Breaking Into Chinese, Japanese, & Russian: A Brief Guide to Getting from Newbie to Intermediate-Level in 8 Months or Under 

My Twitter has been blowing up with requests for language learning resources and tips. So, I’m putting together a short guide. I’ve tried to keep it as simple as possible, since a deluge of resources won’t help you. In general, I recommend using no more than three resources at a time, even if you’re going at an accelerated pace. Also remember to vary your materials; using three step-by-step guides, apps, or what-have-you wastes time.  Whenever I start learning a language, I focus on small deliverables. Having a benchmark for each week and month keeps me focused. To get an idea of what a realistic goal looks like, check out this one-page CEFR guide.

Since these three languages have a special reputation for being difficult, some advice: consistency is more important than volume. Don’t fall into the trap of trying to learn All the Things, as many language learners will (wrongly) suggest. If you want to go fast, you need to go slow. 20 minutes of concentrated practice is better than two hours twice a week. You’ll notice that most of these resources can be completed in 1-3 months with 30-minute daily sessions. There’s no need to stop having a life to learn a language.


I’ve addressed how to study Chinese previously on Quora.


Weeks 1-2

Learn Hiragana, the first writing system for the alphabet.

If you don’t know the difference between the three writing systems—Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji—get a quick introduction from Koichi or Tae Kim. Bookmark their websites, Tofugu and Guide to Japanese, and subscribe to their YouTube channels because they offer the best information and resources out there—and most of it’s free!
  • Learn and practice pronouncing the alphabet. Here’s a video.
  • Review with this obnoxious but fun alphabet song.
  • Learn how to write it. Start with 5 characters a day. Write them by hand with trace sheets (which can be found on Tae Kim’s Guide to Japanese website). Then practice writing, recognizing, and pronouncing them with iKana Touch.
  • Once you’re finished going through the alphabet, continue reviewing it with iKana touch and Tae Kim’s practice exercises.
I recommend spending two weeks on this. If that sounds like a lot of time, it isn’t. You’ll be thanking yourself when you get to reading, listening, and dictation.

Weeks 2-4

Learn Katakana, the second system for the alphabet.

Follow the same procedure and use the same resources as in #1. Here’s a video for pronunciation. Good news: it’s the same as Hiragana.

Week 5

Practice both systems simultaneously with iKana touch, remembering to always speak when you practice.

One-Two Months

Start learning Kanji & basic phrases and having conversations.

Three-Six Months

Get into grammar and continue learning Kanji. Start exposing yourself to as much Japanese culture as possible.

  • Work through one chapter of Tae Kim’s Guide to Japanese Grammar a day. Turn his exercises into flashcards with Anki and add audio.
  • Continue working through JapanesePod101’s courses, listening to one episode a day. Supplement your studies with Pimsleur Japanese I-III, which will improve your pronunciation and reaction time, and reinforce what you’ve learned about grammar.
  • While you’re doing that, continue learning Kanji via JapanesePod101, Skritter, Memrise, or TextFugu. Pick whichever resource fits your learning style. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, here’s a good overview of some different approaches. Personally, I like learning Kanji in context. So, I simply learned the Kanji for each episode of JapanesePod101. Learning through memorization is dull and ineffective.
  • Get into Japanese literature, music, and film. If you’re like me, you’ll start reading as soon as you can. Here’s a great place to start.


Weeks 1-2

Focus on mastering the Cyrillic alphabet and its many forms.

One-Two Months

Get a solid foundation in grammar and the bare minimum of language you need to start having conversations.

  • Listen to one Russian Made Easy podcast episode per day to get a solid foundation in speaking and grammar. Seriously, this is one of the best language learning resources I’ve ever used. All grammar and vocabulary is introduced in context and through pattern recognition. After completing this course, I was able to understand advanced-level conversations and texts.
  • Complete RussianPod101’s Absolute Beginner & Top 25 Questions series. Supplement with Memrise’s Basic Russian and Hacking Russian decks
  • Find a teacher or language partner on italki or HelloTalk. I recommend 15 minutes of speaking practice per day.

Two-Four Months

Deepen your understanding of language mechanics and start getting into more advanced material.



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