For those on the path to learn Japanese, there are many twists and bends along the journey. Every language encompasses an entire plethora of forms and patterns, and Japanese is no different. And it can feel quite overwhelming for new learners to retain all of the novelty that comes with a new language or even to know where to start!
In light of that challenge, we’ve put together this comprehensive article highlighting all of the major elements of Japanese that beginners should start to look at and consider as they approach the challenge of Japanese mastery!
We cover everything from the Japanese alphabet to some important grammar points here. Keep in mind that this is more of a comprehensive guide than anything else, so we won’t be diving too deeply into any one subject. Still, it’s sure to offer plenty of support and direction for young students looking for a reference point!
Here is a guide on what you need to know to learn Japanese in the early stages!
- 1 The Japanese alphabet
- 2 Japanese pronunciation
- 3 Japanese numbers
- 4 Japanese grammar
- 5 Common Japanese phrases
- 6 Common Japanese words
- 7 Japanese honorifics
- 8 The best way to learn Japanese
- 9 Japanese learning resources
- 10 Wrap-up
The Japanese alphabet
For starters, we need to tackle the Japanese alphabet – it’s the foundation of everything else in the Japanese language, after all! You should be aware that there are three Japanese writing systems, each serving its own function within the language. Let’s get into it!
ひらがな (hiragana) can be considered the standard alphabet of the Japanese. It’s the curvy and softer Japanese alphabet and is used solely for the purpose of writing words in Japanese.
Okay, that’s pretty obvious… what we mean is that ひらがな (hiragana) can and is used to write any word that originates from Japan itself! Words that come from foreign lands use another alphabet, which we cover next.
This alphabet today is comprised of 48 base characters/letters: 5 vowels, 42 consonant-vowel unions, and 1 special “voiceless” consonant. Start learning hiragana today and kickstart your Japanese language learning journey!
カタカナ (katakana) is an essential Japanese alphabet you may have come across if you’re into manga or Japanese reading material. This alphabet is used for the sole purpose of constructing words that originate from other languages!
Well, to be honest, it is also sometimes used for making words and names look cooler, onomatopoeia, and other things, but those are secondary functions!
As a foreign student studying the Japanese language, you can start your studies by learning how to write your first and last name using カタカナ, which is a given. Also, be aware that many foreign words have become more than commonplace amongst the Japanese and can be found everywhere.
Take the word タクシー(takushii), for example, or just “taxi” in English. Common commuters in the larger cities take taxis all the time, and use the word just as much as any other!
This alphabet carries the same number of characters as ひらがな(hiragana), with the addition of some peculiar combination sounds that have more to do with the function of カタカナ than the written forms themselves.
かんじ (Kanji | 漢字)
Finally, there is かんじ (kanji | 漢字) – a large collection of pictographic symbols comprising its own alphabet of thousands of characters with numerous sounds and sometimes meaning too. Kanji is a beast in its own right! It originates from China but was adopted and adapted by Japan centuries ago.
Kanji is an inescapable part of the Japanese language and is an imperative component to study for anyone hoping to be an effective reader or writer of the Japanese language.
Due to the sheer amount and complexity of Kanji, it takes months, if not years, of study to fully master. But do not be discouraged! Even Japanese and Chinese natives learn these characters slowly over the span of years.
Important note: Each of these alphabets follows its own set of rules and complexities, even down to the order of the strokes in which they’re written (which is rather important as you move further along the path). Dedicate some time to remember these patterns if you haven’t done so already since they are the foundation for everything else that follows!
One of the greatest perks for native English speakers who want to learn Japanese is the fact that, for the most part, the pronunciation comes easily. Aside from just a few utterances and nuances, each and every sound in Japanese can be found in the English language!
And remember those foreign words we mentioned are super common in Japanese? Well, many of them come from English, so you’re already halfway there to pronouncing them correctly.
As far as getting better at pronunciation goes, what we can recommend more than anything else is to simply master the sounds of hiragana and to continue to practice saying common words and sentences. So long as the foundation is strong, everything else will follow, so don’t skimp on getting your pronunciation as close to perfect as possible in the early stages!
Practice listening by engaging with Japanese audio and video content. This practice not only improves your listening comprehension but also plays a significant role in refining your pronunciation.
