Drew DeVault's Japanese Learning Resources

on Drew DeVault's blog

Note: this is a work in progress. I last updated this page on 2019-11-12. If that was a while ago, feel free to ping me and ask me to write some more.

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Bootstrapping
  3. Anki deck generators
  4. Kanji study
  5. Vocabulary study
  6. Grammar study
  7. Reading practice
  8. Writing practice
  9. Listening practice
  10. Speaking practice
  11. Conversation skills
  12. List of resources

Introduction

I’ve been studying Japanese for a few years now, and while I still have a lot to learn I feel comfortable having conversations in Japanese, without feeling like the other participant is having to be concious of the complexity of their language use. Accomplishing that had been my goal from the start; yours may be different. What follows is what I believe is a reasonably good approach to self-directed Japanese language study.

The most important thing to understand is that there is no magic bullet. Duolingo, Rosetta stone, even attending a Japanese course at a local college - none of these approaches alone is sufficient to master the language. Instead, you need to identify the core skills a language learner needs to develop, and focus on improving them individually. These focus areas are listed in the table of contents:

  • Kanji
  • Vocabulary
  • Grammar
  • Reading
  • Writing
  • Speaking
  • Listening
  • Conversation
  • Translation

You will visit and revisit these thousands of times over the course of your studies, but they are listed roughly in the order in which you will first encounter them, or at least in the order I approached them. And though they are all interconnected, they each are completely discrete skills and must be given your attention directly, lest the sum of your mastery suffer for your inattention.

It sounds like a lot of work, but if you internalize these facts then you’ll find it much easier to approach the language than you otherwise might. Let’s say, for example, that you’re finding your grammar skills falling behind, and your listening skills are suffering because you haven’t internalized the new grammatical concepts, but you’re fine when reading because you can take your time. In a traditional classroom setting, you’re going to be left behind as the textbook and your peers plow forward with pre-defined allotments of time to each of these focus areas.

However, if you study alone and you’re cognisant of these independent areas of study and the approaches to each that work best for you, you can identify the areas in which you’re weak, how they’re affecting your growth in other areas, and the right strategies for improvement. Boldly try new study strategies for each of these areas, and boldly drop the approaches which aren’t working for you. By making it a personal journey rather than a cookie-cutter journey, you’ll learn the language much more easily.

Remember to keep your goals in mind, and set them in the first place. “I want to learn Japanese” is too broad of a goal. “I want to have conversations with Japanese friends”, “I want to watch anime without subtitles”, “I want to read untranslated light novels” - these are much better goals. Adjust your learning strategy towards your particular goals.

Bootstrapping

There is a certain level of minimum competence you need to have in order to utilize language learning tools effectively. You need to do these things first:

  1. Learn how to read and pronounce Hiragana and Katakana
  2. Learn the 100 most common kanji

TODO: Generate anki decks for these. If you’re reading this TODO and feeling put out, just search AnkiWeb for these and pick them out, it’s not a big deal.

Learning the Japanese writing system, despite being the worst writing system I’ve ever encountered, cannot be avoided. But, do not despair, you can learn the basics in a few weeks of memorization, and that’s enough to move on to bigger things. Don’t worry about being perfect at hiragana and katakana at first - if you’re feeling comfortable with most of them and unsure about just a few, you’re ready to move on and pick up the remainder on the fly.

Do not use romaji.

Do not use romaji.

You must learn the writing system.

In more general terms, it’s important to devote similar amounts of time to each area of study while you’re early in your learning. Each of these focus areas reinforces the other, and this is critical for fostering a cohesive understanding of the fundamentals of the language early on.

Memorization is going to take up most of your time spent studying Japanese. Thankfully, there’s a great tool for helping you do this: Anki!

Anki deck generators

Anki is an open source memorization tool which uses spaced repetition to help you review things you aren’t comfortable with, and avoid wasting your time reviewing things you are comfortable with. There is a free desktop application, a free Android app, and a paid iOS app which is worth the price and then some1. There’s also a version that runs in your web browser, and you can sync between all of them.

The Android app is the best one in my experience, because there’s no better time to memorize Japanese words than when you’re sitting on the toilet. With Anki, you can stop covering the Facebook app in fecal matter and learn Kanji instead.2

Because both I’m a nerd and well enough into my Japanese studies to have a pretty good idea of how all of this works, I’ve written some tools for generating Anki decks. You can get the source here and use it to generate custom Anki decks catered to the specific thing you want to study, or you can download one of the ones I’ve generated for you.

