Get started with Japanese
Learning Japanese is a huge task, but you have to start somewhere. In this article we'll provide you some guidance on where to start and what resources to use.
1: Learn the Kana
The first thing you should do is learn the two Japanese syllabaries, called the Kana. This includes Hiragana and Katakana (but not Kanji). It will be very important to do this right from the start since many resources online (GameGrammar included) often assume you at least know the Kana. More info below.
2: Start learning Kanji
Kanji are an essential part of Japanese writing, and it is highly recommended that you start your study of Kanji soon after you know the Kana. More info below.
3: Start learning Grammar
Grammar is the foundation on which language is built. Learning basic grammar is an extremely powerful, often underappreciated tool for wrapping your head around how a language works. Learning about grammar may sound quite boring, but we encourage you to start here. It's actually very rewarding to learn grammar, as you will begin to understand the system behind the language. Don't worry if you feel overwhelmed at first, and always feel free to ask questions. More info below.
4: Start learning vocabulary
This should of course be started in tandem with point 3, since learning grammar without any vocab to use it with is a bit pointless. If grammar is the foundation of Japanese, then vocabulary are the building blocks. To be comfortable understanding any language you need to learn a few thousand words, and Japanese is no different. This may seem like a tall order but, you can do it! More info below.
You should get into the habit of getting a lot of input, in the form of listening or reading. You need to fill your brain with lots of information about the language before you'll be able to reproduce it. More info below.
Japanese is written using 4 different writing systems: Hiragana, Katakana, Romaji and Kanji. Romaji is just the Japanese way of referring to the English (or more precisely the Latin) alphabet, and Kanji is a separate topic unto itself, so we'll just focus Hiragana and Katakana in this section. Together they're known as the Kana.
Both of these scripts are known as syllabaries, which means that they consist of characters which each describe a syllable/sound. This means that unlike the English alphabet, the Kana are almost completely phonetic. In other words, whenever you see a Kana character, you'll know how it's pronounced regardless of the context.
The first syllabary you should learn is Hiragana, since it's used a majority of the time. Katakana is basically a copy of Hiragana, they just look different and are used slightly differently. For each Hiragana there exists a corresponding Katakana, a bit like uppercase and lowercase letters in English. For example, the Hiragana for the sound /a/ is あ, and the corresponding Katakana is ア. Both are pronounced exactly the same way. (Note that this /a/ is like the a in the British pronunciation of "father".)
Now, let's talk about how you can learn the Kana:
You can read all about the whole Japanese writing system in this Tae Kim article.
I recommend learning from this Youtube video as it shows you how to write and pronounce each Kana. It is very important that you understand the sound that each Kana represents right from the start.
There are also good Tofugu articles for each set: Hiragana and Katakana.
When you're ready, you can test your skills here!
The readings of Kanji are generally sorted into On-yomi (
Here's an example of how to learn Kanji through vocab:
Let's take the Kanji 学 which signifies "school" or "learning". It is not usually used as a word by itself, but rather as part of other words. There is the verb
* The Kana after the period are called Okurigana, and are used to distinguish conjugations. The Kana before the period are how the Kanji is actually pronounced.
There are many different ways to learn Kanji. It should be a gradual process, and it will take some time. Here are some resources that can help you:
- Kodansha's Kanji Learners Course (KKLC): A book which teaches how to read, write and remember over 2000 Kanji
- Wanikani: A website that uses an SRS (more info on this later) to teach Kanji and vocab
Grammar can seem daunting at first, but it's really not all that bad. Luckily, a lot of kind people are providing free grammar resources online. (You're on a server with a few of them, in fact!) If you're looking for somewhere to start, GameGrammar has its very own series about grammar called Japanese101. You can check it out on YouTube here.
There's also a handful of very good grammar guides online. These are some of the most popular ones:
Tae Kim's guide
A popular and well made grammar guide that walks you through from very beginner to an upper intermediate understanding of grammar. In terms of JLPT, you should be around N3 after finishing it, maybe higher.
An insanely extensive grammar reference. Written and updated by many different people, it goes from the basics all the way to advanced topics like classical Japanese. This is probably the most extensive guide you can find for free online. It has a tendency to use more linguistic jargon though, so be prepared for that.
Wasabi Grammar Reference
A slightly newer grammar reference that is still being added to. What sets it apart is its use of illustrations to help explain concepts.
A website that collects grammar points and vocab sorted by JLPT level. It also has little tests that you can take to see how you rank on the JLPT scale.
Nihongo no Mori 日本語の森
A Youtube channel that does long and in-depth videos about grammar points and vocab for higher JLPT levels. This is especially useful to you if you're learning for N3 or above.
Learning vocab is a very long process, but luckily an easy one. These days there's tons of apps to help you with it. Most of them use a process called a Spaced Repetition System, or SRS, where flashcards will be shown to you at specific intervals determined by how well you know the card. Basically, the more times you correctly identify a card, the longer the gaps between reviews become. The most famous such program is Anki. It's also available for Android and iOS (though the iOS version isn't free).
Other famous SRS are:
If you wanna get started with learning vocab, the recommended approach is to either grab some sort of beginner vocab deck from a pre-made list or create one yourself. You can find tons of guides on how to create your own cards just the way you want them in Anki on Youtube. Generally, if you create flashcards from the things you actually encounter while learning, they have a better chance of sticking in your mind.
We also make lists of vocab from the games we play on stream:
Ace Attorney | Ni no Kuni | Ōkami
You can download these and import them into Anki if you want, though they're probably not the most useful words for just starting out.
Getting input is incredibly important. It's the way you train your brain to understand the language, and eventually it's what allows you to reproduce what you've heard and seen. What's most important is that you understand at least some of what you listen to or read. You don't have to understand it immediately or completely, but if you can make sense of about 75% through the use of dictionaries and google, then you'll get a lot out of your reading or listening material. What you use is basically up to you, as long as you do it regularly and it is somewhat appropriate for your level.
Reading has loads of advantages. Firstly, you get to pick your own pace. Secondly, you can use visual cues such as Kanji you might recognize. Manga can be a good start for many since the provided pictures can help you figure out what's going on. Here's a list of materials that might help you:
- Watanoc: Articles about Japan with audio (N5-N4)
- Manga: 少女終末旅行 (Girls' Last Tour), よつばと！(Yotsubato) (N4-N3)
- Tadoku: Children's stories
- Hukumusume: Japanese classical stories.
- NHK Easy News: Simplified news at N3(-ish) level.
(Note that all the resources above (besides the manga) are free!)
More reading recommendations for all levels here.
You can get listening practice through Youtube, Netflix, Twitch, and many other places. There are also podcasts out there that you can try. Some of our recommendations are:
- ひいきびいき: A podcast that ended a while ago but has over 200 episodes with all sorts of topics. (Can be hard to find these days but it's still available on the web archive at the time of writing.)
- Muggles' Giggles: If you're at all into Harry Potter and translation, give this one a go. 2 bilingual people go through the Japanese HP books and talk about what they think of the translation.
- Sakura Tsuushin: Another podcast about various topics.
- Rebuild: A podcast that focusses on tech.