If you want to learn Japanese and you don't know where to start, it's here! This brief guide to learning Japanese is the perfect starting point on your language learning journey.
By the end of this guide, you will have a basic understanding of the Japanese language and its three scripts, as well as the grammar, formality, and best means of study for learning Japanese.
These include engaging with Japanese music, films, and podcasts, getting a tutor, and signing up for online classes.
What's more, we will address frequently asked questions about learning Japanese. So, without further ado, let’s get started on learning Japanese!
The Japanese Language: A Quick Intro
The Japanese language, called Nihongo, dates back to at least the 3rd century. It is spoken natively by around 128 million people, primarily in Japan.
Many English-speaking Japanese learners find the language challenging as it has a hierarchy of politeness and an opposite sentence structure to English.
While in English, we use the structure subject -> verb -> object, eg. "David kicks the ball", in Japanese grammar it goes subject -> object -> verb, eg. "Debiddo ga bōru o keru". The ball, "bōru", is the object and goes before "keru", which is the verb "kicks".
Learning to speak Japanese is complex for English speakers. The Japanese language has a pitch accent. This means that the same two syllables can be pronounced with different pitches and this changes the meaning of a word.
However, when read, Japanese is actually easier to pronounce than English, provided you understand the three alphabets.
In addition to the three scripts in the Japanese writing system, the language can also be written in Latin characters, as shown above.
In this manner, Japanese words can be written to indicate their phonetic pronunciation for beginners.
"I learn Japanese" can be written as 私は日本語を学びます or watashi wa nihongo o manabimasu. Of course, learning Japanese pronunciation is easier when you can see how the word is written in an alphabet familiar to you.
Related: Saying Hello in Japanese: Pronouncing Japanese Greetings
Japanese Scripts: What Are They?
The spoken Japanese language existed long before there was an official way to write it down.
Then, in the 5th century, they began using Kanji, adopted Chinese characters, to express written Japanese words.
However, Chinese and Japanese are fundamentally different languages and Kanji characters could not express all of the sounds and words in Japanese.
So, as well as Kanji, there are two syllabic scripts; Hiragana and Katakana. These scripts are simpler and represent individual sounds, rather than whole words or concepts.
Almost all written Japanese contains a mixture of these three scripts. Due to the fact that Kanji, Hiragana, and Katakana are all used together, Japanese is considered to be a complex writing system, and learners need to know all three.
Kanji characters are complex in appearance and generally represent whole words or ideas, unlike the Hiragana and Katakana characters.
The total number of Kanji characters is well over 50,000. This number is so large, and the other scripts can be used to express so many words, that very few (if any) native speakers know them all.
There is no quick and easy way to learn Kanji. You just need to study each symbol and learn its meaning.
Most Japanese children learn around 2,000 Kanji characters at school. Incidentally, this is deemed sufficient Kanji knowledge to pass a JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test).
Hiragana and Katakana
Hiragana characters are used primarily for writing native or naturalized Japanese words and grammatical elements, while Katakana is used for foreign loan words or names, scientific terms, and sometimes for emphasis.
Both Hiragana and Katakana use simple strokes that look very different from the typical square, detailed Kanji character.
When you learn Japanese, it is important to learn Hiragana and Katakana. After all, both will show up in Japanese texts, and sometimes you cannot express a sound with just Kanji.
Japanese Grammar: Is it Difficult to Learn?
Japanese grammar is very different from English grammar, but that does not mean you cannot learn it. As we have seen, there are differences in sentence structure between the two languages. However, in addition to this, Japanese nouns and verbs work differently too.
Nouns in Japanese have no plural form and do not take articles (such as "a" or "the").
So, a Japanese noun could translate in several different ways in English. For example, Neko (ねこ) could translate as "cat"/ "the cat"/ "the cats"/ "some cats"/ "cats in general".
You can, however, indicate plurality at times by repeating Japanese characters. For instance, hito (ひと) means "person" and hito bito (ひとびと) means "people".
Something to note when you learn Japanese grammar is that the verb always goes at the end of a sentence. Furthermore, the rest of the word order is more flexible.
