As anyone who has taken four years of a foreign language course in high school only to completely forget it after graduation can attest, becoming fluent in a second language is not easy. This difficulty is compounded when the writing and grammar system is so different, as in the case of Japanese. And anyone who has taken a foreign language in college knows how expensive it can be, both for the class itself and the materials therein.
Despite this, Japanese is one of the most popular languages of study. This is mainly due to the popularity of Japan’s media and pop culture, namely anime and manga. It can be difficult to learn Japanese, but it doesn't have to be expensive. That said, even just knowing where to get started can be overwhelming.
First Things First
The first stop for someone brand new to Japanese should be Tae Kim's Complete Guide to Japanese. This is a quick and intuitive guide to the fundamentals, starting from learning the basic writing system and pronunciation through to more formal language. Another big plus is that it is a free resource, which for someone just starting out and not sure yet if they’re committed to learning Japanese, is a big plus. His grammar guide is also well done and is a logical next step once you make it through the basic guide.
If you’re still with me, first of all, congratulations. Just getting that far is an accomplishment. Second, you have a lot of options going forward. I’ll split these resources into four sections: reading, writing, listening, and speaking. These are all free unless specified otherwise.
Arguably the most difficult aspect of learning Japanese is learning kanji, i.e. the Chinese characters. The hiragana and katakana writing systems are simpler, generally have one pronunciation, and have 48 characters each. But as for kanji, for one, there are approximately 13,000 kanji, excluding obsolete characters. The good news is, only around two to three thousand are in common use (I know, that’s still intimidating). Two, kanji characters are much more complicated. Whereas hiragana characters have about two to four strokes each, stroke count for kanji characters can run into the twenties, and there are even a few that have thirty strokes. Lastly, kanji usually have more than one pronunciation, depending on whether it’s taking the Japanese or Chinese pronunciation.
If that scares you, at least know that I and many other people consider learning kanji to be the most difficult part of learning Japanese. That said, if you’re motivated, you can learn 1,800 kanji in three months.
The best way I’ve found to learn kanji fast is to use the flash card program Anki. Anki is based off the spaced repetition system, which helps you study more effectively by prioritizing the cards you have the most trouble with and deprioritizing the cards you know by heart. You can use flash cards to study many things, but it’s perfectly suited to kanji. Someone has already made a pre-made kanji flash card set available for download, based off of the Heisig system, which organizes characters based on similarity as opposed to frequency of use. A few tips when using flash cards: write down the kanji each time (it’s very easy to mix up a few of the characters and it’s not readily apparent that you know it unless you can see what you’ve written right in front of you), and use mnemonics. A good thing about the Heisig system is that each character builds on the last, so when you get to a certain kanji, you usually know what the individual parts mean. This means you can use a mnemonic device made up of the meanings of the parts to study more effectively. I’ve found this a much better method than studying by frequency of use and rote memorization.
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When it comes to actual reading material, there are many options. There are plenty of websites with Japanese content, on just about any interest. Be sure to enable Asian characters on your computer if they’re not enabled already, or you won’t be able to read anything. For those actually travelling to Japan, Wikitravel and Omniglot have decent basic free phrasebooks, the latter of which has accompanying sound files. However, as paperback phrasebooks are full of content, easily portable, and are generally less than $10, a Lonely Planet or Berlitz phrasebook is well worth the investment.
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For those looking for content on a specific interest, search engines are usually the best place to start. If the Japanese term for your interest is not something you can find in a dictionary, a tip is to use Wikipedia to look it up. For example, if you’re interested in Haruki Murakami, go to his English page on Wikipedia, then under languages on the left, click on Japanese. This will take you to the Japanese page on Haruki Murakami, with his name in bold letters so you can use copy and paste to put it in a search engine. (And of course, the Japanese Wikipedia page itself is a good source of information and study!)
For reading said websites, there’s a great add-on on Firefox called Perapera Japanese Popup Dictionary. When it is enabled, you can hover over a word you don’t know and it will show the pronunciation and meaning. A word of warning, however: it doesn’t read loan words, of which there are many in Japanese, and it can easily become a crutch if you use it all the time. (I’ll talk about other free online dictionaries more in the writing section.)
For buying books or manga in Japanese, I recommend Kinokuniya. As they have stores based in the U.S., the shipping is reasonable, and they have a good selection.
Another suggestion is to buy Japanese video games. These days most video game systems are region-free, meaning you don’t have to buy another system or anything special to play them on your current system. For many of these, there is voice acting with optional subtitles for additional listening practice. If you have an interest in a game already, such as a game you enjoyed in English that you know came from Japan, that’s usually the best option, even if the language is difficult. It’s apt to be an easier learning experience since you know the basics of plot and gameplay, and since you already know you like the game. However, if you’re not sure, games in the romance or slice of life category are a good start, such as Tokimeki Memorial.
