So you want to learn how to speak Japanese? If you’re an English speaker, you may be intimidated by the “number of hours” it takes to learn Japanese.
You may also want to know how to learn the Japanese language faster.
Can it be done? The short answer is: yes.
Learning Japanese has been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Since learning Japanese, I have a deeper passion and appreciation for Japanese culture. Understanding the language has allowed me to explore the culture in ways I wouldn’t have been able to otherwise.
Now here’s the thing. Japanese is considered one of the most difficult languages to learn. It has a different writing system than English, a completely different grammar structure, and relies heavily on cultural context and understanding.
That said, you can easily learn the Japanese language — including context clues — with the following steps. This is the best way to learn Japanese if you’re serious about speaking Japanese now.
I’ve outlined seven steps so you’ll know how to learn Japanese without all the trial and error many language learners experience. No more “Japanese takes 2,000 hours before you can use it in the real world.”
You can speak Japanese sooner than you imagined.
Here are all the steps for learning Japanese for beginners.
Editor’s note: before we get started, if you’re looking for an online Japanese course, here’s the course I actually recommend: Japanese Uncovered — Learn Japanese Through the Power of Story, a course with a fascinating new method.
Step 1: Find Your Passion for Learning Japanese
I’m going to be honest with you here. Are you passionate about learning Japanese? Do you have a solid reason “why” you’re learning it?
Without this, when the going gets tough, you won’t know why you should stick with it.
Starting now, set your intention for learning Japanese. Figure out why you’re passionate about Japanese specifically.
Are you learning Japanese because…
…you want to travel to Japan and enjoy the culture on a deeper level?
…you have family who speaks Japanese and you want to have conversations with them?
…you want to make Japanese friends?
…you want to find a job or study abroad in Japan?
…you want to enjoy and appreciate Japanese entertainment, art, and literature in its original language?
Maybe your reason is you love anime and want to stop watching poorly dubbed versions and soak in the original Japanese show. Maybe your dream is to go to Japan and order ramen from all around the country, trying every region’s variety. (That’s seriously my dream.)
Whatever your reason, find your “why” and write it down. Surround yourself in your why. Change your phone and laptop background to a picture of a big bowl of ramen. Add it to your vision board.
Whatever you have to do to see it every single day and remember why you started, do it.
Step 2: Immerse Yourself in Japanese at Home — Create Your Own Little Tokyo
You don’t need to move to Japan to learn Japanese. You do, however, have to surround yourself in it. The best way to do this for any language is to create a home immersion environment where you can’t help but be exposed to the language at every turn.
While it can be hard to figure out how to do this at first. It gets easier once you know what resources to use and what to do.
Here are some tips:
Make your smartphone work for you. Switch the language settings to Japanese. You can do this on your computer, too. If that’s too hard for you to do at this level now, that’s okay! Download Japanese language apps, games, etc., so you’re exposed to it. Facebook is a great app for the initial switch because it’s still easy to navigate while having bilingual exposure.
Start watching Japanese shows, movies, anime, documentaries, etc. Netflix has tons of Japanese shows now, so it’s a great place to start. My favorite show to start with? Terrace House.
Listen to Japanese podcasts, music, and radio stations. You can listen to Japanese NHK News, for example. Or, try a fantastic language learning podcast like JapanesePod101. Japanese music artists like One Ok Rock and Utada Hikaru can now be streamed on many platforms. YouTube is another great option for finding something to listen to! You also might like to read Japanese articles using a tool such as LingQ.
Find Japanese speakers where you live — it’s easier than you think. You may be surprised that, even in relatively small towns, you can find Japanese communities. If you have a Japanese-owned company or factory near you — like Toyota — chances are, there are at least a handful of Japanese native speakers you could meet.
Step 3: Find Native Speakers and Speak from Day One
As I mentioned earlier, there may be a community of Japanese speakers in your area that you don’t even know about. You need to find someone who you can talk to in Japanese, and speak from day one. This is the most important, productive language learning step you can take to reach fluency. Without actually speaking Japanese, you won’t get very far in your studies. Trust me — I know from years of studying yet being too afraid to speak Japanese.
Even if you can’t find a language exchange partner in your area, don’t let that stop you from speaking. There are tons of ways you can find native Japanese speakers to chat with:
italki is a language exchange platform, where you can find Japanese speakers looking to learn English and take turns practicing with each other. They also have reasonably-priced tutors, so you can pay for lessons as well.
HelloTalk is another free platform to look for Japanese speakers for language exchanges.
Meetup.com or CouchSurfing work well if you live in a relatively large city.
Tandem. This is another online, free platform you can use to find language exchanges. When I was looking for a language exchange partner, Tandem initially gave me the best/fastest response from active Japanese users.
Hop on social media! Yes, that’s right. Social media can be a great way to learn a language. There may be Facebook groups for your area, or you can use Japanese hashtags on Instagram to find users in Japan. Read their Japanese captions for practice, and reply back with what you know.
Step 4: Use Language Hacks to Learn Japanese Fast
Use a Spaced Repetition System (SRS), like Anki. Anki is hands-down my favorite because you can find pre-made Japanese decks, or create your own with the vocabulary you’re learning. I highly recommend the NihongoShark Kanji Deck and NihongoShark Japanese Core 2000 Master Deck.
