Basic Japanese Grammar is the key to learning Japanese online or anywhere else.
If you are learning Japanese online, we recommend immersion tactics like the Japanese-Subtitled Anime Method. Learning basic Japanese grammar and vocabulary won’t teach you the language. It will only teach you about the language.
To learn Japanese online (or anywhere) you need to use it, both passively and actively. Children don’t learn grammar in their own language. They learn naturally and organically.
Can you do this? Yes. But you shouldn’t.
Why? Isn’t it the best way? Yes it is. But you still shouldn’t.
Why not? Because it takes thousands of hours and true immersion. That is why pseudo-immersion methods like Rosetta Stone don’t work.
People imagine that small children learn language quickly. They don’t. Think of how long they are “studying”. Almost every waking hour for years before they become “fluent”.
Also, small children have the massive advantage of not already knowing another language. You need something to make up for this. And since you have the disadvantage of knowing another language, you should leverage its (lesser) compensating advantages. The main, and only significant, one of those is your ability to learn grammar.
Grammar is a quick and dirty shortcut. But you should use it. It is going to help you enormously when you start to actually learn Japanese online by immersion methods.
How to Learn Basic Japanese Grammar Online
Assuming you are not in a class, how do you learn basic Japanese grammar, and what do you need to learn? Let’s walk you through how we did it:
1. Get a guide to basic Japanese grammar. This can be one of the standard textbooks like Genki 1 and 2 (I used them). If you don’t have money to spend, you can use Tae Kim’s Japanese Grammar Guide; it’s free and very good.
2. Get the Cheat Sheet! Download the Nihonshock basic Japanese grammar cheat sheet. It’s free (unlike the other Nihonshock products) and it is a work of genius. Get it, print it, laminate it and keep it with you at all times. It gives you the whole of basic Japanese grammar in one two-sided sheet (plus kana and basic kanji). At first it won’t all make sense, but as you learn grammar you can use it as a quick-check reference and brush-up learning tool all the time.
3. What about exercises? Textbooks have a lot of drill exercises. If they suit you you can use them. I didn’t (I never went to school and don’t understand exercises). Also you don’t have anyone to correct them. But you might need to drill some grammar points, notably verb and adjective conjugations. The Japan Times has a barebones but really excellent system of random quizzes on everything that really needs drilling. We don’t recommend a lot of time on drills. You should plunge into Japanese subtitled anime from pretty early. But you do need to get those conjugations firm and the Japan Times quizzes will cover that.
Note that on some browsers you may need to change the character encoding to Shift-JIS in order to see the quiz text. If you don’t like the technical stuff just use Firefox which handles it automatically and is the best Browser for serious Japanese learners anyway, because of Rikaisama.
Also, read how adjectives really work. It will make it much easier than the parrot-fashion instruction of most textbooks.
3. At what stage can I start learning Japanese, not just learning about it?
How dedicated are you? I started the anime method around the end of Genki 1. Did I have enough grammar by then? No. Not to understand everything, but enough to just barely manage. I watched Karigraushi no Arietty and it took hours. But really loved. I was moved to tears by Japanese words for the first time.
Let’s be frank. The anime method is not easy in the early days and you have to be pretty dedicated to use it, even if you leave it a bit longer. Any method of learning Japanese is tough unless you are prepared to learn at a snail’s pace and only know about Japanese at the end of it. If you want to do immersion you have to be ready to ganbaru.
Look, I’m a Precure/Ninja. Just tell me the mission. How much do I need to know?
OK, hero (and I mean hero). You need to know:
(Preferably some basic kanji)
The basic particles: wa, ga, wo, ni, he, to, de, mo, ka, no
Plain past (-ta form)
Plain past negative
Adjectives present, past, negative, past negative
All this is on your cheat sheet (you do have it printed and laminated, hero?) You won’t learn it from there but it will be your friend and companion once you have learned it.
With this and some vocabulary and a huge machete (in the form of Jisho and a willingness to research phrases you don’t understand) you can start slogging through some simple subtitled anime. You will have to let some things go.
You can also wait till you know everything on the cheat sheet. I didn’t. Whether you do or not you should be continuing to learn basic grammar. You need the other conjugations (you can probably manage without causative-passive. By the time it becomes an issue it will be logically obvious anyway) and the other things in the basic Japanese grammar texts.
You may be starting to learn a lot of this ad hoc by watching and looking things up. I found that by the time I got to Genki 2, as I came to each lesson I already knew more of it than I didn’t. I was mostly using it as a grammar checklist.
Are you having problems? Need help? Any questions? Did I miss anything? Use the comment form below.