How to learn Japanese

by Wouter Thielen
(Tokyo, Japan)

I have been learning (and still am learning) Japanese for over 7 years, just for fun, in my own time. And I would like to share my experiences here.

Grammar I started with the yellow book "Essential Japanese Grammar". It covers a lot of basic grammar in romanized print (Romaji), so you do not have to learn the script (Kana/Kanji) first to get started (which is quite an obstacle). As you learn the grammar, you will be provided with example sentences, from which you will build up some basic vocabulary.

Then I used the "Handbook of Japanese verbs", and "Handbook of Japanese adjectives and adverbs" to get to the next step. They are both written by Taeko Kamiya, printed by Kodansha. They offer you an overview of common Japanese sentence constructions. They are also accompanied by lots of example sentences in both Romaji and Kana/Kanji, which can be a nice introduction to the script. There are practices you can do on your own after every set of constructions.

With these books, you will have a solid foundation of making Japanese sentences, and I have to say they helped me a lot: after the last two books, I have been able to talk about more things than just greetings, the weather, and simple statements.

Script While it is a big hurdle, and I hear many people complaining "Why does Japanese have two alphabets?", I would like to tell that Western script also has two alphabets: lowercase, and uppercase. If you look it that way, wouldn't it be a bit more acceptable to learn two scripts for Japanese?

I suggest you to start with Hiragana (the curly one), since that is used for the most things, and Kanji will be accompanied with Hiragana above them to aid the reader with their reading. The latter are called Furigana. Katakana (the straight one) is mostly used to write foreign borrowed words, or to emphasize words (just like uppercase does with our Western alphabet). I learned my Hiragana in less than 3 hours, when I was in the train on my way to my parents' house. Here is how:
- First learn the first row: a i u e o
- Try to memorize it, i.e. write them without looking at the source
- If you succeed, go to the next row: ka ki ku ke ko
- Try to memorize it
- If you succeed, try to memorize all the rows you have learned so far: the A row, and the Ka row
- If you also succeed at this one, go to the next: sa si su se so
- Try to memorize it
- If you succeed, try to memorize all the rows you have learned so far: the A row, the Ka row and the Sa row.

And continue this way until you have memorized all. Took me less than 3 hours.?I had a friend doing the same thing, and he could do it too! So you can do it too!

When you are familiar with Hiragana, you can continue with Katakana, using the same method.

Kanji This is the hardest part. It was because I learned Chinese before, that I could learn Japanese Kanji easily, but I guess that will not work for most of the people here, so I will tell about how I learned them when I learned Chinese. I followed an optional course Mandarin Chinese at the University I was in, and the teacher made us learn 15 words every week. I made blocked sheets, with blocks where I would practise the characters in, just repeating them over and over again. This might sound dull and tedious, but it works.

The next advice is: know the radicals. Radials are parts of the character, and as you work with characters, you will notice many Kanji share the same radicals. There are about 240 basic radicals, but starting with a handful of them is enough! Know them, learn to recognize them in Kanji you come across, and use them to memorize the Kanji. When you learn Kanji, do not memorize the strokes, that would get you nowhere. Instead, memorize the parts, and associate the parts with other Kanji that you know.

About the reading of Kanji: Kanji with a common part, mostly have a similar reading. So even if you do not know the Kanji as a whole, if you at least see a familiar part, chances are that the reading is the same!

Personal result I passed the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, level 2, in 2007, after about 5 years of self-study, and I am planning to take level 1 sometime soon, when I feel confident about my Kanji. Currently, I am learning from "A Dictionary of Intermediate Japanese Grammar" and "A Dictionary of Advanced Japanese Grammar" to get myself familiar with more advanced topics, and from "Donna toki, dou tsukau nihongo hyougen bunkei 500" (When and how to use Japanese sentence patterns 500), which is 100% Japanese, but an excellent book, aimed for students of JLPT1 and 2. I moved from my home in Holland to Tokyo in Japan, and I am still enjoying this wonderful country, culture and language after 1 year of moving here.

Online sources A good online source for Japanese grammar is It might need you to know Hiragana first, though, so try my Hiragana-in-less-than-3-hours method! :)

Conclusion I hope I have put up a clear guide on learning Japanese. I have not mentioned any vocabulary drills, because you will learn them while you learn the grammar. I hope this guide will be useful for you.

Comments for How to learn Japanese

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by: Hans Thielen

The only comment that I have is, that the above piece was written by my son Wouter, and I am mighty proud of him. Apart from learning Chinese and Japanese, he - being Dutch - learned English, Latin and Greek, and was excellent at mathematics.

Very useful advice for deaf learners
by: Nick

Your advice is very useful. I've been trying to find a suitable path for for me as a deaf person to learn Japanese smoothly. Your post above clearly shows the suitable path for me. You said the yellow book which contains the essential Japanese grammar information. I saw one with its yellow book cover on Amazon and it was written by E.F. Bleiler. Is it the right book I'm looking at? It's only available in Kindle format but it is no problem as I have the Kindle app. It is interesting to know that learning the Kanji radicals first helps you to learn Kanji well. Yes, I had to practice writing each Kanji character in about 20-40 blocks so I can write this character properly. It is the same method for learning to write hiragana and katakana characters. Ha! I didn't know you know a lot of languages - a very talented guy you are!

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