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Japanese Language Stage 1 | Building a Foundation (Beginner)

  • Defined by: Study and memorisation
  • Purpose: Help you feel comfortable enough with the language to begin immersion
  • Staff note: Try to make good progress in this stage before coming to Japan

The best way to learn Japanese (and any new language) is to be immersed in the Japanese language. Immersed in native text, native sounds, and native conversation. But if you don't have any familiarity with the language, being immersed will be difficult for you. It will be too foreign and overwhelming for you to take much of it in.

This stage is all about building a strong foundation so that you can feel familiar just enough with Japanese so that you feel able to explore native content and talk with native speakers. You will then be ready for immersion (stage 2), which is when the real learning happens!

1. Pronunciation

  • Approx. time: 1 to 2 weeks (along with kana)

If your mother tongue is not Japanese, the sounds you make when you speak will not sound natural when you speak Japanese. This is a cold fact. Even when you think a sound is the same as your mother tongue, chances are there is subtle difference. But don't be discouraged! Once you realise this, then you can understand just what are the Japanese sounds. You can then begin to learn and practice in order to train your tongue. It is probably optimal to do this, even briefly, before moving on to the kana. This is so you don't develop bad pronunciation habits.

At the very least, please check out these short videos before moving on:

Understanding these concepts will help you to speak naturally in order to make your Japanese both easy to understand and pleasant to listen to for the native Japanese listener. Reading this article may help to see this importance for clearly.

This article on Tofugu will expand on the concepts you were introduced to in the above videos.

Finally, IWTYAL has a few simple tips to quickly level-up your Japanese pronunciation.

You don't have to completely understand pronunciation before moving on. But having a basic understanding of these concepts will help you sound more natural in the long run.

As you proceed to learn kana, keep these concepts in mind to solidify your understanding and to train your tongue to sound more natural.

2. Kana

  • Approx. time: 1 to 2 weeks (along with pronunciation)

Time to attach the sounds you have learnt to Japanese symbols. Hiragana and katakana are the basic syllabic scripts that make up the Japanese writing system, along with Kanji (Chinese characters).

Every sound in Japanese can be written in kana. Thankfully, hiragana and katakana share the exact same sounds. As a rule of thumb, Hiragana (the curvy characters) are used for Japanese words and grammar particles, while Katakana (the sharp characters) are used for imported words. Like foreign names.

Learning the kana is probably the simplest part of learning the language! :) It's all about memorisation. If you focus, you will learn them in a relatively short amount of time. Read out loud as you memorise the characters in order to practice good pronunciation.

Don't spend a lot of time on learning the kana though. Your aim at this point is simply to be loosely familiar with them. They will be reinforced and become second nature as you move forward with learning the language.

A word of caution: stay away from romaji! These are Japanese sounds in written latin alphabet (like English). Your brain will use this as a crutch and your pronunciation and reading will suffer. Pretend it does not exist.

Build passive recognition

Make a free account at Read the Kanji and work your way through the hiragana and katakana lessons. Cram as much content as you can over a few hours. Remember: don't get hung up on learning them perfectly at this point. You will be seeing these all the time from now on, so get through this as quickly as you can.

This resource is great because it is optimised for your short term memory. (Note: don't use Read the Kanji for anything other than kana as there are better resources for the rest of your language learning.)

Tofugu has a great hiragana guide for those that prefer to read.

And if you like charts, Tofugu again has you covered: Hiragana | Katakana

This part should only take a few hours over a couple of days.

Practice active recall

Download Drops on your smartphone and work through their hiragana and katakana modules.

This resource is great because it is optimised for your long term memory. (Note: don't use Drops for anything other than kana as there are better resources for the rest of your language learning.)

This part will likely take around a month or so. You can do this while moving forward with your kanji, grammar, and vocab learning.

3. Kanji

  • When to start: After understanding pronunciation and kana
  • Approx. time: 6 months (along with grammar and vocab)

Before learning grammar and vocabulary, we recommended you start learning kanji as it will make learning grammar and vocab easier in the long run. As there are thousands of them, and they can look extremely complex, learning kanji can seem very daunting. But as long as you have a good system in place, you will be surprised by how many you can understand in a short amount of time!

At this point, the most important thing to keep in mind is that you want to recognise as many kanji as you can in a relatively short amount of time. It will take years of using kanji in order to actually learn them along with all their readings. So try not to get bogged down by memorising their sounds or stroke orders. Just focus on being able to recognise the meaning of each kanji.

Right now, you need to decide which system you will use, and stick with it. You will be investing a few hundred hours into this, so make sure you understand your options.

To make things simple, here are a couple of good options for you to consider:

Anki

Our first recommendation is Anki. This is a free Spaced Repetition System (SRS) application that you can add your own decks to. You can find many pre-made decks on the Anki website.

If you go this route, follow these steps:

  • Install Anki, along with these add-ons (scroll down to Installation (Anki 2.1))
  • Install All In One Kanji Desk (RTK Order). This will teach you 3,000 kanji.
  • In Anki, go to Browser > search by card type > “card:Recall” > suspend all of the recall cards.
  • In deck settings, set "new" cards to 5 per day. As you get more comfortable, you can gradually increase this to 20 per day.
  • Skim over the information on each card, but only worry about recognising the meaning.

