Immersion is the best way to learn Japanese
There is no question that the best way to learn Japanese is through immersion. Immersion is best described as living your life in Japanese as much as possible.
If you are immersed in the language, the everyday things you do now in your native language you do in Japanese instead.
The ideal immersion environment then is of course Japan.
With immersion you learn a language rapidly (you don't really have a choice). Still it's no walk in the park. Japanese immersion can feel like drowning at first.
The gap between Japanese and English is pretty wide, and even with immersion you won't be conversational overnight.
Still you'll be hard pressed to find a method of learning more effective and efficient than full immersion.
But not everyone can move to Japan and take an immersion course for the summer (or a year).
It might be super effective, but it simply isn't practical for the average person learning Japanese.
Does that mean if you can't move to Japan you're out of luck?...
You see there are so many tools and resources out there for learning Japanese, that anyone can design their own personal immersion experience.
Yes it won't be "true Japanese immersion", but it will help you learn the language and start using it. It might not be as intense as living in Japan but can be effective.
Polyglot Benny Lewis shares his thoughts on immersion without traveling. You can check out more about his method for learning languages here.
What you'll learn in this post:
Different tools for learning Japanese will work better with different people. There isn't one perfect Japanese course out there.
Each have their strengths and weakness and which one is the best for you depends on your needs and goals.
We hope this post will help get you started in the right direction. We'll recommend tools and resources based on your level, time commitment, and budget.
But before we do...
We should probably talk a little about inputs and outputs.
Inputs & Outputs (why they matter)
There are four aspects of language learning: reading, listening, writing, and speaking.
Four Parts of Learning Japanese
Of these four options two are inputs: reading and writing; and two are outputs: writing and speaking.
You will need to develop all four skills to become truly fluent in Japanese.
But you'll need a different amount of practice for each depending on your level in Japanese.
Quick note about reading & writing in Japanese
Unlike many foreign languages Japanese doesn't use an alphabet. Instead they combine two writing character types: kanji and kana.
Kanji characters resemble words and phrases (like Mandarin characters do), and kana represent syllables.
Here's a brief info to Japanese Kanji
The Japanese writing system is one of the most complicated in the world. So learning how to read and write in Japanese is a much more difficult feat than learning how to read in a language like French or German.
As a result the balance of inputs and outs changes a bit for those learning Japanese.
While you may learn a Japanese word and what it means; until you are comfortable with the Japanese writing system you won't be able to make a connection with the sound of the word and its natural written form (though you may know in its transliterated romaji form).
Before you start speaking Japanese you'll have to get some words and basic grammar under your belt. At the beginner level everything is new, so your regular Japanese studies should include more inputs than they do outputs.
Don't get me wrong you can start speaking Japanese at this level. If you have a friend, teacher, or language partner there's no harm in trying to use what you know.
Just be aware that because the Japanese language is so far removed from English it will take some time before you can carry on a basic conversation.
At the beinnger level you'll also want to get comfortable with hiragana and katakana. It's also not a bad idea to start with some easy Kanji too.
Solid Japanese courses are harder to come by than courses for other languages. Still as a beginner there are some good options out there.
Here's some courses that do a pretty good job of introducing the core fundamentals of Japanese.
3 Japanese resources for beginners
20+ minutes a day
Rocket Japanese is built around recorded audio in the form of dialogues.
The dialogues have English explanations and usually teach the language in "chunks" or phrases versus individual words (this is great for conversational Japanese).
The course is well structured and progresses through the language nicely.
Rocket Japanese also has a hefty literacy component. Level 1 covers Hiragana and Katakana. Levels 2 and 3 focus on learning Kanji.
Most courses skimp on any writing or reading. That's not the case with Rocket Japanese.
From $4+ per month
15+ minutes a day
Japanesepod101 is one of the most popular Japanese learning tools, and for good reason. The site features audio lessons in a podcast format.
Lessons are great for grammar and vocabulary, and the teachers to a great job of keeping things engaging.
