It’s been roughly a year and a half since I started learning Japanese by myself. In this post I thought I’d share techniques I’m using, I’ve used in the past, or I’m planning to use in the future.
I’m still very much a beginner, so I’m not going to start breaking the article up into levels of difficulty. I’ve been trying to do something every day, but after the first 6 months or so I went through a dry spell where while I didn’t neglect my spaced repetition activities, I also didn’t bother learning new things. So the 18 months could’ve very well been just a year. Without further ado, here is a list of essential resources that helped me in my endeavor at the very beginning, followed by some immersion resources that I use.
In the beginning
My plan was to acquire some basic knowledge on writing and grammar, so when I would start the “immersion” process I won’t be totally blind. You can probably replace this entire post with the Refold roadmap, which didn’t quite exist back when I initially started.
The thing that got me started was this comment on /r/languagelearning. Shortly after I read it, the author revamped it and turned everything into a Google doc. While unfinished at the time, it helped me a lot in organizing my learning plan. The document is now 177 pages long, so I’d assume it’s pretty much done. I’d really like to go back to it at some point.
What I recommend is, if you’re keen on learning Japanese and have enough patience, read (or even skim) through the A Year to Learn Japanese document. What I’ll be listing below are my personal choices (and preferences) of learning the language.
Learning the kana
So, since Japanese has 3 writing systems, all of them not bearing resemblance to latin script, you have to push on and learn the 2 phonetic ones (hiragana and katakana) through rote memorization. There are only about 46 of each and you’ll see them everywhere in Japanese text, so there’s no way you can forget them if you keep practicing/reading.
Here’s what helped me learn hiragana and katakana:
- Tofugu.com - Learn Hiragana: a mnemonics-based approach to learning the hiragana syllabary; given that you’re about to learn the pronounciation of ~100 symbols, it has to be a fun process, otherwise you might just bail out right at the beginning
- Tofugu.com - Learn Katakana: same as the above, only with katakana
- ReadTheKanji: kana flashcards - I created a free account here, modified the quiz settings to only include hiragana and katakana, and started going at it until I could easily recognize the characters
Learning (and remembering) the kanji
As I previously mentioned, Japanese has 3 writing systems. We went over the first 2, and I saved the worst one for the last. Kanji literally translates to Chinese characters, and are generally used in the Japanese language for nouns and verb stems. Unlike what we’ve seen before these are not phonetic, most of them can be read in multiple ways, and you will need to know around 2200 of them in order to be able to read basic Japanese.
This is where most people quit I assume, but fear not, as there’s a mnemonic-based approach for this as well. Here’s what I used to learn the kanji:
- Remembering the Kanji by James W. Heisig: this is like the Kanji Bible, each kanji is assigned an English-language word, is broken down into its building blocks (called radicals), and for the first batch the author helps you build stories for each one of them
- Kanji Koohii: paired with the book above, this is a community of learners going through the same book, and sharing their mnemonics for the characters; also has a spaced-repetition system for reviewing purposes
- NihongoShark.com Kanji Deck: an Anki deck to help you go through the kanji from the Heisig book; set this to 15-20 characters per day, change the deck to give you cards in the book/chronological order, and chip away at it—you may be tempted to set a high daily number at first, but avoid doing that as it gets overwhelming pretty quickly
Combining all three of the above, you’ll be able to achieve the unachievable and go through all 2200 kanji in 3-4 months.
Now, some might argue that Heisig’s method is not the right way of learning kanji; here’s my two cents on this. As I mentioned above, Heisig assigns an English word for each kanji, so by “learning” kanji using Heisig’s method, at the end you’ll be able to map 2200 kanji to their assigned English word. HOWEVER… the majority of the kanji do not have a single definition, and as I also mentioned, almost all of them can be read in multiple ways. Take 生 as an example which holds the record for a whopping total of 13 readings. Heisig teaches you none of that. Or 本 which Heisig defines as book, but can also be seen in the word 本当 which means truth, or 日本 which stands for Japan (where 本 means “base” or “origin”).
All this being said, I still consider Heisig’s method the best way to learn kanji. You won’t get to know all definitions for all kanji, and you won’t know how to phonetically read even one of them, but when you finish the book and open a webpage in Japanese you most certainly won’t feel overwhelmed by all the scribbles you’re seeing there. I’m not saying that Heisig’s book is everything you need to understand the kanji, but I believe it’s a well-balanced start.
For grammar concepts I chose to go with the Genki textbook (and workbook). It’s structured like a regular school textbook, organized in 2 volumes with 23 lessons in total. It teaches you all the major Japanese sentence patterns, about 300 kanji (which you can gloss over if you’re going through Heisig at the same time), and approximately 1700 basic, everyday life words. New editions of Genki Vol. I and II were recently published, so it’s a great time to pick them up.
I bought the Genki textbooks and workbooks from Verasia since they’re EU-friendly, I highly recommend the store.
Genki can also be swapped with Tae Kim’s grammar guide which is free. I preferred the Genki approach as it comes with more comprehensive exercises (especially if you also get the workbook). However, if I want to refresh my knowledge on a grammar construct, I often find myself referencing Tae Kim’s guide.
After my couple months-long break from learning new things, the AJT JP1K Anki deck helped me a lot.
So, we’ve gone through the basics. You learned the kana, kanji, went through Genki I and II, it’s time to go out in the real world.
- Tadoku: a great choice for reading practice, these are free stories organized by levels of difficulty; it’s a great way to get your feet wet with reading Japanese
- NHK Easy News: NHK is like the national news of Japan, fortunately they provide an easy version, targeting foreigners and language learners; four new stories are posted each weekday, this is a great way to practice day-to-day vocabulary and grammar constructs, while also remaining informed on the latest developments concerning Japan
- Satori Reader: a subscription-based reading & listening app; in my opinion this is totally worth it, aside from the NHK News it’s the only resource I find myself using on a daily basis–there are tons of fiction and non-fiction stories, read by professionals and thoroughly explained, and it also has a SRS implementation where you can practice words you’ve saved while reading the stories
- Manga? There used to be a useful website, bilingualmanga.com, which had manga in both Japanese and English with selectable text for easier dictionary access; unfortunately this doesn’t seem to work anymore, and I don’t know of a viable replacement. I started reading both Shirokuma Cafe and Yotsuba&!
Listening / Watching
- Nihongo con Teppei: a really cool short form podcast tackling a variety of subjects, perfect for immersion; also has a beginner version, I used to listen to this while cooking, vacuuming, going to the gym. Even if you don’t understand anything it’s still helpful to get a feeling on how the language sounds, and mentally break down sentences into their building blocks.
- もしもしゆうすけ (Moshi moshi Yusuke): a great one stop shop for listening and reading comprehension set in day to day Japanese life; all videos have subtitles and even furigana where kanji are involved
- Sayuri Saying: similar to Yusuke, the channel features lots of conversations in casual Japanese
- Anime/Japanese content on Netflix - there’s a great browser extension called Language Reactor (formerly Language Learning with Netflix) which adds dual language subtitles to Netflix content; I use this to watch casual shows like Samurai Gourmet, and it should work for all languages that Netflix provides subtitles for.
That’s about it for me, right now I think I once again reached some sort of “maintenance” mode with the language. I don’t acquire a lot of new knowledge, but I try to practice daily for at least one hour, mostly reading. I’d like to also begin to practice speaking, but I prefer to get a better grasp of the language first.