So you want to take the leap and start learning Japanese? Great! Whether you know absolutely nothing, or even just a little bit, there are a lot of great resources out there.
A common question many beginners have is “how do I decide which ones are worth my time and money?”
If you’re in this position, then this post was written for you!
This is a step-by-step guide on how to learn Japanese as a beginner. It’s the kind of guide I think you should read to avoid a lot of the frustration you might experience as a beginner.
If you follow the steps in this guide you will have a much quicker and enjoyable time learning Japanese!
Know the Learning Process
The first thing you should do before getting started is understand the general learning process. I’ve already written a blog post on this, but here’s the general structure most students follow to learn Japanese.
- Learn to read and write in Japanese
- Learn grammar and vocabulary
- Practice grammar and vocabulary
- Pick up kanji and set expressions along the way
- Repeat from Step 2
This process is designed to be simple and easy to follow. This style of learning is a proven method of learning Japanese efficiently. Most textbooks and classrooms use this approach because of this.
“Learn to read and write in Japanese” is the most essential step. It will be the foundation for everything as you learn Japanese.
I haven’t mentioned any specific textbooks or resources yet, and that’s intentional. No matter if you’re self-studying or taking private language lessons, this will be your fundamental learning process.
Learn Hiragana and Katakana
Knowing how to read Japanese is essential for most Japanese learning materials.
Japanese consists of three* distinct “alphabets” – hiragana, katakana, and kanji.
- Hiragana is used for native Japanese words and grammatical constructs in sentences
- Katakana is generally used for foreign loanwords (“ice cream”, “hamburger”) and onomatopoeia (“boom!”, “pow!”)
- Hiragana and katakana (collectively “kana”) characters are syllabic – they are pronounced the same wherever they are seen
- Hiragana and katakana share the same set of syllables just written differently – “あ” (hiragana) and “ア” (katakana) are read as as “A”.
- Kanji are borrowed Chinese characters that represent ideas or concepts and are ideographic – pronunciation can differ depending on context
Don’t worry if most of that didn’t make much sense, the good folk over at Tofugu have two awesome resources for learning hiragana and katakana. They explain it much better than I ever could and use mnemonics to get you reading kana very quickly (Click the images to get started!)
If you prefer to learn with something you can physically hold, then be sure to check out these hiragana and katakana flash cards by White Rabbit. I bought a set as a present for my sister and they really helped her when she was starting out too! (Click the image to go to their store)
A lot of classes spend weeks to months teaching students kana. This is WAY longer than it needs to be. If you use the above resources you’ll be able to recognise most kana in a matter of days.
Choose a Primary Learning Resource
The next essential step to learning Japanese is getting a primary learning resource. Whether you’re self-studying or taking lessons with a teacher, you’ll probably want some sort of learning framework to keep you on track.
1. Private Lessons
Your first option is to sign up for Japanese language classes, either online or at a language school near you.
This is a good option for a lot of people because you have a teacher who organises the curriculum and can give you learning material directly related to what you’re learning at the time. It’s also a great way to practice actually speaking and listening to Japanese – something that’s hard if you just use textbooks.
The obvious downside is that your experience depends heavily on the teacher you get, and prices per lesson will vary depending on a lot of factors. I recommend you look around at your options and do some research before you commit to lessons.
If you have the option, then I recommend you to choose private lessons. You’ll be able to learn at your own pace and the teacher is focused on only teaching you.
As you’d expect, private lessons are more expensive, but in the long term you’ll need more group lessons to get the same benefit as a private lesson, so you’ll usually end up paying more with group lessons.
If there are no language schools near you then fortunately there are online alternatives. Websites like iTalki connect teachers and students where you can organise lessons over Skype or Google hangouts. Prices are reasonable and some teachers even provide a free trial lesson!
2. Genki: An Integrated Course in Elementary Japanese
Genki is probably the most popular textbook series for Japanese students. There are 2 textbooks commonly referred to as Genki 1 and Genki 2, each with an accompanying workbook. There is also an answer booklet for every exercise. A total of 5 books.
As a beginner you’ll want to pick up at least the Genki 1 textbook and workbook, as well as the answer booklet.
You don’t need to know anything before starting and it teaches you everything a beginner needs. It comes with an MP3 CD so you can practice your listening as well as compare your pronunciation against native speakers.
The reason Genki is so popular is that it is a proven resource for learning Japanese. It is suited for classroom learning as well as a self-study resource. If you’re thinking of self-studying with Genki, then the workbooks and answer booklet are essential.
Buy these books from Amazon now!
3. Japanese For Busy People
The Japanese For Busy People series is another highly regarded resource for learning Japanese. It’s marketed as a concise course for busy people who have limited study time. Think full-time students or working professionals.
There are 3 textbooks and each one has an accompanying workbook – making 6 in total. They also have two versions – the kana version and the romanised version. It’s nice they have a romanised version considering this series is targeted to “busy people”, but I highly recommend the kana version if you’re serious about learning Japanese.
Buy these books from Amazon now!
