“I wish I could speak Japanese!” If you have ever taken an interest in Japan and its culture, you may have caught yourself saying this very sentence. Well, why wish any longer? The path to becoming proficient in a language is filled with exciting discoveries, and no matter how far away that fluency dream may seem, the journey does begin with a single step. So to help you on your way, we’ve prepared a few tasks that you can start working on right now to turn that 'wish' into a 'plan'. Here is your very own guide to starting to learn Japanese all on your own.
What is hiragana? Hiragana is a syllabary used in Japanese, and it’s the one that Japanese kids tackle first when learning to read. It is possible to write Japanese using a romanised script (called ‘romaji’), but this is a sure-fire way to pronounce the words incorrectly! Learning hiragana is your ticket to getting your head around those phonemes and making sense of how words are constructed, and just think how cool it will be when you can read a script in a foreign language!
So how does one go about learning hiragana? One resource that I like is Tofugu.com, which offers a hiragana chart that you can stick on your bedroom wall, some handy mnemonics to help you remember the characters, and clickable audio files so that you can hear how each one sounds. Incidentally, I think that sometimes when you're trying to pronounce something in your second language, reading can actually lead you astray. Try taking a moment to close your eyes and mimic the sound that you are hearing as closely as possible instead.
If you’re willing to try an old school strategy, you might also want to prepare some hiragana flashcards to keep in your back pocket. You may need to invest some time and effort initially to make them, but some people swear that physically writing out the cards helps them to remember, and looking at bits of paper might make a nice change from a smartphone screen next time you’re waiting for the bus.
Unlike the other steps in this article, this one does require you to fish out the credit card. As convenient and freely available as language learning apps are, I still believe there is no substitute for a good textbook for starting you off with the basics and gradually piling on the high-frequency vocabulary and useful grammar. Textbooks also offer graded example conversations to contextualise the language, as well as practice activities for consolidation. Additionally, there are usually accompanying notes that teach you about the culture, enriching your language learning experience and giving background to some of the more exotic words and phrases that may not have an easy equivalent in English.
There are many textbooks available for beginners, such as 'Minna no Nihongo' and 'Genki'. I like Minna no Nihongo for its clear grammar explanations as well as its timeless and useful phrases, vocabulary and conversation examples, although you will need to get hold of two books: the main textbook and the English translation notes. Genki is also an excellent and comprehensive introduction to the language and culture and you only need to worry about buying just the one book. Incidentally, Genki also offers a series of apps (for a fee) to accompany the textbook, which might be a good option if you think you’ll benefit from using the two in tandem.
For busy people, a textbook might lack the easy accessibility and portability of a phone app, and you need the motivation to actually sit down and hit the books, so it's worth setting a clear, manageable goal for yourself. For example, you might decide to look through one page each day before you reward yourself with a bit of escapism from your favourite streaming service. And this brings us to our next bit of advice.
We all lead busy lives, and the initial enthusiasm when starting on your Japanese learning journey can understandably soon give way to forgetfulness and excuses. You can stop your studies from falling by the wayside by making study part of your daily routine. You might do one lesson on a learning app every morning on the train to work, or maybe you want to laminate your hiragana flashcards and read them in the bathtub. Building activities like this into your daily schedule can keep you moving forward and give you the sense of achievement that comes with having completed a task each day, just like doing exercise. But remember that it’s okay to give yourself a break - after all, even elite athletes schedule a rest day!
We shouldn’t get too ahead of ourselves, but setting a stretch goal at a fixed date in the future can be a guiding star on your linguistic voyage. The Japanese Language Proficiency Test is held up to twice a year at a large number of test sites all over the world, and the entry N5 level tests your ability to understand basic sentences and expressions in Japanese.
If you have just started learning Japanese, I wouldn’t recommend rushing out to buy a stack of JLPT practice books right away, but just writing something like, “Next December, I will take the JLPT N5” and sticking it on the fridge can help you stay focused and keep you dreaming about how far your Japanese will have progressed in the not too distant future.
There are tasks that you can take on right now to get on the road to achieving your Japanese fluency dream. Learning hiragana and getting your hands on a good beginner textbook are two things that you can do all on your own. Making Japanese study part of your daily routine can keep you moving consistently forward, and setting a stretch goal like passing the JLPT can help you to stay on track. The beginner phase of language learning can be a struggle, but it’s also fun because it’s the phase where you will really notice the progress you’re making, and everything about the language is still new and exciting. So get going, and don’t forget to enjoy the sights and sounds while you take those first few steps.