There is no question that learning another language is a huge undertaking, especially a language as unique and distinct as the Japanese language.
But with a few simple tips and the right tools to build a solid language foundation, studying Japanese doesn’t have to be stressful for language learners.
Why Learn Japanese
Whether you want to travel to Japan, speak with a Japanese friend or family member or understand your favorite Japanese animation, there are so many benefits to learning Japanese. Over 125 million people in the world are native speakers, so knowing even a few basic Japanese phrases can open up many opportunities.
If you ever plan to live or work in Japan, understanding basic Japanese is essential. In major cities like Tokyo and Osaka, you’ll come across locals that can speak English, but you won’t encounter them as often as you think. In fact, Japan ranks at 53/100 for English language abilities in non-English speaking countries, meaning you’ll need to know some Japanese in order to get by.
It’s no secret that Japan has long been known for its manga, anime and Jpop. While some have made it overseas with English dubbing and captioning (though often mistranslated), knowing Japanese will help you understand and appreciate the source material.
Whatever your motivation, learning a language is a humbling and rewarding experience, and Japanese has a ton of fun phrases and grammar to keep you interested. With a few simple tips, you can get a head start toward Japanese fluency.
Learning Japanese with FluentU: How Does It Work?
Watch Authentic Videos in Japanese
The FluentU video library contains a vast collection of videos in Japanese at your fingertips. No need to scour the internet in search of authentic Japanese language content—just log in and find videos tailored to your learning level and play.
Click on Unknown Japanese Words in the Interactive Subtitles
When you hear a word you don’t know in a video, simply hover over that word in the interactive subtitles. This pauses the clip and then shows you the definition and image, allowing you to follow along and understand every word being spoken. You can also click on the word to discover sentence examples, audio pronunciation and other video references.
Review Japanese Words with Flashcards
Want to make sure you remember that word you hovered over during the video? Click on it to transfer the word to your own personalized flashcard deck. Once you’re done watching a few videos and collecting words, use FluentU’s built-in flashcard system to reinforce and review every Japanese word and phrase on your list.
5 Steps to Learn Japanese Basics
1. Learn the Japanese Writing Systems
Looking at the Japanese language as a whole, language learners tend to think that the writing system stands out as one of the most complicated and difficult of any language. But it’s really not! Learning the Japanese writing system just takes time and patience.
There are three basic writing systems in Japanese: hiragana, katakana and kanji.
Hiragana is the most basic form of Japanese writing. It’s also one of the two syllabaries in the Japanese language, the two of which are collectively known as kana.
Do note that syllabaries are not the same as alphabets. An alphabet is a set of symbols or letters that each represents one sound, whereas a syllabary is a set of symbols that each represents a spoken syllable.
It’s also pretty easy to identify because of how round and loopy it looks. To give you an example of its cursive-like written form, here is the word “hiragana” in hiragana:
This syllabary consists of 46 basic characters that correspond to specific consonant and vowel combinations. For instance, the character か is pronounced as ka. か can be combined with other characters to make words, such as あか which is pronounced as aka and means “red.”
Once you learn these characters, you’ll be able to read hiragana, which is the first step to reading in Japanese.
Katakana is the second syllabary in Japanese. It also has 46 basic characters, and each one also corresponds to a unique consonant and vowel combination. For instance, the character タ is pronounced ta. You can easily distinguish these characters because of how straight and angled they are, as seen in the word for “katakana”:
So how is katakana any different from hiragana?
Katakana is mostly used for foreign words, meaning words that come from English or other languages. For example, the word for “hotel” is ホテル and pronounced as hoteru. Can you see how the pronunciation is similar to the English word? This is what’s great about katakana!
Once you learn how to read katakana, you’ll be able to read and identify a ton of loanwords from English!
Once you know hiragana and katakana, it’s time to tackle the last writing system.
Kanji are basically traditional Chinese characters. But unlike in Chinese, no sentence in Japanese can be written exclusively in kanji, since it’s mostly for nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs. A Japanese sentence will include a combination of all three of the written forms.
To give you an idea of how many characters to learn, you’ll need to know around 2,000 kanji in order to read a Japanese newspaper. This number might seem like a lot, but there are a ton of hints and clues that can help you learn a bunch of kanji at a faster rate than you might imagine.
Let’s start with the basics.
Each character is an ideogram that may represent a word or a sound.
For instance, the kanji for “mountain” is 山 (やま). Kanji can also be combined with other characters (kanji or hiragana) to form new words. For example, if you pair 山 with the kanji for “road” or 道 (みち), we get 山道 (やまみち) which means “mountain road.”
Many kanji have two or three different readings, depending on how they’re being used.
The word 味 (あじ) means “flavor” and is pronounced aji. But when you add two more kanji to it, you get 味噌汁 (みそしる), which is pronounced miso shiru and means “miso soup”!
Some kanji can resemble the word it’s trying to convey. Take the kanji 木 (tree), which looks like a little tree. Add another “tree” to make the kanji 林 (woods), or even one more to make the kanji 森 (forest).
Additionally, if you see the little tree symbol in other kanji, this might mean that the word is somehow related to trees, like 松 (pine tree), 材 (wood) or even 札 (banknote, paper bill).
