Here, I want to break down how I study and what resources I’ve found to be the most helpful. There are a lot of other sites and resources I’ve used help fill in the gaps over the years, but what I really want to talk about in this post are things that have been staples of my various routines. As time goes on, you’ll probably find your own favorite sites (maybe even this one) and apps and whatnot to help spice up your study routine and help you when you’re stuck so I won’t go into everything I’ve used. Let’s get to it.
I mention this in a few other places on the site but a good textbook can’t be beat when you’re getting started. It will provide structure and a steady pace of new material. The Genki series has a little skit that demonstrates the vocabulary, grammar, and kanji you’ll be learning in each chapter and builds a solid foundation in all aspects of the language… Besides holding a conversation. A textbook can’t do everything after all. Sad.
I found the chunks of vocabulary, kanji, and grammar points to be just right. You can spend a week or two on each chapter and maintain steady progress. Studying a language is a commitment so having a routine you can stick to day in and day out is the name of the game. There are two books in the Genki series. Genki I will be your best friend when you’re getting started. When you’re ready for Genki II, you’ll probably also be ready to introduce some other stuff to your routine. A couple of things to help with kanji and some things to make studying more fun.
Spaced Repetition and Mnemonics
Textbooks will generally introduce kanji that go along with the vocabulary words you’re learning. This is great to start out with and to get used seeing kanji and understanding how they have different readings, but when you have over 2,000 to learn, rote memorization for each individual kanji probably isn’t going to cut it. But by breaking down kanji into smaller pieces and using mnemonics, you’ll have simple little stories to help remember each one and you’ll be able to cram a lot more of them into a day of studying.
The next piece is using spaced repetition. Spaced repetition software will basically manage your kanji flashcards and tell you when to study what card. There’s some science bumbo jumbo behind it, too. Great! The software I used (and everybody else, it seems) is called Anki. Anki actually means memorization in Japanese. I also use Anki for vocabulary words by making my own deck and updating it as I learn new words. You may want to do the same.
What I Used
There are a lot of ways to get your mnemonics. Remember the Kanji being one I see a lot. I actually used a site called Kanji Damage. It has mnemonics for over 1,800 kanji and an Anki deck available for download on the homepage. Another nice thing about the site is if I forget one, it’s easy to just paste in the kanji and search for it to refresh my memory. I added 10 kanji everyday until I was finished, but you can do some math and figure how many you need to do a day to reach your goals. But remember, the more you do in a day, the more you have to review the following days.
I think kanji are what stop a lot of Japanese learners dead in their tracks after the beginning stages so be patient with yourself. It just takes time.
Reading a lot
After you have a Genki or so under your belt, you’re going to want to start reading… A lot. Not just because it’s an important skill, but because you’ll start to encounter all of those vocabulary and kanji you’ve been studying in the wild. This is where you’ll start to solidify the readings for all the kanji you’ve been cramming and finally start having some fun. I used to read a site called NHK News Easy everyday. It takes real stories from the NHK News website and transforms them into simpler Japanese. Later on, you can read the simple version and then take the link on the page to the original story to try reading real Japanese aimed at native speakers. That’s the fun stuff.
You might also look into graded readers. Graded readers can vary pretty widely by their level though so you might want to check some example text to make sure it isn’t too easy or too hard for your level.
And for maximum fun – gaming! The Pokemon series is great to dive into early on because it’s pretty simple and a lot of gamers will already be familiar with the basics before jumping in. The older titles are all in hiragana and katakana, but with the more recent titles, you can also use kanji. The Legend of Zelda series is also great because all of the titles from Ocarina of Time onward (besides Game Boy and Game Boy Advance) have *furigana over the kanji.
*Furigana are hiragana or katakana placed above a kanji to show what its reading is.
Listening is Hard
I’ve found that listening comprehension has been my biggest weakness over the years. I actually don’t feel like I really even made much of a breakthrough until I spent some time in Japan. There are a lot of fun ways to get some listening practice though. Recently, I’ve found that the IGN Japan podcast is good practice for me. I don’t get it all but it’s slowly starting to make more and more sense as I listen. There are a lot of ways to get listening practice at various levels so try not to neglect it like I did.
I’ve wanted to put some of this stuff down for a long time because I thought it could help people cut through some of the nonsense and get started faster. Hopefully you’ve found some of this helpful and I hope the vocabulary lists on this site help you reach your goals.