There is a whole universe of resources out there to help you learn Japanese. In this blog I break down what I’ve found useful trying to get up to speed as quickly as possible, having moved to Japan recently. I’m still very much a beginner when it comes to Japanese, but having spent since January 2023 working on it I thought I’d share what’s helped me. This blog will be a work in progress that will hopefully become more useful over time. Let me know if you have any further recommendations!
I started with Tofugu’s page ‘A Ridiculously Detailed Guide to Learning Japanese’. It’s well structured and takes you through the essential early steps (learning the different ‘alphabets’ hiragana and katakana etc), so I recommend following it (more or less) to the T.
The Tofugu website also has lots of good articles to help you understand the basics, such as this article about the different Japanese (kun’yomi) and Chinese (on’yomi) readings each kanji might have.
Learning Kanji and Vocab
I’d highly recommend starting to use Wanikani as soon as you know hiragana. Wanikani teaches you radicals/kanji/vocab and is very well set up to do all the boring bits for you (learning order etc). It uses the magic of spaced repetition to make learning most effective. You could also use a vocab book, or Anki, but the fact that WaniKani is so well organised (and has all the fun addons, see below) made it a bit of a no-brainer for me. Plus you can do the first 3 levels (of 60, by which time you’ll know all 2000 essential kanji and about 6000 vocab) for free! These 3 levels should keep you busy for at least a month, by which time you can decide whether the $6/month is worth it to you (or even the lifetime subscription – there’s a winter sale each Christmas-time). There is a user-made free iOS app called Tsurukame, which I’d also recommend getting so you can learn on your phone and offline. Pro tip in the app settings you can turn on ‘Anki mode’ which enables swiping and will massively speed up your reviews; do this once you have a really good grasp of typing hiragana.
There are also lots of Anki decks for kanji/vocab, but lots of them aren’t accessible for a total beginner, so I’d suggest doing some Wanikani to start with and then once you get better you can branch out into Anki if you want to. There are some quite good Anki decks for grammar (see below), which you should add in once you’ve done a few levels of WaniKani.
Wanikani seems to have a bit of a cult following in the Japanese learning community, and there are all sorts of threads dedicated to it on their chat forum. This thread from the person who did all 60 levels really quickly (368 days!) is quite an interesting read; go to the post from June 2018 (ctrl F: “Jun ‘18”) and have a look through. Section 7 (on Wanikani scripts) is particularly useful. My favourite of these are set out below.
Wanikani has something called an API, which allows other computer programmes to communicate with it.* This is a game changer because it allows other people to create custom add-ons (‘scripts’) to fill in useful extra tools which aren’t in the vanilla version of Anki.
Here are three examples:
- An extremely useful extra tool is KaniWani, which asks for the English to Japanese for the vocab you’ve learnt on Wanikani. It’s really good for being able to express yourself, rather than ‘only’ being able to recognise words. Kaniwani is totally free and keeps itself updated with what you’ve learnt on Wanikani based on your API key.**
- A more basic page is WK Stats, which gives you a summary of your stats from using Wanikani.
- For those of you looking for a more immersive experience you might like to try out Wanikanify (2.0), which is a Chrome extension (download it here) which uses your API key to replace words on every website you visit with the kanji equivalent. It’s quite something! See below for how the start of my most recent blog post looks. Given I’m only on level 3 of Wanikani there are still quite a few words in kanji! Note that this isn’t perfect because although individual words are translated quite well, the grammar is not. I would imagine that once you get a bit more advanced this would start to become a little irksome, but for the beginner it’s great fun.
Best add-ons for Wanikani itself
There are also a plethora of add-ons for improving the actual experience of using Wanikani.***
The first thing you want to do is download an extension that can run the scripts for you. I have Tampermonkey, but there are others and it doesn’t matter which you choose.
Second, you should download the Wanikani Open Framework, which allows other scripts to make changes to Wanikani. Once you’ve done this the fun begins!
My favourite add-ons are the following:
- Wanikani Heatmap
- Wanikani Ultimate Timeline
- WaniKani Lesson Filter
- Wanikani Double-Check
- WaniKani Prioritize Overdue Reviews
- Hide Review Accuracy
- Wanikani Self-Study Hide Info
Essentially, if you want to do something specific which isn’t in the plain vanilla version of Wanikani, the chances are that if you dig through the Wanikani forums someone will have made an add-on for it. Explore!
We’ve talked a lot about vocab and kanji so far. This is partly because received wisdom seems to be to get some vocab under your belt before moving on, and partly because I haven’t got very far with anything else! Certainly it seems to me, where I am at the moment, that it’s sensible to get up to speed with hiragana (and katakana) and the first 3 levels (at least) of Wanikani before cracking on with some grammar.
There are a few ways you can go about learning grammar:
- Anki shared decks. I’d recommend trying: i) Easy Japanese Sentences (excellent grammar, builds up progressively with good explanations), ii) Japanese verbs conjugation drills (teaches you the key verbs in all their forms, and you can also add to it if you want to get fancy), iii) Beginner Japanese Phrases (there are lots of similar decks to this one, I’d suggest you google the kind of phrases you want to learn and then add them to your deck to personalise.)
- You might try one of the popular grammar textbooks (Tae Kim, Genki etc). Here is an article by Tofugu comparing them. I’ve started with Tae Kim’s Grammar guide and it’s pretty straightforward. I feel it gives you the 80/20 of what you need, without overcomplicating things. You can pick up the complexities once you improve.
- You could try Bunpro. Rather like Wanikani, Bunpro is an SRS-based software which teaches you grammar. A cool thing about Bunpro is that you can sync it with Wanikani (using the API key) so that it teaches you grammar only using the vocab that you’ve already learnt on Wanikani. This means that you can really focus on the grammar points when using Bunpro.
- For a less sophisticated (and free) version of Bunpro (which may or may not breach copyright), you could try an Anki deck of Bunpro cards. Starting at N5 (the most basic level of proficiency) would make sense.
- There are some great forums on Wanikani, such as the ‘Short Grammar Questions’ page.
- You might also try something like ‘Learn Japanese with Ammo’ on Youtube (here), or watch some anime, for something a bit different.
- The Sentence a day challenge is also something I plan to commit to, once I’ve learnt a little more.
Finally it’s good to feel like you have a group of fellow learners around you, and the WaniKani community page provides exactly that. It’s very active and has all sorts of threads and forums, as well as useful sources of knowledge like the ‘Resources for Starting to Read Japanese Content’ page.
That’s all for now folks, さよなら (Sayonara) until next time!
*Your personal account on Wanikani will have an API key, which you need to copy across into the other programmes.
**There’s also Wanesame for a similar thing – see this article for a comparison.
***Note that when Wanikani puts out an update this often breaks these add-ons. Because the developers are quite active they will often fix them within a few weeks, but this is something to bear in mind (your favourite add-on might not be updated because the dev has moved on to a different passion project).