Japanese writing system
Now what do I do to actually learn Japanese?
Traveling to Japan to talk with natives, watching raw anime, and reading manga and novels before they’re translated all require the same fundamental skills and knowledge. While this guide is not going to be enough to teach you these skills, it will give you an idea of how to go about acquiring them.
With the basics covered in this guide you can get started with reading the written language, which you can then use to gain a more thorough understanding of Japanese. That being said, you should not hesitate to practice listening or speaking if you wish to do so. This guide only aims to introduce you to the Japanese language and show you how to get started. The rest is up to you.
Learning Japanese consists of three parts: grammar, vocabulary and the writing system. In order to learn Japanese, you will need to study and practice all of these aspects. This guide will briefly introduce you to the Japanese language and then show you where and how to get started with learning it yourself.
It is is highly recommended that you read up more in the linked resources throughout the guide.
The Japanese writing system consists of three scripts: hiragana, katakana and kanji.
Hiragana and katakana, together referred to as the kana, are two scripts which represent the same set of sounds.
Hiragana (ひらがな) is a syllabary (think of it as an alphabet) which represents the sounds used to speak Japanese. While uncommon to do so, it is possible to write Japanese entirely in hiragana. Hiragana is used for conjugating verbs and writing certain words, among other things.
For further information on hiragana, see the following resources:
Katakana (カタカナ) is also an “alphabet” of syllables, representing the same sounds as hiragana, but visually different. Katakana is mainly used for loanwords and to replace words that are written with obscure kanji, but is used quite liberally in any written text.
For further information on katakana, see the following resources:
Hiragana will be your bread and butter for reading anything in Japanese. The approach to Japanese presented in this guide, as well as all the resources linked (except for those about the kana), are intended for people who can at least read hiragana. Thus, hiragana is the first thing that you are expected you learn.
Kanji are the third part of the Japanese writing system, and by far the most extensive. These logographic characters of varying complexity represent words or parts of words in conjunction with the kana. The average Japanese adult knows at least 2136 kanji (the number of kanji students learn by the end of high school as a part of the curriculum), but around 2,500 to 3,000 are used in all facets of life. Reading kanji will quickly become an inevitable reality once you dive into learning Japanese. The various methods of learning these will be discussed in greater depth below.
Learning grammar is straightforward: Pick a grammar guide and read it. Tae Kim is often recommended for beginners (note that the whole guide is basic grammar, even the “advanced” section), but other options are listed on the resources page. You shouldn't expect to memorise everything you read the first time around in whatever guide you choose, but you should be aiming to understand it. The purpose of a grammar guide is not to grant you "mastery" over the language (which only comes through lots of practice and exposure), but simply to introduce you to the fundamentals of the language and give you the foundation that you need to start reading native material.
Once you've reached the end of the guide, you can start reading Japanese material while consulting back to the guide to solidify your memory. By reading Japanese you are actively practicing your grammar since you are using it constantly to understand what you are reading. Manga is the common recommendation for first getting into reading, especially Yotsubato. You may also consider doing the Dictionary of Japanese Grammar Anki deck to reinforce what you have learned.
This isn't the end of grammar. Tae Kim is quite basic and should serve you fine for the easiest manga, but literary works with a greater focus on the text often use more advanced grammar. The Dictionaries of Japanese Grammar are the go-to resource for anything not covered in Tae Kim; they and various other options are documented in the resources section.
Anki is a flashcard program that helps you acquire vocabulary through spaced repetition. It is commonly used in conjunction with the Core2K/6K vocabulary deck by beginners to build up a basic vocabulary of common words in preparation for reading. Many people stop the Core2K/6K deck after reaching 2000 words; partly because the first 2000 words (Core2K) are a lot more common than the rest, and partly because of the significant time investment involved in completing Core6K. As you can expect even Core2K to take about 3 months to complete, some prefer to skip it and begin reading native material immediately. Whether or not you feel that the time investment is worth it depends on your tolerance for looking up unknown words. After finishing Core2K, you’ll at least know the majority of words in a given sentence, but you will still have to look up many words per page.
After completing Core2K (or skipping it entirely), some people begin a "mining deck". A mining deck is a vocabulary deck which you build up yourself with the unknown words that you encounter while reading. The Firefox add-on Rikaisama simplifies this process to a single key press, so that all you need to do to add a card to your deck is hover over a word and press "r" (instructions here and here).
