The moment when you stop thinking about it has finally come. It's time to learn Japanese!
As you might already know, Japanese is a fascinating language that is rich in culture, history, and tradition. Whether you're interested in Japanese anime or J-pop, are planning to travel to Japan, or are looking to learn the language for academic purposes — becoming proficient in Japanese can be very rewarding.
But the question is: where do you start?
I get it. Starting to learn a new language can be daunting, especially nowadays. With so many options and resources, it can be hard to know which path to follow. Never fear! In this article, we will guide you through the first steps of your Japanese learning journey.
In this post, we’ll cover everything you need to build a solid foundation:
- Writing and reading Japanese
- Building vocabulary
- Listening comprehension
- Speaking comprehension
- My personal journey
- A few useful resources
(Let’s get started!)
When you get into the world of the Japanese language, you will immediately realize how starkly it contrasts with English. It’s different in pretty much every way.
Learning Japanese isn’t actually just learning “Japanese” — it involves working on multiple language skills. It’s crucial that you don’t neglect any of them.
Writing and Reading Japanese
The Japanese writing system is made up of three scripts:
If you want to learn to read and write Japanese, it is crucial to master these writing systems. Otherwise, you can only go so far. At first, some people lean on romaji (a writing system that represents the sounds of the Japanese language using the Latin alphabet), and this is not necessarily "bad." However, it will hold you back if you completely rely on Romaji and neglect the other scripts. Romaji cannot capture all the nuances of Japanese, and it doesn't really appear in anything other than beginner resources or things intended for foreigners.
Here’s an example of the three Japanese scripts in action:
パエリヤ (katakana) を (hiragana) 食 (kanji) べます (hiragana)。
Paeriya wo tabemasu.
(I) eat paella.
If you would like to take a deeper dive into this, we have a whole post about the infamous Japanese “alphabets.”
If you have been thinking about learning Japanese for a while, you might already have some Japanese words in your arsenal. Perhaps the years of consuming Japanese anime or manga have equipped you with loads of expressions. That’s great!
But even if you don't know a single word, don’t worry. Here are some things you can do to build your Japanese vocabulary from zero:
- Start with the basics: Begin with the most common Japanese words and phrases. This will allow you to communicate basic ideas and slowly build up your repertoire.
- Consume Japanese media: You might already be doing this! Watching Japanese TV shows, movies, and anime; reading books, articles, and blog posts; and listening to music and podcasts can be a fun way to learn new vocabulary. The additional context that media provides will help make vocabulary words stick.
- Use flashcards: Flashcards can be a great tool for memorizing new vocabulary, especially when you’re dealing with very granular information that can be condensed into an obvious question: answer format. (We think you get more bang for your buck learning vocabulary in context, through sentences, rather than as isolated words.)
- Practice regularly: Consistency is key when it comes to learning vocabulary. If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it. Make a habit of practicing every day, even if it's just for a few minutes.
Here’s an article in which one of our resident polyglots talks about all the ways he’s approached learning vocabulary: Language Learning Basics: How to Learn Vocabulary.
Mastering Japanese Grammar
When you've mastered the kanas and learned some basic vocabulary, it's time to start putting those words together so you can start expressing ideas with them. Contrary to what some people think, learning grammar is crucial if you want to speak, read, and write in Japanese. Without a solid understanding of grammar, you may struggle to convey your thoughts and ideas correctly. As you might imagine, Japanese grammar is quite different from that of English and other Western languages. You’ll likely feel a bit confused at first, and that’s completely OK.
A key difference to wrap your head around is that English follows a subject-verb-object (SVO) sentence structure, while Japanese uses a subject-object-verb (SOV) structure. This is to say that, in Japanese, the verb which defines what happens in a sentence usually comes at the end of the sentence.
- 昨日、S→ (私) は O→(天ぷらそば) を V→(食べました)。
Kinō, watashi wa tenpura soba wo tabemashita.
Yesterday, I ate tempura soba.
