Teach Yourself Japanese in 10 Steps: The Beginner’s Guide
Not everyone who learned to speak fluent Japanese studied in a classroom.
Take me, for example—I started from scratch and got up to a solid advanced skill level with a realistic study plan, online courses, a notebook and some elbow grease.
I’m living proof that with all the resources online today, it is easier than ever to learn Japanese on your own.
Whether you’re looking to teach yourself Japanese at home or just need some extra tips to help you advance, read on.
The art of teaching yourself is easily learned.
- 10 Simple Steps to Teach Yourself Japanese
- 1. Learn to Read Hiragana
- 2. Become Familiar with Katakana
- 3. Familiarize Yourself with Kanji
- 4. Build a Core Vocabulary
- 5. Learn Basic Japanese Pronunciation
- 6. Start Reading Japanese Books
- 7. Watch Subtitled Movies
- 8. Watch Japanese Television
- 9. Use Memorization Tools
- 10. Start Conversing in Japanese
- Benefits of Teaching Yourself Japanese
10 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 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.
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 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!
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 is 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 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.
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 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!
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 an internet connection so this is an off-the-grid learning resource that brings essential pronunciation practice virtually anywhere!
6. Start Reading Japanese Books
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.
7. Watch 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.
8. Watch 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 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.
Authentic content like Japanese media is essential for learning real Japanese, not just that which comes from a textbook. The world is full of slang and colloquialisms you will only find when consuming native materials.
But if you don’t have a good Japanese foundation, then watching TV can be frustrating and unhelpful. When then happens you will need extra tools and support to help you watch Japanese TV or other media.
The program has a video player with interactive subtitles that you can toggle on and off, which makes it easy to hover over any unknown word or phrase and get a direct translation.
The platform even hosts a built-in flashcard system with multimedia flashcards including the definition, examples sentences and links to other videos where the word is used.
No matter what kind of television programs, cartoons, movies and other videos you enjoy watching, there will be something suited to your interests.
9. Use 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, you might think that you just have to write or say the same word over and over until it is committed to memory. But 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 for 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, that 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.
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.
10. Start Conversing in Japanese
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 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!\
Benefits of Teaching Yourself Japanese
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. 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 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 farther in the long run.
Move at Your Own Pace
In a classroom, you’ll often find you’re wasting time not learning anything. This is especially true as you get better in Japanese, because it will be less likely the class you’re taking will be suited for your exact level.
Or you might find yourself falling behind because the rest of the class is moving faster than you expected.
Teaching yourself lets you avoid these problems. You can dwell longer on subjects that you need more time to get down and move quickly past topics you pick up more easily.
Every learner is different, so a personalized approach lets you level up more efficiently.
Teach Yourself What’s Important to You
This is the most important reason for teaching yourself. You will often feel that you have something specific that you want to learn.
You can set a personal goal that you want to reach using the regular tools available to you, or you can find resources to focus on specific Japanese for your needs.
You might be looking to learn Japanese for business or for travel, and that will mean you need to focus on certain phrases and vocabulary.
Even if your needs aren’t that specific, you’ll still want to have the option of focusing on whatever Japanese you most need to know for your exact situation.
There are too many language learners who leave behind the language whenever they leave the classroom. Some think they can just passively learn a language by sitting in a classroom, without engaging with the language during the rest of their day.
But 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!”
Motivations differ, but when it comes to learning it is always some variant of the above: finding the rewards of your efforts.
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!