WaniKani

If Anki sounds too complicated, we recommend WaniKani. This is a great Spaced Repetition System (SRS) that uses mnemonics in order to teach you around 2,000 kanji and around 6,000 vocab using those kanji. It breaks down each kanji into radicals, making the learning process much easier. A cool thing about WaniKani is that it walks you through the whole process in a fun way--levelling up as you progress.

WaniKani requires a monthly subscription which costs $9 per month, but there is an annual New Year sale which costs $299 for lifetime access (previous months paid for during that year are subtracted from the amount too). Though it costs money, we think it is worth it if Anki seems too complicated. Budget this into your monthly support target if you need to.

Once you have chosen your system, stick with it! Do your reviews every day. Don't spend time writing the kanji at this point (this will slow you down considerably, and handwriting is seldom done today. You can come back to this in the future). Again, focus on being able to recognise the meaning of the kanji.

Give yourself around 1 week to get comfortable learning kanji before moving on to grammar. Don't hurry into this. Grammar is going to be a big commitment!

4. Grammar

Study elementary grammar

  • When to start: After around 1 week of learning kanji
  • Approx. time: 6 months (along with grammar and vocab)

Now that you have some kanji under your belt, it is time to start learning grammar. It is said that, for Westerners, Japanese is one of the hardest languages to learn. This is especially the case because Japanese sentence structure is very different. But once you understand the basic concepts, its actually very simple.

As you begin to learn grammar, remember this: it's okay to feel frustrated. You may at some points feel dumb. "Why aren't I getting it!?" You may also realise you keep forgetting what you have learnt. But this is okay. It is not just you. Japanese is hard! But you will get there.

At the point, the goal is to have a basic understanding of Japanese grammar. This, along with going through your kanji and vocab reviews, will enable you to stumble through native Japanese content. That is when a lot of things will actually click, and learning Japanese transitions from a chore to actually having fun. You will also feel more confident when practicing your speaking and listening with Japanese people.

Here, we will outline an effective action plan, which will take around 6 months:

  1. Purchase Japanese grammar textbooks and workbooks.

For English speakers, we recommend Genki I and II. Get both the textbooks and the workbooks.

For those whose first language is not English, we recommend Minna no Nihongo Shokyu I and II as you can also purchase a translation book in your own language for explanations. Also get the workbook and audio files.

  1. Work through one section per day. (e.g. Numbers on one day, then Time the next, then Telephone numbers etc.) There are 137 sections in total in Genki I & II. (ignore the reading and writing section of the book.) If using Minna no Nihongo, follow it in a similar way.

  2. Complete the corresponding sections in the workbook with a one week delay. (e.g. complete the Numbers section 7 days after doing it in the textbook.) This will help you retain the grammar points in your memory.

  3. Take the weekends off. Use this time to consume Japanese media. Make note of content you'd like to use in the future for study.

Fill in the gaps

You have now finished Genki/Minna no Nihongo! You may be thinking "but I am not sure I remember everything!" Don't worry. This is normal. The task now is to review what you have learnt and fill any gaps you may have.

Here, we will outline an action plan for progressing in your grammar studies. Note that the following should not be time-consuming. This should only take 10 to 20 mins per day.

  1. Purchase 新完全マスター文法 日本語能力試験N4 grammar review book. This is broken up into 58 topical units that you can go through, one per day (like you did with Genki/Minna no Nihongo). There is a review test every 5 units, but skip that until you finish the book. This will help with memory retention.

  2. Once you finish, pick up 新完全マスター読解 日本語能力試験N4 reading comprehension book. This book is fantastic, and will help you to see how comfortable you are with the grammar points you have learned. Do one per day.

  3. Next, attempt a JLPT N4 practice test and see how you get on!

You now have a solid foundation! You should now be ready to find resources independently. In terms of grammar, try to move on to the next stage (immersion).

5. Vocab

  • When to start: After around 1 week of learning grammar
  • Approx. time: 6 months (along with grammar and vocab)

The best way to build up vocabulary is to be immersed in the language (e.g. reading books). But when everything is above your level, this is impossible! So our aim is to build up a core of vocab that will help native content feel tolerable (stage 2).

Note: If you are using WaniKani, you will already be learning vocab. Just continue with that and skip this bit!

Using Anki, follow these steps:

  • Add the Core2k deck to Anki. This will teach you 2,000 of the most commonly used words.
  • Adjust the settings so that Anki will give you 11 new cards per day. You can be done in around 182 days!
  • Install the MIA Japanese addon, which will help with pitch accent (read this for more information)

Christian-specific Japanese

Not only is it important to learn common Japanese vocab, you should also learn Christian vocab. This is essential for worshipping, praying, reading the Bible, and sharing the Gospel--all in Japanese!

We have created a document that lists useful Christian vocab and phrases, as well as the Lord's Prayer and Apostles Creed here.

OMF has also compiled some helpful language resources on this page.