How to Start Learning Japanese

How to Start Learning Japanese

Someone on Facebook recently asked me:  What’s the best way to begin learning Japanese, for someone starting from zero?  Never one to shirk authorial duties, I did the responsible thing by jumping up, slamming my laptop closed, and running to the convenience store for a bottle of cheap white wine and a bag of spicy dried corn snacks.  They’re super salty, but man, are they ever good.  But then at the store I ran into this girl I know and she invited me over for some tea, and then we drank the bottle of wine, and then a bottle of red she had, and then I woke up and it was 3 a.m. and I didn’t know where I was, and by the time I got home I’d forgotten all about the question.  But I really meant to answer it.  Sometimes Japan just gets in the way like that.

Anyway, anything big—learning Japanese, making a million dollars, drinking a case and a half of beer—there’s probably no “best” way to do it.  There’s a lot of ways you could do those things.  You could pour the beers into a glass, or drink them straight from the bottle, for example.  So many options.  Actually, I generally avoid telling people “how to” do anything in Japan, since there’s already a ton of that noise on the internet, and most of it seems wrong to me.  Which means that anything I say will automatically seem wrong to somebody else, which is depressing, since I know it’s actually right.  Because I so feel it’s rightness.  Whatever, okay, here’s the best way to learn Japanese.  Really.

Phase I

This should take you about 2 to 4 weeks, and at the end of it, you’ll have some basic abilities to make yourself understood in the language.  So right off the bat, let’s aim to do three things:

1. Use the language as soon as possible
2. Establish a solid routine
3. Acquire essential words and phrases

To do so, we need to sidestep the biggest barrier, the written language.   Now, I firmly believe that you will never become good at Japanese without knowing how to read it, but let’s set that aside for a month, just to get some initial familiarity with the language.

Steps 1 and 2

We can knock out both steps 1 and 2 with one of the better language products on the market, the 16-lesson Pimsleur audio course.  I try not to go crazy with product recommendations, but I used this myself when I started over a decade ago, and since it’s relatively cheap, at around 30 bucks, I’m happy to give it the thumbs-up.  It’s all audio, which is nice because you don’t have to mess with all that pesky writing stuff down.  Plus, it establishes a daily routine, which is like gold when it comes to language learning.   If you review things daily, you’ll remember them, but if you don’t, you won’t.  That’s important to remember, so you should probably write it down.

So Pimsleur gets you speaking from Day One, which means you’ll be able to say something marginally useful right away, and begin to get a feeling for Japanese sentence construction.  You also learn a method of studying that involves spaced repetition, reviewing previously-learned information at various time intervals.  Do one lesson every day, or even the same lesson twice a day:  once in the morning and once in the evening.  It’s like vitamins, only for your mind.  Mmmm, mind vitamins . . .

But any program, whether Pimsleur or otherwise, can only cover a limited amount of information, leading to the frequent student complaint, “But the course didn’t teach me . . . whatever.”  Riiiight.  It’s your learning—you’re not bound by the course or the teacher—so how much you learn (or not) is on you.  If you want to learn something, freaking do it.  Don’t wait for someone else to teach it to you.  Which brings us to Step 3.

Step 3

Think about what you need to learn.  Do you need to know the names of all the animals?  Maybe if you’re a zookeeper.  Do you need to know words like “bus” and “taxi”?  Maybe.  “Firetruck?”  What are you, a dispatcher?  Prioritize what you need to learn first.  Like, I’d say numbers 1 to a thousand would be pretty high on the list, since you’ll want to buy stuff that keeps you alive, like food.  And names of foods you want to eat wouldn’t be a bad idea, either.  Personally, I think the two most important phrases in any language are “One more beer, please,” followed closely by “Oh man, where’s the bathroom?”  But that’s just me.

So in Step 3, just make flash cards.  That’s it; nothing fancy.  Don’t invest any time or money in software, electronic dictionaries, or anything complicated.  Those are just distractions at this point, so put them off for a month.  Focus on learning words and phrases.  Spend your time learning Japanese.  I know, it’s a radical idea.

