Hi fellow Japanese students. I’m Gabriel from Portugal and this is my story:
Today, August 1 2019, marks one year since I started studying Japanese. It has been a fantastic journey, without a single day off, with lots of new things learned, not just the language but also many things about the Japanese culture. I feel like a whole new person from a year ago. This is also the first time I’m learning a language actively and not passively like I did for English and Spanish, which I’ve been acquiring for years.
Even though I started studying the language a year ago, my love for Japan started way before that. I always liked Anime, ever since I was a kid. Several years ago, back in 2009-10, I started watching NHK World regularly and seeing all those shows about Japanese culture really started to resonate with me. I began to see the real Japan, not just through Anime, but from real people as well. You see, if Japan was a woman, it would be my soul mate, because we have so many things in common. I love its culture, its food, its values, its language, its Women… Anyway, I feel like I was born in the wrong country…
Before starting my learning journey, I had no previous Japanese knowledge. I mean, I couldn’t even count to ten and only knew a handful of words. This is what I recommend for absolute beginners: before starting with any other resources, spend some time learning Hiragana and Katakana. With effort, you can learn them in a couple of weeks.
For me, everything started with the Duolingo app, and even though I don’t like to praise this app that much, because in my opinion is a waste of time in the long run, I do have to give it credit for being a starting point in my journey and for getting me interested in learning this incredible language, and not just be a consumer of their products. Other than that, I don’t recommend it, simply because it explains you nothing. It’s sort of like a watered down version of Rosetta Stone, yet another useless app. Also, be careful of the streak feature. It can be a motivator, but if you fail to keep that streak going it can crush you and with it, your desire to continue your studies.
About a month after starting with Duolingo and doing my daily routine, I got my first textbook (Japanese From Zero 1), and that’s when things got really going in a steady pace.
Below is a list of some of the best resources I used and a brief note about them. Please note that many of these resources are geared towards reading, which is my main goal. Reading Manga. I’ve used other resources along the way, but they’re not worth mentioning. I believe there’s no such thing as a bad resource (unless it gives you false information), because in the end, you were exposed to the language, and that’s the whole point. There’s just better resources than others that will be more useful and make a better use of your time.
Japanese From Zero
Without these books I probably wouldn’t be still studying Japanese today. They helped me keep a steady pace everyday, but more importantly, they felt accessible for a total beginner like myself. The lessons start really easy and simple, without kanji and introducing Kana gradually and in small batches. To some, this may seem like a slow pace, but trust me, this was perfect. You don’t want to start full force and then be overwhelmed. I got through all four books in about six months and I loved everything about them. The way the books are structured and how the workbook is included with the main textbook is very convenient and overall cheaper than other alternatives. It’s a perfect resource for self-study. Also recommended, the author’s Youtube channel, where you can follow the lessons from the book with the corresponding videos and other grammar videos he continues to upload.
Right after JFZ books, WK was and still is one of the best resources I’ve been using. Studying Kanji is the most intimidating part of the Japanese language and the reason why I hadn’t started sooner. One word of advice is that you should only start WK when you have memorized both Kana, otherwise it will be very difficult. Also, if you’re unsure of the plan to subscribe, personally I would suggest to pay for one year and not the lifetime subscription. The reason is that when you pay for lifetime you don’t need to rush and you’ll have a tendency to slack off and lose your rhythm. However, the key to succeed with WK is consistency, having a steady pace from start to finish. It’s very easy to fall into a mindset of taking a break, but it’s very difficult to get that momentum again.
WK was my first experience with SRS, and together with the JFZ books, it helped me to keep a daily routine. When done right, it will be a godsend for Kanji study. Even though I like the SRS system, I think if you only rely on those timings, it might not be enough to memorize everything. I started to use a self-study script, which you can use to cram unlocked items whenever you want, and my Kanji recognition skyrocketed since then. I usually do batches of five levels at a time for Kanji, and this proved to be a very effective way to really learn to distinguish between similar Kanji.
Overall, WK exceeded my expectations. I’m currently on level 47, and I plan to reach level 60 by mid September.
Japanese - The Manga Way
Probably my all-time favorite textbook, ever. This was such a great book to follow. I started it early on in my studies, and I’m glad I did it, because it tackles complex topics in a simple and fun way. The grammar is very well organized and it starts real simple. The different Manga strips make this book shine and it’s such a joy to read. I have many of those Manga books in my wish list. Since then, I have gone through the entire book 3 times, which allowed me to get a better understanding of its contents each time.