Verbs in Japanese are actually reasonably straightforward, though they follow different rules than their English counterparts.
Japanese verbs do not change their endings depending on who is speaking, unlike in English (eg. “I go”, “he goes”).
Moreover, there are only present and past tenses in Japanese, which also makes it simpler than English in this regard.
Conjugating verbs becomes a little more complex when you take into account the hierarchy of politeness in Japanese culture.
When you look up a verb in the Japanese dictionary, it will be in its basic form and if you use it unconjugated you will be speaking informal Japanese.
However, to speak formal Japanese, you have to use the "-masu" ending.
For instance, a polite way to say "thank you" is arigatou gozaimasu (ありがとう ございます). While a less formal version would just be arigatou (ありがとう).
Formal Japanese can be divided into three categories: polite language, honorific language, and humble language. When you study Japanese, you will have to learn the social hierarchy in order to use the correct level of politeness.
Generally, in Japanese society parents are above children in the social pecking order, teachers are above students, bosses are above employees, and elderly people are above younger people.
So, as you learn Japanese words and phrases, bear in mind the politeness level being used. It could be that you are learning informal greetings that would be inappropriate in certain settings.
The Best Ways to Learn Japanese Online
Engage with Japanese Media
Listen to Japanese music and podcasts to immerse yourself in Japanese sounds and work on your listening comprehension.
The content of the podcasts and songs will also give you an insight into Japanese values, history, and current affairs. So, this is a great way to develop a better understanding of Japanese culture.
Watch Japanese films and TV shows to expose yourself to native speakers having natural dialogues. The more you listen to fluent Japanese, the better you will be able to absorb new vocabulary words, as well as Japanese grammar and mannerisms.
Watch Japanese Movies & TV Shows
Watching Japanese movies will also deepen your understanding of the social hierarchy and politeness customs. This will be useful for when you begin to speak Japanese.
Watching foreign language films and TV is proven to be a very effective way to learn a new language. It teaches you about sentence structure, formality, and grammar in an authentic way.
This is preferable to studying a textbook for hours and seeing the grammar rules in isolation, which can be overwhelming.
If you want to access lots of great Japanese movies and TV series that are ideal for learning Japanese, sign up to Lingopie. This is a streaming service designed specifically to help you to learn a new language. Lingopie offers hundreds of titles in Japanese, as well as in other languages.
Furthermore, Lingopie has dual English and Japanese subtitles, interactive flashcards, and quizzes to motivate you and track your learning progress.
This is an interactive and engaging way to absorb the language organically and pick up on slang, customs, and other elements of Japanese life, society, and culture.
If you want some tips on what to learn check out our guide to the 9 best Japanese movies on Netflix for Japanese Learners. If anime is more of your thing, don't worry! We've also made a guide on how to make the best out of anime for Japanese learning.
Take Online Courses
Sign up for an online Japanese course if you would like a more formal setting for learning Japanese. There are different kinds of Japanese courses online.
Some are formatted around group classes over zoom, while others provide learning materials that you use to self-teach the Japanese language.
These courses generally encourage you to practice writing and reading for homework as well as speaking and listening in class, or with a partner.
The good thing about completing online courses at a Japanese language school is that they provide standardized testing and certificates which prove internationally that you have achieved a certain level of proficiency in Japanese.
These courses will also offer Japanese for beginners and lessons for more advanced Japanese learners. So, whether you are learning Japanese from scratch, or continuing in your Japanese language journey, there will be a level-appropriate course for you.
Online language schools structure Japanese courses around the four language skills: speaking, listening, reading, and writing.
So, you will be instructed on how to speak Japanese correctly, using the appropriate level of politeness. You'll also work on listening skills using audio clips and conversation, as well as the Japanese writing system.
Video Chat with A Japanese Tutor or Exchange Partner
Another great way to learn Japanese is by using an online one-on-one tutor. This could be a professional teacher or just a native speaker who wants to do a language exchange.
The latter is when you speak in English for an hour to help your exchange partner learn, then you switch to Japanese for an hour so you can work on your Japanese fluency.
