How to Learn Japanese Fast: Our 10-Step Method
You want to speak Japanese now, like right now.
Obviously you can’t learn a language instantly (though that would be great). But there are many ways to fast-track your brain’s natural language learning abilities and get you proficient at Japanese in a short space of time.
The key to fast improvement in Japanese is knowing what your goals are and working through a series of clear steps to get there.
Then once you learn the basics, it’s all about keeping up the practice habit and immersing yourself in Japanese whenever you can.
We’ve come up with these 10 steps to get you started on your journey to fast Japanese fluency.
- 1. Set Goals and a Time Frame
- 2. Find Useful Learning Resources
- 3. Learn Words in Kanji
- 4. Master Grammar For Everyday Conversations
- 5. Immerse Yourself with Videos
- 6. Try Shadowing
- 7. Practice with Real People Online
- 8. Make the Most of Mnemonics
- 9. Train Your Brain to Think in Japanese
- 10. Keep up the Habit to Learn Faster
1. Set Goals and a Time Frame
Getting a goal is essential to learning Japanese fast. But what kind of goal should you set?
Well, why do you want to learn Japanese?
Your specific reason for wanting to learn the language will help you prioritize what you need to learn.
If you’re looking to take a trip to Japan, you need to know phrases and vocabulary specific to travel and asking questions. If you’re doing business with Japanese speakers, you’ll need to learn language specific to your line of work.
These specifics will help you narrow down on the vocabulary and material you need to achieve that goal.
You should also identify a time frame in which you’d like to accomplish certain goals. For instance, if you’re tackling hiragana for the first time, try saying “I want to learn hiragana in one week.” This way, you can focus your study time exclusively on hiragana for the next seven days.
However, it has to be something that’s actually achievable. A goal like “I want to memorize all 2,136 official kanji in one month” is highly unlikely to happen. It takes Japanese children 18 years to learn all of them!
Instead, try for “I want to learn 15 kanji per day.” Way more reasonable!
With a solid plan, you’ll be able to hit the ground running and make progress right away.
2. Find Useful Learning Resources
Having reliable and engaging resources is vital for keeping you on track during your studies.
You can make use of traditional learning methods like textbooks and audio resources.
One great textbook for Japanese beginners is “Japanese for Everyone“. It introduces you to the most basic grammar structures all in kana, and conveniently includes the most basic introductions and pleasantries.
For a bonus boost to your learning, pair your studies with an effective language learning app. There are tons of Japanese learning apps out there, but we recommend FluentU. Using FluentU will give you a chance to see the vocabulary and other language info you learn in context with videos that native Japanese speakers also watch.
FluentU has videos and flashcard sets for all levels, from beginners to experts so it can be used no matter where you are in your studies.
When you start the course, you will immediately see real-world usage of essential expressions, asking questions, basic grammar and more.
Try watching videos geared for your level. FluentU’s library is organized based on difficulty and topic, so you can always select something that suits your needs as well as your interests.
After watching your video with interactive subtitles, you’ll have a quiz to test your understanding. On the app version, the quizzes also include speaking questions to let you practice your pronunciation with your device’s microphone.
You can look up words in FluentU’s video dictionary, which lets you see the definition, hear a native pronunciation guide, read example sentences and find other videos that use the word.
Each word in a video is automatically saved to your vocab list, and you can create your own lists as well. FluentU’s algorithm keeps track of what you’ve mastered and what you need to work on.
3. Learn Words in Kanji
Let’s face it: learning kanji, 漢字 (かんじ) — Chinese characters is not the friendliest of tasks, especially with with over 2,000 characters in regular use.
But if your goal is fast fluency, you’re going want to focus more on learning to read kanji. With electronic communication, it is becoming less necessary to be able to write kanji, and more important to be able to spell it out in hiragana on a smartphone or computer.
The hiragana and katakana writing systems are very important for learning how Japanese sounds and syllables work. But those syllabaries only have 46 characters each so they can be learned relatively quickly.
While Kanji is a lot more daunting, it’s highly important because of how linked kanji is to vocabulary.
Learning kanji and vocabulary at the same time is crucial because of the ways in which specific kanji are used in certain contexts, particularly in combination with one another.
