Japanese Language Learning Resources
I started making notes about Japanese directly at the time when I started learning it I hope this serves as one approach to self-directed Japanese language study with the goal of having conversations.
Learning languages is undoubtably an effort and sadly (for an engineer at least) requires leaning some material by rote. But we can still break down our studies and categorize the steps. For Japanese, the bottom up approach starts with the writing system, learning Hiragana and Katakana which also teaches pronunciation. Followed by Kanji and general foundational vocabulary. Then the progression is as with any language, reading listening, speaking until you master simple conversations.
Bootstrapping - Tools, Apps and Audiobooks
In this day and age there is a huge set of tools that can help us learn languages.
The most obvious tool when learning languages is a dictionary. I’m using and would highly recommend Japanese - Renzo Inc which is available for iOS and Android and lets you search in romaji as well as the native writing system.
I also started with and would highly recommend Duolingo Japanese that gets you started in the right order and teaches good for foundation (pay for it for a month or two, it’s definitely worth it).
If you’re ever going to get Pimsleur Japanese 1-3, get them at the very beginning of your Japanese journey. I used the old CD versions as mp3 audiobooks on the go. Pimsleur helps tune hearing and learning pronunciation from audio rather than a book, which is a huge plus in not acquiring strong accents. Sync the mp3 files with an offline music player such as CloudBeats to your phone. CloudBeats has no apps in the free version but requires the paid version of CloudBeats to allow downloads for true offline listening.
Since the app needs to have access to (all) your online storage, I separate it from my other files and would recommend Dropbox (2GB free storage) or OneDrive (5GB free storage). Both of which are supported by most offline music players.
- free cloud storage OneDrive or Dropbox
- CloudBeats music player from cloud storage for iOS
- CloudBeats music player from cloud storage for Android
Writing System - Start learning Hiragana and Katakana.
There are three types of character sets in Japanese that you should learn in this order:
- Hiragana ひらがな (phonetic sounds) for particles, words and parts of words. Hiragana helps you lean Japanese pronunciation properly. Start with the worksheet below and read Japanese beginners' textbooks.
- Katakana カタカナ (phonetic sounds) for foreign words. Among other things, Katakana helps you read the menu at restaurants and name countries.
- Kanji 漢字 (Chinese characters) for lexical meanings, convey the meaning as well as sound.
I’d recommend the worksheets from MLC Japanese Language School in Tokyo that are freely available on the internet but there are plenty others.
Do learn the writing system and avoid using Romanji, memorize the 48 Hiragana characters roughly and be able to write short, simple sentences. You don’t have to be perfect, it comes with practice. I spent about one to two weeks on Hiragana and Katakana with everyday practice.
Kanji - Chinese Script
It certainly helps if you have a Chinese background or have learned Chinese prior, but this will still require huge effort and rote memorization.
A good start is the top 100 most frequent Kanji Characters that we can find on the JLPT website. JLPT is a standard Japanese language proficiency test. The MLC also has a Basic Kanji 120 worksheet.
There are several different ways and everyone tends to love and hate one or the others. “Remembering the Kanji” (RTK) is a series of three volumes by James Heisig. Heisig organizes the kanji by complexity, teaching the building blocks first. There is an Anki deck to learn Kanji in RTK order. Another method is Kodansha Kanji Learner’s Course (KLC). KLC teaches the readings and vocabulary using the Kanji you learned up to that point.
Vocabulary - Spaced Repetition with Anki
Anki is a flash card tool that automates spaced repetition. Spaced repetition is the idea that you most effectively remember a piece of information if you’re exposed to it at the moment of forgetting.
I’m using the excellent decks from Drew DeVault based on the JLPT lists:
- JLPT N5 - Anki Deck (start here)
- JLPT N4 - Anki Deck
- JLPT N3 - Anki Deck
- JLPT N2 - Anki Deck
- JLPT N1 - Anki Deck
He also provides cumulative decks that include vocabulary of prior levels:
- Anki Deck cumulative JLPT N4-N5
- Anki Deck cumulative JLPT N3-N5
- Anki Deck cumulative JLPT N2-N5
- Anki Deck cumulative JLPT N1-N5
Japanese linguistic oddities early in the learning journey
When first encountering the language, one thing to note is that subjects like “I” or “You” are often understood and implied. I (私) and you (あなた) are only used for emphasis and for comparisons and often omitted.
It is also important to note that Japanese is using SOV (subject object verb) sentence structure, contrary to English which is an SVO language.
Unpronounced “u"s from す and other Characters
A lot of sentences end in です. The “u” part of す, like many other instances of “u” are usually silent.
Questions with か？
All statements can be transformed to questions by appending か？
There are a lot of particles that are used to denote different parts of the sentence such as subject, object, topic, time and place, etc. For example:
- Time に (ni)
- Means/Location で (de)
- Direction/goal へ (he)
- Participant と (to)
For example, the sentence “That one and that one …” uses the particles as follows:
- あれ と あれ を …
Some of these need some special mention.
