronunciation is that each syllable has a corresponding written character. For example, this character, “す,” is “su” in Japanese. The pronunciation is exactly the same. “Su” is pronounced like “sue” in English.
This character, “し,” is pronounced “shi,” like the pronoun “she.” If you put these characters together, you get “すし,” or “sushi.” That’s right, you now know how to write sushi in Japanese. Man, I’m getting hungry just writing this!
Because the pronunciation and writing go hand-in-hand, you should learn them together.
Japanese has 4 different writing systems: Hiragana (Japanese characters), Katakana (characters commonly used to express foreign words), Kanji (Chinese characters), and romaji (roman characters, aka, English).
Learn hiragana together with the pronunciation first.
How to Learn It:
Hiragana and pronunciation are the foundation of learning Japanese, learn it well. Don’t half-ass it. Even with just a little bit of studying, you can learn all of the hiragana characters and pronunciation in a couple of weeks easily. If you really dedicate yourself, you can learn it in a day or two.
I highly recommend getting a book with an audio CD to learn this. However, this costs money, and it’s possible to learn this for free.
I wrote a complete guide for absolute beginners that teaches you Japanese pronunciation and hiragana, as well as basic vocabulary and grammar. Check it out here: Complete guide to learning Japanese for absolute beginners.
If you want to practice writing, here’s some hiragana sheets you can print out and use.
When practicing pronunciation, be sure to say each syllable. You MUST say it out loud. Saying the sounds will make remembering easier, and will give you a better understanding of the material. Speaking will also train your mouth and brain to say it correctly. Pronunciation = speaking.
It seems like common sense, but I know maybe people who studied Japanese pronunciation by only reading a book and listening to a CD. They did not practice saying the syllables out loud, and because of it, they took longer to remember it and had trouble pronouncing words later.
Do not do this.
From now on, every word, grammar pattern, or kanji you study should be said out loud. And repeat it several times.
For hiragana, you MUST write out each character. Some people say that if you just learn to read the characters without writing them, you’ll learn them much quicker. This is true. Just learning to recognize the characters doesn’t take much time. However, if you don’t practice writing the characters, this will only hold you back in the long run.
Writing each character is not only good practice for nice handwriting, but it will help you to remember both the character and pronunciation better.
You will also be using hiragana ALL THE TIME. If you visit or even live in Japan one day, knowing how to read and write hiragana will help you out a lot.
To practice writing, using a notebook is great, but using Japanese grid paper is better. The boxes help you write each character correctly, with the right balance. You can buy it for cheap on Amazon or print out these hiragana sheets here.
Since this is all brand new to you, the best way to study this is by drilling, drilling, and more drilling. I feel that trying to find and use mnemonics, pictographs, and memory tricks at this level are just not worth the time and effort. You’ll learn the characters just faster by writing and drilling.
So jump in head first and learn everything with practice, practice, and more practice. As I mentioned before, you can easily learn both Japanese pronunciation and hiragana in a few days.
Step 2: Let’s Speak Japanese!
Even though we don’t know any words or grammar yet, let’s start off by learning how to speak Japanese! It’s more fun to learn how to speak than just memorizing new words.
There are lots of grammar that you need to learn, but you should start with your self-introduction. In Japan, knowing how to introduce yourself is essential. If you work in Japan, you’ll be introducing yourself very often.
Check out this video lesson on how to do a basic self-introduction in Japanese.
Step 3: Building your Vocabulary
Once you master hiragana and pronunciation, you’re ready to learn some Japanese words. Which words should you learn though? I recommend that you learn useful words that you’ll hear a lot in the future.
A great place to start is this list of 100 most commonly used words.
Here’s what’s amazing though. You already know A LOT of Japanese words. You just don’t realize it. Words like karate, karaoke, sushi, tempura, judo, matcha…and the list goes on. If you include foreign load words that sound almost the same as in English, you literally know hundreds of Japanese words.
How to Study:
While studying, involve as much of your body as you can. Don’t just read the words and internalize them. Read it, then say it out loud a few times. Then write it down in your notebook. The most important thing you can do is use your imagination.
