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Learn Japanese: The Ultimate Guide for Beginners

You’re about to go on the adventure of a lifetime.

Your journey will be fraught with challenges, but it’ll also be filled with excitement.

And perhaps best of all, you don’t need to book a plane ticket and buy a neck pillow that’s just the right amount of squishy to enjoy this adventure.

That’s right! Your adventure is unlike any other because you’ve decided to learn Japanese.

Whether you’re teaching yourself the beautiful language or learning through a course, an exciting road lies ahead.

However, it’ll take some preparation to succeed in your learning journey. From taking the right first steps to figuring out how to learn Japanese by yourself (and how to do so quickly!), this post has you covered.

Here’s everything you need to know to enjoy your Japanese learning adventure!
 


 
Learn a foreign language with videos

Before You Begin: Is Japanese Hard to Learn?

Unfortunately, there’s no simple answer to this common question. Like any language, there are some challenges associated with learning Japanese, but there are also some aspects that make it easier.

If you’re wondering whether Japanese is hard to learn or not, the best answer is, well… “yes and no.”

Here are the arguments for both sides.

Japanese Can Be Pretty Tough

  • It uses four different writing systems. Unlike most languages, the Japanese writing system doesn’t just use one type of character. Instead, it uses four separate writing systems, so learning how to write and read can take more time than with other languages.
  • Sentence structure is different from what you might be familiar with. In English, sentences are usually structured subject-verb-object. However, Japanese sentences use a subject-object-verb structure. That’s right: the verb comes at the end of the sentence.

While this certainly isn’t impossible to learn, it does take some getting used to.

  • It’s considered “officially” difficult. The Foreign Service Institute ranks Japanese as one of the most difficult languages for native English speakers to learn. In fact, it’s ranked at the hardest level, which is estimated to take 88 weeks or 2,200 hours to reach “general proficiency.”

On top of that, Japanese is marked with an asterisk, which means that it’s considered even more difficult than other languages at the same difficulty ranking.

Japanese Can Be Easy, Too

  • Japanese isn’t tonal, like Chinese and some other Asian languages. If you didn’t grow up speaking a tonal language, the idea that tone can convey meaning can seem complicated and overwhelming.

Luckily for Japanese students, Japanese isn’t tonal, so students who struggle with grasping te concept of tonal languages may find Japanese easier to learn than some other Asian languages.

  • You already know some Japanese words. English uses loanwords from Japanese, and Japanese uses loanwords from English, so you probably already know some Japanese vocabulary.

For instance, you probably know the words “typhoon,” “sushi,” “futon” and more Japanese loan-words, which will make these words much easier to remember in Japanese. You could probably also recognize plenty of “Japanified” English words (it doesn’t take much to figure out that “apāto” means “apartment,” for instance!).

It’s also a beautiful language, and who doesn’t want to be surrounded by beauty? Thanks to its beauty and eccentricities, even the challenging moments can be bearable.

Learn Japanese: The Ultimate Guide for Beginners

So you’re ready to start learning Japanese. Congratulations! It’ll be a fun but challenging journey. Below, we’ve gathered the most useful tips for beginners who want to start learning this beautiful language.

This guide will take you through the steps you’ll need to take to get started. We cover how to learn the basics like the writing system and essential grammar, as well as different methods of learning on your own, online or with an internet buddy.

If you’re in a time crunch, this guide also has some tips for how to learn Japanese fast.

Throughout the guide, you’ll also find useful resources to help you along as you study and serve as a starting point in your learning journey.

Take these one step at a time or dive in wherever it makes sense to you.

However you do it, don’t forget to enjoy the process of learning the Japanese language and the wonderful culture it’s attached to!

Learn the Japanese Alphabet/Writing System

The first step to learning Japanese is to study the writing system.

Yes, you have to.

Look, we’re not going to lie: Some learning materials can teach you basic words and phrases without learning Japanese kana or kanji. However, unless you want to just memorize a couple of phrases to use when you’re traveling, it’s better to learn the writing systems because it’s the foundation you’ll need for future study.

Not learning the Japanese writing systems will make it more difficult in the long run to differentiate between homonyms (of which there are a lot!), read fluently and memorize vocabulary.

To save yourself this trouble, you can start with romaji, but we strongly recommend that you learn hiragana and katakana early on, then slowly ease yourself into kanji, starting with the most common ones.

Here’s what you need to know about the four Japanese writing systems:

Romaji

Romaji is the romanization of the Japanese writing system. Basically, it allows you to use familiar characters to read and write Japanese.

