Help me learn Japanese!
November 17, 2005 11:44 AM   Subscribe

I'd like to learn Japanese... writing, reading, speaking, listening. As quickly, comprehensively, and correctly as possible.

I'm a lover of all things Japanese. I've eaten sushi since I could walk, I've always loved anime since Robotech when I was a child, video games, all of it.

Currently I have the entire Pimsleur set of Japanese lessions (90 half-hour conversational lessons + cultural readings).
I have the book "Kanji & Kana" by Hadamitzky and Spahn.
I've been playing alot of "Slime Forest" ( and through that have almost mastered all katakana and some hiragana.
I also have the Lonely Planet "Learn Japanese" book.

Currently I feel like I don't know enough to produce any truely meaningful Japanese language. Furthermore I know nothing of the grammar, or any other sentance structure complexities.

So I'd like your advice on what resources I may be lacking, how I should go about learning the language, and any other input. Helpful websites would be greatly appriciated.

Furthermore, I'd like to know what one may learn in an entry level Japanese class, intermediate, and advanced, so as to be able to track my performance.
posted by mhuckaba to Society & Culture (24 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
If you want to learn fast and properly, move to Japan. Full immersion combined with diligent study will produce the best results by far.

Entry level Japanese will teach you katakana and hiragana, basic grammatical structure, and a handful of basic kanji. Depending on the intensity of the courses, you should expect to be at 4-kyu level on the Japanese Language Proficiency Test within two semesters of normal study, or one semester of serious study.

Books and tapes are fine, but you can only go so far with them. You need to find Japanese speaking friends to practice with, and immerse yourself in the language as soon as you possibly can. I cannot stress enough how much of a difference it makes.
posted by Saydur at 11:56 AM on November 17, 2005

Well, learning a language involves mastery of grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation, then becoming fluent enough at all of these to create and understand statements on the fly. Researchers have shown it takes about a decade to develop expertise in any of a wide variety of areas, and a new language is one of them.

Online, check out the syllabi and assignments for the Japanese courses at MIT to get an idea of what you should learn: Beginning I, Beginning II, Intermediate.
posted by driveler at 12:03 PM on November 17, 2005 [1 favorite]

Thank you for the quick replies.

I'm planning to hop on Skype and find a speaking partner, or find a native speaker somewhere to practice with. I watch alot of fansubbed anime, so I hear Japanese pretty much daily in my free time.

What do the different kyu levels mean? Are there any online resources with these tests?
posted by mhuckaba at 12:07 PM on November 17, 2005

I'm only a beginner myself, but something you might also find helpful are the Rosetta Stone multimedia courses and the site Also, activating the Japanese IME (if you're on Windows) is a fun way to try and learn some Kanji.
posted by milov at 12:14 PM on November 17, 2005

If you have to do this solo, I recommend the Pimsleur series of CDs (the full version, not the abbreviated.) They work far better than the Rosetta Stone CDs (in my opinion) and are all-audio so you can load them up on your iPod or listen in your car.

They are not cheap, but Amazon often has good prices and you there are sources where you can buy a new one, then resell it when you're done, or buy a used one (check out

I used Pimsleur for Mandarin Chinese and though it certaintly wasn't perfect, it got me to a point of reasonable communications in about three months - I felt relatively comfortable when I went to China afterwards.
posted by soulbarn at 12:16 PM on November 17, 2005

Another thing: while it is incredibly useful to learn how to read Japanese, or any other language, written Japanese has a very high learning curve, which I'm sure you already know. Learning hiragana and katakana is essential, but any real-world reading comprehension will need to include kanji as well, and that's where you'll probably hit a brick wall. At least at first. If you're doing it mainly to be able to understand Japanese entertainment (as if anyone could), you might want to concentrate on verbal.

My advice, if you really want to learn (and are unable to find a way to live in Japan), is to find some sort of Japanese society in your area. If you live in or near any American urban area, there is possibly one nearby. Check google, or find an Asian/Japanese store in your area, and check to see if there are any fliers or postings about such a thing there. The one in my area has frequent events, and one is able to practice one's language skills, no matter how feeble they might be, and it is usually fun as well.

An entry-level student should be able to master all hiragana and katakana, know the basic usage of particles and some of the more common verbs, know many of the more common kanji, and have a decent basic vocabulary. Beyond that, I don't know, since I haven't got there yet.
posted by deadcowdan at 12:20 PM on November 17, 2005

While I would love to go to Japan, I'm still finishing my degree, so that isn't really an option right now. After I finish Katakana and Hiragana, I plan to attempt to learn 5-10 Kanji a day, depending on how much time I have.

As some of you suggested, I have all of the Pimsleur Japanese lessons, 90 in all, each a half hour, plus 90 "reading" accompaniments.
posted by mhuckaba at 12:30 PM on November 17, 2005

It's absolutely crucial to find a native speaker to chat with every now and then--the pronunciation isn't that rough (well, most of it), but learning certain inflections will only come with time and lots of practice. Also, it's nice to say you'll learn a few kanji a day, but you really need to learn kanji in the context of common word compounds...I mean, just pick a random kanji, and it'll "mean" something, but often not by itself, and will have all kinds of readings, none of which seem to have anything to do with one another. It has to be put into context for it to work.

