A Quick Guide to How to Learn Japanese for Free

“Can I learn Japanese for free?” is a common question. Sometimes funds are limited and are needed for other things which just need to take priority in life. Even if that is not the case, if it is possible to learn for free, why not take advantage? Whatever your situation, please know that it is possible.

Japanese can be learned for free. It is made possible by a sufficient array of online resources, tools, and practice options. A structured approach matched with consistent and efficacious time spent learning from appropriate learning options will enable a learner to acquire the language.

Set Aside Learning Time

The first step in undertaking an endeavor such as learning Japanese is to set aside consistent time to spend learning. You will need to analyze your current schedule and make a dedicated, preferably daily, timeslot for learning. This may be challenge, especially for busy people with competing priorities, but it is necessary. Consistent time and effort really are the keys to long term gains.

Use Structured Resources to Learn Japanese from Zero

To make the most of your time, you need structure. It’s so much easier to keep moving forward if you have a structured set of lessons and learning material already laid out for you. All you need to do is to just keep showing up and putting in the time and effort to work through it. Several free options are available to choose from.

NHK World-Japan’s Learn Japanese Page

NHK World-Japan’s Learn Japanese page is an amazing resource. This did not exist when I was starting out. It’s a rich, colorful, thoughtful, and well polished introductory Japanese course. Take time to explore this page. There are several series of beginner lessons to work through such as conversation and grammar lessons, there are also podcasts and downloadable PDF materials. Take advantage of all there is to offer. Some of it is aimed at more intermediate level learners, but just look at the material tagged ‘beginner / elementary’, and then tackle each bit of material and each lesson one by one.

The Japan Foundation’s Collection of Japanese Learning Materials

The Japan Foundation’s collection of learning materials is another amazing resource. Again, take time to explore this page. The main free option for beginners is Irodori. At the time of writing, Irodori is series of three textbooks: Starter, Elementary 1 and Elementary 2. You can download the textbooks, accompanying audio and bonus materials, and go through it on your own or you can take a self-paced free course.

This link goes to the collection of three books with audio and bonus materials (it’s all free!).

For the Irodori course, at the time of writing, the course offering is based off the Elementary 1 and 2 textbooks. Starter comes before these, but you can work through it on your own. To take the course, you do need to register, but it’s free and fully self-paced. This link goes to the course registration page.

There is another free course as well from the Japan Foundation called Marugoto. This one has been around longer. The course itself is free and self-paced, but it is based on the content of the Marugoto textbook series which is not free. Course information and registration page is here.

There are also lots of free intermediate materials which you will find in the Japan Foundation’s collection as well such as Erin’s Challenge and Hirogaru.

Kobe Foreign Friend’s Seikatsu no Nihongo Text

Another completely free resource is from Kobe Foreign Friends called Seikatsu Nihongo Text (A Textbook on Japanese for Life). It is a beginner level textbook, plus audio material and supplemental material, which is based on learning Japanese through dialogues. I got the recommendation for this resource from Teppei of Nihongo Con Teppei. Before getting started with it, you should probably learn to read hiragana and katakana first as well as know how to pronounce the Japanese phonetic sounds (more on this below), but there is romaji provided. There are no detailed grammar explanations in the textbook, but you can supplement this elsewhere (more on this below too). The beauty is that you are learning Japanese by reading and speaking Japanese! Here is a link to Seikatsu Nihongo Text.

Tips when Going Through Your Japanese Learning Material
  1. Do not jump around too much between different resources. Pick one to work with and try to work through it consistently.
  2. When you are learning dialogues, read them aloud and do your best to try to act them out. When listening to dialogues, shadow them, i.e., after hearing a line, pause and repeat it out loud.
  3. Build your repertoire of vocabulary and phrases by putting everything into flashcards. There are many flashcard apps and programs. My favorite is Anki.

Getting Through Absolute Beginner Japanese

The above suggestions, especially NHK and Irodori, contain the first things you need to learn for getting through absolute beginner Japanese and beyond. Especially if you are learning for free, you are probably a self-learner, and it can be tough on your own, but just bear in mind the keys to get through this stage and the end goal.

The keys to learning absolute beginner Japanese are patience and commitment to learn the fundamentals of the language. The goal is to arrive at a point at which a sufficient grounding has been built to start dedicating study time to engaging with a high percentage of native content.

The very first things to learn when getting started with absolute beginner Japanese are the phonetic sounds, and the hiragana and katakana writing systems which are like alphabets. Below are a few free supplementary resources for learning these things.

Supplementary Resources for Learning Japanese Phonetic Sounds
Supplementary Resources for Learning Hiragana
Supplementary Resources for Learning Katakana

Once you have the fundamentals, you will be able to start building out your vocabulary, grammar, and kanji. These are long term pursuits. Use your learning materials, such as NHK or Irodori as your main guide, and supplement as needed.

