How to Teach Yourself Japanese: The Beginner’s Guide

Stuck in a rut with your Japanese?

Be honest, it’s all right. We’re about to get you unstuck and back on track.

The time has come for you to take charge of your own learning experience.

How awesome would it be if you could accelerate your learning, achieve your personal goals and exceed all your expectations?

Well, that’s actually something you can do. Take it from someone who’s learning on a daily basis.

After drilling yourself routinely with hiragana and katakana practice, along with some basic kanji lessons, you probably felt like you were finally starting to crack the code.

Japanese made even more sense after focusing your energy on learning key vocabulary, mastering essential phrases for polite conversation and expanding your Japanese grammar knowledge. Once you’d gotten a grip on those beginning steps, it can be tricky to know how to keep advancing with Japanese. 

Whether you’re looking to teach yourself Japanese entirely at home or not, read on. The art of teaching yourself a language is easily learned.

How to Teach Yourself Japanese: The Beginner’s Guide

If you’re taking classes once or twice per week and think it’s not enough, then this article is for you. If you’re out on your own trying to self-teach, this article is for you. 

You can learn Japanese much faster and much more efficiently than you are doing currently. There are all kinds of tools out there to help you, and there are some great guides you can follow to have a better learning experience. But the bottom line is this: you can learn significantly more on your own.

Before moving on, let me level with you. While you are trying to learn Japanese, I am learning programming on the side. Learning a new skill is something that I have had to do many times throughout my life and I know very well what it feels like to be a complete beginner.

There are lots of times when you will feel like you cannot possibly ever become good at what you are doing. Right now I am a terrible programmer, and every time I program I am painfully aware of how bad I am. But I know that this feeling is completely natural and in no way determines the outcome of my efforts.

The same thing applies to you, especially as you are trying to learn Japanese through self study. Nevertheless, those moments when you feel that learning is the hardest are usually the moments when you learn the most.

I probably seem crazy for telling you this, but treasure those moments and learn to think of them as a sign that you are doing the right thing.

With this in mind, let’s look at some of the reasons why you might want to learn through self study.

Why Teaching Yourself Japanese Works

If you study Japanese in a classroom, then you are following a set program laid out by your teacher. This program is most likely designed to teach you grammar, vocabulary and written Japanese.

There are many benefits to this. It’s cool to see yourself progress through several predefined levels. Learning in a classroom means that you have a community of people to practice with. You also get, more or less, the complete package. You get to learn spoken and written Japanese as well as some literature.

But if you only study in the classroom, then your immediate learning outcome is limited.

Remember that you are restricted to just following one program. What if you want to learn something outside of that? What if your teacher is covering stuff that you know already?

Or what if the level is too high for you to even keep up?

Take a look at the following reasons why self-teaching Japanese can take you leagues farther in the long run.

You can move at your own desired pace.

There are many instances where you will be wasting time in the classroom not learning anything. As you get better at Japanese you will see this happen more often since it is more unlikely that the Japanese you learn is suited for exactly your level.

On the contrary, you might find yourself falling behind because the rest of the class is moving faster than you bargained for.

This is not your teacher’s fault, it is just a fact that classroom teaching is fundamentally insensitive to the acquired skill level of every individual student. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one.

Self-taught Japanese is different for this very important reason.

When you teach yourself Japanese you decide what to learn and how to learn it.

This is the most important reason for teaching yourself. You will often feel that you have something specific that you want to learn.

At some point after learning a bit of grammar you typically want to start focusing on vocabulary.

There are lots of tools which can help you through concentrated repetition. You can set a personal goal that you want to reach using these tools, or you can simply start using them and sit back as you watch your Japanese become better and better at a pace you didn’t dream of.

This is an amazing feeling and you fully deserve it. You decided what you needed to learn and now you are reaping the rewards.

You ultimately have to teach yourself.

Think of it this way.

When you are in the classroom you are not just sitting back and receiving language proficiency.

You are actually consciously trying to learn, or at least I hope you are. If you do not work to incorporate the methods of the classroom into your Japanese language skills, then you are not really learning anything, are you?

You are always your own teacher.

Sure, it’s very handy to have an attentive professional tend to you and the rest of the class, but in the end they aren’t in charge of whether you learn or not, only you are.

Since you are already putting in the effort, taking the next step and becoming more self-reliant just means consciously deciding what you need and don’t need to learn at the moment.

How to Stay Motivated While Teaching Yourself Japanese

There are too many language learners who leave behind their language whenever they leave the classroom. We have a tendency to think that a service is being performed for us when we enter the classroom and that we just have to receive that service once or twice a week until we somehow learn the language.

Well guess what, that’s not how learning Japanese works. Even if it did work that way, would it really be motivating?

