Vlad's Recommended Japanese Learning Resources
I’ve been learning Japanese for many years, and I often make lists for people to recommend specific resources for learning the language. In fact, this is true to such an extent that at this point I’m probably more knowledgeable about Japanese learning resources than about Japanese itself, which I’m not sure how to feel about.
Either way, if you’re interested in learning Japanese, I guarantee you will find at least one useful resource on this page. I’ve included Amazon links, but I recommend you support a local bookstore if you can — they are usually more knowledgeable anyway. Let’s start with the basics.
If you don’t know hiragana/katakana, it’s something you need to sort out.
- “Remembering the Kana” by James Heisig: Just get a PDF of this and check hiragana and katakana off of your list in a weekend.
Kanji is probably the most feared aspect of learning Japanese, and for good reason, as it’s the most bothersome. I would encourage you to learn at least some kanji early on. The reason for this is actually that knowing more kanji allows you to read more Japanese, even if it’s simple Japanese. This is great because it increases the opportunities you have for immersion, which will give you a ton more self-study options that you’re going to enjoy way more. If you don’t know kanji, you unfortunately won’t be able to read much, which is a bummer.
Each language has a specific facet that is by far the most annoying. For German, it’s noun genders. For English, it’s pronunciataion. For Romanian, it’s conjugations. Well, Japanese’s annoying part is kanji. Perhaps it’s the price we pay for having an otherwise quite simple and regular language. The best way to get on top of it is to tackle it early.
- WaniKani: WaniKani is probably the single best way to learn kanji in my opinion. It’s a web app where you are periodically quizzed on kanji readings and meanings using a spaced repetition system. WaniKani is really nice to use, and that’s because a lot of work has gone into the kanji curriculum and mnemonics. It’s not for everyone though — it can get quite tedious, and many people find it too grindy. For this reason, my recommendation is to try to only have ~50 reviews at any one time, but do a little bit every day. There’s nothing like that feeling of waking up to 600 reviews. The first 3 levels are free, then you have to pay a monthly subscription, or you can get the lifetime option. I would try to get the lifetime option during their Christmas sale — if you like the website I think it’s worth it. One thing to note is that WaniKani does not teach you how to actually write the kanji by hand. This is probably fine, as handwriting unlikely to be a priority for you, but you should take this into account.
- “Remembering the Kanji” by James Heisig: The other big kanji learning option, this is a book that also teaches you how to write the kanji, and I thought I’d mention it so as to give you this option. However, this book does not teach the readings of the kanji, which is a reason many steer clear of it.
Now we’re getting to the meaty bits. These resources are courses or course-like references, and this is where you’ll most likely start off learning real Japanese.
- Genki I: Probably the single best “absolute beginner” resource, it teaches you a lot of the basic grammar and vocabulary, along with tons of helpful examples and exercises. If you only get one Japanese resource, this should be it. That being said, I would also use other materials on the side, as I think Genki teaches you the most “useful” things up front, but also leaves some more important grammar points until later. For example, plain form verbs and kanji are very important, but are introduced quite late into the book.
- Genki II: Yep, you guessed it, the second part of Genki. This moves on to more “intermediate” grammar, while keeping the same easy-to-read nature of the first part. Highly recommended.
- Tae Kim’s Guide to Learning Japanese: This is a resource you can read either online or as a book, which has a lot of information about grammar. Tae Kim takes a less pedantically pedagogical and more “no-nonsense” approach by prioritising grammar points which are used in real-life situations, and teaching you important nuances. I really recommend it, both as a reference and as a book to work though. It has pretty good and realistic explanations of when to use each grammar point and so on. Definitely something you should look at.
- Maggie Sensei: A dog teaches you Japanese. Instead of a course, these are super useful tutorials on individual grammar points. When I don’t know how to use a grammar point, I usually google “<thing here> maggie sensei” to find the tutorial for that grammar point, as Maggie Sensei often has straightforward explanations with plenty of examples containing real-life scenarios. I’ve always found the material on this website to be really clear and concise.
There is a book I love that is not a Japanese course per se, but I wanted to mention it, because it’s great.
- A Dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar: This book is wonderful for looking up individual grammar points. If you’re looking to really go deep into the usages and nuances of certain particles or other constructions, this is an invaluable resource. Even if you’re not going to use it right away, I recommend buying it, because it will save you when you’re completely confused as to why this or that particle of construction is used in a certain way. This book is more of a reference than something to read. That being said, I have actually read it cover-to-cover like a book because I’m an idiot.
Once you have some basic Japanese skills, you can progress to learning using some real-life resources such as movies and TV shows. It’s super important to do this as soon as you feel comfortable, because the absolute best way you’ll learn is by immersing yourself in the target language, and you need real materials to be able to do that. Plus, it’s a lot of fun.
- Terrace House (on Netflix): If you’re looking to learn from native speakers in real-life situations (which you should be), Terrace House is by far best resource I’ve found. It has unscripted spoken Japanese, gives you an accurate representation of how people speak, has parts that are easy enough to pick up at a beginner/intermediate level, and is really fun to watch (in my opinion at least). I would recommend using it with the next item on this list.
- Language Learning with Netflix: LLN is a super useful Chrome plugin that adds a lot of tools to Netflix. It lets you watch a show while showing you subtitles in both your target language (Japanese or otherwise) and English, clicking on items to see their definitions, saving words you’ve learned, skipping to the next/previous sentence and so on. I recommend it, and I also pay for the “pro” version, gives you a few more features. It’s really fun to watch Terrace House with this.