Romaji letters are frequently used by beginning students when they’re first starting out. In addition, knowing romaji can also allow you to type Japanese words into your computer using your standard keyboard.

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  • MemriseThis Memrise course features common vocabulary in romaji. Students who are just starting out can use the course to learn some words before they learn other characters.

If you already know some Japanese, you can also use this course to see how the romaji connects to the standard spelling.

Kana (Hiragana and Katakana)

There are two types of kana scripts: hiragana and katakana. Both are syllabaries; that is, each character corresponds directly to a syllable, rather than a single sound.

Hiragana is a beautiful, curvy cursive script. Hiragana characters primarily serve grammatical roles but they can also be found in words and as additions to kanji. Hiragana can be used to spell out kanji to make text more beginner-friendly.

Katakana characters are usually used to transliterate foreign words into Japanese and to denote onomatopoeia, and they have a more angular appearance.

Both are integral to the Japanese writing system and can be learned fairly quickly since there are only 46 of each. 

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  • Real KanaThis is a terrific resource for studying both hiragana and katakana. Not only can you refer to charts of the letters, but you can also practice connecting them to their romaji equivalents.

Kanji

The hardest of all Japanese character types to learn, kanji are derived from Chinese characters and are made up of several strokes.

Kanji are usually used to create words and can have multiple readings and meanings. Words are often made up of either one or a number of kanji, sometimes modified or connected by kana.

There are over 2,000 kanji to learn, each with its own readings and definitions, so the study of kanji is something that’ll take place throughout the process of learning Japanese.

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  • Japanese UpThis website offers a fun game to help you memorize basic kanji. The kanji characters are accompanied by kana to help you learn their pronunciation.

In this resource, you’re asked to study three kanji characters and then identify them in a quiz. What a great way for Japanese students to learn common kanji characters!

Learn Japanese Grammar

While learning characters is a great foundation for your Japanese skills, to really make sense of the language, you’ll also need to learn grammar rules. Luckily, unlike English grammar rules which tend to have more exceptions than followers, Japanese has fairly strict rules and few irregularities.

Here are some of the most important aspects of Japanese grammar that beginners should learn.

Sentence Order

Sentence order is the order in which words appear to construct sentences. As we discussed above, Japanese uses a subject-object-verb structure, which is quite a bit different than English’s subject-verb-object structure.

You’ll need to essentially flip the way you think, expressing what the action’s being done on followed by the action itself.

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  • 80/20 Japanese: 80/20 Japanese provides some terrific resources you can use to learn more about sentence order.

The sentence structure guide provides a detailed explanation of Japanese sentence forms, complete with plenty of examples.

Similarly, 80/20’s guide to word order provides a more visual guide to help you get a better grasp on the topic. Plus, the article features a ton of great examples.

Verb Tenses

As with most languages, Japanese features a number of different verb tenses. To communicate clearly, you’ll need to be able to use the right tense at the right time.

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  • Steven KraftOnce you’ve studied verb tenses, Steven Kraft’s website provides an excellent tool to reinforce what you’ve learned. It uses a random verb conjugation tool that presents you with a Japanese verb and asks you to conjugate it.

You can change the verb forms you’ll be shown to narrow the scope of your focus and practice more specific tenses. You can even decide whether or not you want to use kanji.

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  • Japan TimesJapan Times offers a number of conjugation practice activities tied to its lessons. However, you can enjoy the practice even if you don’t complete the lessons.

While this list has a mix of adjective and verb conjugation activities, it’s easy to find the verb activities because they’re clearly labeled. Through this site, you can practice negations, past tense conjugations, the -te form and much more.

Particles

Particles are short words or suffixes that relate to the word in front of them. They’re used in Japanese to modify adjectives, nouns, verbs or even entire sentences.

Using the right particle is key for proper grammar, and different particles are used to convey different meanings, from marking the subject of the sentence to denoting movement towards or away from the speaker, and other functions.

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  • JapanesePod101JapanesePod101 offers an adorable illustrated guide to introduce you to particles. Not only are the particles carefully explained, but examples also show you each particle in context. A quiz at the end even tests your knowledge of what you just learned.

More Grammar Rules

Japanese has other nuances and rules to its grammar that might take some time getting used to. As you study it, you’ll discover more ways in which the grammar deviates from some other languages.