Kanji usually have a single meaning. For example, let’s look at the the kanji for “day” 日 (ひ).
We can combine this kanji with others to create longer words. When we combine 日 with the kanji for “now” 今 (いま), it makes the word “today”:
今日 now + day = today
Another example would be 会 (かい) meet, as in 会話 (かいわ) — conversation or 会社 (かいしゃ) — company, which both have to do with meeting or gathering to do something.”
会話 meet + talk = conversation
会社 meet + in society = company
Kanji’s good like that. It ends up making a ton of sense. Once you learn a kanji, it can open up clues to a ton of other words.
For instance, the kanji for “person” 人 (ひと), is in the following words, all having to do with the idea of “person” or “human”:
一人 one + person = alone
大人 big + person = adult
恋人 love + person = lover, boyfriend/girlfriend
Kanji doesn’t have to be difficult, it can be a great puzzle for you to figure out as you go, and you will get more hints and clues the more you learn!
One great source for learning vocabulary is Sayaka Kurashina’s “日本語単語スピードマスター (にほんご たんご すぴーどますたー) — Japanese Vocabulary Speed Master“.
The book has a little translucent red sheet included that makes the English translations disappear. This way, once you’ve studied the meanings a few times over, you can practice remembering a word just by seeing the kanji itself.
You’ll be able to internalize the look, sound, and meaning of the kanji. Also, since the vocabulary is grouped by topic, you’ll recognize recurring kanji in each chapter. You’ll be able to guess at the pronunciation of new vocabulary, and more importantly, predict its meaning.
4. Master Grammar For Everyday Conversations
Basic Japanese grammar is relatively simple after you learn a few of the fundamentals.
First of all, Japanese sentences have an SOV construction. So the subject comes first, then the object and finally the verb.
In English, we usually use a SVO sentence order. So we might not be used to the SOV form, but it’s easy to understand.
Let’s look at a Japanese sentence and see how it works:
(わたし は りんご を たべます)
“I eat an apple.”
This might look complicated at first but let’s take it step by step.
- The first word 私 (わたし) means “I” or “me” which is the subject of our sentence.
- は is what is known as a “particle.” Japanese particles are usually one kana words that show what is happening in a sentence. In this case, は is just marking the subject. When we see は we know that what comes before it is the subject.
- リンゴ (りんご) is the word for “apple and is the object the “O” in the SOV construction.
- Then we have another particle を, which in this case marks the object of the sentence. Any time you see を you know that what comes before it is the object of the sentence.
- And finally, 食べます (たべます) is our verb which means “to eat.”
So if we look at our sentence again, 私はリンゴを食べます would literally translate as “I apple eat.”
We can use simple phrases like this to learn everyday Japanese grammar principles.
Let’s take a look at another example with the words 彼 (かれ) “he” 水 (みず) “water” and 飲みます (のみます) “ to drink.”
(かれ は みず を のみます)
“He drinks water.”
Can you see how the sentence construction is the same?
Of course, sentences can get more complicated. But this is the basic sentence structure in Japanese. Once you master this, you can go on to learning more vocabulary, particles and verbs to make more complex sentences.
5. Immerse Yourself with Videos
Hands down, full immersion is the way to go. If you’re in it for the speed, there’s nothing better than throwing yourself into the proverbial deep end and trying to keep your head above the kana (hiragana and katakana). You’ll definitely find that you’ll get comfortable in there pretty fast.
Videos are great for immersion, because they are engaging and help get your brain used to the sound of Japanese speech.
Odds are you spend lots of time on YouTube. If you’re going to browse videos anyway, why not swap some of your regular favorites for Japanese YouTubers?
YouTube is popular in Japan, and there are plenty of makeup tutorials, video games playthroughs, comedy skits and more made by Japanese content creators with hugely popular channels. Some Japanese videos have gone viral in the west, too.
With so much variety out there, there’s sure to be something that will capture your interest.
- ThatJapaneseManYuta is a great resource for actual Japanese study. He has street interviews with Japanese people about a wide variety of topics, including reactions to kanji tattoos and stereotypes, and also offers his own Japanese learning tips while explaining Japanese culture.