Use your imagination to relate to the word you are studying. If you’re learning the word for “apple,” imagine going to a fruit stand in Japan where they are selling $100 apples. Imagine saying the word for apple, “ringo” to the store clerk and buying it. Just imagine how sweet a $100 Japanese ringo tastes! Then all of a sudden, “Ringo” Starr (drummer for the Beatles) comes out of nowhere and starts throwing HUGE apples at you. You throw some back and hit him right in his nose!
The crazier and more emotional or fun your stories are, the easier it will be to remember what you’re studying.
This may sound like it would take a lot of time, but it really doesn’t. Instead of reading a word and trying to memorize it (which you ‘ll probably forget quickly), spend a minute or two imagining how you can use the word, and how you can memorize it.
An awesome tool for studying vocabulary is the program “Anki.” This is a spaced repetition flashcard system. It shows you the words you are studying at different time intervals. If you get an answer wrong, Anki will show you that word again within a short period of time. If you get it correct, it will show you that word further in the future.
Anki is free to use on a home PC, but costs around $25 if you want to use it on your smartphone. I use my smartphone to study all of the time, so I really get a lot of use out of it. It’s probably the best app I have ever bought to help me learn Japanese.
Step 4: Grammar Time!
Now that you know how to pronounce Japanese words and you have some vocabulary words under your belt, it’s time to start putting it all together. It’s time to learn some basic grammar patterns. Be sure to write the sentences down in your notebook, so you practice them later too.
Check out the absolute beginner grammar section in our learning Japanese guide for a good introduction into Japanese grammar.
Step 5: Becoming Japanese
Once you have a base of around 100 words and a few basic grammar patterns down, it’s time to eliminate romaji (English) from your studies. Whatever vocabulary or grammar that you learn, write it down in hiragana. Watching videos in Japanese or listening to Japanese songs is a relaxing and fun way to study Japanese as well.
Best Resources for Absolute Beginners
Best Absolute Beginner Books: A collection of the best books for people just starting to learn Japanese.
Japanesepod101: My top recommendation for learning Japanese. Japanesepod101 has awesome audio and video lessons, along with written files for each lesson.
Anki: Best flashcard program for studying and memorizing Japanese
Japanese by Renzo: One of the best Japanese dictionaries for your smartphone. It’s currently free so get it while you can!
Genkouyoushi Japanese Writing Paper for practicing hiragana, katakana, or kanji
Beginners With Some Japanese Knowledge
Focus: Learn katakana, basic kanji, more vocabulary and grammar
You’ll be drilling and doing active learning at this stage as well, but you should be eliminating English as much as possible. Your Japanese books should be written mostly in Japanese. You’ll also start to focus more on speaking.
Building on the material you learned as an absolute beginner, we will take everything to the next level now.
This is where you need structure for optimal learning. The best way to do this is with a good book or language program. The book and/or program you use should be highly organized, be easy to understand, fun to study, and teach useful Japanese.
If you don’t already have a good book, here are some recommendations.
I also have a lot of people asking me about Rosetta Stone and Pimsleur. Long story short, I’ve used both programs and I feel that they are not worth your time and money. There are actually good points about each program, but both of them are expensive and don’t contain that much material. Simply put, there are just much better programs out there.
If you want the best program for learning Japanese, I highly recommend Japanesepod101. It has much more material, resources, and fun lessons than any other program I have seen. The prices differ depending on the plan you get, but overall, even signing up for a few years is cheaper than Rosetta Stone or Pimsleur and a much better program.
Step 1: Katakana
Katakana is another writing system in Japanese. It is mostly used to express foreign words. Katakana is very similar to hiragana. Just like with hiragana, there’s one character for each syllable of Japanese. There are even some characters that look like hiragana.
The Best Way to Learn it:
I also recommend getting a book or Japanese lessons for this. Or check out this free version that is pretty good. You just need to take it upon yourself to write each character correctly and neatly.
Just like with hiragana, be sure to say each character as you write it, and drill, drill, drill! There’s no magic formula for remembering hiragana and katakana.
