Let me preface this post with a few disclaimers.
I’m not an expert in language learning and make no claims to be one, nor do I have a guaranteed road map to get you from where I started to where I am now. I’m still learning this language, but I’ve made significant progress and have even translated an otome game on my own for practice. Lastly, how I’ve been learning this language may not work for everyone.
This post will detail what I did to get as far as I have with Japanese and what worked for me. Links are affiliate links. There’s absolutely no pressure to use them.
I would suggest first learning hiragana and katakana, the two syllabaries of the written Japanese language, before anything else. Each syllabary has a different function and both are necessary to read Japanese. I printed off a sheet of each set from google images and practiced writing them until I could remember them. Here’s a look at one of my old journals in which I did exactly that (apologies for my chicken scratch):
You do not have to rewrite each one as many times as I did—this simply worked best for me. As for Romaji, the alphabetized version of the Japanese language, I would suggest ditching that entirely and pretending it doesn’t even exist. Japanese has its own writing system and romaji is not a part of it. Romaji can only hinder your studies, though some might argue against this. Do whatever you feel works best. These are simply my suggestions.
The first textbook I used was Japanese From Zero. I no longer have a copy of this text as I borrowed it from my library, but I remember thinking it was a smooth introduction to the language at the time. Here are some notes I took from it:
I also watched its accompanying youtube channel for further practice. I had been watching anime for years too, which helped me become familiar with how the language sounded. I believe all of this helped to create a good foundation for when I eventually joined a class.
I really recommend building a strong understanding of the fundamentals. I didn’t put in enough work to understand the particles when I was starting out, and I’ve continuously paid the price for this. My class also didn’t emphasize the importance of learning kanji or katakana in the beginning. We focused instead on memorizing vocabulary, grammar concepts and conjugating verbs.
This hindered my ability to read without constantly consulting a dictionary. By the time we had to “memorize” the kanji in order to pass our exams, it was an up-hill battle. I was constantly forgetting how to write and read them. We had never been introduced to the concept of radicals and were told only to memorize the kanji. Had things been different, it would’ve saved me so many tears. Katakana is also indispensable, so please don’t skimp out on them.
Thankfully, there’s an abundance of resources that can be found online for free. It’s entirely possible to learn this same information online at no cost and without the need for a class. Some free websites I have used and can recommend are Tofugu, Tae Kim’s Guide to Japanese, Maggie Sensei, and Imabi. I learned a lot from these sites and thought they were fantastic resources.
There are pros and cons to both self-studying and a classroom setting, however. I personally struggle with time-management and I get caught up in questions when I don’t understand a concept. While self-studying worked for me initially, joining a class personally worked much better for my learning style. If you can’t join a class, don’t worry! There are many forums you can use to ask for help, like stackexchange. Do whatever works best for you!
From here on out, I’m going to briefly summarize what my classes used and my thoughts on each one. I also picked up additional texts to further my studies, which I’ll talk about in this section. I personally felt as though what I learned in class wasn’t enough to progress in the language. If I don’t talk about a certain textbook, that’s because I have not used it and therefore can’t give an opinion on it.
I used the Genki textbooks for the first two years. If I recall correctly, my professor said they’re the equivalent of having learned most—but not all—of the information needed to pass the N4 of the JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test). Of course, I could be wrong so please feel free to correct me in the comments below. The Genki series unfortunately won’t get you very far. I tried to play an otome game right after I finished the series, but I was never fully able to get through one until only recently. (Please excuse my wrist gel-support. I needed a paperweight.)
The Genki books are very easy to understand, even without a teacher. However, there are a lot of exercises throughout the books that asks for you to participate with a partner, as in the photo above. Each chapter begins with a spread of two pages filled with vocabulary terms. Directly after that is a small portion of dialogue containing some of those new words and some of the new grammar concepts you will learn in that chapter. After that, the text gives you several pages of exercises to practice what you learned. Genki also includes things like Culture Notes, where they discuss some aspects of Japanese culture, and Expression Notes, which discusses how you can and can’t use certain grammatical concepts.
All in all, the Genki series is a very beginner-friendly textbook for anyone wanting to learn Japanese. While you may not be able to dive right into a game or light novel after finishing these, you’ll have a decent grasp of the basics. Genki also has some workbooks you can buy. I thought these were fantastic supplementary practice books to help cement the kanji and grammar you learned.
After I finished these, I worked on this practice test book for the N5. I never took the N5, but I wanted to see where I was at. I thought it was decent enough. If you are curious about the test, I’d recommend instead checking out the site. It includes free sample questions. I just don’t think spending money on an N5 book is worth it unless you either want to take the test or you feel like Genki didn’t give you enough exercises.
