Collin's Guide to Japanese Self-Study

As a self-studying student of Japanese, I understand that it is often not easy to find comprehensive programs in Japanese in many areas, and that ambitious students are left with little recourse but to undertake self-instruction. While it will never fully replace instructor interaction, self-study can still be a useful endeavor to move your abilities forward while you wait for that kind of opportunity. I have constructed this guide based on my own activities and opinions because I frequently encounter questions about methods for self-study. Keep in mind that they are only my opinions, and that I'm not a pedagogical expert in Japanese. All I can say for them is that I see improvement in my own abilities. I would greatly appreciate feedback from other self-studying students. Please e-mail to:
cmmcculley AT charter DOT net

When you first get the spark to undertake learning Japanese, it seems as though few materials are available, especially when you see what's available for the major European languages. The selection in most brick and mortar bookstores is small, and it is difficult to judge which are the best materials from what's online. I became serious about becoming fluent in Japanese in October, 1999. For the first year, I spent a lot of time and money gathering and creating learning materials, and building up strategies. Perhaps I can save other prospective students some of that investment of time and money.

During that first year, I studied what I could, but without very much structure. It became apparent that I needed two things: a goal, and a strategy for attaining it.

My goal is to be operationally fluent in Japanese 5 years from my starting point. By "operational fluency" I mean the ability to navigate everyday tasks, and carry on basic conversations on a wide variety of general topics. I also want to achieve a level commensurate with the ability to be able continue to learn the language from context. Finally, I'd like to attain a basic level of literacy in that time.

Breaking those goals down more specifically into number targets, I'm aiming for a 5000-8000 word vocabulary, working knowledge of the Jouyou kanji set, and familiarity with an additional 1000 kanji (for a total of about 3000). To hit these numerical targets, I first figured out the pace of learning that I would require in terms of words and kanji learned per week.

I think that it is important to draw up these kinds of specific numerical goals and track progress on them. It focuses your effort, and gives you a sense of what must be done next. If you can always find the next rung, you can keep climbing the ladder. In addition to these numerical goals, however, you should also have a curriculum that tracks by date exactly what you are setting out to accomplish. The components of my curriculum, which I've drawn up as a schedule, are discussed below. Ask yourself:

  • What am I going to study?
  • What order am I going to study it in?
  • In what timeframe?

Draw it up and stick to it, but also revise it to coincide with your realistic ability to work on the material. As I move forward in my program, I reevaluate my progress towards my targets, and revise the rates accordingly. Occasionally, I must also revise the targets to keep the workload realistic with respect to other life demands. Don't burn yourself out, but be mentally prepared for the fact that acquiring a language is not an easy task, and will require daily work and constant exposure to accomplish. I have occasionally gotten derailed along the way, but I just keep coming back to it.

There are four basic skills that need to be covered in a good self-study program: speaking, listening, reading and writing. On an orthogonal axis, there's also vocabulary acquisition and grammar/usage acquisition. The following sections detail the components of my study program that address these.

Textbook Work

It is important to have a good comprehensive textbook to guide and structure your other study. Whatever else you learn on the side, working through a textbook prevents you from missing basic things and leaving holes in your knowledge. It also provides material at a carefully measured pace.

I'm using Nakama (which can be found at Houghton Mifflin) as a primary text. Nakama has two volumes (equivalent to 1st and 2nd year studies, I believe), and has workbooks and tapes to accompany each volume. While it is really geared more to classroom study than to self-study, it is comprehensive in a way that many books advertised for self-study are not. The latter are aimed mostly at travelers and businesspeople and aren't a good stepping stone to fluency.

I'm also using a book called "Colloquial Japanese" which progresses through a number of different lessons demonstrating sentence structures. The lessons are basically a set of example sentences and substitution and translation drill exercises. I'm using it just to pound in more good models. I wouldn't necessarily recommend it above other books you could get, but it is not a bad idea to have some variety in your textbook work.

For each of these books, I have deadlines on my schedule for when I will have particular chapters completed to my satisfaction. I'm giving about two weeks to each Nakama chapter, and one week to each chapter in the other book. As I move onto more advanced material, I may have to revise this pace to allow more time to master it.