There are resources that teach you mnemonics or even draws pictures to look like the characters, but for the most part, these techniques are less effective that just drilling by writing and speaking.
Using katakana writing sheets will help you to write the characters out correctly with balance.
Step 2: The 500 Challenge
We’re going to continue right where we left off at the absolute beginner level. First, we want to add 500 or more words to our vocabulary. That sounds like a lot, but it’s not that bad at all. If you remembered 10 words each day, it would take you less than 2 months.
What type of words should you learn? Most good Japanese books do a great job by teaching words that are useful. But if you don’t have these, check out the free vocabulary lists on Jpod101.
Best Way to Learn:
Don’t just read the material! Be sure to read AND speak. Say the word out loud several times. Then write it in your notebook while repeating the word. And most importantly, use your imagination to find a way to relate to the word. Check out the learning Japanese tips for to see how to do this.
If you actively study by reading, writing, speaking, and using your imagination at the same time, learning 10 new words would take around 10 – 20 minutes of studying per day.
Step 3: Grammar it Up!
We’re going to keep learning more grammar at this level. You can try the first 3 lessons of each section on Japanesepod101 for free. Also, the NHK World website has pretty audio lessons to teach basic Japanese grammar. The only drawback is that the organization of the material isn’t the best.
Best Way to Study:
As mentioned above, active learning (reading, speaking, writing, imagination) is how you should be studying. You should also start to write your own sentences, completely in Japanese.
The sentences you write about should be things you want to or plan on talking to people about. At this level, you are preparing yourself to have short conversations in Japanese.
You want to start speaking to native speakers as soon as possible. The sentences you write now will be used to have conversations at the intermediate level.
Step 4: Breaking into Kanji
The time has come to learn kanji. Kanji, or Chinese characters, can be very intimidating. That’s because you need to know over 2,000 of these bad boys just to be at a high school reading level. There are also many characters that have lots of strokes in them.
Most characters also have several different readings, and you’ll need to learn them all. That being said, kanji can be fun and exciting to learn. It’s amazing when you look at different characters and they start to make sense.
Learning all of the jouyou kanji (daily use kanji) usually takes years by traditional study methods. However, it is possible to learn all of them in months, or even weeks if you push the pace. I really don’t recommend this though.
If you want to learn kanji as quickly as you can, I would still recommend that you do so over at least 6 months. This way, you’ll understand and ingrain each character to memory without burning out.
Best Way to Study:
There are 2 major schools of thought about learning kanji. One is the traditional method where you learn the meaning, reading, and stroke order of the kanji together.
The other method, a book called “Remembering the Kanji,” only teaches you the stroke order and meaning. You’ll have to learn the readings of each kanji later.
I recommend you learn kanji with the 2nd method, Remember the Kanji by James Heisig. Compared to traditional methods, this book organizes the kanji into logical, easy to follow groups. This grouping of similar kanji along with imaginative stories you create for each character allows you remember kanji faster, better, and easier.
For a full breakdown of why I think this method is better, check out the best way to learn kanji page.
How to Study:
I’m going to be a bit of a hypocrite here. For both hiragana and katakana, I said that you must learn how to read AND write each character.
However, for kanji, I am going to say the opposite. You don’t need to master writing each character, unless you plan on going to school in Japan, or have a job that requires you to do so.
Don’t get me wrong. You DO need to write out each character to practice and remember the kanji with the Remembering the Kanji method. But you don’t need to put in tons of effort to get every stroke of every kanji committed to memory.
If you do the Remember the Kanji method correctly, you should remember how to write each kanji after only a few tries. In some cases, you may only need to write it once.
However, it will be much more efficient if you focused on learning how to read the kanji. If you focus on remembering what each kanji means, and then how to read them, you’ll get through them much quicker than if you tried to master writing them.
The truth is that unless you have a job or hobby which requires you to write kanji, there will be very few times where you’ll write out sentences in kanji.
If you live in Japan, knowing how to read kanji is far more important that learning how to write them. While living in Japan, I could get by with writing only around 20 kanji (my address mostly) If you can write kanji though, you’ll impress a lot of Japanese people!
