JLPT BC 36 | Starting from Scratch

Japanese Learning Starting from ScratchI’ve been podcasting now for a little over 6 months with 36 episodes under my belt.  I appreciate everyone that has tagged along for the trip.  I was wondering if I could ask you little bit of a favor though.

I’d like to know what you’d like to learn about and hear about on the podcast.  I have a lot of things planned for the next couple of weeks, but I’d like to customize the podcast as much as possible.  So, if you have some time (just a few minutes), could you fill out a little survey for me.  Thanks for your time and your support over the last 6+ months.

Starting from Scratch

This week, I want to say a few words about starting from scratch.  I think a lot of people have trouble starting out in a language.  It can be tricky to get a handle on the language.  Especially when we’ve been taught incorrectly how to learn a language in high school.

I especially had a rocky start.  I took a year of Japanese at a city college before I came to Japan.  I did my best to study and practice the sentences and words that we were going over in class and generally got good grades.  However, when I got to Japan, I felt like I could just barely speak the language.  I could hardly order something at McDonald’s.  I was a bit hopeless to say the least.

So, I kept up my studies of the language.  I diligently did my homework and listened to Japanese conversations.  I went through a silent period, which is what everyone is suppose to do right?  Well, that silent period just kept continuing despite being in Japan for 6 months.  And, I could still hardly make a hotel reservation.

My co-worker recommended a tutor and I immediately started my tutor sessions with her.  It really started opening things up for me.  I started getting conversation practice and being able to test out the new vocabulary and grammar that I learned.  It really helped.

Note that I said tutor and not a class.  Classes are good for some people, they are social; you can get a lot of practice with a lot of different people; there are other students that ask questions that you don’t think about.  But, classes may not be for everybody.  You might make solid progress just with a tutor instead.

How to Hit the Ground Running

If I had to start all over again, I would probably learn kana as soon as I could.  Knowing how to read the language natively (the way it is suppose to be read) is invaluable.  It can help you do more reading and will give you a jump start because you’ll be able to read some things in Japanese.

A good book to help you learn kana in about 3 hours (yes, it actually only takes about 3 hours) is Remembering the Kana (US Amazon).  I used this book and completely eliminated the need for boring drills.  Between this and Kanji Pict-o-Graphix (US Amazon) I mastered all the kana pretty quickly.

After learning kana, I would get three things, a grammar book of some kind, a phrase book, and some listening material.  The grammar book, I would use as a reference and learning tool.  I’d work through it slowly and not make it my primary thing to study from.  You need grammar, but you don’t need to overdo it.  Also it’ll be handy if it has an index of some kind so that you can easily look up grammar points that you encounter.

For a plain vanilla grammar book, I recommend Minna no Nihongo’s shokyu book.   It is a bit pricey, but it packs the right grammar into one solid book.  There are CDs that go with it, as well as a workbook.  I never got the workbook or CDs, I practiced the conversations with my tutor.  I think they would be handy if you have the time to study with them though.  Please note, that this book uses exclusively kana, so be sure you are good at kana before starting this series.  You may want to get the Translation and Grammar Notes for explanations of the grammar (in your native language) as well.

The second thing to get is a phrase book.  This is useful if you are in country and you want to get started speaking to natives as soon as you can.  There are two phrasebooks that are on the top of the heap.  The Lonely Planet Japanese Phrasebook (US Amazon) and the Berlitz Phrasebook (US Amazon).  The Lonely Planet guide seems to be more popular, but has mistakes.  The Berlitz guide is bigger but has more correct phrases.

A new phrasebook has also come out from Tuttle – Essential Japanese (US).  I like this one a lot because it seems to be sorted a little better than some of the other offerings.  It also has a handy drawing of camping gear.

Will they have romaji?  Yes, probably.  Are they going to teach you any grammar? No, not really.  The reason why I recommend a phrase book is so that you can jump headlong into the language without getting bogged down in grammar and vocab details.  With a phrase book and you can simply open it up and say something out of it and you are in a conversation.  Yes, it is a little embarrassing to do so, but the sooner you get hands on experience with the language the better.

