How to Learn Japanese Fast and Effectively: A Detailed Guide

How to learn Japanese Japanese

You’ve been wondering for a long time how to learn Japanese? Where did the Japanese language come from? “From China,” lovers of Chinese culture will say loudly. But no, the Japanese language existed before Japan was even acquainted with China. So the Japanese only borrowed hieroglyphic writing from the Chinese language. Eventually, they realized that it was inconvenient to write Japanese using only hieroglyphs, and the syllabic alphabets hiragana and katakana appeared. What we have now is a combination of hieroglyphic words, words from hieroglyphs and the hiragana alphabet at the same time, words that are written with alphabets, words from katakana and hiragana simultaneously, words in Latin, and so on.

Already changed your mind about learning? Don’t give up –  the main thing is to start gradually. First, figure out what the Japanese alphabets are and learn them. That’s enough to start learning Japanese!

Shuher japan learning languages guide reading writing sakura be c04e8663 7ea3 4e71 b815 e6a5dfcfe266
Feel the Japanese culture

The whole process of learning Japanese can be broken down into five big points:

  • Writing.
  • Vocabulary.
  • Grammar.
  • Practice.
  • Cyclicality.
How to learn Japanese

Japanese Writing

Japanese has three writing systems: “仮名” (Hiragana), “片仮名” (Katakana), and “漢字” (Kanji, literally Chinese characters, where “漢” is Chinese, “字” is a symbol). Hiragana is most commonly used to record grammatical constructions, established expressions, sound imitations, and some words. In comparison, katakana is used to record words borrowed from other languages (for example, “ハンバーガー” – hamburger, and “スポーツ” – sport), as well as some Japanese words, sound imitations, and sometimes as an artistic device in literature.

Hiragana and katakana are generally called “仮名” (Kana, literally, temporary name, where “仮” is temporary, “名” is name). Kana can and should be treated like the alphabet of any other language. And learning any language begins with learning the alphabet. You wouldn’t try to learn Japanese without the Cyrillic alphabet, would you? That’s why the very first thing you need to do once you start learning Japanese is to learn kana. And, in fact, there’s nothing difficult about it. You can learn the whole kana in two weeks, a week each for hiragana and katakana, respectively. And that brings us to our first recommendation: avoid romaji!

Romaji is a writing system that allows you to write the sounds of the Japanese language without kana, using the letters of the Latin alphabet. And in addition to its two justified uses (international spelling of words borrowed from Japanese, such as FUJI – Fuji, and a method of entering Japanese from the keyboard), it has a third, unjustified use. Many textbooks, and sometimes entire courses of the so-called “conversational Japanese,” are built on the excessive use of romaji, whether only at the beginning of the training or throughout it. And you should stay away from such courses. It’s much faster to learn to read kanu right away than to relearn from romaji to kanu later. It’s a simple time saver. But that means don’t start learning words, expressions, or grammar before you’ve learned to read at least kanu.

There are only 46 characters each in hiragana and katakana. And even though the English alphabet has 26 letters, 92 characters of kana will still be less than the English alphabet. In the Kana, one symbol equals one syllable, one sequence of sounds, and these sounds will not change under any circumstances. That is, if you learn 46 characters of hiragana, you will learn to read everything written in hiragana. There are some modulations of kana, like rendaku or yon, but they are always written explicitly. There are also reading rules that can be counted on the fingers of one hand (we’ll cover all that in detail in the following lessons), which, compared to the reading rules of English, is nothing. Just remember that learning kana is also learning the alphabet and learning the rules of reading, and learning all the possible sounds in Japanese.

Learn kana the way you want to. First, don’t aim for perfect knowledge of kana all at once. There is so much of it used in Japanese that, with time, it will become as natural for you to read and write kana as it is to read something in English. Secondly, you don’t even have to know how to write kanu. Learning to read is more than enough. You probably won’t need the skill of Japanese manuscript anyway. Another thing is that something written by hand is more memorable than something typed on a computer, but everyone is different, and even that may not be true for you. We will give practical tips for learning kana in a future article.

Japanese Vocabulary

After you’ve learned kana, it’s time to start building up your vocabulary. Here are a few recommendations on how best to do it.

