Japanese: a self-study plan

A suggested study course – How to learn Japanese (mostly) on your own.

On this page, I suggest an overall lesson plan to guide you through your Japanese studies, from fresh beginner to advanced. In short, this is the way I’d learn Japanese if I were doing it all over again from scratch.

Allow me two caveats before I share this language learning plan with you. First, this plan represents my opinions and experience rather than a recommended course of study that I think you, personally, should follow. Second, this guide is hypothetical, and assumes that there is no limit to the quantity of resources/products I may suggest, nor to the amount of money to be spent on those resources. Your personal budget and schedule will likely demand alterations before this plan is useful to you.

I’ve thoroughly read through and reviewed some 70 Japanese language learning products on this site, so take the time to look at specific reviews. I’ve also written an overview of learning Japanese grammar, writing & conversation and a summary of recommended resources for travelers.

Now, let me suggest a study plan with seven steps.

0. Starting from scratch

First, mentally prepare yourself. Read a bit about Japanese. Perhaps digest whatever you can from Wikipedia’s Japanese language entry. Purchase a standard notebook and writing supplies. Also, buy yourself a second smaller notebook in which you will write questions/uncertainties, language issues and vocabulary as you learn.

Time:
30-60 minutes over 1-2 days.

1. Exposure & Basic Japanese Conversation

Start with Pimsleur Japanese Level 1 or Rosetta Stone Japanese. Although it’s expensive, the full comprehensive (NOT basic or conversational) Pimsleur course will really kick-start your studies like few other programs. Purchase and complete at least the 32 lessons of Comprehensive Japanese I. Move on to later parts if you can afford the down payment and you love the method.

Tips:

  • Listen to each lesson more than once, and be sure to do the audio exercises (prompted by the narrator).
  • Imitate the native speakers’ pronunciation carefully.
  • Do NOT get caught up in the details at this point – write & speak in ways that help you learn without hindering your progress.
  • Use your notebook to write down troublesome words & phrases, but do not worry about spelling.

Time:
30-60 mins/day
5-6 days/week
5-8 weeks (for Pimsleur Japanese I)

2. Learn to write Japanese syllables

Japanese isn’t the easiest language to learn, especially when it comes to the writing system. Ease your way in by learning the “kana” – two fairly straightforward syllable systems. Then, get some mileage out of your studies by rewriting the conversational words and phrases you picked up from Pimsleur.

I heartily recommend Let’s Learn Hiragana and Let’s Learn Katakana time and again throughout these reviews. You’ll practice writing the characters, then words and sentences. Next step – apply this knowledge to your Pimsleur notes. Rewrite and and all Japanese words and phrases in the kana syllabaries. “Foreign” (English-sounding) words should be written in katakana, and everything else should be written in hiragana.

Tips:

  • Focus on the form and pronunciation of the script (how you write and pronounce letters). Grammar and meaning are secondary goals right now.
  • Don’t be put off by the fact that “real” written Japanese is still utterly illegible at this point. Pay attention to the tasks at hand, and you aren’t as far off as you think.
  • You’re probably growing hungry for a good dictionary. Hold off until you’re familiar with kanji.
  • Amazon currently offers a discount if you buy all three books in the Let’s Learn… series, including Let’s Learn Kanji. While I don’t recommend that one as highly as Let’s Learn Hiragana, it’s still a good book, and will help you with the next step.

Time:
30-50 mins/day
5 days/week
2-4 weeks

3. Learn to write basic kanji

Written Japanese also involves many, many characters that work more like what you might call symbols than letters. These characters are known as kanji. It’s time to learn how kanji work, how to write them and how to integrate them into your writing alongside hiragana and katakana.

There are many “learn kanji” resources out on the market, but none of them eases you into the kanji painlessly. I do recommend 250 Essential Japanese Kanji or Let’s Learn Kanji. On the other hand, Remembering the Kanji 1 is recommended if you’re the type that memorizes large amounts of new information with visuals or clever memory devices.

You may consider backup resources like kanji flashcards (always a great tool for dedicated students – go with White Rabbit’s Japanese Kanji Flashcards). Crazy for Kanji is a fun tribute with practical insights about kanji in Japanese life. Read Japanese Today gives you a creative way to expand your kanji with stories about the characters.

