Here are the best tips for learning Japanese. The best way to learn Japanese can vary from person to person based on their unique learning style and goals. Here we cover techniques that are beneficial for anyone interested in learning Japanese.
1) Take a Japanese Course
One of the best ways to learn Japanese is to work through a well rounded course. A good Japanese course will follow an immersion based approach.
The immersion based method for teaching foreign languages means that you are taught vocabulary and grammar in the context of dialogues or full Japanese conversations. This is opposed to the traditional classroom style approach, where you are given seemingly random lists of Japanese words with their English translations and told to go “learn Japanese” (which in this case is just rote memorization).
With the immersion method you are always working with bite sized chunks of the Japanese language, not just individual words. It doesn’t matter if you’re listening to Japanese audio or reading Japanese text (or doing both at the same time). The important thing is that you work with material right for your level. It should be just enough to stretch your skills but not so difficult that it overwhelms you.
Learning Japanese through immersion will help you understand grammar better, remember vocabulary more easily, and it will keep you from the bad habit of translating from English in your head when you want to speak Japanese.
Storylearning is a great course that uses immersion to help you learn Japanese naturally through stories. It teaches conversational Japanese. It is one of the best options around for beginners who want to immerse themselves in Japanese and learn as quickly as possible.
See our Super-Detailed StoryLearning Review
2) Listen to Japanese podcasts
Japanese podcasts are a vital resource if you’re serious about learning Japanese. Listening comprehension is an important skill that you will have to master if you want to speak Japanese fluently. Podcasts are an easy and effective way to develop your listening skills while also learning new words.
At first you will want to stick to Japanese podcasts aimed at beginners. Luckily Japanese is a popular foreign language, and there are a lot of options out there. You can find anything from podcasts that slowly read the news to you in Japanese to podcasts that teach you a single new word everyday.
One of my favorite Japanese podcasts is Japanesepod101. This podcast has been running for years and features 10-15 minute episodes that make great Japanese lessons. Each episode uses a real Japanese conversation to teach you the language, and there are thousands of lessons available on the site.
See our Super-Detailed JapanesePod101 Review
3) Download a Japanese app
I love language learning apps because they allow you to take your Japanese practice with you wherever you go. No matter what your learning style is there is a Japanese learning app out there for you. There are a ton of apps to help you memorize and read Kanji. Other apps even help you practice writing Japanese characters with your finger right on your phone.
Of course there are also plenty of options for learning new words and vocabulary. Duolingo and Babbel are two of the most famous examples from this category. Duolingo and Babbel both use translation exercises to teach vocabulary, which is okay when learning new words. However this approach doesn’t prepare you to use Japanese in the real world.
If you’re serious about speaking Japanese with real people then you should check out Pimsleur. Pimsleur Japanese is mainly an audio based learning app that teaches you conversational phrases by pronouncing them one syllable at a time (this is great for developing a natural Japanese accent).
Once you’ve learned the phrases in a lesson, the app prompts you to ask and respond to various questions using what you’ve learned, much like you would in a real conversation. This sort of audio based immersion helps you to start thinking and speaking in Japanese naturally over time.
4) Watch Japanese tv and movies
Watching Japanese anime, TV, and movies is a fun way to learn a little bit about Japanese culture while also practicing your language skills. In the age of streaming services and YouTube, finding something to watch in Japanese is pretty easy.
Depending on your level in the language you may want to watch Japanese shows with Japanese subtitles, or if you’re really brave, no subtitles at all! If you already have a basic knowledge of Japanese under your belt this sort of exercise can be great for developing your listening skills. You might even be able to pick up a new phrase or two.
Beginners might want to check out FluentU, which is an app that lets you watch Japanese content and easily switch between English and Japanese subtitles (both romanized or using characters). If you come across a word you don’t know while watching something on FluentU, just click the word in the subtitle and you’ll instantly see its full definition, pronunciation, and example sentences.
5) Learn to read hiragana and katakana
Learning to read is notoriously one of the most difficult parts of learning Japanese. I’m not going to sugarcoat things here. Japanese has one of the most complicated writing systems of any language in the modern world.
But there is some good news. While it will take you a while to read Japanese proficiently, there are some steps you can take right now to boost your literacy even if you’re new to the language. One of these steps is to learn how to read hiragana and katakana.