You will need to learn all three writing systems to be able to read native material. Since hiragana and katakana are relatively small in number and simple in design, they can be learned through rote repetition in a short time-frame using a site like Kana Teacher. For kanji, however, because of their great number and complexity, there are various opinions on how to best approach them.
Benefits and drawbacks of isolated kanji study
There are two main ways to approach kanji. The simplest is to learn whole words without studying the individual kanji. The other is to study each kanji in isolation to learn its meaning and composition. Studying isolated kanji can grant you the ability to write by hand, and will most likely have a positive effect on your vocabulary retention. It’s up to you to decide whether or not you will benefit enough from learning kanji in isolation to merit the time and effort it takes.
The mnemonics method consists of associating short stories or images with simpler kanji or the radicals of kanji and then using these associated images to remember more complex kanji. Two commonly used resources that encourage mnemonics are Remembering the Kanji and KanjiDamage. These will introduce you to the most common kanji, 2136 jouyou kanji in the case of RTK, and 1700 for KD. For more information on how to use RTK or KanjiDamage, the necessary Anki decks, as well as alternatives, see the resources page.
Kanji can also be learnt simply by writing or reviewing them repetitively. You should first familiarize yourself with radicals before memorizing actual kanji. Knowing radicals (see “Radical approach” below) will be a great help in learning kanji since you will not have to remember each kanji as a series of lines and squiggles, but simply as a construct of smaller elements which you are already familiar with. An Anki deck with production/recall-type cards could be very conducive to this method since, rather than just writing out characters at random, you would instead be frequently writing out the ones you're struggling to remember, while only occasionally writing out the ones which you remember consistently. The general consensus is that the readings for the characters should be learned through vocabulary, so when using this method you should just try to focus on associating each kanji with its meaning(s).
If you choose not to study kanji in isolation, you will still eventually learn to recognize their meanings and readings as you learn new words. Learning new words is something you need to do anyway, so many people skip individual kanji study altogether. Either approach will result in success so long as you persist, so the choice comes down to what method you personally find easier. If you don't want to study kanji, you can likely work through a vocab deck without doing so. But if you are slow to pick up on kanji while learning vocabulary or have poor retention, consider studying kanji individually. It's a trade-off between starting out with "more vocabulary now, smaller foundation" or "more foundation now, less vocabulary".
For those who feel that methods like RTK and KanjiDamage take too much time, but don't feel confident diving head-first into kanji as with the kanji-through-vocab approach described above, one method to consider is simply dedicating a week or two to studying radicals - the 200 or so building-blocks which make up the kanji. This approach, rather than teaching you to write and recognise a set of ~2000 common kanji, gives your brain the information it needs to mentally deconstruct the kanji it encounters into their base components, which may make it easier for you to both learn to recognise them and to avoid mixing them up with other kanji which look similar. In any case, it should stop your brain from seeing them as simply a bunch of random squiggles. You can find an Anki deck here which contains all of the radicals, along with their meanings in English (suspend either the "Recognition" or "Recall" cards depending on your preference). Writing each radical out a few times with the correct stroke order may help you get a feel for them. Do not bother memorizing the radical readings.
Having reached this part of the guide, you probably have an idea of what Japanese is. This section will show you the standard course of action for getting started with actually learning it.
A note on listening and production: The method described above works well for learning to read Japanese. Japanese is easiest to approach when written, since looking up vocabulary is simple and there is no pressure on the amount of time a person may take to understand something. Understanding spoken Japanese is more difficult because the listener must discern all the words spoken and process them in a short time, or else he will lose track of what is being said.
Production is even more difficult, since information must be processed, considered and then an answer must be produced, all in a short span of time. The only way to improve in these aspects is practice. This guide will not provide any strategies for practicing listening or production, but you will find various resources for that in the resources document.
A guide to the resources mentioned in this guide can be found here.
An extensive collection of resources for download can be found here.
How long does it take to learn Japanese?
A very long time.