For your flash cards, think about what you most need to learn, then look it up, write it on a card, and practice it a few times a day.  Where should you look things up?  You could buy a solid textbook, like Genki, but even a small phrasebook will suffice.  Online searches are a bit unreliable, and unfortunately Google Translate doesn’t really work for this sort of thing.  Sad face.  Worse, any time you touch the computer, you increase your chances of doing one of the millions of things online more interesting than studying Japanese.  Like writing about studying Japanese.  Hmmm.

Okay, when you write your flash cards, make your life easy and use romaji.  That is, use our normal alphabet, and write Japanese words using the ABCs.

Romaji is not Evil

Some people say not to use romaji.  It’ll stunt your growth, grow hair on your palms, make you blind.  Honestly, don’t worry about it.  It’s not moonshine.  Using it for a month won’t give you bad teeth and a Tennessee accent.  Romaji is on all major road signs and train stations in Japan, and besides, you’re already using it.  If you’ve ever seen words like “sushi,” “samurai,” “tofu,” or “karate,” that’s romaji.  And seeing them didn’t cause your brain to melt, probably.

In Phase III, yes, you’ll learn the Japanese syllabaries hiragana and katakana.  But to do so now would just create a sizable barrier, and take time away from acquiring essential working vocabulary.  So don’t get bogged down with the written language until you’ve acquired a couple hundred words and you’re safely up and running with the language.

How Fast Should You Learn Japanese?

How many flash cards should you make every day?  I sometimes read about people getting all nutty and doing like a hundred words a day or something, and then six months later, poof, they explode and stop altogether.  Remember, it’s not how many words you learn, it’s how many words you, uh, remember.  You’ve got to review all those flash cards; you can’t just scrawl them and set them on fire.  So if you make 20 cards a day, by the end of the week you could be looking at over 100 reviews.  In a month, that’s like a million reviews.  Anyway, it’s a lot.  With that in mind, try just to learn 5 to 10 new words every day, which is plenty.  Sticking with it every day is the key, because eventually all those words add up to a sizable vocabulary.

So there’s your plan.  Use Pimsleur every day, twice a day if possible, and write 5-10 meaningful flash cards, and that’s it.  Actually, having the discipline not to chase every system and buy every book and program on the market is another skill you’re going to need to acquire.  So be cool.  Don’t get all bent about becoming a linguistic wizard overnight; just get a reasonable start.  Then in about a month, it’ll be time to assess whether you want to make a bigger investment in this crazy language.  And let’s talk about that next time, in Phase II.



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29 Comments

  1. I recently started my own journey a while ago. I learned the kana and after getting a basic idea of the grammatical structure of the language from the japanese wikibook, I began learning from a book called “Japanese for Everyone”, and so far have been enjoying it.

    Also I managed to get my hands on the Pimsleur Course from a friend. And while it might work for some, I found it excruciatingly painful to sit through an half hour class listening to just one sentence being spoken by those guys over and over again; prompting me to follow suit all the while. The thing is, pronunciation isn’t as big a problem for me as I figure it would be for native English speakers; since I’m Indian and our language has all the phonemes that the japanese have and we have a clear distinction between our aspirated and non-aspirated consonants. In fact the only new pronunciation that I had to learn was that of ふ. I don’t sound like a native japanese, but then that will only come by taking in the finer aspects of the particular accent. But then I have tried out the first two units, so may be it gets better?

    • First of all, congratulations on starting the journey. You’ve clearly taken a serious approach to studying, learning the kana (hiragana and katakana) first, and working through a textbook. You’ve pretty much skipped what I’d call Phase I, and gone right into Phase II, which is fine. Pimsleur uses the same structure throughout the program, so if it doesn’t appeal to you, by all means do something else. Find what works for you and stick with it.