Keeping a paper journal in Japanese can help you not just with forming sentences but with remembering kanji. If you want to use a word processor, I prefer JWPce. There is a built-in dictionary as well as various ways to look up kanji, not just to find the one you’re looking for but to confirm it’s the right one as opposed to a look- or sound-alike. For just allowing Japanese input on your computer, you can add additional input languages in Windows by searching “Input Language” in the Control Panel and then going to Add Input Language. For a Mac, go to System Preferences, then the Language & Text tab. Under Input Sources, choose hiragana and katakana under Kotoeri. This can even be done on some phones, but it usually involves changing your display language to Japanese.
If you want to go the blog route, LiveJournal supports Japanese text. Ameba is a popular blog site in Japan if you want to use an actual Japanese site.
As for dictionaries, some good free online ones are Goo, Yahoo/Kotobank, and Weblio, the latter two of which I use the most. You have the option of the definition in Japanese or the translation in English, the latter of which has example sentences. For looking up phrases as opposed to individual words, I use Space Alc. All of these support both English and Japanese look-ups.
To actually get your written Japanese corrected, there are two sites: Lang-8 and Italki. Both of these are free, but you’re expected to correct someone’s English entries in return. If someone who corrected you doesn’t have any entries that need correcting, anyone will do.
A great source of free listening material is podcasts on iTunes. There are free podcasts on just about any topic in the Japanese iTunes store. Use a dictionary or the Wikipedia trick to look up the terms for your areas of interest. Of course, there are also free Japanese learning podcasts in the English store, such as Japanese Pod 101.
Sometimes you can find clips or even episodes of Japanese TV shows on YouTube.
If you have a paid subscription to Netflix, watch Japanese anime on Instant Watch (it has its own section). You can even turn off the subtitles now. (I recommend watching anything in Japanese at least once without the subtitles. It’s almost impossible, even for high level learners, to focus on the Japanese with English going on at the same time.) Of course, Netflix has a much more extensive library of anime DVDs. Chances are, if you’re interested in Japanese, you already know something about anime. However, if you’re unsure, just like with video games, I recommend something in the romance or slice of life category when just starting out. Of course, also just like with video games, if you have an interest in something already, that’s usually better than choosing an anime just because it looks easy to understand!
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A suggestion a little off the beaten path is TwitCasting. This site has many videos recorded live akin to vlogs. They can be a great source of natural, native Japanese. It can be hard to find good ones, but I actually find them kind of fascinating. You get a peek into someone else’s life. Also, if you’re feeling brave, if they’re currently broadcasting you can make a comment and have something like a conversation. Another suggestion is NicoNico Douga. Just like with TwitCasting, it can be hard to find something good, but every so often I find something I enjoy, such as a live play-through of a video game with commentary.
Speaking is one of the toughest aspects of fluency in a foreign language, and yet it is one of the skills most desired by learners. Not only do you have to think much faster than if you’re writing or reading, but many people worry about making mistakes and feeling embarrassed.
There are free options, such as Language Exchange and Italki. On Language Exchange, you have the option of using their interface or Skype. Luckily there are many Japanese people who want to learn English, so you should have plenty of options for language partners. However, the operative word here is partner, and you will be expected to help them with their English in exchange for helping you with your Japanese. Also, since English is such a popular language, particularly on Language Exchange, someone who doesn’t know Japanese will request to speak with you for English practice. People on language learning sites come from all over, and sometimes it can be fun just to talk with someone from another country, but do not feel obliged to participate in these one-sided exchanges unless you’re actually interested.
Italki also has a paid option, one of the cheapest out there. This option might be better when you’re first starting out and would like someone who can be patient and helpful to a newbie. It’s probably impossible to avoid feeling awkward at first, but if you prepare a list of topics and vocabulary for said topics ahead of time, you can prevent dead air on your end. Avoid tutors who overuse English. This is the one of the most common problems with foreign language tutors, even expensive private ones. Sometimes it just comes from a natural desire to avoid awkwardness in communication, but it’s counterproductive and a mark of a lack of skill or experience. English should be used as a last resort, especially when you’re paying for a foreign language conversation service. The proficiency that comes from solely using Japanese is well worth the momentary awkwardness.
Meetup is another option for conversation practice. Particularly if you live in a big city, there are many Meetup groups of language learners who get together for a meal or drink and to speak Japanese. These gatherings typically have learners of all levels, and even sometimes a native or two. You have to find a way to get there and you usually have to buy something to eat or drink, but they’re a great place to meet people and practice a language.
Hopefully I’ve given you plenty of places to start from. Happy learning!