Some will comment that, at a good pace, fluency is achievable in 4 years. Thinking in terms of “I have 4 years to become fluent” may help to prevent you from making the common beginner mistake of rushing, crashing and burning due to short term thinking (e.g. setting your new cards/day limit to 100 in Anki because you think it is taking too long to get through your deck, then finding yourself totally overwhelmed in a week’s time and giving up).
Namasensei is often watched by beginners learning Japanese, because his alcohol-fueled antics are strangely both entertaining and powerfully motivating for some anons. Unfortunately, this is a double-edged sword; as he’s always shitfaced drunk, tends to teach in an ineffective fashion, has terrible handwriting, and messes up the stroke order of some of the kana.
[His te-form video teaches you that the te-form is the command form, which is misleading and will cause you a great deal of confusion if you actually try to read anything with that assumption. It will also confuse you when you read a grammar guide and see it being explained as having a completely different function (a conjunction used to make compound sentences). When the te-form appears to be being used to make a (light) command, what is really going on is that "てください" is being contracted to just "て".]
Using Google for Japanese:
set your search to google.co.jp for (much) better results
I can’t figure out what this means
Google 「X」, 「X」とは, or 「X」という言葉(の使い方) where X is your inquiry. 「ｘ」ってどういう意味, の意味 etc. also yields results.
How to find reading materials?
Search for the Japanese title in Japanese along with the keywords 一般小説 青空文庫形式 txt
P2P: Nyaa, Share, Perfect Dark
Take note of the big manga list, mentioned above. Also, you might find what you are looking for in the Cornucopia of Resources.
I don’t seem to have the motivation to do this
you can [not] learn Japanese
What is the difference between x and y?
Searching google for 「ｘとｙの違い」or 「"x" "y" "違い"」 will usually find you the answer you’re looking for. If you can’t understand the answer you find, you aren’t on a level where you should worry about the difference of x and y yet.
When should I start reading?
Whenever you feel like it. Though it is recommended that you have a Tae Kim level of grammar and a vocab base of the 2000 most common words before you start reading.
は vs が
The Dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar has one of the best explanations on the matter and is relatively concise. A great (but very long) explanation can also be found in Making Sense of Japanese Grammar - What the Textbooks Don't Tell You (available in the CoR). I would refer to those, and take all others with a grain a salt or not at all.
How many words do natives know?
Words only include the dictionary form. Proper nouns and compound words are excluded. For a different study addressing the related question of how many words you need to know to achieve adequate comprehension, see: this image.
These two words have the same reading, and meaning. How do I distinguish them, and why is Japan trying to fuck me?
They have the same English meaning. Which, in case you couldn’t guess it, means you’ve gotta look it up in a J>J dictionary, or otherwise perform a Google search. If your grammar isn’t at a level where you can understand the descriptions, or distinctions you should be bettering your grammar instead of your vocab. If you can only read English definitions, then assume they are flawed before assuming that you’ve been fucked.
How do I choose which kanji reading to use? Should I learn onyomi and kunyomi of kanji?
Readings for words are usually clearly defined, and any of the dictionaries in the sections above will tell you how a word is read. For more in-depth information on readings, refer to this wikipedia entry.
What's this WaniKani thing?
WaniKani is a paid website which teaches you 6000 words and 2000 kanji over the course of one year. This may seem like a nice prospect, but reality is that the free open source software Anki (mentioned earlier in the guide) will accomplish exactly the same for you. WaniKani limits your potential by providing you with a fixed schedule that you cannot exceed. While you can always not do your reviews, it is not possible to do more reviews if you feel like it. You are forced to adhere to the schedule of one year. With Anki, you can learn at whatever pace you wish and it does not cost you anything. Anki is also highly modular and can be adjusted to suit your preferences, while WaniKani offers next to no customization.
Does this sound biased to you? It certainly is. But it is an undeniable fact that Anki offers customization and pacing of your own learning and is free, whereas WaniKani costs you money and forces you into a pace which you can not exceed. The only benefit which WaniKani offers over Anki is that it spoonfeeds you (you should be looking at a language course if you need even more spoonfeeding than is offered in this guide) and has a cute mascot.
Why are you so biased against WaniKani?
Education and learning materials should be freely available to those who wish to learn. This whole guide is based on the philosophy that those who wish to learn should be encouraged and should be helped in finding the means to do so. Suggesting a paid resource which offers no viable benefits over a free one is contradictory to this philosophy.