The last thing I would recommend getting is some listening material to help you get used to hearing the language.  I’ve been listening to Japanesepod101 for awhile now (3+ years).  They have a lot of different levels and even if I listen to the beginner series I can learn new stuff.  TIP: sign up for the mailing list and try it out for awhile.  About every 3 months they have a sale.  If you like it, you can buy a subscription then and usually save around 25%.

And the last thing to do is to ‘go native’ as soon as you can.  This can either be reading online blog articles with Rikaichan (for Firefox) or Rikaikun (for Chrome) or watching JDramas, JMovies, talking to some native speakers.  Anything will do, but having native-level exposure to the language from the beginning is a key to quick learning.

Action Steps

What advice would you give to someone just starting out?  What are some of the mistakes you made?

P.S. I’m now in iTunes.  If you like the podcast, please be sure to visit iTunes and leave me a review.  If you have comments or suggestions for the podcast, by all means let me know in the comments below or contact me and let me know what I can do to improve the show.  Thanks!

Music by Kevin MacLeod, photo by Steven Depolo

{ 10 comments… add one }
  • Andrea Gill July 15, 2011, 2:55 am

    Hello! I hope you passed the N2 test, please be sure to let us all know! Thank you for sharing your tips (and the links, I had no idea White Rabbit Press existed). After two years of college level Japanese I decided to get back to basics. Just like you the class thing was not working out so I got some children’s kanji work books and started working on those, I have books for 1st through 6th grade. I bought these off of J-box (https://www.jbox.com/product/ASA051). If I complete them all I will have around 1000 kanji, whew! For my grammar I am going over my old college books as well as using JPod101 printouts ( I really do love their site) and for listening I have mainly been using JPod101 and Erin’s Challenge (https://www.erin.ne.jp/en/). For vocabulary I have been using JPod101, Erin’s Challenge, and the lists on Tanos’s site (https://www.tanos.co.uk/jlpt/). I think that when I first started out my main mistake was being in a hurry. I wanted to know Japanese and I wanted to know if NOW! I was quickly bogged down by this attitude and rather than becoming a good student I instead overwhelmed myself! I think the best advice I can give for self-study is to take your time, don’t try to learn to much to fast. Make sure you know the material before moving on since Japanese (like anything really) builds on itself and if you don’t fully understand what your currently going over it will only become harder if you keep going anyway!

    • Mac July 16, 2011, 1:08 pm

      Wow! Thanks Andrea for the comment. I didn’t even know Erin’s challenge existed. I’ll have to add that to my list of cool websites.

      So you write out the kanji by hand? Have you ever tried any kind of programs/games that do that? Like kakitori-kun for DS or iKanji for iPhone? Those are the two that got me used to seeing and using kanji/kana.

      I can definitely agree with being in a hurry. I’ve been racing to try to pass the N2, and sometimes I feel like I’ve just crammed it all in for that one test instead of actually mastering it so I can use it later. That’s why I’m trying to use this time between the test and results to do general studying and have fun with the language. That’s why we are studying it in the first place right?

  • Graeme July 15, 2011, 3:07 pm

    My advice for newbies is DON’T ever use romaji. This is a language HINDERANCE not a help and you will have to learn the alphabets anyway later on so start with the hiragana script and drill drill and drill again. I would also say to never use a weekly classromm study as this is only for about an hour a week and most of the class is given over to what was studied last week.