- Japanese for Busy People – Book I (Amazon)
- Japanese for Busy People – Workbook I (Amazon)
- Japanese for Busy People – Book II (Amazon)
- Japanese for Busy People – Workbook II (Amazon)
- Japanese for Busy People – Book III (Amazon)
- Japanese for Busy People – Workbook III (Amazon)
Use Supporting Learning Resources
Once you’ve got your primary learning resource, you’ll want to have a few other supporting resources to really make the most of your learning experience. A textbook like Genki is great, but every resource has its limitations.
1. Electronic Dictionary
Use a Japanese dictionary app.
No matter your level, learning Japanese means a lot of your time will be spent looking up words. Whether it be from English to Japanese or Japanese to English, you’re going to need a dictionary to do so.
There are a lot of dictionary apps available for your smartphone or tablet. To be honest, any dictionary app will work so long as it has a nice UI so searching a word is easy. Oh and it has to be free! Seriously you shouldn’t need to pay for a good dictionary app.
It’s easy to delete an app and replace it with a better one – unlike physical dictionaries! If you absolutely must have a physical dictionary, then I recommend Kodansha’s Furigana Japanese Dictionary.
2. Dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar
Use a Japanese grammar dictionary.
Textbooks are great because they teach you grammar points and show you how they can be used in different situations. However, unless you remember the exact chapter you learned a certain grammar point, using your textbook as a grammar reference isn’t helpful.
Having a dedicated grammar dictionary is a must when you need to look up grammar points – it’s a lot easier and faster than your textbook!
These are the most recommended grammar dictionaries available on the market today and they come in three levels – beginner, intermediate, and advanced. At this stage you’ll likely only need the beginner, but as you get better you’ll probably want the others eventually too.
Buy these books from Amazon now!
- Basic Japanese Grammar (Amazon)
- Intermediate Japanese Grammar (Amazon)
- Advanced Japanese Grammar (Amazon)
3. /r/LearnJapanese (Reddit)
Find a language learning community.
I spend a lot of time on Reddit and one of my most visited subreddit is r/LearnJapanese. It is an awesome online community where people can ask questions, share resources, and even look for study buddies.
So long as you follow the community guidelines, you’ll get along fine with most people that frequent this site. Everyone is there for learning Japanese or helping others learn.
One thing that I really like about this one is that every Monday they have a special thread where people can ask and answer small questions, no matter their level. They call it “Shitsumonday” – a clever play on the Japanese word “Shitsumon” (meaning question), and the English word “Monday”.
Practice your listening skills anywhere.
JapanesePod101 has become one of my favourite learning resources. It has a MASSIVE library of audio and video lessons ranging from absolute beginner to advanced.
Of course they cover a lot of grammar and vocabulary, but they also have lessons on Japanese culture and even how to pass the JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test). I listened to these lessons wherever I could (car, train, gym), and I noticed my listening ability jump dramatically in a week.
Each week they add more content which is all available online after you sign up for a free account. You can also pay a monthly subscription to get access to the lessons offline through their app as well as lesson notes in PDF form.
I’m a long time JapanesePod101
addict subscriber which, for those that know me, says a lot about what they have to offer – the only other monthly subscriptions I have are Netflix and Spotify!
If you’re a dedicated student, you could even use JP101 as your primary learning resource. But be aware the learning curve will be much steeper than the other resources I listed above. That’s why I think it makes a better supporting resource for beginners.
5. HiNative App
Don’t get stuck on small questions.
This is a resource that I have only recently tried. My only regret is that I wish I had gotten on it much earlier – it’s so addictive!
Basically you ask questions about Japanese (either in English or Japanese), and native speakers will answer your questions for you. I use it to check if I’ve translated my N2/N1 sentences correctly – I’m basically crowd sourcing my study!
As a beginner this is perfect for asking the small questions that you inevitably come across during your studies. Let’s say your textbook doesn’t explain something clearly. Instead of getting stuck you can ask a question through the app and continue to the next exercise. In a matter of minutes, a community member will have answered your question!
Never forget anything.
I’ve left the best for last. All of the above resources are great for beginners, but Anki is great for students of all levels. If you have trouble remembering vocabulary and kanji, then this app will be your best friend.
Anki is a SRS (Spaced Repetition System) app that you can use through a web browser or install on your phone. SRS is a proven technique that helps to move material in your short term memory to your long term memory. Put simply, it’s a scientific way to make you remember things.
Basically you create virtual flashcards which sync across all your devices. Anki will use a special learning algorithm to show you cards you find difficult more frequently than cards you find easy. It provides a lot of options as well – you have full control over what is displayed on the cards.
Some Words of Wisdom
There is no One True Way for learning Japanese, or any language for that matter.
8 years ago I was in your position. Looking back I spent too much time trying to figure out which resource was “the best” instead of doing the thing that mattered most – actually learning Japanese!
Remember, as a beginner it’s not about finding the perfect resource, it’s about finding a resource that you can stick with until you finish it. After that you move onto the next resource, and the next.
Be sure to mix your learning style up too. Getting sick of Genki? Listen to some Japanese music or watch some Japanese TV. Learning a language should be fun, so don’t burn yourself out in an attempt to learn as fast as possible.
I hope this guide has given you some idea of where to start on your language learning adventure. These resources worked great for me, but (lucky for you) not everyone is like me! If you have a resource for learning Japanese that you really like, then share it in the comments below 🙂