First, learn words the way the Japanese write them down or put them in your personal dictionary – that is, directly using kanji. Yes, it’s longer than learning words written in kana, but the sooner you start learning words with kanji, the faster you’ll get used to everything about Japanese, the faster you’ll learn to read Japanese, and the less you’ll get confused later. And from this recommendation, it immediately follows, don’t learn kanji on your own.

There are too many of them to learn each one individually, with multiple readings and meanings. Moreover, you don’t need to learn to write them by hand. It is much more effective to learn the words in which they are used. That way, you might not remember all the possible readings and meanings of the kanji 暮 (life) at once just by looking at it, but you won’t have any problems with “暮らす”, “暮れる”, “野暮”, or other common words in which this kanji is used.

Do not use paper dictionaries. Searching for words by kanji and kanji by radicals is a very time-consuming task. There are many online dictionaries now, whether they be mobile apps, PC apps, browser plug-ins, or web dictionaries. We’ll write more about them in future articles. One more recommendation about dictionaries: if you’re looking for the meaning of a word, look first for Japanese-Japanese dictionaries made by Japanese for Japanese, and only then for Japanese-English dictionaries.

This recommendation is for more advanced learners because to understand the meaning of a Japanese word explained in Japanese, you should already have a good knowledge of Japanese. But this method will allow you to abstract from the English equivalent of the word and avoid having to translate before you understand or say the Japanese word, which will greatly accelerate the process of further learning.

Japanese Grammar

So, you’ve learned to read more or less in Japanese. You’ve learned a few words along the way. Then, obviously, you need some grammar to give these words life. The first thing you need to remember about Japanese grammar is that it is different from any other language, so forget all the grammar concepts of English or any other language.

Japanese has no subject, no predicate; forget the concept of word order, forget the conjunctions. In Japanese, everything is different and not in the places you’re used to. And the most important thing is not to translate by any means but to try to think in Japanese right away. The sooner you start doing that, the faster you’ll make progress. And if you do need to translate something, translate it verbatim.

Yes, you need to learn the meaning of each word first (but even for that, we recommend pictures, objects, and explanations in Japanese, not English equivalents), but don’t try to translate whole sentences from Japanese to English or from English to Japanese, and get grammatically correct constructions. For example, the sentences “俺は映画を見た” and “俺が映画を見た” in Japanese have different meanings and translate into English as “I watched a movie.”. But if we translate literally as “speaking of me, I watched the movie” and “I am the one who watched the movie”, respectively, we’ll get used to the way Japanese works much faster. And we’ll get the “は” and “が” particles less confused as well.

The practice of learning Japanese

Once you have learned new words and grammar, you need to practice as much as possible. Unlike math or biology, language is a skill, and it takes a lot of practice to perfect it. And just as you can’t learn to swim from books, you can’t learn a language from books alone. That’s why you have to use the language in real-life situations.

For starters, read a lot of Japanese, start with simple manga, and increase the difficulty as you learn the language. Turn off any translation in Japanese TV shows, anime, movies, and even subtitles. You are not required to understand 100%. Most of the time, it only takes 50% to understand the plot and motivations of the characters, but you need to listen carefully and get used to the Japanese language; look for familiar words and learn new ones based on the context. Yes, it’s harder than just watching your favorite anime with subtitles, but watching it with subtitles won’t improve your Japanese skills at all.

Our recommended way to practice is to play video games entirely in Japanese. Some games are more suitable for language learning than others. We explained our  recommendations in the article at the link.

And after that, repeat. You read how a manga hero went outside on a cold winter morning and said to himself “「寒!」”. Tell yourself the same thing the next time you go out. You read how someone wrote about a new game on Twitter – write about it the way you know how, too. Repeat the phrases you read and heard in conversation with Japanese (online or live, it doesn’t matter, there are many language exchange sites and apps that can help with that). Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, and don’t be silent when you want to say something but don’t know how. There is nothing wrong with making mistakes because your own mistakes are the most effective way to learn, as long as you have someone to correct you. So ask to correct your mistakes, and be thankful for corrections and criticism.

