日本語はすごい！This blog post describes the freely-available resources I consider to be the most helpful when learning Japanese. Each site comes with a description, detailing how long should you stick with it and when it’s the time to move to the next one.
While I’m certain that taking Japanese lessons has its advantages, I believe with a bit of time you can learn everything online. And unlike those boring textbooks you might have used for learning Japanese offline, these sites have on practical and interactive content. They teach you real Japanese, describing when and how to use both formal and informal forms.
The entries in this list are sorted by the order in which they will become helpful to you. You are nevertheless welcome to explore them all from the start.
Jisho (辞書) means dictionary in Japanese. Jisho is also the best free online dictionary there is for Japanese. The first thing you should do when you encounter a sentence you don’t understand is to look up the individual words on Jisho. Even if it’s spoken language, you can break it into components and search them phonetically. Alternatively, if you have some unknown kanji characters you can search them based on the component radicals or draw them (it helps if you learn about stroking order first to get better results).
Some features to look out for in Jisho:
Clicking on any kanji opens a separate page with a longer description, kun’- and on’yomi readings, and animated handwriting instructions.
If you search for any word, on the sidebar you will see example sentences provided by the Tatoeba project.
While looking words up in a dictionary is fun, you’ll probably want a more structured way to learn and track your progress, which leads us to the next resource.
For those of us living under a rock, Duolingo is the leading online platform for learning foreign languages. It’s also free, forever (albeit ad supported). They provide their own curriculum where each individual lesson covers one topic, while teaching you some new words or some new grammar. They don’t have any special system for practicing hiragana/katakana, save for some illustrated flashcards. These afre pretty good though, since the images on the cards are a good mnemonic.
The primary advantage of Duolingo is that it provides a way to measure your progress. Other resources might provide a few “exercises” after the main article, but they’re usually trivial or have the answer written right next to the question. Since we only learn from our mistakes, we need a grading system to tell us when we’re wrong. Annoying as it is, you have to learn to work together with that green owl 🦉.
Don’t get stuck too much on Duolingo. You will keep coming back to it to, but it fails short on teaching you how to handle more complicated real-world situations. The most practical sentence Duolingo will teach you is “I want sushi” or “Where is the bathroom?”, which brings us to the next resource…
That Japanese Man, Yuta
When you learn a new language, even while making good progress you’d be surprised by how many simple sentences you don’t know how to say. You’ll see people saying “いいね” in YouTube comments and won’t know this is the equivalent of “like”. You’ll find that you don’t know how to say “you’re nice” to some other person. That’s because the examples on the previously mentioned sites are artificial, usually created to be simple and showcase one aspect of the language.
The best way to learn idiomatic Japanese phrases is from Yuta Aoki. He’s a blogger, writter and also has a YouTube channel where he talks to random Japanese people about various topics. His videos are how I first found out about him. He offers a free Japanese course you can sign up for (he’ll email you new videos weekly).
He also offers some paid courses, but I can’t talk about their quality; his free lessons are good enough for me. Sadly, while he still regularly produces and sends out videos, his videos are short (about 5 minutes) and he talks about only 4–5 words in each of them. There’s just too much of Japanese to cover and Yuta is falling behind. But who knows, perhaps by the time you’re reading this, there will be a lot of new content.
You’ll know you’re ready to move on to the next resource when you want to learn more about Japanese grammar or when you’ve exhausted Yuta’s content.
Tae Kim’s Guide
Once you start getting a feel for how to put together 私 and は you’ll want to understand why you did that and how all these nouns and particles and verbs fall in together. This is where Tae Kim’s Complete Guide to Learning Japanese comes in.
Don’t worry if you don’t like grammar — this is not one of those boring books on all possible uses of Japanese particles. It is filled with practical examples, and focuses on understanding why you would use a certain word form over another given some context. Since it’s so well structured I also use it as a quick reference.
The most honest and straightforward site, which does a terrific job of helping you learn kanji, is KANJIDAMAGE. I’m going to let their description do the work: it says that their site is the place where you can learn 1,700 kanji using Yo Mama jokes. WaniKani can’t beat that.
I can’t say I’ve been learning a lot of kanji lately (mostly out of personal laziness), but what I did learn on KANJIDAMAGE stuck with me. They have articles how to learn kanji more efficiently. They don’t only provide you with mnemonics, but they also break down the meanings of the kanji. And to top it off, it’s all free.
At this point I will also mention the NIHONGO eな portal. It contains links to many free online resources. I’ve already listed a lot of good sites for learning Japanese in general, but if there is some specific category you want a tool for (e.g. vocabulary, listening), you should check this site out.
Here are some tips I found out on my own and would’ve loved to know when I started my journey.
Don’t Get Stuck in Writing Systems
Ask anyone who tried to learn Japanese and gave up and they’ll undoubtedly complain about how the Japanese have three different writing systems: hiragana (ひらがな), katakana (カタカナ) and kanji (漢字); and how the last one is the hardest, since you have to learn thousands of complicated Chinese characters to be able to read books or signposts in Japanese.
The one thing which slowed me down at the start (and actually made me give up a few times) was that I wanted to perfectly know hiragana and katakana and perhaps a few kanji before starting to learn any vocabulary / grammar. This approach is wrong; you should combine learning to read Japanese characters with learning words, basic grammar rules and pronounciation.
Learning to read and write Japanese is a long journey, yet very rewarding at all times. Begin by at least learning all the vowels. Start reading simple stories written in hiragana, even if you don’t understand all of the kana. Practice writing on a sheet of paper or use a mobile app.
Kanji have multiple readings, multiple meanings, and it’s the especially simple-looking ones that have many subtleties. There’s no need to learn all the possible meanings of 本. If you know how it’s written and pronounced in 日本1, then that’s a start. You can always come back later and expand on the meanings of known kanji.
Consume Japanese Culture
For many people Japanese culture is the reason they started learning Japanese. But I think there are plenty of other motives to learn Japanese, if for no other reason that it’s a beautiful language (yet difficult to learn2). Here’s a big reveal: I didn’t watch anime when I was younger. Shameful, I know, but I’m catching up on them now.
If you’re into them, reading manga or watching anime is one good way of exposing yourself to a lot of (usually informal) Japanese. Just be careful what sort of words you learn from them. Remember, you don’t want to sound like an annoying teenager or use foul words.
But it’s not enough to lazily watch TV to learn a language. I am asking you to actively and critically analyze the Japanese content you are watching. Try to write down unknown words you hear in animes phonetically and then look them up in a dictionary. Write down and remember song lyrics, then interpret and translate them into English.
It’s the journey that counts — not the destination. When it comes to learning foreign languages, there’s no final destination anyway, just deeper and deeper understandings of the language.
Do you just want to say “hello” to some Japanese friends? Do you want to read manga? Do you want to live in Japan? Do you want to write haikus and read The Tale of Genji? Do you want to teach Japanese as a distinguished teacher at some university?
No matter your objective, if you’re willing to, you can learn Japanese. And remember, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.