Learning Japanese is hard work, but we’re here to make it easier for you! Here’s a guide that will help you learn Japanese through video games!
If you haven’t taken classes to help prepare you, or even if you have taken classes but are used to relying on a teacher for help with material, it can be even harder. In many ways, you’ll be like a video game protagonist, thrust into the world map with only a vague understanding of the battle system. Let this article act as your basic equipment as you depart in the vast world of Japanese!
How to Learn Japanese Through Video Games
Before we jump in, note that as fun as learning Japanese through playing video games sounds, it’s also a lot of hard work. If you just mash A to skip the dialogue, you may reach the end of the game, but your Japanese won’t become much better.
Additionally, for most people, I still recommend taking classes if possible. Classes can provide structure and a strong foundation that is indispensable in language learning. To this end, although this guide has been primarily written for absolute beginners for the sake of practicality, the majority of the advice here is applicable for people who have taken classes, but are just getting into playing games (or watching anime or reading books… Or manga! ) in Japanese.
Now then, let’s begin!
1. Learn Hiragana and Katakana
Alright, I told you a small lie. Knowing Hiragana and Katakana isn’t “basic equipment”. It’s more like having a controller to play the game.
Imagine trying to learn English without being able to read the alphabet. It seems ludicrous, right? But I have seen people try to learn the language without learning Hiragana and Katakana on more than one occasion. They don’t get far.
It may seem daunting to learn 48 characters in each set, but the sooner you get started, the sooner you are done! Once you get started you’ll find that it is easier than it seems, and many Hiragana and Katakana resemble each other!
Once you are vaguely familiar with the characters and how they work, you need to practice. Use flash cards to drill them in your mind, or practice writing them while saying them out loud. Make the flash cards yourself so you can practice writing them! Basically, the more parts of your brain engaged in learning the Hiragana and Katakana, or anything else, the better you will remember them. If you have a desk with open wall space, printing out the Hiragana and Katakana tables and hanging them just to see would be beneficial as well.
If you have done all of that and are still having trouble, you can take Hiragana and Katakana practice beyond by looking up Japanese sentences and either writing them down for practice, or speak them out loud. Or both! Remember, engage that brain! If you are looking to do this, you may find that example sentences don’t often have Katakana, so I would recommend looking up Pokemon names, or dialogue from Famicom (Japanese NES) games to practice Katakana. Focus on pronunciation and recognition, and keep in mind that vocabulary will come later.
Finally, make sure you practice with them every single day! Learning takes place over time, not all at once. Remember, we have Hiragana and Katakana tables for you to use as a reference, and flash cards for drills (even though you should make your own), so be sure to check them out! If you search on Google, you can find other great resources, like this drag-and-drop learning game, and grids to help practice handwriting!
Once you feel comfortable with Hiragana and Katakana, and can read sentences out loud with relative ease (making a mistake once in a while is okay- keep your reference sheet nearby!), you are ready to take your next big step into Japanese!
2. Create a Grammar Schedule
Now you can read! But you have no idea what any of these sentences mean! Now we have to tear into the real meat of language learning, grammar and vocabulary.
There are a few options out there for learning grammar. Our own YouTube series throws you in the thick of it, and this might terrify some beginners, so looking into more rudimentary grammar resources to help start is not a bad idea. You could study on your own with a textbook like Genki, use an online guide like Tae Kim or Nihongo no Mori, read the JLPT resources, or even use a combination of all of these! They serve the same basic function: to explain grammar in a clear and concise way. What they don’t do is create a schedule to help guide you, which is very important.
So we’re going to make a schedule right here.
Great. Let’s go.
When creating a schedule, make time for learning in two parts. The first part will be the initial learning, where you encounter the concept and learn it. The second will be the processing, or “digesting” the information, where you interact with the concept by writing sentences with it, reading examples of it, and even just thinking about it. This second section is just as important as the first, if not more important, so don’t think you can skip it and just read through a textbook like it’s a new Harry Potter novel!
Keeping this in mind, choose a rate at which you can proceed through the material. This will change depending on a variety of factors: what resources are you using, how long does it take you to read them, how long does it take you to process the information. Choose to tackle four different grammar points per week, or one chapter every two weeks, for example. Make a calendar to keep track of your progress!
