A friend asked me to recommend some materials for learning Japanese, and this is a list of materials and ideas that I use and like.
The very first thing I recommend doing is learning a little about written Japanese. There are categories of things to learn. First, there's hiragana and katakana. These are two ways to write the sounds used in Japanese: they are phonetic alphabets. Hiragana is used for words that are native to the Japanese language; Katakana is used for words borrowed from other languages (there's lots of those) and also for onomatopoeia (Boom! Crash! Pop!). It sounds scarier than it is though, because there's a lot of similarities, and I think it's a lot like learning the upper and lower case letters of the English alphabet.
So you can learn to recognize and read them from Memrise.com, which is a flashcards site that I use pretty extensively. The boys are both learning to recognize hiragana using this course, and I plan to have Hero work with this one after that, to both solidify his recognition of hiragana, and also to practice reading and begin expanding his vocabulary. (That's less of a priority for Dragon, because he's still learning to read English.) After that, we'll do a search to find a katakana course for the boys to work on, but they're pretty slow. An adult could probably do both alphabets in a few days to a few weeks, depending on the time commitment they were willing to give.
That will teach you to read, but not to write. If you want to write, I think that's a great idea, and will help to solidify. Plus, Japanese writing is beautiful. The first rule of writing Japanese is that you must follow directions. There will be directions for what order to write characters' strokes, and what direction to write them in. This matters; it affects how things look. It really doesn't in English (if you draw the vertical line second, rather that first when you write your T it's not a big deal), but in Japanese, it matters. So when you're ready to tackle writing, pay attention to stroke order. All the dictionaries and other tools will have it for you. Starting out correctly will save you tons of time and trouble. Get something like this printable hiragana chart. I like this one because it shows the stroke order. You can find them for katakana as well, like this. But you don't have to learn to write right away if you don't want to. You can get quite far with the language before you have to learn to write. It will help solidify things and make it easier to remember the kana you learn to read, and I think it's beautiful and fun, but it doesn't have to be first.
Also right near the beginning of your journey, you'll want to find some audio lessons. There are a number of places you can do this. I like JapanesePod101. They have audio lessons that you can listen to and download. This is a pay site, but it's not very much, and I feel like they're worth it. I've done more 100 of their lessons, and I like them. They cover a lot of practical situations you'd run into in visiting Japan, and have a fair amount of fun culture notes in the lessons. And they'll start to lay down some grammar foundation for you. You can also use Mango, which is available online, and also supposed to be available through quite a few American libraries. Mango is a subscription service, but when I was using it through our library, the library offered it as one of their services, and they picked up the tab.
You'll also want to get a Japanese-English dictionary. I have one on my smartphone, Imiwa, which I love. I use it daily. I learn the sample sentences (more about that in a minute). I listen to the recordings of the words to help my accent. Imiwa is fantastic. And it's not very expensive. Like, free. Also, you'll need a grammar resource. I like Tae Kim's Guide. It's got an app; I can't remember if or how much I paid. But it's a nice one. There's plenty of gammar books on Amazon, too. Some kind of grammar resource is invaluable.
So those are some of the baisc supplies. But wait! There's more! Here are some of the ideas and techniques for using some of those things to start building fluency. A lot of my ideas that I use come from Kahzumoto of All Japanese All the Time. Basically, I do to types of study: the first is pretty typical, the stuff that we think of when we think about studying. I do flashcards. I attempt to read stuff. I look at grammar. I try to do some of that every day. But I also aim to do my second type of study every day: passive exposure to the language. I want to hear native speakers... speaking. And singing. And using their language. I want input.
Theirs is the hypothesis that input (reading, listening) matters more than output (writing, speaking), and that input of high quality and quantity naturally leads to high quality output, without much effort. In English, that means stop talking before you hurt yourself. -Kahzumoto of AJATT
Kahz points out that, as native speakers of English, a very important part of how we learned to speak was that we were surrounded by English: we had a huge amount of passive exposure. And through that we developed a sense of what sounds right together. We don't teach babies grammar; we talk to them. And Kahz suggests that trying to reproduce some of that environmental input will greatly accelerate our acquisition of Japanese, as well as significantly improving our accent. And I've found that to be the case for me. So I listen to a number of news and food podcasts that I've found. 新聞って面白い is a news program. I don't understand much of what they say (yet- I'm getting better), but I find that when I play this for a while I talk to the kids with more Japanese, and I find Japanese floating in my mind more, and I think it helps my accent, too, though I don't have good feedback on that right now. I also like こどもと英語で話そう (click the top of each entry, by the episode numbers to go to the individual podcasts, or look it up in iTunes), because it's got phrases in both English and Japanese, so you can hear them together, and try to say them -- and it's the sort of things that you'd say to kids, which is a huge part of what I'm doing in our work with Japanese.
