How to use Free Software to learn Japanese, and more.

Introduction to learning Japanese

March 10, 2021 — Tatsumoto

The AJATT site is great. One thing it is bad at, however, is telling up-to-date information about technology and tools one may use. I've got you covered on the tools, and more.

Below is a quick rundown of a typical Japanese learning journey that should get you to basic fluency in less than two years.


The right mindset

I'm just one person who took ideas from other people, applied them systematically and found success with it.

― Khatzumoto

Consuming the language is how you learn the language. You know, babies can only cry and poop their pants but within the first few years from birth they learn to speak their first language. They quickly absorb complicated grammatical principles and soon can speak with accurate grammar and near perfect pronunciation. It happens because they listen to people around them, especially parents, and they slowly begin to understand what is being said. Our brain is built to do that instinctively.

Traditional language learners say that as you grow up the part of your brain responsible for language acquisition dies, and you lose access to it. They insist that adults have to learn languages the same way you learn math or science: with your rational, logical brain; by consciously memorizing rules and drilling exercises. This has proven to be untrue.

According to Stephen Krashen, humans acquire language when they understand messages, and the process of acquiring a second language is similar to the process that children undergo when learning their native language. You can do it no matter how old you are.

We're not babies, we're smarter, and we can learn faster. The process of acquiring a language through immersion can be replicated by any adult with the help of technology. Immersion is the absolute most important component of the entire process. It can't be substituted with taking classes or buying textbooks.

How to immerse

No, you're not going to go to the country and ask a Japanese person to speak to you. Immersion refers to any form of listening or reading in your target language.

The process is divided into two steps.

  1. Watch a movie or a TV-show in Japanese. The visual component will help you understand what's going on. Use Japanese subtitles, if available, to look up unknown words and grammar. If not, you might be surprised at how much you can learn from simply watching raw, with no subtitles. This is called active immersion.
  2. Reuse what you've watched for passive immersion. Passive immersion is when you have audio playing in the background while you're doing something else. A popular practice among AJATTers is to take an episode of a TV show you've watched, extract the audio track and add it to your playlist. I am going to tell you how to do it in the article about passive listening.

As for reading, the above applies if for a book you read you find the corresponding audiobook. If not, just read it and skip the second step.

It is reasonable to ask how you're supposed to learn from native content if you still understand nothing. It is true that actively consuming native media, looking up words and trying to learn them is an immense task for a beginner. You're going to spend your first weeks learning the basics of the language. What I recommend you do at this stage is watch easy anime without subtitles. Instead of looking up words rely on imagery and context to infer what's going on in the show. You can use Japanese subs once you have a foundation in the Japanese writing systems. Passively listen to each episode after you complete it to maximize time spent immersing. Dedicate your active study time to learning basic vocabulary. I'll show you how to do it shortly.

Once you complete the basic vocabulary phase, nothing stops you from learning just from immersion. Don't wait for too long. There are people who trap themselves into thinking, "I'm going to start watching raw when I'm good. I don't immerse because I don't understand Japanese yet." This is a very dangerous pattern. You start wearing skates before you know how to skate. You start watching without subs before you understand.

Listen to 10,000 hours of Japanese over the next 2 years. This roughly amounts to about 14 hours of listening per day. Listening a lot is what is going to enable you to follow a conversation or your favorite anime without subtitles.

No matter what you're doing, try to do passive immersion whenever you can. There are countless opportunities to immerse throughout a day. You can do it in shower, as you're getting ready, while taking a walk, driving, going somewhere, cooking meals, on the bus, on the subway, while exercising, etc. No matter what type of lifestyle you have, you should be able to fit in multiple hours a day of passive immersion. Fill in every single crack in your day possible. Every waking moment counts. By simply listening your brain will slowly get better at parsing and understanding the language.

I hope you'll find an immersion routine that suits your life. If you think you can't do it, don't worry. Even Khatz, the AJATT founder, said in his blog that he wasn't always able to immerse all day. He still tried to do as much as he could, while having a job and studying at a university at the same time. AJATT has existed for years, many people went through the program and achieved fluency.

For passive listening try to choose the material that you previously actively watched and comprehended. Avoid listening to "white noise", you only really make gains when you understand the language you are consuming. You won't be able to comprehend everything right away, but as you learn new words from your immersion, expect your comprehension to reach a solid level within the first few months. You have to make effort to make the content comprehensible. Look up words, rely on the imagery, choose material with simpler language.

