8 Tips for Learning Japanese as a Beginner

At first glance, learning Japanese is a tricky undertaking. Compared to English, Japanese is a contextual language that employs subtlety and nuance over directness.

Even though it's very different from English, certain features of Japanese make it easier than you'd think. Japanese has very few irregular verbs and no gender for nouns. Plus, there are only two verb tenses: past and present. You can also count on most pronunciation to be phonetic once you learn to read.

If you're ready to learn Japanese, here are eight tips for beginners.

1. Don't Worry Too Much About Handwriting

If you're learning Japanese in a traditional classroom setting, you may find a large emphasis placed on handwriting kanji (the adopted logographic Chinese characters used in the Japanese writing system).

There are more than 2,000 jōyō kanji (characters). With so much to learn as a beginner, it's better to focus on speaking and reading. It's likely you'll only need to be able to write a handful of kanji in your day-to-day life, at least for the early parts of your study. Can you write your name, address, and some rudimentary numbers? Then you're well ahead of the game.

2. Take Advantage of Manga and Anime

If you have even a passing familiarity with Japanese pop culture, you'll know that manga (Japanese comic books and graphic novels) and anime (animated media) are global phenomena popular way beyond the borders of Japan. But they originate there, and Japanese children and adults use them to learn all sorts of things, from history to folklore to math to career training. From these modern mediums, you'll get exposure to current slang and casual speech that you wouldn't otherwise find in a textbook.

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3. Embrace Your Inner Karaoke Diva

Karaoke is HUGE in Japan (because they invented it, of course). So why not practice the national pasttime while learning some Japanese?

Following along with song lyrics helps you recognize characters in kanji and kana (syllabic writing where one character represents one word). As a bonus, practicing karaoke will introduce you to beloved Japanese culture and music. When foreigners make an effort to learn Japanese songs, it's seen as thoughtful and is appreciated by Japanese locals.

4. Listen A LOT

Japanese has fewer distinct sounds than most European languages. To the untrained ear, that can make a lot of new words sound the same, or very similar. That's why it's important to listen a lot - to music, audiobooks, the news, your teacher, film dialogue - whatever exposes you to Japanese on a regular basis.

If you can read subtitles as you follow along with a movie, for example, you'll enrich your vocabulary and start to normalize the slight nuances that distinguish individual words. Look for Japanese lessons with audio components on sites like LingQ or Fluent City. Or, if you're feeling really brave, you can use an app like Saito San to have a phone conversation with someone in Japan.

5. Instead of Grammar, Focus on Patterns

Japanese sentences tend to have a subject-object-verb structure, where English follows a subject-verb-object structure. If you're directly translating from Japanese to English, you'll probably end up sounding a bit like Yoda!

Instead of getting bogged down in complex grammatical rules and technical structuring, focus on picking out patterns. Consider that in Japanese you would say "I, Japan to, am going," whereas in English you'd say "I am going to Japan." You can start to see loose patterns emerge in how sentences are shaped, without having to get enmeshed in grammatical theory and complex rules.

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6. Start Cooking

Here at Fluent City we think there's possibly no better reason to learn Japanese than to understand Japanese food. Is it not everyone's dream to go to dinner in Japan and order like a pro?

You can learn food-related vocabulary through cooking blogs and videos. Start in English with Kyoto Foodie or Humble Bean, then move onto Harumi Kurihara (basically Japan's Martha Stewart) or Cookpad (a large recipe repository).

7. Use Full Sentence Flashcards

Everyone knows that flashcards are a great way to learn new vocabulary. But for Japanese beginners, flashcards will work best with full sentences as opposed to individual words or characters.

Construct a deck of simple sentences so you get used to the context that surrounds much of the language, as well as the order in which you find words in a sentence. Websites like Brainscape have pre-compiled sentence flashcards so you don't have to reinvent the wheel.

8. Find a Good Japanese-English Dictionary

Sometimes Google Translate isn't enough to explain the full context around a Japanese character, word, or sentence. Several resources exist that provide a more complete picture. Check out the Weblio dictionary or the Rikaichan Chrome extension.

Hopefully these tips will help you gain some momentum as you begin learning Japanese. You'll learn more quickly if you can bring learning to life through culture, food, music, and people. Luckily, there's a never-ending supply of Japanese food, sights, and sounds to bring adventure to your studies.