Learning Japanese without a teacher

I learnt Japanese successfully, mostly on my own using japanesepod101.com, the Pimsleur audio programs, a few textbooks noted below, and a handful of iPhone apps.

How long did it take?Kyoto - Inari shrineWithin just a few months of starting to learn Japanese, I was able to travel around Japan alone for a month, with the help of a travel phrase book and a dictionary. This gave me the phrases I needed to book hotels, buy train tickets, order at restaurants, purchase items in shops, and follow directions to sightseeing locations.

Before I moved to Japan to teach English in 2010, I took a few intensive one-on-one sessions from a local school in Melbourne (iJapanese). I wanted to be able to chat with my co-teachers, and needed to work on my conversation skills.

I spent roughly 3 hours each week ‘studying’, and was reasonably fluent in two and a half years – this can be shortened if you spend more time. A number of language hacks and knowing how I learn best helped me maintain motivation.

And now?

To keep my skills fresh even though I’m living in Germany, I chat with my friend in Osaka regularly on Line and watch Japanese anime while trying not to rely on the subtitles. It’s still incredibly tiring when I hear Japanese and have to read German subtitles!

Resources for learning Japanese without a teacher


These podcases are by far the best audio resource I have found for Japanese. The premium membership provides access to a range of learning tools, so you can also get used to written Japanese and the kanji. The podcasts are quite funny and have inspired me to keep learning more than any other resource I have come across.

I’ve been listening almost from when they started with just a simple podcast. It was so successful that they have branched out into a number of other languages. Although I’ve also used the German podcast, and listened to a number of the English ones, their Japanese podcast is by far the most natural and fun.

GENKI I: An Integrated Course in Elementary Japanese

This text is extremely well written, easy to understand and just the right pace for me. There are many group exercises, but with a little imagination you can do those exercises on your own. I also have the workbook, audio program and answer key.

Japanese in Mangaland

This is an interesting textbook with loads of examples from manga in Japanese. I find this very useful for the less formal language found in manga and anime. I also have the workbook.

Remembering the Kanji

Mnemonics are the best way for many people to remember new information. These memory aids hook into your existing knowledge, your imagination, or your love of stories. The stories built into the ‘picture’ of each kanji helped me enormously to remember what they meant. Unfortunately, it did nothing to help me remember how to pronounce them!

Resources to learn Japanese without a teacher have exploded since I started in 2008. There are now hundreds of books, podcasts, audio programs, video series, apps and online tools that can help you quickly learn Japanese. Try them out and see which ones you enjoy the most!

Get inspired to learn more effectively

Picking up hobbies that use the language is a great way to speed up your language learning and keep your motivation high.
Japanese kimono accessoriesMy favorites are watching Japanese anime and cooking, particularly preparing bento lunch boxes (plus, a good side effect of bento lunches was losing weight!) I dove into the world of kimono and started collecting some obi, accessories, and eventually even a few kimono.

Perhaps you would be interested in Japanese martial arts (karate, kenjutsu, judo, aikido and more)? Or maybe some of the excellent jdrama television series, often available on YouTube with subtitles?

Tea ceremonies, ikebana and bonsai, origami, sashiko and other handicrafts, taiko drumming and other instruments like the shamisen, JRPG or Japanese role playing games on computers and hand-held devices, haiku poetry, jPop music – there are so many ways to immerse yourself in Japanese while doing something other than ‘studying’.

You’ll maintain momentum and motivation for your language learning when you find something you are interested in!

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