The previous example showcases how the word order in a Japanese sentence differs from English, in a very basic sense. To cover this in greater detail and learn your first few grammar points, check out our post on the fundamentals of Japanese sentence structure.
When I first started learning Japanese, I used to ask my peers why they had decided to learn the language. More than once, I heard in response: “ to watch anime without subtitles.” You may have other reasons — perhaps anime and J-pop are not your things — but whatever it is, I’m sure that understanding what you hear in Japanese is part of it.
When you decide to actively work on your listening skills, you can start with the following:
- Listen to simple content. Start with content that is easy for you to understand, such as simple conversations, beginner’s podcasts, or “comprehensible input” channels. As you become more comfortable, gradually move on to more challenging content.
- Make a habit of listening to Japanese regularly. You can watch Japanese TV shows, movies, and anime or listen to Japanese music and radio shows. Exposing yourself to the language is essential for improving your listening skills. It’s OK if you don’t understand everything right now — what really matters is just getting in the habit of regularly using Japanese.
- Practice active listening. When you are watching a TV show or listening to a Japanese podcast, pay close attention to the words, phrases, and intonation. Worry more about picking out the things you can understand than fretting over the things you can’t. Write down words, phrases, or expressions that you don't understand and look them up later.
Doing this consistently will help you to expand your vocabulary and get more comfortable at understanding Japanese conversations. Beginners tend to learn “with their eyes,” and it’ll be a challenge learning to rely on your ears alone. As with anything, it’ll get easier with practice.
If you’re really struggling, take a look at this article: Listening Comprehension Problems: Why You (Still) Can't Understand Your Target Language
Most of us have heard the expression: “you learn to speak by speaking.” You might be thinking, “that’s common sense, isn’t it?” And you’re right. However, you’d be surprised by how many people neglect this part (actually speaking Japanese) and focus instead on memorizing words and grammar patterns without practicing output (speaking/writing) at all. As a result, they lack confidence and struggle when it’s comes time to talk in Japanese.
This in mind, work on your pronunciation and intonation from day one. Start little by little and move forward gradually. If you decide to attend Japanese language classes or to work with a tutor, you will be able to have structured practice and get feedback on your speaking skills. But if that’s not the case, here are some ways you can work on those skills independently:
- Become familiar with the basics of Japanese pronunciation. It’s important to pay attention to long vowels and pitch accent, but try not to obsess over perfecting your pronunciation. The more you practice, the better you'll speak. For now, just try getting full sentences out of your mouth in a comfortable, confident fashion!
- Approach grammar as a communicative tool. Don’t get hung up on all of the tiny details right now. You’ll acquire that knowledge over time. For now, constantly ask yourself, “what ideas does this grammar allow me to communicate?” and practice saying these new structures out loud.
- If possible, look for language exchange partners or native speakers who are willing to practice speaking with you regularly. Try to mimic their pronunciation and intonation. You can find exchange partners on apps like Tandem or Hello Talk, and can find tutors on Italki.
Speaking regularly is essential to improving your fluency and confidence in Japanese. Practice speaking as often as possible, even if it’s just by yourself. As with any other skill, understanding and speaking Japanese requires effort and practice.
Some insights from my Japanese learning journey
Recently, while speaking with my former Japanese teacher, I realized that it’s been almost a decade since I started learning Japanese — time definitely flies. From participating in a couple of speech contests to living in Japan for some time, this path has been anything but linear.
Thinking back on this journey, I have drawn some insights I would like to share with you: things that worked for me and things I would have done differently. Of course, everybody’s journey is different. But looking at my mistakes may help you to avoid them yourself.
Motivation isn’t everything
Firstly, I have learned that even though motivation is crucial for sustainable progress, it’s not everything.
When I first started learning Japanese, I was highly motivated. Everything was new, so I felt I was making progress each time I studied. However, my motivation waned when I reached the intermediate/advanced level. I found it harder to make progress and felt like I was not moving forward anymore. That’s why it’s important to understand that progress looks different at each stage of your journey. Different doesn’t necessarily mean stuck. Don’t lose sight of your goals, even the small ones, because those will keep you on track.
