Learning Japanese – Tools of the Trade

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Perhaps you read the introductory post of New School Kaidan’s first ever “Learn Japanese” series or maybe this is your first time reading this and you want to learn Japanese. If this is your first time at NSK and/or you are new to Japanese Idols, check out Dae’s Idol 101 to see what we’re all about. Either way, I bet you’re itching to get started but maybe you don’t know where to start. This post will introduce some of the things that you can use to get started, things that might be useful to you, things that I think you should get, or a combination of all three. Think of it like a starter deck of trading cards, but in this instance it’s a starter deck of Japanese learning resources. The list is not in any particular order so please bear with me.

 

RealKana

A straight-forward site for you to learn hiragana and katakana. You can study for as long as you have it on practice mode. The site also helps you learn how to type the Japanese characters with a regular QWERTY keyboard so no, you do not need a special Japanese keyboard from Japan to type Japanese. This is also available as an app but unfortunately only for Apple devices. However, if you have access to internet on your mobile device, then just accessing it on your web browser should also be fine.

While I highly suggest RealKana because it’s just so straight-forward (not to mention free unless you get the iTunes app version for $3), if for whatever reason you want to use something else to learn your kana, then sure go ahead and use that instead. Just do not take too long learning them – if you take 4 weeks or longer to learn your kana then you better either get your ass into gear, learn to manage your time better, or reevaluate why learning Japanese is important to you in the first place. You can not learn Japanese without knowing kana and your idols are not getting any younger by the day either…or are they?

 

Anki

An ubiquitous app for Japanese learners and the most well made SRS (Spaced Repetition Software) to date. If you are learning Japanese, you will learn about this at some point or some one will recommend it to you like what I’m doing now. The reason why Anki is an effective software is because it is programmed with modified algorithms based on a learning technique called spaced repetition, which, long story short, makes it so that you don’t review items that you already understand for a while and items you don’t really know sooner. It is free as a download for your computer across all platforms and free on Android devices but costs $25 through iTunes. Some may argue that it is a quite complex software but I only use whatever is necessary – simply adding stuff within each card, nothing too fancy. The best part about Anki is that any cards you add using the computer application can be synched to your mobile devices through the AnkiWeb database. This allows you to study pretty much everywhere so long as you have Anki installed on your mobile device. Thanks to this feature of synching cards through the internet – which allows it to be a portable learning tool, Anki, in my experience, has been the biggest game changer in my Japanese learning journey and I wouldn’t have gotten this far without it. I have it installed on my iPod touch and while $25 may seem a bit steep for an app, in relation to how far I’ve come using it, $25 is a reasonable price. If you can’t afford it, then stop buying those 生写真, figure out how to manage your money better and/or deal with your money situation somehow. In later articles, I will go in depth on how I use Anki in my Japanese studies.

 

Tagaini Jisho

Tagaini Jisho is a free Japanese dictionary software for your computer which allows you to search kanji entries and words offline. While there is http://www.jisho.org for basic word searches, Tagaini Jisho already has an advantage over it by being able to use it offline. Not to mention that it gives you in depth information about every single word and kanji from each JLPT level, reasonably paced kanji stroke order animations for over 6000 kanji, homonyms, words that use a certain kanji, what the word/kanji means, etc. There are more features such as being able to create lists and making and using flashcards within Tagaini Jisho to name but a few, but I don’t really use them so I can’t really tell you much about it other than that I do occasionally have a list of words that I think will be important in the future.

 

 

Imiwa? 

Formerly Kotoba, Imiwa? is a free Japanese-English dictionary app for your mobile devices as long as your device is an Apple device. Imiwa? is like a slightly watered down version of Tagaini Jisho and while it’s neat that Imiwa? does also come with kanji stroke animations, it doesn’t give information about which words fall into which JLPT category and such. Basically, for all of your offline and on the go Japanese word searches, I recommend this app.

Unfortunately, since I do not own an Android device, I can’t recommend a good Android Japanese dictionary app. I’m counting on all of you Android users out there to leave a recommendation of your favorite Japanese dictionary app in the comments below. Also if you have a recommendation for a good Apple dictionary app then also let me know in the comments below.

