How to Learn the Japanese Language at Home – Easy Ways to Enhance Your Skills

by Christian Monson
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Remember the old days when home study meant buying a bunch of books and highlighters and spending hours a day without even knowing if you were doing it right? Well not anymore. These days, learning a language like Japanese at home is easier than ever thanks to online learning platforms.

Learning Japanese is a rewarding experience that opens your life up to new opportunities and adventures and a whole new culture. With home learning, you can do this from the comfort and ease of your computer or smartphone and prepare yourself for Japan. Find the online platform that’s right for you and start building your study habits.

This guide is designed to get you started on the right foot. It includes details about the Japanese language, strategies for learning and, of course, our favorite online platforms.

What you should know about Japanese

Before you jump into your Japanese home study, it’s good to know a few things first so you don’t get blindsided. This can also help you balance your studying and know what you should focus on.

Kana and kanji

The Japanese writing system is very complex. Technically, they use four different systems.

Kanji is based on Chinese characters. In fact, many words like simple nouns are written the same in both languages. For example, school is written 学校 in both Japanese and Chinese even though it’s pronounced completely differently. Japanese children must know thousands of kanji characters before they finish high school, and you should do the same if you want to reach a high reading proficiency in Japanese.

Kanji isn’t all you need to know, though. Japanese uses two phonetic alphabets called hiragana and katakana. Together these are called kana. Japanese uses kana to write grammatical inflections and particles that don’t exist in Chinese and to create new words that don’t have kanji characters.

Finally, Japanese also uses rōmaji, which is the adaptation of the Latin alphabet for writing Japanese words. Since you’re reading this article, you shouldn’t have too much trouble with this part.

Chinese vocabulary

Japan has been heavily influenced by Chinese culture over the centuries. The language is no exception. Japanese has many vocabulary words borrowed from Chinese. In some instances, there is even a native Japanese word and the Chinese equivalent, each used in different situations.

The specific name for Chinese vocabulary is on’yomi, which literally means “sound reading.” In other words, it’s reading the Chinese kanji characters with their original Chinese pronunciation. Of course, Japan adopted kanji centuries ago, so half the time, these words aren’t even the same as the modern Chinese word.

Grammatical differences

Japanese and English are not even remotely related. They are in completely different language families, so their grammar can be very different. This is important because, while you may be able to learn a related language like Spanish or German by simply translating the words, this isn’t a good strategy for learning Japanese.

For example, Japanese sentences include something called a topic. For example, let’s break down the sentence Watashi wa amerikanhito desu (私はアメリカ人です), which means “I am American.” Watashi is the pronoun for I, amerikanhito means American, of course, and desu is the verb to be, in this case am. So what is wa? Wa is a particle that signifies that the word before it, in this case watashi, is the topic of the sentence.

As you can see, there’s no way to literally translate this part of Japanese. The closest thing would be adding the phrase “as for me” in the sentence somewhere. You shouldn’t try to figure out how to literally translate, though. Just relax your mind and try to understand these grammatical concepts on a deeper level.

Important parts of language learning

Grammar

Ugh, grammar. Very few people enjoy learning the rules of grammar, and even fewer enjoy doing repetitive practice exercises. Really, this aspect of language learning is really not as important as your eighth grade Spanish class may have led you to believe. Still, having a good grasp of the basic grammatical concepts can make learning a lot smoother and less confusing. This is especially true for a grammatically complex language like Japanese that has many aspects that differ greatly from English. 

Just remember not to get hung up on or stressed about grammar. It should help you learn the language, not hinder you. Don’t make it the main focus of your study. More importantly, don’t fret over minor mistakes. Even native speakers make grammatical mistakes. (How often do you say “me” when you should “I”?) The point is to make yourself understood.

Speaking and pronunciation

Studies show that phonemes, or the unique sounds of a language, are the hardest thing to learn as we get older. For the most part, our brains adapt to a fixed set of sounds by the time we’re just one year old. In fact, babies begin learning phonemes so quickly that babble between infants in two different countries can be distinguished by sounds as early as 20 weeks.

An example of phonetic differences between Japanese and English include the r and l sounds. In Japanese, these are the same sounds, so Japanese speakers have difficulty pronouncing these correctly in English. In fact, during World War II, US Marines always used Ls and Rs in their trench passwords because Japanese infiltrators wouldn’t be able to say them.

On the flip side, English speakers have difficulty with a number of sounds in Japanese like the tsu in tsunami and the double n in words like kon’nyaku. Without years of special classes, almost all second language speakers have an accent, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t work on your pronunciation. Getting as accurate as possible will help you be better understood.