木 is what’s known as a radical. Learn more of these to help you deduce the meaning of new kanji as you come across them. So don’t be scared of the kanji—treat each like a little puzzle and you can actually have a fun time learning them!
2. Learn Basic Japanese Vocabulary
Once you know the basics of the writing systems, it’s time to learn vocabulary. Language is a puzzle, where vocabulary is the puzzle pieces and grammar is how all pieces fit together.
Japanese vocabulary has a unique set of hurdles due to the different writing systems. For instance, when you learn a Japanese word consisting of two kanji and a hiragana, you need to know the correct readings for both kanji, as well as the hiragana character.
But help is available, especially when you’re just starting out!
There’s a system in Japanese called “furigana,” which works as a reading aid for kanji. Furigana is collectively known as the little symbols (usually hiragana) written on top of kanji, used as a way to learn Japanese vocabulary and pronunciation.
While helpful for foreigners learning the Japanese language, furigana can be found in children’s books and novels all the way up to junior high level. It also appears in newspapers and other texts with uncommon vocabulary that even adults might not know how to pronounce.
Spaced Repetition System (SRS) Practice
SRS is a great way to learn Japanese vocabulary. If you haven’t heard of SRS, it’s a system used for flashcards and memorization that prioritizes unknown words and phrases. In other words, it’s a unique algorithm used in FluentU, flashcard apps and websites to help you store words in your long-term memory.
You might be thinking that flashcards are a very old-school way to learn a language. But with SRS, studying is much more efficient and difficult words will be easier to learn since vocabulary review is tailored according to your needs.
3. Study Japanese Grammar
Though Japanese grammar involves many moving parts, there are set rules that make it pretty simple to learn.
For starters, Japanese has a Subject-Object-Verb word order, which is a little different than our SVO word order in English.
In fact, the verb is the king of any Japanese sentence and you can glean a lot of meaning out of just the verb. Japanese is an incredibly high-context language, which means you can get a lot of meaning with very few words.
For instance, simply saying the verb “to eat” or 食べる (たべる) can mean:
- I will eat.
- He will eat.
- Will you eat?
This all depends on the context and inflection.
The best way to learn Japanese grammar is to start with verbs and simple sentence construction. Once you know how to create a sentence, you’ll quickly see that Japanese is agglutinative, meaning you can add on grammar points to create more complex sentences. Thus, each grammar point you learn can be used to build on your previous knowledge and help you speak Japanese more naturally.
4. Start Speaking Japanese
Once you have the writing systems and grammar down, you can start focusing on how to speak Japanese. You’re bound to make some mistakes, and that’s okay! The key is letting go of perfection and diving into the process with humility.
That being said, there are a few strategies that can better prepare you for a language exchange session.
The first thing you should work on is building your own Japanese sentences every day. This can be as simple as writing in a Japanese journal or even speaking to yourself about what you’re doing. Why not try creating Japanese sentences in your head as you do the laundry or before going to sleep at night?
Start with simple sentences about what you did during the day and move on to more complex ideas once you have the vocabulary. If you have a pet, a great way to practice speaking is to tell them about your day. This is an extremely helpful way for you to practice Japanese out loud without any judgment!
For more practical speaking practice, organize a language exchange with a Japanese conversation partner or tutor. This is essential if you don’t live in Japan, as your speaking skills can be neglected if you aren’t forced to use them every day. Thankfully, there are many sites and apps for you to find ways to speak to native Japanese speakers, so you can learn Japanese through a video call or online chat if exchanges aren’t available in person.
If you do find a Japanese conversation partner, make sure you set some parameters for your exchanges. It helps to have a few topics of conversation ready, maybe some grammar or Japanese words you would like explained. You also need to figure out how much English and Japanese you’ll be speaking.
5. Learning Japanese with Real-world Content
There’s no question that learning with a textbook will give you a solid foundation in Japanese. But just like for any language, textbooks can only teach you so much. In order to reach Japanese fluency, you need to learn how to abbreviate and contract words, as well as use slang and colloquial expressions—just like a real native Japanese speaker.
In order to sound like a native Japanese speaker, you need to consume native content. In other words, you need to immerse yourself in media that’s made by and for Japanese native speakers.
Of course, if you don’t live in Japan, it can be hard to find native language content. And even if you do live in the country, it can be difficult to find videos and audio that are in line with your level of Japanese studies.
The Perks of Learning Japanese on FluentU
FluentU offers authentic content from real Japanese media sources. Videos are sourced from YouTube, with clips of Japanese TV shows, anime, movies, commercials and more—the same content that Japanese native speakers enjoy.
Vetted by Language Experts
Videos are chosen by our team to make sure the content is relevant and the language is natural. The interactive subtitles are also expertly translated rather than machine-generated, so that you’re given definitions for new vocabulary in context.
Practice All Language Skills
FluentU has tons of great learning tools for you to use at your disposal. Along with the extensive video library, there is also audio content for you to listen to while on the go. After watching a video or listening to an audio clip, you can take a quiz to review key Japanese words and practice your language skills, including speaking.
Content Categorized by Level
The videos in FluentU’s library can be filtered by level. No matter if you’re a beginner looking for children’s cartoons or a near-native learner looking for news reports, you can find plenty of clips that suit your needs.