 

Rikai add-ons

Rikaichan (Firefox)

Rikaikun (Chrome)

Rikaisama (For Windows & Linux only)

Just as ubiquitous as Anki for Japanese language learners, the Rikai family are all popup dictionary add-ons for your web browser and they allow you to transverse blocks of Japanese text with ease. The main problem that you might come up against with this tool is, let’s say you are a first time user of Rikaichan and you’re not very far in your Japanese learning yet. As you go through lines of Japanese, you might be confused as to which words are which. Do not panic and just play around with the tool for awhile until you get a sense of how everything works. Another problem is that Rikaichan was originally made for Firefox so if your main web browser is Firefox, you are in luck since Rikaichan is always being updated and runs much smoother than Rikaikun does. Rikaikun for Chrome still works fine but it is not without its hiccups. As for Rikaisama, I can’t say too much since I’m fairly new to this add-on. The only thing I use it for is when I want to switch the Japanese-English dictionary to the Sanseido Japanese-Japanese dictionary, so if you are at the point where monolingual study can take you to the next level, definitely try it out and let me know some neat things that you can do with it. For new learners of Japanese, you don’t need to worry about this feature of Rikaisama but do play around with some of the features and let me know if you find anything cool.

 

Something to take notes with

Now that you know about tools such as Anki and Rikaichan, you’re going to find that along the way you will want to have somewhere where you can store all of your various notes, preferably in one place and a place that you can access anywhere. If you are working from a computer, which is where most of the magic is going to happen, two places where you can take all your notes are Shrib.com and Google documents. My criteria for choosing these two were whether or not they could be accessible from any device and if Rikaichan will detect the words that you type on each site. I used Shrib in the beginning until I started using Google documents. The reason why I use Google documents now is because it auto-saves right after you’re done typing something and I wanted to keep everything on the same Google Drive ecosystem since I use it quite a lot. Shrib is not a bad site; it is extremely straight-forward so all you have to do is just start typing whatever you need and you will be able to save those notes to access later. The only problem that I had with Shrib is sometimes it has saving issues – like if you were saving something while you were disconnected from the internet for a little while, you might lose all of the notes that you typed so be careful when using this site. If you need to take notes while you are offline like let’s say on public transit, I would recommend you take them with just your mobile device’s native notes app so when you go online again, you can just copy and paste everything either onto Shrib or Google documents.

 

Textfugu

An internet self-study textbook created by Koichiと愉快な仲間たち at Tofugu. Unfortunately, this is not free and you can get access at either $20 per month or a flat fee of $120 for lifetime membership. This online textbook is good for people self-studying Japanese who have absolutely no knowledge of Japanese and would like to get their feet wet. This is the second textbook that I used after using Japanese for Everybody for a short while in 2010. Textfugu is a good way to gain confidence if you’re just starting out but you’ll realize after a while it has mistakes in a bunch of places. Textfugu teaches you kanji as well but as you’ll see in later articles, I stress that you don’t need to learn kanji individually and it’s completely fine if you skip all of the kanji sections in Textfugu. If you want to know why right now, feel free to watch this. Also the grammar that it currently covers is not even enough to pass the JLPT N5. So why is Textfugu on this list again? The reason is because it’s very beginner friendly and oriented towards self-study learners. If you don’t understand the explanations provided in Textfugu…then try harder. Again, it is useful for getting your feet wet and to demystify Japanese learning.

 

Japanese Sentences Patterns for Effective Communication: A Self Study Course and Reference by Taeko Kamiya

After I finished Textfugu in 2010 (there was not a lot of material on Textfugu yet) and got my feet wet, I quickly sought out the best books possible that would help me continue studying Japanese by myself because I was starting to get scared that things would just be left up in the air if I didn’t continue soon. My search led me to this book with a long name and I thank the based god that led me to it. It has short yet succinct descriptions of each grammar point, example sentences, introduces new vocabulary, and has sample problems that let you try out each grammar point. Unlike most books that are usually classroom textbooks or reference books, Japanese Sentences Patterns for Effective Communication is made specifically for self-studying beginners just like Textfugu. In fact, for just $15, I can say that it’s a good alternative to Textfugu. The only downside to this book is that instead of using kana, it uses romaji along with the sentences written in regular Japanese which is completely fine as long as you weren’t basing your studies off of using romaji. While I just recently discovered that there is an updated 2013 version of this book, I recommend the 2010 version in the picture above as I feel that the format is cleaner and better organized.

