I think I’m learning Japanese, I really think so

If you’ve ever been curious enough to investigate the Japanese language, it’s likely you quickly discovered it is not for the faint-hearted. With two phonetic alphabets as well as kanji, the logic behind learning is completely alien compared to the English language.

If you read no further, the only thing I want you to take away is SRL – Spaced Repetition Learning.

I haven’t even departed yet, but my go-abroad adventure has already been full of hurdles, resulting in an untimely change of host to the University of Nagoya. This is simultaneously exciting and terrifying since I don’t speak a single word of Japanese. I’ve had three months to build up a survival dictionary in my memory or else get swallowed up in the city upon arrival in September…

I’ll briefly walk you through some of the main techniques I found helpful in learning the new language, as well as give you a VERY basic introduction to the language itself. The links provided within my attempted explanations will hopefully be enough to get you up and running in your Japanese adventure.


I am so mad at myself for not learning about SRL sooner! I wish I had used this to study for my entire degree!

The idea is that the human brain tends to remember things better (and for longer) if it has to fight to recall them. As you try harder to retrieve a piece of information from the deepest crevices of your cranium, your mind begins to realise: ‘Hey! Maybe this is something important and I should store it more effectively so I don’t have to try so hard next time’.

Learn batches of 5-10 symbols, and then wait five minutes before you test yourself. Then wait another 10 minutes, and then 30. Keep returning to the symbols every few days, with the spacing between each test increasing as you become better at recalling the information.

There are plenty of Japanese learning websites and apps that use this method. Wanikani is one I used for getting a feel of SRL, and is free for the first 3 levels. It introduces you to radicals, kanji and vocabulary (discussed in later parts). Once I understood the way it worked, I began forming my own SRL ‘decks’ of kanji and words using a desktop app called Anki (Anki being the Japanese word for memorisation).


Japanese holds no resemblance to Latin languages. There is no way to transfer the valuable primary school learning the way we did for our high school French or German lessons.

This is where mnemonics come in. “The study and development of systems for improving and assisting the memory” as google puts it. Many websites have standard mnemonics that they teach (some are wildly outlandish) and they really work! They are easy to come up with on your own, and all they require is a bit of creativity for a story or slogan to go with each character that lets you link it to it’s English counterpart. This makes recalling characters much easier since stories have a habit of staying with us.


Hirigana table taken from Genkinahito

The list looks daunting at first, but in the ‘romanji’, the phonetics are sounds we are all familiar with. They are the building blocks of all Japanese words.

Tofugu is an excellent website that walks you through the process of learning Japanese, and carefully explains the mnemonics (see links below for their lists of hirigana mnemonics)




Katakana chart taken from Kanaquest

Katakana is an equivalent set of symbols as the hirigana, except they are mostly used to spell out foreign words – アメリカ = a-me-ri-ca, モーツァルト= Mo-tsu-a-ru-to (Mozart).

Learn these using the same process as the hirigana, and that’s two out of three ‘alphabets’ learnt already!



I began using realkana.com for memorising the hirigana and katakana – a simple online quiz where you can select which sets of syllables you’d like to test yourself on.

Learning all the kana can take a few hours if you speed through it, or if you pace yourself, it shouldn’t take more than a few days. The timing is up to you and you will know how best you learn, but just remember to keep returning to test yourself so that you don’t forget any and you’ll be set!

You will find that both kanas are always subtly involved with the rest of your Japanese learning: within the pronunciation of kanji, or as aspects of a word or sentence.


Before we jump into kanji, learning about radicals is an important step. Kanji characters can be complex, frequently with more than 10 strokes per character, and so breaking the characters up into building blocks called radicals can help with remembering the kanji structure, and sometimes even the meaning.

Looking at the kanji for ‘write’, you can clearly see the different radical shapes: the ‘drop’ in the top left, three horizontal lines, the ‘mouth’ in the bottom left, and the ‘five’ on the right. These common features appear in many kanji. Each radial can be memorised using mnemonics and these mnemonics can be developed when memorising actual kanji.

Wanikani is an excellent resource for this: they provide you with the mnemonics for each of their radicals, walk you through how they make up the kanji characters, and then develop the mnemonic further for the kanji so that it becomes efficient to memorise each character.


My initial reaction to kanji was that it is like learning a language completely made out of emojis, and each emoji has a specific pronunciation which is almost impossible to extract from the shape of the character itself, and with different readings depending on which other characters it is next to. Frightening.

However! Do not be put off, even if at first it seems completely illogical. Eventually, learning the kanji becomes habit, and the more frequently you practice, the better. When you find a new kanji, learn the stroke order of different radicals, learn the different pronunciations, learn words and sentences using that kanji. Try find a few new kanji as often as you can – not too many so you are overwhelmed, but enough that you can commit to studying. Add them to your SRL routine. Grow your vocabulary in topics that interest you. An example: I study chemical physics and so I try to find words and phrases I would use around the lab. I love Japanese food, and so when I crave a whole packet of dumplings from my local Oriental supermarket in Edinburgh, I read the Japanese cooking instructions, figure out what I can, and use the writing tool on google translate to fill in any gaps. Any new kanji goes straight into my Anki deck and will randomly pop up in my daily quiz.

There are so many ways to access new vocabulary! Websites like Japan Buzzfeed, where the content is secular and often self explanatory, are great left untranslated. A chrome add on Rikaikun is a quick way to clarify any unknown kanji- simply hover your mouse over the kanji and a detailed translation appears!

Using Rikaikun on Japan Buzzfeed

There is so much you can do to enrich your Japanese learning experience. I feel I have only just begun, but it became so quickly addicting that now I am always hungry for more opportunities to read more kanji and learn new sentences.

SRL is amazingly efficient, and if you stick at it past the initial fear-stage, it will take you no time to get into the Japanese groove.

I will leave you with a gif of Kirsten Dunst.

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