I started trying to teach myself Japanese a handful of times over the years, but in the months leading up to my most recent trip to Tokyo in 2017, I really buckled down and started making progress. Japanese is definitely not easy to teach yourself, but I found quite a few resources that really helped me get a head start on learning the language. I found apps, podcasts, sites, forums, and books that actually worked and kept my study habits in check. In the future, I’d definitely love to take more formalized lessons, but as a hobby, I found all of these tools fun and useful.
I started using JapanesePod101.com after a friend recommended it to me before my trip. This site offers thousands of audio lessons and video classes. It’s a little bit overwhelming at first and there’s a lot to parse through to find something helpful, but I was able to use JapanesePod for some pretty awesome basic things.
Katakana & Hiragana Video Lessons
The best thing that I learned from this website was how to read and write both katakana and hiragana. The site has a 20-video series breaking down each character including how to write it, say it, and a visualization helping you to remember it. (I still say “ta” for “tablet” whenever I see タ.) As I watched each video, I took notes — I wrote down every character, a little note on what the visualization was (key – ki – き), and a stroke-by-stroke diagram of how to properly write each one. I’ve tried to learn my alphabets forever, but these videos really helped it stick.
Japanese Grammar & Vocab Podcast Lessons
As I was getting my characters down, I also started listening to some of the podcast lessons. Before my trip, I stuck mainly to the ones aimed towards the absolute beginners, such as key phrases, common sayings, and important words to remember. However, as I grew more confident, I began to follow a lesson plan to start getting a grasp on grammar, the area of the language that’s the most difficult for me. I found this blog that has a recommended listening path. There are a LOT of “seasons” of lessons on JapanesePod101.com, and starting from square one isn’t quite the best idea. If you plan to use this, I for sure would say to follow this lesson plan which features Naomi-sensei prominently. I do like that each audio lesson includes a few PDFs that include the script, the vocab used, and kanji featured.
All in all, JapanesePod101.com is a great resource and a great learning companion, but I don’t think you’d be able to teach yourself the entire language on this site and this site alone. While there are a TON of lessons offered, figuring out which ones you actually want and could use is difficult, and it’s kind of confusing. I used the app more than the site, and even that was kind of difficult to figure out. Also, to get good use from the site, you do have to pay. When I was actively using it, I paid $5 a month for the basic plan. For that much content, I think it was a fair price. My advice is to listen as much as possible, while you’re actively studying or while you’re doing something else. I listened a lot on my commute just to practice speaking along with the audio track, as well as at the gym where I could just space out and listen halfway, hoping to let anything sink in subconsciously. ALSO, just because you listen to a lesson once, doesn’t mean you are done with it. I repeated plenty.
Listen, I really love Wanikani. This tool comes from the creators of Tofugu and uses SRS (space repetition system) to teach you kanji. The first three levels are FREE to try to see if it’s something you like, and after that, there are different subscription and pricing plans available.
Wanikani teaches you kanji in three steps: radicals, kanji, and vocabulary. The first thing you do is learn a list of radicals – basically PARTS of kanji, little symbols used to create each character. After you learn those, you wait. Even if you’re hungry to learn and want to keep going, you wait. SRS is a method built to most efficiently teach you and to help you retain your knowledge. After you wait, you review. And then wait longer, and review again. And wait longer, and review again. Once you’ve reviewed each item correctly, Wanikani will start teaching you the kanji built from the radicals you know by heart. You’ll learn the meaning, the various readings, and how the radical fits in, as well as a wonderful visualization that you’ll hopefully never forget.
One of the only critiques I have is that sometimes the radicals are named something incredibly crazy that doesn’t match up to the kanji that it goes with, ie “raptor cage.” You can add a synonym for something that’s more practical for you to remember, but a lot of times, the mnemonic visualizations match up with the crazy radical names.
Like I said, I have learned so, so much from Wanikani and really surprised myself by how much I retained. I wrote down every new lesson as I got it, and often rewrote my notes just for the practice. The first time I started, I made it all the way to level seven, but thanks to buying a house/moving/starting a new job, my practice suffered a bit. I restarted from the beginning – something you can do at no cost to you – and made it back up to level five in no time. Using this site also helped me to improve my katakana and hiragana, as well.
A tip I have is: don’t let your eyes be bigger than your stomach. That meaning – yeah, it’s exciting to learn more and more new words, but don’t just power through new lessons unless you’re ready to add that into your review rotation. Trying to rush through it is not the key. Also, stay on top of your reviews. Check once to twice a day, depending on where you’re at in your progress. I’ve logged in after some time has passed and have had over 700 reviews sitting there waiting for me. Not a fun feeling. (Also a contributing factor to my decision to start from scratch.)
Another tip: after you get past the third level, the subscription plans aren’t super cheap, but a secret I found was to search the r/learnjapanese subreddit for any active coupons… You’ll be happy you did! Which leads me to…
Of course! I subbed to r/learnjapanese when I started teaching myself, and I’m so glad I did. Reddit is, well, reddit, and you have to weed through some naysayers and know-it-alls, but once you do, you’ll find some helpful gems. In all fairness, this subreddit is very supportive and friendly. I found a lot of useful things, such as PDF print outs of worksheets to help practice katakana and hiragana. (Just search for “practice worksheets” and you’ll find some! I used these.) Reddit is also a great resource for reviews on textbooks and websites; that’s where I found the recommended lesson plan for JapanesePod101.com!