The particles は (wa) and が (ga)
The Japanese particles は (ha/wa) and が (ga) are sometimes not easily heard by beginners. Both can be understood as a form of “to be am/are”.
In short, は (ha/wa) points out the topic. が (ga) points out the subject, or the important subject of the sentence.
- 名前はなんですか (What’s your name)
Remember the markers:
- Subject わ (wa)
- Topic が (ga)
Possession particle の (no)
The particle の (no) is used to indicate possession. It finds similar usage as the Chinese 的 (de). Try to understand it with an “apostrophe s” or 私の (watashi no) as “my”.
Object marker particle を (o/wo)
The particle を (wo), usually pronounced just “o”, marks the object of the verb, i.e. the person or thing that the action is done to.
Remember the markers:
- Object を (wo)
をします (o shi ma su) is commonly found when there is an action.
いします (i shi ma su) is used when something exists.
Difference between に (ni) and で (de)
The particles に (ni) and で (de) are very common and easy to mix up. One of the best analogies I came across is to use に (ni) like “a pin in a map”. In contrast, で (de) indicates the place where an activity is, was, or will be carried out.
Other Particles and their uses
… I’ll expand these section soon.
ます (masu), ません (masen) and ではありません (dewa ari masen)
You will find many sentences that end in one of
- masu ます, which is the present positive, form of to be.
- masen ません present negative which often is a pattern combined with ari あり “have”, ありません (ari masen) “have not”. The pattern usually can be found with では (de wa), which cannot really be translated. A more casual form of では (de wa) is じゃ (ja), which is otherwise the same in meaning.
Remember, for negative, use dewa ari or ja ari for positive just です (desu).
Reading short stories
*TODO: I’m still looking for good resources on this, please let me know if you have found anything good.
Listening with TV shows
If you enjoy the cyberpunk theme, check out:
For a bit of fun nonsense, there is Atashin’chi (あたしンち), a comedy manga by Eiko Kera. It’s an animated sitcom of the daily experiences of a family of four and excellent to learn listening skills for daily conversations. You can find episodes easily including English subtitles on the Atashin’chi Official Channel on YouTube.
Useful Phrases and Vocabulary
Since you are polite, the most used phrase everywhere “thanks”.
- ありがとうございます (a ri ga tō go za i ma su)
It is used in many situations, for example
- use when receiving dishes in a restaurant
- when leaving the restaurant
- some pulls the chair for you
Very common and before starting a meal is the phrase
- いただきます (i ta da ki ma su)
Which can be understood as simply “let’s eat”. A phrase to start a meal is common to many cultures and the meaning varies slightly.
There are two situations where another common other phrase is used “thanks for the meal”:
- ごちそうさまでした (go chi sō sa ma de shi ta)
useful in two situations
- the chef making food in front of you and you leave the restaurant
- someone pay for a meal for you
You can tell the chef that the meal is delicious
- 美味しいです or in Hiragana おいしいです (o i shī de su)
In restaurants, otherwise useful
- おなかがいっぱいです (onaka ga ippaidesu) - I’m full
- おなかがすいです (onaka ga suidesu) - I’m hungry
Do you have an English menu?
- 英語メニューがありますか (eigo menyū ga arimasu ka)
When you pay, you will get usually asked if you want the receipt
- レシートはよろしでしょう？ (reshīto wa yoroshideshou?) - Do you want a receipt?
You can reply with another very useful phrase
- 大丈夫です (dai jō bu de su) - It’s okay
This is also useful if someone bumps into you and says
- ごめんなさい (gomen’nasai) - I’m sorry
Which you should also say when you bump into someone.
When wanting to pay and you want to use a credit card, say
- クレジットカード (kurejittokādo)
When entering a restaurant you will get asked how many people you have:
- 何名様ですか (nan me i sa ma de su ka) - How many people?
Note that in Japanese there are no titles like Sir, Mr. They use さん (san) and 様 (sama). 様 (sama) is used when talking to customers. さん (san) is used for peers.
You can answer
- ひとり or 一人 (hitori) - one person
- ふたり or 二人 (futari) - two people
If the place is crowded or full you will get told
- 満員 (man’in) - full house
Note that when counting people or coffee or other items, we’re not using 一 (ichi), 二 (ni), 三 (san), but instead use:
- 一つ (hitotsu) - one of something
- 二つ (futatsu) - two of something
- 三つ (mittsu) - three of something
Being more Colloquial
If you find yourself saying ありがとう (a ri ga to u) too often, you can switch it up with どうも (do u mo), which is appears to be more common for men to use.
Published on Thursday, Mar 31, 2022. Last modified on Saturday, Jun 18, 2022.