As important as it is to pick a rate that is sustainable and productive, it’s more important to just pick a rate. You can change it later if you find that it is too slow or too fast! But pick one.
This is about as sustainable as fossil fuels. Zing! Also, you won’t remember any of it.
This may be cute, but it isn’t productive, and you won’t get very much done. A good schedule will have something every day- whether it’s a new grammar point, or just translating some sentences, you need to interact with the language every day.
Remember when I said that the second part of learning is processing the information and interacting with it?
Also, remember when I said that a good schedule has something to do every day?
Fair enough! But this is where video games come in. For example, most of the moves in Pokemon games are conjugated in dictionary/simple form, so once you are familiar with those grammar forms, you can look up the vocab easily in a dictionary like JLookUp, Chuta , or Jisho and you will understand what is being read! This is called PRACTICE, and it should be part of your learning schedule! Really, the only weird thing is that we are saying you can use video games to practice Japanese – classes and other sources will have you reading or listening to passages instead. These are still useful, but we want to play video games so we’re making it happen.
Eventually, you’ll be so proficient that textbooks and online resources don’t have much more to offer you. That is when learning Japanese with video games REALLY begins, and you’ll simply have to find out what grammar means on your own, either through the dictionaries above (often grouped as “set phrases”, which are common in Japan), or through community language learning websites such as iTalki or the Japanesepod101 forums.
2.5. Create a Kanji Schedule
Talk about déjà vu. But you need to make a schedule for Kanji, too. If you’re using a textbook, it will pair kanji together with content, but if you are using online resources, they may not have kanji pairings. But you still have options!
Before we begin, I insist you learn how Kanji fundamentally work. So that you know what you are actually studying.
The first option the JLPT list of Kanji. There are roughly 2000 Kanji of daily use (or
Note: There are five JLPT levels, N5 being the easiest of the bunch, and passing N1 will award you a certificate that says you can read, write, speak, and understand spoken Japanese a very advanced level in a wide variety of situations.
Your second option is a more structured resource, like Kanji Damage or WaniKani. Both break down Kanji into their component parts- radicals- in order to simplify the memorization process. Kanji Damage just gives you a whole numbered list, whereas WaniKani is a paid webapp that gives you flashcard reviews on timed intervals. The big difference is that these Kanji are consciously not ordered in JLPT order- the creators of these websites have ordered them in a way that puts the simplest Kanji first, and the final Kanji lists are not perfectly congruent with the JLPT’s list.
Regardless of which you use, you still need to, yes, Make a Schedule. Tie it in with your grammar lessons!
Now here is another link to the grids to help practice handwriting because they’re helpful when learning Kanji, too. Remember to involve as many parts of your brain as possible. See the Kanji. Read the Kanji. Write the Kanji. If you can, find some way to smell the Kanji. Even just pretending that you are smelling the Kanji will help. Just do it!
3. Learn Some Vocabulary
The JLPT lists do have a vocabulary lists that you could approach as much as we are with grammar and kanji (hint: it rhymes with Baking a Spchedule), but instead, I am going to propose a different route. You are actually going to learn vocabulary while playing games (and while studying grammar and Kanji). Woah, wait, what? What a radical notion. Its almost like that was in the title of the article (“Guide! How to Learn Japanese Through Video Games” in case you’re too lazy to look at the top of the window to check it. If you are not lazy, then you don’t need to read this, but you already read it, didn’t you? You just love to read, I tell!).
Between your grammar lessons and Kanji lessons and video game playing, you’ll encounter plenty of vocabulary. Look it up in a dictionary, and write it down somewhere. Ideally, this “somewhere” is searchable, like a google document or word document, so that you can look up things later, but if you really like to handwrite things, I suggest indexing it by starting Kana, so if you look up いぬ, you will write down いぬ on the page that is only for words that start with い or イ. If you haven’t come across the Kanji in your Kanji schedule yet, it is safe to ignore it for now, as it can be overwhelming to try to learn everything all at once.
Eventually, you will see a word and look it up in a dictionary a second time*. Go to write it down, and…
IT’S ALREADY THERE! Just like magic!
Make a mark to say that you have seen this word twice- you could use tally marks, or for extra studying, you could write it down a SECOND time. What an idea.
After you have looked up a word two or three times, it’s becoming pretty clear that you haven’t learned it yet AND that it is a word you will actually need to know, so you should make a flashcard. Although I stressed making physical flashcards for Hiragana and Katakana earlier, the simple truth is that there is too much vocabulary for that to be practical. You still could and it would be awesome, but instead, I am going to recommend making them on Quizlet or Anki. Anki (it’s free for Android and PC users, but those who iOS will need to pay for it) sorts out words that you have learned on its own over time, but Quizlet does not, so for Quizlet you need to come up with your own system to avoid your flash card deck becoming so cluttered that you never see anything ever again.
You could try making a new deck every month, and retiring decks once they are three or four months old because old decks are useless.
Some people might say that this will create a limited vocabulary which is inapplicable to daily life, because you are only learning words that show up in video games. They are correct, sort of. But if you want to play video games, the same could be said for a textbook: it teaches you limited vocabulary, just as inapplicable to video games as the video game vocabulary was to real life. You learn what you are exposed to, so you should expose yourself to things you care about. The rest can, and will, come after.
*For the purposes of verbs, which can be conjugated in multiple ways, just write down the “dictionary form”. So
4. Play the Right Game
Now let’s review our equipment.
Looks like we are ready to go! Now, a game I have been really excited to play in Japanese is Bravely Default, so let’s load it up, and…
See how that may not be the best idea?
As a general rule, when you are just starting out, and even when you’re only an intermediate reader, it is best to avoid text-heavy Japanese games. If you don’t ease yourself into it, you’ll spend three hours translating for every five minutes of gameplay. No matter what way you look at it, learning Japanese can be hard, but for most people, translating for hours on end just to play a tiny portion of a game is not a fun, or sustainable activity. Remember what I said about sustainability?
Even Pokémon, which seems kid-friendly and dialogue-light in English, can be intimidating in Japanese for absolute beginners. A good game would be one that does not have a steady stream of dialogue, and when dialogue does occur, it is easy to comprehend. If you’ve played the game before in English, it can help.
One other option to consider is picking games that feature Furigana. Furigana are small Hiragana put above Kanji, to help young kids read when they don’t know the Kanji, and they are great! We even have an entire list of games for Nintendo 3DS that feature Furigana support.
Finally, if a game seems overwhelming and horrifying when you first start it, try to get through the first section of the game. In Pokemon games, although the beginning can be dialogue heavy and difficult to get through, the actual game features fairly sparse dialogue and repetitive phrases: it’s perfect for low and intermediate-level Japanese learners! It is worth it to see if there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
5. Never Give Up
This is the most important step, right here.
By now, you are on track to become a grammar and vocab master in no time! As for Kanji, well, we’re working on it. But all of the schedules, and all of the flash cards, and all of the time you’ve spent reading this article, is meaningless if you don’t just do it!
If you miss a day, or a week, or a month, don’t be afraid to pick it back up.
You may have fallen off the bike, but it is up to you whether you stay down, or you get back up again and keep going. If you feel overwhelmed, you need to step back and re-evaluate your schedule. Is it too much for you to handle? Do you feel like you just used Hyper Beam and need to recharge a few days before trying again? Spread out your schedule a bit – it is better to learn things slower than it is to push yourself too hard and end up with nothing.
Finally: Have fun
If you’re having fun, you’re engaged, and therefore more likely to retain what you learned. Plus, you’re having fun! Two great things at once. Nice!
You can learn Japanese through video games. It is hard, but you can do it! Taking classes creates a great foundation, but at the end of the day, everyone has to put in the same hard work and dedication in order to get the desired results. So make that schedule, grab a notebook, and get cracking! Good luck!
Even if you do everything in this article, there are plenty of other ways to get better at Japanese. Reading books, watching movies, and talking with people are all important and indispensable! If you really love video games, you could watch Japanese let’s plays (in Japan, they call them