 

TaeKim’s Guide to Learning Japanese

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TaeKim’s Guide to Learning Japanese (Grammar Guide) Arguably the best (and free) Japanese self-study resource for grammar explanations, which should cover enough up until JLPT N5. After using Textfugu, I would use JSPfEC and TaeKim side by side while learning new words from TV shows. The only problem that I felt there was with TaeKim is that starting out with only TaeKim confused me so if you take a look at it right now and it confuses you, don’t worry about it. If you think you can hit the ground running on day one with TaeKim, feel free to just go dive right in along with JSPfEC.

 

A Dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar by Seiichi Makino and Michio Tsutsui

A Dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar. I can’t say much about the Basic edition of the “A Dictionary of—” series because I don’t own a copy it but I do have both the Intermediate and the Advanced editions. They are extremely precise in explaining the grammar points and differences between grammar points but it’s tailored for people studying Japanese and not for linguists so you can rest easy. Like JSPfEC, it uses romaji along with regular written Japanese but once again, as long as you aren’t completely using romaji to learn Japanese then it’s completely fine. This series is a must have for everyone studying Japanese.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Japanese Input method for your computer

Gotta learn how to type in Japanese.

For everything else

 

A portable electronic device that has WiFi

(laptops, smartphones, tablets, mobile devices – eg. iPod Touch)

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I will assume most of you who are viewing this website and reading this article are using a personal computer, tablet, have some kind of smartphone and/or iDevice. However there are times where I come across people, and when I’m giving them advice, maybe they don’t have a tablet or they don’t have a smartphone. It’s fine if you happen to have a laptop, but lugging it around starts to feel like a chore after a while unless you have a MacBook Air, or an ultrabook. I believe that in this day and age, we should exploit the current technology and resources available to us because compared to what was being used by Danny Choo in the 80’s and 90’s, there should really be no reason why we can’t be learning Japanese efficiently. Unless the problems for you are time and/or money issues – which again, is something that you have to solve for yourself. There are just so many useful apps, sites, ways to share information, audio, video, all at your finger tips that I think you would be missing out on if you don’t have at least a personal computer. So just let me say, if you do have the chance, please do consider investing in a portable electronic device that has Wifi.

There you have it. All the things that you need to start learning Japanese. Just remember to keep in mind that all of these resources are only useful if you put in the time to use them. Originally, I wanted this to be a weekly thing but I figured if I motivated you enough, then I’m sure you will want to get started right away. If you do find some other resources that help you out better than any of the things listed here, then go ahead and use those. If there is anything that you think deserves recognition, something you don’t agree with, thought this was a good list などなど, let us know in the comments below! Or just write 「ありがとう!」 in the comments below after you’ve installed Japanese input on your operating system!

 

おまけ:
Google先生

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8 thoughts on “Learning Japanese – Tools of the Trade”

  1. Hi,
    I would add Wanikani to this list.
    It’s a site for learning kanji (meaning and readings) using a SRS system and mnemonics. It’s really good and you can test the first level for free.

  2. Great article, and I’m happy to say that I use a lot of the same resoucres and can back up Missing’s comments! Also check out that video he linked, its 素晴らしい!

  3. That’s pretty much what I used too, except I had different textbooks. They are good to get a basic sense of how Japanese sentences work, as TaeKim’s guide is indeed a bit too arid for a beginner. But I would quickly ditch them, read half of TaeKim, switch to the Anki deck of the 8500 basic/intermediate/advanced dictionnaries of Japanese grammar, and just do that, focusing on understanding the grammar and not the vocabulary. The 3 books themselves are only useful later, to check for more precise understanding and nuances.

    And I would add Heisig, Remembering the Kanji, book and Anki deck, to do ASAP, probably something like learning all between Tae Kim and the 8500 sentences deck, and reviewing while going through the deck.

