How to Start Studying Japanese

I passed the 1kyuu in December of 2008 and I now work as a freelance translator in Tokyo for some of the world's biggest companies. I often get questions about how to start studying Japanese, so here is my best advice.

Have a Clear Goal

Many people want to "learn Japanese." But the first step to learning Japanese is to decide for yourself what "learning Japanese" means. Does it mean watching anime without subtitles? Does it mean reading graduate level texts for research? Or becoming fluent enough to work doing a job other than teaching English in Japan?

Unfortunately, a lot of people who want to learn Japanese have little experience in learning foreign languages. If you haven't learned a foreign language before, you don't really have an idea of how difficult it is to learn a foreign language and what kinds of problems you may encounter. Most people give up in the early stages, so it's important to have realistic expectations at the outset.

If you want to master Japanese, it will help a lot if you decide in advance just what it means to "master" the language. Specific goals are more helpful than vague ones. For example, it's much easier to measure your progress if your goal is "I want to read The Tale of Genji in the original" than if your goal is "I want to know everything." Setting specific goals allows you to measure your progress. Many students find measuring their progress one of their biggest motivators.

The road to fluency is long and difficult. Clear goals aren't everything, but they help a lot when you get lost-- and you likely will feel lost from time to time.

As with other languages, as you advance in ability the spoken and written forms begin to diverge significantly. You may be able to understand graduate texts on philosophy but still have no idea what a three year old is saying. Or vice versa. Having clear goals at the outset helps ensure that you develop the abilities you want.

Take a Class to Start

Throughout this site, I focus on self study approaches. In fact, I did all of my preparation for the Japanese Language Proficiency Tests on my own. But I don't think self study is the best way to begin learning a new language.

Languages are means of communication. You can't learn to speak by talking only to yourself. Tapes can be helpful, but starting from tapes can be lonely and depressing. After all, what's the point of learning to speak if there's no one to speak to? Of course, there may be no good options nearby where you live. I wasn't able to start studying until I went to college. But I would recommend you do take a class if at all possible.

Having a teacher guide give you a strong foundation in basic grammar will ensure that when you begin studying on your own later, you will be moving in the right direction and spend your time studying effectively.

I studied more than eight years, and I have yet to meet someone who went from zero to fluent without taking a significant number of classes. Language is about talking to people, so unless you have a bunch of Japanese friends, the best practice you're going to get is in a class.

Make Some Japanese Friends

Since language is about communication, you need people to communicate with. Fellow Japanese students are a great start, but nothing beats a native speaker for motivating you to improve your Japanese.

If there are few native Japanese speakers where you live, you can use the Internet to meet new people. There are a large number of Japanese looking to improve their English, so working out a language exchange arrangement shouldn't be too difficult.

Skype is also an option, but unfortunately newer versions removed the feature that allowed users to search for people by country, rendering the software much less useful for meeting new people.

Avoid Romaji

Learn hiragana and katakana (the Japanese alphabets) as fast as possible. Avoid romaji (Japanese written in the Roman alphabet). Briefly familiarize yourself with romaji (about an hour is sufficient) and then move on to the real Japanese writing system.

In Japan, romaji is used for your name on your credit card, strange advertisements, and the occasional song title- and that's about it. For everything else you need hiragana, katakana, and kanji, so it's best to start learning them as soon as possible.

That said, don't avoid textbooks just because they use romaji. There are plenty of good older books which still use romaji; don't pass up the opportunity to learn just because of the format.

Avoid Translating Too Much

Japanese and English developed on opposite sides of the world. As a result, many everyday expressions simply don't translate well. (For example, Japanese people often say yoroshiku onegaishimasu, but this is rather hard to translate directly into English.)

Trying to translate everything you learn in Japanese back into English will only be possible for the first few months of study anyway, so it's a habit you should rid yourself of as soon as you can. The foreigners I know who sound like idiots in Japanese often sound that way because they literally translate English expressions directly into Japanese, resulting in a string of words that make no sense at all.

Instead of translating, get the gist of what the expression means, learn how to pronounce it correctly, and memorize in which situations people use it. This kind of knowledge will help you much more later on.

Learn the Correct Stroke Order for Kanji

I don't recommend rushing to learn kanji. There are a ton of them, and it will take a long time anyway- better to take it slow and easy. However, when you do learn start studying them, make absolutely sure to learn the correct stroke order.

If you're going to spend hundreds of hours to learn to write, you might as well learn how to write correctly.

You can learn stroke order by consulting reference books, an electronic dictionary, or any number of websites. Perhaps the best method is to learn the general principles from a Japanese teacher and then consult one of the other references when you get stuck. Most kanji are composed of some combination of about 200 simple parts, called radicals, so once you nail those you can do the rest easily on your own.

There are three big advantages of learning the correct stroke order: your writing will still look relatively good when you write quickly; people will be impressed; and you can use the stroke order rules to easily look up unknown kanji in a dictionary. The last point is by far the most important.

Take It Slow and Have Fun

There's a lot of talk about finding "the fastest way" and "the most efficient method." While there is plenty of talk about the speed and efficiency of learning methods on this site, in the end, language is communication. The end goal is not to learn 12,000 words or 2,000 grammatical patterns- the ultimate goal is to become better able to share your ideas with people.

So take it slow and have fun. Of course, do your best to study efficiently. But don't obsess over efficiency. Even if you study for several hours a day, it will take you a few years or more to reach practical fluency, and even more to eliminate the mistakes that come from being a non-native speaker. If you concentrate on the negatives at the beginning you will likely conclude that the challenge is too great and give up. The most passionate beginners are the most likely to burn out.

I know that in a weird way it's cool that Japanese is so difficult. But in the end the difficulty of Japanese is not that it requires tremendous intelligence to speak, but rather that to master it requires tremendous (and sometimes tedious) time spent studying. Sometimes, when people discover that Japanese is just another human language spoken by human beings, the banality of it all drives them away. So clearing delusions of grand difficulty from your head before you start is probably for the best.

Live in Japan if Possible

The best way to learn Japanese, bar none, is to live in Japan. Of course, living abroad is difficult- there are concerns about money, one's family, job, etc.- so unfortunately it's not possible for everyone. But if you have the chance, by all means take it. Keep an eye out for study abroad opportunities as well as working holiday visas and similar programs.

I wish you the best of luck!