Slice of life anime is the easiest genre to learn from in the beginning. If you need more specific recommendations, I have a list of anime ranked by difficulty here.

The more language-dense your immersion content is, the better. You can listen to podcasts but keep in mind that they're more challenging for beginners. Avoid listening to songs. They contain unnatural speech, and it's hard to hear the lyrics through music. Even in our native language we often fail to understand some parts of songs.

Outputting

Shut up before you hurt yourself. Your goal is to understand Japanese. If you can't understand it, there is no way you will be able to successfully communicate with others even if you memorize basic phrases from a textbook. Premature speaking has other negative effects. It can mess up your accent and solidify your mistakes.

  • It takes time to train your listening to become able to hear native speech at natural speed and comprehend it. If you can't hear the sounds yet, there's no way you can repeat them without a strong foreign accent. Think about Japanese people. After getting crippled by the school system that doesn't and can't offer enough listening practice they confuse the l and r sounds when they try to speak English.
  • Mistakes are bad because they become habits. If you make a mistake, you are more likely to say the same construction the next time. Don't hope that a native speaker will correct your mistakes. Unless the other party didn't understand you at all, they are not going to point out where you're off. Even if you ask them to correct all your mistakes, there's no guarantee that you'll be able to apply the corrections.

Go through a silent period. A very popular community guideline is to avoid speaking to anyone in Japanese for the first 1.5-2 years of learning.

Output comes naturally. Once you get a few thousand hours of input, your speaking ability is going to emerge gradually. Forcing it usually doesn't work.

Prepare your devices

All instructions on this site are intended for GNU/Linux users. I deliberately advocate for free/libre software. Quitting Windows is like quitting tobacco. Tobacco is bad for your health. Likewise, nonfree software is bad for your freedom.

I recommend Arch-based distributions like Manjaro, but any other distro is fine as long as it's not overly complicated or difficult to use as a daily driver.

Mobile apps recommendations assume that you have liberated your phone. All Anki decks linked in the guide come with ogg/opus audio. This coding format is not supported by Anki on iThings.

Most of the software I list here is cross-platform. If you're not ready to install GNU/Linux yet, you should be able to use the tools on any OS in the meantime while you're preparing to switch to GNU/Linux.

  • Desktop
    • Install Japanese fonts. I recommend noto-fonts-cjk. Refer to Japanese fonts for detailed instructions.
    • Install and configure Fcitx to type in Japanese. The input method I use is fcitx-kkc but other options are also available.
    • For passive immersion use mpd together with ncmpcpp. Keep your immersion material in a separate folder, for example ~/Music/immersionpod.
    • Condense your immersion with impd. Condensing takes a video file with subtitles and removes all parts where no one is speaking, producing an audio file with increased language density for passive listening.
    • The most recommended video player is mpv. It supports add-ons many of which can be used to make language learning easier.
    • Install and set up Anki. It's a flashcard program used to memorize words, phrases and sentences.
    • The most popular offline dictionaries are:
      1. qolibri. Dictionary files for qolibri are available here.
      2. GoldenDict
      3. Tagaini Jisho
    • When you read in your browser, use Yomichan to discover meanings of unknown words.
  • Mobile
    • Install Mozc for Android to be able to type in Japanese. Because Android lacks free/libre keyboards, you can also use Gboard if you want, but make sure to completely block it from accessing the Internet.
    • AntennaPod is a great app for playing podcasts. This list of podcasts is a good starting point.
    • Get AnkiDroid. It doesn't require any specific steps to set it up other than entering your AnkiWeb credentials to sync with the desktop.
    • Offline Japanese dictionaries available are Sumatora and jiten.

Once you get comfortable reading, switch language of your devices to Japanese.

Writing systems

The three writing systems used in Japanese today are hiragana, katakana and kanji. Hiragana and katakana are two phonetic scripts, each containing 46 characters. Kanji come from Chinese and are complex characters that represent concepts.

Kana

Have a look at the Wikipedia pages on Hiragana and Katakana to understand what you're dealing with. Together they're referred to as the kana. The key points to take away:

  • The two alphabets represent the same sounds. Katakana is mostly used to write loan words and onomatopoeia, Hiragana for everything else not written in kanji.
  • Due to its purpose, katakana is not used as often as hiragana, as you will notice once you start reading.
  • They are very easy. Each can be learned in a day.
  • Any Japanese text not aimed at preschoolers contains kanji, so learning only the kana won't cut it.