      I used “Japanese for Everyone” myself (along with half the products on the market), and found it to be one of the better textbooks. I even bought the accompanying cassette tapes (remember those?), although I don’t really feel they’re necessary. By the time you finish that book, you’ll have a really solid foundation in Japanese. The text is pretty small though. Hope you’ve got good eyes or a magnifying glass or something.

      • Ah yes I have those as well. And as for the small print, let’s just say I’m sort of used to it (although the book sometimes gives mini-hiragana on top of katakana in furigana style, apparently for pronunciation, which is nearly impossible to read; not that that they are actually required.)

  2. Cool post (romaji is the devil, though) Haha, but wayyy more importantly, man, running in to chicks at the コンビニ that invite you over for tea, then drinking all night? Dude, that sounds awesome. How likeable/socially adapted/日本語skilled do you have to be to develop those kinds of friends and whatnot over there?

    • I’m gonna say not very. If the other party speaks English (and many people do), then sticking with English and acting like a goofball foreigner is your best bet. People love to show you around, try out their English skills, and tell you how to do all the stuff you already know how to do. I don’t really go that route, but a lot of people do, and they seem pretty happy actually.

      Of course, if your potential “friend and whatnot” doesn’t speak English (and, okay, there’s a lot of those too), then you lose the home-field advantage and you’re going to have to be funny and charming in Japanese. If you want to do it that way, well, it’s like giving up the Express Pass and waiting in line like everybody else, but the choice is yours.

  3. I hope nudity was involved in that story.

    Anyway, it seems like a lot of people learning Japanese (AJATT et al.) tend to adopt the “as of now, I AM Japanese” mindset, rather than think of it as just a skill. They start sleeping on the floor in their midwestern apartments, eating everything with chopsticks, and bowing and すみませんing while receiving punches to the face.

    What do you make of this? Do you advocate the born-again attitude towards language learning, or stick with “I’m Ken, I sleep in a bed when I can, but I can speak Japanese”?

    I’m pretty sure I know your answer, but I asked anyway because I like the way you string words together. You know, what with the jokes and all.

    • Yeah thanks, I like your writing too, what with all the words and that.

      I actually think people should do pretty much do all the funny shit they can dream up with their brains. If you want to write your grocery list in kanji and go to work in a full-body Hello Kitty suit, then more power to you.

      But you know, no matter how much anyone acts, thinks, or actually is Japanese, unless you look Asian, you’ll never overcome the perception of you as a “foreigner.” It’s like being an 8-foot tall black man who’s into needlepoint. Everywhere that guy goes, people are going to ask him “Do you play basketball?” And he’s like “No, needlepoint.” Every time he goes out for a walk, people will be like “Wow, NBA” as he goes by. That’s what it’s like to be a Westerner in Japan. Now, I don’t think anyone should be bound by their place of birth or physical appearance—do whatever most grabs you—but if you choose to “be” Japanese and you don’t look “Japanese,” then you’ll always be fighting that battle.

      On the other hand, the more you act like a rube right off the turnip boat, and don’t try to be too Japanese, people will love you. So I think whichever way you want to go is fine, but if you choose to “be” Japanese, expect to have the same conversations over and over for a really, really long time.

      • The turnip boat makes sense. If a Japanese guy said “Hey, I’m Kenji, I studied engineering at UCSD” I’d say “Hi Kenji.” If he said “HI I AM UEDA KENJI FROM JAPAN, GANBATTE!!!!” and started throwing little paper cranes all over the place, I’d say “Steve I want to party with you” and take him out for a good time.

  4. Hey Ken,

    Your update saves me yet again from another boring day at work.

    Ah, starting Japanese from scratch. How natsukashii. Thinking kanji was fun until there were too many, then realizing that getting to the point of being able to read would probably take ten years–those were the good ‘ol days.

    After looking through these comments I’ve stumbled upon the website AJATT (all Japanese all the time) and hearing multiple success stories. The founder said he was able to speak fluent Japanese, interview and actively interact with business Japanese from scratchin within 18 months. Wow, I must really suck at learning Japanese because it took me way longer than that… talk about feeling depressed.