This is a mutually-beneficial arrangement and it is very common and useful for people learning Japanese from overseas. With your exchange partner, you can discuss Japanese culture, learn what Japanese people think and feel about specific issues, absorb the Japanese language as spoken by a native Japanese speaker, and speak Japanese in a safe and comfortable environment.
Having a private tutor or language exchange partner is the best way to work on your Japanese speaking skills, as you can progress at your own pace and your tutor can focus conversations on areas of the Japanese language that you need to develop, such as the past tense.
Hearing a Japanese person use their own native language authentically is a great way to learn new words and Japanese grammar in an organic manner.
Language learners can benefit from this kind of natural exposure as it is similar to how they learned their own native language; through listening and mimicking.
If you want to learn Japanese this way, you can look on sites like Tandem, where there are hundreds of Japanese speakers waiting to find the right partner with whom to practice.
You can exchange English words and phrases for Japanese language practice and watch as you both progress over time.
FAQs Relating to Learning Japanese
How Can I Teach Myself Japanese?
On top of engaging with fun Japanese media, such as podcasts and anime, it is also recommended to engage in at least an hour a day of active learning. This could be going over flashcards, reading vocabulary lists, or learning Hiragana and Katakana symbols.
Studying Japanese characters for even fifteen minutes a day will massively help your progress with Hiragana and Katakana, which in turn will make Japanese arts and media more accessible to you.
Moreover, you should create flashcards of any useful new words and phrases. Each card should have a Japanese word on one side and the translation on the back. This is a classic memorization technique and will help to build your vocabulary.
How Should I Begin Learning Japanese?
Everyone has their own learning style and you will have your own system for memorizing and absorbing information. Many English speakers like to learn Hiragana and Katakana together, as there are several overlaps and similar characters.
In fact, both scripts contain 46 letters, each representing a syllable sound in Japanese.
The Hiragana character へ and the Katakana ヘ, which sound like the "e" in "bed", are almost identical.
As for the spoken word, it is highly recommended that you find a native speaker with whom to practice. This is the fastest way to improve. Native speakers will be able to correct your mistakes and use natural language with you so that you are learning Japanese at the correct politeness level.
What is the Correct Order to Learn Japanese?
Learning Hiragana and Katakana before Kanji is recommended, as they are simpler and can be used to express all sounds.
Once you can write Hiragana, you will be able to make yourself understood in basic Japanese. From there, you can start to learn Kanji that are common and useful.
There is no right or wrong way to learn the Japanese language. However, it makes sense to start by learning simple verbs and nouns that you can use in day-to-day life. Start with the most useful vocabulary and build from there.
Often, Japanese language learners will master formal Japanese first, as formal verb conjugation is very easy.
Is Japanese easy to learn?
As we have pointed out, many English speakers find the Japanese language and grammar to be complex. However, once you have a grasp of the phonetic scripts and some basic Japanese vocabulary words, you will see that you progress just fine.
With the help of language schools or zoom calls with Japanese people, you will find the language learning process manageable and even fun.
Remember, you are not in a race. It is fine to progress at your own pace and there is no shame in forgetting the same word ten times or struggling to pronounce Japanese sounds. These are very normal parts of language learning.
Rather than thinking of learning Japanese as an easy or difficult task, think of it as doable. You can and you will master the Japanese language if you put in the time and effort!
Summing up: The Ultimate Guide to Learning Japanese
This has been a brief guide to the Japanese language and learning Japanese as an English speaker.
As we have seen, due to its writing system and grammar, Japanese is one of the more complex East Asian languages.
However, two of the Japanese scripts can be learned with relative ease, meaning learners can begin to use basic Japanese quite quickly.
Once you begin to engage with Japanese films, music, and other media, your brain will begin to absorb the Japanese language and mannerisms while you have fun.
You can use an exchange partner or sign up for an online Japanese course for more structured language learning. These courses are designed to make Japanese for beginners accessible and engaging. Communicating with Japanese people speaking their own language is also great exposure to the language and its nuances.
If you want to learn Japanese in a natural and engaging way, sign up to Lingopie, the streaming service designed to help you to learn Japanese, as well as other languages, while you enjoy great TV!
Language learning has never been more fun and accessible. Good luck!