- Your Favourite Anime: You can, of course, learn by watching anime. People have conflicting opinions about this, so here’s my take. The best resources are the ones you have fun using and the ones that keep you engaged. It’s better to have a not-quite-perfect resource that keeps you coming back than to have an ideal resource that is so bothersome you quit, If you want to use anime though, I recommend sticking to a single anime/movie and watching it over and over. Make sure it’s an anime that has everyday language, but also a mix of formal and informal language. Nothing worse than sounding like a jerk because you learned too much anime Japanese!
As I mentioned above, learning kanji in isolation can be extremely tiring. Once you’ve learned some basic Japanese, another alternative opens up to you — manga. Of course, the immediate difficulty is that not a lot of manga has furigana, so you still need to be able to read the kanji. But there’s a way around this! You can read manga on your computer, and use OCR software to read the kanji!
- manga-ocr: The best manga OCR tool I know of. You take a screenshot of the portion of the manga that has the kanji you want, the kanji is automatically converted to text, and a dictionary window is then updated with the definition and reading. The downside to manga-ocr is that using it requires a little bit of technical knowledge, so if you’re having trouble, as a friend! If you like manga-ocr, it’s worth trying the similar but slightly different mokuro, which turns your manga images into a HTML web page containing all of the OCR’d text.
- Jisho: Jisho is the best dictionary. That’s it.
- Jisho Pitcher: This is a browser addon that adds pitch accent information to Jisho. I’d recommend installing it and looking out for the pitch accent whenever you look a word up, so you don’t consolidate wrong pronunciations in your memory.
- Tangorin: If you ever want to look up verb conjugations, Tangorin has many, many more than Jisho, so I would recommend it for that situation.
- Tatoeba: Not exactly a dictionary, but you can search for a short English phrase, and it will show you Japanese sentences containing that phrase. I often use this when I want to look up how to say something without translating literally from English. In that respect, this website is super useful. That being said, it is literally the slowest website I use on a regular basis, for some perplexing reason.
- HiNative: This is a phone app where you can search for a particular word/grammar point/phrase, and people will have answered questions on how to use it. Similarly to Tatoeba, I use it when I want to look up how to say something, but looking it up in the dictionary would have just made for a weird-sounding sentence.
Some people think Japanese is “flat”, with no accent. Oh, if only. Pitch accent is probably the number one thing people neglect. While it’s true that you will probably still be understandable without paying attention to pitch accent, neglecting it will just lead to more of a headache later on. That, and you’ll sound funny. I know because I’ve been learning Japanese for years and my pitch accent is still awful.
- Dogen’s Japanese Phonetics series: In additional to his normal entertaining Japanese videos, YouTuber Dogen is doing a long-running series on pitch accent, which includes a lot of painstaking detail and research. You need to pay for the lessons on Patreon, but I think they’re really useful. You can start out by just going through a bunch of the videos in a weekend to get a general idea. I would pay for a couple of months of the Patreon and just slowly work through them when you feel like it. You don’t have to watch everything, especially as there are a ton of rules and edge cases, but I think it’s really good to have a general idea of the pitch accent, so you can also pick it up when learning with other resources.
There are some YouTube channels that will actually teach you Japanese:
- Dogen: Comedy videos centered around Japanese that are honestly pretty funny and informative. Check them out and see if you like them.
- Bilingirl Chika: This YouTuber rather does videos teaching Japanese people English, but since the videos are both in Japanese and English, I find they can be useful to pick up some Japanese too.
Other YouTube channels will generally not teach you Japanese, but are very fun to watch and will softly introduce you to some nice parts of Japanese culture.
Sharla in Japan: More lifestyle-y videos, some tourism around various places in Japan, some interesting tidbits about life in Japan thrown in.
Rachel and Jun: Super sweet couple with some absolutely gorgeous cats. Like, seriously, they’re dreamy. Rachel and Jun do cover some aspects of Japanese culture.
Practice with Others
It’s a very good thing to have your Japanese corrected by native speakers. Since it’s such a different language from Western languages, it’s often extremely difficult to get the tone and the nuances right unless you’re helped by native speakers at some point.
- HelloTalk: HelloTalk is great for finding native speakers to talk to. You can make posts which other people can correct, and then you can also find people to DM with and you can also correct each others’ messages there. You might have to message a few people before you can find someone that’s nice to talk to, but it’s worth it. I’ve had a lot of fun talking to people on there.
I love the idea of learning Japanese through podcasts, but I haven’t found that many podcasts that I enjoy, and many either require a very high level of Japanese, or are super basic and boring. That being said, I did find one series that I enjoyed quite a bit.
- HelloTalk Lessons: If you install HelloTalk, there is also a “lessons” section with podcasts. They each cover a language concept (such as a certain conjugation) used in an everyday situation. They range in difficulty from N5 to N1, starting out with the most basic Japanese, and going all the way to quite advanced grammar and conversations. This structure makes them super enjoyable to work through. I find these lessons really good, but they are quite expensive. If you don’t mind spending a bit of money, this is probably a good resource at any level of Japanese, especially when you’re starting out.
I hope that was useful. If you’re looking for more, Tofugu has a post with various lists of their favourite Japanese learning resources. I would go through it to see if anything speaks to you particularly.
Either way, I think Japanese is an extremely fun language, and I wish you a lot of fun in learning it! 楽しく日本語を勉強して！
Image by irasutoya.