Learning Japanese - the first 6 months

So I haven’t written any posts for a long time. Mainly this is because I’ve been studying Japanese and preparing to go to Japan for a two week trip, which I have now returned from.1

Almost all of my Japanese study has been self-study, outside of a classroom, which I’ve found to be a much faster method for the self-motivated student. But this requires you to locate your own resources, setup your own practice schedules, etc. I’d like to describe what my own path for learning Japanese has looked like so far, in the hope that I can smooth the path for other self-motivated readers who are learning Japanese or another Asian language.


When learning a language there are a few skills you can focus on:

  • Speaking
    • Sentence Production
    • Listening Comprehension
  • Literacy
    • Reading
    • Writing

The Japanese writing system which prominently features Chinese characters (kanji) is quite difficult in that you have about 2,000 characters to memorize for basic literacy. Because of this difficulty, I eschewed most of the literacy skills and decided to focus on speaking, as this is both easier to start with and is really the more useful skill when travelling around Japan and interacting with locals.


In focusing on speaking alone, the main elements I needed to learn were:

  • vocabulary,
  • grammar,
  • pronounciation, and
  • reading the hiragana syllabary.

The last item of reading hiragana might seem a bit strange if one is only trying to speak Japanese, but it is required in practice to read the vocabulary presented in Japanese language study materials and to better understand the limits of Japanese pronounciation.2

Vocabulary and Grammar

For initial vocabulary and basic grammar I found it useful to work through about half of the Genki I textbook. It presents vocabulary in the context of situations when you’d need to use it and generally introduces grammar and vocabulary in a good order from simple & common to more complex.

(In college I used the Nakama 1 textbook, whose quality I do not recall, but I don’t think it was as engaging.)

While working through the textbook I would capture vocabulary as electronic flashcards in spaced repetition systems (SRS) such as Mnemosyne and Anki. SRS systems are great for presenting cards to you in the most efficient study order possible.

Both Mnemosyne and Anki are great SRS systems:

  • Mnemosyne provides a simpler interface than Anki and makes it really easy to create cards, categorize them flexibly, and study them in custom groups.

  • Anki by contrast provides a lot more control over how many cards to study per day, allows detailed customization of card layouts, and allows you to study on the web while mobile in addition to on a computer. Its system of “decks” however makes it harder to rearrange cards into different groups for studying. This is problematic if you are acquiring vocabulary from a variety of sources and want to experiment with the study groupings.

I use Mnemosyne for most cards that I’ve created myself, and both Mnemosyne and Anki for a few prebuilt decks that I’ve downloaded. (Both systems have communities that have constructed prebuilt decks.)

Especially useful decks I’ve downloaded:

  • Hiragana (for Mnemosyne)
    • Great for learning Hiragana, for basic reading ability.
  • Katakana (for Mnemosyne)
    • Great for learning Katakana, for the intermediate ability to read foreign-derived Japanese words.
  • Remembering the Kanji (RTK) 1+3 (for Anki)
    • Great for learning Kanji in combination with the same-named book, once you decide that you are willing to spend the required year or so of study time.
    • This was originally an Anki sample deck that shipped with Anki, so it’s quite polished.

There is a Mnemosyne deck for Genki I, but it is optimized to review the written form of vocabulary (i.e. kanji) rather than the spoken form (i.e. hiragana). Therefore I made my own deck when working through the book.3

Another good source for basic grammar and vocabulary is Tae Kim’s Japanese Grammar Guide guide. I wrote a Keyboard Maestro macro that automatically created a Mnemosyne flashcard from a word selected on this site. With such a tool, entering all the words I wanted from this guide was a quick process.

I have been told by a friend of mine who is considerably more advanced than me in Japanese that the IMABI guide is a lot more comprehensive and modern than Tae Kim’s, despite having a worse search ranking. I have not tried to work through it yet.


Since the set of sounds in Japanese is far more restricted than in English, it doesn’t take too long to learn them all. And because words are written with syllabaries (i.e. hiragana and katagana) rather than an alphabet (i.e. romaji), you can tell exactly how a word is pronounced based on how it is written. No crazy spelling problems like those in English.

Thankfully, rising and falling tones when pronouncing a word are not significant and do not generally change the meaning of a word, unlike in Chinese.

There are a small number of cases where the final vowel of a word isn’t generally pronounced. Most notably DESU (です), which is the verb “to be”, is usually pronouced DES, with no final U.

Regarding sources for learning and practicing pronounciation:

  • In years past I’ve watched quite a lot of anime4, so I’ve been listening to the Japanese pronouce words for quite some time. Especially common words.