Tips:

  • Kanji can overwhelm even the best students. Practice diligently, but without expecting to “get it” right away.
  • It’s more important that you understand how kanji work, how to write them and how to incorporate them into written Japanese. Avoid mindless memorization of lists.
  • If you can afford it, tackle this subject from multiple angles – but flashcards and supplementary resources for more perspective.
  • Find free internet kanji resources and learn to use them. For example, Cojak Hanzi Dictionary allows you to look up characters. The Kanji Site allows you to listen to and learn kanji by JLPT (proficiency test) levels, including examples and stats about each character. These aren’t as handy or detailed as paid resources, but they help.

Time:
30-45 mins/day
5 days/week
3-5 weeks (minimum; continue learning kanji alongside future studies)

4. Digging into the fundamentals of spoken & written Japanese language

At this point, you need a course with structure to provide a foundation for your language studies. This is often a tough decision, but I recommend anchoring your study in Modern Japanese (buy both the textbook and the excellent activity/exercise book). Those books look challenging and bulky, but they’re amazingly solid and reasonably understandable if you can stick with them.

If you pass on that recommendation, I suggest Colloquial Japanese. It has a couple of quirks, but it’s the only popular text that covers grammar, writing, conversation, written kana & kanji, and vocabulary with exercises and recorded conversations. Buy the CD, since it’s not normally sold with the book.

Tips:

  • If you’ve been using those notebooks, they’re showing some wear (and filling up with Japanese!) Replace the larger one if necessary.
  • Keep noting your uncertainties and new things you learn on-the-go in that smaller notebook.
  • Track your pace. Don’t go all out one or two days a week, only to leave your book on the shelf the rest of the time. Tenacity is crucial for a language learner at this stage.
  • Reread and redo tough sections. Return to earlier lessons, both to review at random and to track your progress. Best, always do this in addition to continuing through lesson by lesson.
  • When you learn a new grammatical feature or a new kanji character, don’t just jot down what you’re told. Instead, think of and write down examples not found in the text or audio. Your memory will thank you!

Time:
40-90 mins/day
4-6 days/week
8-11 months

5. Backup language resources and reference materials

You’re focused on your primary course, but sometimes you need perspective. Reference resources tackle one specific aspect of Japanese and allow you to foster your knowledge and growth in that area (such as kanji, verbs, and so on). Assess your troubles and weaknesses, and look for resources that give you an edge in your studies.

Start with a dictionary or two. Your first should be a solid lookup/translation dictionary (for use whenever you ask “How do I say this in Japanese?” or “How do I translate that into English?”). Unfortunately, Japanese-English dictionaries don’t have the same depth as popular European language dictionaries, but try the Furigana Dictionary. This dictionary won’t meet your every need, but it’s very helpful and will last you a couple years.

Your second dictionary should help you learn and identify kanji. This will eventually eclipse your translating dictionary in importance. It will allow you to look up kanji by stroke count, pronunciation or radical (base character used in a particular kanji). I enjoy the Kodansha Kanji Learner’s Dictionary, since I think it’s easiest to work with. Eventually, though, you’ll outgrow beginner kanji dictionaries and move up to Spahn’s Kanji Dictionary, which is much larger and more thorough.

Kodansha and Tuttle publish a bevvy of particularly attractive Japanese language books worthy of your backpack, suitcase or shelf. Determine which ones match your weakness. I suggest that you check out The Handbook of Japanese Verbs and All About Particles (both helpful for getting through the tougher points of grammar), or even something like The Ultimate Japanese Phrasebook (a great selection of tons of real-life sentences, organized by theme, with audio). There’s no shortage of useful extras at this level.

Tips:

  • Avoid anything impractical or esoteric at this point.
  • Use these resources in conjunction with the main lesson course in #4.
  • Feel free to read through sections of these books, but keep them as backup firepower and don’t defocus.
  • Look at the kinds of questions and issues you’ve been noting in your small notebook. This will help you spot the kinds of resources you need.
  • Look for and use any and all opportunities to speak and read Japanese (with an emphasis on speaking Japanese). Native speakers are your best resource for learning to speak a language! Keep this in mind from here on out.