Hiragana and katakana are both syllabary systems which make up part of the Japanese writing system. This means each hiragana and katakana character represents a sound, similar to how letters represent sounds in the English alphabet. Hiragana contains 46 symbols, which collectively represent all the sounds found in the Japanese language. Katakana function similarly but its characters are more often used to represent sounds from foreign loan words.
Learning to read hiragana and katakana can take as little as a couple weeks. Therefore, it is a great first step for beginning Japanese learners. One effective way to learn hiragana is with the help of mnemonics.
6) Learn basic Kanji
Kanji are Japanese characters that represent words or ideas. They are a major part of the writing system, and a huge reason why learning to read Japanese can be difficult for foreigners. Because kanji don’t represent sounds, they can’t be read together the same letters in an alphabet can. This means you will have to memorize kanji in order to read them.
This can seem daunting because there are tens of thousands of kanji characters. But don’t worry, not even native Japanese speakers know every kanji out there. When you’re just starting out, begin by learning the kanji used most commonly. This will take the number down from tens of thousands, down to a few hundred. Pick 10-20 kanji to learn each week and the task gets even more manageable.
Spaced repetition flashcards are a great way to practice your Kanji and commit them to memory. There’s a free spaced repetition flashcard system called Anki that’s popular with Japanese learners. The program features user made decks for learning Kanji that you can download for free so it’s definitely worth checking out.
In addition to Anki there are a lot of apps for both Google and Iphone specifically designed to teach you kanji.
7) Read Japanese manga
A fun way to learn kanji and kana and start using them in a practical way, is by reading Japanese manga. If you don’t already know, manga are black and white Japanese comic books. There are manga comics for every reading level and for almost every topic imaginable (you can find manga stories about farming and golf for instance).
So with Japanese comics there really is something for everyone. If you have a low literacy level in Japanese then it might be wise to start out reading manga written for younger audiences, at least at first. As your ability to read improves you can gradually move up through more difficult material.
At the same time don’t underestimate the power of reading something you’re passionate about, even if it’s above your level. The best kind of language learning happens when you’re so engrossed in what you’re reading that you forget you’re also learning Japanese!
8) Practice with native Japanese speakers
Practicing with native speakers is an important part of becoming fluent in Japanese. It can also be one of the most intimidating steps for new Japanese learners to take when studying the language. The temptation is to put off speaking with real people until you are “ready”. But here’s a word of advice, you’ll never be 100% ready. No matter how many words or phrases you learn you will never feel completely comfortable speaking Japanese until you actually get out there and start speaking it.
Fortunately it’s easier than ever to connect with Japanese speakers. You can connect with a language exchange partner on sites like My Language Exchange to practice Japanese for free. Most major cities have language meetups or Japanese conversation clubs. If you live near a university that has a Japanese language program, there’s bound to be a conversation or culture club around.
9) Find a Japanese language tutor
Online classes with a Japanese tutor are an easy way to fast track your Japanese learning, while giving you the one on one speaking practice you’ll need to become fluent. Even a once a week Japanese lesson with a teacher is enough to help you identify your mistakes and get much needed feedback on your progress.
A good Japanese teacher will provide you with a custom learning program tailored specifically to your learning goals. They will share relevant learning materials and help you plan out your next steps in your language learning journey.
Japanese teachers typically have a lot of experience teaching foreigners. This is one of the things that makes online classes so powerful. Odds are that you are not the first native English speaker taking classes with your teacher. Your teacher will know beforehand the common mistakes foreigners make when learning Japanese, as well as the best ways to overcome them.
A single helpful tip or exercise from a Japanese tutor can save you hours of research on your own.
Italki is a language learning site that connects language learners with thousands of language teachers from all around the world for individual online video lessons. Italki has the largest collection of professional Japanese teachers and tutors out there, so if you’re looking for online classes it’s definitely worth taking a look.
See our Super-Detailed iTalki Review
10) Learn Japanese pronunciation
Pronunciation isn’t the first thing that jumps into people’s minds when they decide to learn Japanese. It’s usually a bit of an afterthought for most learners. This is a shame because working on your Japanese pronunciation can be a powerful asset in your language learning arsenal. Developing a good Japanese accent when you speak actually makes it easier for you to understand native speakers when they talk with you.
This is because when you physically know how to make a Japanese sound, your brain has a little space to file it under everytime you hear that sound. This helps you understand native speech even when someone is speaking really fast. It will also help you remember what you hear and supercharge your listening comprehension skills.
Not to mention that if you speak with a native Japanese accent, you will surprise most people.
