Want to learn Japanese but don’t know where to start? Here five key steps you can take right now to begin your journey to Japanese fluency.
1) Define your WHY
As Friedrich Nietzsche said in Twilight of the Idols, or, How to Philosophize with a Hammer:
“He who has a Why in life can tolerate almost any How?”
Learning a language takes tons of time and discipline, and the only way you will stay the course is if you know exactly WHY you are learning the language. You need to answer the question:
“What will make all the effort worth it for me?”
Get out a pen and paper and take a moment to write out your personal WHY statement. Here are some examples to help you get started.
“I love anime and manga and want to be able to understand the basic gist of what I am reading or watching without relying on a dictionary or subtitles.”
“I am going to propose to my Japanese girlfriend in three months in Japanese. Next month, I am going to visit her parents and ask for their blessing, and they don’t speak any English.”
“I will be taking an intensive Aikido course next summer in Tokyo,
and it’s only offered in Japanese. Martial arts are my life, and I really want to understand the instructors and connect with other students.”
“I am moving to Japan next year to teach English, but will be placed in a rural area far from other foreigners. Speaking Japanese will be my only way to socialize and have a life outside of work.”
2) Make a laser-focused plan
Now that you have defined your personal WHY, it’s time to plan out the WHAT and HOW of your language mission.
At a minimum:
- Choose exactly when you will learn each day. Block this time out on your calendar and treat it as sacred time that you refuse to skip or reschedule unless absolutely necessary.
- Choose exactly which resources you will use. Choose 1 to 3 learning resources you will focus on (no more!). I recommend Japanese Uncovered and JapanesePod101.
If you need help choosing which resources to use, check out my detailed how-manual and resource guide Master Japanese: How to Learn Japanese Anywhere in the World.
Once you’ve decided on your 1 to 3 resources, write them down on your paper:
“I will use X, Y, and Z to learn Japanese.”
3) Choose your daily minimum
You may have blocked out an hour or two in step 2 as your ideal amount of daily study time. But you and I both know that there is often a big gap between “ideal” and “actual.” Shooting for two hours is a great goal, but it might not always be realistic.
Be honest with yourself about how much time you can consistently commit to Japanese each and every day no matter what. Is it 30 minutes? 15? 5?
Then write this minimum down on your paper:
“No matter what, I will complete X minutes of Japanese study every day.”
4) Preview how the language works
Your goal at this stage is to just get a basic gist of how Japanese works (and how it differs from your native language).
- You do NOT need to spend tons of time memorizing grammar rules.
- You do NOT need to fully understand every single facet of Japanese grammar.
- You do NOT need to know every single verb form.
You will naturally develop an intuitive, nuanced understanding of Japanese grammar with sufficient time, exposure, and practice.
In the meantime, a quick look at the basics of Japanese grammar will provide useful scaffolding and allow you to start communicating.
One of the best concise summaries of Japanese grammar I have found is the Lonely Planet Japanese Phrasebook. And it has the added benefit of including useful phrases and high-frequency vocabulary you can use to start having basic conversations or travel around Japan.
5) Practice communicating
For most Japanese learners, their personal WHY involves actually speaking the language. And yet most people:
- Put off speaking practice out of fear and perfectionism.
- Spend ZERO time practicing the skill each week.
As language hacker Benny Lewis puts:
“You can’t learn to play the piano until you sit down and put your fingers on the keys. You can’t play tennis until you pick up a racquet. And you can’t learn a language if you don’t speak it.”
If necessary, go back to Step 2 and earmark a chunk of time each day that you will practice communicating in Japanese.
Don’t have any Japanese speakers to practice with? Not a problem! Use one of the following tools to practice with native speakers anywhere in the world:
- iTalki: Practice Japanese 1-on-1 with professional teachers or via free exchanges
- HelloTalk: Chat for free with native speakers via text, voice, and video
You now have everything you need to start learning Japanese. Now comes the most important step of all: actually starting.
Before you click away and go on with your day, complete at least one tiny action from above to build some momentum. As Peter Marshall said:
“Small deeds done are better than great deeds planned.”