Learning a new skill is something that I’ve had to do many times throughout my life.
I know very well what it feels like to be a complete beginner.
Nevertheless, those moments in the beginning when you feel that learning is the hardest are usually the moments when you learn the most.
With this in mind, let’s look at some of the ways you can teach yourself Japanese.
- 8 Simple Steps to Teach Yourself Japanese
- How to Choose Japanese Language Learning Resources: 8 Learning Materials
- 3 Reasons Why Teaching Yourself Japanese Works
- How to Stay Motivated While Teaching Yourself Japanese
8 Simple Steps to Teach Yourself Japanese
1. 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 one. 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 become 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.
2. 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 the strokes 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!
3. 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’s a scorekeeper right on the page) or just to learn. Either method is helpful!
4. Build a Core Vocabulary
When you embark on the journey to teach yourself beginner Japanese, one of the most important things you can do is build a core vocabulary.
This fundamental vocabulary is essential for reading, writing, speaking and listening. It’s 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”—these are words that are so close to English words that they’ll 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.
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.
5. 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 offer 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!
“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 the 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 an internet connection so this is an off-the-grid learning resource that brings essential pronunciation practice virtually anywhere!
6. Get Familiar with Basic Particles
Japanese has little grammar units called “particles” that connect words in a sentence together. They specify the role each term plays in the sentence and helps break the sentence into parts.
Essentially, they’re the mortar that holds the bricks of Japanese together.
I cannot stress this enough: learning Japanese particles early on will save you countless hours when you get further along in the language.
For example, let’s look at the particle は.
To start, though it’s the hiragana character “ha,” it’s actually read as “wa” like the character わ.
は is the topic marker in a Japanese sentence, meaning that it marks what the speaker wants to focus on. As such, the most basic Japanese sentence will look like this:
X は Y です.
X is Y.
However, marking the topic isn’t all that は does. It can show contrast in a sentence as well as come before a negative verb.
There’s a lot of information in this one little character!
The same particle can do different things depending on the context of the sentence. By learning particles, you’ll know exactly what role each word plays in a sentence.
Whether it’s a topic marker like は, a place marker like に or the object marker を, studying Japanese particles should be one of the first lines on your study list!
7. Learn Japanese Sentence Structure
It’s easy to get mixed up in the new word order of a foreign language, especially in one from a different language family.
Japanese sentence structure can be pretty quirky, but by breaking it down into its basic parts, you’ll find that there’s a steady, consistent logic to Japanese sentences.
As any introductory Japanese teacher will tell you, the basic Japanese sentence is set up as “Subject Object Verb.”
This means that, unlike English’s “Subject Verb Object” structure, the verb comes at the end of a sentence. The good news is that just about anything can be the subject or the object—what matters most is that the verb finishes it off.
Let’s look at a Japanese sentence to see how it’s put together.
I eat bread.
The subject, “私,” is first up. This refers to who or what is carrying out the action.
Next is the object, “パン” the thing being acted upon.
And finally, we have the verb “食べます,” which is the actual action of the sentence.
This is also where particles come in handy.
は and を in the above sentence mark the subject (私) and the direct object (パン) of the sentence, respectfully. By putting each particle in its proper place, the subjects and objects are clearly defined and ready for the verb to wrap them up in a neat little bow.
Practice getting familiar with this new style of sentences, and you’ll figure out where things go in no time.
8. Learn Basic Greetings and Expressions
You’ve seen those little books of basic Japanese expressions for tourists, right? All that stuff is there for a reason—they’re the absolute essentials of the language!
When you learn Japanese, it’s natural to want to speak it right away, and getting basic Japanese phrases down is a fantastic way to get started.
Any native speaker will be able to understand what you mean, and they provide a base from which to build your future skills upon.
Try starting out with simple greetings, like:
お元気ですか (おげんきですか, how are you)
おはようございます (good morning)
Then follow that up with some basic phrases.
Being able to say これは何ですか (これはなんですか, what is this) is the perfect way to ask someone to tell you what the Japanese name of an object is!
By teaching yourself basic Japanese phrases first, you’ll gain the ability to start speaking real Japanese. And once you start, you’ll find yourself wanting to learn more!
How to Choose Japanese Language Learning Resources: 8 Learning Materials
First of all, you should use a diverse range of resources.
Some of the tools you’ll 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’re 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’s 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.
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’s 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.
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’re attending a Japanese class, you’re probably already using one of these books. The general consensus is that both books are pretty good, but if you’re serious about learning Japanese, and if you’re 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’s 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’m 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.
Of course, there are dozens of other books out there to study from, such as Teach Yourself Beginner’s Japanese. Teaching yourself Japanese isn’t limited to just one series! Shop around and see what works best for you.
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 non-native 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’ll 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’ll stick. Moreover, you’ll have learned some of the ways in which the language doesn’t always work as you’d 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 method. Think of it as a puzzle that you’ll 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’s 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 that 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’re 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.
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 authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
4. Memorization Tools
By far one of the most successful methods I have tried has been the use of memorization tools. Let’s talk about two of the most successful.
Spaced Repetition Software (SRS)
Lots of tools have been developed to assist with spaced repetition, which is a memorization technique that’s extremely useful for vocabulary development.
There are plenty of guides to how spaced repetition works, so I’ll be brief.
When you’re 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’s committed to memory, right?
Human memory doesn’t work like that at all!
It’s much more efficient to remind yourself of the words you try to learn with some space between each repetition.
This way, you’re only reminded when you actually need to be.
There are a few different ways 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’s much easier to learn. It’s 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 aren’t always obvious, but many people find it easy to remember kanji by associating their appearance with a familiar shape.
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 isn’t to make the mnemonic make sense—most kanji you’ll learn are much more difficult to organize in this way—but just to have some way of remembering.
Your best teachers will be native speakers of the language. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and remember the context in which you ask so that you’ll 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’re forced to be creative. You’re 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’ll find it easier to remember words and sentences and there’s a simple reason why.
Human beings have always found it easier to remember things that they learn in a context where it’s useful to them. When you’re able to successfully convey something using a particular word, you’ll find that this word sticks and becomes easier to remember.
Another reason why it’s 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’ve been trying to formulate your thoughts in Japanese.
This is when you know you’re applying yourself, so congratulate yourself!
6. Easy Japanese Websites
Wait, you may be thinking. Why would I try reading Japanese websites when I’m just starting out?
The truth is that there are a lot of Japanese websites aimed at learners. These websites use real-life Japanese, only simplified to make it easy for beginners to understand.
By reading real Japanese from the moment you learn hiragana and katakana, you’ll be setting yourself up for success in fluency.
News websites are a great tool for beginners.
The NHK, Japan’s premier broadcasting company, offers a news page that’s targeted at those learning the language. Each article has an audio accompaniment, so you can combine reading and listening practice.
There’s also Easy Japanese, which features Japanese news from a variety of sources arranged based on difficulty, making it a reliable partner as you improve your language skills. It also comes with an onboard dictionary, letting you look up any tricky words with one simple click.
If the news isn’t your thing, you can try reading Watanoc, a digital magazine in easy Japanese, or Hukumusume‘s collections of fairy tales in both Japanese and English.
Textbooks are fantastic for studying, but ultimately you’ll need to hone those new skills with authentic materials.
By diving right into the source language, you’ll get a more rewarding learning experience and immediately be on your way to leveling up your Japanese.
7. Japanese Learning Communities
Self-study may be your goal, but that doesn’t mean you have to go at it all alone!
Finding other people to help you along your journey will allow you to ask questions, get tips, share struggles and more.
Where you’ve been, other learners of Japanese have been, too. I’ve certainly gone through every obstacle on the course—and still get stuck on a few!
Reddit isn’t only good for looking at pictures of cute animals, but also for finding aspiring language learners. r/LearnJapanese has over 400k subscribers, with a wealth of resources and study tips to help newcomers to the language.
You can ask questions and check out what your fellow self-taught students have found helpful.
HiNative is a site that offers language checks by native speakers of a variety of languages. It has a very active Japanese user base, so you’ll be able to ask for word clarification, check the accuracy of your sentences, hear pronunciations and more, all from real Japanese people!
Finally, Renshuu offers a game-based Japanese learning experience with an active community.
Through features like question corners and writing prompts, you’ll get to engage with other users by writing your own Japanese sentences. You can also utilize study lists created by others as well as share your own.
By engaging with a learning community, you’ll see that even though you’re teaching yourself Japanese, you’re never truly alone.
8. Online Japanese Courses
When you’re studying on your own, it’s not always easy to stay on track. After all, you have to make your own study schedule and lesson plans—and how do you know if you’re really making progress?