Also, if you're planning on learning to read, you need to learn to write. To me anyway, it seems that it would be infinitely more difficult to try and read kanji without having learned to write them first (it helps differentiate them)...

good luck
posted by hototogisu at 12:46 PM on November 17, 2005

I've been studying Japanese for a bit over a year now. We just finished Volume I of a textbook series called "Genki." It is geared towards somebody who is planning to go to Japan, specifically as an exchange student. It is very important to get a teacher who is either Japanese or has studied in Japan. The vocabulary is useful, and the grammar is presented well. Don't forget the stuff at the end of each chapter, which will get you through such situations as buying a train ticket, sending a postcard, or going to the doctor's office. I recommend doing the writing chapters at the back at the same time as you do the corresponding textbook chapters.

It is possible to learn hiragana in a few weeks, but you will feel like you are in Kindergarten all over again trying to figure out which squiggle makes an "ah" sound. Next is katakana, which will take another few weeks. I've been studying kanji a little harder than is strictly necessary, so I know about 280 of them. This allows me to read on a roughly 3rd grade level. There's a local college that uses Remembering the Kanji, and they claim they can teach students to recognize 500 kanji in a semester. Remember, kanji are imported from China, so they usually have at least 2 and sometimes as many as 5 pronunciations.

Good luck!
posted by ilsa at 12:52 PM on November 17, 2005

A few weeks for the kana? *whistles* I guess I did two semesters of class over two months in a summer--we had four days, I think...

another thought: if you end up getting more source materials to work with, immediately disregard anything that teaches only in romaji...having been studying for a while, romaji barely makes any sense to me--it seems much more natural to examine things in kana (if I don't know the kanji) than to write it in romaji and then look at it.
posted by hototogisu at 12:57 PM on November 17, 2005

What do the different kyu levels mean? Are there any online resources with these tests?

They're levels of the Nihongo Nouryoku Shiken (Japanese Language Proficiency Test), which is the "official" test of Japanese for foreigners. 4-kyu and 3-kyu are the "beginner" levels; 2-kyu is good working proficiency; and 1-kyu has problems that even some native speakers have trouble with.

Kanji by JLPT level, and vocabulary are online, though I think that it makes more sense to learn kanji in grade order.

One word of advice: except for kanji that genuinely are mostly used as independent words, like "person," "bird," "fire," "tree," don't learn kanji. Learn words with kanji in them. This is because the majority of kanji don't have single, simple meanings; they have clusters of meaning, but they really only have meaning in compounds. If you just learn the meaning of a kanji, then you end up trying to process every kanji compound as the sum of its parts, rather than as a word in its own right.

It's kind of like trying to memorize prefixes and suffixes like, say, -logy, when you don't know the words "astrology," "archaeology," "zoology," "morphology," et cetera. It's certainly helpful to know what -logy means, but if you don't have some vocabulary to support it, it's meaningless and you forget it right away.
posted by Jeanne at 12:58 PM on November 17, 2005

So you want to learn Japanese...
posted by monju_bosatsu at 12:59 PM on November 17, 2005

Also, if you're planning on learning to read, you need to learn to write.

Yes! There's a particular way to write characters, and not only does learning it help learn the characters, it keeps you from being any more annoying to actual Japanese than you need to be. There's nothing uglier than a character written by somebody who's trying to imitate printed versions without having a clue about how it's done, and both Chinese and Japanese value well-written characters highly.

Also, see the links here, here, and here.
posted by languagehat at 1:00 PM on November 17, 2005 [2 favorites]

Ok, now that dictionary is just bad-ass...
posted by hototogisu at 1:08 PM on November 17, 2005

I took Japanese for three years in college, spent three months there a few years ago (from Nara to Tokyo), and I'll tell you it's hard to learn. It's something you've got to be dedicated to, and practice every goddamn day. I was good for a while, but since I graduated college, I've lost a lot of my skill. Just a warning for you, it's a hard undertaking if you're just an 'Amerika-jin no otaku'.

Firstly, learn hiragana and katakana and do not learn to read with romanji. Learn the particles (Wa, Ga, Ka, No, De, Ho, O, etc) and when to use them. Japanese sentences are constructed "backwards" from English. Instead of saying "I went to the store", you would say something like "I the store went". There is no "past" tense, only present and future, so that makes for confusing conversations sometimes. Don't bother with kanji for now, learn the basics of sentence construction. If you can't identify the particle hooks in written Japanese, understanding the kanji won't be useful anyway.

Remember, kanji are imported from China, so they usually have at least 2 and sometimes as many as 5 pronunciations.

Hell, from what I remember 日has many different meanings, and something like eight different pronunciations depending on what is in front or behind it.
posted by SweetJesus at 1:13 PM on November 17, 2005

There is past tense; there is no future tense.
posted by hototogisu at 1:14 PM on November 17, 2005

There is no "past" tense, only present and future, so that makes for confusing conversations sometimes.

Err, scratch that. There is no future tense, just past and present.