Japanese numbers have their pros and cons when it comes to study and mastery for the English learner. On the easy side, there are very few irregularities in the structure of the counting system when simply using numbers by themselves.
Also, ordinal numbers (for example, first/1st, third/3rd, etc.) in Japanese are simple and labeled by the addition of a separate character as opposed to Engish with its many variations.
On the more difficult side, combining large numbers in Japanese can be a doozie since the Japanese use the Sino-Chinese system, which groups numbers by both 1,000 and 10,000.
To clarify this briefly, here are a few number examples:
- 100 = ひゃく(hyaku|百)
- 1000 = いっせん(issen|一千)
- 10,000 = いちまん(ichi man|一万)
- 1,000,000 = ひゃくまん(hyaku man|百万)
What would be 1 million in English is only considered as one hundred (distinct) ten thousands in Japanese.
This is always just ever so tricky for someone not used to thinking in this way, but since it’s just one decimal place to remember, it doesn’t get in the way too much!
Another challenge of Japanese numbers is the use of what are known as counters when… well, counting things. In Japanese, depending on the peculiarities of an object (i.e., shape, size, animal, etc.), the counter word used to identify it changes.
Rarely, the words for the numbers themselves change when used as or in the company of special counters too. But even those changes are based on a universal standard (within the language) and, once remembered, are a piece of cake!
Getting a better grip on Japanese numbers is pretty easy to do with a bit of repetitive practice, especially if you can remember to recall Japanese numbers in your head during your day-to-day living! We also have an article on Japanese Counters if you want to get to it right away.
Grammar, in this case, Japanese grammar, is obviously not only one of the most imperative pieces of the language, but it’s also one bound to be more complex and perhaps harder to grasp overall. The truth is, yes, Japanese grammar can be challenging for native English speakers – but there are levels to it!
Some grammar points are used every single day for native speakers, while others are never used at all. Some grammar is only used in spoken language, some only in written language, and some in both. Some are used on a very high level, like in a business setting or with professionals, while others are used under more casual circumstances.
Depending on how far you wish to go with the language may very well reflect how much grammar mastery you’ll have on your plate. On the flip side, grammar in Japan does have some differences from English grammar that make things starkly simpler, like the fact that there are no plurals, no gender words, and almost no irregular verbs!
Remember that grammar (like every new venture) is best taken up bit by bit and with enough supporting knowledge beforehand. In other words, be sure to understand first the Japanese alphabet (hiragana and katakana), as well as basic vocabulary words (nouns and verbs) before stepping up to grammar.
Otherwise, you risk creating more confusion than when you began and wasting time looking up new words in the learning process.
We tackle the topic of Japanese Grammar pretty extensively in our article carrying its name – head there for a quick, fully comprehensive read on the topic if you haven’t done so already!
Common Japanese phrases
Sometimes, it’s more helpful to get your hands on a few commonly used phrases at the onset of your learning experience to keep your sword sharp, useful, and relevant. Therefore, we think it’s best to prep you with some super common Japanese phrases to help you learn Japanese the most effectively.
These phrases you will need forever, so get a jump on them now!
- こんにちは (konnnichiwa) is how to say “hello” in Japanese, but more specifically, this is how one would say “good afternoon.” Learn more about this phrase here!
- すみません (sumimasen) means “excuse me” in Japanese, and at times, it can also be used to say sorry.
- ありがとうございます (arigatou gozaimasu) you probably learned even before you began studying Japanese! Of course, this is the baseline Japanese expression to say “thank you.”
- わかりません (wakarimasen) is the polite way to say that you do not (or that someone does not) understand something. It is a word that students studying Japanese in school will be very familiar with!
- じゃあまたね (jaa mata ne) is how to say “Well, see you later!” in Japanese. If you want to just say “goodbye” in Japanese (which, of course, feels more long-lasting), the expression is さようなら(sayounara).
- ごめんなさい (gomen nasai) would be the standard way to apologize and say “I’m sorry” in Japanese.
- がんばって (ganbatte) is a good Japanese expression to use among friends that means good luck or, more technically, do your best!
- そうです (sou desu) is the Japanese way to say “that’s right,” as in when agreeing with someone about something that was said.
- おやすみなさい (oyasumi nasai) is how to say “good night” in Japanese. This is the kind of good night you can only say to someone right before they are going to turn in for the night, i.e., go to bed. You can discover the ins and outs of this phrase here.
