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Hints & tips to Learn Japanese


My name's Richard and on this page I'm going to show you some of the hints and tips I've used to get fluent in Japanese. It took a while, but nowadays I speak everyday in Japanese, in business and often on TV as well as having regular articles and columns in Japanese in the Japanese press. So if you want to master the Japanese language, here is my advice!

1) Try the key expressions on the Japanese page

These are some of the basic words and phrases that you will hear over and over again! I sometimes think it would possible to survive with just these basic words. Add in [ genki ] (meaning "energetic") [A tsu i] (isn't it hot) and [ sa mu i] (isn't it cold) and [da i jyo u bu] ( are you OK?) and you've got the grips of daily life!

NEW: Have a look at the new Learning Japanese Numbers page with a cool animation and mp3 track!

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2) Listen to Japanese Language CDs everyday on your way to work!

Get as many Japanese Language CDs as you can and listen to them all the time. "But I'm too busy!" say most people, and I quite sympathise! That's why I'd recommend listening to them on your way to work or school, either in the car or on an mp3 player. Get into the routine and you soon see how much has sunk in.

The trick is to get several different CDs from several different places. That way you get all the basic phrases many times, but presented in a different way. If you're in the car, repeating along is great, but obviously don't do this if you take the subway to work!

There are loads of great resources out there, and one of the good ones is the "Pimsleur" series. They have a "Quick & Simple" starter pack and also a full on "Gold Course". They are well recommended if you want to learn Japanese, in January I used it to learn everyday Spanish in a month!

Click here for more:

Or for slightly cheaper, but one that requires a bit more work, you can have a look at the Living Language series. Although now I would prefer the Pimsleur course above, I actually used the Living Language series myself when I first learnt Japanese. It's good, but you have to keep repeating and repeating the same CDs, whereas the Pimsleur makes you think more, and reviews the language as you go along.

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If you teach English in Japan you might be interested in my new Classroom English / Classroom Japanese CD.

3) Learn to read the Katakana alphabet

You probably know that Japanese is made difficult because of all the characters. Well, don't worry too much there are some short cuts! One is to just learn the Katakana alphabet. This is the one that is used for writing foreign words and also lots of foods. For example, if you can tell that reads as "me nyu" or reads as "a me ri ka" you can probably figure out they mean "menu" and "America".

It takes an afternoon to learn katakana (yes that's all!!), you just have to set the time aside and just plough your way through the 46 symbols. If you don't get everything the first day, try it again, just set aside a good 3 or 4 hours and you'll have it cracked.

To get the pronunciation right, I've put up on the site a talking katakana page, it's not too difficult. There are also online talking games and a card you can print out with the characters. So first drill all the sounds into your head with the talking page, then cut out the symbols on the printed card and test yourself. Not the most fun activity in the world, but if it means you can read menus and your name it's well worth it!

( PS. if you like the talking games pages, and you teach English, there is a page for English letters as well!)

4) Get a Canon Word Tank - Japanese iPhone App!

UPDATE: Whilst I used the Canon Word Tank to great effect (read below!) these days I recommend the Japanese App for the iPhone. It's just as good and a fraction of the price!

This is what made all the difference for me. If you live overseas, or in Japan itself, a Canon Word tank and its "memory" function works a treat. I've recommended it to loads of friends over the years and they've all said how magical it is!

What you do is that every time you hear a word you don't know, you look up it in the dictionary and then put it in the memory.
Now when you have 10 minutes spare on the train or whatever, you simply call up the words and test yourself. The reason I recommend Canon is that they have a cool trick where first of all it shows the Kanji characters, then you press a button and it brings up the English and how to read the word. This is great in itself for learning both vocab and kanji.

But the magic is in the power of association. When looking back through the words you instantly recall when you put it in there, "Ah! That's what so-and-so said at the party the other week!" or "Ah, that's from that TV show I saw last week" and all the memories get bound up with the word! Just take it with you EVERYWHERE!

As I say though, the hardware wordtank has been thouroughly replaced by the Japanese app on my phone, it's also a lot less to carry round everyday!

5) Have you got what it takes for kanji?

For those of you who want the challenge of tackling the Japanese Kanji ( the cool looking Japanese characters), White Rabbit Press also do a great series of Kanji Flashcards. I did an info fair in Tokyo with the designer Max Hodges a few weeks ago and the cards were really popular with ALTs ( assistant language teachers). I haven't actually used them myself, but the key seems to be that they follow not the standard Japanese order of learning kanji, but are in the order you'll find them on the Japanese proficiency test, which makes them a lot more useful. Anyway, have a look at them on Amazon and see what you think.

UPDATE: I just got an email to say the new Volume 2 set of Flashcards are out.

6) "Gotta get a shower and out by 8:30"

This is another trick that I used to help me learn Japanese.

You know in a morning and you wake up, you think to yourself "What time is it? Oh no! Quick, gotta get a shower, then some breakfast, then that meeting at 9 o'clock! Oh no!". Well, I used to do that in Japanese! Take a bit of time to figure out the things you want to say, learn them and then use them everyday. The best thing about this idea is that even if you make mistakes no-one will ever hear them! If you find one day that you want to say something and you don't know how to say it in Japanese, just look it up. Either use your Wordtank or ask a teacher or friend.

7) Put your computer to work!

Despite all the hype, until now all the software I'd ever tried for learning Japanese turned out to be boring and pretty useless. But the other week I tried the "Rosetta Stone" series and I was well impressed to say the least! It seems that with the advent of the internet, language software has now caught up and become very useful indeed. The best thing is that software gives you targets and structures, which is great for motivation. So if have a computer and some free time, I'd definitely give this my recommendation.

They have a full-on CDROM course and also on-line courses, they are a bit pricey, but they have free trials which are certainly worth looking at. I think I'll be looking at this software for my next language.
Click here for more

8) So today I ....

This is another great trick that people have been using for ages to practise writing. But as you don't have the time for writing, grab yourself a tape player or audio recorder and speak into it all the things you did today. As with the tip above, if you can't say something, look it up. It's great practise and it's a great source of materials if you have Japanese lessons, simply bring a copy along with you and get the teacher to go through it!

9) Keep going, have fun and be Genki!

If you follow the tips on this page, Japanese is both easy and fun. The trick is to set yourself some goals and just stick at it day in, day out, everyday! If you need help with motivation, check out this daily motivation email page - I still get it everyday!

It took me 6 months to be able to hold a basic conversation, a year to teach a NASA science project in Japanese and just over 18 months to talk about politics live on NHK TV! It's all confidence, think you can do it and you can, just keep trying everyday and above all...

Be genki!

Richard Graham is an Education Consultant based in Shikoku Japan. After setting up his own company, his language learning materials have been described by the Japan Times as "...bringing about a grassroots revolution in English-language teaching" and by the Daily Yomiuri as "Taking Primary Schools by Storm". He often appears in the Japanese press, of course speaking and writing in Japanese.


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PS. Here's one more tip for the very advanced learners amongst you, check out and select one of the Japanese news pages. You'll then be able to hover over any kanji and get the meaning and reading! Useless for conversation, but fantastic for kanji and vocab practice!

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