My best-guess approach to learning Japanese

I’ve been learning Japanese for a while now, but whenever someone asks me “how long has it been?” I always feel the need to say something like “between five and three years”. While I fully embrace the fact that language learning takes a long time, I also feel like I could have reached my current level of proficiency in much less time than it actually took me, just due to a years-long false start and lots of wasted effort before I had any idea what I was doing.

This is the guide I wish I could have followed from the beginning, compiled with the benefit of hindsight after much trial and error. It’s likely imperfect, and likely won’t work for everyone, but it’s essentially everything that worked for me without all of the stuff that wasted my time. I hope you find it helpful.

First, a quick disclaimer. As mentioned above, I feel that I wasted a lot of my time early on with bad study methods. However, it’s impossible to say for sure that this effort was wasted per se. I can’t rule out the possibility that my two years of grinding vocab did actually have a material benefit on my ability to get into reading quickly later. Every experience we have contributes to who we are, even our mistakes, and any advice I (or anyone) can give is inseparable from the mistakes we’ve made along the way.

Also, a quick word of warning. If you’re serious about learning Japanese, today is the day you forget that machine translation exists. Google Translate is horrible, and Deepl is, despite appearances, much worse. Using any of these services in your language learning is a serious mistake that will have lasting consequences. Please, for your own sake and the sake of the people who you will someday interact with, don’t use them.

Finally, everyone reading this is going to be capable of a different level of commitment. Some people will be able to spend eight hours a day learning Japanese; to those people I would say: “slow and steady wins the race”. Burnout is a real thing and the best way to never learn Japanese at all is to give up after a month, overwhelmed and exhausted by the fallout of trying to maintain an insane pace.

Other people will only be able to budget a few minutes a day. To these people I would say, genuinely: “reconsider”. Learning Japanese is hard and it will take you thousands of hours to reach proficiency. If you can only dedicate fifteen minutes per day (and can’t find anything else in your schedule that could be sacrificed to make time), it might be literally impossible for you to learn Japanese beyond the absolute basics.

Think of it like this: If your cookie recipe calls for 10 minutes at 350 degrees, you should not attempt to cook them in half the time by doubling the heat of your oven to 700 degrees. By the same token, you can’t expect that leaving your cookies on the counter of your 70 degree kitchen for an hour will cause them to bake “slow and steady”. Too hot, and you’ll be left with nothing but a smoldering mess. Too cool, and it doesn’t matter how long you wait — those cookies are never going to bake.

Personally, I’ve spent between one and three hours per day since the very beginning. I would strongly urge you to aim for one hour every day. If pressed I would say that thirty minutes per day is probably the bare minimum at which you’ll be able to realistically learn new things and also maintain what you’ve already learned.

With that out of the way, let’s get into the guide. Each heading is an anchor link which you can click on in order to share or bookmark it.

Step 1: Learn Kana

Hiragana and Katakana, or “kana” collectively, are the two phonetic systems. This is the fundamental step. While it may be tempting to begin your studies with Romaji (Japanese written with English letters), I believe this will lead to issues down the line. Japanese pronunciation is extremely regular and it is not well-represented by English orthography; as one example, the two kana characters ええ will always be pronounced as two short E sounds, but when written in romaji as “ee” the pronunciation becomes ambiguous due to English pronunciation rules.

These links will teach each set.

Practice here until you feel like you have them down. You do not need to master kana right away; you’ll be seeing them for the rest of your Japanese-learning career.

Step 2: Learn about Kanji

Kanji are the idiographic Chinese characters that Japanese uses as its third writing system. There are 2,136 kanji which are considered essential, and a well-read Japanese adult will know around 3,000. You do not need to learn them all up front! The rule of diminishing returns ensures that the most common kanji 1,000 or so will take you a long way. Even this number can be daunting, but you still don’t have to learn this many up front. Simply become aware of Kanji and get ready to learn them over a long period of time.

Most kanji have multiple pronunciations, and the only way to be sure you’re learning the right ones in each context is to learn whole words rather than isolated kanji “readings”. 

An English example of this would be the symbol 1. On its own it’s pronounced “one”, but in other words it has special pronunciations, like 10, 1st, etc. You wouldn’t say that “fir” is a valid pronunciation for 1, but rather that “first” is a word that has something to do with “one-ness”, and therefore the character 1 can be used to write that word.

To illustrate this another way, consider the sentence “I really ❤ how ❤less you can be”. Again, we would typically say that the name of that symbol is “heart” and not “love”, but in the sentence above it should be pretty obvious that the two words above are “love” and “heartless”. You can approach kanji the same way. Learn the basic meaning of each character, and then learn vocabulary words that use those characters.

Step 3: Download Anki

Anki is a tool for flashcards that aims to show you information just often enough to help you memorize it, often used to help drill vocabulary. It’s free on Mac, PC, and Android (on iOS you can use it in the browser).