We also have several playlists that I've created on YouTube. This one is toddler songs. It's full of words for animals, colors, shapes, and the like. My kids like this one quite a lot. The "kira-kira song" that's up first was Peanut's favorite song for a long time.
This list has a bunch of songs from Disney movies, as well as other songs in Japanese.
Shimajiro is a Japanese cartoon aimed at about the same audience as Dora the Explorer or Blues Clues: little kids. Which makes it great for learners, because it's simple words and simple grammar much of the time. And it's for natives, by natives, so even though it doesn't look like "serious" language learning stuff, it's fantastic.
Speaking of babies and little kids, here's another bit of wisdom from Kahz:
Be gentle with yourself. Learning a new language is a HUGE undertaking, and it's going to take time. Expect that. It's ok if progress is slow; slow progress is progress!
If you forget everything else, dear reader, remember this: when you begin something new, you are a baby. So cut yourself the same slack you would cut a baby, because like them, you’re just starting out, and you will eventually get good at it. Now, I’m not a Hindu, but as the Bible says: in the beginning there was the sucking. And it was good.
As you get into the process a little ways, then start to think about kanji (the characters that each mean a word). Most people will tell you that kanji is the enemy; that it's what makes the languages the Hardest Thing In The World and they'll tell you that kanji are Practically Impossible For Foreigners To Master. Lies! Lies! It's all lies - don't listen to those voices!
Kanji are amazing. Not only are they beautiful - enough that people turn them into art and hang them on walls, or tatoo them on their body, or whatever - but also they are your secret weapon for learning to read Japanese. See, in English, once you know the alphabet, you have to use those 27 symbols to make around 10,000 words that a fluent speaker uses. But the alphabet really doesn't help you with that process. Once you know B, that's great, but it doesn't give you any hints about the meaning of words that use B, not even Bob, or Bubble, which are practically all made from Bs. But kanji do. So when you know that 日 means day, and 今 means now, it's not too surprising when 今日 -now day- means today. That happens a lot. So there's about 2000 kanji on the official lists of kanji that Japanese kids learn in school (and those lists are widely available, and easy to find for study), and they take those 2000 kanji and make bunches and bunches of compound words with them. So, pretty soon after you finish learning the kana on Memrise (or wherever- I hear good things about Anki, too) then start working through a list of kanji. I'm using this one.
When you get to where you know a few words, and you understand the most basic of sentences (think, "I am Bob"), then I suggest that you try another of Kahz's ideas: Learn 10,000 sentences. Seriously. His method is amazing. My learning really started to take off when I started doing this (though, I admit, I don't do step 4- write it out by hand). I find it's easier to learn words in context, and, by learning words in a group, you start to get a sense of which words belong together, which is hugely important. It keeps you from saying crazy stuff like, "All your base are belong to us."
Basically, what you're going to do is take sentences that natives made - they can be sample sentences from your dictionary and grammar book, or from the board books you find on Amazon, or websites, or whatever is interesting. But you want sentences from people who know the language; don't -DO NOT- just make up your own. That leads to crazy talk. Get sentences from people who know what they're doing. And make flashcards out of them. I believe that Anki can do that (and may have pre-made decks of cards you can download. There's rumors of such, but I don't use it, so I don't know.). I use StickyStudy, which I like a lot. My sentence deck has about 1,400 sentences in it, and of those, I've learned just over 250, and the rest are in progress. So I still have a long way to go to 10,000. But I'm happy to do it, because it works. And it works in the 5-10 minute chunks that I have available for learning.
So, once you have your sentences, then you make flashcards. And you "pass" a flashcard when you can read the whole thing, without furigana (little hiragana next to kanji to help you know how to pronounce it), and understand the meaning. Both Sticky Study and Anki are spaced repetition systems (SRS), which means that the more times you get your flashcard right, the less frequently they show it to you. So you have a nice balance between new cards you're still working on, and old ones that you are reviewing. Kahz has a more detailed explanation on his site.
And that's the method. I study a bit, every day. And I listen a bit, every day. And I'm making progress. It's exciting. The process takes time. Lots of it - I've been working on it for several years. But that's OK. Babies don't learn overnight - they take years to become fluent adults. Once you have your method, then it's just a matter of finding resources. YouTube has a lot. Our local used bookstore occasionally has Japanese picture books; I check them every few weeks and periodically get something new. Amazon.com has some books on their English site, (they segregate a lot onto Amazon.jp), so searching for "Japanese Edition" is the best search term I've found so far. We have a growing collection of picture books, which are great because it's possible to work your way through a whole book in a reasonable amount of time (harvesting sentences as you go), and finishing a whole book feels really good.
頑張って下さい！Good luck! Enjoy your journey to speaking and reading Japanese!