Exactly like a child who first learns to speak and repeats the sounds they hear from they parents, you need to repeat what you hear or read in the same way. But the most important thing is to enjoy it. Watch, listen, and read what you like, not textbooks. You have read enough textbooks while you were mastering a new grammar. Over time, the percentage of what you understand will increase, followed by the amount of what you repeat and can repeat. The number of topics you can easily hold a conversation on will increase. You will begin to understand established phrases and jokes that, at first glance, only native speakers understand, but now they have become clear to you, too. So don’t worry if you don’t understand anything at first; you’ll gradually start speaking Japanese as an equal.

The Cyclicality

But this is not the end either. It’s impossible to learn everything, so once we introduce Japanese to our everyday life, we go back to point #2, when we keep learning new words, followed by new kanji, new grammatical constructions, etc. It’s all an endless cycle of language learning, with something new and interesting to learn every day.

Tips for beginners in Japanese

The beginning of learning is probably the hardest part of Japanese. There are a bunch of surprises around every corner that you want to run away from. Here are a few tips to make your life as a beginner a little easier.

Tips for beginners in Japanese

Set a clear goal

It’s probably obvious, but you need to have a specific goal for successful language learning. That way, it’s easier to know what to pay more attention to, and you can set a specific date when you need to achieve something.

The easiest way to figure out your goal is to ask yourself “Why do I want to learn Japanese?”. There can be many reasons. It could be a two-week tourist trip, a desire to go to a Japanese university, or work for a Japanese company, or simply a passion for anime and a desire to watch it in Japanese without subtitles. Any goal is fine! As long as it’s yours.

A goal will help you make a study plan. You won’t just be able to go through the tutorials, but you’ll be focused on looking for exactly what will get you closer to your goal.

For example, if you’re preparing for a short trip, you don’t need to learn hundreds of rules and thousands of characters. Concentrate on memorizing questions about price, how to get somewhere, etc.

Set a clear goal

Memorize everyday phrases

If you are a beginner, take time to learn simple phrases that are used every day. If you know how to greet people at different times of day, how to learn about their mood, and how to thank them, you’ll feel much more confident.

Here are examples of phrases to learn first:

“おはようございます” – “ohayō gozaimasu” – Good morning

“こんにちは” – “konnichi wa” – Hello (used in the afternoon)

“こんばんは”- “konban wa” – Good evening

“お元気ですか” – “ogenki desu ka” – How are you?

“元気です” – “genki desu” – I’m fine

“お願いします” – “onegai shimasu” – Please (could you do something for me?)

“ありがとうございます” – “arigatō gozaimasu” – Thank you

“どういたしまして” – “dō itashi mashite” – Please

Memorize everyday phrases

Learn phrases that are difficult to translate verbatim into English

Some phrases in Japanese are sometimes not at all similar to the ones we use in English. By learning them, you’ll understand Japanese at a deeper level, and it’s important for further learning!

If you translate these phrases word for word, you get some nonsense (from our point of view). It’s important to know exactly what situations they are used in. 

For example:

“お先に失礼します” – “osaki ni shitsurei shimasu”

literally means “Sorry for leaving before you”, but it’s just a polite phrase to say when you leave before your colleagues at work. That is, it’s analogous to a simple “goodbye”. In fact, you may not be particularly embarrassed to leave early.

“お疲れ様です” – “otsukare sama”

The literal meaning is “You look tired”, but in practice, the phrase has no such connotation. It is simply spoken in work situations. For example, when some work is completed, this phrase is uttered. Even just bumping into a colleague in the corridor or elevator, you can (or even should) say this phrase. It is a manifestation of respect for someone else’s work.

The word “よろしく” (“yoroshiku”) means “well” in the sense of “treat me well”. And the full meaning of the phrase is “I hope we get along” or “I hope we can work well together”. This phrase is usually used during the first introductions.

“いただきます” – “itadakimasu”

Literally, it means “accepting”, but in reality, the phrase is used before you start eating. It’s something like “Bon appetit”, but the English wish is directed at those around you, while “itadakimasu” is said more to oneself. You could say that people are thanking those who gave them this food, or even life itself, for having something to eat.

