Learn Japanese – A 6-Step Study Plan

So, you want to learn Japanese. Great decision!

But where do you start? How do you get there? What do you do when the going gets rough?

I thought it might be useful to create something that I wish had existed when I started learning Japanese almost a decade ago, and this guide is the result. It’s a multi-tiered approach that will tell you what to do at every step of the way (from absolute beginner up to JLPT N1), with literacy as the primary goal.

I hope you find it useful.

Note: Be sure to read the additional sections below the guide. There’s lots of information that’s almost as important as the guide itself.

This guide may change over time as resources become newly available and/or outdated. Keep this page bookmarked!

The Roadmap

It's called a road, it's called a Rainbow Road...

Things to Keep in Mind

  • The only pre-requisites for learning Japanese are a thirst for knowledge, some hard work, and good study habits.
  • Remember that while learning a new language can be a long and arduous journey, investing in yourself is one of the most rewarding things you can do with your time. Don’t give up.
  • There are some alternative resources to choose from. For example, Anki has a free vocabulary deck that has a lot in common with the one offered by iKnow!, but it lacks the smooth user experience and the variety of answer types. For me, the few bucks a month for a much superior service paid off in the long run, but in the end, the choice is yours. I’m not here to sell anything, but I am here to suggest what I think will work best for you.
  • Skritter does not have a free alternative, unlike iKnow!. Indeed, there is nothing else quite like it. Writing on good ol’ paper is still just as effective for memorizing stroke order for things like kanji quizzes, but the fact that Skritter offers SRS-based study lists that accompany the best Japanese textbooks out there makes it a perfect companion for this guide. You have the option to drop Skritter after Tobira, but you’ll thank yourself for keeping it during the first few critical tiers of foundation-building.
  • Becoming fluent in any language is no easy task, and Japanese happens to be a language that takes a little more commitment than others. That doesn’t make it harder, necessarily, but it just means you’ll need to put in more time to see gains. With that said, I have no idea how long this will take you. This is for a number of reasons:
    • Attaining “fluency” depends a bit on your personal learning goals. For example, if you want to focus on being able to speak Japanese, then you will need to actively seek out language partners and speak with them on a very regular basis. You can pass JLPT N1 without being able to hold a decent conversation; a lot of people would not consider that “fluent.” Decide what your goals will be and work toward them as you lay your foundations with this guide.
    • I have no idea how much time per day you can devote to studying, nor do I know your aptitude or propensity for checking Facebook every few minutes. (If you have problems with staying focused, I recommend a Pomodoro-style app to break your work down into intervals.)
  • Nothing beats a living, breathing teacher. If you have access to a classroom or private tutor, consider yourself lucky and take advantage of it. Go to office hours and talk with your sensei. If you live in Japan, well, go outside. For the rest of you, it may be worth checking out Craigslist or sites like italki to get access to private tutors for as little as $10/hour. You could do a monthly or bi-weekly lesson to touch base with a native Japanese speaker as a way to stay motivated and monitor your progress. Using the link I’ve provided, you’ll earn a free $10 in credit to get started.
  • Terms like “beginner,” “intermediate,” and “advanced” are only used for organizational purposes in order to represent otherwise fluid concepts. Likewise, the JLPT isn’t the best way to measure your Japanese ability (it doesn’t even include speaking, for Pete’s sake). Regardless, it is a widely-renowned benchmark used in many professional and academic settings and remains a great way for self-taught learners to stay motivated and keep structure in their learning goals. For these reasons, I have decided to incorporate JLPT study materials into this guide as well as the points at which you should be safe to attempt each level of the JLPT.
  • Learning a language is not a race, but a marathon. Pace yourself!

