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How to Learn Japanese Quickly Online

How to Learn Japanese Quickly Online

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Learn Japanese online quickly
Picture: rainmaker / PIXTA(ピクスタ)
Want to learn Japanese online? I introduce the methods and apps that will help you read your Japanese language goals.

When people ask me how to learn Japanese quickly, I recommend a dual approach. I recommend combining a really good, professionally-crafted phone app or online program with some of the great free resources that folks have created to help you learn Japanese online.

In this article, I describe my recommended approach on how to learn Japanese quickly. I start by recommending a great program to help you build a strong foundation in Japanese grammar, reading, and listening. I’ll next look into tools and recommendations for building out a powerful vocabulary. Finally, I discuss tips and tricks that helped me learn Japanese to a high level.

My Background

My love of Japanese began when I was just in middle school. I saw my first anime and was simply enamored. So I tried tackling the language. But I was a snotty 12-year-old kid and didn’t make it far.

Flash-forward to age 39. I’d developed a bad habit of playing video games for hours a day. This didn’t sit well with me. Not that there was anything wrong with playing games! But I felt like I was sinking a little too much time into them. Surely, I thought, there was a better way to while away my personal time.

That’s when I resolved that I would – finally – learn Japanese.

Flash forward nine years later. I’ve passed level N1 of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT). I’ve used Japanese in a professional capacity. I even had an entire relationship (and marriage) in which our primary language was Japanese. And I read and use Japanese every day and translate it into English as the Publisher of this Web site.

Along the way, I tried a lot of techniques and tricks to accelerate my Japanese learning. I’ve accumulated the best ones here, along with a roadmap for learning. The roadmap isn’t necessarily how I learned Japanese at the time. But it’s definitely the map I would use in hindsight!

How to Learn Japanese Quickly: Immersion

Accelerated language learning happens when you know enough of a language that you can immerse yourself in it for hours a day. Click To Tweet

A lot of people start learning a second or third language. However, very few people actually get to the point where they’re even moderately fluent.

And you know what? I get it. Second language acquisition as an adult is hard. It’s much easier when you grow up with a language and can have it wired directly into your impressionable young brain.

But just because it’s hard doesn’t mean it’s impossible.

I’m a firm believer in the philosophy of immersion. Accelerated language learning happens when you know enough of a language that you can immerse yourself in it for hours a day. When you know enough that you can read most basic sentences, you’ve reached the point where you can start picking up more of the language, not through studying, but through listening, reading, and talking with others. At that point, language learning goes from a chore to a pleasure.

What Do I Mean By “Quickly”?

Before we dive in, let me address a key question. You likely found this article because…well, you were looking for how to learn Japanese quickly!

But what does “quickly” mean? How quickly can you actually learn the language?

Can You Learn Japanese in Three Months?

You’ll see some folks on the Internet claiming they became “fluent in three months” in a given language. Let’s be clear: you will not be fluent in Japanese in three months. You can make good initial progress. But you will not be fluent.

By “fluent”, I mean the ability to hold high-level conversations and read texts about work, the news, and your daily life. That’s a pretty high watermark. In Japanese, it means that you:

Know hiragana and katakana

These are the Japanese language’s two syllabaries used in writing. (Hiragana is used for many words and grammatical inflections, whereas katakana is used primarily for loan words and for emphasis.)

Know the joyo kanji (常用漢字), or the kanji for daily use

Kanji, as you may well know, are the Chinese ideographs used in writing. Japanese writing is an amalgam of hiragana, katakana, and kanji. Most “official” writing in Japanese, such as government documents and newspapers, restricts itself to the joyo kanji. This was a standard passed shortly after World War II that limits the number of kanji in use.

While that might sound nice, keep in mind that the joyo kanji still consists of 2,136 kanji! And every kanji has multiple pronunciations. Kanji often have both on-yomi (pronunciations taken from Chinese) and kun-yomi (native Japanese pronunciations layered over the Chinese characters). And it’s not like there’s only one of each kind of pronunciation, either.