While it's not as structured as Rocket Japanese it's still a substantial Japanese learning tool (it's also much cheaper too).
The site features transcripts in kanji, romaji, hiragana, and English. There is also a flashcard system for learning kanji.
5+ minutes a day
Duolingo is the best known language app, and for good reason. It's proven to be an affective way to learn basic grammar and vocabulary in a game like setting.
As of May 2017 the beta version of Duolingo Japanese was released for IOS and Android.
While they're still working out some of the kinks it's a great program to help get you started. There's some kanji used in Duolingo Japanese, but mostly you will be using hiragana.
Basic conversations should start to feel a little more normal at the intermediate level. This means that you can step up your Japanese speaking by doing more of it, and reach for more difficult topics and phrases in your conversations.
At this point you should have a handle on hiragana and katakana. If you haven't dipped your toes into kanji yet now is the time to start.
You also want to increase the difficulty level of what you read and listen to. You don't want things to get too easy. Up to half of your input practice should be learning kanji.
It may be a good idea to do most of your speaking practice with an experience teacher or tutor. They can help you through common pitfalls and often safe you some time and frustration.
They'll also be able to pinpoint your weak areas and and help you strengthen them.
3 Japanese resources for intermediate learners
$6+ per hour (price varies between teachers)
30 minute or 1 hour lessons
Italki is an online market place that connects language learners with language teachers for one-on-one language classes via video or audio chat.
You can connect with language speakers from around the world and practice your speaking skills.There are 200+ professional Japanese teachers and informal tutors on Italki.
*with a purchase of $20 or more. After your first purchased lesson a credit of $10 will be added to your account
Starts at $15 per month
5+ minutes a day
Fluentu is a site that helps you learn a language through native videos.
Use in site flashcards, captions, and games to learn new words in context while watching Japanese TV shows, movies, commercials, and more.
It's a great way to push your listening skills and Japanese vocabulary.
Remembering the Kanji is an excellent book that breaks done Kanji into their individual parts and helps you attached mnemonics and stories to the characters so you can better remember them.
It's a go to resource for anyone serious about learning Kanji.
The advance level is all about refinement. You've already built a solid foundation and should have a functional level of Japanese.
Now it's time to smooth out the edges and dive into the nuances of the language.
In my opinion this level of language learning is the most fun. You don't need the hands on type of approach of the earlier levels and you're free roam about the language and culture.
Native speakers, media, anime, music, visiting the country...everything is up for grabs!
Just make sure you keep yourself challenged and push the boundaries of your speaking, listening, writing, and reading.
Anytime you speak or write always try to get feedback from native speakers (this is very important!).
Occasional sessions with a professional Japanese teacher could prove helpful.
While you should be able to express yourself fairly well by now, there will be a lot of nuances in the language that are difficult for non-natives to pick up.
A teacher can help you through idioms, slang, odd pronunciations, and any other challenge you're likely to encounter as an advanced student.
3 Japanese resources for advanced leaners
Write posts in Japanese and post them to Lang-8 to get feedback from native speakers.
It's one of the best ways to practice your writing, and it's free! This site is simple to use but very effective.
Speaky is a free online language exchange where you can meet and practice with language learners from over 180 countries.
Practice with Japanese speakers over video, audio, or text chat. Just remember to help them with their English too!
$10+ per hour (varies between teacher)
30 minute or 1 hour lessons
Verbling is a site similar to Italkli. While it doesn't have the selection of Japanese teachers Italki has,
Verbling favors teachers with experience and certification, so their overall quality of teachers is a little higher.
There is no one size fits all approach to learning Japanese. While immersion is arguably the best and most effective way, most people don't have the opportunity to travel to Japan just to learn a language.
Still there are a ton of solid Japanese tools and courses out there. While they don't replace real life immersion, they do give you the opportunity to learn the language efficiently and on your own terms.
Which resource is best for you will depend largely on your level and learning goals. I hope this post was helpful!