Choices in learning Japanese

Japanese is a Japonic language associated with ridiculously unique people, interesting shows, and world-renowned video games. The language has two alphabets (hiragana and katakana, collectively called kana) and one expansive set of characters (kanji). It can sound a bit intimidating, but don’t be daunted by this; you have a choice of just how fluent you want to be. For my personal learning, I wish to be able to associate any set of characters with any other set of characters I want, so in Japanese, I work on nearly all of the combinations, both ways:

  • Associate the kanji with the kana
  • Associate the kanji with the romaji
  • Associate the kanji with the meaning
  • Associate the kana with the kanji
  • Associate the kana with the romaji
  • Associate the kana with the meaning (not actively worked on)
  • Associate the romaji with the kanji
  • Associate the romaji with the kana
  • Associate the romaji with the meaning
  • Associate the meaning with the kanji
  • Associate the meaning with the kana (not actively worked on)
  • Associate the meaning with the romaji

For example, associating the kanji with the meaning involves things like tying what the kanji looks like to the idea it represents, like the kanji for cat (猫) and a picture or story of a cat. Associating the kana with the romaji would be a simple task of learning which hiragana or katakana corresponds to which romaji letters. By now, I know the kana well enough to be able to skip the kana vs. romaji combinations and treat them as if they were one, which cuts down on the separate matching that kana or romaji would make with kanji individually.

This form of learning gives me a solid foundation to understanding Japanese no matter its form or how it’s written to me, whereas – and there’s no harm in doing this if this is your preference – some people may choose to do this condensed version instead:

  • Associate the kanji with the meaning
  • Associate the meaning with the kanji

“But romaji is bad!”

Some people advise new learners to skip romaji. I absolutely do not recommend this. Being able to write Japanese in a form easily pronouncable and clear to non-Asians is a hugely useful skill.

I think the take-home idea of what people are trying to communicate when they say “don’t learn romaji” is this: don’t rely on only romaji to learn Japanese by, as kana and kanji are ridiculously important and 100% cannot be avoided if you truly wish for spoken as well as written fluency in the language. I do advise saving learning how to -write- kanji for really advanced learning, if even then, as even many Japanese can’t remember from scratch how to write many kanji, as shown in this video.

If you’re going to be reading a lot of Japanese material, the important focus is of course to learn how to recognize characters, not write them from scratch! Besides, unless you’re writing a job application in Japanese with no computer or outside help whatsoever, if you don’t know how to write a kanji, you can always just represent it with hiragana. While the Japanese can read their language in romaji, kana is of course preferred.

Don’t be afraid of the writing system. Besides, with so many resources available as well as so much interesting media, Japanese is a great language to learn, and learning the kanji gives you a fantastically solid head start if you want to learn Chinese later!

My Japanese resources

Here’s the Japanese equivalent for my Korean resources, my Swedish resources, and my Norwegian resources, in order from most to least used and helpful:

  • Memrise: Vocabulary building via flashcards. Used all the time during any stage of learning Japanese, or any other language, for that matter. Using Memrise is like using flashcards, but a lot more beneficial since it utilizes not just repetition, but spaced repetition. That means it checks how long ago you learned a word and reminds you to revisit the word at a time when you’re most likely to be about to forget it. It often has (user-created!) mnemonic devices to help aid the recall process even further. I wholeheartedly recommend Memrise to anyone who’s learning any language. You can even create your own deck to help other users practice! Here’s a detailed deck I made myself for Japanese that splits words into categories like godan verbs, na-adjectives, and more. 😀
  • Guide to Japanese: This guide is extremely helpful to me, and is the number one source I use to build my grammar.
  • Tanoshii Japanese: Tanoshii Japanese, while it’s a fantastic Japanese to English (and vice-versa) dictionary, also has hiragana, katakana, kanji, and vocabulary lessons, and will teach you kanji immediately before showing you some words containing the kanji you just learned! It also has extremely helpful games you can play, and you can tie your progress to your account. I absolutely recommend this site, as it’s basically somewhat of a Japanese-specific Memrise, catering specifically to ways that would help one test their hiragana, katakana, kanji, and vocabulary knowledge.
  • Lingua Junkie: Lingua Junkie gives a fantastic breakdown of many different ways to say the same thing, which means it’s a fantastic way to build your vocabulary and stop saying things the same way every time. For example, there’s an article about 22 awesome ways to say how are you in Japanese, and one for 22 ways to say I agree in Japanese. I definitely recommend these, and there are plenty more on the site!
  • JREF’s Japanese Slang article: Great for learning slang, the value of which cannot be understated if you want to learn real-world Japanese!
  • Tangorin: Like Tanoshii Japanese, Tangorin also serves as a great Japanese to English (and vice-versa) dictionary, and is incredibly helpful with the meanings of different kanji. Because of the extra features (and the more attractive interface), however, I like to use Tanoshii Japanese more often.
  • Hotarun: Like a hybrid of Tanoshii Japanese and Verbix, Hotarun will explain what a kanji means or conjugate verbs for you, among many other things!
  • The vocabulary and grammar lessons here are very simple and to the point!
  • The Japanese Page: Over at The Japanese Page, there’s a great section called Fast Track: 100 Grammar Points that is just glorious in jump-starting your Japanese grammar knowledge. It teaches you 100 short grammar snippets on how to use words like “about”, “for example”, “this”, “that”, “that over there”, and more.
  • PuniPuniJapan: PuniPuniJapan definitely wins points for being adorable. It’s a fabulously colorful website that really makes Japanese learning cute and fun, and it teaches vocabulary, phrases, and grammar for free.
  • Japanese Professor: Japanese Professor has great lessons in order to learn Japanese!
  • Daiu International: Daiu International has a bunch of vocabulary lists to suit your fancy, whether you want to specifically learn more adjectives, pronouns, or even some Japanese proverbs.
  • Nihongo Ichiban: There are some grammar lessons here, and also some survival Japanese lessons if you just want to get your feet wet and no more. If you’re serious enough about Japanese to take the JLPT (general Japanese proficiency test) or BJT (business Japanese proficiency test), though, it also helpfully contains lists for vocabulary you’ll need to know for J5, J4, and so on.
  • Like Daiu International, Jonsay has great vocabulary lists like this one for different categories such as computers, directions, and even the Japanese words for dinosaurs! They have vocabulary lists for other languages, too, not just Japanese.
  • Japanese websites about interests: For example, if you’re interested in anime, why not trying to read some words off of once you have some kanji and vocabulary under your belt? Or maybe read some articles in English about some cool stuff Japan has going on and practice reading the Japanese around it.
  • Verbix: I use this verb conjugator for pretty much any language I’m learning!
  • Japanese Verb Conjugator: With a slightly easier to understand format than Verbix, this “Ultra Handy Japanese Verb Conjugator” is a great way to find out how to conjugate a Japanese verb if you’re at a loss! However, even though it has a prettier format than Verbix, the conjugations are automatically generated.

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