How to Start Learning Japanese

How to Start Learning Japanese post image

From time to time I get asked about what is a good way to start learning Japanese. What is the fastest way to get started in the language and get going with it, especially since Japanese has a barrier of entry that a lot of other languages don’t have – the writing system. From day one, the cards are stacked against you because you can’t even read the language.

So, what materials are better? What textbooks or materials should you pick up first? Should you use romaji (romanization of Japanese) to study Japanese? (spoiler alert – no). How can you get started and master hiragana and katakana (the two phonetic Japanese writing systems) quickly and easily so that you can actually read the language?

And how about typing in Japanese? Being able to type and use the language is obviously a huge advantage for you because it allows you to communicate with kanji without having to actually know how to write it. And to be honest, as someone using it as a second language, you may never really need to be able to write kanji. It is fun and useful to know though.

I’ll go over all those questions and more in this handy little quick start guide.

Romaji Bad, Kana Good

Romaji, literally roman letters in Japanese, is a common writing system used in beginner Japanese textbooks. It’s meant to lower the barrier of entry to just get into the language and start using it. And if you only have a passing interest in Japanese, it is probably something that you can reasonably stick with and jump into the language and be able to learn a few handy phrases to get around when you visit Japan.

But, if you are looking to use the language at any level past some simple caveman conversations, you will want to invest a very small amount of time to learn hiragana and katakana. You can easily master hiragana in a month at a lazy relaxed pace, and with some good dedicated studying you can get it done in a few days to a week (maybe even a very dedicated day of studying).

There are a lot of tools for doing this. The worst way to practice is through brute force writing or drilling. You’ll die of boredom long before you master the system. Instead, there are a couple of good courses on Memrise that can ease you into it. Or if you like physical books, Remembering the Kana (US, JP) was the one book that really locked everything in for me. Although, Pictographix (US, JP) with it’s small section in the front for kana was a big help as well.

Now, there tends to be this debate of which kana you should learn first – hiragana or katakana. A lot of people suggest learning katakana first because you can pick up a lot of foreign words if you can read katakana. And indeed, if you like reading tech news from Japan, you can learn katakana and probably understand the general idea of most articles very early on.

But, I would argue that hiragana is a lot more useful to be able to read and write well, because you will be using it a lot more often than katakana once you get pretty good at Japanese. I personally rarely use katakana now, except to write my name in forms and such.

Install an IME, Use it

An IME, or input method editor, is a handy little tool that converts your typing in roman letters into Japanese kana and kanji. It is the best way you can type in Japanese on your computer. So in order to practice Japanese with Memrise, or practice writing on lang-8 you will need an IME install.

Now Microsoft Windows (Win98-Win7, Win8) , OS X, and most other OSs have their own version of a Japanese IME to help you do your typing. However, a lot of people prefer the Google IME at least for the desktop. It is what I personally use to do all of my practice with. I find it is a lot easier to type with and can hold a good number of the common phrases that I use a lot, so that I don’t have to worry about forgetting how to write certain expressions.

Google IME’s download page is in Japanese, but the actual program has English menus and options, so once you have it installed you don’t have to worry about hitting any wrong buttons or anything. I recently posted a quick video on how to download and install Google IME on Windows 8.1, but the steps are probably pretty similar on most platforms.  There is also a version available for Mac.

Don’t Worry about Methods, Worry about Motivation

Some people can get bogged down with methods when it comes to learning a language.  I have personally done an incredible amount of research on some of the top polyglots and language learners in the world.  And they have a lot of common practices they share (use it, don’t be passive).  But they also have different methods that they swear by.  So, whose method is the best?  What should you be doing to get the most out of your studies?

I don’t know.

I don’t know because every one learns a little bit differently.  Everyone has their own style of learning and ways of absorbing information.  And part of the fun of language learning is trying out different methods to see what works best for you.  Don’t get run down if a particular guru recommends a certain method and it doesn’t fit your personality or your schedule, just try something else.

I think some language learners get a little nervous at the prospect of having to jump into talking with a tutor or conversation partner and that’s okay.  Maybe a more structured approach is better for you.  Or maybe you are exploding with thoughts and things you want to communicate to the world, and can’t be bothered with a structure to confine your speaking to.  Is one way better than the other?  Not really.  One way has different advantages than the other, but that doesn’t mean it is better.