How to learn Japanese quickly: kanji pronunciation
The pronunciations for the kanji 生[1].

Know a significant amount of grammar

It’s hard to give a roundabout estimate of how much grammar you need to know to be fluent. It’s particularly challenging because a lot of grammar in Japanese isn’t “grammar” per se but vocabulary. For those of you familiar with the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, I’d say you need to know at least up to Level N2 grammar before you can even begin to consider yourself “fluent”.

Know at least 10,000 Japanese words

Experts estimate that knowing 10,000 words is the low watermark for fluency in a foreign language[2]. That’s a lot of words! If you steady like a demon, you may be able to shove 1,000 to 2,000 words into your noggin within that timeframe. That’ll get you to a low level of conversation for sure. But it won’t make you “fluent”.

How Much Japanese Can I Learn in Three Months?

So how much can you learn in three months? It all depends on how much free time you have. A high school or college student who can carve out a large chunk of time to study will have an advantage over someone who’s working full-time and raising two kids.

Also, and I hate to say it, but the younger you are, the faster you’ll be able to learn. Recent studies show that our ability to learn another language is at its prime during our teens[3]. After that, it begins to taper off.

But don’t despair! As I noted above, I learned Japanese starting at age 39! While rates of progress may differ, anyone can learn Japanese at any age.

“Older acquirers progress more quickly in early stages because they obtain more comprehensible input, while younger acquirers do better in the long run because of their lower affective filters.”

Stephen D. Krashen, The Input Hypothesis: Issues and Implications

If you can dedicate yourself to studying Japanese at least a few hours a week, you can make significant progress in three months. You can:

  • Master both hiragana and katakana
  • Get at least your first 200 kanji down pat
  • Learn around 1,000-2,000 Japanese words
  • Get a handle on the basics of Japanese grammar – sentence order, verb conjugations, and basic grammar points such as declaratives, potentials, and other important forms

This may not seem like a lot. But trust me, it’s a solid foundation! With this much Japanese under your belt, you can hold simple conversations. You can also dive into some simple learner’s texts and begin to piece some things together from the media you enjoy, such as anime or manga.

How Can I Learn Japanese?

Learn Japanese quickly online - read a newspaper
Picture: Ystudio / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

As I said at the start of this article, I recommend a two-pronged approach. First, you need to learn the basics of the language – pronunciation, writing, grammar, and basic vocabulary. From there, you can start filling in your vocabulary and advanced grammar to the point where you can start reading and listening to things that are more and more complex.

Pair Your Studies with Apps

Recently, I and several satisfied UJ readers have found that the program offered by Rocket Languages is a solid, all-around way to master the basics of Japanese. (Note: link to Rocket Languages are affiliate links; Unseen Japan earns a commission at no expense to you if you make a purchase.)

Rocket Languages hit on all of the high points I mentioned above. More importantly, it delivers this information in a clean, easy-to-use manner that’s constantly kept up to date. (As of this writing, for example, Rocket Languages just launched a completely refreshed version of their Japanese Level 1 course.)

In this article, I’ll give you a brief tour of Rocket Languages. Before you read further, I highly recommend creating a free Rocket Languages account. This will give you access to the first few lessons of Level 1 for free so that you can see all that the app has to offer. And if you want to go further, you can use the coupon code UNSEEN60 for $60 or more off your order!

Does Duolingo Help with Japanese?

The default path for many for learning Japanese is to start with Duolingo. And Duolingo, honestly, isn’t bad. However, many people complain that Duolingo is lacking some critical elements.

The foremost is that Duolingo takes an “immersion approach” to learning grammar. Rather than explaining any grammar points, it assumes you’ll just pick up grammar intuitively as you go. While this works for some people, many of us prefer the security and precision provided by a detailed description of specific grammar points. You need only look at the numerous grammar explanation posts on Duolingo’s own forums to see how many people crave this missing element!

In some ways, Rocket Languages is what you’d get if you crossed Duolingo with Tae Kim’s Grammar Guide[4]. When you subscribe to a level, you get a comprehensive set of materials to help you on your Japanese journey. This includes in-depth language explanations that Duolingo completely lacks.

