A Japanese Primer

One of the biggest questions I see on the web with self-taught Japanese is: Where do I start?
It’s easy to pick up a copy of Rosetta Stone, but it’s not a really good way to learn the language. Other than vocabulary and some very basic grammar, it’s weak in about every other aspect. There’s cultural differences with language that Rosetta Stone cannot teach, such as the differences between formal and informal speech, the difference between dialogue during different times of the day, or the differences between contexts (there’s more than one way to say Hello or Goodbye, for example…or saying Konnichi wa when it’s 9AM or 9PM, people will give you weird stares.). For a $300+ piece of software you’d expect more.
“I am a doctor.” I got this! *Orders tickets to Japan*
With Japanese language study, the most important resource you have at your disposal is time. No matter how you study, devoting at least 30 minutes a day to your studies is much more benificial than a giant 2 hour chunk once a week. It maintains memory retention, develops habits, and over time you’ll be way ahead of the curve.
What I suggest before you start investing in software or books is this: Forget about Romanji. Learn the Kana. Romanji is the romanized words you see in Japanese: “Konnichi wa”, “Sayonara”, and “Karaoke” instead of “こんいちは”, “さよなら”, and “カラオケ”. By training yourself to read a new alphabet from the start, you’ll have a much easier time down the road. Learning the Kana (which consists of Katakana and Hiragana) is as simple as creating a set of flashcards to reinforce your knowledge.
But what’s the fun of flashcards? With technology nowadays there’s great resources that provide flash-cards in a quiz-based format. Some apps even offer Space Repetition Learning Systems (SRS) which builds your knowledge on characters you struggle with while showing the easier cards less frequently. If you have an Android device, Obenkyo is a really great tool to teach the basic Kana. On iOS, Minna no Kana and is just as good. Both are free software and really easy to set up. Anki is another excellent tool but due to its complexity, it will be discussed later in this writing.
When you start, study JUST 5 characters at a time. Start with “A-I-U-E-O” at first, when your confident with that then go to the next set: “Ka-Ki-Ku-Ke-Ko”, etc and continue to drill yourself each day until your confident enough to start reading. It also helps to write out each character as well so you can get the stroke order right (which helps makes your handwrighting more consistant when you start writing sentences).
If your an impatient-type (like me) and want to do more than just learn Kana all day, there’s an all-inclusive software that gives you the basics, Human Japanese is a great software for beginners, going slowly through the Kana while teaching you the basics on grammar, cultural notes, geography, and other fun stuff. It’s available for PC/Mac and Android/iOS/Windows devices. It’s a great piece of software, but the pacing is a bit slow in my opinion compared to the traditional text-based book.
Once you grasp the basics of the Kana, you need to build a foundation in your knowledge of grammar. You can continue using Human Japanese in this aspect, or as I prefer: use a textbook. I use Genki I and II (Second Edition). A new copy can be ordered from Amazon.com for $60. It’s widely acknowledged as one of the best college and self-study textbooks out for learning Japanese. It also comes with a CD-ROM so you can listen to some examples and get a grasp for the language and pronunciation. It’ll teach you the very basics and by the end of the book you should be proficient enough to take the JLPT 5 Exam, if you choose to do so. There’s also an accompaning workbook that is useful for extra study, but I’ve found it unnecessary unless you find yourself really struggling with some topics.
So you picked up Genki. You find yourself confused that there’s two sections: Conversation and Grammer comprising the first half of the book; Reading and Writing comprising the last half. Make sure you start on Chapter 1 on both sections and study both concurrently (as opposed to reading from cover to cover) and you’ll find the lessons will flow a lot better.
While you read through Genki, you’ll probably find yourself constantly going back and forth between the vocab and the questions. How do you reinforce your knowledge of vocab so you’re not constantly “cheating” by looking pack a couple pages? I use Memrise, which is an excellent (and Free) site that you can use with Genki, simply by typing “Genki” in the search-bar. I use the Genki set by “Johan86” which quizzes you with questions on reading, matching, and spelling by chapter. Users also can submit their own mnemonic hints to give you a frame of reference when your stuck on a word you can’t remember.
“Ok this site is cool, but didn’t you say earlier not to use Romanji?” A cool trick you can use in conjunction with Memrise is to install Japanese IME (Input Methods) on your computer and devices. Look up your device settings on installing Japanese languages (or Google it) and you’ll be able to type in Japanese using Romanji inputs on your keyboard, so if you type “nani” it’ll translate it to “なに” and even better, it’ll switch it to Kanji “何” which can be incredibly useful.
