How to Learn Japanese on Your Own – the Effective Way!

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So you’ve decided to learn Japanese but rather than joining a language school or taking some classes you want to do it on your own! Can you learn Japanese by yourself? 

Of course you can, and there are many people who have already done it (including me!)

If you have an internet connection and a device, there’s no excuse not to take learning Japanese into your own hands!

Of course it takes time, energy and dedication. As an independent learner, you will be the captain of your own ship in the vast sea of language learning. 

But with motivation, commitment and some good resources, you will not only find it’s totally possible to learn Japanese by yourself, it’s also one of the most rewarding and enjoyable experiences!

There’s tons of language learning content online to suit your needs and you can create an immersion environment in your very own bedroom! 

We’ll go over some tips, resources and methods from self-taught learners about effective ways to learn Japanese by yourself. 

Know your ‘why’!

The first thing to do as a solo learner is understand why you want to learn Japanese. The answer is directly linked with motivation. 

And motivation is the number one thing you need to effectively learn Japanese on your own!

You won’t have a teacher creating materials to practice different skills and give you instructions on how to do things. Nor will there be group activities, assignments, homework or tests!

You’ll be doing it all by yourself and that’s where your ‘why’ comes in.

You need a reason to wake up every day looking forward to studying Japanese.

This helps you set goals, stick to them and get excited about achieving them!

It also reminds you why you started when you feel like giving up!

Woman traveler with backpack walking through a Bamboo Forest in Kyoto, Japan.

A strong motivator for many people to learn Japanese is for specific purposes like work or study.

But there are heaps of people who learn Japanese on their own simply because they like the sound of it, are deeply interested in the culture or up for a challenge!

Some are even inspired to learn Japanese themselves because of their favourite Japanese dramas, anime and manga!

So why do you want to learn Japanese? Write it down now!  

Familiarize yourself with the basics

To learn Japanese on your own, try and familiarize yourself with the little parts that make up the language such as: the sounds, writing system, vocabulary, grammar, and common phrases and expressions.

You’re probably thinking ‘I can’t do this all at once!’ and I don’t recommend you try to!

Instead, get to know the basics of Japanese in small steps. As you become familiar with some features of the language, others start to come naturally. 

Here’s a breakdown of things you can focus on first to effectively learn Japanese on your own. 

Become a child again

Before diving into resources and methods, develop a child’s mindset…yes, you will need to humble yourself a little and become like a child. You’re going to fall over a few times before walking just as you’re going to babble a bit before talking!

close up of a baby looking at the camera

It’s true that children learn to speak and listen before they read and write. Kids in Japan are no different. Adults exaggerate the sounds of the language and children absorb this and then begin to imitate what they hear.

Develop a daily habit of doing this yourself by listening to and repeating Japanese over and over, even if you don’t understand everything! You might feel a little silly doing it, but it helps you get familiar with the sounds of the language, just like a baby! 

Because even without knowing how to read or write Japanese, you can begin listening to native speakers pronounce sounds and start imitating them right away on Japanesepod101

This will get you comfortable with the feeling of speaking a new language.

After acquiring basic sounds, children in Japan officially start learning to read and write at six years old when they begin their first formal schooling years known as shōgakkō (小学校 / しょうがっこう).  

Which will naturally be your next steps – how Japanese is written! (I highly recommend watching this introductory video if you’re able!)

Teach yourself the Japanese writing system

Romaji

Before teaching yourself to read and write Japanese, it’s important to note that romaji is not an official writing system. However, every beginner should know that romaji is the name for writing Japanese with the roman alphabet (A, B, C’s).

For example, arigatou is the romaji for ありがとう which means ‘thank you’!

Tip: Avoid romaji completely and immediately focus on learning hiragana. Even though Japanese shares several sounds with English, pronunciation and intonation are very different, and romaji cannot truly represent these differences the way hiragana does.

Hiragana (ひらがな)

Being able to read and write hiragana is an essential part of learning Japanese by yourself.

The basic sounds of Japanese are written using 46 hiragana characters and hiragana are used to form words and grammatical particles. All you need to know right now is that hiragana are an important part of reading, writing and pronouncing Japanese.

You can learn hiragana by yourself in one hour on YouTube with this great introduction (courtesy of JapanesePod101).

If you prefer reading, check out this little guide.

To learn how to write Japanese characters yourself, it’s best to put pen to paper!

As a beginner, hiragana will look like squiggly characters made up of lines and curves.

Well…good news, they actually are made up of lines and curves, and that’s how you learn to write them! 

Stroke order diagrams are useful tools to help you practice writing and recognizing Japanese characters by yourself. They teach you the order of writing these lines and curves so that you can start memorizing the shape of each unique character.

There are stroke order diagrams for the other writing systems katakana and kanji too.

