This is meant to be a practical, step-by-step guide on how to learn Japanese.
Specifically, it’s about the best way to learn Japanese.
I could write for pages and pages as to why I think this is the best, fastest, cheapest, easiest, most boss and awesome way to learn Japanese. We could probably rename this guide, “How I Wish I’d Studied Japanese.” Anyways, though, I’ll let the guide speak for itself.
The steps in this guide sometimes overlap, become some of them take months to complete. That said, you should start them in the order they are written. Or do whatever you want, actually. The best way to learn Japanese for me is probably a little different than the best way to learn Japanese for you, yeah?
Because there are only two things that matter when trying to master a language:
- Keep Swimming. That is, don’t quit studying.
- Study effectively. In other words, have a system. I think this system is good. Maybe you can think of a better one.
That’s it. Two things. I mean, I can do at least five things. The other day I learned how to make takoyaki. Boom. Six things.
Two more shouldn’t be a problem.
We are swimming across an ocean. But that’s chill.
If we have fun swimming, we’ll never get tired.
Which means we’ll never quit.
Which means we’ll reach that faraway shore.
Also, to keep getting the latest updates on Japanese study hacks, J-lessons, and other language food, feel free to sign up for the (usually 1 email every month or two) Nihongo Shark newsletter.
The Best Way to Learn Japanese
Update: I have recently published the official NihongoShark.com guide to learning Japanese. It’s a 400+ page PDF beast and, in short, the true “best way” to learn Japanese (if you ask me and some smart people I know): The Hacking Japanese Supercourse.
Step #1: Listen to Audio Lessons
Specifically, sign up for JapanesePod101:
This is the best resource for learning Japanese. Period.
How to use JapanesePod101 Effectively
- Listen to it all the time. In your car. In the train. While you clean your house. While you go to sleep at night.
- Pick a level. For example, choose Absolute Beginner, Season 1.
- Listen to that level repeatedly. Listen to that level until you understand every sample conversation without the translation or slowed-down pronunciation.
- Level up. When you feel like you have a pretty good grip on a level/season, then go to the next one.
- Repeat until ninja. Or until you get sick of it… though I doubt that’ll happen.
I remember back in the day, listening to one of their Newbie Lessons, I tried out one of the episodes from their Advanced Audio Blog series. I was so discouraged. I’ll never understand this kind of Japanese, I thought.
But now it’s no problem. I kept swimming. Well, I quit a few times. But, eventually I kept swimming. Now I almost never have problems catching native-speed Japanese.
Thank you, JapanesePod101.
Step #2: Use Smart Flashcards
Most people agree that the best way to learn Japanese somehow incorporates Anki.
Anki is a type of software (and app) for remembering things.
Basically, intelligent flashcards.
Download it here.
Every time you encounter a word you don’t know, add it to your Anki deck.
Step #3: Learn Hiragana and Katakana
Explaining is draining. So I’ll let Tae Kim do it:
By the way, Tae Kim is a beast. And a total grammar sage. Here’s his grammar book on Amazon:
Please buy 7,000 copies using my Amazon affiliate link. Because I’m poor.
Anyways, learn to read and write both Hiragana and Katakana (within your first week, if possible).
There are many ways to learn them.
Step #4: Learn All of the Kanji
This is priority #1.
Try to learn the meaning of all of the general use kanji characters in four months. The longer you take to learn them, the more likely you will quit studying… that is, fail to learn Japanese.
It’s OK to take a long time to learn them. Just. Don’t. Quit.
- Buy this book.
- Download this Anki deck.
- Make sure settings are for New Cards to show after Review Cards (detailed instructions).
- Lather -> Rinse -> Repeat -> Read newspapers.
If you do about 25 new cards per day, then you’ll learn all of the kanji in less than 100 days. And you will want to hug everyone once that happens.
Super motivated people: Do 25 new cards per day.
Moderately motivated people: Do, uh, less than 25 new cards per day.