I’ve been teaching all sorts of students for well over 10 years now, and I can tell you that the biggest thing holding people back is their motivation.  Sometimes all they need is to do a little extra practice to get more out of the class, but they just ‘don’t have time’ for it, but have plenty of time to watch TV and go drinking.

So the real secret, the real key to being a successful language learner is to find how you study best.  And that might take a little bit of some experimentation before you get it right.  You might like drilling some vocabulary before you do some reading.  Or you might like to do some reading and try to pick up vocabulary as you work through the text.  Some people might like to do a lot of listening.  Others want to jump into a conversation from day one.  There are a million ways to get from here to there and half the fun is finding out what works best.

How did you get your start?

If you have been studying Japanese for awhile, how did you start learning Japanese?  What do you feel was the most effective use of your time?  Let me know in the comments.

Photo by Todd Dalley

{ 9 comments… add one }
  • Hilal March 23, 2015, 3:51 pm

    Hey there, thanks for writing this article…I really found it helpful especially for last part “Don’t Worry about Methods, Worry about Motivation”…I’ve been learning Japanese for nearly a month now from (Memrise) and (…still I don’t think I’ve found the most effective way for my studies and learning (same thing for using my time in an effective way)…but as I read this article I believe I’m going to find out that one day.

    Thanks again 🙂

    • Clayton MacKnight March 24, 2015, 4:18 pm

      Just have fun with it. That’s the most important thing. Don’t get stressed out about it. Good luck with your studies!

  • Robert April 2, 2015, 8:25 am

    Hey man great article, I currently don’t know Japanese aside from small phrases and such, I have tried and given up on learning it at least 3 times now, but recently I have picked it back up again. A method I’m using is basically best described as “dumb but diligent” approach. I’m busy quite often but every morning before leave I fill a page to the brim with Japanese, sometimes I write the full alphabet, sometimes I practice stroke order, sometimes sudoku. The way I see it it, as long as I keep hammering it out something is bound to stick. I also wanted to say if you haven’t touched on imiwa you sould it’s really awesome for kanji, I make sure I write down at least 50 kanji before I hit the sack and I’m starting to notice I can figure out the stroke order with out having to check it, but check out the app if you haven’t already.. ^_^

    • Clayton MacKnight April 9, 2015, 5:38 am

      How is doing all that drilling? Isn’t your mind going a little numb? Whenever I do that much drilling it doesn’t seem to have that much of an effect. I really need to have fun with it doing something else. Or practice writing out my own sentences, or use the kanji as art or something like that.

  • Paul Stevenson January 15, 2016, 2:05 pm

    Hey, Mac. Greetings from Virginia! Quick question about writing Japanese in general. Here in the US, since most folk under 60 (and I am not under 60 🙂 ) use keyboards instead of writing, nearly exclusively, US elementary schools are gradually (but quickly) phasing out the teaching of hand-writing. (Really.) Is there a similar movement occurring in Japan for Kanji, etc? I ask since I am a very lazy so-and-so and I am just beginning to learn to write Kanji. (I was printing out some graph paper for Kanji practice when this question occurred to me.) I know I need to learn Kanji (and the other 37Million syllabaries used in the Japanese realm) but learning written Kanji (while nice in the long term so will probably do one or two a day) is really time-consuming. (See the part where I am over 60. Sands of time are not on my side. lol Thank goodness for Wani-Kani.)

    Again, as I have said before, thank you very much for all you have done in the Memrise JLPT pages. Invaluable. I am stunned at the amount of work you have done. I am also finding the Japanese English speaking community has done amazing stuff. Kudos to you all. Forever.

    Thanks, and Happy New Year!


    • Clayton MacKnight January 17, 2016, 2:54 pm

      I don’t think they have phased it out. It’s still alive and well. Because writing things in kana is borderline illegible for most people. And writing with clear handwriting is actually still pretty important. Calligraphy is also still pretty big.

      Having said that though, I can’t really write that many kanji except for the first few simple ones and it has hampered my note-taking skills, but I still manage to survive.

  • Renan Fernandes June 10, 2016, 1:42 am

    Hello there sir, first of all thanks for this article, it gave me enouth motivation to start learning japanese, but i have a question, i’m not a native speaker of english nor studied it, would it be too risky if i try to learn the basic japanese using english? (my main language is Portuguese)

    • Clayton MacKnight June 11, 2016, 1:32 pm

      I think it is actually better if you study Japanese in another language. That way you can learn two languages at the same time. It can also keep you from translating things in your head so much.

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