In Part 1 I listed some good tools and books for learning the characters and words, but I didn’t touch on a very important subject: The grammar. Without it you wouldn’t be doing much more than grunting out some memorized words and hoping people can piece it together! (Interestingly enough, this is what the actual grammar feels like sometimes anyway).
The grammar of Japanese can be incredibly difficult, or incredibly easy. It all depends on what tools you use! Personally I have found it be be simpler than English grammar; the grammar is very regular, the rules are somewhat logical, and there are relatively few contradictions (which makes them easier to remember when you encounter them).
The wrong grammar book, however, can make your life a nightmare. Many books are little more than copied and pasted European language lessons with Japanese grammar switched in. This doesn’t work. Japanese requires a different way of thinking, and a totally different approach for Westerners to learn.
Thankfully I have learned through much trial and error what works and what does not work for me. And now I’ll pass some of that experience on to you.
Tae Kim’s Guide to Learning Japanese
This free online Japanese grammar textbook is simply the best guide to Japanese grammar I have found. It’s even better than any non-free books I have seen! Instead of starting from basic English sentences translated to Japanese like 90% of other books would do, this one begins by teaching you the building blocks from which Japanese grammar is formed, and then works its way up to proper full sentences. There is simply no better way to start thinking in Japanese.
Another fantastic feature of this guide is the section on common slang. The Japanese have formed a very bizarre sort of slang, and good luck reading a manga or understanding a TV show without understanding it. It’s a subject that is often strangely ignored, but incredibly important to your learning.
Japanese Step by Step
Japanese Step by Step is an excellent textbook on Japanese grammar. In particular, learning verb conjugations is pretty difficult, as there are a lot of strange little rules to memorize. The author, Gene Nishi, makes learning these rules super simple with nice flow charts and diagrams. This is pure genius, as having that kind of visual aid really makes learning it a snap. I would highly recommend picking this up as a companion to Tae Kim’s guide.
Japanese Graded Readers
Remember those little books with short simple stories you used to read in grade school? There is something very similar aimed at learners of Japanese: Graded Readers. These provide multiple levels ranging from absolute beginner to intermediate. These are a wonderful aid to studying, as they provide a means of immersion, but at a level you are comfortable with, and the stories are a lot more interesting than the usual inane stories most textbooks offer.
An absolute beginner should start at level 0.
If you are a bit more comfortable, try level 1. Or beyond. It goes all the way to level 5.