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learn japaneseJapanese is an incredibly difficult language to learn, and I should know having lived in Kyoto for 8 years. While nothing beats learning a language by being thrown straight in at the deep end, there’s certainly some great tips and tools I can pass on that should benefit anyone just getting started with Japanese.

If you’re not particularly into Japanese, then check out all our other language learning articles too.

The Alphabet. Both Of Them

Japanese actually has 3 character sets – a huge number of pictographical Kanji of which you only really need about 2,000 – and the two phonetic alphabets used for pronunciation, grammatical structure and foreign words. Thankfully both the alphabets have exactly the same sounds – they’re just written differently.

Hiragana is the traditional Japanese script, the equivalent of our basic alphabet. It’s used for grammar – verb inflexions, sentence structure and such – as well as writing the pronunciation of Kanji. Pictured below are some traditional street signs in a mixture of Hiragana and Kanji.

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Katakana is all the same sounds, but written differently – it looks more “modern”, with sharp, straight lines. You might think of it as capitalised version of our alphabet. It’s used almost exclusively for foreign words. Pictured below, a cafe menu written completely in Katakana.

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If you’re travelling to Japan for less than a few months, I’d strongly recommend – if nothing else – that you master Katakana. A lot of menus you encounter will be written in Katakana-ized English, by which I mean rather than “burger”, you will read “ba-ga-“. Deciphering these bastardized English words is entire topic on it’s own, but suffice to say you will need Katakana to even attempt to read them!

To learn both, I found Declan’s ReadWrite series ($25 bundle for both apps) to be great – it includes training on the pronunciation and writing (great if you have a tablet PC), as well as comprehensive testing. Basically, it works. There’s a free trial with later lessons locked for you to check it out.

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Dump The Textbooks, Study Online

Nearly all the beginner level Japanese textbooks I’ve come across only present a rather dry form of polite Japanese. While this certainly has it’s use in formal situations and the upper echelons of society and business, it’s thoroughly useless in daily life and you’ll stick out like a sore thumb if you speak it.

It’s the kind of Japanese that Japanese people think a foreigner ought to learn, but I’m here to tell you that my “aha!” moment happened once I dumped the textbooks and randomly searched for verb conjugation.

This chart (a small part of which is shown below), by Aeron Buchanan summarises everything nicely, and you can download a PDF directly from Wikimedia here.

learn japanese online

Once you understand how to turn the dictionary form a verb into all these other forms along with some basic structures, finding a single new verb gives you access to hundreds of new phrases.

Here’s ten off the top of my head, all made from the base verb taberu, meaning “to eat”:

  • taberenai – can’t eat
  • tabetai – want to eat
  • tabete mo ii? – is it ok to eat that?
  • tabete miru – try eating
  • tabete hoshii – want you to eat
  • tabete kaeru – eat then go back
  • tabe ni itta – went to eat
  • tabetakunakatta – didn’t want to eat
  • tabesaserareta – was made to eat
  • tabenagara – while eating

If you’re too lazy to work these out yourself, here’s a basic to tool to work them out for you. Type in the dictionary form, hit enter. Presto.

Read as much as you can about verb conjugations and I guarantee your level of Japanese will skyrocket overnight – if you’re living in Japan, the world will start to make sense again!

Lang-8

Not for just Japanese, Lang-8 is a free web app (the 8 is supposed to represent the sign for infinity) for written language exchange. In return for correcting other’s English, people will correct your Japanese. I’ve used it with students writing an English blog before, and it’s simple to use and free.

Rikai-chan

Rikai-chan  is an essential Firefox plugin (and it’s Chrome port, Rikai-kun) for anyone hoping to read Japanese language websites. Hover over any word, and Rikai-chan will popup with a helpful dictionary entry, including meaning and pronunciation. You need this. Get it.

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If you prefer to use Anki Learn A New Language With Anki's Flash Card System Learn A New Language With Anki's Flash Card System Read More to learn vocabulary, you can even save words from Rikai-chan straight to Anki. Here’s how:

Don’t Learn From (Some) Anime

A lot of Japanese learners get quite shockingly embarrassed when they find out that the line they just repeated from Dragonball Z in the middle of the civilised dinner is the equivalent of shouting out “you motherf*****”. Some popular anime (popular in America at least, and mostly reserved for little boys in Japan) uses the kind of language which is in the real world almost exclusively reserved for Yakuza. Using that in polite company will make you look like a big foreign jerk.