Rocket Languages is divided up into three levels, with each level consisting of six to seven modules. Level 1 starts you off with all of the basics you need to know to begin your Japanese learning journey. This includes detailed explanations of fundamental concepts such as the difference between the particles wa and ga.

Each level of Rocket Languages is a treasure trove of material. You get far more with each level than you could get from any free online resource. For example, Level 1 by itself contains 2,185 phrases with audio and voice recognition feedback.

Do + Learn

Learning Japanese Online - a screenshot of module 6 of Level 1 of Rocket Languages.
Module 6 from Level 1 of Rocket Languages. The mix of interactive lessons combined with grammar and cultural explanations makes Rocket Languages well worth the investment.

In each module, you get all of the benefits of Duolingo, along with all of the pieces that Duolingo is missing.

Modules start off with an Interactive Audio Lesson. Each lesson has a set of phrases and/or words spoken by a native Japanese speaker. Rocket Languages also includes a voice recognition program so that you can practice repeating phrases back. (While such features are useful, I also highly recommend occasionally checking your pronunciation with a Japanese tutor online.)

After the voice lessons, it’s time to buckle down with the Language and Culture Lessons. These lessons cover all of the grammar points hit upon in the Interactive Audio Lesson. They also touch upon important cultural points, such as politeness levels – one of the most difficult aspects of Japanese to master.

Learn to Read (and Write!) as Well as Speak

Are you learning Japanese mainly to read manga, books, or online news? Good news – Rocket Languages Japanese doesn’t skimp on the written language!

At least once a week, sit down with pen and paper and practice writing out the kana and kanji you're learning by hand. Click To Tweet

Level 1 dives right into teaching the most fundamental part of the Japanese written language: the syllabaries. You start off learning both hiragana (used for many words and grammatical elements) as well as katakana (used for emphasis and loan words from other languages). At the end of Level 1, you’ll start adding kanji (ideographs derived from Chinese) to the mix.

In my first version of this review, I lamented that Rocket Languages didn’t have an option to practice writing. Now they do! They’ve just added a new set of writing and reading practices to all modules in Level 1. And, starting in Module 5, they provide a scratch pad so that you can practice writing kanji directly!

Want additional writing practice? I personally recommend going to a site like HappyLilac[5] and printing out some of their Language Paper – grid-marked paper used by kids in Japanese schools to practice writing kana and kanji. At least once a week, sit down with pen and paper and practice writing out the kana and kanji you’re learning by hand. I promise you’ll commit them to memory faster that way!

How to Learn Japanese Quickly Anywhere, Anytime

Rocket Languages is 100% online. What’s more, the site works very well no matter whether you’re on a desktop computer, a smartphone, or a tablet. You can practice your Japanese skills any time of day, anywhere in the world. And yes, there’s also an app!

Don’t Avoid Kanji and Kana

When it comes to how to learn Japanese quickly, the goal is to get to the point where you can read native language materials and bootstrap yourself into reading more and more advanced materials. But in order to get there, you’re going to need a pretty decent vocabulary. Many advanced learners recommend you have around 2,000 words before you can start reading simple materials.

You’ll also need to overcome one of the most difficult hurdles for any Japanese learner: kanji. There are 2,136 kanji recognized for daily use by the Japanese government. And, trust me – you’ll encounter many more outside of these 2,136 as your reading advances!

You’ll find a lot of advice online about the “best way” to learn kanji and vocabulary. Many sites recommend the book Remembering the Kanji by author James Heisig. I’m not a fan of Heisig’s method myself. Rather, I would suggest one of the following tools or Web sites.

Skritter

Skritter[6] is a (paid) app for iPhone and Android that teaches Chinese and Japanese writing. The app supports directly drawing kana and kanji right on your phone. This helps you commit characters and words to muscle memory and speeds up memorization.

Skritter comes loaded with a lot of default vocabulary/kanji lists based on popular Japanese textbooks. You can also create your own lists.