Reading and writing

In reality, reading and writing aren’t inherent to language. For tens of thousands of years, our prehistoric ancestors communicated using language yet had no written system. Even until the last hundred years or so, most people never learned to read or write. 

Nevertheless, in our modern society, learning a language means reading and writing. This is definitely a major aspect of studying Japanese because of the language’s complex writing system that includes kanji Chinese characters as well as phonetic Japanese letters.

Reading and writing is extra important if you plan to study at home. You may very likely see words in print before you hear them spoken out loud.

Listening comprehension

Comprehension, specifically listening comprehension, is arguably the most useful part of learning a language. Talking is great, but listening to others is going to benefit you a lot more. You’ll learn new things and meet new people much more quickly with good listening comprehension.

Plus, listening comprehension pays major language learning dividends in the long run. By actively listening, you can learn more nuances of the language more quickly. Active listening means you don’t just catch the gist of what people say to you and nod along. Rather, you pay attention to how native speakers talk, think about why they say things the way they do, and try to imitate them in your own speech.

The social aspect

Research increasingly shows that social interaction and cues are essential for all types of learning. This is doubly true for languages, which serve a largely social purpose. Studies have found that infants learning language can much more easily imitate adults interacting with them physically than the same adults speaking from behind a television or computer screen.

What does this mean for you as an adult second language learner? It means you need social context to truly learn Japanese! You might be learning at home, thousands of miles away from Japan, but you can still add some social context to your studies. You can watch movies and TV shows, find penpals and chat online. We’ll show you some of the best places to do all this in a minute.

Where to start

It’s always difficult to know how to take the first step. When you first start out, a foreign language like Japanese just sounds like gibberish. Crossing the bridge to fluency can seem impossible. But of course it’s possible! You know it’s possible because you’ve already learned at least one language, and you were just a little kid back then.

As an experienced language teacher and learner of several foreign languages, I’ve found a specific beginner strategy that seems to work best. Many people try to memorize long lists of vocabulary each day or bury their head in grammar exercises. This isn’t the way. Instead, you should first learn Japanese’s core words as best you can. 

Every language has a small core vocabulary. For example, despite having over 171,000 words in current use, half of all English writing consists of just 100 words. Japanese is the same. It’s not hard to memorize 100 words, and these will make up almost everything you need to say, especially at the beginning.

In fact, I would advise you to do more than just memorize this list of core vocabulary. Rather, know them by heart without having to translate them. When you hear the verb “want” in English, you don’t have to think about what it means. You just know. It should be this way with those core Japanese words.

Making goals and structuring study

Many new language learners have questions about how to organize their study plans and measure their progress. When it comes to losing weight or advancing in your career, progress is easy to see. It’s numbers on the scale or your paycheck. With a language, it’s not so straightforward. This is why a good home study program should have checkpoints, well-structured units and lessons, and progress tracking to help you see how you’re improving and make goals for the future.

The 5 Best Online Platforms for Learning Japanese at Home

These five platforms all stand out in different ways. Before you choose one, consider your personal needs, goals and learning style—and budget. One is bound to be just what you’re looking for.

1. Rocket Japanese

Rocket Japanese is our favorite online platform for learning Japanese. It makes learning at home—or anywhere else for that matter—incredibly easy. A big part of this is the downloadable lessons which you can do offline. Similarly, there’s an app so you can study on the go. On your desktop, you can access it through your browser, so you don’t need to download any extra software.

As for the lessons themselves, they are well-organized into three levels, each of which you can purchase separately if you already know some Japanese. These lessons include in-depth explanations, vocab, grammar, etc. You can set goals and track your progress to keep yourself motivated. 

Maybe our favorite aspect of Rocket Japanese is its extensive use of audio from native speakers of different dialects and accents. For speaking, Rocket Japanese uses state-of-the-art speech recognition software to hone your pronunciation. This is as close as you can get to real immersion in an online platform, and lets you prepare yourself at home for when you’re really in Japan.

Finally, Rocket Japanese isn’t a subscription. Instead, you’re a member for life. Although, if you need to, they do have payment plans. You can take it with you when you finally go to Japan to keep practicing. You can maintain your skills over the years even when you’re not in the country. Life-long learning means life-long benefits.

Pros:

  • Native audio
  • Speech recognition 
  • Downloadable lessons
  • Smartphone app
  • Progress tracking
  • Lifetime access

Cons:

2. FluentU

FluentU is our very close runner up. Like Rocket Japanese, FluentU features tons of audio from native speakers. In fact, these are usually clips from popular movies or TV shows, so you get an idea of how native speakers talk in everyday life. They’re also fun.

The FluentU lessons are well organized, too. A video lesson normally precedes exercises that force you to produce Japanese. The program keeps track of how much time it’s been since you’ve seen a word and prompts you to practice concepts that may have fallen out of your memory. Additionally, progress tracking and things like daily goals keep you on pace.