Time:
(Use alongside steps #4 and #6.)

6. Advancing

You should now have over a year’s worth of intensive study behind you, and a decent command of the Japanese language. It’s time to expand and implement your knowledge of Japanese while also reviewing the basics and filling in any blanks.

It’s harder to make general recommendations at this level, since your needs have become individualized and specific. If you enjoy manga, go for Japanese in MangaLand 3. If you enjoy reading, Read Real Japanese Fiction includes helpful aids like vocabulary and kanji readings to ease you into reading longer works. If you’re learning Japanese for your career, branch off to Young’s Basic Business Japanese (there’s a parallel audio cassette available for this second one).

A few commonalities will link advancing/advanced learners. First, acquisition of vocabulary in the form of new kanji will become increasingly important. Second, mastery of syntax (how you do and do not put words together in Japanese) will start to dominate your grammar goals. Finally, as you start to use Japanese in daily life, you need to understand registers (that is, the way Japanese is used by different speakers in different social situations).

Consider advanced versions of the kanji resources above (#3, especially Spahn) or something like How to Sound Intelligent in Japanese to help with vocabulary.

Sentence structure is best learned in context (reading and speaking), but Japanese Sentence Patterns for Effective Communication provides some helpful guidance.

When it comes to the varieties of Japanese used in everyday social situations, try Living Japanese (a DVD & workbook featuring interviews with Japanese speakers) and Expressive Japanese (an insightful handbook for intermediate-advanced students).

Tips:

  • This stage is a good time to plan your first language exposure trip to Japan.
  • Start doing some of the things you normally do in English in Japanese instead. Read newspapers & magazines, watch television & movies, play games, read comics, write stories, chat, and more.
  • Don’t replace all of your studies with exposure. Keep pursuing your study of the language.
  • Replace your notebooks as needed.
  • The official standard for judging your Japanese is the Japanese Language Proficiency Test. I’m not saying that you should take it, but, if you want to prove your skills… go for it!
  • Come back here and share your own recommendations with us!

Time:
Incorporated into everyday reading, writing & speaking, but also:
30-60 mins/day
4-5 days/week
6-8 months
(& ongoing…)

Totals

Total time required: about 2 years’ worth of study
Level achieved: Ability to read, write and speak Japanese at an early advanced level.

3 Comments to “Japanese: a self-study plan”

  1. By Lucy, May 12, 2014 @ 11:16 am

    I half Japanese but I grew up in England so i am not fluent in Jpanese, however i know hiragana and katakana and some basic kanji i can understand most things when spoken slowly but my speaking is hesitant. I want to surprise my mum with japanese after learning to speak fluently. i have been unable to find a website to help me with this, as most websites are for beginners (way to easy for me) or much too advanced for me (for fluent japanese speakers who want a boost). Do you know where i can find a lesson plan of grammar and vocabulary slightly more advanced than this, for semi-japanese speakers

  2. By nativlang, October 2, 2010 @ 9:30 am

    Many popular language learning products for Japanese are aimed at conversational fluency (mainly or only the spoken language). Along with many other reviewers, I recommend Pimsleur Comprehensive Japanese. Its high upfront cost usually pays off – or check it out from a local library if you’re fortunate enough that they have it.

    Also check out the various free Japanese audio courses available online.

    Meet Japanese speakers & make a friend or two. Real life conversation, practice with and feedback from native speakers is crucial. As I mentioned, try using a notebook so you can keep your Japanese straight & track progress.

    If you want to learn to read “baby” Japanese at all, I’d recommend picking up something about hiragana (like Let’s Learn Hiragana: First Book of Basic Japanese Writing (Kodansha’s Children’s Classics)) or even mix in the inexpensive Human Japanese software.

    Best of luck!

  3. By Vine, October 2, 2010 @ 7:24 am

    Hi,

    I love this plan you have, but I was wondering, what would the self-study plan/guide you would recommend for someone wanting to learn basic fluency in Japanese on a spoken level only? I want to do this, and then tackle written afterwards since I’m not yet ready for the written. No need to be overly detailed, just a plan of the programs/times/order to achieve such a level?

    Thanks

    Vine

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