How To Learn Japanese
The best way to learn Japanese is to pick it up naturally by using native Japanese content, such as reading Japanese books or manga, watching Japanese TV shows and movies, or talking with Japanese people. These activities are much more fun than ordinary studying and you will learn the language steadily just like how you learned your first language. However, you can't do any of these activities if you don't know enough Japanese yet. You will probably need to know around 5000 Japanese vocabulary words and a bunch of grammar in order to comfortably engage with Japanese content. This guide will teach you how to get there.
Before starting to learn Japanese vocabulary, you should first learn to read the basic writing systems, just like the alphabet. The three Japanese writing systems are hiragana, katakana, and kanji. Hiragana and katakana are straightforward and can be learned in a few hours, so it's best to get them out of the way first.
How to learn Hiragana
Hiragana is a set of 46 characters that represent sounds, or syllables. Each of the characters can also be written with roman (English) characters, like (あ => a), roughly corresponding to the sounds they make. When the hiragana characters are written as roman characters, they are called romaji. Your goal is to memorize the sounds that each of the characters make, as well as the romaji equivalents.
For example, for the character あ, you should remember that it is "a" and makes a sound like "ah".
The Hammer app will help you to memorize these characters.
Once you know the individual characters, it's helpful to start practicing reading them used together. Hammer provides you with a bunch of simple words made up of the hiragana you've already learned.
For example, if you've learned that あ=a and い=i, you can now learn that あい=ai. Hammer also provides the meaning of the word, which is "love". It's not necessary to memorize the meanings of vocabulary words yet because you'll be working on that later, but it doesn't hurt to have a head start either.
By using Hammer, you can probably learn the hiragana within a few hours. Hammer uses a traditional flashcard approach to repeatedly quiz you on the hiragana. It keeps track of which ones you've memorized so it reinforces ones you are weaker at and introduces more characters at the appropriate time. Hammer also shows you a variety of simple words composed of multiple hiragana characters so you can practice reading them how they would really appear.
For more information on learning the hiragana, you can see the Guide at Tofugu.
How to learn Katakana
Katakana is another set of characters that represent the same sounds as hiragana. These characters are usually used to represent foreign words, company names, and a variety of other specialized cases. Generally, you will see much more hiragana than katakana, but katakana is common enough that it's necessary to learn anyway. The bright side to katakana is that you'll already know a lot of katakana vocabulary, since many are simply English words that are written in Japanese characters. For example, アメリカ=amerika, which is "America", or アイス=aisu for ice.
You can also use Hammer to learn katakana the same way that you learned hiragana. This will also probably take a few hours.
For more information on learning the katakana, you can see the Guide at Tofugu.
How to learn Vocabulary
Once you have learned hiragana and katakana, you are ready to start learning vocabulary directly.
Japanese has a third writing system called kanji which we haven't mentioned yet. However, unlike hiragana and katakana that can be learned in a few hours, kanji is much more complex and you will eventually need to learn more than 2000 kanji characters. It's better to learn kanji while you are learning vocabulary.
Hammer provides a list of Japanese vocabulary words sorted so that you learn the most useful words first. This will help you get up to speed faster so you can start supplementing your studies with basic Japanese sentences and conversation. As you learn more words, you'll find that Japanese material gradually becomes easier to understand and more fun to engage with.
Hammer introduces the vocabulary words written the way that you would usually see them. Many words are usually written in kanji. For example, 日本=にほん=nihon=japan. For these kanji words, you should memorize the reading, which is what hiragana characters they represent, and also memorize the English meaning.
This type of card, where you are shown a word and need to remember the reading and meaning, is called a recognition card. There are other types of cards such as "production", where you are shown the reading and meaning and need to produce the word, or listening, where you listen to a sentence and need to remember the meaning. It's good to start with recognition cards since it is the most useful for reading Japanese. Once you are good at recognition, it is easy to add other types of cards.
Take a look at Hammer's word list here:
Hammer Japanese Vocabulary List
Your initial goal should be to learn 6000 words, at which point you can probably understand a good portion of Japanese TV shows, games, or manga. Using Hammer, you may be able to learn around 20 words per hour of studying. So if you study for 1 hour a day, you might be done in about 300 days. You should try out Hammer first to see how quickly you can learn, and then make your own decision on how much you will study per day.
You can study with Hammer's premade word list, but you should create your own deck to add any other words you encounter. Words will be more memorable if you have a personal reason for learning them!
The Road to Fluency
Here are some estimates of what you will be able to do with Japanese as you complete Hammer's levels.
Hiragana, Katakana, Hammer Basic 1-200
You will be able to sound out Japanese words, and read various katakana loanwords. You will understand a few common Japanese sentences.
Hammer Beginner 201-1000
You will be able to start childrens books, and understand some parts of TV shows. You can start to have basic conversations in Japanese.
Hammer Elementary 1001-2000
You will generally understand simple Japanese conversation and be able to read basic books or manga, with some help from a dictionary. You can watch some TV shows or movies about everyday life and understand the general idea. You can have a solid conversation with a Japanese native.
Hammer Intermediate 2001-6000
You can read and understand most Japanese books or manga if the subject matter isn't too unusual. You can watch and enjoy most Japanese TV shows, movies, or anime. You will be fairly comfortable and able to express yourself in a conversation.
After the intermediate level, you can learn Japanese by consuming content made for Japanese natives, such as watching Japanese TV shows, reading books, or playing games. Through context, you'll gradually build your vocabulary to a fluent level, and it's probably a lot more fun than ordinary studying too!
To be fully fluent in Japanese and have no language difficulties with everyday life in Japan, you will probably need to know more than 12000 words and 2000 kanji.
The best way to start learning grammar is to use a textbook like Genki, or through a variety of online guides.
Your ability to understand spoken Japanese will naturally improve as you understand more vocabulary and grammar. However, you can supplement it by spending time listening to native Japanese content. Ideally, you want to choose material that is close to your level. One option is to take the audio tracks from Japanese videos or anime and listen to them.
For youtube videos, you can use various "youtube to mp3" tools.
For anime, if you have access to the .mp4 or .mkv video files, you can use Audacity to create mp3s. You may need to install FFmpeg for Audacity, and then use "File menu > Import > Audio" on your video file and then "File menu > Export > Export as MP3".
Once you have the mp3s, listen to them whenever you have free time.
Another option is to use Amazon.jp Audible e-books. You will need to create a Japanese Audible account. Most e-books are too difficult for beginners, so you will probably need to know around 2000 words to start understanding anything.
Audiobook.jp has an app that can be easily used with a non-Japanese Apple account.
- 366 Short Stories for Children 心やさしく賢い子に育つ みじかいおはなし366
- Best 100 Folk Tales むかしばなしベスト100
- Magic Tree House マジック・ツリーハウス
- Kiki's Delivery Service series 魔女の宅急便
- Harry Potter ハリー・ポッター
The JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test) is a test created by the Japanese government to measure Japanese language proficiency for foreigners. N5 is the easiest level, and N1 is the hardest. There's no official specification for the amount of vocabulary required, but some rough recommendations are:
- N5: 800 words (Hammer Beginner Vocab 1000)
- N4: 1500 words (Hammer Elementary Vocab 2000)
- N3: 3750 words
- N2: 6000 words (Hammer Intermediate Vocab 6000)
- N1: 10000 words
So completing Hammer's intermediate vocab list may get you to around the N2 level for vocabulary. However, you will also need to study grammar and listening in order to pass the exam.