Just make sure Kanji is always new card priority #1. For example, you probably will have a few different Anki decks, like this:
- Kanji Card Reviews
- New Kanji Cards
- Vocab Card Reviews
- New Vocab Cards
- Grammar Practice (see below)
- Heisig RTK Reviews (in this example, they’ve already been done).
- Heisig RTK New Cards (25 remaining)
- 日本語 Review Cards (2 remaining)
- Español Review Cards (48 remaining)
- 1001 Español Review Cards (81 remaining)
- 日本語 New Cards (30 remaining)
- Español New Cards (30 remaining)
- 1001 Español New Cards (999 remaining)
- Study Grammar
A couple of things to note. My study priorities have not changed, even though I’m studying two languages. It’s always review cards first, then new cards (with the exception of kanji).
Also, since I’m not studying any grammar at the moment, my 1001 Español deck has new cards set to 999 per day. That’s because I always learn as many words as possible per day. For most people, #8 in the list above would not be 999 cards.
Do EVERY review due every day.
No matter what. Even if you phone it in, tap the buttons until Cards Due = 0.
Step #5: Lay Your Vocabulary Foundation
Download this deck on Anki.
Read the installation instructions, then start studying it.
Maybe shoot for 20 new words a day? Remember that kanji take priority.
Anyways, study it. All reviews every day. New cards whenever time allows.
If you don’t like the layout, feel free to change it in your Anki program’s card settings. This deck is also an option.
Step #6: Learn Basic Grammar
Pick a grammar book series and read every lesson, do every exercise.
Option #1: Minna no Nihongo, 2nd Edition
- Minna no Nihongo, Book 1
- Minna no Nihongo, Book 1 English Explanations
- Minna no Nihongo, Book 2
- Minna no Nihongo, Book 2 English Explanations
- Minna no Nihongo Vocab Decks on Anki
Option #2: Genki Series
- Genki, Book 1
- Genki, Book 1 Workbook
- Genki, Book 2
- Genki, Book 2 Workbook
- An Integrated Approach to Intermediate Japanese
- Genki Vocab Decks on Anki
Step #7: Start Speaking Japanese
If you haven’t already, start using the sentences you practiced in your grammar textbook exercises.
Not in Japan? No worries. You can still practice Japanese.
Take a Lesson
From what I’ve seen, italki seems to be the most (cost-)effective place to take lessons for any foreign language. I’ve heard so many great things about it. And, really, since it’s online, it’s a chance to speak Japanese every day no matter where you are.
Watch Video Lessons
I’m a little hesitant to put this here, because it’s a passive learning resource (i.e. it’s not technically speaking practice), but I’ve heard lots of excellent things about UDemy.
Get a Language Exchange Partner
There are a lot of Japanese people on MyLanguageExchange.com.
If you’re in Japan, this is also a very easy way to meet new people and make friends.
You can also chat with people on Mixi, I think. But I’ve never tried it. Also, navigating the site might be hard for beginners.
Step #8: Super-Power Your Grammar Skills
Get all three of the books from the Dictionary of Japanese Grammar Series.
These books are simply awesome.
- A Dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar
- A Dictionary of Intermediate Japanese Grammar
- A Dictionary of Advanced Japanese Grammar
Step #9: Stop Using English
If you manage to finish Steps #1-8, then you could almost certainly pass JLPT N1. In other words, you’re fluent. You could work in a Japanese company. Realistically, I’d say it’s feasible to complete all of steps #1-8 in about 2 years. If you study a lot, maybe less. If you don’t study a lot, maybe longer.
Anyways, somewhere in the midst of those steps, please stop using English!
Then, if you haven’t already…
- Make Japanese friends.
- Watch Japanese shows.
- Read Japanese manga.
- Read Japanese articles.
- Listen to Japanese radio and podcasts.
- Get a Japanese lover.
- Talk to your cat in Japanese.
- Do whatever you please.
Step #10: Go to Japan
If possible, live there.
Enjoy Life… in Japanese!