WaniKani

Created by the folks at Tofugu, WaniKani[7] divides the everyday kanji into successive levels for you to learn and conquer. It uses a combination of different mnemonic techniques to help you remember kanji better. WaniKani implements its own Spaced Repetition System, like Anki. You can think of WaniKani as Anki with a single purpose – teaching you Japanese.

One of the things I really like about WaniKani is that it uses learning techniques that are useful for your entire lifetime. Heisig’s Remembering the Kanji uses mnemonics, but nearly all of them are made up by Heisig. WaniKani, as part of its program, teaches radicals, or the defining component of a kanji. Learning kanji parts like radicals helps immensely down the road with looking up kanji in dictionaries. Learning kanji components also aids in identifying the pronunciation of unknown kanji.

Flash Cards/Spaced Repetition Systems

Electronic flashcard programs are the go-to for many folks. Free flashcard programs like Anki use a system called “spaced repetition” in which the time between now and when you next see a flashcard either grows or shrinks depending on how well you feel you know it.

This article really isn’t the space to go into Anki in depth. If you want to start exploring, look at the kick-ass guide put together by 80/20 Japanese[8].

The desktop and Android versions of Anki are free. However, the iOs version costs a hefty $24.95. Its author does this to help underwrite Anki’s continued development. If you’re looking for a free or low-cost tool without recurring charges, it’s a good investment.

Finding “Easy” Japanese Resources for Reading and Listening

Okay – so you think you’re ready to read actual Japanese! But…where to begin?

One of my favorite ways to build vocabulary is by trying to understand a piece of writing or audio that really interests me. I will take a piece of writing that’s right around my current level, for example, and make a list of all of the vocabulary words I don’t know. I’ll then drill those words until I feel I can read the piece without stopping.

Note that this assumes you have at least some knowledge of the language – e.g., you’ve made it a significant way through a course like Rocket Languages and have some of the basics of Japanese down pat.

The question is: How do you find native Japanese language resources that are challenging, but not too challenging?

Graded Readers

Good news, everyone! Some savvy publishers have realized that access to level-appropriate text is a huge need for Japanese learners. They’ve created a number of graded readers that let you start reading Japanese at your current level.

My favorite source for graded readers is OMG Japan (affiliate link), which sells various Japanese learning materials. OMG Japan has pages of graded readers available, so you shouldn’t run out of level-appropriate reading material any time soon!

Are you as smart as a (Japanese) 5th grader? The Stories You Can Read in 10 Minutes series provides easy to ready stories sorted by school grade level. Start as a first-year student and work your way up!

Easy News

I got into learning Japanese initially because I liked anime and manga. However, I didn’t really start learning Japanese until I was an adult. But, by that time, I was more into the nightly news than Neo Genesis Evangelion. As a result, I built a lot of my Japanese skill off of learning to read news articles.

Perhaps the single best resource for this is NHK News Easy[9]. The site is written in “Easy Japanese” (やさしい日本語), a simplified form of Japanese that sticks with more basic vocabulary and sentence structure. In addition, the site has furigana (hiragana readings of Japanese kanji) displayed above all of the kanji on the site. This helps in learning the pronunciations for unknown kanji.

Easy Anime and Manga

If it’s easy anime and manga you’re looking for, you’re in luck! A lot of stuff made for kids (and even teens) tends to be easily accessible and requires only basic knowledge of Japanese to get started.

Once again, OMG Japan comes to the rescue here: they sell a number of manga that learners tend to gravitate to. In addition, they have a small list of manga such as Chihayafuru and Your Name that are bilingual editions with English language translations written side by side with the Japanese.

Once you’ve gone through these titles, check out this long list of recommendations by Jakob over at Japanese Tease[10]. In addition to the manga mentioned above, he hits on even more of the canonical “go to” manga for learners.

Tips and Tricks for How to Learn Japanese Quickly

The most limiting factor in learning a new language is time. The more time you can spend learning, the faster you’ll pick it up. However, for most adults, time is a scarce commodity. Between work, family, and relationships, finding the time to spend studying Japanese several hours a week can feel like a real challenge.

