Learning Japanese: Where to Start? 5 Steps for Total Beginners

A side-on view of someone's red trainers as they run up a set of blue stairs. Text reads "Learning Japanese: Where to Start? 5 Steps for Total Beginners".

Image credit: Lindsay Henwood

Posted: 10th Aug 2023

In my work as a Japanese teacher, I come across a lot of people wondering how to get started with learning Japanese. What are the best study methods and materials? Should you start with vocab or grammar? Do you have to learn to read and write the characters?

In today's post, I'm going to outline what I think are some key steps - and questions - for any total beginner in Japanese.

5 Steps for Total Beginners: Skip Ahead

If you'd like to skip ahead to a particular item in this list, you can do so by clicking any of the following links.

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Step 1: Develop Your Interest in Japan

So: you're thinking of learning Japanese. My guess is you have an interest in something to do with Japan!

While this step may sound somewhat negligible, I encourage you to stop and have a think for a moment. Specifically, try asking yourself:

  • What interests do I have that are related to Japan?
  • In what ways might learning Japanese help me expand upon my enjoyment of those interests?

While I want to avoid any kind of gatekeeping in terms of who "should" and "shouldn't" learn Japanese (spoiler: learning Japanese is for everyone!), if you're at all unsure of whether you want to start learning the language, this may be a good place to start.

Why?

In my experience, those who continue the longest and most happily with their Japanese learning are those with an interest that is enhanced by their growing understanding of the language. As they progress with their Japanese, this can create a positive cycle in which both the language and the related interest inform one another.

To give a basic example, someone with an interest in martial arts may learn the words for empty ("kara") and hand ("te") quickly due to knowing the word "karate", while further down the line, they may find it easier to learn other new karate terms because they already know the Japanese words and what they mean.

So: what could developing your interest in Japan look like? Some examples might include:

  • Delving further into an existing Japan-related hobby or interest (e.g. art, history, food, literature)
  • Starting to look more actively into current events, news and day-to-day life in Japan
  • Trying out new Japanese media (e.g. dramas, anime, manga, music, podcasts)

Now, I should be clear: there is absolutely nothing wrong with simply wanting to give learning Japanese a go "just because". Similarly, there's nothing wrong with being exclusively interested in the language. However, don't forget: learning a language is a lot of effort! The further down the road you get, the more you will (most likely) need something extra to fuel your motivation. Having an interest which is enriched by your understanding of your Japanese is a brilliant, fulfilling way to enhance your enjoyment of exploring the language - and of life in general!

Personally, when I began learning Japanese at university, I found myself way out of my depth when talking to many of my classmates, most of whom knew a fair bit about Japan and Japanese already thanks to anime and manga. While I was a fan of Studio Ghibli and ukiyo-e (Japanese woodblock prints), and had had the fortune of visiting Japan with my family, my main interest in Japanese had been sparked simply through wanting to learn a completely new language - and, in particular, to become able to read its beautiful written script!

Fortunately, learning Japanese within a university language department created plenty of opportunities to discover new interests, and I was soon hooked on J-dramas and talking about cultural differences (and similarities) with Japanese friends. Honestly, it's hard to understate the positive impact this had on my progress in Japanese!

Step 2: Start Learning Basic Vocab & Phrases

Having had a think about some Japan-related interests to fuel your enjoyment of learning the language, it's time to start talking study methods.

While the phrase "study methods" can sound a bit intimidating, all this really means is your approach to learning the language. It can be as intense or laidback as you like - the main idea at this stage is to experiment and find something that works for you.

If you've read some other articles on how to get started with learning Japanese, you may have spotted a few that recommend studying grammar from early on. While the line between "learning grammar" and "learning phrases" is not always as defined as you might expect, my advice for total beginners is to start with vocab (helpful words) and phrases, as this will give you a great foundation on which to build a more detailed understanding of the language at a later stage.

So: where should you start?

Personally, I recommend trying out some different apps or websites. There are plenty out there for Japanese learners, from renshuu to LingoDeer to Memrise to Duolingo* and so many more.

As for which platform is best, to be honest, I don't have the answer. Although the ones I've listed above are what I generally suggest to my students, there is no one app that will be right for every person, so give yourself a free rein to install, uninstall, install, uninstall...and keep repeating and exploring till you find something that sticks. Trying out several different platforms can actually come with some benefits, such as getting the chance to revise and update your understanding of things you've already taken a stab at learning elsewhere!

Incidentally, you may find it helpful to have a Japanese dictionary installed as an app or bookmarked on your web browser. My personal favourite is Takoboto (available on Android), but once again, shop around for one that works for you.

*While Duolingo has a (well earned) bad reputation among many Japanese learners, it does seem to have got better over the years, and in my experience, it can be a great first window into language learning, in particular when it comes to building a regular study habit. While the free version can be quite annoying and restricting at times, several of my students have had noticeable improvements in their vocab after using it.

Step 3: Try Learning Hiragana

Alright: now we have some vocab and phrases under our belts, what's the next step?

A pretty unavoidable reality of learning Japanese is the written script. While it is technically possible to become conversationally fluent in Japanese without ever touching the written language, the further you progress, the more you will find you are restricted by having only the spoken language available to you.

If you've ever looked into how hard it is (or isn't) to learn to read or write Japanese, you may have come across some pretty scary numbers. However, I have some good news for you!

