Sometimes when people ask me where to start learning Japanese, I immediately say “learn kana”. I actually honestly swear by this advice because, to me, it has been the most helpful for numerous reasons, including my visit to Japan back in 2010. However, I notice I forgot something…
For the first six years of my “I want to learn Japanese” life, that started back in 6th grade with my sudden obsession with anime and manga, I had some pretty big exposure to the Japanese language. At first, much of this exposure was from anime and anime music. I often watched anime in Japanese, with a few exceptions (like when I was with people or anime I watched in English for one reason or another, such as Kaleido Star). Anime music, and later some random J-Pop, was my primary choice of music. My ears became familiar with the sound of Japanese. I had some familiarity with the written language too from the sound effects kept in manga, the lyrics booklets of CDs, and whenever it showed up in anime.
At some point, my anime obsession led me to a few fan sites that had some vocabulary list (all written in romaji) and a couple explanations of the Japanese language. Technically, it wasn’t even to actually start learning Japanese, but it was enough for me to throw around words that still float around in my vocabulary to this day. I think one of the most small, but significant things I learned was the kanji for Japan 日本 (which I originally learned was read as nippon, but I got used to the seems-to-be-usual reading of nihon) and 日本語 (nihongo), meaning “Japanese language”). They’re just two things I’ve known for a while and they always stick out in my mind.
A combination of exposure from otaku items like anime, anime CDs, manga, and fan sites helped me a lot to become familiar with the language. It was generally a passive exposure, where my goal wasn’t to learn anything (minus from those fan sites), but it still was exposure.
I eventually found my way to the Kana de Manga book (WHICH I JUST REMEMBERED MY FRIEND STILL HAS), which, if I remember correctly, led me to Real Kana, which ended up being a big step in the right direction for me.
While it did take me about a year after I learned kana to actually start learning the rest of Japanese, learning it opened up another door for me. I was able to start getting a more in-depth exposure to the language via reading. Okay, sure I didn’t (and still don’t) understand most of it, but it started to familiarize me with certain sentence patterns, frequently used words, and allowed me to make connections to it once I learned what certain words actually meant or how certain grammar was used.
I think next time somebody asks me where to start learning Japanese, I will tell them to first expose themselves to the language on as large a scale as possible, THEN to learn kana.