    This is only my opinion but the best way to go is go to white rabbit press and start right at the beginning with a very good dictionary and a good study book. Write to their customer service telling them your right at the beginning and they will give you recommendations. White rabbit have native speakers who are exceptionally helpful so you will not go wrong there. They also have what I consider to be THE best idea I have EVER seen called “SHADOWING” this is a native speaker speaking in sentences at normal speaking speed and you follow just behind copying what they are saying, this trains your ear (and brain) to recognise the sometimes subtle intonations of japanese.
    You WILL learn rapidly with just this technique. Study the alphabet Hiragana for about 30 minutes a day and then the following day write what you learn from memory and when you hit a blank spot that is your study point for that day. Once Hiragana has been mastered move on to Katakana. Once both alphabets have been mastered move on to learn the many hundreds of beginner works available on JAPANPAGE. Lastly there are 2 exceptional web sites to learn Japanese, one is Textfugu and the other is Nihongup,both very detailed and excellent at teaching the language so check these out.

    • Mac July 16, 2011, 1:15 pm

      Yeah, romaji is really a drawback. When new learners show me something in romaji and ask me what it means, I actually can’t read it. It’s kind of funny actually. It’s just important to get used to how the native language is written too because it is so radically different then English. There are no spaces, and sometimes the reading (in newspapers and novels) is that left to right top to bottom that is completely different from what you are used to in English.

      I love shadowing, trying to match the exact pace of the native speaker is a great challenge. Actually doing any kind of ‘ondoku’ – reading aloud, is a great idea for practicing a language.

      I second the vote for Textfugu.com as well as the accompanying blog Tofugu.com which has interesting tidbits of Japanese culture. Also, Koichi is an extremely approachable guy. He likes to help everyone out and make sure you are learning the language. On top of the fact, that both sites have a unique brand of humor to them. Good stuff.

  • jordan July 16, 2011, 1:29 pm

    hey mac i was the guy asking about the kakitori-kun game for nintendo DS. well as for how i started nihongo,it started almost 2 years ago now. it was really a pain memorizing vocabulary specially because i know now that my way of doing it was wrong or rather very “time and energy consuming”. i was always like reading the words over and over then i would also write it because it felt like it gives me more familiarization doing so..that was how i began my nihongo. well through that rough, hard road i took i then eventually managed to pass the old N4 exam when i was about 5 months in my study. the listening parts were always not that intimidating but then i’d struggle so much when it came to the kanji part,up to now it’s my weak point cause i find it a pain memorizing them. now i’m here in japan,after a few months coming here for work i took on the new N3 last december and i did pass it. however my kanji skills,i fear, are still not up to par as an N3 passer yet so i would like to strengthen it the entertaining way so i want to buy kakitori. last july 3 i was actually about to take my N2 exam not aiming to pass it but just to “get the feeling” of what kind of exam it would be (we were so busy at work having 3 to 5 hours of overtime a day). much to my disappointment, due to me and my supervisors carelessness i got into the wrong exam place which was for the N3 levels and below. i tried to get to the exam for N2 but didn’t make it in time.

    so now i want to go at it again,this coming december. i want to go all out and finish the exam saying afterwards that “i’ll pass,i know it” to myself. any advice you can give to someone like me who is reaaaaaaaaaaallllyyyy busy at work everyday but still tries to aim the seemingly impossible? you’re response is appreciated 😀

    P.S. i really want to know a lot about kakitori-kun,please enlighten me 😀 😀

    • Mac July 16, 2011, 3:03 pm

      kakitori-kun is all in Japanese. It is meant for Japanese elementary and high school students, so it doesn’t have things like JLPT levels built into (although N2 is basically grades 1-6). It also has a lot of vocabulary that is not specifically on the test. If you are looking for something a lot more efficient and is focused on the JLPT. Readthekanji.com is an excellent resource. It’s $20 a year, but definitely worth it if you are going to be doing a lot of drilling. You can choose decks of cards based on JLPT levels, and then it drills you by having you type in the exact reading of the kanji. It also provides example sentences for each word and is well put together wep app.

      There is also another language flashcard site called memrise.com that basically does the same thing minus a lot of Japanese-specific features, but it’s free. It is currently in beta now so there are a few bugs, and the decks aren’t perfect yet because they are all user submitted, but it might be a good resource to look into if you want to save some cash.

      kakitori-kun is perfect if you want to be able to write the kanji and kana. Also it gives you a lot more variety of vocabulary, but if you really want to pass the test in the least amount of time, go for memrise or readthekanji.

