Chances are you want to learn Japanese:
- to a high level of fluency
If that is the case, here are the 5 best tools to support you in your journey to Japanese mastery.
1. A comprehensive primary learning path/material
If you're just starting out, you want something that will take you from being an absolute beginner to a high level of proficiency with a minimal amount of time and money wasted. In other words, you want to avoid constant jumping between learning materials, activities, and so on.
If your learning path looks like this, then you're much more likely to get frustrated and give up:
Instead, you want a single, straight path that takes you from zero to a high level of well-balanced ability in the language.
Obviously I think the best option for this is NativShark., as that is exactly what it was designed to be. But I'm a founder of NativShark, and I work there, so I'll mention other alternatives here.
If you have the money for it, you could attend a Japanese language school in Japan, which will probably get you better results than a university program in your home country, likely with less time and money invested. If you don't have the ability to drop everything in your life and become a full-time student in Japan, you can create a similar experience from home. They'll use a series of textbooks to get you where you need. Generally speaking, I'm not a fan of textbooks, as they're very bad at teaching everyday spoken Japanese, and they're really boring to me, but if you want to do this with books, you might be looking at a series like this:
Genki I → Genki II → Tobira or Integrated Approach → [custom resource (see below)]
Minna no Nihongo Beginner 1 → Minna no Nihongo Beginner 2 → Minna no Nihongo *Intermediate 1 → Minna no Nihongo Intermediate 2 → [custom resource]
*Books and sites that label their Japanese learning content as "Intermediate" or "Advanced" almost never are. Just "Beginner" or "Advanced Beginner" or something like that would be much more accurate.
These textbooks have lots of supplementary workbooks and whatnot to go with them, so they'll likely run you several hundreds of dollars, which isn't ideal, but there are not a lot of options when it comes to a primary learning path. Another option is to get a reference book, then go through all of the patterns in that. This would likely be a bit overwhelming at first, which might put you at risk of quitting, but once you get over the initial hurdle, they tend to have more useful information packed in them than textbooks. A popular example would be A Dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar, followed by the Intermediate and Advanced versions of the book. I personally prefer this book of Japanese sentence patterns, which you could do in order of JLPT levels. Each sentence will take you a long time to decipher if you're still a beginner, though.
Another option would be to study the absolute basics with an affordable smartphone app like Busuu or LingoDeer. These won't get you to a very high level, and they aren't very good at teaching natural spoken language, but they in theory could get you to a high enough level that you could start making a custom resource, which is a fancy way of saying "study materials that interest you", whether they be video games, manga, or whatever. Break down every single sentence, look up every word you don't know, then move on to the next one. This method is effective, but the risk of burnout is pretty high.
If you follow this approach, taking notes and making flashcards is optional, and if you overdo it, you could actually slow your progress. The long-run value of notes and flashcards is highly debatable (I'm personally against it), although it can help to boost confidence that progress is being made. Studying native materials in this way is a slog when you're still at lower levels, but it's technically possible once you've gotten the basics down. Just be patient and keep showing up.
2. A long list of "lazy" study materials
Much of the time, you won't feel like studying, or even thinking much in general. Or you'll be physically unable to do so because you're exercising, commuting to work/school, etc. You can fill this low-quality time with easily digestible learning materials. These are things that make you better at the language, only very inefficiently. Examples:
- Japanese language podcasts
- Most mass-market apps like Duolingo
- Blog posts about the Japanese language
- YouTube videos
- NativShark Shadow Loops
- Shared Anki flashcard decks
Pick whatever interests you, then try to log hundreds or thousands of hours interacting with it. Even if you zone out half the time and feel like you're retaining nothing, your brain is actually picking up little bits of the language. And more importantly, thinking about learning Japanese and hearing other people talk about it is likely to keep you more motivated.
3. A Japanese tutor or teacher
For most people, it is too inefficient and expensive to use a human teacher as your primary learning material. However, interacting with actual Japanese speakers who have a vested interest in helping you to improve is still an invaluable activity. This is particularly important if speaking is a large part of your goal in learning Japanese, as opposed to just enjoying the latest episode of your favorite anime without subtitles.
You can find affordable teachers or exchange partners on sites like italki, Cafetalk, and so on, or using apps like Tandem. Bonus points if you can find a person you meet face-to-face in the real world on a regular basis, perhaps at a coffee shop or something.
4. A community of fellow learners
It might be hard to find people in your local area who share your interest in learning Japanese, but there are plenty of us online. I've seen many friendships blossom in NativShark's free Discord community, for example.
5. A plane ticket to Japan
Or any other scheduled situation in which knowledge of the language will prove highly useful. At the time of writing, I have a flight booked to Seoul, Korea six months from now, and this alone is causing me to study the language more than I normally would.
Just imagine all the great times you're going to have there, and how much better they'll be if you study a bit now.
Tertiary learning materials, like kanji workbooks or a pronunciation course.