Sitting here with nothing to do, waiting for my latest video to finish rendering, I’ve decided to write about a topic I’ve had in my head for a long time: Learning Japanese.
You ever think to yourself “I want to learn Japanese”? Well, you can. Start. Right now. No excuses. If there’s one thing I’ve noticed, it’s that those who always say “I will later” will never. I’ve had a good number of friends who have said lines such as this, that have said it when I first started learning Japanese, and to this very day still do. The longer you put it off, the more you’ll want to put it off. They also say that the younger you are, the easier it will be to learn a language, so that’s even more reason to get started as soon as you can.
“Where do I even start?” might you ask? As someone who taught themself (and continues to) with only the internet as an available resource, I can guide you along the same path I walk. There are a couple of things I must say first, however.
1. Do you really want to learn Japanese?
Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not saying this with a negative connotation, Japanese is really fun in my opinion, but if you only somewhat care to learn it, you won’t get far. Your heart has to have the true desire to learn. Learning a language is a very long experience. You need to be prepared to stick through. Ask yourself “Am I willing to spend years upon years studying this?” “Will I get bored within a few months? Weeks?”
You need to make sure it’ll be a fun experience for you, because if it isn’t, then why even bother?
2. What do you want to learn?
Now now, I know you want to learn Japanese, but this is more specific. Before you jump into a battle, you need to form a combat plan. Do you wish to learn to speak it vocally? Be able to communicate online? Handwrite it? Understand it spoken? Be able to read it?
If I recall correctly, these functions all use different parts of the brain. I know someone who’s terrible at reading written Japanese, but can understand it vocally fairly well. I know a certain South American who learned how to read and write English at what seems to be a native level, but hasn’t nearly the practice speaking. As for me, well, I can not handwrite anything. I don’t think I could even write down all of the kana for you, and God knows I couldn’t speak it well either, having never held a single Japanese conversation in real life once. All the speaking practice I get is in my head to myself, but I can read and listen to it at some level (otherwise this site wouldn’t be here). I’m not too sure about my ability to communicate in Japanese using computers, but I don’t think it’s too bad.
Each of these skills to learn require different methods of learning. For speaking, you’ll definitely need to live in a well populated place that provides Japanese courses, or just be lucky and know someone who also can speak it. For listening comprehension, it would also be beneficial to have access to people in real life who can help, but Japanese media may also be used after a certain point of your studies, though I’m not sure if anime compares to the real deal. For writing, you’ll need to spend a tenfold increase compared to the time it takes to learn anything else (I would imagine, but maybe that’s just me), and I highly discourage it unless you plan to someday live in Japan (or unless you just enjoy it), otherwise there’s hardly any point with today’s technology, such as Microsoft IME and all. Of course, if you’re really determined, you could still do it.
3. Be patient.
Do not expect overnight results, or you’ll just be setting yourself up for disappointment. As said earlier, it takes a long time to learn, and even more time to learn to apply your knowledge properly. If you were to ask me, the hardest part of Japanese was the beginning. When it’s still something new to you, you need to learn how to learn. When you start the alphabets, hiragana and katakana, there’s nothing for you to go off of. It’s just pure memorization. Learning kanji and vocabulary starts off also as pure memorization, but soon you’ll notice kanji being shared between common words, or be able to guess readings and meanings of new words based on their kanji. This isn’t that accurate, but it helps you learn. When learning how the grammar works at first, you may come out confused at how backwards it is. You might lose hope at the prospect of having such a long journey ahead of you. You might feel that it’s too hard for you. There’s one secret to surviving all this.
Keep on going, no matter what! No matter how bad you may think you are at it, as long as you continue trying, you will get better. Anyone with perseverance can learn a language. On the other side of being patient, it’s important to say not to rush too fast. If you jam too much grammar into your head, you will not remember it all. The same goes for a pile of words and kanji. Set a nice, comfortable pace for yourself, and stick to it. God knows I could have done better with my pace.
4. Got a problem with kanji?
Lots of people complain about kanji, but it’s essential. When you get used to it, it’s actually harder to read WITHOUT it. Now now, I know it’s difficult at first, but you have to deal with it. You can’t ignore it. English learners have to learn thousands of odd grammar rules and verb conjugations, and our weird spelling. Not to mention how our words aren’t pronounced how they’re written. Meanwhile, Japanese learners have to learn kanji, with hardly any exceptions to word conjugation rules and other fairly simple aspects. I’d say kanji is probably easier to learn than what English learners have to go through, so don’t let it turn you away.
I know I wouldn’t’ve gotten so far learning without being given directions on where to start. First of all, Tae Kim has made a great introductory video on the topic, so check it out.