Here is an example of a stroke order diagram for the hiragana character: A (あ)

Stroke order diagram for hiragana character あ by M4RC0, published under Creative Commons license CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Aim to practice writing hiragana for at least an half an hour each day using writing charts which you can find here.

Want to learn how to read Japanese? Download your free hiragana and katakana workbook here!

As you write each character, read its sound aloud and then try to write the character without looking! It’s important to read as you write so you remember them better!

If you prefer a more structured approach, there are funny exercise books like the Unko Drills (literally a little poop-shaped character) which help kids memorise Japanese characters but are great for self-learners of any age too! 

The good thing about writing exercise books is that they include little tests at the end of each chapter so you can really see if you’ve learned the material. 

Katakana(カタカナ)

Katakana are sharp, angular characters which represent the same sounds as hiragana. They are used for transcribing foreign loan words into sounds that can be pronounced easily by Japanese speakers (like McDonaldsMakudonarudo マクドナルド).

Aim to learn katakana after hiragana. It’s still an important writing system, but it’s less common and doesn’t have grammatical purposes like hiragana.

Plus, once you know hiragana, the process of learning katakana will be a breeze because you can learn katakana by yourself with the exact same method outlined above – and again, YouTube will be your friend!

Tip: Depending on how much time you have, you can divide your hiragana and katakana characters into groups (such as one row per group) and spread them out across a number of hours, days or weeks.

This allows you to focus on just a few characters at a time until you’re confident before moving onto the next group. 

Kanji(漢字)

There are a lot of ways to learn kanji by yourself but two things you need to remember is: don’t be scared of them and repetition is everything!

Almost everyone who has walked the path of learning Japanese themselves has a love / hate relationship with kanji.

But we have to learn them because most Japanese nouns, adjectives and verbs are written with kanji. This means to be able to read most words in Japanese, you need to be able to read Chinese characters.

a boy drawing japanese kanji charcters with a traditional calligraphy brush

If you’re serious about learning Japanese by yourself, set yourself a goal to learn 1,000 kanji characters. The deadline you put on this goal is up to you – anything is possible when teaching yourself!

It sounds like a lot, but once you start learning your first kanji you will see that they are like little buildings with different parts which you will learn to recognize with practice.

Children in Japan learn 2,136 characters steadily over a decade until they graduate from high school, so be patient with yourself!

Mastering the skills involved with learning kanji takes consistent practice over a long time but everything you need to start learning now is available on the internet for free.

Two techniques for teaching yourself kanji are writing exercises and mnemonics. 

I recommend beginning with learning to write kanji by yourself using children’s learning materials.

They introduce you step-by-step to the first 50 – 100 kanji characters with stroke order diagrams and the meanings of each character using pictures.

Children’s kanji books also introduce you to the most common Japanese and Chinese readings of each character known as kunyomi and onyomi.

My first kanji textbooks were children’s exercise books – the Hajimete no Kanji Doraemon Drills. I was 24 years old studying the same thing as a 6 year old – remember, child’s mindset!

Now for mnemonics. Mnemonics are tools that help you store information in your long term memory and they are useful for memorizing kanji characters.

One of the most popular mnemonics for learning kanji are radicals and storytelling. 

The method comes from James Heisig’s 1977 book Remembering the Kanji. It breaks kanji down into radicals (small units that make up one character).

For more about radicals, check out this blog post.

Heisig’s method teaches learners to recognize radicals by themselves and then uses storytelling mnemonics to help learners interpret the meaning of each kanji. 

Even though it’s an old method, it’s still favoured by many learners who have mastered kanji by themselves and you can read a reddit review about it here.

If you can’t get your hands on the original Heisig book, JapanesePod101 have a free downloadable kanji workbook that works on the same principles of breaking kanji down into radicals. It teaches you 50 radicals that together can form over 1500 kanji.

A Radical Approach to Mastering Kanji: free ebook

Recommended resources:

Spaced repetition

Once you get a feel for the shapes and sounds of hiragana and katakana and you’ve learned some kanji, you will want to begin using a technique called spaced repetition to memorize Japanese characters.

Spaced repetition helps you to move language from your short term to your long term memory.

An excellent tool for doing this is the flashcard application Anki. It contains different sets of cards called ‘decks’. There are thousands of decks available on Anki dedicated to learning Japanese characters, vocabulary, grammar and more!

Each deck has pre-set time frames based on the ‘spacing effect’ which is the time needed to effectively store the language in your long term memory. The intervals are:

  • First repetition: 1 day
  • Second repetition: 7 days
  • Third repetition: 16 days
  • Fourth repetition: 35 days

You don’t have to worry about setting up the repetitions. The app does it for you!