    Anyway, looked through the site and didn’t really see anything mind blowing, but it seems like this method for learning Japanese has quite a following… What do you think?

    Oh, and about Romanji, I’m not really for it but whatever floats your boat. I guess if you want to focus mainly on spoken Japanese and don’t want to deal with the written crap yet then I guess that’s the best way to go.

    On the topic, from my time in Japan I found there aren’t a lot of Japanese foreign speakers that can’t read kanji/hiragana/katakana. In other words, a lot of foreigners can both speak AND read/write Japanese. Here in China, there are a ton of foreigners that can speak Mandarin almost flawlessly, but when you write ‘my name is jeff’ in Chinese on a piece of paper, they just go blank. They’re completely illiterate. What do you think?

    Anyway, looking forward to the next update!

    • On the last point, I’d mostly agree. Anyone who studies Japanese seriously will learn hiragana and katakana, plus at least some of the kanji. That’s a bit like learning the ABCs, however, and from there to truly “reading” Japanese is a long process. I’ve met a number of people who could read a sign or a menu, but, well, I’ve actually never seen a foreign-looking person sitting and reading a magazine or newspaper. Not that someone isn’t out there, somewhere.

      I’ve read AllJapaneseAllTheTime fairly extensively, and even followed the blogs of some people who started the SilverSpoon program. All stopped after a few months. It’s too bad, because I think we all want to find that magical shortcut.

      Having successfully passed a number of Japanese interviews, I must say, it’s an embarrassingly low bar. And not to get all analytical, but it looks like Khatz took a class prior to the “start” of his 18 months, and certainly had a number of success factors in his favor.

      Now, I think it’s fine to get all pumped about Japanese and write it down in a blog . . . but when you start promoting a “method,” telling people that it’s easy, and selling that method for several hundred dollars . . . yeah, well . . . that’s salesmanship, I guess.

      But whatever about what I think; I just hope people ask really basic questions. Tracking progress is simple and fundamental in Education—so ask for results. How many people started the program, and where are they now? If folks are dropping out, then maybe the schedule and expectations aren’t realistic. If 100 people started the program, how many can hold a conversation, understand a movie, read a book, after 6 months, 12 months, 18 months? If these are real people, can you contact them? Before anyone buys into a concept, I hope they ask some questions. Because the internet makes everything glamorous.

      • Thanks for your follow up on AllJapaneseAllTheTime, Ken. Makes me feel a lot better.

        I knew learning Japanese in 18 months was just too good to be true (unless you’re a language genius); and after my own follow-up I also saw that all the ‘Japanese is so easy, this method works!’ followers soon quit after a year or so.

        It’s just my opinion, but I honestly think that no matter what the language, getting a damn good grasp takes a couple years. And that goes double for Japanese. I blew my brains out studying Japanese for about 4 years until I was able to just, well, get around in Japan. After 7 years of nonstop Japanese study (well, I mean, at least once a week or speaking/reading/listening/etc), I’m finally at a level where I can comfortably communicate with Japanese people and feel almost sufficient to be working with them. I remember I never said the phrase, “I can speak Japanese” until I hit the 4 year mark, just due to the cultural barriers alone (such as the local resistance in thinking that an outsider can speak their language). When you add all the hard grammar, kanji, on-yomi-kun-yomi, set phrases, speaking ability, keigo, sonkeigo, etc.. on to the expectations, then you feel bogged down. Feeling confident in Japanese takes a long time to do!

        Just read your latest post on scaring people away from Japanese. Good job, whole heartedly agree! But the weird thing is, I think if I were given a chance to study Japanese again, despite knowing what I know now, I’d probably still do it. I guess that shows despite complaining about the place all the time, I really do love Japan deep down.

        Anyway, thanks for always replying to the comments—so very kind of you!

        • “no matter what the language, getting a damn good grasp takes a couple years. And that goes double for Japanese.”