Speaking and Listening Practice

I use the Pimsleur tape program, all three volumes, as a source of listening and speaking practice. These are expensive, running about $240 apiece, but for self study there are not many better alternatives. Some people prefer the tape program from the U.S. diplomatic training. It is important to have something more than just a tape of phrases geared for travelers. The Pimsleur program, while not perfect, works to instill the student with important language patterns in such a way as to make them intuitive, and therefore applicable beyond what they specifically teach you in terms of vocabulary.

It is extremely important early in your study to hear and practice with good Japanese speech examples from native speakers, by tape or preferably in person. Obviously the "in person" option is not always possible for someone self-studying, but seeking out someone to correct your basic pronunciation is advisable if it is at all possible.

Especially for self-study, it is important to internalize the sounds of Japanese. There are some basic differences in Japanese and English pronunciation that are not captured by romanized text, such as the palatalized "shi" and "chi" sounds, the Japanese "r" sound, or the one I've had the most trouble with, "syllabic n". It is also important to be able to handle "sokuon" (the small pause in sound between what are represented as doubled consonants in roomaji), or to distinguish in listening and speaking between long and short vowels. Further, you need to be aware of and work on the pitch accent, and in removing your own tendency to place stress accents.

These things are tough for any learners of Japanese, but the self-studying student must be additionally vigilant, since there is no external correction during the course of daily study and practice.

Online Audio. Another good source of listening practice is streaming audio available online. I listen to these even though at this point it is difficult to even gain basic comprehension. I catch snippets here and there, which is gratifying when it happens, and the rest is an exercise in developing an ear for Japanese speech.

Over time, I have developed the ability to catch words or phrases accurately enough to be able to subsequently look them up. In addition, I will hear words that I know from other modes of study, but which I have never heard before. This gives me a real speech model to emulate.

One benefit of online audio material is that it can be captured using a simple recording program like Acoustica from AconAS, and replayed. This allows me to work transcription exercises, as well as having familiar full-speed audio material on hand.

Transcribing is an activity that will replace working with the Pimsleur tapes, once I master that material. At that time I will also have to find or invent some activity to continue to practice conversation skills.

Here are some sources for online audio material:

  • Windows Media Player 7 has been the easiest source to use to locate Japanese talk radio programs, which often have conversive environments. Click to the radio tab, and search by language. You can sort by format and look for "News Radio" and "Talk Radio". I tend to listen to TBS, MBS, and Yomiuri News Stream most often.
  • Yomiuri News Stream
    This is Yomiuri's own site. You can also listen using Real Player.
  • FNN Headlines
    Most of these stories have the full text included, though for a beginner it might be premature to bother with trying to work through a large written passage.
  • Radio Japan


Vocabulary acquisition cuts across everything else that you are doing. You will acquire vocabulary from your textbook, in example words during kanji studies, in listening to your tapes, etc. Everything in Japanese boils down eventually to word recognition and recall. You can't do anything else without it: along with internalizing the grammar, it is the essence of learning the language. And there's no way to cheat. You simply must find a way to remember each and every word, and learn them one by one.

Perhaps the most valuable strategy I discovered was maintaining a list of all the vocabulary I have encountered and new vocabulary I am learning. This does two things. First, it gives me a tangible measure of my progress in acquiring vocabulary, which lets me track that against my goal, and second, it provides a source from which I can do other exercises, not the least of which is just reviewing the vocabulary I have already learned to keep it fresh in mind.

I keep my list such that it can be used with a Japanese flashcard program called JFC, by Glenn Rosenthal, which is free. You may also need an editor which can handle Japanese text, and there is an excellent free one by the same author called JWPce also on that page. I highly recommend JFC for the study and review of vocabulary. In the course of such study, you can also reinforce kanji acquisition (see below).

Every word in Japanese that I knew previously, or encounter naturally in the course of study goes on a word list that I keep in JFC format (EUC encoded). I'm continually encountering and adding words that I already know but got missed. I also draw words from all of the other materials that I use. New words that I don't know very well go on a separate list so I can drill them, or pay special attention to them in sentence exercises. Once I've mastered them with JFC, they get added to the main list. Constructing and maintaining this list is made easy with the EDICT dictionary in JWPce (EDICT-style entries are the same as the JFC format), although if you peruse my list, you'll note I've made several changes to make the file easier to use for learning purposes.