Some decks even include stroke order diagrams to help you remember how characters are written too – double bonus! 

A short note on grammar

As you begin learning Japanese by yourself, you’ll be wondering how to make sentences and of course grammar is important!

But only approach grammar once you’ve mastered the basic writing systems and are familiar with the sounds of Japanese.

Every self-learner has different preferences and some may like to use textbooks while others prefer audiovisual materials. 

reading and studying japanese

For all of the textbook types out there, I recommend Tae Kim’s guide to Learning Japanese. It’s simple and straightforward – what more could you want when learning Japanese grammar by yourself!  

There’s an app for iPhone and Android and for anyone who has struggled with Japanese particles like me, it’s a life-saver!

Understand the difference between language input and output 

Now that you’ve got some of the basics down and a few learning techniques and resources, it’s time to talk about a small thing that has a big impact on your learning!

And that is the difference between language input and output!

Reading and listening activities are input. You receive language with your ears and eyes when you listen and read!

Speaking and writing activities are output. You produce language with your mouth when you speak and hands when you write (or type on a keyboard!).

Ok got it, but why do I need to know this?

Well, many self-learners of Japanese are looking to reach some level of fluency.

And when learning Japanese on your own, you need to create opportunities to experience both language input and output in order to reach fluency!

There’s so many different learning tools available that sometimes we don’t know where to start, or if we’ve started, whether we’re actually learning anything!

So we end up in the language learning wilderness, lost and continuously searching.

You will learn Japanese more effectively if you are aware of the language skills involved in an activity you’re doing and what it is designed to achieve.

Many successful language learners choose to focus on one skill first such as writing or listening only. 

Let’s look at some language input and output activities for you to practice and improve your Japanese.

JAPANESE SELF-STUDY ACTIVITIES

INPUT (READING & LISTENING)OUTPUT (WRITING & SPEAKING)
Podcasts Stroke-order diagrams 
Speed-readingOne-on-one conversation with native speakers 
Audiovisual materials such as movies, TV series, songsGrammar drills
Simple reading materials such as NHK news easy, children’s booksDictations
Conversations in Japanese
Posters / learning aids  
Flashcards

Understand your learning style

Knowing your learning style could help you learn Japanese more effectively by yourself. If you learn in a way that feels natural and enjoyable, it helps you remember the language and stay motivated to learn Japanese by yourself!

A learning style is the way that you best comprehend information and there are 4 categories: auditory, visual, kinesthetic and reading/writing.  

You can check out some of their characteristics below and see which category you fit into. There might be more than one!

Auditory: 

  • prefers hearing information by listening (lectures, music, podcasts, instructions)
  • enjoys participating in discussions and debates 
  • memorizes things well and may be told ‘they have an ear for languages’ 
  • prefers listening to the news vs reading the news 

Visual:

  • prefers seeing information (diagrams, pictures, maps)
  • needs information to be written down  

Kinesthetic:

  • prefers hands on experience
  • dislikes traditional classroom environments because you have to sit down 
  • enjoys participating in experiences (acting out the activity)
  • likes to create something with the hands

Reading/writing learners:

  • prefers words and note-taking 
  • enjoys using textbooks, dictionaries, written materials
  • retains information better through repetitive, silent practice 

Now you can choose some learning activities using the Input and Output table above to give you some ideas!

Evaluate your learning experience

When learning Japanese by yourself, try to regularly evaluate your own learning experience. This helps you see if the resources you’re using are really helping or not. 

You can do this by asking questions after each activity such as:

  • Was this enjoyable for me?
  • Was I engaged?
  • Would I do it again?
  • How easy is it to remember what I learned?

If you do this often you’ll be able to quickly replace activities that aren’t working with ones that do! 

Young female Asian student in casual clothes reading and doing homework in library of university with various book and stationary on the wooden table over the book shelf background

Over time it will get easier for you to select suitable resources so you can learn Japanese more effectively! 

And if everything so far seems boring to you, you can even learn Japanese by yourself while watching anime with animelon!

If you can’t go to Japan, bring Japan to you

While from personal experience I recommend you make it a goal to travel to Japan one day during your language learning journey, if you can’t go to Japan, you can bring Japan to you – thanks to technology! 

Using online learning materials, you can transform your space into a language learning haven! 

You don’t need to fly to Tokyo to see the neon signs of Shinjuku or hear the JR train announcements at the train station – you can bring it all to you through your screens and headphones!

City lights by night in Shinjuku, Tokyo, Japan

Change as much of your learning environment as you can into Japanese. It could be your bedroom or a study space, wherever it is, you can start by putting writing charts on your walls. You change the media you consume into Japanese, your phone language settings, listen to Japanese music, read the news in Japanese, watch Japanese shows and even make friends with Japanese native speakers!

