I have been muddling through teaching myself Japanese for a few years now, for better or worse. Along the way I have encountered a lot of pitfalls, and and managed to overcome a lot of challenges. Learning Japanese is not easy, but if you want to start down the road, I will share some of the things I have learned along the way.
1. Start by learning the kana.
The absolute first step in learning Japanese should be to learn hiragana and katakana. This will make your life so much easier. You simply won’t be able to get very far if you don’t know them, and it will utterly sabotage your learning more and more as you go along. There are a lot of them (46 of each), so it may take some serious studying. Also if you have never learning another set of symbols, it can be a bit mind bending at first, but it’s an amazing experience once you can finally look at something like this: てんきがいいからさんぽうしましょう and be able to make sounds out of it!
This brings me to my next tip, which is:
2. Avoid Romaji
Romaji is the writing of Japanese words in our letters. You probably come across it all the time if you are into Japanese culture at all.
Many Japanese textbooks use Romaji, and it may be fine for learning pronounciation, but once you know the kana it will really ruin your learning of the language. It will leave you utterly illiterate in the written language, and it will eventually make Japanese sentences too difficult to parse.
When you get to the intermediate level, there are many clues as to the meanings of sentences embedded in the placement of characters. Without having these available to you, you will eventually become frustrated and hit a total wall in your studies.
3. Use Flash Cards
Use flash cards for everything! Repeatedly drilling yourself on pretty much everything you learn is simply required to learn. There is so much to study and a lot of it looks the same, so not reviewing thingswill lead to confusion pretty quickly.
For a really good computer flashcard system, the free program Anki. It tracks how well you know each bit of information, and and automatically manages how often to show each card. It sure beats buying and wrestling with a bunch of index cards, trust me.
4. Begin Studying Kanji Early
Kanji are those horrible characters in which each one is a separate word or idea. To be proficient in Japanese, you have to learn around 2000 of these delightful little joys. This means you had better start early, because you don’t want to the point where you can’t continue without knowing them and then have to cram.
Many classical study methods for these things would have you learn both the meaning and the (sometimes many) pronunciations of each character. I have discovered that it is simply better to learn the meaning of each Kanji, then just learn the pronunciations as you go.
There is a great book dedicated to learning the meanings, Remembering the Kanji.
The method outlined in this book really works well.
As a companion to that, a good Kanji dictionary is a must. I would recommend The Kodansha Kanji Learner’s Dictionary. It has a really cool method for looking them up. My copy is dog-eared from heavy use. In fact it is one of the things I have made sure to take with me to Japan the times I have actually been there.
Hopefully these tips will help you, good luck with your studies!