Learn Japanese – A 6-Step Study Plan

So, you want to learn Japanese. Great decision!

But where do you start? How do you get there? What do you do when the going gets rough?

I thought it might be useful to create something that I wish had existed when I started learning Japanese over a decade ago, and this guide is the result. It’s a multi-tiered approach that will tell you what to do at every step of the way (from absolute beginner up to JLPT N1), with literacy as the primary goal.

I hope you find it useful.

Note: Be sure to read the additional sections below the guide. There’s lots of information that’s almost as important as the guide itself.

This guide may change over time as resources become newly available and/or outdated. Keep this page bookmarked!

The Roadmap

It's called a road, it's called a Rainbow Road...

Things to Keep in Mind

  • The only pre-requisites for learning Japanese are a thirst for knowledge, some hard work, and good study habits.
  • Remember that while learning a new language can be a long and arduous journey, investing in yourself is one of the most rewarding things you can do with your time. Don’t give up.
  • There are some alternative resources to choose from. For example, Anki has a free vocabulary deck that has a lot in common with the one offered by iKnow!, but it lacks the smooth user experience and the variety of answer types. For me, the few bucks a month for a much superior service paid off in the long run, but in the end, the choice is yours. I’m not here to sell anything, but I am here to suggest what I think will work best for you.
  • Skritter does not have a free alternative, unlike iKnow!. Indeed, there is nothing else quite like it. Writing on good ol’ paper is still just as effective for memorizing stroke order for things like kanji quizzes, but the fact that Skritter offers SRS-based study lists that accompany the best Japanese textbooks out there makes it a perfect companion for this guide. You have the option to drop Skritter after Tobira, but you’ll thank yourself for keeping it during the first few critical tiers of foundation-building.
  • Becoming fluent in any language is no easy task, and Japanese happens to be a language that takes a little more commitment than others. That doesn’t make it harder, necessarily, but it just means you’ll need to put in more time to see gains. With that said, I have no idea how long this will take you. This is for a number of reasons:
    • Attaining “fluency” depends a bit on your personal learning goals. For example, if you want to focus on being able to speak Japanese, then you will need to actively seek out language partners and speak with them on a very regular basis. You can pass JLPT N1 without being able to hold a decent conversation; a lot of people would not consider that “fluent.” Decide what your goals will be and work toward them as you lay your foundations with this guide.
    • I have no idea how much time per day you can devote to studying, nor do I know your aptitude or propensity for checking Facebook every few minutes. (If you have problems with staying focused, I recommend a Pomodoro-style app to break your work down into intervals.)
  • Nothing beats a living, breathing teacher. If you have access to a classroom or private tutor, consider yourself lucky and take advantage of it. Go to office hours and talk with your sensei. If you live in Japan, well, go outside. For the rest of you, it may be worth checking out Craigslist or sites like italki to get access to private tutors for as little as $10/hour. You could do a monthly or bi-weekly lesson to touch base with a native Japanese speaker as a way to stay motivated and monitor your progress. Using the link I’ve provided, you’ll earn a free $10 in credit to get started.
  • Terms like “beginner,” “intermediate,” and “advanced” are only used for organizational purposes in order to represent otherwise fluid concepts. Likewise, the JLPT isn’t the best way to measure your Japanese ability (it doesn’t even include speaking, for Pete’s sake). Regardless, it is a widely-renowned benchmark used in many professional and academic settings and remains a great way for self-taught learners to stay motivated and keep structure in their learning goals. For these reasons, I have decided to incorporate JLPT study materials into this guide as well as the points at which you should be safe to attempt each level of the JLPT.
  • Learning a language is not a race, but a marathon. Pace yourself!

