There are a lot of resources and methods out there for learning Japanese. We’ve broken down our recommendations by Japanese language level, so whether you’re starting from zero or looking for a new advanced Japanese textbook, this list should help you out.
Table of Contents
- Beginning Japanese
- Intermediate Japanese
- Advanced Japanese
- Attaining Japanese fluency
- Supporting resources
If you’re starting from zero, start here. If you’ve just started learning Japanese, also start here. In this section we’ll go in order so that you know what to use and learn from first in order to build a strong Japanese language foundation.
Ultimate Guide To Hiragana
You’ll want to start off by learning hiragana. This is one of two phonetic “alphabets” that are used in the Japanese language. Hiragana is by far the most useful right at the beginning, and being able to read it is going to allow you to use just about any beginner resource. It will also allow you to look up words in a dictionary, which as you can imagine comes in handy from time to time. The Ultimate Guide To Hiragana is Tofugu’s method for learning hiragana, and it’s totally free. It uses mnemonics and drills to teach you how to read hiragana in a very short period of time. A lot of people email in to say they can read hiragana after a day of study.
TextFugu is an online Japanese textbook made specifically for self learners, though it works well in conjunction with classes and private tutoring. You will not only be able to learn Japanese up to an intermediate level with TextFugu, but you will also learn how to learn as well. The first season is free to try (no credit card, no registration required), and by completing that first season you will have a basic foundation of Japanese, which you can take anywhere else (if you don’t like TextFugu).
An Integrated Course In Elementary Japanese: Genki I
If you want a physical textbook to hold in your hands, this is our general recommendation. It’s a good starters textbook, and covers all the things you need to know when you’re beginning to learn Japanese. Kanji, vocabulary, grammar, etc., are all here. Some people use Genki in conjunction with TextFugu too. Genki is used in a lot of classrooms and feels like it leans in that direction in terms of philosophy. TextFugu leans more towards self learners. The two textbooks compliment each other nicely in this way, covering some different things. All in all, a good textbook for someone who is starting to learn Japanese. Be sure to buy the workbook too – it fills a lot of holes and makes the textbook feel much more “complete”.
Ultimate Guide To Katakana
Some point soon after you learn hiragana you might as well learn katakana too. It’s all the same sounds (pretty much) that are found in hiragana, but they all have different characters associated with them. If you liked the Ultimate Guide To Hiragana then this will pick up right where that left off. It uses mnemonics, has worksheets, and will get you reading katakana within a day of study.
After learning hiragana (and maybe katakana too), it’s time to start studying kanji. Kanji is normally a big, terrifying mess for most learners, and it’s also the one thing that holds people back from getting to the advanced and fluent stages of learning. But, a good kanji resource can go a long way. You will learn many vocabulary words, be able to read (which opens up the resources you can use to study) and makes grammar study easier too (because you’re not having to look up words and kanji every two seconds). WaniKani uses mnemonics, spaced repetition, and a special ordering of the content to make it possible to learn around 1,700 kanji in a little over a year. You’ll also come out the other end with 5,000+ vocabulary under your belt. Not bad considering that many learners still struggle with kanji after 5 or even 10 years.
Tae Kim’s Guide To Japanese
This guide to Japanese is one of the most well known on the internet. The Complete Guide isn’t pretty, but there is a lot of information. Many people use this guide as their primary textbook to start out, and many others use it as a supplement (simply because having things explained in multiple ways is very helpful sometimes). The best part, though, is that it’s completely free, so it’s a good resource for the frugal Japanese learner.
A Dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar
No matter what textbook or resource you use to learn grammar, some things just won’t make sense to you. It’s only natural, not all explanations work for all people. This grammar dictionary will explain all the basic grammar (and then some) with clarity, examples, and a different perspective. In fact, you could even read through this book as though it were a textbook, though you’d have to come up with your own ways to practice. It’s a great book and certainly a must for those who want to understand why Japanese grammar works the way it does.
Erin’s Challenge is a great extra study tool to test your beginner Japanese as well as learn some new things in the process. Erin.ne.jp takes you through different situations, teaching you new grammar and vocabulary with each one. It’s not the deepest of materials, but that’s not the point. Use this resource to use the things you’ve learned in different ways. Or, use it to practice listening and speaking. The resources here are certainly flexible, so be sure to bend them to your will.
This is part 1 of EtoEto, the new version of TextFugu. This part is the updated version of TextFugu, which will teach the basics of Japanese, as well as get you ready for part 2 (see below: “EtoEto: Kappa”). It will have new content, updated content, quizzes, Q&A, and much more when it is released in 2016.
You’re not a beginner anymore, which means you’re smart enough to know kind of what you’re doing. These resources will help you to go from “beginner” to “advanced”.
An Integrated Course In Elementary Japanese: Genki II
Although it’s called “Elementary Japanese” it’s more like intermediate Japanese, so don’t let the name fool you. This picks up where Genki I left off, so if you liked Genki I you’ll want to continue with this book. It’s a good overall textbook, covering most of your Japanese-learning bases and giving you a wide foundation. And, as with Genki I, be sure to get the workbook that’s associated with this textbook. It adds a lot and fills some of the holes.
At this point, you should be writing in somewhat simple complete sentences, reading somewhat simple things, and figuring out how the basics work. The best way to get good at these things, though, is to make a lot of mistakes. Lang-8 is a great place to do it. Lang-8 is a language exchange social network, which means you can write journal entries in the language you’re learning (Japanese) and a Japanese native will correct them for you using a nifty interface (that let’s you see your mistakes). In exchange, you can (optionally) help someone out who’s learning your native language by correcting their journal entries. It’s a fun way to practice writing, learn a lot, and meet new people. A lot of people build relationships with other users, and it’s not unheard of for people to find language partners they can practice with using Skype, etc. If you put the time in on Lang-8, good things (for your Japanese learning) happen.
Understanding Kanji Stroke Order
It’s at this point where you’ve probably dabbled in kanji a bit and are writing / reading more. In terms of writing, people don’t really write by hand that much anymore (thank you computers and smartphones). Sometimes you do have to write, though, and that’s where this guide comes in handy. Don’t memorize every kanji’s individual stroke order. Instead, learn the rules of stroke order so you can write any kanji correctly. It saves you a lot of time, yet many people don’t know that this is a possibility.
If you have at least 200+ kanji under your belt, and you know basic Japanese grammar, ReadTheKanji can become an invaluable resource. ReadTheKanji quizzes you on kanji inside of actual Japanese sentences. You have to answer how to read those kanji in context, meaning you get reading practice and kanji practice. You’ll learn new words, increase your reading speed, and even be able to track progress with individual kanji. This is a great resources so long as you have some foundation underneath you.
Although JapanesePod101 says they have beginner Japanese material, I think it becomes much more useful at an intermediate or advanced level. JapanesePod101 has lots and lots of audio content. With every piece of audio there’s also a text script, vocabulary words, and other helpful features. You can find audio that’s at your level and practice along. We suggest doing “language shadowing” though there are plenty of other useful things you could do here as well.
A Dictionary of Intermediate Japanese Grammar
This is the second in a trilogy of Japanese grammar dictionaries. Although I’d say this one balances between intermediate and advanced (the basic grammar dictionary covers A LOT on its own), it’s still very useful for the intermediate student, especially if you liked the basic version. If you couldn’t find a certain grammar in the first book, there’s a chance you’ll find it in this one. If you don’t find it in this one, you’ll certainly find it in the advanced version, though I wouldn’t buy that until you’re truly at an advanced level.
Kappa is part 2 of 3 in the “EtoEto trilogy.” It will contain intermediate contents, and span the gap between beginner and advanced. A lot of Japanese learners get stuck at this “plateau” and don’t know how to escape, but Kappa will help you to do that while teaching you intermediate Japanese grammar. Coming in 2016.
So you think you’re pretty good, huh? These resources will help you to start that trek towards Japanese fluency.
An Integrated Approach to Intermediate Japanese
Despite having “intermediate” in the title, I’d place this somewhere between intermediate and advanced. If you liked the “Genki” series of books, this isn’t too far off, so be sure to continue with this one if that’s the path you took. This textbook will get you near (but not quite to) the point where you can jump out of the proverbial nest and start studying on your own (with books, manga, video, etc). Although I think it’s a good textbook, be ready to supplement it with something else to get you over that last hurdle from advanced to fluency.
A Dictionary of Advanced Japanese Grammar
The third in the Dictionary of Japanese Grammar series. Out of the three, this is the most useless, though if you’re so serious that you have reached an advanced level of Japanese (and want to keep learning grammar) be sure to pick up this book. Or, if you’re studying for JLPT1 you’ll find this book very useful. For most people, the first two books will be more than enough, but if you’re not like most people we highly recommend filling out the trilogy.
Read Real Japanese Fiction: Short Stories by Contemporary Writers
At some point in your Japanese learning, it becomes important to read “real Japanese.” Those two words are right in the title of this book. This is a good book to use to help bridge that gap between “using a textbook” and “going it alone”. It’s a textbook that shows you how to “go it alone” and the real Japanese you read has a lot of help to go along with it. One page is the text, the other page is notes to help you out. And, the fiction used isn’t all that bad either, making it a particularly interesting text to use, especially if you’re into Japanese literature.
Read Real Japanese Essays: Contemporary Writings by Popular Authors
This is a lot like “Read Real Japanese Fiction”, but instead of fiction it has essays. If you were gung-ho enough to get through fiction, this one is certainly worth a read-through. It’s going to be slightly different Japanese, due to the fact that it’s essays, so you’ll be learning how to read different styles of writing as well. It’s no good to just learn how to read fiction, after all. Plus, some of the essays are pretty interesting as well.
This is a community where people can submit text to be read by native speakers of a language. For example, if you have some Japanese text you want read aloud (presumably so you can practice reading that text aloud as well, and use it for speaking and listening practice) you can add it to the site and a Japanese native will read it for you. And, maybe if you’re feeling nice you can read some things in your native language as well. Very useful for creating language shadowing resources for yourself.
Although not updated super often, MaggieSensei has a treasure trove of information on Japanese grammar, slang, conversation, and so on. There are examples on how to use the grammar / patterns, audio, and explanations. Just going through all that’s available will take you a long time, and you’ll learn a lot, little by little, if you make it one of your daily routines.
Part three of the EtoEto trilogy… this section’s purpose is to get you to Japanese fluency, and to make you sound good while doing it. The main focus is on language shadowing, and there is a lot of content, audio, and lessons that you can use to do just that. Available early 2016.
Attaining Japanese fluency
Japanese fluency means getting away from your textbooks and into other medias. We tend to recommend language shadowing at Tofugu (do a Google search, you’ll find a lot). Here are some resources that let you use this technique.
If you change your location on iTunes to Japan, you can download any of the free content (which includes podcasts). If you’re looking for a near limitless supply of Japanese audio (no text to go along with it, sadly), this is going to be your best bet. There are many different people talking (so you get a variety of voices), different levels (kids programming, for example, is good for lower advanced learners), and constant updates. Find something you like and you’ll have listening material for a long, long time.
Studying Japanese From Anime
We don’t like to encourage it, but sure, yes, you can learn Japanese from anime. We don’t recommend you just sit there with your mouth open, letting the drool drip out, though. You have to be active about how you study with the anime, otherwise you won’t make much progress. Sadly, this is actually a lot of work, but if you put in the time and effort you will definitely learn a lot.
Some resources span many levels. These are the things you should be using no matter how good (or bad) you are at Japanese.
Everyone needs a dictionary! This is a good overall dictionary that will answer most of your word/kanji-looking-up-questions. You can do all the basics: look up kanji, look up kanji by radicals, look up words, etc., etc. If you’re studying Japanese you’ll find yourself here a lot.
Especially if you’re studying on your own, HiNative is a great way to ask questions to native speakers. Say you have a picture of something, but you don’t know what it’s called… use HiNative to ask! Or, if you want to know something about the Japanese culture, if you need help with some sentence structure, or really if you need help with something else… just ask, any time of the day. A real help if you’re off on your own studying Japanese.
An alternative Japanese dictionary. ALC was made by translators for translators, meaning it does one thing really really well: context sentences. Put in a word, English or Japanese, and you’ll be rewarded with a lot of examples. With all the synonyms out there, this can be a really useful way to distinguish subtle differences between words.
Rikaichan (or Rikaikun, depending on what browser you use) is a must for anyone using their internet browser to study. This extension, when turned on, allows you to hover over Japanese text. Right there next to your cursor a box will appear with information about the word you’re highlighting. Basically, it tells you the meaning and the reading of most Japanese words, saving you loads of time. Be careful not to use it too much, though! If you do, you won’t really learn anything. This isn’t a replacement for hard work and study.
Anki is the most well known SRS (spaced repetition system) out there, and has a lot of support for Japanese as well. If you don’t know already, SRS is a type of flashcard use. When you get cards wrong, you see the card more often. When you get it right, you see it a little less often. It uses an algorithm to introduce new content as well as help you to review old content so that in the end you know each card really, really well. It gets into your long term memory and you don’t forget it. With Anki you can create your own cards or use decks that other people have created. Some of the decks include neat things like audio and images too, so it’s not just your run of the mill flash cards. Best part? It’s free.
iKnow is another SRS application, focused more on pre-made decks. iKnow has a pretty good range of decks you can use, though, and they’re high quality. They have audio, images, and a slick web interface that gives you more than one way to learn. Although I don’t like the multiple-choice version (multiple-choice doesn’t actually help you to learn, really), it is a nice program that has some good pre-made decks for you to use. Unlike Anki, though, iKnow will charge you every month, though I would say it’s easier to use.
Another SRS program. Like iKnow, Memrise is a web application with decks that you can use to study with, though you can make your own too. Unlike iKnow, though, it’s free. The main difference between Memrise and the other SRS apps is that you grow a seed as you learn an item. By learning something well, your seed grows into a flower, or something like that. Although that doesn’t appeal to me that much, a lot of people seem to like it for some reason, so if you’re one of those people be sure to check Memrise out.