“ごちそうさまです” – “gochisō sama desu”

This phrase is used after a meal and means “It was delicious”. In English, when we leave the table, we usually just say “Thank you”, but the Japanese also say this phrase.

As we can see, all these phrases have some peculiarities that make them unique to the Japanese language. The literal translations sound slightly strange in English. Knowing and understanding such phrases is very important for understanding the Japanese language and culture!

Memorize typical dialogues

For smooth and natural speech, it is important to bring your use of language to automaticity. You shouldn’t spend seconds remembering how to express a thought. Even a short pause in communication makes it crumble. So take the time to memorize the typical dialogues that are found in the language.

“How do I get to the library?” – “Walk forward to the traffic light and turn left.”

“How do you walk to the store?” – “Walk to the police station and turn right.”

You see, these dialogues are very similar, but 1-2 words are substituted each time. Such repetitions will help you get a feel for the structure of the sentences.

You can also start with a single sentence, such as asking “where?” about everything.

“銀行はどこですか?” – “ginkō wa doko desu ka” – Where is the bank?

“郵便局はどこですか?” – “yūbinkyoku wa doko desu ka” – Where is the mail?

“駅はどこですか?” – “eki wa doko desu ka” – Where is the station?

“コンビニはどこですか?” – “konbini wa doko desu ka” – Where is the convenience store?

“ガンダムはどこですか?” – “gandamu wa doko desu ka” – Where is Gandam? (On Odaiba, of course!)

You can use any phrase from a textbook as the basis. Or use one from your favorite anime or manga!

Memorize typical dialogues

Learn adjectives in Japanese

The Japanese use adjectives very often. And they use them a little differently than we do, so be sure to take the time to learn them.

For example, when we say “It’s hot today” (adverb) or just “What a heat wave!” (noun), the Japanese will say “暑いですね” (“atsui desu ne”). Literally translates to “Hot” but means “Today is a hot day”. Short is the sister of talent – that’s the Japanese language.

Many beginners like to say extended sentences, translating their native language into Japanese. It sounds unnatural.

Japanese is a high-context language. This means that it’s not just the words that are important for conveying thought but also the context of what the situation consists of. Clearly, on a hot day, “暑いですね” (“atsui desu ne”) would mean “What a heat wave”. But if this is said by a mother touching the forehead of a sick child, it already means that the child has a high fever.

That is, Japanese allows you to express a thought very briefly but still allows for ambiguity. This can happen a lot with adjectives, especially if you don’t know them well and don’t understand what they can mean in different situations.

Here are adjectives for beginners:

“暑い” – “atsui” – hot

“寒い” – “samui” – cold (for example, about the weather)

“冷たい” – “tsumetai” – cold (for example, about liquids)

“高い” – “takai” – tall or expensive

“安い” – “yasui” – cheap or quiet

“楽しい” – “tanoshii” – fun (e.g., about an event in the sense of “It’s fun!”)

Learn how verbs change

Verbs are just as important for expressing thought as adjectives. You can use them just as well without adding any additional words. But it is important to use the correct endings.

“行きます” – “ikimasu” – To go (affirmative, present tense)

“行きません” – “ikimasen” – I won’t go (negative, present tense)

“行きました” – “ikimashita” – Go (affirmative, past tense)

“行きせんでした” – “ikimasen deshita” – Did not go (negative, past tense)

In fact, in these sentences, it’s impossible to tell whether it’s me, you, he, she, it, or them who went. But, understandably, if you are asked, “Will you go to this party?”, you mean “Yes, I will go” when you answer with one word. The context in Japanese is very important! And just as important is the correct use of endings; remember what is used in the present and future tenses and what is used in the past.

Make your Japanese speech lively with emotional particles

Japanese sentences may end with a variety of particles that are often not normally translated into English, but they carry an emotional load. With us, it is usually expressed only by intonation. Mastering these particles will make your speech livelier and brighter.

The particle “ね” (“ne”) means something like “isn’t it?” as if it were a rhetorical question, for example:

“楽しかったね” – “tanoshikatta ne” – It was fun, wasn’t it?