Study Tips

  • Study frequency matters a LOT when learning anything new. One hour a day will produce far better results than one 5-hour cram session every Sunday.
  • Bookmark Kuma Sensei’s Resources page for additional goodies. There are loads of amazing resources that I had to exclude here for the sake of keeping things trim and neat – and the list is constantly growing.
  • Take advantage of iKnow!’s built-in study target tool. It’s up to you to figure out your study pace, i.e. how much of a workload you can handle without getting stressed or burned out. All you have to do is set the number of hours per week you want to shoot for, and iKnow!’s algorithms will do the rest. With that in mind…
  • Don’t fall behind in your flash card reviews. While using iKnow!, my policy was to never add new flash cards until I finished all of my reviews. By doing this, you’re ensuring that all of the stuff you’ve been learning is as fresh as possible before moving on to new content. SRS will only work if you stay on top of your reviews.
  • Shadow your flash cards! Using flash cards with built-in audio and example sentences is so resourceful, it’s not even funny. Listen to the example sentence over and over, repeating the audio and trying to mimic the native pronunciation as closely as possible (speed and pitch accent). If people are giving you weird looks on the bus, you’re doing it right. Repeat EVERYTHING you hear and mimic it to a T. This will do wonders for your pronunciation and ability to memorize words.
  • Take notes on what you’ve learned. You can keep a Japanese dictionary, a blog, scribble on some napkins at Starbucks, whatever. But keeping inventory of what you’ve learned can be a good motivational tool.
  • Find a community of learners to join! For example, the /r/LearnJapanese subreddit can be a good place to go to connect with other learners and ask questions. Of course, it’s Reddit, so you’ll run into the occasional jerk from time to time. Such is life.
  • At least once a month, try to do two of the following activities using Japanese:
    • Write in a personal blog or a forum post. It can be anything from a self-introduction to a critique of the latest novel you’ve read in Japanese. Just get writing and listen to the feedback you receive!
    • Seek out conversation partners. This guide doesn’t really cover “speaking” per se, because you can only practice that by actively looking for people to speak with (or by being in a classroom). Shadowing will only take you so far; being a good Japanese conversationalist takes practice, and lots of it.
      • There a few ways to do this: See if your school has a Japanese conversation club or make some buddies on Lang-8, for starters. You could also check your local area for meetups or cheap classes. Not living in Japan is not an excuse!
    • Do something you like in Japanese. Read a manga, watch an anime/drama/movie, or play a game you like in Japanese. It might be overwhelming at first, but you’ll be surprised at how quickly you start to comprehend more and more!
    • Live stream what you’re working on for an hour, or drop in to a community and help someone who needs it. Teaching Japanese to someone else, even something rudimentary, can demonstrate whether you really understand a concept or not and can open many doors for learning opportunities.
  • Motivation is a big factor in learning anything, and when learning something that takes a long time to see growth, it’s not uncommon to have days where you will sit there and wonder why you even bothered to start. When you have those kinds of days, reflect on your life and remind yourself why you’re learning Japanese. For me, it was being able to go to Japan and participate in real conversations and make my way around on my own. Sometimes, I’d go on to Google Earth and wander the streets of Tokyo or watch vlogs of people living in Japan. Sometimes I’d watch Japanese movies and lose myself in the atmosphere. I was also unhealthily infatuated with kanji and had a gigantic kanji poster hanging above my desk every day. All I needed to do to get pumped up for a multi-hour study session was brew up some Rooibos tea and glance up at that huge poster to see all of the kanji just waiting to be learned. Something about seeing that insurmountable mountain in front of me made me want to climb it even more. Do whatever it takes to get yourself in the zone, even if it means blasting J-pop and dressing up as Sailor Moon.
  • Motivation will get you far, but discipline is the real name of the game. This echoes what I said earlier, but even if you have all the motivation in the world, it won’t help if you can’t make yourself sit down to put in an hour of study, particularly on those rough days when you’re just not feeling it. Just like forcing yourself to go to the gym on those days when you have no motivation, taking that first step out the door is the hardest part. But once you do, it’s just the same old routine from there. I think that’s the big difference between the learners who really mean business and the ones who are just doing it for fun: If you can find it in yourself to stick to your study plan and learn even on those “off” days, you will make great strides in this language.

Good luck!

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Kuma Sensei

Kuma Sensei is a mythical bear who lives in the woods and enjoys talking about learning languages.

6 thoughts on “Learn Japanese – A 6-Step Study Plan”

  1. Have you gotten to explore みんなの日本語 as an alternative to genki?

    I know it is more of a direct immersion into studying and contains really confusing buying options for those that are newer to the language. So it’d be interesting to see it explored as well.