  4. I’ve tried out a couple of those in your post. Tae Kim’s guide is superb.

    For my Android devices, I use JED (https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.umibouzu.jed&hl=en). I’m unsure if this is the best choice since I haven’t tested any others since I first installed this. I like that I’m given the choice to search for words in both English and Japanese (romaji, kana, kanji) and they do provide rather detailed results. Just check out some of the screenshots and reviews on Google Play.

    There’s also Maggie Sensei (http://maggiesensei.com/) which has some rather interesting Japanese lessons too that you might find worth checking out.

    I’m currently trying out WaniKani and am only at level 1 still. It has helped me memorize a number of kanji and radicals, but I’m not sure if I’ll go through with paying once I hit level 2. I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it I suppose.

    Anyway, have fun and thanks for the list. I might hit up Anki soon to try and work on memorization.

  5. Why the insistence that 4 weeks is how long it takes to learn the writing elements? To my mind, writing and reading are the most difficult parts of language training, unless you already know them from your native language.

    Most people learn to talk well before they learn to read and write. Why not learn a new language in that order?

    Not disputing here, just asking for clarification, as this might be part of why it is so hard for me to pick Japanese up.

    1. I am insisting that learning your kana (hiragana and katakana, kanji not included), should take less than 4 weeks. When I mean by learn them, I mean just be able to read and recognize them, not necessarily write them though that is a bonus if you can. 4 weeks is how long it takes a bad Japanese college class to teach you hiragana and katakana when it really should only take 1 week. I also said 4 weeks because I take account readers who have real jobs and families because I am a student and have no idea what that feels like. If you do Remembering the Kanji by James Heisig, the plan is to get you to “know” all the 2200 常用漢字 by at least 3 months, so how much is it for 96 kana in comparison for approximately a month? Also you could learn kana for a long time but I don’t think its the goal for many people to prolong getting better at something.

      Now as for the talking over reading thing, you can take what I say and it’s up to you to decide whether or not its legitimate advice or not. (This is just what I think but) First of all, most people know how to talk well either because it’s their second language or they grew up in a bilingual environment. I grew up with in a Filipino family that spoke Bisaya as well as English but didn’t pick up Bisaya at all. So I think that, if it’s not your mother tongue language or the language that you were (or were not) able to pick up growing up, you lose ability to absorb the language at the pace that a baby can or a maybe a child that’s a few years old.
      Second is that since you’re not a child that’s 3 years old, you understand the idea of concepts, writing systems and such so it seems more logical to learn and refer to something that is easily documentable.
      Thirdly, one thing that you didn’t address was listening so I’m not quite sure how to go about answering this but, more than anything, (talking, reading, writing), the thing that most people can do regardless of age and can do first is listening comprehension. Most people can comprehend first before they’re able to speak, and even if they’re not able to speak well, they at least can comprehend to a certain degree.

      so >>TL;DR<<
      I don't think many people are able to speak a second language well unless they grew up in an environment that allows them to do that. But even then, that doesn't guarantee that they will learn that language (I am one of those cases).

      However, rather than learning to read, write, and talk, you should focus on comprehending because when you're pairing formal language learning (assuming you didn't grow up in your second language environment) with 10,000 hours of listening through virtual immersion, thats when you're starting to get good and talking is just a way of showing that off.
      This all comes from Stephen Krashen's Input Hypothesis which I have applied to my studies
      http://www.wisegeek.com/what-is-the-input-hypothesis.htm

      To demonstrate why comprehension is important, let's take this example. You can learn how to ask for directions in Japanese but if you go to Osaka and get lost, will you understand the answer?

      With that said, I hope you get what I'm trying to get at, I don't feel like I answered your question adequately enough.

      1. This makes perfect sense. I was confusing the 96 symbols with the much larger set of 2,200. So a week deadline seems much more reasonable.

        Also, I guess my tactile learning slant makes it easier for me to learn symbols when they tie to works I know. Of course, I already know quite a few Japanese words, so I would have a bit of a jump there.

        Thanks for the follow-up and explaination!

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