          You summed it up perfectly. Japanese is easy to learn, so long as you never, ever measure your progress. That’s like putting your name on the ballot for President, but never counting the votes you receive. If you never count up, I guess you can just decide becoming President is easy.

          I don’t think AllJapaneseAllTheTime started out to do harm, but selling hope’s a funny business. The dude Khatz just came up with a catchy idea, and now he’s stuck in a place where he can’t deliver. Like, we all hate tests, I get that, but you gotta measure what you do. AllJapaneseAllTheTime has zero metrics. You start at an undocumented level, and avoid the one well-established and widely-used test of Japanese language ability used by every serious student of the language. Sadly, not much of a method.

          As for if-I-could-do-it-all-over-again, hmmm. Yeah, maybe me too. It’s been an amazing journey. I’m sitting here with a cup of coffee listening to Japanese TV at 7 a.m., looking out my window at rows of condominiums and a train full of people going past. Where’s everyone going at this hour? What a place, Japan.

        • Thanks for the insight,
          however i’m sure that if you had been studying Japanese every day, every single day for at least 30 minutes (which isn’t much at all), it wouldn’t have taken that much time.
          When you do want to learn something, you do it every single day, otherwise you can’t get good at it.
          You have a job, you probably aren’t bad at it, well you do it every day all the time. This is that kind of logic that Khatz promotes and it is true.

          My job involves working with my hands (more or less a craft), I can assure you that when I first learned new things I sucked at it. I wasn’t good. I kept doing it, again and again and again until I sucked less and eventually became good!

        • Of course, I don’t mean any disrespect saying all that.
          Just think of good cabinet makers, or whatever craft or anything needing learning and practice… it takes a lot of time. The more and the more often you do it, the less time it takes!

          • I agree with what you’re saying, that persistence and steady progress are the key. I’ve just found it to be much more time consuming than the multitude of “Learn Japanese Fast” sites would have you to believe. (But PayPal me $400 and I’ll teach you my secret method.)

            I can only speak for myself, but after ten years and more than an hour a day, every single day, I’m nowhere near where I’d like to be in Japanese.

            I studied French and Spanish in the past, and yeah, those languages seemed reasonably like making a cabinet. Japanese is more like constructing the Great Pyramid. Everyday it’s like, More blocks! Pull harder! Darn Egyptians.

          • This is topical, because after a month or so of silence AJATT the site has finally got a face lift. The landing page is now basically a request for your email so he can advertise products to you.

            @Mary

            I was a pretty die hard AJATTer in 2010 in prep for grad school in Japan. I had several years of uni classes in Japanese, a year of exchange under my belt, and a lot of time on my own spent studying before I began. Long and the short of it is that it worked a charm. It really changed how I viewed language study. Of course, I wasn’t starting out from scratch, but then I’m using a lot of ideas from AJATT with Mandarin, and that is from scratch.

            I would recommend that if you read anything he has to say, focus on what was published between 2007 and mid 2011. I think there are some excellent ideas to find there if you don’t mind digging around a bit.

            As with anything, the more time you spend, the more you get out. When you do, say, three hours each day, you are actually getting more out of it than simply three times as much as a person doing an hour a day. Same again if you are doing ten. Khatz used the metaphor of boiling water, but I prefer that of a rocket. Our native language habits can be like gravity, always pulling us back down to Earth. Getting to the point of speaking without effort, understanding without effort, I found took exponentially more time spent than I had ever even considered investing before. But the funny thing is that time was mostly enjoyably spent.

    • There is no shortcut. AJATT posts are fun to read but I doubt they can help much beyond pumping up your motivation, so grind it out is your best bet unless you happen to have incredible brain muscle to remember everything Japanese you met. But I think there is one thing can help you with your kanji struggle: start Remembering the Kanji right now if you havent done it yet. Forget its negative reviews. Sure it wont help you magically remember all kanji compounds etc., but it does one thing well: make you remember how to recognize (maybe also how to write) separate kanji (you still cant read/pronounce them though, that requires years of vocab collection). Route memorization 2k+ kanji is a very grindy, frustrating process, dont go that way.