I've also added markings to indicate the pitch accent for all words in my list. I derive these from my Kenkyusha J-E dictionary, the NHK accent dictionary, or occasionally by asking someone when those sources fail. As I practice the flashcards, I say every word out loud, several times, with the correct tonality to reinforce it. Tonal patterns will often change in actual speech, but this is a good start, and certainly better than practicing no tonality or the wrong tonality.

The key thing to remember when working with JFC or any flash cards is that you don't cause yourself to remember things very well by static reading, but rather only by forcing yourself to remember them. First, try to learn a new word in context. Since you will get many of your words from your textbook, this is not a problem. Look others up in a good learner's dictionary, a good E-J dictionary, or Kenkyusha as a last resort and get some example sentences in mind. Once that's done for a set of new words, make some initial run-throughs in JFC for basic memorization.

Then comes the hard part. From that point on, you have to resist the urge to quickly reveal any answer you can't get. First try to remember it yourself. If you can't remember all of the word, can you remember any part of it? What was the first syllable? How many syllables did it have? What did it sound like approximately. Each time you dredge an almost-forgotten word from the depths of your memory, you forge a new connection to it that makes it easier to remember next time.

Only when you have given yourself a good amount of time (15-30 seconds at least) should you reveal the answer. Then, you must drill each missed card more frequently. JFC has settings to help you do this automatically. You must also regularly go back and refresh your memory on words you have learned before. This is also an easy morale boost, as you see just how many words you actually remember, and begin to realize that it's getting far easier to remember new ones.

Vocabulary in Action. As you learn more and more vocabulary in Japanese, you will be able to describe more and more of the world surrounding you with Japanese. Keep the language and your new vocabulary in mind as you go about your daily business. Keep an internal monologue going as much as possible that lets you associate real world objects with Japanese vocabulary. As you eat lunch, what foods can you name? As you walk around, what objects can you name? As you perform various actions, do you know verbs for them? As you walk into a room or look at an object, what adjectives describe it?

This exercise is endlessly variable and fascinating. It points up what you don't know, as well as giving you a feeling of gratification for what you do know. When you "mite iru" yourself in the "kagami" with your "haburashi" in your hand, with "mizu" coming out of the "jaguchi" into the "nagashi", you start to realize some of this is sticking, which is a good feeling. Then as you progress, start to arrange these bits and pieces into actual grammatical Japanese sentences, and it only gets better.

One final tip for vocabulary, especially for more advanced beginners (and beyond). Sometimes you'll come across words in the wild for which you don't have a good idea about usage. The first line of defense for basic words is a good learner's dictionary, or reverse lookup in a good E-J dictionary. If your computer is Japanese capable (as is Windows 2000 or XP, or any Macintosh out of the box), however, you can also search for the word on Google. Click on the language tools link, switch the language to find to "Japanese", and enter the word (its normal written Japanese form) into the search field. This will generally return a good number of real-life examples of the word in everyday usage. You can fall back on the dictionary capabilities of a program like JWPce to help you make sense of what you find.

Reading and Writing

For a beginning self-studying student, I don't recommend attempting to read more than simple sentences in Japanese beyond what your textbook provides. It is not an efficient use of time. The reading and writing of longer passages should be put off until intermediate study.

However, you should learn the kana syllabaries, both hiragana and katakana as soon as possible, and exercise that skill frequently. Normal learning order is hiragana first, katakana next (both together may take you a few weeks to a month for basic recognition).

Get yourself a good workbook for learning to write kana. You may want to drill recognition with flashcards first, but eventually, learning to write them is what will cement them in your mind. Learning kana is essential to taking advantage of many of the learning materials that I talk about here.

If you have access to a Macintosh, there is a kana drill program called "Kana Lab" (which is available from the main Japanese page) which is better than anything I've seen for PC. If you don't have one, it would be worth hunting up a library or a school with a Mac just to use it. It is particularly good because you hear a native speaker say the sound of the kana each time you click on one. If there is something similar for PC with native speaker pronunciation included, please tell me so that I can reference it.