For instance, you’ll find that Japanese adjectives have tenses just like verbs do, that the subject of a sentence can often be dropped entirely and that there’s a big cultural and grammatical difference between formal and informal Japanese.

If you’re not sure where to go from here, there are many books and online resources for learners to guide you beyond the basics. We cover a few below, but you can also find many options by browsing the FluentU Japanese blog, where we regularly share resources, learning tips and grammar tidbits.

Find the Best Way to Learn Japanese for You

There’s no one single best way to learn Japanese. The best way to learn Japanese is whatever way works best for you!

Generally, options that replicate immersion are particularly effective, and there are many ways to do so. You can use online resources, apps, books and/or lessons on your journey to learn Japanese.

For a more well-rounded approach to learning, you might also incorporate a variety of different learning options. Here are a few ideas for Japanese learning, as well as some resources you can use.

Learn Japanese Online

Learning Japanese online is one of the most popular learning options available.

Online programs usually offer a lot of flexibility, allowing you to study whenever and wherever it’s convenient for you. They’re also often more affordable than college courses or private lessons.

Plus, online programs often focus on all the skills students need, including vocabulary, grammar, reading, writing, speaking and listening.

We share two good choices below, but there are many more online Japanese courses available for any level of learner.

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  • Marugoto Japanese Online Course: This course focuses on providing a comprehensive Japanese education. Currently, the course offers beginning-level content, which teaches everyday expressions and basic conversation skills.

This online course is based on the popular “Marugoto” coursebook, which focuses on combining communication and cultural understanding. The course is basically the online version of this coursebook, so you can enjoy the same great learning in a more convenient format.

This resource is available online, on your smartphone or via tablet. And if English isn’t your native language, Marugoto also offers instruction in other languages, including Chinese, French, Indonesian, Spanish, Thai and Vietnamese.

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  • Japanese-Online.comThis resource offers free online Japanese learning materials! Who could resist that?

Lessons teach kana, particles, sentence structure, basic vocabulary and cultural insights, so this is a great option for beginning and early intermediate Japanese students.

Learn Japanese with Apps

Learning apps can be a super convenient way to learn Japanese. Since you can use them from your phone, you can enjoy a little study time whenever you’re waiting in line, riding on public transit or if you just have some downtime.

Since you might be able to squeeze study time in more often, apps can lead to rapid learning results. And since apps are interactive, they can also be more engaging than some other methods of learning Japanese.

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  • FluentU: Want to make learning Japanese a fun, immersive experience? Try FluentU!

FluentU takes real-world videos like music videos, movie trailers, commercials, news and more, and converts them into powerful learning tools. Each video comes with interactive subtitles, giving you quick access to any word’s definition, example sentences and an associated image. If you want to study a word further, just add it to your vocabulary list.

To test your Japanese knowledge, you can also enjoy interactive quizzes that combine videos, images and example sentences into flashcards and activities.

Beginning Japanese students can also take FluentU’s structured Japanese course, which provides a suggested set of videos you can watch in order to gain basic skills.

And regardless of whether you’re just starting to learn Japanese or you’re practically fluent, FluentU can help you meet your learning goals. That’s because you choose what, how much and how quickly you watch. Meanwhile, FluentU’s algorithm tracks your learning to present you with questions that are appropriate for your level.

You can use FluentU on the iOS app or the Android app, and you can also access FluentU right in your browser.

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  • Learn Japanese: If you’re a beginning Japanese student or a traveler looking to learn some helpful phrases, Learn Japanese can be a useful app.

This app focuses on introducing common vocabulary while also teaching speaking and listening skills. Authentic pronunciation gives you a great model and the ability to record and compare your own pronunciation can help you further perfect your skills.

Vocabulary focuses on common themes like greetings, romance, eating, shopping and more. When you find a word or phrase you want to study more or keep handy, you can add it to your favorites for easy access. Additionally, you can search by keyword to find related words and phrases, making it easy to find the word you’re looking for quickly.

And guess what? You don’t need an internet connection to use this app, so it’s terrific for anywhere you’re not connected, like on an airplane.

Learn Japanese is available for iOS and Android devices.

Learn Japanese with Books

Books are a classic, traditional learning resource for a reason! They can act as terrific reference materials as well as offer a wealth of organized instruction which students can use to progress beyond their current Japanese proficiency levels.

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  • “Living Language Japanese”: This version of “Living Language Japanese” is the complete edition, meaning that it offers beginner- through advanced-level materials.

Not only does it include three coursebooks, but it also offers nine audio CDs, a Japanese reading and writing guide and free online learning. That’s a lot of bang for your buck!