Once you have Anki running, click on the little gear next to the “default” deck and open the options menu. There are a few settings we need to tweak first.

  • Daily Limits:
    • New cards/day: See the advisory below
    • Maximum reviews/day: 9999
    • Insertion order: Sequential (oldest first)
  • New Cards:
    • Graduating interval: 2 days
  • Advanced:
    • New interval: 50%

I also recommend installing the following add-ons:

  • Card Retirement (allows you to automatically suspend cards once you stop getting them wrong for long enough)
  • Review Heatmap (keeps track of your past and upcoming workload)
  • Anki Simulator (allows you to play with settings and see how they’ll impact your workload)
  • Pass/Fail (simplifies the scheduling algorithm to give you more consistent results)

As you go through cards, you should see some numbers above the “Show Answer” button. If the far-left set of numbers is underlined, that means your current card is brand new. This can be helpful to make note of in the lessons/review processes I’ll outline later.

One important note: Anki works best if you do all your reviews every day. When you add a new flashcard, bear in mind that you’ll have to review it someday soon. Going too fast and suffering an avalanche of reviews is the number one cause of burnout. 5-10 new cards per day, per deck, is a good pace. As a rule of thumb, your daily reviews will tend to settle out at around 10x your daily new cards.

Anki will be indispensable from the beginner into the intermediate stage, but it’s important to remember that Anki is not your brain! Don’t feel like you’ll forget a word if you don’t add it to Anki, and on the same token, if you feel like a word is probably too rare to bother remembering, go ahead and skip it. As you improve, you will eventually reach a point where your time would be better spent without it. Keep an eye out for signs that this is happening and don’t be afraid to take off the training wheels earlier than later.

Step 4: Download Yomichan

Yomichan is an amazing browser plugin that lets you see definitions for Japanese words simply by hovering over them in your browser. It can even be configured to automatically create flashcards in Anki with a single click.

Since Yomichan allows you to look up words without breaking stride, it makes the reading process much simpler than if you were to be continually switching to a standalone dictionary (though Jisho is still an excellent resource).

Another important note: it’s very possible to over-rely on Yomichan and hurt your progress. If you never need to remember what a word means or how it’s pronounced (because that information is just one click away), then your brain will be hesitant to dedicate its resources to keeping that information around long-term. I’ve seen many people fail to recognize simple words just because they were written slightly differently and Yomichan couldn’t pick them up. In the worst case, you might end up simply using Yomichan to translate every single word, barely noticing the original at all. This is not the way.

Just like with Anki, Yomichan is a helpful tool but it is not a substitute for your cognitive process. Make sure you’re always trying to recognize words on your own before looking them up, and don’t fall into the trap of feeling like you can’t attempt to read something because it isn’t compatible with a hover dictionary.

Step 5: Learn Japanese

The following sub-steps should be taken as part of a balanced diet. Do not make the mistake I did and try to “get kanji out of the way”. They each feed into and reinforce each other.

Step 5a: Start learning kanji and vocabulary

It’s best to learn kanji and vocabulary together, since one reinforces the other.

I personally used WaniKani for my kanji/vocab course, and while I think it’s a good product by and large, I can no longer wholeheartedly recommend it. Feel free to check it out, but my current recommendation is to use the Kodansha Kanji Learner’s Course, which uses essentially the same methodology at a fraction of the price and in a much more serious-minded way.

KKLC’s introduction has a lot of great information that’s definitely worth reading, but I also recognize it’s a lot to take in upfront. As a somewhat abridged method, here’s how I recommend you use the course in tandem with the Anki deck:

  • Setup:
    • Suspend all “recall” cards in the KKLC Anki deck. You can do this by going to the card browser, searching for “card:Recall”, selecting all results and choosing “Suspend” from the context menu.
    • If you plan on learning handwriting, skip this step — but see below for why I personally recommend you do not bother with handwriting.
  • Lessons:
    • For each character entry, read all the information presented. Make particular note of the character itself (e.g. 日), and its meanings (e.g. “sun”, “day”, “Japan”); these will be key when you review the character later.
    • Activate the associated card in the Anki deck for review. The deck should be in the same order as the book, so if you go through it with a fixed number of new cards per day, you shouldn’t have to worry about this.
  • Reviewing:
    • Look at the character on the front of the card, and try to recall its meaning. If a character has multiple meanings, remembering one of them is enough to grade yourself as “correct”.
    • Look at the readings section and try to recall them. Hover over them with your mouse to reveal them before flipping the card. It’s not essential to grade yourself based on readings, but testing yourself on them each time, and then refreshing your memory, is a good way to be aware of where the readings of words are segmented.
    • Finally, look at the vocabulary section. Try to recall the reading and meaning for each word. Feel free to refer back to the readings section for hints.
    • Now flip the card.
    • If you got the meaning of the character right, that counts as a pass. Take this opportunity to check your answers for the vocabulary meaning.
My recommended review method doesn't include anything about handwriting, because it's simply not a necessary skill even if you plan to live in Japan one day. If you are interested in handwriting, use the Recall cards to prompt you to write each character based on its meanings, and grade yourself based on whether you remembered the character and were able to write it with the correct stroke order.

