How to Start Learning Japanese

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One of the most common questions I get asked is “How do I start learning Japanese?”

If you are reading this blog and thinking of learning Japanese, firstly I want to say welcome to the club! Japanese is not the easiest language to learn for native English speakers. However you can learn it to fluency with some planning, discipline and motivation.

Here’s how I recommend you get started with Japanese:

Start learning hiragana and katakana

If you want to learn to read Japanese, I would definitely start with learning hiragana and katakana.

Hiragana is the script you should begin with learning as katakana is mostly used for foreign loanwords. The links below have guides to writing hiragana as well as audio to get you used to the sounds of the language.

Start learning basic Japanese grammar 

The Genki series is probably the most commonly used textbook, but is unfortunately quite expensive to buy. I have a whole list of free or cheap alternatives to Japanese textbooks in another post.

I have used the Japanese for Busy People series of textbooks before and enjoyed using their workbooks to practice grammar points. I have also heard great things about the Japanese From Zero! series as well (their Youtube channel is a great resource in itself).

If you are looking for an online introduction to Japanese grammar, I highly recommend Tae Kim’s guide.

If you don’t mind making a bigger investment, A Dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar (by Makino and Tsutsui) is an excellent reference book and probably the best of its kind for Japanese.

Learn about kanji

Once you have hiragana and katakana down, you can start looking at Chinese characters, or kanji. There are about 2000 kanji in common use, called jouyou (常用じょうよう) kanji. Once you’ve learned all of these, you are officially literate in Japanese!

You might need to take a different approach to kanji. Unlike hiragana and katakana, you cannot learn all of the characters without studying grammar and vocabulary at the same time. Unfortunately, a kanji’s pronunciation can change when it is paired with another one. I recommend checking out some of the articles below to understand how kanji works.

Try to develop a study routine where you learn a few new kanji and review old ones on a regular basis. Consistent habits are incredibly important!

Useful kanji resources

  • I really like Kanji Damage’s explanation on how kanji works – if you like the style of the article you should definitely check out their approach to mastering kanji.
  • Finding a kanji learning method that works for you is more than half the battle. Tofugu has a great series of articles on how to tackle kanji.
  • If you are looking to master all of the common use kanji, you may find flashcard decks such as that on Memrise or Anki useful.
  • I personally used Basic Kanji Book I and II to learn the first 500 kanji – there are plenty of textbooks that focus on kanji.

Build you Japanese vocabulary

Japanese is a very vocabulary-rich language, so studying these is incredibly important. I like to write down new words in a notebook which I try to review on a regular basis.

You may find making your own flashcards helps new vocabulary to stick in your mind. Alternatively, you can find pre-made decks on the following websites/apps:

  • Anki – this online flashcard app is great for putting together your own flashcards. Additionally, there are a number of shared decks for Japanese learners.
  • Memrise – following their language courses will introduce you to basic vocabulary. There are a number of user-generated decks for specific topics too.
  • (there is a free trial but a paid subscription is required – the Core 2000 series of decks on Anki is based on iknow’s course) 

Vocabulary tips

The above websites/apps will make you review words that you struggle with more often and is designed to make your vocabulary learning much more efficient. 

Where possible, focus on using vocabulary in the context of a sentence and write these sentences down alongside new words you learn. Try to take example sentences from a textbook or dictionary. You can even make up your own (but get a native speaker to check them first!)

If you are a visual learner, I recommend checking out Pinterest and Instagram (In fact, I have a separate post about using Instagram for Japanese).

Happy learning!

The above is an extremely quick overview. There are a lot of Japanese resources out there, so it can be overwhelming to start learning Japanese. I have a Japanese Resource Masterpost page which I am adding to all the time.

Most importantly, if you find one resource that works for your goals and learning style, stick with it! There are many ways to learn Japanese but some methods will not work for everyone.

You may find the following posts useful: