tl;dr - This essay is broken into four sections: 1) why I’m learning Japanese, 2) some basics about Japanese alphabets, 3) what makes it a hard language to learn, and 4) the tools I’m using to learn it. If you just want to know about that last bit feel free to scroll down to the bottom.
I've always wanted to learn another language. For years, I would pick up Duolingo and mess around with it for a few weeks before moving on to something else. Then, a little over a year ago, my best friend decided that he wanted to learn Japanese. While I’d love to say that being able to speak Japanese has been a lifelong dream, my motivation is slightly less pure. Specifically, I took the fact that Japanese is, by some accounts, the most difficult language an English speaker can attempt to learn, as a personal challenge.
This changed the shape of my learning journey. Now, instead of trying to optimize for short-term usage, I was headed down a path that would take years to complete. Knowing that was surprisingly helpful with my motivation, as it changed my whole perspective around comprehension, ensuring the time took to learn new things didn't get me down. I was finally equipped for my language journey: I had motivation, a partner, and time, and that is all you need. Or so I thought.
If you're already familiar with the Japanese, you can probably skip this section.
For readers who are not familiar with the Japanese language, I'll take a brief interlude to explain some foundations. There are three character sets, two of which are phonetic (like the English alphabet), meaning that they each have a specific sound. The first is called hiragana(ひらがな) and is the most basic/ubiquitous of the three. The second is called katakana(カタカナ) and generally has more specialized usage. For every hiragana, there is a corresponding katakana. They are generally used to represent "loan words" like バス(basu) for "bus" or パン(pan) for "bread" (from Portuguese). Having multiple phonetic alphabets sounded very strange to me at first, until I realized that English has also has two (not counting cursive)! Look at each letter in "bard" compared to "BARD" to see what I mean.
The final character set, Kanji(漢字), is the one that most people have heard of. It is also one of the most daunting aspects of learning Japanese. There are roughly 50,000 Kanji, but the vast majority of them are no longer in use. The Japanese government maintains a set of 2,136 Kanji that must be taught at school but most educated Japanese adults know somewhere from 3-4,000 (I can't find any official numbers on this). If you work in a specialized field like medicine, or if you are an academic, that number can go as high as 6,000! I'll talk more about Kanji and their challenges a bit further on.
Grammatically, Japanese is about as different as you can get from English. The sentence structure is so different that you essentially have to think in reverse (some resources even teach the basics with Yoda). As you learn more advanced/casual grammar, you find out that things can go in pretty much whatever order you want. This does not help in the slightest. Prepositions (in, at, on) in English are post-positioned in Japanese and have little in common. Plurality is complicated; In English, "book" is unequivocally singular. In Japanese, 本(hon), isn't plural or singular, plurality is indicated by context, or by adding qualifying words. I could go on, but I say all this only to explain that learning Kanji isn't the only barrier involved in learning Japanese.
Back to the topic at hand
It became clear to me pretty quickly that Duolingo just wasn't going to cut it. The concepts didn't map well to the Japanese language and, in all honesty, I think Duolingo's framework just isn't challenging enough in general. This realization started my search for better tools. I had learned that multiple-choice/drag and drop questions are not an effective way to study languages. You need to be "producing" and "translating". Additionally, to learn Japanese you need to use tools that are tailored to Asian languages, or better yet the Japanese language itself. These two conditions knock out a lot of the most popular contenders like Duolingo, and Memrise. I'm not suggesting that those tools don't have value, or that they aren't a good place to start, but that there are more effective tools out there.
I'll spare you the whirlwind tour of every other tool that I tried and ultimately cast aside and skip ahead to the good stuff. What I ultimately discovered is that, at least for Japanese, you need to front-load Kanji and vocabulary. I've heard many people talk about this, and it is clear that they know it is true, but have trouble articulating why it is true. Luckily, I think I'm at a point where I can explain the issue. Keep in mind, this is not meant to discourage, only to explain why trying to just dive into Japanese probably won't get you very far.
You can learn to "read" English, with its relatively simple phonetic alphabet in a matter of days. Your pronunciation will often be wrong, and you certainly won't know what all the words mean, but you can turn symbols into sounds from an early stage. What this means is that, generally speaking, trying to remember a word that you see is the same as remembering a word that you hear. This same parallel isn't true for Japanese, because of Kanji. It typically takes at least a year, and typically longer, for an adult to learn the Joyo Kanji (what Japanese children learn in school). If you're presented a word that contains a Kanji that you've never seen before, there is no good way to know how it sounds. There are some patterns/tricks you can use to make decent guesses but this method is not reliable. This prevents you from trying to remember if you've ever "heard" this new word before. Worst of all, if you can figure out the meaning of this new word from context, you still won't know how to say that word to someone else.
To put this in context, there is a site called NHK Easy News that presents a simplified version of Japanese news articles. I know 1000 kanji currently, and that represents ~90% of the Kanji that they use on NKH Easy News. That may sound like a lot but having to stop on every 10th word to look it up, and not being able to turn these unknown words into sounds to help you remember/let you access your auditory memory makes trying to read without a really good grasp of Kanji extremely tiring. The thing I didn't mention yet: "Knowing" a kanji doesn't mean you know how to say it in every context. For example, the Kanji "人" in "人類", "一人", "芸人" is read differently for each (jin, ri, nin)! So I know 90% of the Kanji, but do I know 90% of all of the ways they use Kanji? Probably not.
Again, this wasn't meant to discourage you, but to show the merits of this approach.
I'm still just barely intermediate at Japanese but I believe this "stack" is going to take me well into the realm of high-intermediate/advanced, and give me an excellent foundation to continue my learning from. The magic in all of these tools is that they use an SRS or "Spaced Repetition System", that is designed to quiz you on things that you've learned just before you forget them. You'll be amazed at how much you can stuff into your brain using an SRS. All of the tools I use are based around an SRS. Prioritize these tools in descending order. The workflow is simple: If you have any pending reviews or lessons in a higher priority one, do those first. Get back to the other tools if/when you have time.
WaniKani is a system that teaches you most of the Joyo Kanji, and ~6000 vocabulary words in an order tailored to English speaking adults. Their website will explain much better than I could. Wanikani is very much a "point and shoot" solution and it works wonders. Do your lessons when you have time, and do your reviews when they come up, and your Kanji and vocabulary knowledge will skyrocket.
WaniKani doesn't do everything. Specifically, it doesn't present you with the English translation of a vocabulary word and have you provide the Japanese word with the same meaning. Luckily, a tool was developed that integrates with WaniKani to provide exactly that. This takes your vocabulary learning to the next level. Just using WaniKani will set you up well for reading/listening, but with KameSame, you'll find yourself able to locate Japanese words on demand, which is (naturally) crucial for speaking.
Since I started using it, the creator has added a whole host of tools that will make it an extremely useful tool to have in your arsenal, even after you've completed WaniKani. This is one to keep your eye on. Unlike WaniKani, you add lessons at your own pace here with no real cap, so be careful not to get overzealous.
I said Kanji/Vocab first but not only. Bunpro is an amazing tool for learning grammar via practice. I've never seen anything quite like it, but it embodies the SRS system even while presenting you with different variations of the grammar you are reviewing. In the same way that KameSame will amp up your word production, using Bunpro for a couple of months will have you expressing ideas and building sentences that aren't just "subject-object-verb".