If you find yourself struggling to distinguish between lookalike characters (e.g. 待 and 持), take the opportunity to refer back to the book to see if the description of each one will help you remember. It can also be helpful to put both characters side-by-side and scrutinize them; look for places where they differ, identify the particular difference, and train your mind automatically to focus on that portion of the character when you see it.

Studying vocabulary from the core vocabulary deck is a bit simpler:

  • Lessons:
    • Flip the card immediately.
    • Make note of the meaning and reading of the key word.
    • Listen to the sentence audio.
    • Copy the whole context sentence into Yomichan’s search page so you can get definitions for each word you don’t understand.
    • Press “Fail” to mix the card in with the rest of your reviews for the day.
  • Reviewing:
    • Try to recall the meaning and reading of the word on the front.
    • Flip the card.
    • Grade yourself based on whether you remembered the meaning and reading.

Feel free to try to read the example sentence again, listen to the audio etc as you review, but don’t let them influence your grade. Their purpose is to show you how the words are used, not to give you one more thing to try to memorize.

Finally, it’s a good idea to make a custom deck that you can use to keep track of words you see “in the wild”. This won’t be applicable right away, but once you start reading, it’s nice to be able to review words you encountered outside of these prebuilt decks.

Step 5b: Start learning grammar

At the same time as you’re learning kanji+vocab, you should also be learning grammar.

The most popular free grammar resource, and a good middle-of-the-road option, is Tae Kim’s guide to Japanese. Confusingly, the “complete guide” is incomplete; you should use the “grammar guide”. Another option is Imabi, which is much more comprehensive, but its focus on linguistic terms and nitty-gritty trivia can be overwhelming. On the other end of the spectrum, Sakubi is a guide that goes a mile a minute and is intended to teach you the bare minimum necessary before you jump into the deep end. Check them all out and see what works for you.

I feel obligated to mention Bunpro here, though my recommendation is a lot less fervent than it used to be. Bunpro is the tool that got me out of a two-year rut and unlocked the world of reading for me, which is where all the magic started to happen. However, in the past year or two Bunpro’s quality has gone dramatically downhill. A lot of the explanations are confusing and contain straight-up falsehoods dreamed up by a frankly misguided content team. I still think it’s a good resource but if you do use it, I recommend you ignore the explanations entirely and only focus on the example sentences.

Finishing Tae Kim or Sakubi, or completing Bunpro’s N5, N4, and N3 grammar material, is a good medium-term goal to aim for. At that point you’ll have the majority of common grammar under your belt and will start to see diminishing returns. At this point you can spend more time enjoying the language and less time studying.

Step 5c: Start immersing yourself in the language

This step is also meant to be taken in parallel with 5a and 5b.

Immersion means encountering Japanese sentences and hoping to understand them. That could mean reading books or manga, watching anime or drama, or listening to podcasts and vlogs. It’s important to note that using subtitles in your native language (L1) does not help (or there would be a lot more fluent weebs out there). Using subtitles in your target language (L2) does help, so if you can get them then by all means use them, but you can also see significant benefit by watching raw.

Getting started with reading can be difficult, so I’ve written an article about how you can get started here.

The key thing here is to be patient. You will likely understand nothing at first, but your brain is doing the hard work in the background without you realizing it. With enough material, the connections will be made and you will learn seemingly by magic.

The key thing is to pick something you’re interested in. Lots of beginners assume that childrens’ shows will be good learning material, but consider this: a Japanese child in preschool is already more fluent than you or I am. Material aimed at children will likely be too boring to keep you engaged, which is the last thing you want. Pick something you like and get started. 

Step 5d: Start practicing output (optional)

While I think that early output is often detrimental — it can lead to the construction of sentences which either 1) employ “dictionary diving” and end up using words which are unnatural and/or 2) are built based on idiomatic English structure that doesn’t translate to Japanese — I do think it’s helpful to start practicing pronunciation early on. I recommend using the anki deck from earlier as a guide for pronunciation, intonation, and cadence.

Step 6: Get comfortable and enjoy the ride

Language learning is a long process. Don’t rush yourself, don’t stress. It’s not a race, so don’t feel like you need to measure up to other peoples’ progress. As long as you’re consistent, you’ll get there. I spend a lot of my time in the 日本語と英語 discord server helping people with questions about the language, and we’d be happy to have you. Most importantly, remember to have fun. As Reggie says, “if it’s not fun, what’s the point?”