I’ve been trying to learn Japanese for a while now; with moderate success. On this page I collect links to things that I found useful and some general tips.
As a computer scientist I have a certain affinity for formal rule systems. So I found Japanese grammar to be both intriguing and relatively simple compared to the task of learning enough words to actually understand and speak some Japanese. However, the textbooks I’ve used were all terribly lacking in grammar.
It seems the common approach is teaching fixed sentence patterns. This is fine for simple patterns like “AはBです。” – “A is a B.”, but I think the method breaks down for more complicated things.3
Fortunately there are excellent free resources for basic and more advanced grammar that actually explain rules instead of just teaching patterns.
I use Anki together with the (now sadly disappeared) Core 2k/6k deck. Anki punishes you if you skip studying for a day by making you study more the next day, so for me it helps immensely with my consistency. Anki is a spaced-repetition system. That means it repeats cards in increasing intervals. There is considerable evidence that this method of studying is most effective for remembering things. For references to actual research, see this massive article by Gwern.
To see words in context, there is Tatoeba. For looking up Kanji, I find the handwritten Kanji search at sljfaq.org very convenient. Searching for Kanji by radicals on that site also works very well. I never bothered to learn how to look up Kanji in a dictionary.
For a while I only tried to learn the pronunciation but I noticed that the usefulness of my Japanese knowledge didn’t increase at all. I couldn’t understand spoken Japanese at all and couldn’t read it either because I didn’t know the Kanji. Eventually I figured out that understanding spoken Japanese is hard, so reading is an important intermediate step. Unfortunately to read Japanese you need to learn Kanji, which is also hard. I’ve heard people claim that you can read newspapers if you know about a couple of hundred characters and have a dictionary at hand. This is complete bollocks unless you’re willing to spend like half an hour per sentence. You need to know almost all Jouyou Kanji to read texts for adults.
So eventually I reset the Anki deck and started again, this time trying to remember the written form as well as the pronunciation. This proved to be a much better strategy. The time I spent just learning the pronunciation feels wasted now. I’m now able to read simple Japanese without looking up too many Kanji. Reading helped me get my Japanese up to a level where I can somewhat understand natural spoken Japanese.
I don’t study Kanji explicitly, just as part of my general vocabulary studies. So I often don’t know the meaning of a particular Kanji in isolation, but I know words that use it. Honestly, I don’t see the point of just learning Kanji meanings (and I’m not alone in this sentiment), it makes more sense to me to learn them in context. It’s true that you can sometimes deduce the meaning of a word if you know the meanings of its Kanji, but I think you could just learn more words in the time it takes you to remember all the Kanji meanings. However, sometimes I find it interesting to look up the history of a character. For this I bought Henshal’s A Guide to Remembering Japanese Characters. That book explains the meaning of each Kanji from its constituent parts and its history. Unlike Heisig’s Remembering the Kanji the stories for each character are not made up by the author but are the results of actual research. I also own a normal dictionary for all the Kanji, but I find it completely useless. Looking the characters up on the Internet is much faster.
I also don’t think that the ability to write Kanji from memory is very important. Learning to write is very time consuming because it involves muscle memory, so you have to write the characters over and over again. I believe this time is better invested into improving your recognition skills. I’m not really able to write by hand. However together with a computer I can write at least as well as I can read, because I can recognize the word I want. Native speakers have similar problems.
I think reading is really essential if you want to improve quickly. It reinforces both vocabulary and grammar and helps you develop a feel for the language. Reading texts is a natural way to get those study hours under your belt. My Japanese got a lot better after I started getting my news from the NHK Easy News. As you can read at your own pace and consult a dictionary or a grammar text at your leisure, you can start reading quite early in your Japanese studies, which I unfortunately did not do.
There are plugins for your browser that let you hover over words to display their translation. I use Perapera Japanese for Firefox, but I try to avoid it as much as possible. I find that I can remember a word much better if I try to deduce its meaning from the context first.
I find listening a lot harder than reading. But some people swear by listening to stuff even if you don’t understand it yet, so maybe give it a try even if you don’t know too much Japanese yet.
Currently I learn seven new words each day, but on average I also forget one or two old words…↩
For example “Verb(a)なければなりません” is often taught as “have to do Verb”. You have to remember to inflect the verb to end with an あ and then add this long sequence of syllables. I find it a lot easier to remember that you negate the verb (make it end with ない), then inflect it to the conditional form (なければ) and then add “won’t do” (lit. won’t become) to get “If you don’t Verb, it won’t do.” Anyway, this is not really important for this page, but examples like the above make me prefer “real” grammar texts over the formulaic approach I encountered in textbooks.↩