Be consistent and have patience

Learning a language is like learning a sport and even more demanding when you do it by yourself! You have to practice repeatedly over a long period of time to advance. This takes patience and effort. Time and energy. 

You will experience highs and lows with motivation which is totally normal!

But if you can remind yourself why you started learning Japanese on your own, you’ll be able to pull yourself out of the lows! 

And if you’ve got a goal set and have started learning the basics, then you’ve already taken the most important step to learning Japanese by yourself.

And with your immersion space set up, you now have a constant reminder each day to encourage you to get up and practice Japanese!

Popular methods in the self-taught Japanese community

There are tons of people learning Japanese on their own and those who will help you learn it by yourself too!

Many self-taught learners of Japanese have used their experience to help others do the same.  

Here are 3 self-taught learners and their strategies to effectively learn Japanese by yourself.

All Japanese All The Time (AJATT)

All Japanese All The Time is a method by an American YouTuber who is fluent in Japanese and goes by the name Khatzumoto. 

AJATT recommends that when learning Japanese by yourself, you spend as much time as possible immersed in the language with a strong emphasis on listening.

It’s an input-based method because it focuses on listening comprehension first and speaking later. According to AJATT, developing the ability to speak arises quickly and naturally when you listen to a lot of Japanese. 

AJATT has 5 phases which you can read about here. 

AJATT uses spaced repetition software (SRS) such as virtual flashcard applications like Anki and Memrise to help you store Japanese in your long-term memory.

An interesting strategy AJATT learners practice is sentence mining – looking for sentences that native speakers use by listening to and reading real Japanese materials, and adding them to their SRS to review.

You build up a sentence bank until you have enough sentences and then move into output (speaking). It is recommended you find 10,000 sentences which are native and grammatically correct to take you to fluency. 

Matthew Hawkin’s Refold Method 

Matthew Hawkins is another self-taught Japanese learner who runs a YouTube channel and co-founded an entire language learning resource called the Refold Method (formerly the Mass Immersion Approach).

He found success in learning Japanese to fluency through the AJATT method and was inspired to help others learn Japanese by themselves.

Like AJATT, the Refold method supports the idea that a language is best learned by beginning with input – listening and reading. You use real Japanese media like story books and movies so you can start to recognize patterns of speech. 

Fluency becomes easier because you have memorized a lot of vocabulary and grammar already which helps you easily understand and use spoken language.

Tae Kim 

Tae Kim is a blogger and self-taught Japanese learner of Korean descent who has developed resources for people learning Japanese by themselves.

He has an awesome free grammar guide we talked about earlier, and he’s popular  for how he explains Japanese in a simple and accessible way!

Mt. Fuji, Japan seen from Chureito Pagoda in the autumn season.

FAQs on how to learn Japanese on your own 

Is it possible to learn Japanese on your own? 

Yes, it is absolutely possible to learn Japanese on your own! If you’ve got an internet connection and a good reason for learning Japanese, you can start learning right away!

Set up a learning environment that motivates you and find ways that allow you to experience the language whether it’s listening, reading, writing or speaking. Find a way to practice using the language you learn whether through interactive learning material online, a language exchange partner or even Japanese speaking friends!

Some self-taught learners of Japanese support the idea that we learn languages naturally through immersion and that the rules and grammar we learn at school don’t help us very much.

This may be true for some but by now you will have an idea of how to select activities to suit your needs and you can decide for yourself the approach you’ll take! 

How long does it take to learn Japanese on your own? 

How long it takes to learn Japanese on your own depends on a variety of factors including your goals, your first language, your habits and the time you have available for study.

You can find out more about how long it takes to learn Japanese here!

How hard is it to learn Japanese on your own? 

Japanese isn’t as hard as many people make it out to be. In fact, some people have reached impressive levels of fluency in 6 months.
There are features of Japanese that are easier than you think which you can find out here. 

How to learn Japanese on your own for free? 

Ready to get started learning Japanese on your own? Check out our guide on how to learn Japanese online for free! 

Ready to take the next step in your Japanese language journey? Our recommended online course is JapanesePod101.

JapanesePod101 offers a complete system for learning Japanese at any level, from total beginners to advanced. The self-paced courses include audio lessons, printable worksheets, learning tools (such as quizzes and flashcards), and lots more.

Sign up for a free lifetime account here.

JapanesePod101 are currently offering FULL access to the Absolute Beginner Course (90+ audio lessons!), absolutely free.


Francesca Rex-Horoi

Francesca is a freelance copywriter and teacher, who moved to Tokyo from New Zealand at age 24. A linguistics and ESL major, she spent 3 years teaching at an all-boys high school. Now based in France, she remains a self-confessed Japanophile who loves kanji, cooking, cats and the outdoors.

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