Tae Kim - A guide to Japanese Grammar
This book is highly recommend among Japanese language students, and with good reason. The book explains really well a wide range of beginner Japanese Grammar, and even more advance topics later on. I also went through it a couple of times already, and I find it to be a great way to review grammar, because it’s very well structured. It can be used as a stand-alone textbook without any need for other equivalent books. One of the things that I liked about it was the vocab lists at the beginning of each chapter. Very convenient to learn large quantities of vocab in context.
Dictionary of Basic/Intermediate Japanese Grammar
I got both dictionaries, and if I could sum up in one short sentence what I think of them, it would just be: Get them! They’re that good!
If you’re serious about your Japanese studies, don’t even hesitate. You’ll be constantly using them. At least I did. It has a thorough explanation of each grammar point, with lots of example sentences and notes, and it always points you to similar topics for comparison. I like how it is structured, it has a clean and simple layout, and it’s very easy to consult. It also has a very useful introductory section in both books, full of information and tips.
Essential Japanese Expressions
This has been my second Bible, after DoJG. This book was a very pleasant surprise. I bough it on a whim, just thinking of using it for occasional reading, but it proved to be much more useful. It has a ton of expressions, each classified with the correspondent N5 through N1, and lots of example sentences for each topic. I’ve gone through all N5 and N4 content, each time carefully taking notes and writing example sentences by hand. Now, I’m currently doing the same for N3. It’s a book that will provide me with content for years to come, and a great way to enrich my reading skills, vocab and grammar. Very underrated book that I hardly ever see mentioned. For me, it has been one of the most important books in my studies.
The Handbook of Japanese Verbs & The Handbook of Japanese Adj. and Adv.
I grouped these two books in one section since they’re both similar and by the same author. These were also two of the most important books that I studied. The first deals with verbs and all their many conjugation forms and lots of examples in context. At the end of each chapter you’ll be presented with a brief exercise to test your knowledge. The second, is a bit more simple, but not less important, since it tackles two important parts of the language, adjectives and adverbs. It’s also presented in the same format, with exercises at the end of each chapter. Both these books can and should be used regularly to review what you learned and use as a reference.
Shin Nihongo 500 Mondai
If you want to test your N5 and N4 knowledge, this is a great way to do it. It’s very well structured with multiple choice questions on Kanji, Vocab and Grammar. One thing that I liked is that is has translations, which is rare to find in this type of exercises, especially with online quizzes. It also has brief explanations on each grammar topic it covers. I’m thinking of getting the N3 version soon.
Learn to Read in Japanese
This was one of the first resources I used, because I wanted to read as soon as possible. The book starts with easy sentences with simple kanji and builds on previous knowledge as you progress, introducing you to about 10 new kanji in each chapter. One thing that I disliked about the book is that the author chose to have just a literal translation instead of a more natural one. I sometimes couldn’t understand the Japanese sentence, much less its translation, which made little sense and felt a bit frustrating. Still, overall, a very easy to read book with the occasional cryptic sentence.
Japanese Sentence Patterns for Effective Communication
Another important book with a large number of sentence patterns to increase your reading skills. Each sentence pattern is followed by a few example sentences and a practice section. It’s a big book with over 300 pages that covers a lot of different grammar, whether it’s for study or just to review. I really liked to read this one and plan to review it again soon.
Common Japanese Collocations
I’m not sure which one is more important, this one or the one above, about the sentence patterns. If you can, get them both.
Japanese collocations are word pairings that frequently appear together and by studying them you’ll begin to notice these patterns that will help you have a better understanding of the language and how those words are used. Even though the book has about 250 pages, it has a lot of content. The translations are spot on, which is quite helpful.
The Ultimate Japanese Phrasebook
Now, you might think this is a book more geared toward tourists, but it’s been actually a great read. It uses fairly casual language, which is great for a change, since most textbooks use polite language. It’s nice to have a contrast, because if you aim at reading Manga, for example, you’ll encounter similar language, and with this book you have plenty of examples to study in a variety of topics from daily life… 1800, to be more precise.