For vocabulary, as much as possible, get it from context. It’s ok to memorize word lists at first when starting from zero, but even still, try to get your vocabulary from the context of dialogues and phrases that you will encounter in your learning materials.

Supplemental Resources for Japanese Grammar
Supplemental Resources for Learning Kanji

Kanshudo deserves special mention. The word Kanshudo in kanji is 漢習道 which might be translated as ‘the way of learning kanji’. Although the site does seem to center on kanji, there is so much more available to you. There are beginner and intermediate lessons, a grammar library, vocabulary lists according to JLPT level… When you create a free account on kanshudo.com, you get something called a dashboard from which you can navigate to the various resources.

There are tonnes more free supplemental resources for learning the things above. What is presented here is just a sampling of suggestions to help you get started.  

How do I Keep at it?

Learning a language is such an enriching experience. But it can be easy enough to get busy with other things, stray off course and neglect your language learning. You can combat this. Use the power of routine. Use the X effect in which you draw a grid seven cells wide and at least seven cells long where each cell represents a day of the week. Simply put an ‘X’ mark in the grid if you studied that day.

Don’t be unreasonable with yourself and set a tough goal that will have you constantly worrying about completing a certain amount of material within a certain time frame. Your goal is much simpler, set aside an amount of time everyday to learn, and just show up and learn during that time. It does not matter how far you get; it matters that you show up and put in an honest effort.     

What if I Get Stuck?

As you are learning Japanese, there will be times where you have questions or get stuck on things. Especially if you are a self-learner, learning for free, you may not have access to a teacher who you can ask for help. In these cases, use online communities such as HiNative, Japanese Language Stack Exchange, and Reddit’s r/Learn Japanese. Another great way to get answers would be to ask your language exchange partner (more on this below).

Graduating to More Native Japanese Input and Output

Once you are well on your way through the beginner stage and have a basic grounding in Japanese, you can and should spend more time on consuming a lot of input and working on your output as well. You can still continue studying grammar with free resources, but make sure a lot of your time is spent on input and output.

For listening input, podcasts where the presenter is speaking slowly and using fairly simple Japanese are great resources. I know that I have benefited from many hours spent listening to this kind of content. For reading input, you’ll want to focus on working through content that is close to, but still a bit above your level. Below are a few suggestions for listening and reading input.

Podcasts in All Japanese for Upper Beginners
Free Japanese Reading Material for Upper Beginners
  • NHK’s News Web Easy (I spent most of my time here, and there is listening practice too!)
  • Japan Foundation’s Nihongo e na Portal for Learning Japanese …our goal is to introduce – in a plain, straightforward way – various websites and online tools and apps useful for studying Japanese. Take time to go through this site. There are many resources in addition to reading. But for reading specifically, select the category ‘Reading’, and select your level e.g., ‘Beginner’.

Free Japanese Speaking and Writing Practice

Output is so critical to building your Japanese proficiency. No matter how well you can understand Japanese when you listen to it or read it, it is going to be hard to write it and especially hard to speak it spontaneously without practicing a lot. The best free way to practice with a native Japanese speaker is through language exchange.

Language exchange is defined on Wikipedia as “…a method of language learning based on mutual language practicing by learning partners who are speakers of different languages. This is usually done by two native speakers teaching each other their native language.”

An easy way to find a language exchange partner and get started is by using one of several free online platforms. Many platforms offer video call, voice call and chat functions. Within the chat functions, there are even sophisticated correction features so that you can get your mistakes corrected and correct those of your partner. Take time to explore the features of the platforms listed below.

Online Platforms to Connect with Native Japanese speakers

Note: at the time of writing, italki is now mainly focused on connecting students to teachers, in which students pay teachers for lessons. However, language exchange partners can still be found by asking in the italki community.

LangCorrect is a great free platform for writing practice specifically. The idea is to write journal entries in your target language, Japanese, which will be corrected by a native speaker. As a member of the LangCorrect community, part of your role is to also correct journal entries from other members who are writing journals in your native language.

Investing in Your Japanese Language Learning

If you are willing to invest some money into your learning, I also write about how you can self-study for a about $1,662 USD per year here. The figure works out to less than 5 dollars per day. While it’s totally possible to learn Japanese for free, as was demonstrated in this article, I have found that by using some paid resources, learning gets accelerated and you can get to a higher level faster. This is especially true if you work with a private teacher which I have written about here. But whichever path and whichever resources you use, just stay committed and just keep showing up. You will get there!

Colten Dumonceau

My goal is to provide information that will help you learn Japanese as quickly and effectively as possible. I have spent more than ten years learning Japanese, mostly self-taught, from absolute beginner to an advanced level. I believe its possible to go much faster than I did. Please let me share with you the best learning strategies I have uncovered.

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