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How To Learn Japanese On Your Own

How To Learn Japanese On Your Own

Learning a language can be a highly rewarding endeavor. Not only does it let you communicate with new people and live in new countries, but it can also help you gain an insight into new cultures. 

As a result of this, an increasing number of people are now starting to learn Japanese. Japanese is a unique language to match an equally unique and interesting culture. Learning to read and speak it can open up a variety of fascinating new perspectives.

That said, not everyone has the time or money to attend expensive language schools and classes, meaning they have to rely on self-teaching instead. Thanks to the complexity of the Japanese language, self-learning can be very difficult.

It’s far from impossible. With the right tools, techniques, and resources, plus consistent effort and determination, you can learn Japanese by yourself.

How do beginners start learning Japanese?


A good place to start is by learning the Japanese alphabets:  Hiragana, Katakana and Kanji. Hiragana and Katakana are the simplest among the 3, with the phonetic alphabets comprising 46 characters each. Hiragana is used for spelling Japanese words, while Katakana is used for foreign words.

Once you learn Hiragana and Katakana, you can move onto the third Japanese alphabet: Kanji. Kanji is the primary Japanese writing system, consisting of over 50,000 characters each conveying different words and concepts. 

Don’t be put off by that huge number — only around 2,000 Kanji characters are considered common, so while there’s still a lot to learn, 2,000 Japanese characters is a lot more manageable than 50,000. You’ll gradually pick up new Kanji and their meanings as you progress, much as you’d gradually expand your vocabulary when learning any other language. 

It is important to learn how to read Hiragana and Katakana first. Hiragana characters can be used to modify the pronunciation and meaning of Kanji, while Katakana spellings are used for foreign words that have no Kanji of their own.

Even if your primary goal is to learn spoken Japanese for conversational purposes, you should still learn Kanji as you go. Doing so will help to deepen your understanding of the Japanese language while expanding your vocabulary.

Understand your goals and motives

Another important step is to assess the reasons you’re learning Japanese and what goals you should set accordingly. For example:

  • Are you learning Japanese because you aim to move to Japan? 
  • Do you need it to communicate with colleagues based there? 
  • Is it because you enjoy Japanese media and want to build a better understanding of it? 
  • Or are you simply interested in Japanese culture and history, and aim to learn the language to broaden your perspective?

All of these are strong reasons to learn Japanese. If your aim is to be able to speak Japanese conversationally, set yourself a goal of being able to hold a conversation for a certain amount of time. If you’re learning Japanese because of your interest in Japanese films or anime, then aim to watch an episode of TV without subtitles and see how much you understand.

Hold these goals in mind for motivation, and use them to inform what areas of the Japanese language you should focus on learning. Don’t overreach yourself. It’s better to start with simpler, more achievable goals rather than demoralizing yourself by setting yourself up to fail with much more difficult goals.

Find the right resources

Self-teaching doesn’t mean going it completely alone. There are all manner of resources that can help you to start learning Japanese, so finding the ones you find most helpful is an important next step in advancing your understanding of the language.

It might be helpful to start with a beginner Japanese textbook to learn the fundamentals and some basic Japanese phrases before moving onto anything more complex. After you’ve got to grips with how the language works, try out some of the other resources on offer.

1. Apps and programs

There are all sorts of language-learning apps and computer programs available, many of which are free. Two of the most well-known are Rosetta Stone and Duolingo.

Rosetta Stone is a primarily desktop-based program that uses immersive teaching — giving you key words and phrases to learn and repeat, using voice recognition software to correct your pronunciation when necessary.

Duolingo is a mobile app that provides tailored exercises to increase your vocabulary and test your understanding of Japanese grammar and pronunciation. It also incorporates a system of scores and rewards to incentivize you to keep learning and stay motivated.

2. Take an online Japanese course

While you may not have the time to attend a language school or classes, an online Japanese language course can offer structured learning in a more flexible package, providing you with learning material that you can work into your own schedule. 

Online courses may also provide one-to-one time with a Japanese tutor or course leader who can offer further guidance and answer any questions you have. This is a great way to gain some more expert guidance while remaining largely self-taught and keeping control of your own schedule.

4. Engage in conversations with native speakers

One of the best ways to practice your Japanese is to have conversations with native speakers, as this allows you to improve your Japanese pronunciation, pick up additional quirks of the language that come from more natural speech, and gain confidence in your speaking ability.