When learning a new skill, what keeps you motivated is feeling the rewards of applying yourself. This is easy enough if you live in Japan, since you will keep noticing that you understand more of the language that surrounds you.

For me, nothing compares to when I suddenly discover that I can say something I had no idea I was able to say.

I once asked a Japanese clerk to put my groceries in my backpack for me (my arm was broken at the time). I was surprised that I even knew how to phrase that, and at the same time I felt I had learned a neat trick: “I can now get people to put stuff in my backpack!”

What an amazing ability I had discovered!

Motivations differ, but when it comes to learning it is always some variant of the above: finding the rewards of your efforts.

Since you are learning on your own and since you are applying yourself, this will also increase the general confidence you have in yourself. You are actually learning to be someone who can set a goal for what they want to learn and then stick to it.

This is incredibly rewarding for you as a person.

What You Need to Learn First to Teach Yourself Beginner Japanese

Learn to Read Hiragana

Learning Japanese for beginners may seem like a huge step—and it is, but it’s a wonderful step to take!

One of the fundamental topics to cover when you start to learn Japanese is learning to read hiragana. Hiragana is one of the elements of the Japanese writing system so it’s a pretty important skill to learn.

The good news is that this isn’t a difficult skill to learn. There are some excellent resources available for beginning learners.

YouTube videos are an ideal place to become familiar with hiragana. This one called “Learn All Hiragana in 1 Hour” discusses essentials, including font variation. The neat thing about this video is the fact that it uses sweet illustrations to help learners remember the various forms. Also, there are quizzes to gauge progress.

Study resources allow learners to practice hiragana. This site allows learners to determine the pace of learning. Choose the number of hiragana to study and those are the focal points of the lesson. It’s great to have an individualized option!

Part of learning hiragana is becoming comfortable writing it. Downloading and printing out Hiragana writing practice sheets will help you get comfortable with writing Japanese through step-by-step instructions and repetition.

Become Familiar with Katakana

Katakana is another component of the Japanese writing system that should be part of a beginner Japanese program.

YouTube videos provide excellent instruction on this topic as well. “How to Read and Write Katakana Alphabet” begins with the absolute essentials, including the type of pens and paper to use to make the process easy. It demonstrates each stroke of each character slowly so learners can follow along.

Learning somehow feels more interactive when games are involved. There are katakana games to give learners lots of entertainment and practice!

A typing converter is also a handy resource for beginning Japanese learners. It’s a fabulous tool and it’s easy to use—simply type in a word and the converter shows the word and its katakana!

Familiarize Yourself with Kanji

Again, YouTube provides amazing resources for beginning Japanese learners. “Learn Kanji with Vocab for Beginners” has excellent drawings and explanations.

Practice is essential for beginning Japanese learners. Adding kanji flashcard practice to a study program is an almost-foolproof way to power up skills.

Sites like Study Kanji do an excellent job of bringing basic kanji to learners. Use them to quiz your skills (there is a scorekeeper right on the page) or just to learn. Either method is helpful!

Build a Core Vocabulary

When you embark on the journey to teach yourself beginner Japanese one of the most important things you should do is build a core vocabulary.

This fundamental vocabulary is essential for reading, writing, speaking and listening. It is what will allow you to build skills on what you already know—that is, the core vocabulary.

It isn’t difficult to accomplish this.

One of the fastest ways to build a core vocabulary is to learn some “loan words”—they are words that are so close to English words that they will feel very natural to learn and use. One example of that idea is seen in the word “camera”:

カメラ (かめら) (camera)

Begin with the very basics to build this core vocabulary. Think about the conversational tidbits you use to introduce yourself, say “please” and “thank you” or to answer questions.

こんにちは (hello)

はい (yes)

Japanese flashcards are an excellent resource for learning basic vocabulary. They can be entertaining to use, especially if you challenge yourself to learn a certain number of words or phrases each day.

Learn Basic Japanese Pronunciation

Beginner Japanese learners should focus some time and energy on learning Japanese pronunciation.

A good pronunciation dictionary is essential. The Forvo pronunciation guide is a wonderful resource for any Japanese learner, not just beginners.

It offers essential topics, such as greetings, fashion and more, as well as useful travel phrases. Additionally, to find a specific word it’s easy to use the search bar. Pronunciation practice is a breeze with this site!

The website Japanese Professor clearly explains the rules of Japanese pronunciation. The tables and notes on pitch, spelling and other pertinent facts offers beginning Japanese learners insight into the language.

A handy Japanese app is a mobile method for practicing pronunciation anytime. Apps like this one offer learners the chance to fill small pockets of spare time with language learning. I keep language apps on my phone to practice vocabulary and speaking skills!

teach yourself beginner japanese

Learn Japanese Phrases and Words is available for iOS and available for Android, as well.