  • The Pimsleur tapes for Japanese are an excellent way to hear how words are pronounced. They are a series of audio tapes that walk you through various words and basic conversational phrases in Japanese. It presents them in the same kind of spaced repetition format as the flashcard programs I mentioned, with the caveat that you can’t provide the audio tape with any feedback on how fast you are progressing or signal which phrases you are having trouble with.

    • I only did the first 6 lessons or so (out of 30) because I was learning the phrases faster than the tape was expecting, and thus was wasting time repeating phrases I already knew. I also was substantially confident in my pronounciation ability from anime and other sources.

Advanced Practice

To make the language really stick and have fun synthesizing real conversations, there are a few kinds of advanced practice I tried:

  • writing essays on Lang-8, for correction by native Japanese speakers,
  • conversing in a Japanese classroom with my peers and the teacher,
  • trying to read websites, manga, and books in Japanese,
  • trying to play a visual novel in Japanese.

Other kinds of practice I didn’t think of originally, which I am planning to try soon:

Regarding effectiveness, essay-writing was fun and I got to talk with a number of Japanese overseas, one of whom offered to meet me when I arrived in Tokyo.

Reading was nearly impossible without knowledge of kanji since my study focus was on speaking alone, so I didn’t do a lot of pure reading.

However one way to simultaneously practice listening comprehension and reading is to play a visual novel, a uniquely Japanese type of game. Such games have a mostly-linear storyline where you spend most of your time reading through a predetermined storyline, with the ability to make a small number of choices that affect the outcome of the final story. Importantly though, all characters in the story are fully voiced, so you can both listen to the story and read it at the same time. In my case I mostly listened since reading was nearly impossible.5

During such listening practice there was a ton of vocabulary involved that I looked up, mostly in the Jisho and Midori dictionaries. I also converted them to flashcards and memorized them along with the vocabulary obtained from textbooks and other sources. In the dialogue I noticed a huge difference between the polite spoken forms (taught in textbooks) and the informal/familiar spoken forms (which occur between friends). Heavy use of contractions, grammatical shorthand, idioms, and other day-to-day forms of speech became evident as well.


During my recent two week long visit to Japan I could not only express myself in Japanese and be understood but I was also asked on 4 occasions whether I lived or worked in Japan, indicating that my spoken proficiency was enough to pass as a resident. I call that a success!

Next Steps

Japanese is a fun language to study and I would like to continue to improve my spoken proficiency, especially in the informal/familar spoken forms. I would also like to have rudimentary literacy so that I can actually read short stories and the like.

To do this I anticipate my next study focuses will be on:

  • learning to recognize basic kanji with the help of the stories and memorization techniques6 in Remembering the Kanji (RTK),
  • grammatical shorthand and informal speech,
  • language practice at meetup groups.

I’m probably most excited about the last activity, as I imagine smalltalk in a foreign language will be a lot more fun than in English.

  1. I’m in the process of posting all 28,000 or so photos from Japan to Facebook for friends to see. I’ve also uploaded a slideshow presentation that I gave at work a few days ago.

  2. Regarding Japanese pronounciation limitations:

    (1) All syllables consist of a consonant followed by a vowel. This means that the Japanese cannot generally say words that end in a consonant. The exception is that N (ん) is a permissible standalone consonant. Thus the Japanese tend to append vowels to words that normally end in consonants.

    (2) There is no L sound independent of R. Hence the inability to distinguish “rice” from “lice”. The Japanese R is about halfway between the English R and L in sound.

    (3) There is no V sound.

    The preceding limitations make it difficult to pronounce my name (“David”) correctly. It tends to become “Debiddo” (デビッド), or “Debi” (デビ) for short.

  3. I suppose I have sufficiently good automation skills that I could have written a program to transform the kanji-based deck to use hiragana, but I thought the act of initially entering in cards might be useful for memorizing as well.

  4. Anime is generally described as “Japanese cartoons” but it also covers all drawn Japanese animation, targeting a much wider audience than just kids.

  5. In case you’re curious about my particular selection of visual novel, I’ve been working through Dracu-riot! which I took as an implicit recommendation by Danny Choo (the Culture Japan guy) who mentioned it in an article on his blog. This particular novel has the advantage of having a partial English fan translation available, which can be activated and deactivated as desired when the conversation doesn’t make sense. The characters are believable and the story somewhat interesting, which is a positive motivation to continue reading.

    It should be cautioned that visual novels cover a lot of different story types including very violent ones (Higurashi no Naku Koro ni) and ones that are pure pornography. Be careful with your selection if you decide to work through one.

  6. RTK makes use of story-telling, compositional, and spatial memorization techniques. For a more comprehensive overview of advanced memory techniques I’d recommend taking a look at Joshua Foer’s Moonwalking with Einstein, although you can get a lot of useful material from his considerably more brief TED Talk.