If you really want to know the kind of language I’m talking about – here’s a silly little compilation. Do not repeat.

That said, there’s a lot of anime that does use realistic Japanese, and short of moving to Japan it’s the best you’re going to get in the way of real listening practice – any of the Ghibli movies is a good start. If you are preparing for life in Japan, don’t forget to check out my pick of YouTube for learning about real Japanese culture 5 Great YouTube Videos To Learn About Real Japanese Culture 5 Great YouTube Videos To Learn About Real Japanese Culture Japan has always been considered a bit weird when it comes to culture. On the one hand, Western TV would have you believe Ultimate Warrior and Human Tetris are like the Japanese Olympics, up there... Read More .

Despite no longer living in Japan, my (Chinese) wife and I continue to communicate daily in predominantly Japanese. I’d say it took me about 2 years of actually living there until I was confident in conversational Japanese, but then I did waste a year studying from textbooks. Learn from my mistakes, use these tips, and good luck!

Do you have any other tips and tools you think should be here? Tell us in the comments and if there’s enough, we can do a follow up post. If these tips were useful to you, then please share and tell your friends about it!

Image credits: anime teacher from ShutterStocklegassie44 via Compfight ccScout Seventeen via Compfight cc

  1. John
    October 22, 2016 at 7:28 am

    eagles jerseys cheap cheap customizable jerseys

  2. Charyl
    September 5, 2013 at 5:11 pm

    Check out the new App, Learn Japanese with Jam Tok! My son is the head engineer on this project.

  3. Eddieteetree
    April 23, 2013 at 10:01 am

    Hi and thanks glad to have run across your entry. Just thought I'd mention hat I saw an HK guy who has a site dedicated to Japanese culture his name is Danny Choo has released a set if carry cards to help ppl with the language. I have not tried it but it gets good reviews. They are manufactured by the good smile company I think.

    • James Bruce
      April 23, 2013 at 12:50 pm

      Thanks Eddie, that guy is famous, though I personally avoid his site as it's a little too much otaku and lolicon for my liking.

  4. Vipul Jain
    April 15, 2013 at 7:13 pm

    Well you can always use Google translate app.
    It even allows you to click a picture of a menu or whatever and translates that for you.. :)

  5. Thomas
    April 15, 2013 at 1:13 pm

    Is there any mobile learning app?

    • James Bruce
      April 15, 2013 at 1:19 pm

      Great question Thomas, though I've not come across any yet. I'll test a few and post a follow up article if I find anything good.

  6. Lisa Santika Onggrid
    April 15, 2013 at 11:48 am

    I love Japanese, growing up with game, manga, and anime. I learnt it myself on-and-off for two years (I mean, very very casual) before going to a high school which offers Japanese. Like you say, formal language couldn't get me anywhere. Thanks for the tips. I plan to deepen my understanding during this holiday.
    Oh, and I'm always lost when it comes to their 'Engrish' words. Translating katakana I can do just fine, but comprehending the butchered English is truly an art.

    • James Bruce
      April 15, 2013 at 12:45 pm

      Made even more difficult of course by the fact that not all katakan-ized words are English - french, spanish, russian, german also there! Gya~

      • Lisa Santika Onggrid
        April 16, 2013 at 12:17 pm

        Till today I still can't comprehend why they call a laptop 'nootopasokon'. So 'nooto' clearly came from 'note'. How about the rest?

        • James Bruce
          April 16, 2013 at 12:28 pm

          Okay, hang with me here...

          pasokon comes from "PERSOnal COMputer", while "NO-TO" is actually what they call a notebook (as in, the pen and paper kind).

          Since they already had pasokon for computer, and they didn't want to just call it a notebook in case of confusion with an actual notebook - AND they tend to make phrases about size of objects by using "ko-gata" (small) and "oogata" (large) - so a "no-to pasokon" is actually a "no-to gata pasokon", or a "notebook-sized computer".