  • Angela March 24, 2012, 9:48 pm

    I recommend flash cards, with your iphone/andriod. Or just print them out. Its simple and easy way to memorize.


    I gotten very confuse on the Japanese characters writing when I was learning. I thought I can simply, read characters and just dictionary them.

    I was wrong, there are other characters like the small ‘tsu’ and how the particles sticks with the word and not separate (like how most text book would show you. Example: ‘Watashi wa’ but the particle wa would be together like this “Watashiwa’) etc etc. So that very much confused me more.


    Jumping and trying to rush things. This maybe be a good/bad way to learn, as long you have a sense of balance.
    Good if: Rushing to learn simple expression and phrases is great, especially to get around certain. It is how little young kids learn too. Just remember you also have the learn the foundation.
    Bad if: You decides to not learn any grammar. Or neglect it.


    Feeling exhausted and tired of Japanese and as if you are making no progress? Maybe you just need a boost.

    If you are still new of learning Japanese I would recommend trying to get a Japanese menu or something. You would be so happy once you can read menu! Well, it got me excited. We tend to memorize things better when we enjoy what we are learning about. For me, it was obviously food!
    So I would say it is best to make your own flash card or word list of things you enjoy. So it would be less boring for you if you feel dulled out. Who cares if you yet to learn Katakana or Kanji yet (Assuming you learn hiragana first, which would be best). It is still fun to learn certain words~

    I think the first Kanji word I learned was (don’t laugh) ‘you’ (m). Mainly because it was a title of a book I wanted to read (which made Japanese a learning goal for me).


    Learning the alphabets.
    This one was a very tough one.
    I have the hardest time, especially because I really struggle into memorization.
    People learning style is all different, you have to find which is suited for you.

    Quiz yourself, Test yourself is one of the best and effective way to learn.

    Don’t push yourself too fast! Learn it in sections. One piece at a time before you have a finish puzzle.

    Skim and practice writing a hiragana for a bit. Like a good 5-10 min. Take a Blank paper, write the hirgana alphabet chart on your own!
    Circle the ones you made a mistake or missed. Then practice a few time and redo until you have completed writing it all.
    It’s ok if you gotten like 24/48 basic Hiragana.
    Practice again and test yourself again.

    I strongly believe testing/quizzing yourself is best. It is like flash cards.

    I hope these help someone who is learning =]

    It would be best to find your own learning style to study.
    I find this the most problem for students or anyone learning.
    Some people cannot learn just by glancing at words. Sometime you have to do more then that.
    Here are some other ways:

    -Visual learning; learning with images.

    -Associations learning; Learning with associating things that we do or seen.
    (Something like how we would learn the alphabet in English. A is for Apple. B is for balloon.) I learn a lot easier with the alphabet this way. And it improve a bit of my vocab. Start easy like ‘Su’ character is for sushi. Haha.

    -Social learning. Some people learn better when together with someone. This is where classes would be best for people or find an online forum/site.

    Using a combination of all of these type of style, would be effective.

    • Mac March 25, 2012, 3:00 am

      Wow! Really in depth comment here and a lot of great points. I especially like the last few ones you pointed out: visual learning, associations learning and social learning. These are two powerful tools that can really keep you motivated and keep learning the language. Thanks for all the great tips, I know a lot of people will find these invaluable.

  • Samantha July 6, 2012, 10:44 am

    For those who are studying japanese and have a friend studying with you, I would recommend playing Karuta, this was how I learned to recognize Hiragana as well as a few idioms and phrase. There are some very useful Karuta that have graphics on them that looks like the Hiragana itself so it would be easy to remember the symbols faster.

    • Mac July 8, 2012, 10:02 am

      Good to know, I’ve never played karuta before, but I know it is quite popular. I can imagine it really improves your ability to recognize the characters quickly.

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