- Sushi Ramen Riku is a YouTuber who does bizarre builds and experiments. Some of his hits include hanging from the ceiling until his grandma notices him and pouring superheated salt into a watermelon. Many of his videos have English subtitles, so anybody can enjoy them!
- Hajime Syacho is one of the biggest YouTubers in Japan, and for good reason. His humorous videos show him doing all kinds of things, from eating the world’s largest gummy worm, to pranks, making giant slimes and more. While most of his videos aren’t subtitled in English, they do have Japanese subtitles, allowing you to practice reading and listening at the same time.
By watching Japanese YouTubers, you’ll get a feel for how Japanese people speak to each other as well as get accustomed to Japanese speech patterns.
6. Try Shadowing
Shadowing is when you listen to audio of words and phrases in a language, and repeat what you hear out loud. This is a tried and true language learning method, and the basis of classic programs like Pimsleur and Michel Thomas.
You can also shadow using textbooks, if they come with a CD. It’s one thing to read and process, but it’s another entirely to get comfortable using the grammar in conversation.
Here’s a method for shadowing with textbooks:
- Listen to the passage without looking at the script
- Listen to the passage while reading along silently
- Listen while reading aloud with the CD
- Finally, close your book, and try to repeat the phrases just a beat after the recording. (This gives your brain a second to comprehend what it’s just heard and to prepare you to repeat the sounds)
Reading aloud will increase your comfort and reading speed with hiragana and katakana. And with audio resources to back you up, you’ll also be working on your pronunciation skills.
7. Practice with Real People Online
There’s no need to feel down when you hit a hurdle in your studies: every learner of Japanese has been where you’ve been. That’s why it’s important to find a supportive learning community to help you along your journey.
Reddit has a huge Japanese learning community on r/LearnJapanese, which features learning resources, study tips and more. You’ll find everything from YouTube channels to flashcard decks, making it an infinite toolbox with every kind of tool you could ever hope for to help you learn Japanese fast.
HiNative allows you to ask native speakers specific questions about Japanese, as well as get feedback on your own sentences and writings—great for those doing self-study to check their work. So if you’re not sure whether to use は or が in that sentence, simply ask away, and a native Japanese speaker will gladly tell you. You can also return the favor by answering users’ questions about your native language, making it a true paradise for language exchange.
No matter how much grammar study and audio immersion you cram into your time, it’s hard to beat a real-life conversation for Japanese practice. Once you’re feeling a bit braver with your Japanese, you should try getting a language exchange partner.
An online language exchange is a learning method where you speak Japanese with a real native speaker online, usually while also helping them practice English. You can find a language partner by using the resources mentioned above, as well as Tandem or HelloTalk.
By learning alongside other Japanese enthusiasts (as well as native speakers), you’ll be able to get answers to all of your tough questions and have cheerleaders on your side who will help you through your learning journey. Not to mention that you might make a few new friends!
8. Make the Most of Mnemonics
Let’s face it: Japanese is extremely different from English. They developed in completely different parts of the world, were subjected to different influences and evolved in different ways. But there’s a brilliant ray of light to make memorizing all those new symbols and words a snap: mnemonics!
What’s a mnemonic? Simply put, a mnemonic device is a tool to help people remember vast amounts of information. This ranges from rhymes to images to songs— anything can serve as a mnemonic device, as long as it helps you recall whatever you’ve been learning. Think of the alphabet song or PEMDAS in mathematics. These are types of mnemonic devices.
Mnemonics will save your life when you’re first starting out, and plenty of mnemonic devices exist for helping newcomers learn Japanese hiragana, katakana and especially kanji.
For instance, the character ん looks like the letter n, so you know that ん makes the “n” sound.
In kanji, 話 means “speak,” and is comprised of the radicals 言 “to say” and 舌 “tongue.” Put them together, and you get “to say with the tongue”—AKA “speak!”
Of course, you can make the most of the dozens of mnemonics out there. But an even more effective way to commit Japanese to memory is by creating your own. Here are some suggestions to help you get started:
- Make stories to distinguish Japanese words that sound similar.