This is where online courses can offer a helping hand.
Whether they’re paid or free, online courses provide a guided journey through the Japanese language. Best of all, you can access them from anywhere at any time!
Everyone loves low prices, so free courses are always something to be on the lookout for. There are many free Japanese learning programs out there, which offer the opportunity to find the learning approach that works best for you.
The NHK, which I brought up earlier, offers a Learn Japanese program for beginners.
In each lesson, students are shown a skit portraying an everyday situation. The vocabulary list, key terms and quizzes are then constructed around the skit. With 48 lessons in total, this course will guide you through all the basics of Japanese!
Erin’s Challenge has been around since 2006, and remains an excellent source for teaching yourself Japanese.
Lessons take on a “can-do” approach, showing you exactly what you can do with the Japanese featured in each lesson. Their videos not only provide instruction on the Japanese language but also insight into the culture.
If you’ve got the cash, you can sign up with a private tutor or learning course. This combines the structure of a traditional classroom course with all the freedom of self-study.
Italki provides one-on-one tutoring for aspiring language learners.
Through italki, you can find a Japanese tutor and set up a personalized learning plan so you get exactly what you want out of Japanese. Many tutors offer a trial lesson at a discount, so you can make sure that you’re getting the tutor that’s right for you.
For private tutoring as well as group lessons, Coto Academy is worth looking into. Lessons are split into speaking courses and study courses, enabling you to get a well-rounded learning experience. They provide you with learning materials and set you up with a Japanese instructor who will work with you on your schedule.
Plus, for those who want to study in a small group, Coto Academy provides a fully interactive online classroom so you can engage with your teacher and your fellow students.
So if you want to learn Japanese, but aren’t sure where to begin, online courses can provide the structure that you’ll really benefit from!
3 Reasons Why Teaching Yourself Japanese Works
If you study Japanese in a classroom, then you’re following a set program laid out by your teacher. This program is most likely designed to teach you grammar, vocabulary and written Japanese.
Learning Japanese in a classroom has a ton of benefits. Seeing yourself progress through each level is thrilling, with each new skill feeling like an unlocked achievement.
There’s also the bonus of having a community of people to practice with who are all going through the same lessons, meaning you can share notes on the same material and figure out what’s going to be on the test.
You also get, more or less, the complete package: spoken, written and literary Japanese all tied up in one neat bow.
But if you only study in the classroom, then your immediate learning outcome is limited. Remember that you’re 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 further in the long run.
1. You can move at your own desired pace.
There are many instances where you’ll be wasting time in the classroom not learning anything. As you get better at Japanese you’ll see this happen more often since it’s more unlikely that the Japanese you learn is suited for exactly your level.
After all, the classroom is designed to teach a large number of people the same material, and as such, the majority rules when it comes to progression.
Self-taught Japanese is different for this very important reason.
There are no worries about the class going too fast or too slow for you. Not only can you set your own learning schedule, but you can also adjust it at any time depending on how you’re retaining the information.
Speeding through that section on て forms? Great, you can jump ahead to た forms!
Just not getting the difference between causative and passive sentences? No worries, take a little more time to review them. Read a few specific articles, do some extra practice exercises.
There’s no pressure, no deadlines and no worries about causing problems with your classmates. It’s all about your perfect pace for learning Japanese.
2. 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’ll 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 that 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.
3. You’ll ultimately be a better learner—by becoming your own teacher.
Think of it this way.
When you’re in the classroom you aren’t just sitting back and receiving language proficiency.
You’re actually consciously trying to learn, or at least I hope you are. If you don’t work to incorporate the methods of the classroom into your Japanese language skills, then you aren’t really learning anything, are you?
Since you’re 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.
When learning on your own, you need to figure out exactly what your needs are and how to meet them.
Making cohesive lists of terminology, finding relevant study material and coming up with effective ways to check progress are all things that teachers of any subject have to do.
By doing these activities as your own teacher, you’ll figure out what makes for an effective learning experience, which will help you get the most out of any lesson—both in the classroom and on your own.
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’ll 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’s always some variant of the above: finding the rewards of your efforts.
Since you’re learning on your own and applying yourself, this will also increase the general confidence you have in yourself. You’re 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.
That should be enough advice to get you started.
In this blog post, I’ve linked to other articles which go into more detail with some of the things I wrote about.
Finally, I want to wish you good luck. If you’ve read all of this, that probably means you’re 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!