The books include a whopping 46 lessons. Along with learning materials on characters, vocabulary and grammar, the books also provide cultural notes, exercises, study tips and more. The audio CDs further fortify your learning with dialogues, audio exercises and vocabulary.

And if that’s not enough for you, free online materials include games, flashcards and quizzes. While the books may be the main focus of the package, the set acts as more of a self-contained course for well-rounded Japanese learning.

“Living Language Japanese” uses an approach that aims to start you speaking Japanese right away and continue to build skills as you progress forward. And rather than focusing on memorization, the book helps you develop practical skills you can use to interact in any situation you might encounter, not just the ones you’ve studied.

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  • “Japanese the Manga Way”: If you can’t resist manga, this book can help you learn Japanese using real manga! That’s because grammar points are illustrated with real manga, which can make learning more entertaining while providing context.

This book is appropriate for beginning through intermediate students. Even complete beginners can benefit from it since it starts by teaching pronunciation and kana. However, some of the lessons cover more advanced topics, like passive verbs and commands, so there’s certainly good material for intermediate students.

Where to Take Japanese Lessons Online

Japanese lessons can pack a powerful learning punch. They’re generally structured for optimized learning, so you don’t have to put any thought into what to study next. Instead, you can focus exclusively on learning the material at hand.

Additionally, they usually aim to help students develop balanced, well-rounded skills that can provide an excellent foundation for continued learning.

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  • Free Japanese Lessons: If you want to take Japanese lessons but can’t (or don’t want) to spend an arm and a leg, Free Japanese Lessons can be a lifesaver.

This resource offers 10 lessons you can take without spending a dime. That’s perfect if you’re a beginner student on a budget. Plus, if you love the format and want to enjoy more material, you can also sign up for a premium membership.

Lessons teach kana, kanji, basic grammar and key vocabulary.

While there are plenty of explanations and examples, audio examples are not available for free learners, so you might want to pair this with another language-learning resource to learn better pronunciation and listening skills.

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  • Japanese-Lesson.comThis website offers self-study resources that can help beginning students learn basic Japanese skills.

Japanese-Lesson.com provides guides to help you learn all four types of Japanese characters. But you don’t just have to stare at the characters to memorize them! Printable handwriting worksheets and online drills can help you practice what you’ve learned. Images and videos even show stroke order to help you form characters correctly.

While Japanese-Lesson.com is a powerhouse for learning Japanese characters, it also offers some other great learning material. The Basic Japanese Course teaches conversational skills. You can also learn some valuable vocabulary words through lessons on specific vocabulary sets, like numbers, dates and times.

The resource section is also full of helpful tools, like PDF printouts, videos, information about Japan and Japanese karaoke.

How to Learn Japanese on Your Own

We just covered two excellent resources for Japanese lessons, but if you’d rather go at it alone and determine your own order of study, you can do that, too! Learning Japanese on your own can be a convenient way to study your own way and on your own time.

However, if you aren’t properly prepared to study independently, you could also make some learning errors that can have long-term ramifications on your future Japanese study.

Here’s what you need to do to learn Japanese on your own.

Incorporate a Variety of Resources

Each resource has its own unique style and focus. If you use just one resource, your Japanese skills may be filtered by that one resource, which could make it harder to understand Japanese in other contexts.

Plus, some resources tend to focus on certain vocabulary and don’t present the full range of words used in everyday speech.

Using more resources can give you a broader perspective on the Japanese language.

Aim for Balanced Skills

Well-rounded Japanese skills call for much more than just understanding grammar and vocabulary. You’ll also need to have reading, writing, speaking and listening skills.

But getting these skills while studying on your own requires careful attention. After all, some resources focus primarily on one skill. Checking what each resource does for you can help you combine resources to ensure all your skills are addressed.

That might mean finding an online buddy to help you practice. You can also just use the resources below to develop each skill.

For Japanese reading practice, try this resource:

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  • ReadlangReadlang focuses on reading skills and vocabulary. With Readlang, you can download a web reader to turn native text into a language learning tool.

It lets you click on any word for a quick definition, and the words you click on are automatically added to your list, which you can use flashcards to study.

Through the website, you can also access texts selected with learners in mind. You can even filter by difficulty level and word count to find the right text for you.

Japanese is currently in beta, but it’s already a powerful learning tool with a lot to offer.

Want to practice your writing, instead? You’ll need a buddy for that, but don’t worry—you can still do this right from the comfort of your own home with this resource!