The app is fun to use—a Japanese-speaking parrot is the method for delivery of words and phrases, and that’s just an entertaining addition to any learning program! It also reminds me that the “parroting” technique (repeating Japanese after it’s spoken) is also a wonderful way to learn pronunciation!

The app doesn’t require internet connection so this is an off-the-grid learning resource that brings essential pronunciation practice virtually anywhere!

How to Choose Japanese Language Learning Resources

First of all, you should use a diverse range of resources.

Some of the tools you will use are going to help you train your vocabulary, while some will be able to train your grammar.

Some of them are going to be authoritative reference points for you while you learn, while others will be the actual methods you use for learning.

When it comes to learning, everyone has their own preferred methods. There are some people who learn well by dedicated repetition. Others have to learn through rhymes or through narratives.

The first thing you ought to do is find out what works for you.

If you are looking for something to supplement organized teaching in the classroom, then chances are that you don’t find the learning methods applied in the classroom to be as effective as they could be.

My advice to you is this.

Whatever material you choose to use, you have the advantage that there is no time limit and no due date for your homework.

Your teacher isn’t watching you!

Therefore, apply yourself as much and as thoroughly as you can. Learn things well enough the first time around that you won’t have to go back and revise later.

An Overview of Japanese Language Learning Materials

These are the different tools that I use for learning Japanese.

Some of them I use more than others. I don’t intend to tell you which ones work best, that is something you have to find out for yourself. But by giving my description of some of them, this will hopefully give you a starting point.

1. Books

GENKI I: An Integrated Course in Elementary Japanese (English and Japanese Edition)

Most people choose between one of two Japanese language book series. They are 「みんなの日本語」 minna no nihongo (Japanese for Everyone) and 「げんき」 genki (vigor).

If you are attending a Japanese class, you are probably already using one of these books. The general consensus is that both books are pretty good, but if you are serious about learning Japanese, and if you are ready to set aside a good portion of your time on a daily basis, then minna no nihongo is the book for you.

Even if you decide not to learn from it, it is a very good reference for the Japanese language.

Minna no nihongo is extremely thorough. It teaches you how to apply its lessons in many different cases, even uncommon or unexpected ones.

Having looked at genki I feel that the book doesn’t really aim to satisfy my curiosity about Japanese. If I am wondering about some obscure application of Japanese grammar the answer is almost always more likely to be in minna no nihongo.

That being said, if you don’t have that much time to commit to learning on your own, then genki might be the book for you.

Its exercises are shorter and less involved. It teaches you what you need to get going with the Japanese language and doesn’t demand many hours per week. It may be much easier to stay motivated with genki.

2. Subtitled Movies

Did you know that many Europeans learn English through movies and television?

As American culture has spread rapidly over the past several decades, so has the English language. As a nonnative speaker, I myself learned English primarily through American movies and TV series.

With subtitles on, I could eventually figure out how words fit together and formed sentences. Sure, I had English classes in school too, but by the time those started, I had already learned the basic stuff.

When you learn via this method, depending on how much you know already, you will keep thinking about different ways in which the words of the subtitles fit together.

Most of the time, you come up with some ideas that turn out to be wrong—but that’s alright. When you finally do get the right idea in your head it will stick. Moreover, you will have learned some of the ways in which the language doesn’t always work as you would expect.

You may decide to not spend that much time learning via this method. I wouldn’t say it’s the most efficient, but it’s probably one of the more entertaining ones.

It’s a fantastic supplement to any other language learning methods. Think of it as a puzzle that you will be better at solving over time.

Just remember to actually learn Japanese when watching movies.

When searching for movies, try to find some in which they speak real-life Japanese instead of the unique speech style used in most anime.

(That being said, it is quite possible to learn Japanese through anime programs if you employ the right tactics).

As for some movie recommendations, a few of my personal favorites are: “Yojimbo” (1961), “High and Low” (1963), “Ikiru” (1952) and “Spirited Away” (2001).

If you like animation and Japanese traditional culture, I can definitely recommend any works by Hayao Miyazaki.

3. Japanese Television

This is probably for those of you who have already learned a bit.

A lot of Japanese TV consists of debating panels who collectively discuss news stories, interview guests or reporters and so on.

The discussions are spoken in fast-paced everyday Japanese because it’s intended for Japanese people. It’s pretty difficult to understand even if you are already familiar with the language for the simple reason that it’s so fast.

However, this may be what you actually need to practice your listening skills. If you can follow what people say on talk shows, then your Japanese listening skills are already very good.

