So, you want to learn Japanese, but you’re broke. You can’t afford all of the textbooks that everyone recommends or the fancy programs that seem to work like magic for everyone else.
I was (and still am) in the same position. At the time of writing this article, I have been studying Japanese independently for about seven years now and looking into studying it formally when I transfer to a university in the fall. Over the years, I have seen a lot of tips and tricks for learning Japanese, but only a handful were actually helpful in teaching me the basics of the language and pushing me toward fluency. I would like to share these with you today.
Without further ado, here are five of the best tips that I have heard for learning a foreign language that have shaped the way that I study Japanese. (Disclaimer: Doing these things likely won’t make you fluent right away, but they should help you at least get started.)
#1: Learn To Read Hiragana and Katakana
If you don’t know what these are, Hiragana and Katakana are the basic alphabets of the Japanese language and are essential for learning proper pronunciation, grammar, and spelling. When I first started learning Japanese, I tried studying basic words by reading them as they appeared in romaji. While that isn’t the worst way to start learning, it did not work well for me, especially since I didn’t know how sounds like “ryo” and “fu” were actually pronounced. Also, learning from romaji alone can make it to where you put emphasis on the wrong part of the word. For example, when English-speakers see the word “kitsune”, which means “fox” in Japanese, they may pronounce it like “kit-sune” instead of “ki-tsu-ne”. When you learn Hiragana and Katakana, you learn what sound each symbol makes and in turn figure out how to say it yourself. Learning Hiragana and Katakana also helps set you up for learning kanji later on.
When I first studied Hiragana and Katakana, I used some videos from a YouTube channel called JapanesePod101. They have hundreds of free video lessons for learning just about everything in Japanese and even have videos for practice sessions, too. In their videos on both of the writing systems, they give you tips for remembering what sound each symbol makes by associating them with pictures (for example, the Hiragana for “ku” looks like a bird’s beak). This allowed me to memorize them very easily and writing them out while you watch the videos also helps you learn them.
#2: Learn The Most Commonly Used Words
Apparently, about 1,000 of a language’s most commonly used words show up in 80% of everyday conversations. So, it seems like learning those words is a good start to being able to understand Japanese. I just recently started writing all of these out to see if there are any words that I weren’t familiar with and it helped me fill in the gaps in my knowledge.
If you want a comprehensive list, I recommend this one. It also breaks the words up into groups so you can study them easily over extended periods of time.
#3: Listen To Songs And Watch Shows or Movies In Japanese
This one is related to another tip in this list, but we’ll get to that later. I actually began studying Japanese because I love Japanese music and I wanted to learn how to sing my favorite songs. I did this from the very beginning and I can’t tell you how many words and phrases I have unintentionally absorbed through doing this. After you learn some of the words in tip #2, try this one out.
If you are new to learning Japanese, I recommend watching shows and listening to songs that are meant for children since they will be easier to understand. When it comes to anime, I recommend Chi’s Sweet Home since it is a very cute show and the dialogue is simplistic. I also used to listen to a lot of Vocaloid music as well and a lot of the songs have their own animated music videos with Japanese subtitles, so you can practice your reading and listening at the same time!
Now that I think about it, practice with reading leads into our next tip.
#4: Keep A Journal In Japanese
This is probably one of the most daunting tasks on this list, but I promise that it will change your studying for the better. Keeping a journal in your target language helps a lot with learning to write, practicing sentence structure, and expanding your vocabulary. If you are anything like me, you may struggle with perfectionism, so it is important to let yourself make mistakes in this part. Keeping a journal will also help you keep a log of your progress and allow you to look back at previous entries and see how far you have come in your language learning journey.
When it comes to supplies, any notebook will do but if you are writing in Japanese I recommend finding a thinner pen than your average ballpoint pen. I usually use a 0.7 mm pen or lower since it makes it easier to write kanji and other complex characters. Also, here is a post where I share some of the journal prompts that I came up with to get started with my own journal. They all revolve around things that you would likely talk about in real conversations anyway, so you may find them to be useful when learning how to communicate!
#5: Expose Yourself To As Much Japanese As Possible
You may be thinking to yourself, “Wait, weren’t we technically doing that in tip #3?” Yes, yes we were, but now we are kicking it up a notch.
It has been proven time and time again that people seem to pick up on languages easier when they are surrounded by native speakers. If you do not have the opportunity to go to Japan, practicing with a native speaker can be very helpful, even if you just text online.
However, you can also do things like reading Japanese news articles and books. As I mentioned before with the TV shows and songs, it’s good to start with children’s books or manga that are made for younger audiences. You can also do smaller things like adding Katakana next to some of your phone contacts’ names. In fact, some of my favorite people have their names written in Japanese on my phone and most of the folders that I have on my home screen are labelled in Japanese instead of English.
Anyway, those are my top 5 tips for learning Japanese. I hope that this article was helpful for you and if any of these tips caught your attention, let me know with a comment. Good luck on your language learning journey!