Unlike Chinese languages (Mandarin, Cantonese etc), Japanese does not rely purely on Chinese characters (kanji). If you're not sure what kanji is, it's basically the most complicated-looking script used in Japanese. Here is what the sentence "I am Japanese" looks like in Japanese:

  • 私は日本人です。

Can you see how there are some simpler-looking characters in between the more complex ones? If you're not sure what I mean, look for the second character (は) and the two last characters (です) and compare them with the first character (私) and the middle three characters (日本人).

These simpler-looking characters are part of the hiragana script, which itself is derived from kanji. Unlike kanji, where each character represents a meaning, hiragana work more like letters in the alphabet, each representing a given sound (or very occasionally two possible sounds). While "real-life" Japanese is written using a combination of kanji, hiragana and katakana, it is theoretically possible to write everything in just hiragana - and indeed, many materials for learners will make sure that everything is legible through hiragana alone.

In essence: while learning all three Japanese scripts is indeed a big undertaking, if we focus on just hiragana alone, everything suddenly becomes a lot more manageable. Hiragana on its one is made up of just 46 characters - and these 46 can get you a long way!

Although a knowledge of hiragana is not 100% essential for learning Japanese, I do strongly recommend trying to learn this first script. If it's not for you, this will be useful information in determining your next steps. If it turns out okay, it may be something that motivates you to learn more!

One thing is sure: having a knowledge of hiragana at the ready will save you a lot of time if you decide to take your learning to the next step, be it through self-study or lessons with a teacher, as there are tonnes of resources out there for you to have a go at learning it by yourself.

For tips on how to learn hiragana and to find out whether you should learn to write by hand, check out my post: 9 Fun Ways to Learn Hiragana & Katakana.

Step 4: Take Time to Reflect

Now that you've created a steady foundation for yourself through vocab, phrases and perhaps some hiragana, it's time to consider how you want to progress.

Here are some questions you could ask yourself:

  • Do I have any specific learning aims (e.g. "I want to be able to order food in Japanese" or "I want to be able to make conversation with my in-laws")?
  • Do I want to learn to read and write more or would I rather focus on speaking and listening?
  • How much time can I comfortably put towards learning Japanese each week?
  • Do I want to continue with self-study or start learning with a teacher?
  • If I want guidance from a teacher, do I want one-to-one lessons or group lessons?

By asking yourself the first two questions shown above, this should help you to zone in on different types of learning methods or materials that might be helpful to you. If you think you might find learning from a textbook helpful, check out my post on What Japanese Textbooks Do I Recommend?, in which I introduce different books according to different levels of study but also different skill areas.

By considering the third question about how much time you're able to commit, this should hopefully help you to set expectations. My advice is to start small, e.g. 10mins every other day, and work from there. That said, you know yourself best, so try to take a realistic (and kind!) look at what is or isn't doable for you. In particular, if you're interested in starting Japanese lessons, be aware that these will most likely come with homework - although one-to-one lessons may be more flexible.

On that note, if you're considering learning with the support of a Japanese teacher, I recommend checking out this other post of mine: Should You Start Japanese Lessons?

Incidentally: doing this kind of reflection is by no means easy! It's a process of 試行錯誤 (shikō sakugo - trial and error), so try not to worry too much if, even after this step, you try something new only to find out it's not right for you. Finding a learning style that works for you may take time, and that's okay!

Step 5: Seek (More) External Input and Community

If you've followed all of the above steps up to this point, first of all: well done!

By now, you'll have done what I consider a pretty great job of getting yourself set up as a beginner learner in Japanese. (Aside: it's more than okay to follow a different process from the one I've outlined here! This is just my advice based on my own personal experience.)

While you'll already have had external input of sorts via apps or posts like this one to help you along the way, it's at this point that I'd recommend upping the amount (and quality) of external input you're receiving.

What do I mean by external input? This could be anything from becoming involved in a community of Japanese learners (online or in person) to starting lessons with a Japanese teacher. Essentially, the idea is to make sure that you're not continuing to learn entirely on your own, as typically this will a) slow you down and b) mean you spend more time than is necessary stuck in ruts or getting into bad habits. No to mention learning alongside others can fun and help you feel supported!

While naturally I'm biased towards the option of learning with a teacher, if lessons are something you're able to afford, they can give you a real boost when it comes to directing your studies, providing clarity over what to focus on and avoiding common pitfalls that you may otherwise stumble over as a purely self-directed learner. For more on this topic, I (once again) recommend checking out this other post of mine: Should You Start Japanese Lessons?

As well as input on the more explicitly "learning" side of things, something that can really boost your motivation is finding a community that shares your passion. Again, this may be something you find via gatherings of fellow learners, but then again, perhaps you could think back to your original hobbies/interests related to Japan. Leaning into communities - be it book clubs, martial arts studios or anime fan forums - that help you to connect with your interest in Japan beyond the language alone just might make all the difference when it comes to sustaining your interest over the longer term.

Of course, it may turn out that Japanese is not for you, in which case: well done for giving it a go! It's often easy to feel like giving up on a particular hobby or interest amounts to some sort of failure, but I'm sure that you will discover plenty along the way that you would never have had the pleasure of knowing otherwise.

And finally, if you're yet to get stuck in, this is me wishing you all the very best with your endeavours!

がんばってね!(Ganbatte ne! Give it your best shot!)

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