“いいいね” – “ii ne” – It was good, wasn’t it? (this is the phrase used to refer to likes on social media – and that’s exactly the meaning it carries, “I liked it”)

The particle “よ” (“yo”) adds emphasis to what you are saying. For example, the same phrases with this particle will shift the meaning:

“楽しかったよ” – “tanoshikatta yo” – that was fun!

“いいよ” – “ii yo” – Yeah, it’s okay (meaning that you agree with something)

Without these particles, you sound like an emotionless robot. Also, the Japanese use them all the time. Learn them so you can understand the shades of meaning.

There are plenty of other particles, but these two are enough for a beginner.

Make your Japanese speech livery with emotional particles

Listen to educational podcasts

Listening, that is, the ability to hear natural speech, is one of the most important skills in language learning. The only thing more important is probably the ability to say something back :).

And there’s only one way to begin to understand what the Japanese are saying – listen to them. Communicating face-to-face is the most effective way, but it can be hard to find someone to talk to. This is where podcasts come in handy!

There are specialized podcasts designed specifically for Japanese language learners:

  • JapanesePod101 – paid, made by professionals, designed to move through the program, has a lot of accompanying materials.
  • Small Talk in Japanese – free, hosted by Japanese women living in the UK, combines live Japanese speech with a focus on learners.

There are also Japanese podcasts for Japanese speakers. Of course, they require a higher level of training. Just download a podcast app (there are dozens of them, look for “podcasts” in the app store). You need one where you can search by country. Select Japan, and you’ll get a whole catalog of different Japanese podcasts.

Another listening tool is Japanese radio. Again, apps that allow you to listen to radio stations all over the world come to your rescue. You can choose a music station, or you can find a talk station.

Listen to educational podcasts

Use Japanese alphabets, not their “substitutes”

There are two alphabets in Japanese, hiragana, and katakana. Learn them. Memorize how they are written and how they are read. Moreover, there are not many letters, only 46 in each alphabet, and they read the same way in both alphabets.

Once you have learned them, use only them in your lessons. Many beginners are very tempted to use transcription because it makes more sense. But that really slows down the understanding of the language!

Beginners also like to put off learning hieroglyphics because it’s supposedly much harder. It will always be difficult if you don’t start learning them! Start doing it as early as possible.

Use Japanese

Find a place where you can use Japanese. And most importantly, a place where you just have fun. Combine learning the language with your hobbies.

Do you like movies? Find Japanese film communities on the internet and start going through the motions of learning what they’re talking about.

Interested in art? Check out what’s available in Japanese art. At a minimum, start with articles about artists and trends on Wikipedia.

Also, when you have all the social media at your fingertips, there’s no problem finding real Japanese that will talk about what you care about, not textbook topics.

For example, the Japanese are very active on Twitter. Find out what your interest is called in Japanese and type that word or phrase into the search bar. There are so many Japanese artists, photographers, musicians, computer game developers, and many others on Twitter. Take Hideo Kojima!

And you can also just look through the tweets of the Japan Review – it often mentions various Japanese users who are doing something creative and interesting.

If there are any Japanese language clubs in your city, that makes it even easier! Just go to them.

Use Japanese

Learning new words

This article introduces many Japanese words, phrases and expressions. It’s likely that you weren’t acquainted with some of them.

Of course, reading them only once is insufficient to help you remember all of these terms. We advise you to add all the new words and phrases you encounter here to your personal dictionary in order to learn them thoroughly.

You could, for instance, make a language card that looks like that:

Click on the image to add it to your dictionary 

It’s essential to keep working on your vocabulary. Don’t disregard this activity. This is how you actually learn the language.

Conclusion about Japanese

Japanese is one of the most difficult languages on the planet, but we can help you make it easier and clearer!

Here, in Langavia, we designed the Complete Guide to successfully learn any foreign language (including Japanese, of course). It will be extra-useful for beginners as well as people who have been learning Japanese for a long time!

Our team has put together only working techniques that will make learning new languages and dialects easier..  You will get a system and manage to understand how to build your study plan in order to eventually succeed in your language learning journey.

Click the “get it now” button and get access to this material. 

Langavia Team

We help people to learn new languages and expand their vocabulary effectively.

Rate author
( 2 assessment, average 5 from 5 )
Share the article via social media:
Blog Langavia
Add a comment