Study Tips

  • Study frequency matters a LOT when learning anything new. One hour a day will produce far better results than one 5-hour cram session every Sunday.
  • Bookmark Kuma Sensei’s Resources page for additional goodies. There are loads of amazing resources that I had to exclude here for the sake of keeping things trim and neat – and the list is constantly growing.
  • Take advantage of iKnow!’s built-in study target tool. It’s up to you to figure out your study pace, i.e. how much of a workload you can handle without getting stressed or burned out. All you have to do is set the number of hours per week you want to shoot for, and iKnow!’s algorithms will do the rest. With that in mind…
  • Don’t fall behind in your flash card reviews. While using iKnow!, my policy was to never add new flash cards until I finished all of my reviews. By doing this, you’re ensuring that all of the stuff you’ve been learning is as fresh as possible before moving on to new content. SRS will only work if you stay on top of your reviews.
  • Shadow your flash cards! Using flash cards with built-in audio and example sentences is so resourceful, it’s not even funny. Listen to the example sentence over and over, repeating the audio and trying to mimic the native pronunciation as closely as possible (speed and pitch accent). If people are giving you weird looks on the bus, you’re doing it right. Repeat EVERYTHING you hear and mimic it to a T. This will do wonders for your pronunciation and ability to memorize words.
  • Take notes on what you’ve learned. You can keep a Japanese dictionary, a blog, scribble on some napkins at Starbucks, whatever. But keeping inventory of what you’ve learned can be a good motivational tool.
  • Find a community of learners to join! For example, the /r/LearnJapanese subreddit can be a good place to go to connect with other learners and ask questions. Of course, it’s Reddit, so you’ll run into the occasional jerk from time to time. Such is life.
  • At least once a month, try to do two of the following activities using Japanese:
    • Write in a personal blog or a forum post. It can be anything from a self-introduction to a critique of the latest novel you’ve read in Japanese. Just get writing and listen to the feedback you receive!
    • Seek out conversation partners. This guide doesn’t really cover “speaking” per se, because you can only practice that by actively looking for people to speak with (or by being in a classroom). Shadowing will only take you so far; being a good Japanese conversationalist takes practice, and lots of it.
      • There a few ways to do this: See if your school has a Japanese conversation club or make some buddies on Lang-8, for starters. You could also check your local area for meetups or cheap classes. Not living in Japan is not an excuse!
    • Do something you like in Japanese. Read a manga, watch an anime/drama/movie, or play a game you like in Japanese. It might be overwhelming at first, but you’ll be surprised at how quickly you start to comprehend more and more!
    • Live stream what you’re working on for an hour, or drop in to a community and help someone who needs it. Teaching Japanese to someone else, even something rudimentary, can demonstrate whether you really understand a concept or not and can open many doors for learning opportunities.
  • Motivation is a big factor in learning anything, and when learning something that takes a long time to see growth, it’s not uncommon to have days where you will sit there and wonder why you even bothered to start. When you have those kinds of days, reflect on your life and remind yourself why you’re learning Japanese. For me, it was being able to go to Japan and participate in real conversations and make my way around on my own. Sometimes, I’d go on to Google Earth and wander the streets of Tokyo or watch vlogs of people living in Japan. Sometimes I’d watch Japanese movies and lose myself in the atmosphere. I was also unhealthily infatuated with kanji and had a gigantic kanji list poster hanging above my desk where I studied (yes, I was that cool). All I needed to do to get pumped up for a multi-hour study session was brew up some Rooibos tea and glance up at that huge poster to see all of the kanji just waiting to be learned–especially all of those intimidating ones near the end of the list. Something about seeing that insurmountable mountain in front of me made me want to climb it even more. Do whatever it takes to get yourself in the zone, even if it means blasting J-pop and dressing up as Sailor Moon.
  • Motivation will get you far, but discipline is the real name of the game. This echoes what I said earlier, but even if you have all the motivation in the world, it won’t help if you can’t make yourself sit down to put in an hour of study, particularly on those rough days when you’re just not feeling it. Just like forcing yourself to go to the gym on those days when you have no motivation, getting off your butt is the hard part. But once you do, it’s just the same old routine from there. I stand firmly by my opinion that discipline matters far more than what specific tools or textbooks you use. Over the years, I have noticed that the learners who make notable progress with the language are the ones who mean business and stick to their study plans, even on those “off” days. If you can do that, you will make great strides in this language.
  • In spite of the above, take care not to burn yourself out studying Japanese. You probably have dozens of other priorities that you’re juggling in your life, so unless you have a good reason to make Japanese one of your top priorities, be realistic about the amount of time you can spend on your studies. Like I said earlier, learning a new language as an adult is difficult and time-consuming, so treat it like the marathon it is. If you feel like studying is bringing you down or causing a serious mental burden, you should stop and reassess your approach, and perhaps take some time off from your studies (most apps have methods for pausing progression, if that helps). You’re also more than welcome to drop me a line in the comments or via my Contact page if you need a little guidance with your study methods. Take care of yourself!

Good luck!