The beginner’s guide to learning Japanese in Singapore (2023)

 30 March, 2023
 Lingo School of Knowledge
The beginner’s guide to learning Japanese in Singapore (2023)

Gaining the fluency to converse in Japanese can be advantageous for work and travel.

owever, Japanese has gained a spot as one of the most difficult languages to master for English speakers due to it having separate writing systems, opposite sentence structures, and fewer sound combinations.

The language can be divided into five periods[1]:

Just like learning any language, learning Japanese might be difficult in the beginning but it’s still doable. Our beginner’s guide will show you some basics (that will help you better understand the language) and some handy phrases you can use when travelling to Japan.

Japanese language

Where to start?

The easiest way to learn Japanese is understanding that it has three writing systems:

While English treats vowels and consonants separately, Hiragana and Katakana are both phonetic[2], meaning that these words will always be written and pronounced in the same specific way. Some English letters might even be pronounced differently depending on the word, but this is not the case for Hiragana or Katakana.

Kanji are characters derived from Chinese characters and first introduced to Japan in the 5th century. It is often considered the hardest writing system to learn, but fret not, because even the Japanese have a hard time remembering all the characters. So, it shouldn’t be something to be afraid of.

Learn to read Hiragana

Hiragana is what most Japanese children will learn as they too start learning how to read and write. It’s essentially Japan’s version of the alphabet and is widely used in everyday life in Japan from signboards to menus.

Hiragana is used in place of words that do not have a Kanji character (we’ll get into what Kanji is later).

There are a total of 48 basic Hiragana characters. Learning these characters involves remembering how each character is written, as well as their romaji/romanisation, which is the use of Latin letters to write Japanese characters. 


Depending on your own pace and time dedicated to learning Japanese, it can take anywhere between a week to a month to fully memorise Hiragana characters.

Learn to read Katakana

Katakana is best described as being used for foreign loan words. In other words, if a particular word does not exist in the Japanese vocabulary, it will be translated using Katakana.

There is an estimate of over 45,000 loan words in the Japanese language and 90% of them are derived from English words.

For example, if you want to say “engine”, in Japanese, it would be translated into “enjin” (エンジン). Or if you want to say “glass”, it would then be translated to “garasu” (ガラス).

Katakana can also be used to represent sounds such as “pinpon” (ピンポン), the sound of a doorbell (ding-dong).

Katakana has around 46 characters. Once you’ve memorised Hiragana, you should have no problems grasping Katakana.

Learning Kanji

Kanji should be last on your list of characters to learn when it comes to learning Japanese. It is pictographic, meaning each character stands for a concept and not a sound, however, some Kanji characters can be pronounced differently despite maintaining the same meaning.

It is often considered the hardest part of learning Japanese with over 50,000 Kanji characters, however, it is a necessary part of the language to master in order to read more complex things such as paperwork and even signboards.

Kanji is used in combination with Hiragana and Katakana for fuller sentences. If you put off learning Kanji for too long, you might find yourself in a situation where you might not be able to read and understand something fully.

Once you are able to memorise some Kanji characters and use them in combination with Hiragana and Katana, you might find yourself paying more attention to reading everything around you in Japan and a better understanding of what all the characters mean.

Japanese signboards

Building vocabulary and understanding grammar

You finally have all 3 writing systems methods under your belt, now it’s time to make sense of them together!

Learning as many words as possible greatly advances your Japanese language learning. Most resources online or language classes will likely introduce everyday vocabulary before moving on to more complex words.

You will find that some words have their own Kanji (which can also be written in both Hiragana and Katakana) but in cases where the Kanji does not exist for the word, this is when Hiragana or Katakana is used.

Once you have enough words memorised, you will then be able to learn how grammar works and further your studies in the language.

Basic Japanese phrases to know when travelling

Here are some Japanese phrases and words that may come in handy when travelling in Japan.

Japanese Meaning
AKonnichiwa (こんにちは) Hello
Arigatou Gozaimasu (ありがとうございます) Thank you
Sumimasen (すみません) Excuse me
___ wo Kudasai (__をください) I would like ___, please.
___ wa doko desu ka? (__はどこですか) Where is ___?
Itadakimasu (いただきます) It is an expression of gratitude of the meal you’re about to eat and is loosely translated to “thank you for the meal”.
Omakase de (お任せで) Used when ordering the chef’s recommendation at a restaurant (typically sushi).
Ima nanji desu ka? (今何時ですか?) What time is it now?
Nanji ni? (何時に?) At what time?
Asa (朝) Morning
Kyou (今日) Today
Ashita (明日) Tomorrow
___ ni ikitai (__に行きたい) I want to go to ___
Tomete kudasai (止めてください) Stop, please
Kippu (切符) Ticket
Shinkansen (新幹線) Giovanni Rovelli
Magazzini Alimentari Riuniti Bullet train
Dono densha? (どの電車) Which train?

Will learning Japanese allow me to work in Japan?

Learning Japanese definitely opens the doors to a world of opportunities in Japan, especially if it’s a country you are interested in building your career in.

While there are many International companies in Japan that use English as its main language, you will not be limited to these companies if you can converse in Japanese on a professional or even casual level.

If you are a foreigner interested in working in Japan, most companies will require you to have passed the Japanese-Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) and provide them with a certificate to prove your proficiency.

There are 5 levels of the test that you can take, each one determining your level of Japanese.

N5 - The ability to understand some basic Japanese.

N4 - The ability to understand Japanese.

N3 - The ability to understand Japanese used in everyday situations to a certain degree.

N2 - The ability to understand Japanese used in everyday situations, and in a variety of circumstances to a certain degree.

N1 - The ability to understand Japanese used in a variety of circumstances.

Can I learn Japanese on my own?

At a glance, Japanese might seem like an intimidating and complicated language to learn (especially when it has been described as one of the hardest languages to master). But it all comes down to how determined you are to learn the language and how much it differs from your own native language.

You might have a little bit of an upper hand if you already know how to read and write Chinese characters.

Learning Japanese on your own is possible by immersing yourself in the language first and getting a feel of it by consuming Japanese media such as television shows, movies, or music. If you’re feeling a little bit adventurous you can also start reading manga (Japanese comics) or watching anime (Japanese animation).

Practice makes perfect. Being able to confidently converse in basic Japanese with someone else regularly will help improve your language skills greatly.

Interested in learning Japanese as part of a group or via individual online lessons? At Lingo School, we love making learning enjoyable. Contact us today to start your Japanese learning journey!


  1. Vovin, Alexander (2017). “Origins of the Japanese Language”. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Linguistics. Oxford University Press.
  2. Labrune, Laurence (2012). The Phonology of Japanese. The Phonology of the World’s Languages. Oxford University Press. pp. 89-91.