In addition to this practice booklet, I purchased Shadowing and one of the Japanese Graded Readers. Shadowing: Let’s Speak Japanese! comes with a CD. The goal is to repeat every sentence after the speaker until you can do so easily. It was very challenging for me at first, but I got the hang of it after a few months. I would listen to this on the drive up to school and attempt to repeat the same sentences. I chose to get this because my class barely spent any time on speaking practice.
As for the Japanese Graded Readers, I think they’re alright but are pretty pricey for what you actually get. I chose level 0, which is the easiest level. It comes with an audio CD to help you follow along as you read. The six stories included in level 0 are very, very short. I never bought any more just because I thought these weren’t as useful compared to other materials—especially because it’s just so darned expensive. If you’re looking for free, short Japanese stories to try, there are a lot available online.
Now let’s talk about my favorite textbook that I’ve studied so far. Tobira: Gateway to Advanced Japanese Learning Through Content and Multimedia. As the title says, this textbook is for advanced levels. It’s a big leap from the Genki books and I think you’ll want to be able to ask someone for help with Tobira if you can. The structure can seem intimating at first but it’s really easy to get the hang of.
My advanced classes consisted of a mixture of Tobira, Sou Matome and Kanzen Master. We never finished Tobira, mainly because of how dense the material is compared to Genki. My professor also had never used this text before, so our class was essentially a test-run for this book. I used what time I had after work to study what we did not in class. Overall, I found this textbook really fun. I guess it worked well with my study habits. However, this textbook was the make-it-or-break-it for a lot of my peers. With each passing semester, more and more people dropped the class. By the time I had reached the last Japanese class at my university, there were only about eight other students.
We studied Kanzen Master and translated select passages from Japanese literature. To be completely transparent, I had a tough time with the Kanzen Master series. They’re essential to fine-tuning your grammar comprehension. Grammar is the bane of my existence, and Kanzen was ruthless. If not for my professor, most of the nuances and answers would’ve flown right over my head. I know a lot of people love this series, but I struggled immensely with them.
The translation exercises from passages of literature were a lot of fun, though. I had an equally rough time with them. This was from about two years ago?
God, when did Covid start? When did I finish these classes? The original passage on the left had to be flipped to fit on the page. The right page is my attempt at a translation. Please forgive my awful handwriting once again.
Books, Manga and Games
When I wasn’t doing assignments or at work, I was practicing the language on my own time. With these two trusty dictionaries open on separate tabs, Jisho and Weblio, I was able to get through so much material. While I began at a snail’s crawl, I quickly became more accustomed to the language and over time I even began to understand what I was reading without needing a dictionary every five seconds. I worked on translating one of the Studio Ghibli picture books I purchased second-hand on amazon during the semester. I asked my professor for her opinion whenever she was available. In retrospect, I really could’ve tried to study with a pencil as opposed to pen… These were from about a year before I started the advanced classes.
I picked up some shojo manga titles that were supposed to be easy to read from CDJapan. All of them were very easy to understand, albeit I did need a dictionary. The first one is called, Ohisama ni Kissu. The second is called, Kimi to Wonderland. (The first is sold out on CDJapan right now.)
As for novels, I picked up a copy of the novelization of the live action film of Ao Haru Ride. This was a difficult book to get through. I struggled with it a lot, but I managed to finish it in around a year’s time. I pick it up every now and again to see if I’ve improved. The book starts off in first-person perspective, then shifts to third.
These are just some of the many manga and novels I’ve powered through. My biggest accomplishment to date, however, is my translation of an otome game. I primarily created this blog in order to review titles from this niche genre of visual novels, but as my studies progressed, so too did my motivation to complete one in Japanese. And after several months, I did it. You can find my work under the translation tab. All of this was done strictly for study-purposes only. Included in each post are notes and cries for help regarding sentences I struggled with. Perhaps it can also serve as motivation for anyone out there who has similar goals. The title I translated is called, Beastmaster and Prince: Flower and Snow. You can pick it up on the Switch too, and it comes with both the first game and its sequel.
Unfortunately, the regular edition for the switch is completely sold out. The Vita version is also sold out. The Limited Edition is still available for purchase though. I thought this otome game was one of the easiest I’ve ever tried to play in Japanese. Considering I completely translated the first game, I think it’s a great option for anyone wanting to try it out. My translations are available to compare your own with too, if that helps. I still have a very long way to go, but I’ve managed to come so far in only five years. I couldn’t even read Japanese a few years ago and now I’m playing games—albeit slowly. It takes consistent practice, but you can absolutely get there too! You got this!
What textbooks or materials have helped you in your language learning journey?
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