Try tuning in to your favorite show once in a while during breakfast and see if you can keep up—you might as well.

teach yourself beginner japanese

No matter what kind of television programs, cartoons, movies and other videos you enjoy watching, there will be something suited to your interests in FluentU’s Japanese language video collection.

FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.

It naturally and gradually eases you into learning Japanese language and culture. You’ll learn real Japanese as it’s spoken in real life.

Just take a look at the wide variety of authentic video content available in the program. Here’s a small sample:

learn-japanese-with-short-videos

You’ll discover tons of new Japanese vocabulary through these great clips.

Don’t worry about your skill level being an issue when it comes to understanding the language. FluentU makes native Japanese videos approachable through interactive transcripts.

learn-japanese-with-songs

Tap on any word to look it up instantly.

You’ll see definitions, in-context usage examples and helpful illustrations. Simply tap “Add to” to send interesting vocabulary words to your personal vocab list for later review.

learn-japanese-with-movies

FluentU even uses a learning program which adapts to your specific needs to turn every video into a language learning lesson and get you to actively practice your newly-learned language skills.

practice-japanese-with-adaptive-quizzes

Access FluentU on the website to use it with your computer or tablet or, better yet, start learning Japanese on the go with the FluentU app for iOS or Android!

4. Memorization Tools

By far one of the most successful methods I have tried has been the use of memorization tools. Lots of tools have been developed to assist with spaced repetition, which is a memorization technique that is extremely useful for vocabulary development.

There are plenty of guides to how spaced repetition works, so I will be brief.

When you are learning a new language, one of the major concerns is being able to remember all of those words. You might intuitively think that you just have to write or say the same word over and over until it is committed to memory, right?

Wrong.

Human memory doesn’t work like that at all!

It is much more efficient to remind yourself of the words you try to learn with some space between each repetition.

This way, you are only reminded when you actually need to be.

There are a few different schemes of doing this. Generally people who follow these schemes tend to practice for 10 to 20 minutes each day using software such as Anki.

During my first two months in Japan that’s all I ever did, and just by learning many, many sentences by heart I was able to hold very basic conversations after the first month.

I should clarify, I didn’t just learn one sentence for every occasion, I learned the meaning of each word and how to use it over time by seeing it in different contexts. Best of all, your brain does this almost automatically!

I still learn a ton from using these memorization techniques, and I learn very quickly as well. But the most important thing about it is that the things I’ve learned are now stuck in my head.

You could wake me up in the middle of the night and quiz me—I would get everything right.

Another interesting choice is to learn by mnemonics.

By associating newly learned words with some word or rhyme, it is much easier to learn. It is odd that our brains work like this, but this is the reason why the Greeks were able to remember the Iliad by heart—they sang the entire thing!

For memorizing kanji use visual mnemonics instead.

These are not always obvious, but many people find it easy to remember kanji by associating their appearance with a familiar shape.

Remembering the Kanji 1: A Complete Course on How Not to Forget the Meaning and Writing of Japanese Characters

The kanji 人 (person), for instance looks kind of like a walking person. Similarly, this one 大 (large), looks like that person holding out his arms as if to say “It’s at least this big.”

For more reading on this topic there’s an excellent book called “Remembering the Kanji” written by J. W. Heisig.

I want to emphasize that the point of this exercise is not to make the mnemonic make sense—most kanji you will learn are much more difficult to organize in this way—but just to have some way of remembering.

5. Conversing in Japanese

Your best teachers will be the native speakers of the language. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and remember the context in which you ask so that you will find it easier to recall later.

Having conversations in Japanese should, at a certain point, become your most important method of practicing. You may already do this in class. If not, then hurry up and start doing it on your own.

The reason why this is so important is that, as you try to speak Japanese, you are forced to be creative. You are forced to invent new sentences that you didn’t know existed yet!

Don’t believe me? Chris Lonsdale explains how he learned Chinese to the point of fluency in six months in his TEDx talk. Conversational practice was all that he used.

When you use your language creatively, you will find it easier to remember words and sentences and there is a simple reason why.

Human beings have always found it easier to remember things that they learn in a context where it is useful to them. When you are able to successfully convey something using a particular word, you will find that this word sticks and becomes easier to remember.

Another reason why it is so important to learn this way is that you can put your knowledge of the language to the test.

Finally, after all your effort, you may at last find yourself trying to think in Japanese. You may just realize one day that you have been trying to formulate your thoughts in Japanese.

This is when you know you are applying yourself, so congratulate yourself!

 

That should be enough advice to get you started.

In this blog post I have linked to other articles which go into more detail with some of the things I write about.

Finally, I want to wish you good luck. If you’ve read all of this, that probably means you are dedicated and have the motivation to do well.

Now, you just have to look forward to getting way ahead of the rest of your class!

If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn Japanese with real-world videos.

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