Now, right here, I’ll show you all the resources I’ve used.
This is the most vital tool I can think of, with regards to learning a language. I can’t tell you how to set it up anymore, since I’ve only used an older version. What it is, is a little timed flashcard thing. You’ll want to make a your own personal deck of cards and add EVERY new word you come across into it. My formatting has been kanji on front of the card, and reading + meanings on the back, as well as small details such as what kind of adjective or verb it is (which you’ll learn about later on). In the beginning, you’ll just want romaji on the front, and meaning on back. Then kana on front once you learn it, and meaning on back, until you move onto my style. Do your repetitions (reps) EVERY DAY. NO EXCUSES. You absolutely must find time to do this, or do you think learning Japanese isn’t important enough to you? If you’re studying on your own, you won’t have a teacher to set homework for you and put deadlines on it. You have to do that yourself.
The major advantage I find with Anki is that it helps you differentiate similar kanji. You find a unique one, one that looks nothing like others you know, and it’s easy to remember just for that aspect, but once you find another kanji similar to it, suddenly you’re forced to keep a closer eye on them so that you don’t mix up.
There are 4 options after trying to guess a card when using anki: 1 (Try again), and the rest which determine when the card will appear again. Choose again when you can’t remember the word, and I recommend the soonest time option possible if you do get it right. You can also modify the timers on these options. Shortening the times greatly would be beneficial. There’s a little more to anki, but we’ll get to that later on.
I’m going to warn you now, Namasensei swears. A lot. He’s the most vulgar guy you’ll ever see. If you have a problem with him, then skip this step and go to straight to Tae Kim, otherwise his videos provide a great, fun way to learn, which can really hook and reel you in. He’s a great motivator, he really is. This playlist here will serve all your basic needs, for the most part, from the kana to a few hundred vocabulary. Namasensei does make some mistakes, which you’ll only be able to tell after you start learning from other sources, but he doesn’t make too many, so don’t worry. His pronounciation isn’t the best either, but don’t pay too much mind to it. When he tells you to write stuff in your notebook, just throw it in anki. No need to write the kana 50 times unless you actually do plan to learn writing. After you’re done that playlist, there’s another set of videos he has called “The daily dump” in which he goes over a bunch of kanji.
3. Branching Off
Done with Namasensei? From here on, we have a variety of paths you can take. It’s up to you which path you choose at this point, depending on what you want to learn, though some I definitely recommend earlier than others. Most resources here will require previous Japanese knowledge, which is why I threw Namasensei’s lessons in earlier to get you started.
Ⅰ. Tae Kim (Grammar focus)
This is an essential resource, I’d highly recommend you go here first thing. Tae Kim’s grammar lessons will get you through a lot of what you’ll encounter, as well as provide some common vocabulary to get well on your way. All his grammar lessons contain example sentences, and are worded in an easy to understand way. You’ll probably end up going through all of his pages a number of times before you get a comfortable grasp, and be coming back whenever you feel unsure of something.
Ⅱ．Genki Textbooks (General focus)
This was my first resource aside from Namasensei. It contains about a page or two of vocabulary per chapter, then they have a passage demonstrating a new grammar point and the new vocabulary in usage, and afterwards they explain what they did with the grammar there. It also usually tells you what NOT to do, and goes into extensive detail on each point, which is pretty important. The downside about this resource is that it starts you off with learning polite form of verbs, rather than plain form. This is not how natives learn Japanese, and will just serve to confuse you unless you have some experience. Otherwise, it provides a lot of detail and exercises. Mostly everything in these books is also covered on Tae Kim’s site.
Ⅲ. Anki’s Core Sentence Decks (Vocabulary focus)
Back to anki, you better have been doing your reps. This method, I wouldn’t recommend without some prior grammar knowledge. With anki, there are downloadable pre-made decks. You’re going to want to download the core sentence decks. I’ve only been through the core 2000 though, so I can’t describe the other decks. Each card focuses around a certain word, showing an example sentence for it. You won’t understand anything that’s going on without grammar knowledge though. Even though it mainly focuses on teaching words, the example sentences will really fortify your grammar, trying to figure out what everything says without being able to see what it actually means until you look at the back of the card. Learning words without context isn’t very reliable, so this is a pretty handy deck for beginners.
Ⅳ. Kanji Damage (Kanji focus)
I’ve never really went through this too far myself, but the main thing I like about it is that for each kanji they go over, they also look at jukugo (words made up of multiple kanji). This is great, because you won’t have to brute-force memorize the onyomi (the sound a kanji makes when compounded) or meanings into your head. Learning jukugo helps you see the relation kanji have with words, and you get used to how they sound after a while. Many people have used a textbook series called “Remembering the Kanji” by Heisig, but personally, I really don’t like how they do it. If I recall, the whole first book is spent just learning the meanings of the kanji alone, no readings or anything. It felt like a waste of time to me. Some people like it, some don’t. Check it out and see for yourself. It’s mainly used for learning how to write if I recall.
