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This guide may change over time as resources become newly available and/or outdated.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!
Tier 1 Skills:
- Read and understand common, basic expressions and sentences written in hiragana, katakana, and some very simple kanji
- Familiarize yourself in Japanese with the topics found in chapters 1-6 of Genki I
- Understand spoken conversations about topics commonly found in daily life (especially the classroom), and glean necessary information from short conversations spoken slowly
- Produce basic spoken Japanese expressions using correct pronunciation
- Acquire Genki I: an Integrated Course in Elementary Japanese along with the workbook
- Sign up for a free trial at iKnow!
- Sign up for a free trial at Skritter
- Bookmark the Resources page for reference
Build Your Foundations
- iKnow! – Complete the Master Hiragana and Katakana course
- Skritter – Add the list Genki 1, Second edition
- Genki I textbook: chapters 1-6
- iKnow! – Core 1000, Steps 1-5
Tier 1 Targets:
- Vocabulary: ~500+
- Kanji: ~60+
- Make an account at JapanesePod101 for extra listening practice
- Pick up the Dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar (the “Yellow Bible”)
- Sign up for the Japanese for English speakers course on Duolingo
- (iOS only; course is slowly being rolled out to Android users as of June 1, 2017)
- Look for an affordable tutor on italki! Having access to a native speaker is vital in language learning, and italki offers some of the best lesson rates I’ve seen. (And enjoy a free $10 lesson credit to get started, courtesy of Kuma Sensei!)
Tier 2 Skills:
- Read and understand passages on familiar, everyday topics written in basic vocabulary and kanji
- Familiarize yourself in Japanese with the topics found in chapters 7-12 of Genki I
- Comprehend conversations found in daily life and follow their contents, given that they are spoken slowly
- Communicate short messages on highly predictable, everyday topics that affect you directly
Strengthen Your Foundations
- Genki I textbook: chapters 7-12
- iKnow! – Core 1000, Steps 6-10
- Skritter – Complete the list Genki 1, Second edition
Tier 2 Targets:
- Vocabulary: ~1000+
- Kanji: ~150+
- Attempt JLPT N5
- Start reading with Japanese Graded Readers (Level 0)!
- Keep sharpening your chops with Japanese Graded Readers (Level 1)!
Tier 3 Skills:
- Start to develop skills for reading on your own
- Generally comprehend spoken dialogue found in most everyday situations, assuming it’s spoken slowly
- Familiarize yourself in Japanese with the topics found in all of Genki II
- Acquire Genki II: an Integrated Course in Elementary Japanese along with the workbook
- Genki II textbook: chapters 13-23
- iKnow! – Core 2000, Steps 1-10
- Skritter – Complete the list Genki 2, Second Edition
Tier 3 Targets:
- Vocabulary: ~2000+
- Kanji: ~300+
Tier 4 Skills:
- Read and understand written materials with specific contents concerning everyday topics
- Grasp summary information (e.g. newspaper headlines)
- Read slightly difficult writings encountered in everyday situations and understand the main points of the content with the aid of some alternative phrases
- Comprehend coherent conversations in everyday situations, spoken at near-natural speed
- Follow contents of spoken dialogue and grasp the relationships among the people involved
- Start functioning more independently (i.e. without the assistance of dictionaries)
The Grind Begins
- Acquire Tobira: Gateway to Advanced Japanese Learning Through Content and Multimedia
- Tobira textbook: Chapters 1-15
- iKnow! – Core 3000, Steps 1-10
- iKnow! – Core 4000, Steps 1-10
- Skritter – Complete the list Tobira: Gateway to Advanced Japanese
Tier 4 Targets:
- Vocabulary: ~4000+
- Kanji: ~800+
Tier 5 Skills:
- Read materials written clearly on a variety of topics (e.g articles and commentaries in newspapers/magazines) and comprehend their contents
- Follow the flow of a written narrative (e.g. a critique) and understand the intent of the writer
- Comprehend coherent conversations and news reports spoken at nearly natural speed in everyday situations
- Follow the ideas and comprehend the contents of spoken dialogues found in a variety of settings, and understand the relationships among the speakers
The Finishing Touches
- iKnow! – Core 5000, Steps 1-10
- iKnow! – Core 6000, Steps 1-10
- New Kanzen Master JLPT N2
Tier 5 Targets:
- Vocabulary: ~6000+
- Kanji: ~1000+
Tier 6 Skills:
- Read profound, complex written material both logical and abstract in nature and comprehend its structure, its content, and the intent of the writer
- Comprehend coherent conversations, news reports, and lectures spoken at natural speed in a broad variety of settings at a high level of finesse and detail
- “Graduate” to the point where you can read native materials on your own and start laying the groundwork for mastering Japanese
Choose Your Own Adventure
- Engage with native materials!
Prepare for N1
- New Kanzen Master JLPT N1
- Nihongo Sō Matome JLPT N1
Tier 6 Targets:
- Vocabulary: ~10,000+
- Kanji: ~2,000+
- Attempt JLPT N1
- 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 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.