On preview: you caught me.
posted by SweetJesus at 1:16 PM on November 17, 2005

It's woefully fanboy, sure, but believe it or not, manga can help you learn kanji rather well.

Get kid's manga... the most insipid sort you can find. You don't need to be actually interested in the story, but look for little miniature hiragana above the kanji.

These are called furigana, and serve as a guide for how to pronounce that kanji in that circumstance. They also make it about 3,000,000 times easier to look words up in your dictionary.

I also second the people telling you to learn to write. Stroke order of kanji is important.
posted by kaseijin at 1:17 PM on November 17, 2005

Just had another idea (I promise this is the last one): look into getting an electronic dictionary. It's good to learn the radicals of the kanji (you know, for personal edification and all that), but it can be a pain in the ass to ever get anything done if you spend all your time with an old school paper dictionary. I don't have one myself (they can get expensive), but several friends do, and the input methods simplify that nonsense quite a lot. Or, you could just use the internet, at least until you find yourself wanting to look random things up as you walk down the street...
posted by hototogisu at 1:20 PM on November 17, 2005

(Note: I have been taking Japanese for six years, currently live in Japan, and have fluency equivalent to somewhere between 1 kyu and 2 kyu on the JLPT.)

See also here, here and here, among others.

Also, be aware that anime might seem easy to process for a beginner, it makes for a terrible learning aid. Anime uses some very peculiar grammar and word formations at times (see Rurouni Kenshin's use of "de gozaru" for example) and if you're not aware of the "right" meaning beforehand it can lead you astray. You must also be careful about learning feminine linguistic forms which are prevalent in anime as well.

You mention that you're finishing your degree; does your school offer any Japanese courses? I highly, *highly* recommend sitting in on a beginning Japanese course if you can. Japanese is very difficult to learn by yourself, in my opinion -- it is extremely helpful to have some kind of structure to guide you, especially in the beginning.

Manga is good, but just like anime you must be aware of peculiarities that are not apparent to (and may actually hinder) the beginning student. Corruptions of word forms (like "すげぇ", "すっごい", or "すんごい" for "すごい") are common. TV dramas tend to have the most natural sounding Japanese (aside from period dramas, of course). However, it does take time to reach the point where you can start to understand native-level talking speed.

Last thing: you can learn how to speak Japanese without learning how to write, but I do not recommend this. Because of the wealth of homophones in Japanese, it can often be confusing what word is which, even when you have context. Not only that, but being illiterate in Japan is a big disadvantage. It's best for you to build your vocabulary by learning kana and kanji -- you will be able to more easily associate meaning to words than if you just wrote them in romaji or kana alone.

Good luck! For English speakers, Japanese is one of the more difficult languages to learn, primarily due to the writing system. It takes about twice as long to become fluent in Japanese as opposed to Spanish, French, or other European languages. Be patient and keep at it.
posted by armage at 2:12 PM on November 17, 2005

Thanks for all of the posts!

I understand what you're saying about the feminine linguistic forms, you can hear the differences in the speaking patterns and word use...

I understand it will be difficult, but right now I'm enjoying my progress, and I think it is something I will continue to enjoy. I tried learning Chinese before I took a trip to China and found it MANY times harder to understand spoken Chinese than Japanese (not necessarily meaning, but just even training the ear for it), I didn't even bother with writing.

As for the post about learning Japanese in school, I am currently signed up for Elementary Japanese 2, which I may or may not take, depending upon my progress.
posted by mhuckaba at 3:13 PM on November 17, 2005

One thing I can't suggest enough is to practice real speech! You can use any free voice-chatting program like Skype to chat, and find people on various forums, social profile sites like, or even IRC. I wrote an article about getting ready for voice-chatting which might be of use.

The other important way to really improve what your standard integrated course is doing for you is trying to immerse yourself. Try and find some local Japanese TV (like Fujisankei and watch it unsubbed. Or get some Japanese Drama or Anime and watch it unsubbed (you can watch it subbed first maybe, and then unsubbed). You can even set your iPod to Japanese if you already know the menus and that could help you in the end.

Lastly, GET AN ELECTRONIC DICTIONARY! They're super helpful in every single way imaginable. I recommend the Canon IDF-3000 for something not too expensive but powerful. I can't live without mine.

Not to toot my own horn, but I run a community blog for learners of Japanese []. It's basically a compilation of book/product reviews, tips & tricks, learning methods, and just general cool finds. Join us in some discussions and hopefully we can all help each other.

posted by Ekim Neems at 4:11 PM on November 17, 2005

Great answers. The single most important thing I can recommend is a handy, honest, and bilingual native speaker. You may have to encourage the honesty. Ask for input on the obvious, such as pronunciation, but also on your understanding of why the language works as it does; textbooks and classes and CDs and all that are obvious and good, but organic learning is invaluable to mastery.
posted by mumeishi at 7:34 PM on November 17, 2005

Also, be careful about learning Japanese from a Japanese person of the opposite sex. Gender differences in language are such that it's always painfully obvious when a non-Japanese male learned the bulk of their Japanese from their Japanese girlfriend, because the guy ends up talking like a girl. It's a classic mistake.
posted by gen at 6:25 AM on November 18, 2005

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