Get a handle on these expressions by using them whenever you can, as often as you can!
Common Japanese words
A little different than phrases, we also give you some common Japanese words, i.e., verbs, adjectives, and nouns, found abundant throughout the language. Keep in mind that these words are given in their definitive, unconjugated/unaltered forms! Here they are:
- これ (kore) means this, and それ (sore) means that in Japanese. To say that over there, you should use the word あれ (are).
- わたし (watashi) is the universal way to say I in Japanese, although it is not the only way to do so.
- する (suru) is a verb that means to do or to make.
- いく (iku) is the verb to go.
- なに (nani) means what, だれ (dare) means who, どこ (doko) means where, いつ (itsu) is when, どう (dou) is how, and なんで (nande) means why.
- おいしい (oishii) is an adjective that means delicious. You can also say うまい (umai).
- いえ (ie) means home or house
- じかん (jikan) is how to say time/hour in Japanese.
- いま (ima) means now, while (ato) means later.
- こども (kodomo) would be the Japanese word for child. (okaasan) is how to say mother, and おとうさん (otousan) is how to say father.
- です (desu) is Japan’s to-be verb.
Just a bit of a head start on your way to mastering Japanese!
How to remember Japanese words
At every level of learning, there is surely the great challenge of finding effective ways to remember words not just for the day but for the long run. Going forward, aiming to learn Japanese, keep in mind these few tips for remembering words that, if implemented now, may make all the difference going forward!
For one, using mnemonics is a powerful and proven way to learn new words – it’s also quite intuitive, so it won’t be very hard to implement. In short, mnemonics are when you associate the sound of a new foreign word with another word within your native language.
For example, let’s take the Japanese word for book: ほん (hon|本). This word sounds awfully like the English word “hone,” which carries its own meanings and implications for native speakers.
In order to remember the Japanese word (hon), you may associate books with something you use to hone your skills. This associative learning is what mnemonics is all about, and it’s a great help!
Another proven technique for remembering Japanese words is the SRS system, or the Space-repetition System, of learning. In a nutshell, this just means to study something, take a break, and then have a crack at it again.
The thing is (as is the problem with “drill learning”) that the brain does not fare well with information overload – too much information and the brain stops absorbing. Thus, it’s far more effective to assimilate new information, take a break from it, and then return to it another day and test how well you’ve remembered what you’ve learned.
It’s that simple! This is especially useful for remembering words, especially if some context is added to the fray so that the words aren’t just floating around without a home.
For a total deep dive into how to remember Japanese words, head to our article on the topic. Apply these techniques when learning Japanese at every stage and you are sure to excel faster than your peers!
It would be a real dishonor not to honor Japanese honorifics in this quick, comprehensive guide. (See what we did there?) Honorifics are essentially specific terms used before or after a word as a way of honoring the status or relationship of that word relative to the speaker.
In case you are unaware, the Japanese care a lot about status among the people within their society. Depending on one’s status (which is defined based on a number of factors), the ways in which that person is addressed by another of a certain status will change greatly, not only in demeanor or behaviors but also in language.
Honorific speech in Japanese is known generally as けいご(keigo|敬語).
While honorifics take many forms, here we are specifically discussing the two most important uses of honorifics in Japanese. Let’s get to it!
First on the list are the special suffixes that follow after common names. These suffixes are sure to have crossed your path at some point, as they are a necessary component of the language, much like the alphabet itself!
Here is a short list of common Japanese suffixes used with names that you should be aware of!
- さん (san) – This is by far the most common honorific suffix in Japanese. It is used with both genders alike and is a “general use” suffix that is used with strangers, friends, equals, and just people in general! Sometimes, it is translated as Mr. or Ms./Mrs., although this isn’t quite accurate. Get into the habit of adding さん to anyone’s name, you say!
- ちゃん (chan) – This is exactly the same as さん (san) except that it carries a cuter, softer, more familiar tone with it. This term is used with close friends, family members, couples, and babies. It is more commonly applied to females than to males.
- くん (kun) – We add this to the list with caution and only due to its popularity in anime. This is often used to refer to male archetypes in manga and anime as a Japanese term of endearment. In reality, this is the case sometimes, but more often so, it reflects the superiority of one over another! Stray away from using this one until you’ve got a good handle on it.
- さま (sama) – Another suffix with great popularity thanks to anime. This one is used to show great respect to elders or those of a higher status than you (like a teacher or customer in a restaurant).
Remember that on most occasions, except when discussing close friends in the appropriate contexts, you must add one of these honorifics after someone’s name – otherwise, you risk coming across as pretty rude!
Formal and informal Japanese
Next up are the general formal and informal varieties of Japanese grammar. The rules of this kind of speech as a whole are complex – so much so that foreigners who come to visit, live, or work in Japan are usually given a total pass for not knowing how to use them correctly.
Even some Japanese natives don’t have a full grasp on the system of more high-level 敬語 (keigo) in Japanese! But there are some simple rules that are essential and necessary to learn if you want to study Japanese:
- When speaking to strangers or in a polite manner, you use formal/polite Japanese.
- When speaking to friends, associates, or family, you use informal/casual Japanese.
These changes are to be found in verb and adjective conjugations, for the most part, minus a few standalone expressions.
There are also just a few grammar points that carry an innate respectful tone within them that will come up much further along the path – for now, and you won’t have to concern yourself with them.
This topic is one of the first things you’ll tackle when you begin to learn Japanese, and although it’s very different from how English functions, it isn’t known to cause too much of a headache for language learners!
The best way to learn Japanese
What we’ve covered thus far really gives new learners a heads-up as to what to expect and get prepared for within the Japanese language. But knowing is one thing, and doing is another. There are better and worse ways to go about learning Japanese, tailored to your learning style, which we feel are worth glossing over while we’re here!
For one, take your time and learn things in order of importance. There is no need to rush learning and in fact, the brain can only manage so much new information at a time. Try to have fun and set a pace that works for you!
Also, start with the basics first and work your way up: the alphabet and writing system, basic Japanese vocabulary and sentence structure, and basic kanji characters. Remember, bite by bite is the only way to eat an elephant!
Our second tip is to be sure to apply new material after learning it. Whether it’s new words, grammar points, or anything else, make sure that you use what you’ve learned in writing or speech so that it begins to stick and assimilate with all that has already come before.
This is also a great way of fact-checking what you’ve learned, even if it means being called out for your mistake – that is how the learning process works!
Our third tip is to apply yourself consistently! Honestly, consistency is absolutely key to learning something new. Keeping up a regular practice forms new habits that become the norm sooner or later. Even if you move slowly, it is essential that you keep moving forward!
The fourth is to avoid translation when unnecessary. We know this one sounds counter-intuitive, but having an English translation to fall back on any time you feel stuck just becomes a crutch that slows you down in the end. The point is that your brain will have to work a little harder without them, which is just what we want!
Lastly, make sure that you have fun!
Japanese learning resources
On the course to learn Japanese, luckily, you are not alone! There is a high demand for helpful resources for students like you and, therefore, a high supply as well.
Of all those resources, probably the easiest to readily access would be one of the many Japanese learning applications available in your phone’s app store. There are also some desktop apps and websites available too.
Each app serves its own function – some might be for retaining kanji, while others may prepare you for the JLPT exam. We also have access to free Japanese dictionaries as well. Aside from the technical applications, there are also ones focused on communication and community. Get active with your learning!
Japanese textbooks are another great resource to use if you want to follow a clear-cut curriculum that guides you through the language learning process and has been vetted by others. We have an extensive list of the best books to learn Japanese, so you can get our opinion on what’s available and make the most informed decision!
Lastly, there is media – music, film, novels, podcasts – which make for superb tools for any student of Japanese. The odds are that you are already tuned in to some form of Japanese content in one of these mediums. Use that same initiative to study and practice a bit while you are entertained!
Looking back, new students can use the information here to mentally and physically prepare themselves for adapting the Japanese language to their learning style and building strong language skills.
Once you become aware of the basics (alphabet, writing system, numbers, pronunciation, simple grammar), you can build a strong language castle atop a confident foundation on your language journey!
Achieving Japanese fluency requires consistent practice and dedication to mastering the language’s intricate details.
Remember to have a game plan, respect the process (don’t be in a hurry), and have fun along the way! There’s no such thing as “limited time” when learning a language. Oh, and be sure to use the resources within this article whenever you’re ready to dive deeper into any of the major points entered above.それで、またね！
がんばってください (ganbatte kudasai)! ^^