The subreddit is also a great place to have your questions answered in truly helpful ways. I haven’t posted anything YET (I’m not advanced enough at all), but I have a lot of fun scrolling through other people’s questions and seeing how many different people answer and give advice.
4. Educational Apps
When I decided to start really learning, I got a little crazy and downloaded a ton of apps. Obviously, I couldn’t use them all, and quite a few didn’t really appeal to me or seem to work as a sustainable practice strategy. After talking with friends, and of course, seeing what reddit said, I found two that really stuck and helped me: Kana Mind and Tandem.
Available on the Apple app store and for Android on Google Play, this app is just a very solidly created set of flashcards. You can choose to either see the katakana or hiragana characters (or both) and give the english translation or vice versa. It is incredibly easy to just pick up and go — waiting in line? Try a few flashcards. Can’t get to bed? Practice that kana! After doing the videos from JapanesePod101.com, these were the perfect supplement to memorizing besides handwriting worksheets.
Ok, of all the things in this blog, I loved Wanikani and I love the Tandem app! Tandem is basically Tinder, but instead of potential hook ups, the app matches you up with someone who is a native speaker in the language you are learning who is also interested in YOUR native language. After that, it’s just like texting! Start a conversation with someone to practice your reading comprehension, learn some more conversational skills, answer questions about your own culture and language, and make some friends, too. It is SO nice to talk with someone who can make corrections as you go or give you encouragement on your progress. It’s kind of a low-pressure real life test, too. You don’t have to worry about speaking correctly or talking to someone face to face — you can reply back on your own time schedule and have time to check Google Translate if something doesn’t quite make sense yet.
What I Haven’t Tried Yet
As proud as I am on the progress I’ve made so far, I know that I have barely even scratched the surface. I mentioned earlier, but I’m more than apprehensive on starting to teach myself grammar. There’s also, oh you know, about a billion more kanji and vocab words for me to learn. I have a few ideas of a couple more tools that I’m going to use, but I just haven’t started yet.
The r/learnjapanese subreddit agrees – the Genki textbook is a great resource for beginners. Used in many classes, this book teaches the very basics of it all. Conversation and grammar, reading and writing – I’m excited to dig in. It’s on my bookshelf now…
Another tool widely regarded by speakers and learners of the language: anki cards. Anki is a program that works as an SRS plan that you create yourself. You can make however many and whichever types of cards you’d like. Luckily, a quick search online will show you plenty of premade decks for you to download. You can even download decks that correspond to your progress in the Genki textbook! I have tried to figure out how to use Anki in the best way for my learning style a couple times now, but I just haven’t gotten the hang of it yet. I do want to keep trying, though, due to how many people I’ve heard say how helpful it is.
I’ve seen Bunpro referred to as the Wanikani of grammar. I don’t know if that’s quite true, but the same basic ideas are still there. I signed up for Bunpro a while ago, but haven’t had a chance to really get started on it. At the bottom of the main page, you’ll see a video explaining how it works. I plan to check it out and let you guys know what I think once I’ve given it a shot. I do know that it pulls some lesson info from both Imabi and Tae Kim’s Guide to Learning Japanese, two other great textbook references available online.
Japanese Language Video Games
Even though I’ve been wanting to for a while, I haven’t gotten around to it yet — I really want to buy a basic DS game (ahem, Pokemon) and play it in Japanese to see how much I can figure out. I DID change my language setting of Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp to be Japanese, but I also grew bored of the game at the same time, sooo..
My Goals & Tips
As with my 30 day yoga challenge, I want to use this blog to both journal my progress and act as an accountability measure in continuing my studies. I plan on posting semi-regularly on where I’m at, what I’ve learned, and any thoughts on new tools or helpful sites/products that I find.
Specific June Goals
- Catch up on all outstanding Wanikani reviews by June 30th. As of 6/12/18, I have 322. YIPES.
- Begin daily practice on Wanikani again.
- By the end of the month, have started working my way through the first chapter of Genki.
- Only listen to JapanesePod101.com on my commute to and from work.
General Tips on Learning Japanese
- Practice every day. If I was living in Japan, submersion would be so so helpful, but I live in Minnesota. It’s up to me to stay dedicated. Even if it’s just for 10-20 minutes, keep practicing and reviewing.
- Keep your eyes open. This is especially helpful for fans of games, anime, or other pop culture products to come out of Japan. Watch the subtitles to see if you can recognize anything, read the street signs in the background of images, follow Instagrams and Twitter accounts of native speakers to see if you can translate the captions on your own. The more you force yourself to practice at all times, the more natural it becomes. I’d also say to try watching anime with subtitles on, but my house has ALWAYS had a strict subs-not-dubs rule, so that just goes without saying.
- Try lots of different things. Just because Wanikani works for me, doesn’t mean it will work for you. Some people do great with just a bare bones textbook; I need a bit more. If you try everything you can, you’ll learn what is most effective and fun for you.
- Don’t stress yourself out. Cut to me, 700 kanji reviews hanging over my head, dreading the thought of even trying. Listen, you’re teaching yourself a language! On your own time! Just for the sake of learning it! Don’t be too hard on yourself and don’t let your excitement drop — the second it becomes a chore is the moment you’ll start putting it off.
I hope this has been somewhat of a help and I am so excited to continue to post about what I’ve done to learn Japanese. Please comment if you have any questions, any thoughts you want to share on what I’ve written about, or any other ideas and tools that you’ve found particularly useful! Thank you!
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