As I mentioned above, Anki is a great flashcard tool that works great with the Remember the Kanji system. All of the flashcards from the Remembering the Kanji book can be preloaded in the Anki program. If you study with a desktop computer, Kanji Koohi is the best resource to study kanji with the Heisig method.
Above all, when you’re learning each character, take your time and create a captivating, and emotional story which will make it easy to remember.
Intermediate Level: Time to Speak
Focus: Learning How to Speak and Make Mistakes
This is the level where the magic happens. Many people stay at the intermediate level of Japanese for years before reaching an advanced level of Japanese. This is because there is a ton of material to learn, but it is some of the most useful Japanese you’ll ever learn.
The Japanese you learn at this level is highly useful for daily conversations and getting around in Japan. You’ll also need to learn quite a bit of kanji and start to read a lot more.
At this level, there is one way to supercharge your learning. You can master all of the material at this level in months instead of years if you do one thing…..speak. Speaking to a native Japanese speaker is the BEST way to learn quickly and efficiently. We’ll discuss the best ways to do this.
Everything you have been studying up till now is to prepare you for. Speaking is the single best thing you can do to improve your Japanese quickly.
I know many of you feel nervous or worried about speaking to someone, especially in a foreign language. It is possible to learn Japanese without talking to a native speaker, but your progress will be a lot slower.
If you use your Japanese with a native speaker, you can learn Japanese much, much, MUCH faster than if you didn’t speak at all. I know I’m repeating myself here, but this bears repeating. SPEAKING is the SECRET to learning Japanese FAST and EFFICIENTLY.
Who Should You Speak With?
This is a great question. Most people want to find Japanese friends to practice their Japanese with. I think this is a bad idea. I speak from experience.
At this level, you might be able to put together a few sentences, but it’s still very difficult to express your thoughts or have long conversations. You’ll end up having short, awkward conversations, and you won’t get much out of it.
Finding online friends you can write e-mails to are cool, but this also isn’t the best option. The best way to practice speaking is with a native Japanese speaker who can also teach. You might be able to find someone in your town or local community college, but finding one online is much easier, and usually a lot cheaper.
Italki is one of the more popular websites that has many Japanese teachers you can talk to online. I highly recommend you take some lessons with one of the top ranked teachers there.
This way, you’ll not only learn useful Japanese from a native speaker, but they can correct and help you with your pronunciation and speaking. Trust me, this is EXTREMELY helpful.
Would you trust a surgeon who only read books, but never performed an operation before? No way! You want a surgeon who had a good teacher and practiced over and over again to master his craft.
Speaking with native speakers is the best way to get good at Japanese period. When you study vocabulary, pronunciation, and grammar, it’s all separate pieces of information that are just swimming around freely in your brain. When you speak, your brain has to put all of the pieces together to form a beautiful picture.
A good teacher will not only correct your mistakes, but they will show you how to improve, and even teach you better ways to say what you want to say. When you’re able to improve your speaking, all other areas of your Japanese improves too. Check out the learning Japanese tips page for more details.
Of course, your should also be working on learning more of everything. More vocabulary, grammar, and kanji.
At this level, a good book will help you a lot. However, you maybe want to start looking at books that focus on certain aspects of Japanese that give people trouble. Conjugating verbs and particles are often difficult to understand. Finding a book that focuses on these subjects can be helpful.
Because the intermediate level is where you’ll learn a lot of real-world, useful Japanese, it can be really fun to study. The grammar and vocabulary you learn will be highly useful if you ever go to Japan.
The Japanesepod101 lessons are good for all levels of Japanese, but it is especially amazing for the intermediate level. I found that the intermediate lessons were the most informative and fun to study.
As mentioned in the beginner section, I recommend learning kanji from the Remembering the Kanji book. Check out the best way to learn kanji page for the reasons why.
Advanced Students: Taking Your Japanese to the Next Level
Focus: Reading and Writing for the Win!
At this level, you should be able to have long conversations with native Japanese speakers and read 1,500-2,000 kanji characters.