Focus on the 80/20 rule. The 80/20 rule says you’ll get 80% of your results from 20% of your efforts. What that means is you need to focus on the 20% of the language (vocab, grammar, etc) that you’ll use the most to yield 80% of your speaking. The best way to do this? Start with the 101 core Japanese words and work from there.
Use mnemonics. Because Japanese is so different in many ways than English, this is crucial. Coming up with associations to remember the words and meanings will help speed up your learning time.
Use the Pomodoro Technique to study in small chunks of time for better focus.
Tell yourself: “Just 15 minutes.” If you’re struggling to motivate yourself to study, tell yourself “I’ll just study for 15 minutes.” This little hack works great. You’re not committing yourself to a ton of time, so you’ll be more likely to push yourself to do it. And once you get started, you’ll usually find a groove and keep working anyway. Even if you don’t… you still studied for 15 minutes! Consistency is key.
Join Add1. If you’re someone who needs community and accountability to stick to your studies — and let’s face it, most of us need that even if we don’t want to admit it — then consider joining Add1. It’ll push you to stay committed and reach your Japanese language goals in only 90 days. Don’t believe me? Check out my own story of leveling up my Japanese with Add1 and see how far I’ve come.
Step 5: Use Conversational Connectors and Fillers to Add Fluidity to Your Speech
We use conversational connectors all the time in English. It makes our speech sound more natural and fluid. Yet, they’re an oft-overlooked area in language learning.
Conversational connectors are phrases like “And you?” that deflect the conversation back to the speaker. They’re also phrases like “actually,” “thanks for asking,” “to be honest,” “if I’m being frank,” etc.
Every language has its own unique version of these as well. For instance, in Japanese, one of the most common conversational connectors is その時 (sono toki) which means “At that time.” It’s not really a phrase we use often in English, but it’s used as a connector when telling a story or explaining a situation.
You can also make use of filler words to sound natural and buy you time as you think of how to say something. In English, we say “um,” “well,” etc. In Japanese, you can use あの。。。 (ano…, “um”), なんか。。。(nanka, “what was it…”), and じゃあ (jaa, “well then”). Those are just a few examples. See if you can pick up more when listening to your favorite Japanese dramas!
Step 6: Focus on the Easy Parts of Japanese First
So many people think Japanese is incredibly hard, but the honest truth is, you already know some Japanese.
You probably already know Japanese greetings like konnichiwa and sayonara. You also probably already know tsunami, karaoke, sake, samurai, and more. Think about that: you’ve already been speaking Japanese without trying!
Japanese is actually easy to learn because:
Japanese has no gendered words! Unlike Spanish and other similar languages, Japanese words never have a gender.
Kanji actually help you when you’re stuck. Kanji represent whole words in English. (For example, 水 is the kanji for “water.”) How does that help? Well, even if you don’t know how to read the kanji, because you recognize it’s English meaning you’ll have a contextual clue for understanding the entire word.
Japanese kana is always read exactly the same way. There are no exceptions. Once you learn how to read the kana, they are always pronounced the same.
Japanese contains tons — and I mean tons — of loan words. They’re easily spotted because they’ll be written in katakana, the writing system used primarily for foreign words adapted for Japanese. Words like ピンク (pinku, “pink”), ビール (bi-ru, “beer”), and インターネット (inta-netto, “internet”). So you already know even more words than you think you do.
Japanese isn’t tonal. Unlike Chinese, you will rarely use pitch to differentiate a word. It makes it so much easier to pick up proper pronunciation and understand others when listening.
Japanese grammar is relatively straight-forward. Although it’s pretty different from English, it has fewer exceptions to the rules. When you learn how a grammar pattern works, it will most likely always be that way.
Verbs don’t have to agree with the subject and there are only two irregular verbs. That’s right — once you learn to conjugate, there are only two verbs you have to watch out for. Those are する (suru, “to do”) and 来る (kuru, “to come”). And they’re so often used that you’ll master those irregularities fast.
That’s only touching the surface. So don’t be fooled that Japanese is too hard!
Step 7: Don’t Avoid Kana and Kanji
The last advice I have for you: don’t avoid the writing systems. Yes, there are three (hiragana, katakana, and kanji). Yes, there are 2,000 “essential” kanji and they take time to learn. But hiragana and katakana are easy to pick up — you could master them in a day. They’re just the Japanese alphabet and each one represents a syllable.
And as for kanji, focus on the language hacks we mentioned! Learn the kanji that go with your 80/20 core vocabulary first. That’s about 100 kanji, considered enough to pass the beginner level of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test. Then, use Anki to learn the rest as you go.
I know, I know. I told you to focus on speaking from day one. And you should. But because Japanese has a different writing system, it’s hard to immerse yourself and learn proper pronunciation without at least learning the kana and about 100 kanji. And like I said in the last step, kanji actually help you identify the meaning of words when you get stuck.
Take the time to learn the basics. It’ll help you go further, farther, faster. (Think like Captain Marvel!)
Become Confident in Japanese, Fast
There you have it! The best way to speak Japanese, right now. If you follow these steps, you’ll be having conversations in Japanese in no time. You’ll wow everyone with how fast you’ve picked up the “hardest” language!
Keep a positive, open mindset that Japanese is easy and you can do this, and you will. You got this. ファイト! (Faito, “Fight!” or “Do your best!”)
Finally, if you’re looking for a place to start studying Japanese, check out JapanesePod101. They have courses ranging from absolute beginner to advanced, with lots of fun topics and lessons.