The first steps of learning Japanese

I have been living in Japan for a reasonable amount of time and many people ask me these days: How to start learning Japanese? People also ask me about the first step and things like how long they need to get to a conversation level in Japanese.

The Japanese writing system consists of there types characters: kanjis, hiraganas and katakanas

Unfortunately I cannot answer these questions exactly because the learning process is highly dependent on the person. However I can say that learning Japanese always starts with the characters. I think most of you know that the Japanese alphabet is different from the Latin.

They use three types of characters which are called hiraganas, katakanas and kanjis. The first two are indeed alphabets, which are used to write down Japanese words and foreign origin words. Kanjis are basically Chinese characters and there is a tremendous amount of these letters which you will have to learn gradually.

As a first step I highly recommend you to learn the hiragana and the katakana alphabets, otherwise you will not be able to read basic Japanese sentences or grammatical explanations. I will be using these alphabets to write down Japanese words and to show you their pronunciation.

So let's dive into the details: The modern hiragana system consist of 46 (+2 which are obsolete in modern Japanese) characters. We can create these nice little tables from the letters. When creating the table below we will use five basic vowels (a,i,u,e,o) and nine basic consonants(k,s,t,n,h,m,y,r,w) to combine them to make a syllables.

Hiragana Alphabet
w r y m h n t s k
ん (n) わ (wa) ら (ra) や (ya) ま (ma) は (ha) な (na) た (ta) さ (sa) か (ka) あ (a)
り (ri) み (mi) ひ (hi) に (ni) ち (chi) し (shi) き (ki) い (i)
る (ru) ゆ (yu) む (mu) ふ (fu) ぬ (nu) つ (tsu) す (su) く (ku) う (u)
れ (re) め (me) へ (he) ね (ne) て (te) せ (se) け (ke) え (e)
を (wo) ろ (ro) よ (yo) も (mo) ほ (ho) の (no) と (to) そ (so) こ (ko) お (o)

If you want to take a free online hiragana test, click here: Online Hiragana Test

The katakana alphabet follows the exact same logic:

Katakana Alphabet
w r y m h n t s k
ン (n) ワ (wa) ラ (ra) ヤ (ya) マ (ma) ハ (ha) ナ (na) タ (ta) サ (sa) カ (ka) ア (a)
リ (ri) ミ (mi) ヒ (hi) ニ (ni) チ (chi) シ (shi) キ (ki) イ (i)
ル (ru) ユ (yu) ム (mu) フ (fu) ヌ (nu) ツ (tsu) ス (su) ク (ku) ウ (u)
レ (re) メ (me) ヘ (he) ネ (ne) テ (te) セ (se) ケ (ke) エ (e)
ヲ (wo) ロ (ro) ヨ (yo) モ (mo) ホ (ho) ノ (no) ト (to) ソ (so) コ (ko) オ (o)

If you want to take a free online katakana test, click here: Online Katakana Test

Recommended : How to use conjugated Japanese verbs

The first step of learning Japanese is definitely mastering the alphatets

As soon as you're confident in the two alphabets above, you can move on to basic grammatical structures. Keep in mind that Japanese is an agglutinative language, which means it derives words by attaching morphemes to the stems without changing their phonics or spelling.

After the alphabets you are ready to start learning kanjis, which will in a sense make your life more difficult, but in the same time reading Japanese texts will be much easier as your kanji knowledge expands.

Most of the teaching materials use a writing style so called “furigana”, which is a form that allows you to read the text without knowing the reading of the kanjis. I will be using the same way to explain you grammatical structures and rules. Obviously you won’t find these kind of “subtitles” in official Japanese text or on the street in Japan so you will be completely left alone with your kanji knowledge.

The process of learning Japanese

Due to the previous reasons learning Japanese is an incredibly complex process. I would say it requires you to review your knowledge every day and then learn something new. When I say something new I mean learning kanjis, grammar, pronunciation, speaking, culture and listening to live speech as well.

My personal experience was that as I progressed these elements somehow merged together. Probably this is because I live in Japan so I can learn the language in a native environment. But I think, even though you don't live in Japan, you will realize that for example the more kanji you know the more words you will be able to figure out by yourself without actually knowing the meaning. This is mainly because a kanji itself has a meaning or sometimes it has more, which will give you an ability to guess the meaning of a compound.

Japanese Culture

Most of the learners, when starting to learn Japanese don't really know anything about Japan or Japanese culture. In my opinion learning the language without knowing the culture is almost impossible.

As you progress with the language you will realize how the way of thinking is different in Japan compared to the West. Most of these elements have their roots in the culture. I have a nice article on politeness in Japan which will tell you a bit more about this topic.

Learning Japanese is indeed a complex process which requires endurance and ambition

The number of characters in Japanese

Sometimes I am asked “How many characters are there in Japanese?” or “How many can you write or read?”.

This is also an interesting question because the person who usually asks me supposes that there is an exact answer. The thing is that there is an official list of characters that are required for example to pass the most advanced examination, it contains approximately 2000 characters. Furthermore there is a rule in Japan saying, that official documents can only be written by using these kanjis. In the same time though if you open up a Japanese book or a newspaper you will find that there are much more in use.

Even native speakers don't know how many characters they can write or read, so how could a non-native answer this question exactly. I can tell you that after you have mastered a certain amount of characters you will be able to figure out a new one by only identifying it's radicals.

Live Japanese

As for live speech I wouldn't really recommend watching animes with the purpose of learning the language, because the Japanese that they use in there is very difficult and they tend to use a lot of slang expressions.

If you would like to listen to live Japanese speech I definitely recommend you to go on YouTube and you'll find thousands of videos made by native speakers and you can choose your favorite topic to develop your language skills.

Move on to grammar and verbs: Japanese verb classification

Further reading

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