Learn the Japanese alphabets using the Kakugo app. It should take you two days to do so, and no more than a week if you're lazy.

Kanji

Kanji were imported from China a long time ago. They are logographic characters used to write words and parts of words. To truly learn kanji you need to read Japanese for thousands of hours, the resources listed below are designed to prime your brain for recognizing the characters and make transition to reading easier.

The most recent method for learning kanji is referred to as JP1K. In essence, it's a specifically preformatted Anki deck. The deck contains around 1,000 cards, thus the name JP1K. There's a specific studying technique associated with the format of the deck. Once you learn all cards from the deck, it gives you the ability to recognize the most common kanji characters together with words that represent them. On this site you'll find links to premade JP1K decks as well as instructions on how to convert any vocabulary deck into the JP1K format.

Other methods that I'd like to give special attention to:

  • Kanjidamage+. You recognize kanji using premade mnemonic stories. For each kanji the story includes its most common reading.
  • RTK. Similar to KanjiDamage. You study kanji in isolation using the order presented in a book called "Remembering the Kanji". Depending on the Anki deck you download, you are given premade mnemonics, or you're encouraged to make them yourself. Kanji readings are not taken into account, instead the method insists on learning them in the wild from native content.

Choose only one of the above methods. No matter what option you pick, don't bother learning to write the characters just yet. To learn how to write by hand you need to be able to read some Japanese first. There are better ways to learn to write which are going to be discussed later on this site.

Japanese writing systems

Japanese writing systems.

You can totally skip the kanji phase and move straight to learning basic vocabulary. If you choose to do so, you're going to memorize words as is. For each word just try to remember how it looks, what it means and how it sounds treating kanji like pictures and memorizing kanji compounds as single units. No doubt it is more difficult, but it works for many people.

Basic vocabulary

After getting familiar with the writing systems, use a premade Anki deck to build up the basic vocabulary. Completing this step makes learning from input easier, you won't have to struggle looking up every word on each page.

Download Ankidrone Starter Pack and learn one or two thousand cards from it. You are free to continue learning new cards from the deck, but don't get stuck on this step and move to sentence mining (covered later) as soon as possible.

Each card in Ankidrone Starter Pack has a sentence at the front. The target word of the card is shown in bold. The information needed to understand the sentence and the target word is provided at the back, it includes a rough translation and kanji readings. Your goal is to understand the target word. If you want, you can even skip reading the sentence, but neglecting the word's context can make the reviews harder.

Grammar

I recommend you read Tae Kim. It's the only textbook that you're really going to need through your AJATT journey. When I learned Japanese, I put all the example sentences into Anki and learned them using sentence cards. This approach might seem too hard for some people, so make sure to at least read through the whole grammar guide if you decide not to bother with Anki at this point.

Don't waste your time memorizing conjugation tables. The grammar is a tool to aid comprehension, and knowing the rules won't help you output. By the time you recall a grammar rule and apply it to your thoughts, your conversation partner will be long gone.

Tae Kim doesn't cover everything. Even certain grammar in the advanced section can be considered pretty basic. As you continue to immerse, look up and make Anki cards for the rest of the grammar not covered in Tae Kim. The process is no different from making cards for regular words. If you make targeted sentence cards, treat grammar points as the targets.

Create your own mining deck

The process of making sentence cards (or targeted sentence cards) for the words you don't know is called sentence mining (or sentence picking).

Premade Anki decks might seem convenient, but they can't teach you everything, so making your own cards is essential to long term success with Japanese. Continue to immerse, read and listen to content created by native speakers for native speakers, use software like Yomichan to look up new words and mine sentences.

Don't make too many single word flashcards. They're fine for nouns representing concrete objects but bad for other types of speech. Do not translate sentences, understand them instead.

There's a popular goal in the community to make 10,000 flashcards in the first 18 months. This number is nothing special, but it's more fun to have a goal to work towards to. I managed to learn 10,000 sentence cards in 11 months. Try this challenge too, but remember that Anki is just a supplement for immersion learning.

watch anime

Watch anime.

Tags: guide