Of all the Japanese learning resources we’ve mentioned so far, Pimsleur is the best option if you want to work on your Japanese pronunciation. Pimsleur teaches Japanese phrases by having you repeat individual syllables while listening to a native speaker. This is essentially pronunciation training 101, and it is a powerful way to develop your Japanese accent.
11) Learn Japanese grammar
It might seem appealing to put off learning Japanese grammar in favor of speaking as quickly as possible. This might work for a little while, but it won’t be long until you come up against some grammar rules that are so different from English that they have to be explained.
For languages that are more closely related to English like Spanish or German, you can get pretty far without learning any grammar and just sort of feeling your way through the spoken language. You will not make it that far with this technique when learning Japanese though.
This is because Japanese and English have little to nothing in common grammatically. The longer you put off learning Japanese grammar, the more likely you are to get lost. So whatever Japanese course or program you start learning with, make sure that it includes grammar explanations.
12) Skip Rosetta Stone and Duolingo Japanese
For this reason I recommend beginners not start with Rosetta Stone or Duolingo to learn Japanese. While these courses follow two different methods to teach Japanese, they both share one major flaw: they have no in-depth Japanese grammar explanations.
In fact Rosetta Stone has zero material on grammar whatsoever. Duolingo does a little better and provides some mini grammar lessons here and there. But if you want to walk away understanding the inner workings of Japanese sentences, avoid these two programs. Once you have a basic understanding of Japanese sentence structure then you could use these programs as an extra way to learn new vocabulary. But even so, there are so many better options out there when it comes to learning Japanese.
13) Learn Japanese on your own
As mentioned before, we recommend starting with a good course or working with an online tutor to give you a strong foundation in the Japanese language. You want to start off your language learning journey on the right foot when it comes to core vocabulary and grammar.
But once you have laid that foundation don’t be afraid to venture out and start learning Japanese on your own. Use your interests and hobbies to help inform your language learning. Start reading about your favorite topics in Japanese or maybe look for Japanese youtube videos on some of your hobbies.
Also don’t be afraid to try out new or unusual learning techniques. All Japanese All The Time, is a site created by one Japanese learner who did just that. This person reached fluency in Japanese largely by using just flashcards and Japanese language media!
His process isn’t simple, and it took him a lot of trial and error, but he was able to discover a learning method unique to his preferred learning style. Learn from his example and don’t be afraid to experiment!
14) Switch the language of your devices to Japanese
This tip is more of an intermediate to expert level hack, but it’s still a great way to dial up the immersion and live more of your daily life in Japanese. For each of your electronic devices (tablet, phone, laptop, etc), go to the language preference settings and switch your desired language to Japanese. Once you do this you will be forced to read Japanese everyday each time you start using any of your devices.
The one caveat with this technique is to make sure that you read enough Japanese to use your devices once the language has been switched. Otherwise you might get stuck while using your phone or laptop and be unable to switch it back from Japanese easily.
A way around this is to pick a single device to switch to Japanese at first. Once you get the hang of using that one in Japanese you can make the jump and switch all of our other devices as well.
15) Take a trip to Japan
Visiting Japan can be the ultimate immersion experience. I definitely recommend traveling to Japan if you’re learning Japanese. However if you plan to go specifically to level up your language skills there is a right way and wrong way to plan out your trip.
Don’t assume that by being in Japan you will magically absorb the language and start speaking Japanese with everyone you see. Wandering the streets of Tokyo or Kyoto won’t make you fluent. You’ll really have to be intentional about using Japanese when you’re in Japan. Otherwise you’re liable to simply stay in your English speaking comfort zone.
Also realize that as a foreigner most Japanese people will speak English with you if they know it. This is especially true of any touristy locations. One way to overcome this is to look for a local language school that provides immersion experiences for foreigners. These programs can range anywhere from a couple weeks to several months. They are a great way to ensure that you get the full immersion experience while visiting Japan.
There are so many methods to approach, “The best way to learn Japanese.” We have included 15 different ways and strategies to do so. Each person is going to have a different experience learning the language. Whether you struggle with grammar knowledge, basic phrases, kanji knowledge, written Japanese, basic conversations, learning hiragana, how to learn vocabulary, speaking skills, studying Japanese, or the learning process of it all, there is a way that works for you. As long as you really try to stay consistent in terms of learning the content and find suitable methods for you to use, there is nothing stopping you from learning the Japanese language.