          ;)

  7. Junil Maharjan
    April 15, 2013 at 6:47 am

    I used to study japanese language but with the lack of practice have forgotten most of it though i can still read some of it without knowing the meaning. these might help me to revive the language in me again. thanks.

  8. riya
    April 15, 2013 at 5:36 am

    Thanks for the tips :) a japanese of friend of mine once told me never to repeat the words told during battle scenes in animes like Dragonball z and others too! XD

  9. Mitzumi Kare
    April 14, 2013 at 10:22 pm

    If you must learn via anime, go for a genre like josei or slice of life. They are more conversational and if there is rude speech patterns, you can tell right off the bat that it's not supposed to be used. I'm partial to Hidamari Sketch or Girl's High.

    I wished this article had some android apps for this because the ones I found in the Play Store were severely lacking.

    That aside, good article.

    • James Bruce
      April 15, 2013 at 7:28 am

      Excellent advice, though josei won't be to a lot of people's taste I suspect. There are certainly a lot of "normal life" anime out there though - anything that isn't aimed at little boys is probably a good bet!

      • Lisa Santika Onggrid
        April 15, 2013 at 11:58 am

        Exactly. Fantasy and adventure is my go-to genre. Slice of life tends to be boring to me.

        • Mitzumi Kare
          April 16, 2013 at 6:24 am

          Those are EXACTLY the genres that use the rude speech pattern. Hopeless! XD

        • Lisa Santika Onggrid
          April 16, 2013 at 12:22 pm

          Hahaha. I guess. I have enough common sense not to use them though, especially words they often yell at the enemy. Once a friend of mine tried some, which earned him a stunned Japanese teacher.

  10. Chris Marcoe
    April 14, 2013 at 10:18 pm

    Nice little article. If I was going to choose a language to learn, though, I don't think it would be Japanese. I've always been partial to Russian. No good reason, really.

    Thank you for the read!

    • Chris Marcoe
      April 15, 2013 at 12:20 am

      I wonder how well these would work for a youngster. I've a 7YO who I think would like to learn a new \language. And it certainly wouldn't hurt, knowing one...

      • Lisa Santika Onggrid
        April 15, 2013 at 11:52 am

        Depending on your son's interest and the way you introduce it to the language, I think. I'm of Chinese descent living in Indonesia, plus learning English the same time as Indonesian, so I'm bilingual and a half when I was 7.

    • James Bruce
      April 15, 2013 at 7:27 am

      In terms of sheer number of worldwide speakers and the coming superpower - it would have to be Chinese.

      • Lisa Santika Onggrid
        April 15, 2013 at 11:55 am

        Mandarin Chinese to be precise. I speak Hokkien, which is also spoken in Taiwan and some other countries, but Mandarin Chinese is what people would use for formal environment. Your wife is Chinese and you used to live in Japan...how many languages can you use actively?

        • James Bruce
          April 15, 2013 at 12:51 pm

          Only Japanese fluently or actively, but actually we speak a bastardised mix of Japanese/English/Chinese. I'm at the stage where I understand a fair bit of Chinese when she speaks to friends or parents (only, they have strong Qing Dao dialect, which messes things up), but not yet able to respond. I probably won't be able to either unless I'm forced (like, by moving there, which is quite high on the list of "things I'd rather not do but may be forced to one day"). I used to have pretty awesome French too, but learning Japanese kind of forced that out of my head.

        • Lisa Santika Onggrid
          April 15, 2013 at 1:17 pm

          I see. Learning language is nice, but without real attempt to keep it you can easily forget your progress, and start from scratch again.
          I'm with you about dialects. I can't understand people from my grandma's generation unless they speak slowly. Likewise, some of them have problem with Indonesian.

    • Jackson Chung
      April 15, 2013 at 11:35 am

      One of the benefits of understanding Russian -- knowing what the baddies are saying in movies.

      • dragonmouth
        April 15, 2013 at 12:29 pm

        Unfortunately the pronunciation sucks in most cases and is not idiomatic. Thinks Anglos speaking French with English/American pronunciation.

      • James Bruce
        April 15, 2013 at 12:52 pm

        You even find the baddies cant actually speak Russian? I think it was Fast and Furious Tokyo where I noticed the yakuza were actually korean and chinese with pretty appalling japanese language skills!

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