I learned Japanese at age 39. I had a full-time job, several kids, and…well, a life. So I know how challenging it can be to find time to study!

During my studies, I discovered or developed a lot of tips and tricks to accelerate my learning. Here are just a few that I found helpful.

Think in Japanese

Throughout your day, see if you can switch your thinking to Japanese. In the early stages of learning, this may be as simple as trying to think of the Japanese words for the everyday objects you see.

For example, if you take some milk from the refrigerator, you may start by trying to remember the words for milk (牛乳; gyuunyuu) and refrigerator (冷蔵庫; reizouko). Then, you can ask: what’s the word for “take out”? You will eventually learn and remember that the correct verb here is 取り出す (toridasu). Eventually, you’ll know that “from” is から (kara), and that you use the Japanese particle を (o) . One day, you’ll find yourself saying 冷蔵庫から牛乳を取り出す (reizouko kara gyuunyuu o toridasu) – “take the milk from the refrigerator”. A complete Japanese sentence!

Some people argue that this way of practicing can be dangerous. They warn that, as a learner, you may get something wrong and develop bad habits. That’s one reason I recommend supplementing your studies with help from an online Japanese teacher if you can afford it.

Learn the Most Common Words First

Thinking in Japanese will encourage you to focus on learning the most common words first. A lot of learners (particularly those who use SRS programs) get caught up learning challenging, abstract words. But it’s best at the start to focus on the words for common, everyday objects and actions. In other words, focus on learning 冷蔵庫 (refrigerator) before 国内総生産 (kokunai souseisan, Gross Domestic Product)!

Swap Everyday Habits with Japanese Ones

Another simple mental trick is to do things that you’d normally do in your native language in Japanese instead. Are you counting something? Count it in your head in Japanese instead! Adding numbers? Add them in Japanese! Searching for information online? Once your Japanese gets to a suitable enough level, see if you can search for it and find the answer in Japanese.

By doing everyday tasks in Japanese, you maximize the time you spend in the language. That time adds up – and leads to accelerated learning.

Use Dead Time

Taking a bus ride? Waiting in a long line at the supermarket? Use one of the apps I discussed above, like Anki, and study a few Japanese words! By taking advantage of gaps in your day, you can increase your study time and accelerate your Japanese learning.

Immerse Yourself at Home

Early on in my Japanese studies, after I got my first 500 kanji down, I switched my iPhone and my Windows desktop to Japanese. It’s easy to do and anyone can do it – for free!

To be honest, at first, I struggled with the change. I found myself suddenly drowning in unknown kanji and words. But forcing myself to use the Japanese UI for my most common electronic devices meant I had to learn – and fast! I used handwriting programs on my iPhone (my favorite is Midori[11]) to draw kanji and lookup words I didn’t know. I then promptly added those words to my Anki deck.

Since these are words I saw in front of my face every day, I learned them pretty quickly! This is a great hack to expose yourself to Japanese and accelerate your learning.

Conclusion

Japanese is not really a language you learn “quickly”. However, with the right tools, apps, and mindset, you can give yourself a solid foundation for lifelong learning in just a few months.

頑張ってください! (Hang in there!)

Japanese Language Classes are Awesome. Here’s How to Start

Sources

[1] Entry for 生. Jisho.org

[2] The Numbers Game: How Many Words Do I Need to Know to Be Fluent in a Foreign Language? FluentU

[3] At What Age Does Our Ability to Learn a New Language Like a Native Speaker Disappear? Scientific American

[4] Tae Kim’s Grammar Guide

[5] HappyLilac

[6] Skritter

[7] Wanikani

[8] How to use Anki to supercharge your Japanese learning. 80/20 Japanese

[9] NHK News Easy

[10] Easy to read manga for Japanese beginners Vol. 01. Japanese Tease

[11] Midori app for iPhone

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Jay Allen

Jay manages the technical writing practice for ercule, an SEO, content strategy and analytics firm. A lifelong geek, wordsmith, and language fanatic, he has level N1 certification in the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT).

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