Hi! I'm all determined and more than ready to start learning Japanese! Would you be so kind to share some tips how to start, what are the best resources, and what techniques worked for you?
Yay! Learning Japanese is great!
If you’re just starting, the two things you need to do immediately are:
- Learn Hiragana and Katakana. A good goal is to have both memorized in ~2 weeks. Tofugu has learner’s guides for both of these, if you don’t like straight-up memorization.
- Set up your computer to both display and type in Japanese.
After that, you should jump right into memorizing kanji. Seriously. Don’t bother waiting until you’ve learned “enough” grammar or vocabulary. You will need to know at least all of the joyo kanji eventually, and the only way to do that is to train your brain to memorize kanji by actually doing it. Pretty much everyone has their own ways of doing this, so I can’t really tell you what to do, just give some options.
- For example, you could just take the list of kanji and plug it into whatever system generally works for you.
- If you have no idea, generally it’s a good idea to use a SRS system (i.e. flashcards) to quiz yourself daily. Anki is a great resources for online/offline flashcards, and you can both make your own or download decks other users have made.
- You should also—*shudder*—practice writing the kanji. Over and over. And over. You will have a really hard time remembering the subtle differences between them if you don’t do this, even if you intend to always use computers instead of handwriting things for the rest of your life. I personally find that it is much more effective if I write every single one while focusing on stroke order and trying to make it look as nice as possible, instead of just dashing off as many as I can. ymmv
- An enormous number of people swear by Heisig’s Remembering the Kanji, and iirc there’s an app that goes with it now that you can use to quiz yourself (of course there are many decks on Anki and other programs available for Heisig users, as well).
- If Heisig’s book doesn’t work for you, there are some other options available. I personally am a fan of The Key to Kanji, which my Japanese teacher at KCJS recommended to me as a Heisig alternative that works for a lot of students.
- I’ve also heard great things about Wanikani. It wasn’t invented yet when I started learning Japanese, so I haven’t tried it myself, but a lot of JETs in my prefecture who started at beginner level really like it.
Ok, so now that I’ve had my kanji rant, let’s talk about grammar and vocab. As far as textbooks go, the two standards are Genki and Minna no Nihongo. At the beginner level, which to use is really a matter of preference. Minna no Nihongo’s main textbook is written entirely in Japanese, which can be a plus or minus depending on how you feel about that (I used the Minna no Nihongo series in college, and I loved it for that reason, but I already knew a fair amount of Japanese at that point). I’ve never used Genki, but I get the impression that it might be a bit easier on beginners. It is published by The Japan Times, and based on their grammar column, I assume that the grammar explanations are pretty good.
If you don’t want to use a textbook, the best alternative is Tae Kim’s Guide. I’ve been using this website for, like, a decade. It’s pretty well known (and I pity everyone who doesn’t know about it). Tofugu, again, also offers a few different resources (TextFugu/EtoEto) for beginners. For additional vocabulary to supplement what you learn through these online resources, just hit up the list of shared Anki decks and pick some vocab ones. You can get decks for JLPT N5 (beginner-level), or even decks with the vocab used in Genki and Minna no Nihongo.
Ok, finally, tips. I have two for you:
- Every single person who studies foreign language ever will tell you this, but really, reading/watching/listening to the language is the best way to learn it. Read children’s books, or manga targeted at younger audiences (shonen manga almost universally have furigana so you don’t get mired in kanji)—you would be surprised what you can find at thrift stores or on craigslist (or if there’s a branch of a Japanese bookstore, like Book Off, or Kinokuniya near you, so much the better)—or even Twitter. Watch dramas, movies, or anime (anyone who says you can’t learn Japanese from anime is a giant liar). Listen to Japanese music, Japanese podcasts, or whatever you can find that you can understand a little bit of, even if it’s not “serious” or “relevant.” You will remember things so much better if you have an interesting context to put them in. Actually, I’m just going to go ahead and plug @jpnvines here, because they are doing the lord’s work and you can learn bits of Japanese in the most entertaining of ways by watching the Vines and looking at the translations. In all of these endeavors, rikaichan (or rikaikun, for Chrome users) and jisho.org are your friends.
- (This might seem a bit random, but I was just talking to brit!CIR about it and I think we’ve all encountered it fairly often, so…) Don’t believe anyone who tells you that you can learn Japanese in three months, or a year, or whatever. I’m sure someone can learn Japanese in a year. Like, if you never left your house and studied 20 hours a day, sure. Er…maybe. If you already know Chinese, definitely. Most of us, though, don’t have infinite advantages or infinite time, and it’s a bad idea to swallow the idea that if you just know “the trick” or are really smart or wish hard enough you will become fluent in Japanese super fast. People who believe that are the people who end up giving up because they feel like they aren’t improving fast enough. Spoiler: everyone feels like they aren’t improving fast enough. What matters is that you keep improving. Find what works for you and stick with it.
Finally: I’m always happy to answer questions about learning Japanese, so talk to me anytime! :3