To take your Japanese to the next level, you should focus on reading. Reading is what can take your Japanese from good to great. Of course, speaking should still be a big part of your learning as well.
You should also start writing. Writing is how you can truly master Japanese, and gain true fluency. We’ll go over techniques you can use for reading, writing and speaking.
Just like with every level of Japanese, you should continue to learn new words and grammar. However, at the advanced level, you’ll probably slow down a bit. You’ll already know most of the grammar patterns used in conversational Japanese, and have a vocabulary of a few thousand words.
To keep improving your Japanese, you still should be speaking. At this point, you should be able to have long conversations about many different topics. There still may be times where you’ll have a little trouble expressing yourself, but for the most part, you’re able to find ways to say what you want to say.
What you need to focus on now is reading.
You should be reading as much as you can. Reading will take your Japanese to another level. Of course you’ll learn new words and maybe even grammar, but more importantly, you’ll learn different ways to express yourself. You’ll see how to use words and grammar you’ve already learned in creative, artistic, or even casual ways.
Of course, the type of material you read will affect what kind of Japanese you’ll learn. I think you should read a little bit of everything. Variety is the spice of life. Many people love manga, which is good, but reading novels, magazines, and even non-fiction books are really good for improving your Japanese.
If you want to ease into reading difficult Japanese stories, check out the recommended books for advanced students. A free option would be to search for blogs or news in Japanese online.
There is a website for nearly every interest or hobby, so finding good material to study shouldn’t be a problem. You might even get lucky and find some bilingual bloggers who write their posts in both English and Japanese.
Along with reading, you should be writing as well. Just like with speaking, writing allows your brain be creative in putting words and grammar together to form a thought. You may even want to start your own blog in Japanese.
There used to be services online where people would check and correct your Japanese writing for free (well, in exchange for you helping them), but most of the good ones aren’t available anymore. Hiring an online Japanese tutor/teacher to help you with this is a great way to check your writing. If you already have a teacher you practice speaking with, let them check over your written Japanese too.
Learning to Speak Casually Like a Native Speaker
When you reach an advanced level, your formal Japanese is usually very good. Your grammar is perfect, the words that you use are appropriate, and you speak very smoothly. However, many advanced students of Japanese have trouble speaking casually and naturally, just like a native speaker does.
If you ever watch a Japanese TV drama series or virtually any anime, you will notice that they speak completely different that what most textbooks teach you. They leave out particles, say things backwords, and even slur their sentences together. Why would you ever want to talk like that?
The truth is, speaking casually is pretty important if you have Japanese friends or if you choose to live in Japan someday. The reason for this is that casual language allows you to connect with people more a deeper level?
Wait, what?? What the heck does that mean?
The language that we choose to use goes hand in hand with the way we act. It would be super weird to hear the waiter at a super fancy and expensive restaurant to speak like a rap artist. Imagine them asking you if you wanted to hear what the motha f@#k$n specials were that day.
Watching and studying Japanese TV shows, movies, and songs are not only fun but can help you to speak more like a native speaker. Of course, having a private teacher is the best way to improve, but even watching videos on YouTube can help.
I used to watch a lot of Japanese TV shows that were on YouTube, and pause the video when I heard something I didn’t know. I would listen to it several times, and then try to search for the meaning. Doing this over and over took a lot of time, but it really helped my spoken Japanese. Try it out! How can watching videos on YouTube be a bad thing?
Chapter III: 5 Steps to Be Successful Learning Japanese
Now that we’ve gone over where to start learning Japanese, we’ll talk about how to achieve all of your language goals. In Chapter III of this guide, we’ll be talking about success techniques, and how to use them to accomplish all of your language goals. If you want to learn and master Japanese, be sure to follow the techniques in Chapter III.
<<Go back to Chapter I Go to Chapter III>>
The Best Way to Learn Japanese Chapters
Chapter I: The Learning Japanese Formula
Chapter II: What You Should Study to Learn Japanese
Chapter III: 5 Steps to Be Successful Learning Japanese
Chapter IV: Troubleshooting – Answering Common Problems When Learning Japanese
Chapter V: The Best Resources for Learning Japanese