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  • Conversation Exchange: Conversation Exchange is a language exchange website that can help you connect with a native Japanese speaker for some language practice.

For writing practice, just filter your partner search for users looking for interactions via correspondence. There are over 1,000 members who speak Japanese and are interested in a pen-pal relationship, so you shouldn’t have much trouble finding someone to write to!

You can’t neglect your Japanese speaking skills, either! The sooner you start speaking, the faster you’ll be able to work out the kinks of Japanese pronunciation.

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  • TandemTandem is an app that allows you to connect with native speakers for speaking practice. To communicate in real-time, audio and video calls are available. But if you want to get a little speaking practice when your favorite partner isn’t online, you can also leave audio messages.

Finally, to hone your listening skills, you can use some awesome Japanese streaming services. Here’s one of our favorites (and you might already have an account!):

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  • NetflixNetflix can be one of the best tools for Japanese listening practice. Plus, if you’re already paying for it, using it to practice your listening skills can help you really get your money’s worth.

To find Japanese-language content, just search “Japanese TV” or “Japanese movies.” You can choose whether or not to use English subtitles, and some options even have Japanese subtitles, which means you could read along.

For instance, Japanese students could enjoy two seasons of “Good Morning Call” or a movie like “In This Corner of the World.”

Set a Schedule

One of the main benefits of learning Japanese on your own is that you can learn when and where it’s convenient for you.

However, you may still want to set at least a general learning schedule. Without a schedule, it’s easy to forget to study or find some excuse to avoid it.

Setting a schedule makes you more accountable to yourself and helps keep your learning on track.

Set Goals

The road to fluency can be long and winding, so goals can act as clear milestones along the way. After all, if your goal is to learn 100 words in Japanese, that seems much less daunting than if your goal is to become fully fluent.

Plus, setting good goals can increase your motivation, and motivation is essential for language learning.

Try setting some achievable goals using the SMART format.

How to Learn Japanese Fast

Whether you have an upcoming trip, want to impress your Japanese friend or just really need to be able to read the latest manga ASAP, you might be looking to learn Japanese fast.

While becoming fluent in Japanese takes time, with the right strategies, you can learn some basic skills you can put to good use right away. Here’s what you need to know to get a running start on speaking Japanese.

Focus on Practical Skills

Students looking to study Japanese long term often focus on underlying grammar structures that they can build upon as they learn more and more vocabulary.

However, if you’re looking to learn Japanese fast, you might be better off focusing on practical skills.

Memorizing key phrases and practicing speaking can give you some skills can use right away.

Start with Common Vocabulary

Some words are used more frequently than others, so if you’re looking to learn quickly, your best bet is to learn the most common words first.

With a strong foundation of common vocabulary, you’ll be able to communicate ideas more clearly and understand more words you encounter.

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  • iKnow!This is a terrific resource for learning the most common Japanese vocabulary. This website offers convenient free word lists to help you learn the 6,000 most commonly used words in Japanese.

The words are grouped into sets of 100 for easy studying. This grouping also makes it easy to study the most common words first. Just start by learning the first set of 100 words, then, when you’re ready to expand your vocabulary, move on to the next set.

Plus, the site offers some great material to help you learn and remember the words. Each word is accompanied by audio, an example sentence and audio of the example sentence.

Stagger Studying Throughout the Day

Studying all in one chunk is good, but staggering your studying throughout the day can help you learn Japanese faster for several reasons.

First, it can be hard to set aside 30 minutes each day. You might end up skipping some days, which can really slow your progress.

Additionally, studying more frequently can keep the Japanese language fresher in your mind. For instance, if you quickly study a word list 10 times throughout the day, you might find you remember those words better than if you’d studied them for 30 minutes straight.

Studying in brief chunks can also help you maintain better focus. You might tune out during long study sessions, but if you know you’re only going to study Japanese for a couple of minutes, it can be easier to be more present as you study.

Finally, brief chunks can add up to more total study time than if you reserved long chunks of time. After all, how many times do you have a couple of extra minutes? What do you do when you’re waiting in line? What do you listen to on your morning commute? What do you do during commercial breaks? All this time can be crammed with Japanese study.

You might be surprised by how much Japanese you can learn in time that you’d otherwise waste!

 

Learning Japanese can be the greatest adventure of your life. Now that you have a clearer idea of what you’ll need on your journey, go out there and forge your own path towards Japanese fluency!

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