Breaks aren’t necessarily a bad thing
There was a point when I stopped studying the language for almost three years. It was not intentional; my focus just shifted to something else. Taking that break taught me a valuable lesson: even if you stop, you can always start again. Although I did not study the language during that time, I was able to come back to it later and progress faster than before. (Not all breaks need to be so long, of course.) This time allowed me to revisit the language with a fresh mindset and renewed motivation.
I was able to identify my weaknesses, and that was crucial for me to continue making progress. My main struggles were with kanji, and they had been holding me back for quite some time. I made the mistake of not studying them from the beginning, and that impeded my progress. However, when I targeted that weakness, I was able to see a significant difference.
How I approached the Kanji
I started using contextualization to learn kanji, which made a significant difference. Rather than simply memorizing individual kanji, studying them as they appear in common words and phrases has helped me hammer home the characters’ meanings and usages.
Having the experience of getting stuck in the intermediate/advanced limbo without a strong grasp of kanji highlighted the necessity of studying kanji consistently from the beginning to me.
I recommend you set aside time each day to review what you've learned and add new characters to your repertoire. Flashcards, writing exercises, and apps like WaniKani or Anki can help.
It’s a marathon, not a sprint
Remember that learning a language requires a long-term commitment. It's a journey that requires dedication, patience, and perseverance. However, the rewards of being able to communicate in a new language and experience new cultures are immeasurable.
Japanese Learning Resources
Luckily, nowadays, there are a lot of resources that can help us on our Japanese learning path. But having so many options can also be overwhelming starting out!
Here’s a few resources are specifically tailored to beginners.
- Genki I: An Integrated Course in Elementary Japanese: This is one of the most well-known Japanese textbooks for beginners. It offers a comprehensive approach to learning Japanese, focusing on grammar, vocabulary, and conversation.
- Minna no Nihongo: Another renowned and widely used Japanese textbook series for beginners. I personally used this one in Japanese school. It covers a range of topics, including grammar, vocabulary, and conversation, and it comes with audio CDs for listening practice.
- Tae Kim's Guide to Learning Japanese: One of the most popular free online resources. It provides an in-depth guide to learning Japanese, covering everything from basic grammar to advanced vocabulary. This is definitely a valuable site for Japanese language learners.
- JapanesePod101: This is an audio and video podcast series that covers various aspects of the Japanese language. The site is a good resource for beginners who want to improve their listening and speaking abilities.
- Nihongo con Teppei for Beginners: A free podcast series that is entirely in Japanese but aimed at beginners. Teppei uses very simple language and often repeats himself, so you can likely make this jump into pure-Japanese content sooner than you might expect!
- Duolingo/Lingodeer Japanese: Popular language-learning apps that provide gamified grammar lessons. They’re great resources for beginners dabbling in a language who aren’t sure if they’re ready to commit or not.
Once you have covered all the basics and feel confident to move forward, that’s when the fun begins. A lot of language comes down to learning by doing, and you’ll need to consume a lot of content to get through the intermediate level. At this point, making progress in Japanese is basically a byproduct of entertaining yourself.
Many learners find themselves stuck in an awkward position: they've gone through a beginner's resource and have the basics under their belt, but they're not able to understand native materials. Glossika specializes in bridging this gap — we feed you progresively more difficult sentences, teaching you 5,000+ words along the way. It's kind of like going to the gym, but you're building language skills instead of muscles. Eventually, you graduate from Glossika right into real Japanese content!
Learning Japanese from zero can be frustrating, but I promise you it's worth it. Everyone learns differently, so experiment with different methods until you find what works best for you. Don't be afraid to mix and match methods as well. There's more than one way of doing things. Making mistakes is part of the process, so if something doesn't work, try something else.
Remember that learning a language is a continuous process, and there will be ups and downs along the way. However, with dedication and consistency, you can become proficient in Japanese. Don't forget to enjoy the journey! As you learn this language, you will not only learn more about the culture, but you will also gain a new perspective on life.
Ganbatte! (Good luck!)