I learned to write kana from a book from the 1970's that I bought from Ebay, but I'm learning kanji using the two volume set "Kanji and Kana" by Hadamitzky and Spahn. These will, as the name suggests, give you writing practice with kana, too. Aside from the book, which provides squares for you to write the characters, I would recommend making up some box-paper of your own, since you will want to write them many more times than you could in the book.

Once you have learned the kana, you may want to get your bearings a little in the language before plowing into kanji, but that's a personal decision. I approach kanji from multiple paths, hopefully all leading to a common place. As a relative beginner, I place no particular expectations on myself for knowing kanji compounds for vocabulary words, but the practical effect of my study is that I can recognize many of them. As an update, let me say that I'm getting to the point where I'm starting to expect more out of myself in this respect.

One method of learning kanji is a computer-based approach. I have written and continue to develop a drill program for kanji called KanjiLab. I have included in it techniques I formerly used with my handwritten flash cards, so I have abandoned those. In particular, KanjiLab presents the exact number of on-yomi and kun-yomi which need to be remembered, and it allows for drilling in the order of your primary written study method. Another good piece of software for this purpose is Kanji Gold.

The second approach is to work on writing. As with kana, kanji will only really be cemented in your mind as you learn to write them, because only in this activity will you have an internalized picture of what strokes are where in each one. It is also important to learn in context, and for that reason I have chosen the Bojinsha Basic Kanji books (and will follow on with the intermediate book). Kanji in Context is another highly recommended program.

The third method of learning kanji is really just an offshoot of vocabulary acquisition. In my word file, entries consist of the kanji compound, the kana reading, and the english gloss. I let JFC generate all three kinds of flashcards. When I run up against a kanji flashcard, I try to guess it. If I can't, I reveal the kana. I only mark it wrong if I can't get the meaning from the kana, but in this process I also begin to pick up in a kind of "whole language" way, kanji compound recognition of my vocabulary words. (On kana and meaning cards, I also take a moment to study the kanji before moving on). As an addendum to my update above, lately I have been marking cards wrong when I can't guess the word from the kanji, and subsequently drilling them until I can.

This approach has a useful side effect. When I run across kanji I have seen in JFC in kanji-specific practice, I often have "aha!" moments recognizing a kanji from a word I know, and instantly knowing one of the readings ("Oh yeah ... that's the 'shi' in 'shigoto'").

Once you start up on kanji, I'd recommend having handy: "The Kodansha Kanji Learner's Dictionary" by Jack Halpern. Even for a beginner, unknown kanji are pretty easy to find in it because it is arranged by SKIP code, which it teaches you how to use.

One final note on mnemonic methods. I don't find mnemonics (making up a story or mind picture to help remember the meaning of a kanji) to be very useful. Occasionally I will make one up reflexively on my own as I study a kanji for recognition, but ones that have been made up by someone else don't work for me. Furthermore, they are simply an additional memory burden. In particular, methods that emphasize recognition to the exclusion of learning readings (or putting such learning off until later) I particularly dislike. Kanji are sounds as well as meanings, and often I can read completely unknown words by knowing those sounds. This is my opinion, but other students swear by such methods.

Verbs and Adjectives

Verbs and adjective conjugations are very important to learn, and are critical to fluency. I've been through numerous twists and turns on this road, and have approached it from many sides. The method I like the best, however, can be found in the book "Japanese Verbs and Essentials of Grammar" by Rita L. Lampkin, which it seems is now out of print. Some have taken issue with the content and style of her book, however, she does include many verb endings that are not in other places, and at least one example sentence for all of them. I have written up a form of this method and will be including these and other verb inflections and constructions on my Verb Notes page.

"501 Japanese Verbs" is far from a perfect book on verbs, but I've found it to be a useful reference. I've also created a program myself which basically replaces and extends "501 Japanese Verbs" called J_Inflect. It works best on Windows NT, 2000, or XP (probably) or on a Macintosh. One thing it will do to help you is to reverse conjugate a verb, that is, take it back from an inflected form to a form you can look up in the dictionary, which is often very tough for a beginner. I'm in the process of overhauling this software and giving it a graphical user interface.