- Example: “The government stole money from my wallet” can help you remember the similar sounding words 政府 (せいふ) — government and 財布 (さいふ) — wallet.
- Create a song about grammar rules.
- The textbook series “Adventures in Japanese” has a wonderful song to help memorize て forms, to the tune of “O Christmas Tree.”
- Use a spelling device to remember the order of Japanese vowels.
- Example: “All invisible unicorns enjoy olives” can help you remember the Japanese vowel order, as the first letter in each word corresponds to a Japanese vowel (あいうえお).
Don’t be afraid to get creative. As long as whatever you use helps you correctly recall information, it works!
9. Train Your Brain to Think in Japanese
One of the simplest ways to train your brain to use a foreign language is to think in a foreign language. This requires some conscious effort, but all you have to do is look and think. No textbook necessary!
What’s the point, though? The thing is, just because you’ve read a word’s definition over and over again doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be able to recall it when the situation requires that word. You’ll need to actively use new words in order to assimilate them into your vocabulary.
Thinking in Japanese will allow you to practice using your new words. That way, when you end up in a conversation in Japanese, you’ll be able to express your thoughts and find words much easier. Who wouldn’t want to minimize the time spend fumbling for that one word you need?
Here are some ways you can start thinking in Japanese.
- React in Japanese. Say you’re walking down the street, and you see a cute dog coming your way. Your first reaction is to think about how adorable it is. Instead of making that mental comment in English (or your native language), make a conscious effort to go “あの犬はとても可愛いです.” (あのいぬはとてもかわいいです) — That dog is very cute.
- Describe your surroundings. On your commute to work or school, try reciting the Japanese names of things you see as you go by: car, bus, tree, store and so on. Don’t hesitate to go into more detail, either. How many cars are there? What color is that man’s shirt? What’s the weather like?
- Translate your conversations. After you’ve finished talking to someone, try to create a Japanese translation of your discussion. If you just placed an order with the barista, imagine that transaction taking place in Japanese. It’s alright if you can’t do everything word-for-word—as long as you get the gist down, it’s effective practice!
The best part about thinking in Japanese is that you don’t have to worry about making mistakes in front of others. Your mental world is yours alone, and thinking in Japanese will enrich it tremendously. So there’s no need to be shy. Look at that adorable 犬 and use Japanese to coo over it as much as your heart desires.
10. Keep up the Habit to Learn Faster
You might feel like you don’t have time to practice Japanese, or that you’re frustrated with your lack of progress.
The cruel and honest fact: learning faster means you have to work harder. The best way to get comfortable with a language is by immersing yourself in it.
So ask yourself: how badly do you want this? If it’s really badly, then you have to find ways to replace your everyday habits (especially the things you do in your down-time) with Japanese learning habits.
We’re going to analyze your day and free up all that time that you think you don’t have. We’re going to cram Japanese into your life.
- You do: Binge-watch HBO shows
- You do: Zone out to music on your commute
- You do: Chat with friends about nothing in particular (which is fine…normally)
- You could: Grab your language partner on Skype or in person, and take a Japanese conversation as far as you possibly can.
- You do: Play games and browse social media on your phone
- You could: Use these seconds to review vocab through a JLPT Study app.
You can do it. And you know you want to. But to really get going, you’ve got to practice your skills and start talking to people as soon as possible.
Get excited about the potential ideas you can express with your new vocab. Have an energetic and hilarious conversation with your language buddy every day. Even if that conversation might be:
- おはようございます！— Good morning!
- おはよう！元気ですか？(おはよう！げんきですか？) — Mornin’! How are you?
- 元気です！それは何ですか？(げんきです！それはなんですか？) — I’m great! What is that?
- これ？これはオレンジジュースです！(これ？これはオレンジジュースです！) — This? It’s orange juice!
- いいですね！— Nice!
Even this pretty shallow conversation is a conversation. In Japanese. Did you understand this? Great! If not, pull out those textbooks and get going.
No more excuses.
Roll all of these tips together and you’re going to find yourself butterflying through the water on the path to fluency at increasing speed, running with your momentum as you charge towards the rising sun (the Japanese flag)!