Learning Japanese – basics

If you’re about to start your adventures with Japanese, here is a bunch of quick facts about this language:

  • It’s one of the most difficult languages to master! Even native Japanese speakers have problems reading and writing kanji (if you have any Japanese friends, try asking them to write “vending machine”, or 自動販売機 – you will be surprised to see some of them struggle to write this common term). This is because almost every kanji has many readings, so you may not know how to read a word even if you know all kanji which build this word.
  • If you think you’re a fast learner (“I’ve learned Spanish in a year by just listening to Spanish songs and watching Spanish TV” type of guy), you will soon find out that the same doesn’t really work with Japanese – you will need many years of learning to be able to read a basic Japanese newspaper.


Still not giving up? Here is how to get started, especially if you’re a self-learner (not doing full time Japanese studies and similar):

  • Learn kana (katakana and hiragana) first. How? One of the best ways to do it is downloading one of many “learn kana” apps for your mobile phone. There are lots of these apps, so I won’t be recommending any – just go to the application store, search for “kana”, install a few of these free apps and see which one works well for you. Learning both hiragana and katakana will take you a few weeks.
  • Get some basic Japanese concepts and a few basic words. What worked well for me was Human Japanese application. It is available for major platforms (PC, Mac, Android, iPhone/iPad). Though it’s not a free application, it also has a “Lite” version with the first few levels to show you how it works.
  • Learn some more Japanese words and basic kanji. Anki is a popular learning method and has an application just for about every platform. There are lots of anki decks with Japansese: https://ankiweb.net/shared/decks/japanese – though at this point, you probably want to start with the easy ones.

However, at some point, you will realize how hard it is to learn kanji, no mater which method you use. What didn’t really work for me when learning kanji?

  • Following textbooks, like Minna no Nihongo – there are no relationships between the kanji, no radicals, so as soon as you know a few kanjis, everything starts getting confusing.
  • Anki – spaced repetition system – there are many anki decks to choose from, but after memorizing 100-200 kanji you realize than it will be impossible to learn all ~2200 in finite time if you keep memorizing using Anki.
  • Heisig method – it attaches a story to each kanji, which helps you memorize them. While it’s a good method for some, it only learns basic kanji meanings. Also, there are no pronunciations, and it doesn’t even try to compose words out of many kanji. Again, after memorizing 300 or more kanjis, you may realize that it won’t get you very far.

What did work for me when learning kanji then?

  • WaniKani – excellent way to learn kanji. It mixes several methods of learning (spaced repetition system, or anki, with stories attached to meanings). It starts with radicals, upon which the kanji are built, and then teaches you vocabulary basing on these kanji. Because it helps you memorize on so many levels (stories, spaced repetition, pronunciation, kanji, vocabulary which builds a given kanji), for me, it was the first method which let me think “yes, it’s possible to learn all kanji, their meanings and pronunciations”. WaniKani is website based, and most convenient to use on a laptop / PC. But can also be used on a smartphone or tablet, especially useful when commuting. WaniKani costs some $100 per year, which is totally worth it in my opinion; first three levels are for free to let you see how it works. It will take around 2 years to learn all kanji, with their meanings and readings, with WaniKani.

Last but not least – Japanizer will help you review the kanji and vocabulary, while reading articles in English.


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