Unfortunately, FluentU loses out to Rocket Japanese because it lacks a speaking option. Hopefully, they’ll add this in the future. FluentU is a subscription service, so you can pay by month and quit if you feel that you’ve learned enough or no longer need the program. Plus, there’s a free trial period at the beginning. Give it a try.

Pros:

  • Popular videos and native audio
  • Automatic review
  • Progress tracking and daily goals
  • Monthly subscription

Cons:

  • No speaking feature

3. Marugoto

We like Marugoto because even though it’s built for home study, communication with real Japanese people is the goal. In fact, its goals called “can-dos” and progress tracking are completely based around actionable communication skills. That could mean just being able to introduce yourself, or having a full-on conversation about a specific topic.

Marugoto uses videos of native speakers interacting to introduce topics and vocabulary. It even allows you to choose subtitles between kanji and kana, romaji and English, so you can work your way up. Marugoto then has plenty of exercises for grammar, writing, even pronunciation. 

If we had a complaint, it would be that Marugoto can be a bit disorganized. Sometimes it’s difficult to know exactly what exercises you should do to practice which lessons, for example. However, Marugoto does have something most at-home programs don’t have, which is extensive Japanese cultural education. Communication is more than just vocabulary words and grammar. Knowing the cultural details of how the Japanese people interact will be important for you if you go to Japan.

Pros:

  • Focus on communication
  • Extensive practice exercises
  • Cultural education

Cons:

  • Poor organization

4. EdX

EdX is an online learning platform where you can take courses in just about anything you can imagine. For Japanese, there are literally dozens. These include basic classes in Japanese language to get you up-to-speed on basic expressions or classes in Japanese business speech if you’ll be going there to work. There are even courses in Japanese art, history and law.

Many EdX courses are by renowned universities like Harvard, MIT or Tokyo University, and they often offer certificates once you’ve passed the final exams. These courses are self-paced but run and designed by actual professors and experts in the field, so they’re of a high, university-quality level. Perhaps best of all, some courses may even include input and exercises checked by the professors, which is considerably more useful than the simple, computer-run courses of most platforms.

We suggest EdX for anyone who prefers the traditional structure of a university course or who feels they need feedback from a real person. Home study is great because you can be flexible, but sometimes we’re too flexible and fail to build the habits we want. Structured more like a real school, but still online, EdX solves some of these problems.

Pros:

  • Wide range of courses
  • Designed by university professors
  • Interaction with real teachers
  • School-style structure

Cons:

  • Different providers

5. Duolingo

Of course, Duolingo deserves a spot on our list. It’s become an increasingly popular website and app for language learning for one main reason: it’s free. There are literally dozens of languages to choose from, Japanese being one of their most popular.

Duolingo covers all four parts of language learning: reading, writing, listening and speaking. It also provides rewards, tracks your progress and even lets you compete in leagues. All of this helps you build habits and study every day, even if it’s just a little.

Duolingo does lack a lot of things the paid services have. For example, the speech recognition is poor, and explanations for grammar are minimal. This is a big deal for a grammatically complicated language like Japanese. Furthermore, you can pass through a Duolingo course without reaching a very high level of proficiency.

Nevertheless, it’s a good choice for anyone looking to build a quick base before going on to more difficult courses. With a phone app, it’s also a way to just practice and refresh yourself anytime you have a spare minute.

Pros:

  • Organized units and lessons
  • Progress tracking and competition
  • Listening, speaking, reading and writing
  • Free

Cons:

  • Poor speech recognition
  • Minimal instruction
  • Minimal flexibility

What to do when you’ve finished a course

A structured Japanese language course can only get you so far. They are great for building a base understanding of the language, but there is no way to gain fluency without real-life practice with native speakers.

Hopefully you’ll be headed to Japan soon after you wrap up your online Japanese course. That’s certainly the best way to immerse yourself and get practicing your skills. If you don’t have the opportunity, however, don’t worry. There are plenty of ways to start speaking with natives from the comfort of your own home. 

Many social media sites have groups and forums for language exchange, including Reddit and Facebook. Strike out on the internet and look for places to talk about things you’re interested in in Japanese. A still better way is to get one of the many apps dedicated to language exchange. Some of our favorites are:

  • Tandem
  • Speaky
  • Unbordered
  • Ablo

With these apps, you can meet people from Japan looking to practice their English. You can help them, and they’ll help you with your Japanese. In addition to texting, you can even make audio and video calls.

As you can see, there are endless ways to study and practice Japanese at home. If you truly want to speak the language, there’s no excuse not to start today.

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