New Kanzen Master JLPT N4: Reading
I loved this book. Since my primary goal is to read, I chose this one and it exceeded my expectations. The texts are interesting to read with some peculiar stories, but fun nonetheless. It has different types of texts, from e-mail to essays and leaflets. I liked the variety of content and ultimately, it felt really great to understand what was written, since I did it when I was well along in my N4 studies. It includes a section with tips and exercises on how to read complex sentences. Will also consider buying the N3 version very soon.
Bunpro is a great tool to learn or review grammar from N5 to N1. I’ve been using it for almost 9 months and got through all N5, N4 and N3 grammar. I like that it has many example sentences and I use the Cram feature a lot, which is like a self-study script found in other apps. I find it an indispensable tool in my studies and use it everyday.
It’s best to use it with other resources. For example, I used both dictionaries of Japanese Grammar to have a deeper understanding of each grammar point. Just be careful not to overdo it. Four or five points per day is enough. More than that and your reviews are going to pile up. Moreover, the more you do per day, the harder it is for the grammar to stick.
Kitsun is similar to WK, but has a more broader use. You can import your own decks or use many of the ones already offered. Currently, I’m building my own deck using the dictionary feature and adding new words I encounter while reading. It’s very convenient. Using the SRS system and self-study feature, it’s a great way to build your vocabulary.
Even though ClozeMaster is from the creators of Duolingo, don’t underestimate it. It’s miles ahead from Duolingo and much more efficient for learning sentence patterns. You can do it in different ways, like multiple choice questions, where one word is missing from the sentence and you choose which one is correct. You can also type the correct answer, which is more challenging. And, yet another way is to listen to the sentence and choose the correct answer. This app has been a great help for my reading skills. You can do just a little bit everyday, and the added gamification will make it fun to use. Forget Duolingo, this will actually be helpful for your studies.
Takoboto: Japanese Dictionary
This has been my go to app, and my companion for my Manga reading sessions. It has a fast and clean interface, and you can add words to a list, which you can then export to other apps. Other features include a real-time results page as you type, recognition of conjugated verbs and adjectives, kanji info and example sentences. I’ve been using this for Android, but there are also an online and Windows versions.
Besides all these resources, I also watch a lot of Japanese drama and movies. It’s a great feeling to see my progress when I recognize words I’ve studied. I can gradually pick up more and more words, even though the listening part is one of the most difficult aspects of the language.
So, how far did I get in one year? I’d say I’m about N3 level. I probably could’ve been more productive and reach N2, or even N1, as I have an average of about 5 hours of study per day. But since this is my first time learning a language actively, there were times when I felt I could’ve spent my time better or by using other resources. But I still learned. I got this far, and I’m happy with my progress. I can already read Manga at a reasonable pace, although still needing to consult the dictionary a few times (okay, several times), but not to a degree that feels frustrating anymore, and that’s an achievement in my book.
Of all the Manga I’ve been reading, Yotsuba is my absolute favorite. It’s impossible to feel down after reading a chapter of this charming little girl. At first it was difficult to read, even with the help of the dictionary (started in February, and currently reading vol.13). But now, it’s a joy to read, and I don’t have to check the dictionary that often. I plan on starting from vol.1 again as soon as I’m finished with vol.14.
I’m also reading the original Dragon Ball series, and that’s a step up from Yotsuba. There’s a lot more slang and contracted words that you need to know, but it’s still an enjoyable read. Other than that, I’m also reading Barakamon, and it’s a fun read as well. A little challenging at times, but not frustrating. The easiest read so far was My Neighbor Totoro, a series of 4 volumes. There’s not many difficult words or grammar, and it’s totally worth it, if just for the artwork alone. Definitely recommended.
To this day, I have never visited Japan. It’s sort of like being in love, but being apart from your beloved. I do plan to visit in the near future, though. It’s painful to see all of Japan’s beauty through a screen, so I will make all efforts to finally meet this great country very soon.
Finally, as a word of encouragement for newcomers, never give up! If you take the challenge of learning this great language, don’t take your time as wasted. There are two main things you need, persistence and exposure. If you keep these two things and have a little patience (ok, that’s three things), you will most certainly learn. Your brain works wonders when exposed to patterns, and if you keep studying, just a little everyday, even for 10 minutes, you’ll eventually get where you need to. I promise you that. Just don’t give up! It will be worth it