Basic Japanese language guide

Learning a new language can be tough, and that’s not even taking into account responsibilities in life that often get in the way. However, if you were to follow these 9 basic Japanese language tips, you will slowly – but surely – be able to speak Japanese as fluently as the locals in Japan.

For more articles on the Japanese language, check out:

– Beginner – 

1. Learning the three Japanese scripts

Just like any other language, you start by learning how to read and write the script of the language.

Basic Japanese Language Guide - hiragana
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Wikimedia Commons

In the Japanese language, there are three main scripts: hiragana, katakana, and kanji. For someone who is just starting out, you should focus on memorising the hiragana script first, as it is used in constructing basic written sentences at a beginner level.

After memorising the hiragana script, the next step is to move on to the katakana script. Luckily, the katakana script is similar to the hiragana script in that each katakana character has a corresponding hiragana counterpart. Think of the katakana script as an “italicised” version of the hiragana script, if you will.

Katakana is usually used for loanwords, so once you master it, it’s like a cheat code to the language! 

Basic Japanese Language Guide - kanji
Image credit:
Niketh Vellanki

The last of the three Japanese scripts, kanji, is perhaps the most difficult to memorise since it comprises thousands of Han characters. On the bright side, you don’t have to learn it all in one sitting.

One way to learn kanji characters is to consistently write and read them as you pick up new words throughout your language learning journey.

2. Expand your vocabulary through everyday life

Once you have gotten the hang of the Japanese writing system, the next step is to expand your vocabulary.

Basic Japanese Language Guide - japanese novel
Image credit:
Hiroshi Tsubono

You can start with basic greetings, daily items, or even words from your favourite anime, Japanese drama, and Japanese games. Speaking of Japanese games, try out some of these Japanese language games to help you pick up new words.

Having a good vocabulary bank will allow you to roughly understand Japanese conversations and convey some of your thoughts in Japanese, even if your grammar is wonky.

3. Always have access to an English-Japanese dictionary

Basic Japanese Language Guide - dictionary
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Niko Kitsakis

Try to keep an English-Japanese dictionary by your side, even when you are not actively studying the language. It can be an application on your phone or a physical dictionary.

This is so that you can immediately look up new words that you encounter as you navigate through life, which you may otherwise forget about later on. It can seem a little extreme, but it definitely pays dividends down the road.

4. Take note of Japanese sentence structures

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For English speakers, in particular, it is important to take note of the way Japanese sentences are structured.

Generally, Japanese has a “subject → object → verb” sentence structure, whereas English has a “subject → verb → object” structure. Once you understand how the Japanese language is structured, it gets much easier to convey your thoughts in Japanese.

Avoid learning Japanese by translating directly from English, as you may end up speaking like Yoda. No shade if that’s your kink, though.

5. Tying everything together with grammar

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Kelly Sikkema

After getting comfortable with constructing Japanese sentences with a decent amount of vocabulary, it is time to tie everything you’ve learnt together with grammar.

Japanese grammar can be tough for beginners due to the number of verb conjugations. Furthermore, the use of particles can take on different meanings depending on the context.

Basic Japanese Language Guide - kanji wooden tablets
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Nuno Silva

Look out for patterns instead of memorising every single verb conjugation, as most verb conjugations follow a fixed grammar rule.

The same tip applies when you are learning the use of particles – look out for instances where a particular particle is used in a sentence.

6. Maintain a consistent study schedule

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The key to mastering the Japanese language is to have a schedule. Rather than cramming all your study hours in one day, spread it out to 10-15 minutes a day. This will help you get into the habit of reading and listening to Japanese.

Basic Japanese Language Guide - laptop
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Glenn Carstens-Peters

In the long run, it also helps you remember new words more easily as you see them consistently day after day. Studying in short periods at a time also means that you can utilise your downtime in your busy schedule to look up the meaning of a word, or learn a new grammar rule, instead of having to allocate chunks of time for it.

– Intermediate – 

1. Learning about the Japanese culture

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Once you’ve understood the basics of the Japanese language, the next step is to learn about Japanese culture. This can be anything about Japan that piques your interest, such as Japanese tradition, games, anime, movies, and business.

There are three reasons for this. First, since language and culture are often intertwined, learning about Japanese culture will help you understand unique Japanese words and concepts that may be otherwise difficult to explain in another language.

Basic Japanese Language Guide - anime amulet at japanese shrine
Image credit:
Susann Schuster

Secondly, learning about Japanese culture also allows you to have more relatable topics to talk about when you converse with your Japanese friends.

Thirdly, you will also be able to learn when to use certain words and the level of formality required when you are talking to an individual, especially when you are using Japanese slang.

2. Listen carefully to how an actual Japanese person speaks

Basic Japanese Language Guide - ginza
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John Cameron

The best way to start speaking like a local Japanese person is to listen to how an actual Japanese person speaks during daily conversations. Try listening to podcasts, interviews, and vlogs, or make friends with native speakers.

You’ll realise that they tend to omit certain parts of a word or sentence, use sentence-final particles, and use filler words that are often not taught in textbooks.

There are cultural and social reasons behind the way they speak, so if you want to sound like a local, it is a good idea to pick up on these natural Japanese speech patterns as well.

3. Muster the courage to speak in Japanese

Basic Japanese Language Guide - talking
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S. Tsuchiya

The final hurdle in your journey to becoming fluent is mustering the courage to speak the language itself.

It’s normal to feel nervous or worried about embarrassing yourself. However, the only way to get used to it is to do it.

One easy way to get over this hurdle is to find a language exchange partner through applications such as HelloTalk or Tandem. This way, you can slowly get used to speaking in and listening to Japanese, knowing that everyone is there to learn, and that it’s normal to make mistakes.

Once you get over this hurdle, all you have left to do is to constantly practice.

Basic Japanese language study tips

Learning a new language takes a lot of time and patience. But if you know where to start and how to practice it, you’ll definitely have an easier time learning it. That being said, since everyone has their own preferred method when it comes to learning, it is important for you to find out the kind of studying method that suits you best through trial and error, and stick to it.

For more Japanese language-related articles, check out:

Cover image adapted from: Angga Indratama and Niketh Vellanki

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