After learning that I was enrolled in language classes for Nihongo, someone asked if I could teach them. I wish I could but I’m still at the starting gate myself. Best tip I can give to anyone who wants to learn the language, but doesn’t want to (or cannot for whatever reason) enroll in a class yet: learn the kana now. It will be a big help when you finally sit down and start learning the language.
What is Kana? Think of this as the Japanese alphabet. Merriam-Webster defines kana as:
a Japanese system of syllabic writing having characters that can be used exclusively for writing foreign words or in combination with kanji (as for indicating pronunciations or grammatical inflections); also : a single character belonging to the kana system
There are two forms of Kana, each with 46 characters. Hiragana is mainly used for native words while Katakana is used for scientific terms and foreign words. Knowing hiragana and katakana will allow you to read and say almost all words (except those in kanji – that’s a whole new ball of wax!); understanding the words though will require study.
I suggest practice writing the various kana, beginning with hiragana. The characters are grouped so you can learn them in sets of 5, begining with the vowels. Write them over and over until you can acurately recognize the characters everytime you see them even if they are mixed into a whole page of characters. Here’s a chart to illustrate (courtesy of http://www.learnfromzero.com).
There is a certain precision to the way kana are written. While we do not have the advantage of having learned these from childhood, we do have the benefit of apps such as Learn Hiragana and Learn Katakana. These apps have options to help you learn to write them well and using the proper stroke order, as well as the option to test recognition. These work offline so you can do these while on break. or while waiting in a cafe or restaurant.
If you don’t have a phone or tablet to use, paper is fine. There are youtube videos that demonstrate how to write the Kana. They even teach a few words that use the characters they have you write during the session. After, you can go to sites like Usagi-chan’s Genki Resource Page to test your memory. The tests even have a timer to see how long it takes you to get the characters in place.
I’d also suggest giving yourself a time limit in which to learn the full set of hiragana and katakana. Pushing yourself to learn within a set time period often ensures you actually learn it. You might be surprised how easy it is to learn when a challenge of learning it, in say a week, is set. Of course, no one will know if you don’t meet your target but as with many things, diligence and self-discipline will be needed if you truly want to meet the goal.