You’re a boss.
I know for me, more than anything, learning Japanese has given me confidence.
The other day I told a friend I was going to start learning piano.
“Did you play as a child?” he asked.
“No,” I said.
“Then you might not be able to,” he said bluntly.
Once upon a time, I might have given up right there. People tell us we can’t do things that they believe themselves incapable of doing. And it’s tempting to falter when we encounter their lack of faith. Because it’s hard to have faith in yourself.
Japanese can be that thing that you always look back to, though.
I’m pretty sure I can learn piano, I thought. I learned Japanese. Even after everyone said it was too hard. Even after all the times I told myself it was too hard.
I now know the value of sticking to something that’s important to me. And I want you to have that, too, if you don’t already.
So I looked at my friend, and I said:
“If I never quit trying to learn piano, I’ll learn it eventually. Maybe in a few months. Maybe in ten years. If I keep practicing, the result is inevitable.”
Just like it was with Japanese. I quit. And I quit. And I quit. But then, I stuck to it. The result was inevitable.
My friend gave me a quizzical look. Then, a few seconds later, he nodded his head.
“Yeah, I guess that’s true,” he said.
Learning Japanese might feel like swimming across an ocean. But you can do it.
Just keep swimming. You will reach the shore.
Resources & Links
Before you go burn two hundred hours clicking all the links listed below, don’t forget about the difference between being active and being productive.
Being Productive = Learning new vocabulary, listening to an audio lesson, speaking/reading/writing Japanese, doing flashcards, etc.
Being Active = Reading articles (like this one) about how to learn Japanese, making study calendars, estimating how many words you know, how long it will take to pass JLPT N1, etc.
Being Productive > Being Active
Always, always, always.
But sometimes just being active is pretty fun. So…
I’d like to think that we’re (slowly) starting to build a good breadth of useful information on this site. In particular, it might help to look at the following post categories:
- Motivation. Because the hardest thing about learning Japanese is not quitting.
- Language Study Hacks. Because the world of language-learning is always evolving, and there are always new bits of awesomeness to pick up.
- Japanese Lessons. Because, yeah…
- JapanesePod101 (Because, well, it’s the best.)
- 大人のラジオ (Mostly for higher level students… but a really pleasant podcast. It’s also on iTunes.)
- CrunchyRoll (They have a pretty large selection of anime, and there’s often an option to turn on/off subtitles, which can be very helpful.)
- Japanese iTunes (Contact me if you want to get some iTunes cards.)
- CyberGhost + uTorrent (…which I don’t officially endorse utilizing.)
Apps, Programs, and Plugins
- Anki (One app to rule them all.)
- Rikaisama (This is an AMAZING add-on for Firefox. Simply incredible.)
- Super-Powered Electronic Dictionary Guide
- subs2srs (With this program, you can automatically create Anki decks from Japanese subtitles. Say what?!)
- EPWING2Anki (Automatically create Anki decks from EPWING dictionaries.)
- Wakaru (Kind of like rikaisama for your phone.)
- imi wa? (Pretty solid dictionary app.)
Recommended Anki Decks
- I have no idea! But I’m sure there are a lot of good ones.
Other Sites for Learning Japanese
There are a lot of sites just like this one. Most of them have a lot more content than mine.
Just remember, if you’re reading this stuff, you’re not improving. Studying and using Japanese is improving.
Being Productive > Being Active
- Japanese Level Up (Good system! I prefer mine, but he makes a good case.)
- Tofugu (Seems to have pretty good content.)
The Best Way to Learn Japanese: Final Thoughts
“The best way to learn Japanese” differs for everyone. These are the best resources I’ve found so far. There are certainly more out there somewhere. If you know of some, please let me know in the comments.
Or if you just want to affirm that you’re going for this, that you’re committed to learning Japanese, please leave a comment, or send me a message.
It’s difficult making this journey. And it’s good to have friends sharing the struggle.
p.s. Free learning awesomeness guide: