Do you want to know how to learn Japanese?
Congratulations on taking that first step! Japanese is a very beautiful and rewarding language to study. It’s not as complicated as you might think. And speaking Japanese will open the gateway to the historic and fascinating culture of Japan!
So once you’ve decided to learn Japanese, it’s time to to think about the best way to learn Japanese for you.
Best ways to learn Japanese
There are several different ways to learn Japanese: online courses, group lessons, private lessons, smartphone apps, and more.
Let’s take a look at some of the most popular ways to learn Japanese. Which method will you choose?
Group Japanese classes
Most of us associate learning with a school-like environment. So when it comes to learning a foreign language, many people think about finding a local class.
You might be able to find a Japanese language course at a local college, university, adult education centre, or perhaps a community centre. The availability of courses will depend on the area where you live. I can’t help you with that, so best try Google!
A typical Japanese class will involve interactive sessions with other classmates and an instructor. Ideally, the class will teach reading, writing, speaking and listening in Japanese.
Of course, you will be limited to attending classes on the days and times scheduled by the course planners. This could be difficult if you have a busy schedule.
This kind of formal class can be great if you lack the motivation to study by yourself. You won’t want to miss a scheduled class once you’ve paid for it! And if the teacher sets homework, that’s extra motivation to study at home.
It can also be a good way to meet people with similar interests (Japan!). Some classes are quite social and go out for drinks or Japanese food on occasion.
A structured class might also lead to a formal certificate or qualification. This could be useful for job applications, for example. If qualifications are important to you, make sure you check this with the instructor before signing up.
Group these classes can be slow. Realistically, you won’t make much progress in just an hour or two each week. And these classes often stop during holiday periods.
In a large group, the class won’t always be perfectly matched to your level. It can be frustrating to be one of the faster (or slower) students in a group.
If your goal is to become fluent in Japanese, be prepared to supplement your weekly Japanese class with a lot of self-study.
One-on-one Japanese lessons
If you like the idea of traditional studying with an instructor, but you think that group classes may move too slowly for you, perhaps private Japanese lessons will be the best way to learn Japanese for you.
In one-on-one classes with a private tutor, you can study at your own pace.
You can also ask the teacher to focus on any particular language learning goals. For example, are you aiming to pass the JLPT or another exam? Do you need to learn Japanese for work or travel?
You can likely find a private Japanese tutor wherever you are, although again, availability will depend on your location!
It might be harder to find a private tutor than a group class, because many private tutors will be self-employed and they don’t always advertise well.
Google will be your friend in finding a local Japanese tutor. You can also try asking in any local community groups or web forums. Or get in touch with any local Japanese cultural institutes for recommendations.
Can’t find a local tutor? Another option is private lessons online.
The best place to find a Japanese tutor online is italki. You can browse the profiles of language tutors around the world, and get in touch with the one who looks best to you.
italki prices range from $7-$25 per hour, depending on the experience level of the tutor. This is cheaper than most in-person lessons (depending on where you live), and with an online tutor, you can save on travel time.
With a private tutor, you will learn much faster than in a group class. You’ll get all the teacher’s attention, and you can move at the right pace for you. It’s much easier to ask questions and you’ll feel less embarrassed to make mistakes.
You can also ask the teacher to design a unique curriculum for you, and focus on any particular area that interests you or that needs more work.
And with a private tutor, you’ll probably get a lot of speaking practise. Speaking is the most challenging part of learning Japanese for most students, so make the most of this benefit!
Private lessons can be expensive.
And while they’re more flexible than group classes, you still have to work around the teacher’s schedule, so it might be difficult if you’re always on the go yourself.
Self-study Japanese with books
Teaching yourself a language from textbooks is a popular option.
For years, this has been the go-to option for anyone who wants to learn a language in their own time, without relying on a scheduled course. Some of the most popular Japanese textbooks for beginners are Japanese for Busy People, Japanese From Zero and Genki.
The advantages of self-studying with textbooks is that you can go at your own pace. You can move through each chapter as fast or as slowly as you want.
There is a huge variety of textbooks available. Some have different specialties, such as Japanese for business or for students.
The downside is, well, books can be a little dry. It can be hard to keep your motivation up using books alone. And if you’re bored, you’re more likely to quit.
You also won’t have a teacher to ask about anything you don’t understand.
And while your reading and writing may come along fast, you’ll be missing out on the key communicative skills of speaking and listening.
Self-study with an online Japanese course
Here’s what I’m talking about! In my opinion, online Japanese courses are one the best, most accessible and affordable ways to study Japanese for most people.
Like books, online courses (or language learning software) allow you to work at your own pace and fit your language study into your busy schedule.
Unlike books, a good online course or software package will take full advantage of technology to keep you entertained, motivate you and make learning fun.
A good online Japanese course will also work the four key language skills: reading, writing, speaking and listening.
There are lots of different online Japanese courses available. There are paid courses, and even free online Japanese courses!
Two of the most well known online courses are JapanesePod101 and Rocket Japanese. Both of these courses are based on interactive audio lessons, alongside online quizzes, grammar lessons, vocabulary flashcards and more.
Personally I use JapanesePod101 and I love it! I really do think it is one of the best ways to learn Japanese for most people!
JapanesePod101 is built around series of podcast-type audio lessons, supplemented by printable lesson notes and worksheets explaining the new words and grammar points.
It’s been around for years and they produce new content all the time, so there are literally thousands of past lessons you can access! The teachers are really fun and easy to understand.
The lessons are always funny, and they teach you about slang, Japanese culture and real life in Japan – so much more interesting than a dry textbook.
They also have lots of special extras such as free printable hiragana and katakana workbooks, video lessons, even a special drama series for students.
Here’s a quick beginner lesson from JapanesePod101 to give you a taster!
The main advantage of Japanese online courses is their flexibility.
Got a full afternoon to spare today? You can spend as much time as you want working through the next few lessons! Got a busy day? Simply skip today’s lesson, with no need to apologise to a teacher and no loss of money.
Most good online courses like JapanesePod101 also have an app version and you can access it from anywhere you like. This means you can study on your commute, walking the dog, or any other way it fits in your day!
Online courses are generally a lot more fun and up-to-date than textbooks. That means your study will be more interesting and relevant, and you’re much more likely to keep it up!
Online courses are usually the most cost-effective way to study a language. They are much, much cheaper than in-person classes or private lessons.
For example, JapanesePod101 is actually free for the most basic membership (access to the most recent lessons only), which I think is good enough for complete beginners. The next level up (which gives you access to the full archives – perfect when you want to step up your Japanese study) starts at just $4 a month.
Finally, online courses are accessible anywhere in the world, as long as you have a computer or smartphone 🙂
The main disadvantage of online courses is that you don’t have a teacher to ask when you don’t understand something.
However, most good courses will have a way around this. For example, on JapanesePod101 you can ask questions online on each lesson notes page, and one of the staff will get back to you soon. Rocket Japanese has a forum where you can ask questions and get answers from other students and the Rocket Japanese teachers.
The other disadvantage is that you don’t get much speaking practise. Consider supplementing your online course with conversation lessons on italki, or practise for free with a language exchange partner!
Finally, you have to be disciplined to study by yourself. There’s no teacher to hold you accountable if you skip class – so don’t get lazy, and try to make studying Japanese a regular part of your routine.
Self-study with other resources
There are plenty of other ways to learn Japanese on your own without following a formal course or program.
Language learning apps in particular are great, because you can make use of any spare minutes you have throughout the day. Perfect for busy people!
Some popular apps which teach Japanese vocabulary are Fluentu and Mindsnacks. Rocket Japanese and JapanesePod101 have their own apps, which can be used in conjunction with the desktop version for best effect.
Apps are a great way to do something productive while commuting or queuing, which would otherwise be dead time.
Also, some people swear by studying Japanese from movies and anime.
The main advantage is, this will keep you motivated and you will always enjoy your study! Your listening skills in particular should come on greatly.
However, it’s difficult to learn a language through movies alone, so combine this tactic with other methods for best effect.
If courses aren’t for you, you can also teach yourself to read Japanese using real, native materials. Japanese children’s books and newspapers are a great place to start.
NHK News Web Easy publishes simplified versions of the top news stories each day. It even has pronunciation guides for kanji.
Here’s a list of other resources for Japanese reading practise.
I firmly believe that you should make learning Japanese fun. Simply put, you’ll study a lot more if you enjoy it!
A flexible approach to learning Japanese is good for busy people. It can be really effective to integrate Japanese into your daily lifestyle with apps, music, movies and other media you enjoy.
You have to be super disciplined to study without a formal course! Also, you may find that if you only focus on the fun or easy ways to learn Japanese, you will miss out on lots of essential grammar.
Study in Japan
Ok, this might not be for everyone, but it’s by far the most effective way to learn Japanese!
There’s nothing like full immersion in a language to turbo-charge your learning efforts. You’ll naturally remember more Japanese when you’re surrounded by it every day. You will improve your speaking, in particular.
If you ever have the time, money and opportunity, and you’re serious about learning Japanese, why not head over to Japan and take an immersive course.
However, be warned – simply living in a country is not enough to learn the language. Learning to speak another language takes effort, even when you’re surrounded by the language every day.
To make the most out of the opportunity, make sure you push yourself to speak every day, make Japanese friends, and avoid using your native tongue.
While living in Japan, you can also use all the other methods listed above to create a full on language learning experience. You’ll be speaking Japanese in no time!
You will learn so much faster living in Japan, because you’ll be hearing and using Japanese all day, every day!
It will give you lots of opportunities to make Japanese friends and practise your speaking with real Japanese people.
You’ll also get to learn about Japanese culture and daily life. You might also have the chance to take part in Japanese cultural activities that interest you – anything from tea ceremony to martial arts.
Of course, it’s very expensive to live in Japan and be a full time student!
You will also have to take time away from your job, school or other responsibilities back home.
This can be relatively easy when you’re younger, but not so easy if you have a family, mortgage, full time job or other commitments in your home country.
In that case, you could think about doing a short course abroad. Many language schools in Japan offer courses from as little as two weeks.
The best way to learn Japanese? Just start!
With so many different language learning methods available, it’s important not to get bogged down in details.
The best way to learn any language is simply to get started and work on it every day.
It takes time to learn Japanese. But the quicker you get started, the quicker you’ll reach your goal.
If you want to learn Japanese, just pick a method, and dive in!
You can sign up for completely FREE access to my personal favourite course, JapanesePod101, here.
Let me know how you get on!
Rebecca is the founder of Team Japanese. She spent two years teaching English in Ehime, Japan. Now back in the UK, she spends her time blogging, self-studying Japanese and wrangling a very genki toddler.