Learning Japanese? Here’s How to Start

ByJustin Hanus
Jun 29, 2021

Learning Japanese? Here’s How to Start

It’s no secret that learning Japanese is difficult. Learning any language is no easy feat, but Japanese is particularly challenging — it can even seem impossible when you’re a complete beginner. However, by taking the right first steps, you’ll build a strong foundation upon which to progress and reach your desired level of proficiency.

Step 1: Practice the Alphabet

The Japanese alphabet is called hiragana and is made up of 51 characters. While this is more characters than the English alphabet, the good news is that the Japanese characters are phonetic and only have one sound. In other words, once you know hiragana, you’ll be able to pronounce any Japanese word.

Since you’re just starting, your focus should be on recognizing and saying each character rather than writing. A better use of your time than writing is learning to type hiragana. Once you can read hiragana, you should need just a day or two to feel comfortable typing the characters. All you need is to enable a Japanese keyboard on your phone or computer.

Note that hiragana is just for Japanese words. For loan words from other languages, you’ll need katakana. Familiarize yourself just with the words you’re likely to need.

Step 2: Work On Your Pronunciation

It’s important to ensure you are pronouncing hiragana correctly. Otherwise, people will struggle to understand you, and you’ll find it difficult to differentiate between similar words. Use videos made by native speakers and try to mimic the sounds. Learning how to form sounds with your mouth can also help.

Step 3: Learn Some Basic Kanji

The Japanese writing system uses Chinese characters called kanji to express some full words and phrases. Kanji is the most difficult aspect of learning Japanese. Unfortunately, it’s necessary to learn some kanji early — otherwise, you’ll struggle with everything from vocabulary to grammar later. To keep progressing, you may like to set targets to learn a certain number of kanji a week along with vocabulary that uses kanji.

Step 4: Study Grammar

Vocabulary is of no use if you’re unable to put together meaningful sentences — this requires grammar. Simply stringing words together using grammar rules from English (or another language you speak) will result in nonsense. Purchase a grammar book for beginners to learn the basic rules. The most important things to cover at this stage are particles and sentence structure.

Step 5: Memorize Useful Phrases

To start using your Japanese in real life, learn some simple phrases. It makes sense to learn these after you’ve studied some grammar, as this will help you understand why a phrase is structured the way it is. Some types of useful phrases to learn include greetings, introductions, and simple questions, along with possible responses.

Becoming fluent in Japanese takes years, but you can acquire the basics in a much shorter amount of time. Even these basics will be invaluable if you’re visiting or living in Japan. You have many resources at your disposal, including videos and articles by Japanese teachers, interactive activities from language-learning platforms, and flashcards. All this information may have seemed overwhelming before — but now you know exactly where to start.

Exchanges Photos, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

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