To get sufficient practice with verbs, I have another set of flashcards. On these cards are all of the verb conjugations patterns that I know (excluding ones that are not commonly used). On one side is the name of the inflection case, if it has one, an indication of the politeness level and if it is affirmative or negative, and a stand-in translation (such as "OK not to [do]"). In actual fact, only the stand-in translation and politeness level indication is strictly necessary for this purpose. On the other side is a rule for its production in the same format in which I express the rules on my verbs page above.

I sit down with a list of verbs and go down the list, dealing out a random card for each one, and performing the requisite conjugation (only if the verb would make sense in that form, of course). Then I try to think of some simple sentence I might use that verb form in. I do a portion of the cards each day (more on some days, less on others).

I also do the same thing with adjectives.

Sentence Construction & Grammar Acquisition

Grammar acquisition is the other side of the coin from vocabulary. It's good to know a lot of words, but you also have to know what to do with them, so working on the production of actual sentences, especially verbally, is another key activity. Fortunately there is an excellent book available called "A Dictionary of Basic Japanese Sentence Patterns" by Naoko Chino.

I'm working on applying what I've learned by coming up with sentences of my own, 20-30 per week, using vocabulary that I've learned, and working through the patterns one at a time.

Once I have completed working with that book, I intend to move on to "A Dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar" by Seiichi Makino and Michio Tsutsui. This is not really a book that lends itself to "working through" as a textbook, but my goal here will be to work on one entry per week (in random order, so it doesn't get boring), studying the material, and constructing sentences based on it. Then afterwards, I will continue on with "A Dictionary of Intermediate Japanese Grammar" by the same authors.

Both of these books are amazingly good. I consider them essential, and they have answered many random questions for me. Amazon disingenuously lists these two books as out of print, but you can get them at Sasuga Books, which is a good store to know about anyway.

In addition to those books, you should definitely not be without the following two:

"All about particles" by Naoko Chino. (Power Japanese series)

"Basic Connections" by Kakuko Shoji. (Power Japanese series)

Almost everything in the Power Japanese series is good stuff, but these two should be on every shelf.

Other Materials

As I have time, or need, I read through other materials I have gathered for insights or just a change of pace. Cultural reading is not only fun, but also a good motivational activity for language learning.

You can see all of the books I've collected thus far here. That page includes ISBN numbers for the books that have been referenced on this page. I will be adding some descriptions, reviews and recommendations as time permits.

What About Anime and Manga?

For a beginning student I highly recommend against considering anime or manga to be "study material". Watch it, read it (if you can), and have fun with it. But as a beginning student, consider it to be entertainment. A study break, not a substitute for structured study.

Anime is useful in the sense that it is another way for the immersion-deprived self-studying student to hear the language spoken, is abundantly available, and is particularly good if the action does not involve nonstop yelling or exploding. It's important to keep in mind that the language you hear has all sorts of things that could lead a beginning student the wrong way, such as highly colloquial usage, abrupt rather than polite language, feminine or masculine language, and weird words that don't exist outside of the stories they're in. Just as in English-language cartoons, these characters sometimes speak the way real people do, but often don't.

Also keep in mind that other forms of dramatic Japanese entertainment, such as movies, are also valid and available choices and may be more appropriate (i.e. less distorted in presenting common spoken Japanese), especially if the setting is modern. Local Asian markets often have a variety of tapes available to rent.

Manga has some of the same problems as anime and is written with kanji, so it is also not an efficient use of study time and may lead to more problems than it is likely to answer. However, if you can get hold of them, back-issues of the now folded Mangajin magazine are an excellent manga-based study aid. They also have two books of collected material. The first is unavailable (you'll have to do an out-of-print search or else look for someone selling a copy), the second may be available here.

The difference that makes this material more useful than raw manga is the copious explanation of the language that is used (including the politeness level) and the explanation of the social and cultural aspects that shape the use of the language in the presented situations.


I hope this has been helpful, and I would love to have some feedback at cmmcculley AT charter DOT net, and to hear about other methods that other self-studiers find useful in learning Japanese.

To the Japanese Language & Culture Page

Collin McCulley
cmmcculley AT charter DOT net
Last updated July 6, 2003.