Resources for self-teaching Japanese

Hi! So I’ve been self-teaching japanese for a while now and I think some of the resources I’ve built over the years may be of interest for people, so I’ll centralize them here. I will also add a couple of recommendations, but I’ll try to keep it light. I’ll highlight the stuff I produced with blue. Most of these are actively used and worked on every day so you’ll see some traces of my daily regimen, please be lenient 🙂

Before you start

  • Japanese is probably one of the hardest languages to learn in the world, especially if you come at it from a “western” language (it’s just so different). It is going to take a lot of time, therefore the most important thing is motivation and stamina. It’s a marathon, not a script. Make sure you enjoy it.
  • Don’t expect logic and consistency. This language is an amazing mess built by strata in the most chaotic way possible. You’re better off going into it assuming there’s no one to one mapping between writing, pronunciation and sense, or no reason why a particular character has this or this radical. You basically have to learn all the words by heart.
  • There is pretty few syllables in Japanese compared to most languages, meaning there’s gonna be a lot of homophones, ambiguity, etc… Incidentally that’s why they cannot really get rid of kanjis.
  • Worst, speaking tends to deform the language quite a bit (kinda like French), so a lot of time you’ll hear contractions, accents, etc… that will make it impossible to find the corresponding word/grammar point in dictionaries. To make things worst, it’s especially true for the beginner materials: everything tailored towards children tends to use “baby talk” and therefore not the correct pronunciation of words. yay.
  • I have the opposite of “facility” towards this language, your experience will probably be smoother than mine xD

The beginnings

The beginnings are nice because there’s a lot of free content for it, so don’t pass this chance! It’s the time where you can learn with games, on phone or computer. Sadly I missed out on most of it so I don’t have more precise recommendations xD

You probably want to start by learning the alphabets and then some basic grammar. I highly recommend Tae Kim’s guide to learning Japanese, which is one of the best things I’ve seen online:

http://www.guidetojapanese.org/learn/

Otherwise the NHK has also nice resources or news in easy japanese.

On YouTube there’s a lot of stuff. Some i like are JapanesePod101 or Name Ohara.

I also like fluentu.

Immersion

What you want is also to listen to a lot of content in Japanese. Fortunately, this is the age of the internet, and even if it’s not as open as it used to be, we’ve never had so much media content.

Here’s a list of some anime I found easier to understand: myanimelist. This guide is amazing and a little more thorough.

Watching things in Japanese with japanese subtitles is ideal of course, but it’s pretty hard to find. Netflix is one of the rare platforms that does it pretty consistently. A lot of people on YouTube like to embed some or all of what is said on the screen, so that’s something. There’s a few people who aggregate subtitles.

The great thing about having subtitles is that it makes it super easy to note down what you don’t know for review later. For that, you definitely want to use Anki, the de facto standard in flashcards, which means there’s a lot of add-ons, support, etc… There’s a lot of premade decks, but I think it’s also nice to make your own vocabulary cards.

This allows you nice automated setups. Matt, a pioneer of the Mass Immersion Approach (do check it out it’s so great) made a great tutorial about his setup. If you’re more into software than streaming, there is approaches like this which can dig into your softwares to find the text in it and extract it (probably a bit more advanced, but less Netflix-centric).

Matt makes his flashcards himself, even with his automated setup. I made an Anki addon to make cards for me. I only give it a list of words and it adds them to my Anki. Pretty convenient: 

https://github.com/yo252yo/anki_addon

Reading

Don’t worry if you don’t have access to Japanese literature, the internet is your playground for reading material. This chrome extension fetches reading and definition of kanjis you highlight, this one adds furigana to any existing page. Karaokes on YouTube or niconico are great, there’s game scripts that can be fun too.

My favorite dictionary is www.jisho.org.

Outside of chrome, this little program does pretty decent kanji OCR: https://www.kanjitomo.net/

It you ever go to Japan, you can buy books for very cheap at Book-off.

Kanjis

So here’s the big one, how do you learn by heart 2000 symbols that have several meanings, pronunciations… and where visual similarity or construction doesn’t mean anything XD I struggle. I’d recommend to forget about kunyomi, onyomi, etc… and just learn all possible pronunciations because it’s just too messy. And that’s not even going into proper nouns…

About the rythm: one kanji per day is probably ideal, I know it means the language will take you years, but it will take you years so you might as well really master the kanjis instead of plowing through.

Anyway my favorite kanji dictionary is

http://kanjidamage.com/

because it’s low key. It does a pretty decent job at explaining the kanji decomposition and coming up with a good order to learn them, but I was still unsatisfied, so I made my own learning order, based on frequency of use in newspapers, JLPT level, grade it’s taught in Japan, and frequency of appearance in K-ON. But most importantly I’ve been really thorough with the decomposition of each kanji in subcomponents, which is rarely well done. So please enjoy my work (and note that it grows every day as I’m still learning):

https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1xyXL5PGTH01B3c1IiMl-4MIkcRDFA8Xj-wnn7PLXB_g/edit?usp=sharing

More importantly, this also contains for each kanji all the other kanjis that are similar to it, visually or semantically. This is a great resource that doesn’t exist anywhere else and which you’ll appreciate if you’re like me and keep getting mixed up. It’s made mostly from personal experience, with the help of this kanji similarity graph project.

Finally, since I kept mixing up kanjis, I thought I’d try to leverage my spacial brain and try to make some kind of kanji maps using graphviz. I ended up making several versions of the maps, you can find the code at

https://github.com/yo252yo/kanjigraphs

and here’s an example of what it looks like (highlighting the stuff I need to pay attention to):

Image

Advanced

Once you have a basic understanding of Japanese, you can start to go deeper. My expertise sort of ends here, but I want to point out a couple of things:

Advanced grammar is often presented as “grammar points“, which I think is super great (think “one point per day” for instance). I’m aggregating in this spreadsheet that I’m using for learning grammar points from japanesetest4you.com, japanese-teacher.tanosuke.com, nihongokyoshi-net.com.

At this point, you’re also probably realizing that you’re gonna have to learn proper nouns, and that means even more ways to read kanjis. It consists in pretty much memorizing all the common proper nouns patterns. I gathered the most common first/last names, but also all the important geographic/historic/mythological/cultural names in the following spreadsheet that I’m still actively working on: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1V6rQCtsDtI4uhU1TAcYIh-LQpeJ3ipOWJiM8Y73bYjY/edit#gid=420678685

I hope that it will contain in the end everything you need to understand references/private jokes in conversations, like the ads that everyone have seen, etc…

I also use this anime character database to try and see what nouns kanjis are frequently part of.