  5. I got married to my uber cool Japanese husband after making the fatal beginners mistake. Avoiding the “let’s speak in your native language” issue least he think I was treating him as “my lil’ Japanese language partner fetish.”
    The downside now is pretty predictable …he speaks great English now, whereas, my Japanese sucks.
    When I do “speak” I end up enthusiastically saying kids look scary instead of cute ( kawaii / kowai) which leads to him laughing at me then saying “cute” in a mock age tone, yawning and switching the TV to the latest football match. (I’m from London it’s football not soccer daaaarrrlliinnngs).
    In all Epic fail.

    Guzzle on the knowledge of your “language partners” whilst you are still in the courtship stage comrades! Lol.

    • A friend once told me that the language that you start out speaking with your partner will become the default language for your relationship, and I’ve found that to be true.

      The challenge is that almost all Japanese people have had between six and ten years of English education, at a minimum. One has to be unusually dedicated to Japanese in order to exceed that, to the point where it becomes more practical to speak Japanese than English.

      Also, be careful of what you wish for. Things change when you speak Japanese fluently.

  6. Even ‘romaji’ is romaji. I believe that’s called being autological. Time for a beer.

  7. Uh well ken im new on this blog >¬> and idk if U Already made this topic a thing but it wold be nice if you could write like the most important kanji 4 u to learn while you are learning japanese, oh also one more question is it really that important to know the stroke? (Idk english kill me v_v) order of hiragana/katakana/kanji (btw that q mark didnt end the sentence 😉 ) i mean it’s not like you are gonna be a teacher or smt, well some people might but i’m not one of those people. I mean the tehnology is improving and i doubt that in Japan they use paper (well in schools they probs do), and I’ve heard that you are considered illiteratejdjdka (how2spell) if you dont know the stroke order but still i cant think of many situations when they’ll be like “Lets look at his stroke order, oh thats completly wrong what an illiteratejdjdka fool, lets never speak to him again” or smt so like what was your experience with the stroke order.

    PS – love your blog things stuff

    • Ah, paper. Really takes me back to the 1990’s.

      But unfortunately, writing things by hand is still massively important. Someday you’ll be in a meeting and somebody will be telling you things…or even your girlfriend will be rattlind off a shopping list for dinner…and what’re you gonna do? Draw pictures of eggs and potatoes? Writing is super important for about a million reasons, but don’t get me started.

      As for stroke order, I’d say pick about 12 representative kanji, learn how to write them properly, then use the order you gleaned from them as a general guideline for how to write other kanji. Nobody’s gonna care much if you write them backward, but it’s confusing for your brain to always write them differently, and your characters might look a little wacky, kind of like if you wrote an English “G” backwards.

  8. Does this method work for other languages as well? Like, say, spanish?

    • I’d say yes, in that most of the principles are fairly straightforward and, to some extent, common sense.

      Where Japanese differs, however, is in the use of kanji. I guess that’s pretty obvious. And because kanji enables you to build vocabulary efficiently, trying to proceed without it is ultimately an exercise in futility.

      Spanish doesn’t have that advantage. However, it has the different advantages of being comparatively closer to English in sound, and the fact that you can read everything from day one.

      But regardless of the language, it’s important to establish a steady routine and work it daily. It’s just that with Spanish, you’ll reach your goals faster, since you can cut out several years of saying “Now, what do these crazy symbols mean again?”

  9. So what does one do for phase 2? Just keep making flash cards and listening all the pimsleur courses?

    • No, after you’re finished with the Pimsleur courses and you’ve got a small pile of flash cards, you need to sit down on a rock and have a really hard think about whether or not you want to invest several years of your life on this crazy project. If the answer is No, I’d rather enjoy my time in Japan, then you’re done. If the answer is Yes, then you’ve got to learn kanji, all of it. Can’t say I’d necessarily recommend it, but if you need a really time-consuming hobby, it’ll fit the bill.

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