    Also, do you have any solid alternative ideas for Japanese graded readers? The price on them is a little insane. Just to get caught up to intermediate, you’re buying 9 expensive volume sets that can potentially more than double the price of collecting genki 1-2 + workbooks + answer key if you’re thrifty

  2. Hi. Thanks a lot for posting such a pensive guidance. It is helping me a lot to navigating through various ways of learning Japanese as a beginner. I did spend 3 year in university studying up to N2, but have dropped it for almost 10 years now.

    I downloading iknow! yesterday & started my first lesson. Great app, and more advanced than Duolingo lessons I have been taking for the past week. There was an exercise of filling the missing words in a sentence. The missing word was うち, but there was only space to type which was supposed to be the kanji 家. I couldnot find a way to type it, thus could not finish the lesson. Could you please advise on how this can be done ?

    Thanks a lot,
    Vanh.

    1. Hey vanh,

      Sounds like you got pretty far in your previous studies, so I’m sure you’ll be back up to speed in no time. Glad to hear you like iKnow! However, I wasn’t aware that it started asking users to input kanji – when I used the app, it only ever asked me to spell out the word, and it would usually show the kanji in the example sentence later. While this may be something that can be changed in the settings, I think it’s a nice change, because not only does it force you to spell out the word, but it also requires that you select the correct kanji, so it’s somewhat like texting in real life.

      Do you have a Japanese keyboard installed on your device? If you type “Japanese keyboard” into your app store’s search bar, you’ll find quite a few. (I personally use Google Japanese Input.) For iOS devices, I believe they already come with an international keyboard installed, so you just have to activate the language you want in the settings. Once you have a keyboard installed and active, you should see recommended kanji appear above the keyboard as you type. Just pick the one you want!

      If that clears anything up, please let me know. I feel that a small tutorial on installing Japanese keyboards on various devices would be very welcome on this page, so I’ll get on that!

  3. Hi, I was downloading iknow! and started to use the app on my mobile. But due to some reason, for some exercise of filling the missing words, I cannot type Kanji, while it’s required.

    Could you please advise how I can do that in the mobile app ?

  4. こんにちは、I was Googling for a how-to guide to study Japanese, and I have to thank you for posting this. 🙂 I was wondering if you could post a biography blurb about your Japanese language journey? I suspect you followed the path that you have illustrated here, but I would just like to know of your success story. ありがとございます。

    1. Hi Hestia,

      Thanks for the comment! I’m glad the guide has been helpful (and is actually findable on Google).

      Yeah, I wonder why I haven’t gotten around to that yet. I suppose the thing that’s kept me from doing so is that I don’t really like to talk about myself too much. I’m a very normal person and definitely not some kind of language prodigy. For the most part, I followed all of the steps here in addition to taking three years of university coursework (leading up to about the N2 level). The biggest benefit of being enrolled in formal classes was that I had some structure (class schedules) and accountability (grades) in my studies. I was also introduced to a variety of learning styles and had access to some native speakers. Of course, if you don’t have access to a classroom, I believe that you can make up for some of these shortcomings using some of the tips in my guide.

      Anyway, after those 2.5 years, I was totally on my own, at which point some major life decisions led me to move to Japan. That shift in setting (along with some serious studying) helped to bridge the gap between N2 and N1 and beyond. I think the biggest part of that transition was the fact that I went from being a learner of the language to being a user of the language. Now, I use it in my job, in my hobbies, to make new friends, etc. My goal with Kuma Sensei is to help other learners make this leap from learner to user–to help others become functional in the language, because it’s just so much more satisfying that way.

      Of course, we’re technically always going to be learners of the language. Heck, I wouldn’t claim that I’ve “mastered” English despite being a native speaker of it. But there comes a point where you can do things in the language without explicitly “learning” it. This is where you’ll find the real potential of language learning.

      It’s like getting a black belt. Your journey isn’t over once you get the black belt; it’s just beginning. Achieving the black belt is simply an indication that you have the mental and physical fortitude to handle the workload required to walk the path of a black belt. The onus is on you to continue that journey when you reach that point. In Japanese terms, this means using the language to do things that are meaningful to you as soon as you’re capable of doing so. Some people want to read novels or haiku, some wish to watch movies or anime, and others may want to volunteer or teach in Japan. I’m just trying to help others get to that point, too.

      Anyway, I’ll try to get around to writing a more extensive bio someday — hope this suffices for now. (And be on the lookout for some new content soon!)

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