Ⅴ. Lang-8 (Communication Output Focus)
Lang-8 is a site that puts your communication skills to the test. This is the real deal here. How it works is, as well as correcting foreign speakers’ English (or whatever native language you do know), you also write little journal entries to be corrected by native speakers! Being able to understand Japanese coming at you is one thing, but being able to draw it out from your own head properly is whole new ballpark. Don’t be afraid about making mistakes, but you’ll need to have a solid enough understanding of Japanese to be able to read the replies you get from people that correct you. If you can’t understand what you did wrong or ways you can improve, then there’s no point after all. Personally, I only write single large posts every couple months as a sort of test for myself, but you get out of it what you put into it. The more you post, the more you learn about things you do wrong.
For late-game grammar, you’ll want to refer to pages like this when you come across something new that you don’t understand. Tae Kim’s pages should take you pretty high up on the proficiency scale when it comes to grammar, but the kind of stuff at this level isn’t really touched upon. Read lots of native material as well. Reading books can be a great way to come across grammar you wouldn’t normally see elsewhere, and can build understanding with what you already know. You’ll never see anything written as grammatically correct as books. Whenever you stumble across something you don’t understand, chances are you can look it up and find a decent answer somewhere. Not to mention, there’s a wide sea of unknown vocabulary awaiting you in novels. Nowhere better to learn piles of it.
Do something in Japanese everyday. Every day that you don’t, you run the possibility of forgetting something. When watching anime, try listening to what they’re actually saying and look at how the subbers approached translating it. The same goes for song translations. Try to look at what the translator was thinking, what they saw in a sentence.
The textbook I noted above is definitely not the only one you should consider. There are plenty available out there that can assist you greatly. I’ve looked at a few others before too, but I can’t really remember their names now. It’s helpful to have a variety of resources where if you don’t understand how one source explains something, you can look at another.
What else do I have to say… It’ll take you a while before you start to become comfortable with the grammar. Getting used to how different it is compared to English takes a bit. Some words take a bit to get used to too. If you’ve ever played Skyrim, it’s just like the greybeards say. You must let the essence of the word flow throughout you. I used to have the worst trouble with ある and いる, trying to wrap my head around just how they work and what they mean, but soon enough, I got the hang of it, and now it’s the easiest thing.
As for English – Japanese dictionaries, I generally use Jisho. When you look up a word, there’re options for kanji details, example sentences, and more. In the kanji details, you can search for words based on if a kanji is in the beginning or end, look up meanings, and all sorts of things, which can come in real handy. There’s a “search kanji by radical” feature too, which is very handy. Sometimes, especially when it comes to archaic language, or when looking up grammar, you might have to google a word or phrase that isn’t listed in a dictionary, and read the definition in Japanese. You can often find plenty of results by typing in 「＿の意味」. If you’re looking up an english word to see what it is in Japanese, it’s important to always read example sentences for words that seem vague in order to make sure you really know what you’re using. When it comes to example sentences, I always use the alc dictionary. You can either type in Japanese words or English, and get results for either with translations. They include a lot of Japanese translations for English phrases and expressions too, you’d be surprised at how much you can search and get results for. Of course, for every new word you learn, put that your personal anki deck. I should also mention that it’s important to use pure Japanese dictionaries when you really need a strict definition of a word.
I’m not all too familiar with classical Japanese, but you might come across it occasionally. It’s good to be able to recognize it when you do see it. The most common example of classical Japanese you’d see would probably be negative verbs ending in 「ぬ」 or i adjectives ending in 「き」. Kafka Fuura has an extensive page on it here.
If you don’t think you’re ready for a commitment like this, to learn the whole language, but you want to do something related to doujin music, don’t worry, you can still contribute to the Japanese music community! With a knowledge of just hiragana and katakana, some elemental understandings of grammar, and a basic knowledge of how kanji works, you can transcribe lyrics from songs from booklets. I don’t know about other translators, but I rely a lot on the transcriptions of others. Saves a lot of time that I would have to do it myself. Of course, you’ll probably make some mistakes if you’re not careful. I’ve seen a lot so far, but don’t worry too much about it, they’re usually easy enough pick up on.
I think that’s about all I’ve got to say. Good luck, and most importantly, have fun! If you’ve got any questions about just about anything on this topic, feel free to ask, and I’ll do my best to answer.