Pre-fab decks

Note: these are experimental. YMMV.

I’ve prepared a number of decks using my tools that you can download and get started with right away. Each deck was generated with linguistic terminology in Japanese (e.g. “名詞” instead of “noun”), is limited to #common words, and is ordered by word usage frequency. These are configurable options you can change if you generate them yourself.

General vocabulary

Specialized vocabulary

I generate these on an as-needed basis, as I personally want to study specific kinds of vocabulary.

JLPT vocabulary

JLPT is the standard Japanese language proficiency test, often included in immigration and job requirements in Japan.

Each JLPT category in separate decks:

JLPT N5 (easiest)JLPT N4JLPT N3JLPT N2JLPT N1 (hardest)

Cumulative decks, including vocab from each prior level:

JLPT N4-N5JLPT N3-N5JLPT N2-N5JLPT N1-N5

Note: these are generated by searching ‘#common’ on jisho.org and filtering to the JLPT categories you asked for. Don’t blame me if you fail JLPT because you used these. Caveat emptor.

Kanji study

Kanji is a bitch. If it makes you feel better, though, it’s difficult for native Japanese speakers, too. In short, you have to learn thousands of discrete characters, and multiple pronunciations of each, through rote memorization alone, and alone your skills with kanji will only ever be tangentially applicable to practical skills like reading or writing. With repeated study and the application of a suitable amount of time, kanji can be conquered fairly easily. The application of time is the hard part.

Personally, I found diminishing returns with studying kanji specifically after I learned 300-400 of them. After that, I switched to studying vocabulary and learning the kanji on the way. I suggest you take a similar approach if you want to reach functional fluency faster, and study kanji in particular only if it interests you. If you want to write Japanese by hand, you will have to study kanji directly, but it’s much easier to use an IME to type in Japanese on your computer or phone if that’s acceptable to you.

I suggest studying kanji in RTK order, which organizes them by complexity, teaching you the building blocks of more complex kanji early on. On the subject of stroke order: learn it for your first 100 characters, to get a feel for the general logic behind it. Then stop, unless you want to learn to write by hand. There are two useful Anki decks for Kanji study:

Vocabulary study

If you can read, write, and pronounce hiragana and katakana, and have learned to recognize at least enough kanji to understand the basics of radicals and pronunciation (that is, you know what 音読み, 訓読み, and 熟語 are), you should start studying vocabulary. Pick up my common vocab deck and get started. I also recommend the linguistic vocabulary decks as well, so that you can learn the vocab necessary to ask questions about the language, using the language. Another good vocabulary deck is this one for complementing the Tae Kim vocab guide, which I’ll discuss more in the next section.

It’s important to integrate your vocabulary learning. Practice by talking to yourself (or your cat) in Japanese, and reading Japanese materials, even if you can’t understand them - just look for words you recognize and see if you can remember the pronunciation and meaning. Each of the skills I’ve separated here are studied separately, but reinforce each other. Vocabulary boils down to rote memorization, which is the most difficult kind of study, so it’s especially important to reinforce it with your other skills.

Grammar study

Tae Kim’s grammar guide is the single best resource for studying Japanese grammar.

I highly recommend studying the Tae Kim vocabulary flash cards while you’re working through the guide. It’s helpful to be able to read the example texts without having to scroll back and forth between them and the cheat sheets in every article.

TODO: Expand on this section

Reading practice

TODO

Writing practice

TODO

Listening practice

TODO

Speaking practice

TODO

Conversation skills

TODO

List of resources

TODO

  • Similar page on American Sign Language?
  • Get better at Japanese Sign Language
  • Get better at Mandarin
  • Get better at Korean
  • Get better at Spanish
  • Make a conlang
  1. I don’t mean that the iOS one is better than any other. They’re all worth the price and then some, but the non-iOS ones are free. 

  2. I also find Anki useful on trains and cars, on my couch, in waiting rooms, and so on, but like, seriously, toilet time is a gravely unexploited resource for self-improvement. Everyone already uses their phones there anyway, don’t pretend you don’t. 

  3. Japanese has lots of specific words and kanji for counting things. It’s similar to English words like “three heads of lettuce”, “two loaves of bread”, “ten grains of rice”. (thanks /u/martindholmes for the analogy) 

  4. This is useful for being able to ask questions about the language, in the language. If you were worried about the pre-generated decks using Japanese linguistic terminology, this is the deck for you.