So it’s been several months. You’ve been using all the sources above as well incorporating some of your own. You’re able to grasp many of the grammar basics. But when you try to play an import game, listen to JPop, Read inport Manga, or watch anime you still struggle with reading/listening to anything that isn’t elementary grammar or vocabulary: “I am a doctor”, “My name is ____”, “Where is the bathroom?”. Even worse, you even find yourself beginning to forget some of the words you used to know. What now?
Congratulations: You are now an Intermediate Japanese learner. This is where the college courses get more advanced, the “How to learn Japanese” books and software reach an endpoint, and most people hit a brick wall. Fortunatly, it’s not as bad as it sounds.
I’ve avoided talking about Kanji until now. There are many books and software that reference the Kanji; but they don’t necessarily teach you the best way to learn the characters, the differences in the On’Yomi/Kun’Yomi pronunciations, or what happens when you mix up one Kanji with another in a word, and different contextual readings. When you look at the word for Japan (日本), for instance: taken literally it can be read it as “Sun-Book”, which makes no sense at all (it’s Sun-Origin actually). There’s too much of an emphasis made by publishers to focus on the meaning of the Kanji; and not so much on how it’s used or how frequently it’s used.
While Genki and other resources do a decent job at giving you a glimpse of the vocab used in conjunction with Kanji. There’s other ways to reinforce your knowledge without wasting your time on rote memorization that you’ll forget in a couple weeks anyway. The best way is to study the “Core 2000”, which are the most common 2000 words used in Japanese today.
The Core 2000 comes from a site formerly known as smart.fm. It was a free site that skipped the introductory levels of learning and throws you into writing words and sentances (similar to Memrise) with accompaning audio and images. It’s now a pay-site known as iKnow! which is about $10USD/month. While the site, their progress tracking, and the iOS/Android software are impressive…there are free options that are just as good.
I personally use Anki, which is a Flash-Card program. It’s extremly powerful (you can add pictures, links, and audio clips to your notes) and widely used by many Self-Learners. You create a “deck” or download shared decks from the web to study off of. I personally use the Core 2k/6k Optimized Japanese Vocabulary deck. There’s an additional media pack you can download to enable image/audio (put it in your Anki/Media folder). Anki starts simple. It gives you just 20 words a day, while it’s tempting to increase this count I suggest sticking to the default 20. Eventually you’ll start getting reviews of 150+ words and at that point it’ll take a really long time to complete a single Anki session. I also suggest enabling Furigana.
The underlying beauty of the Core 2000 isn’t so apparent until you’ve been using it after a few months. Used in conjuction with the media pack you’ll start recognizing Kanji, vocab, pronunciations, contextual clues, spelling, etc. You’ll begin to see why it’s important NOT to learn the Kanji as a character, but to learn how it’s used…and your mind will adapt to seeing visual patterns in the same way we can “recognize” ae sintanc regaadles o hw itz speled juss bi lokin at spcfc pttrns in the wy th werds “look”.
Writing out Kanji is another thing…but that’s personal preference whether you want to take the time to learn it or not. It’s a fun skill to learn, but in my opinion it’s unnecessary to learn it until your proficient at reading. If you have some extra time and you do want to practice it out a bit, check out Heisig’s Remebering the Kanji series. It breaks down the Kanji into smaller, easier chunks and gives mnemonics to help memorize each character. Essentially it trains you to stop seeing Kanji as a complex puzzle and into elements that make it possible to identify and write out. For instance, 語 you might see a bunch of boxes and lines, but I see the element for “Speech”, “Oneself”, which combines to be “Language”.
Again, Kanji is a beast to learn, which is why it’s important to learn the vocabulary (How it’s read in Kanji and how it’s pronounced with Hiragana). The Kanji will start to make sense after you become more proficient in the language and in fact, I find it extremely useful reading since it removes the necessity of spaces that we use in Western languages.
Example: I speak English
わたしはえいごをはなします (watashihaeigowohanashimasu?)
Reader: “I can say it…but I can’t read it…”
私は英語を話します (watashi wa eigo wo hanashimasu)
Reader: “Ahh now I can read it!”
Which (after you train yourself with the vocabulary), your mind will start to see it look like this:
So there you go. Hope this helps with learning. If you have any questions or suggestions on software, let me know 🙂

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