Websites like Meetup and Mixxer offer opportunities for conversations like these by matching you with native Japanese speakers looking for a native English-speaking partner to practice their English skills with. 

This is sometimes called a language exchange. The idea is that you and your language partner take turns speaking in Japanese and English, helping each other to practice your new language in conversation.

5. Use audio aids

If you’re more centered on spoken Japanese than the written language, then it makes sense to use audio aids to help you gain a better understanding. 

One of the best places to look is your podcast app of choice. There are all sorts of podcasts dedicated to teaching Japanese, such as JapanesePod101 and Learn Japanese Pod. You can also find podcasts aimed more at helping you practice your Japanese comprehension than actively teaching you, such as the News in Slow Japanese podcast.

You can also try practicing your listening comprehension by listening to Japanese radio stations through radio web apps, or by watching Japanese television shows or anime. Immersing yourself in the language through media is a great way of absorbing it and testing yourself on how well you understand what you hear.

5. Books and written resources 

Japanese textbooks can often be just as effective as shiny new apps. They offer a clear structure to follow to advance your understanding, and are helpful for referring back to if you need to look up something you’ve forgotten or if you want to revise old topics.

You should also invest in a Japanese dictionary, so that you can look up Kanji that you don’t know the meaning of or translate English words into Japanese as necessary. 

You don’t have to stick to physical textbooks when it comes to written resources. There are also plenty of free resources to use online - a major example being All Japanese All The Time, which offers a comprehensive guide to learning Japanese from the basics through to more complex vocabulary and grammatical rules.

As helpful as written guides are, don’t use them exclusively. They can help you learn to read and write Japanese, but you’ll still need to use audio resources to help you learn to speak Japanese.

Japanese learning methods and self-teaching techniques


Even though there are plenty of external resources and teaching aids for you to make use of, you still need to be able to teach yourself when necessary. Try out different techniques for practicing, drilling, and testing your Japanese skills and see what works for you.

Some ideas to consider include:

  • Mnemonics: The mnemonic method involves using imagery, patterns, rhymes, or other easily memorised devices to help you remember specific grammatical rules, Kanji and vocabulary.
  • Spaced repetition systems: This technique relies on repeating words and their meanings repeatedly, increasing the gap between each repetition to help train your memory.
  • Social media: By following Japanese news or celebrity accounts on social media, you can insert some opportunities for learning vocabulary into your daily scroll.
  • Immersion: Try listening to Japanese podcasts or radio while you go about your daily chores to surround yourself with the language. This can help you pick up new vocabulary almost subconsciously, while also training you to recognise how phrases and sentences flow.

A more drastic but definitely effective self-teaching method is to actually spend some time in Japan, whether as a holiday, temporary move, or permanent relocation. This can give you the chance to put your skills into practice by having real Japanese conversations with native speakers and engaging directly with Japanese culture. 

Going to live in Japan might seem like throwing yourself in at the deep end, but it’s one of the best ways to truly test yourself and take your Japanese language skills to the next level. 

It’s also less daunting than it may seem. Many Japanese people learn English as a second language, so you may find that locals want to practice English with you as much as you want to practice Japanese with them.

Set realistic goals and stay consistent

While these resources and language learning techniques can help you learn Japanese fast, you won’t become fluent overnight. Many tools and services will advertise themselves as language learning hacks, but the reality is there’s no way to hack it. The secret is simply a lot of hard work and dedication.

You need to stay consistent, putting in the time and effort to regularly learn and practice Japanese. Don’t just do an hour here or there when you feel like it. Create a schedule and stick to it, dedicating blocks of time each week to your Japanese studies. Keeping to this schedule will help you progress much quicker than if you let it slip.

At the same time, don’t push yourself too hard. Set small, realistic goals for each week or month to help you track your progress and keep motivated. Setting larger goals that you’re not likely to meet will just set you up for failure, as missing big goals will likely just demoralise you and make it harder to keep going.

Summing up

By following this guide to Japanese self-teaching, you’ll soon find yourself on the way to high-level Japanese speaking and writing. If you put in enough time and effort, you could even reach Japanese fluency, opening up all manner of new opportunities and perspectives.

It’s worth remembering that you don’t have to do it all alone, though. Anyone who’s studied Japanese can tell you it’s a difficult language to get to grips with. If you find yourself struggling, don’t be afraid to get help from online tutors, language classes, or advanced online courses to help you progress.

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