5 Tips to Help You Learn Japanese
If you are going to learn Japanese, you need to decide why you are learning the language. I learned Japanese because my work took me there in 1971. I lived there for nine years, mostly during the 1970s. I learned in Japan, surrounded by the language, on my own, largely by listening and reading and using Japanese whenever I had the chance.
Most people who study Japanese won’t have the opportunity that I had, and will need some other motivation for learning the language. There is, fortunately, no shortage of good reasons to learn Japanese.
Japan has a fascinating, refined, and in many ways unique culture. As with all countries, Japan has been influenced by other cultures. In particular, Chinese civilization has had a major impact on Japan and its development. However, Japan has modified this Chinese input and combined it with many intrinsically Japanese elements, to weave a specifically Japanese cultural environment, which permeates so many aspects of Japanese life. This includes art, music, thought, sports, work, craftsmanship and personal relationships.
Much has been written on the vertical nature of Japanese society, or of the insularity of Japanese culture. In my own case, I found the culture welcoming, fascinating, friendly yet full of contradictions. My wife and I often feel nostalgic for our years in Japan. Perhaps it is the qualities of mutual trust and respect that remain the clearest in my mind. The rewards for learning Japanese are great.
No doubt, Japan was more insular in the 1970s. Today, we meet Japanese people everywhere. The Japanese have become keen globalists, as businesspeople, artists, tourists, or even chefs learning foreign cuisine. They are everywhere.
Japanese culture has quite a following in the world as well. Traditional aspects of Japanese culture like judo, karate and flower arrangement have been popular for a long time. More recently manga and anime are often the aspects of Japanese culture that lead people to study the language.
So let me offer tips on achieving fluency in Japanese.
Learn the Kanji
My experience in learning 16 languages, perhaps 10 to the level of fluency, tells me that massive and interesting reading is an essential activity for accumulating vocabulary; the fundamental measure of language growth. Therefore, the first thing you need to do is decide to buckle down and learn the Kanji, the Chinese characters that are used in Japanese. Without Kanji, the range of content that you can access is quite limited.
Chinese characters were imported into Japanese starting about 2000 years ago. Learning Japanese is an entry point into the broader Chinese cultural world. Learning Kanji takes commitment and perseverance, but eases access to other East Asian languages.
There are many systems for learning Kanji today. I can’t recommend any one of them simply because I learned Kanji 50 years ago, long before the computer, the iPad and the Internet. You will have to find what works for you. What I can say is that you need to work on your Kanji every day while learning them, and that you will forget them almost as quickly as you learn them. That is why you need to relearn them regularly and get into the habit of reading as much as possible.
Kanji are usually used in combination with hiragana and katakana, the phonetic scripts used in Japanese. As if this is not confusing enough, the Kanji, which represent the meaning of a word, rather than the sound of the word, often have several possible pronunciations.
There is usually an “on” pronunciation, which somewhat approximates the Chinese pronunciation, and this is most often the case when several Kanji are combined to form a word, much like in Chinese. But there is usually also a “kun” pronunciation, when the Kanji combines with hiragana to form a word. This is the native Japanese pronunciation of the word. As if this is not complicated enough, there are sometimes more than one possible “on” and “kun” pronunciations.
Let me just provide some quick examples.
センタ the foreign loan word “centre” is written in katakana and pronounced “senta”.
会話する two Kanji, 会話 combine to form “kaiwa”, conversation, and are followed by the
hiragana する “suru” to do, to give us “make conversation”.
会いできる Here the Kanji 会 is pronounced “ai” and means to meet.
話します Here the Kanji 話 is pronounced “hanashi” and means to speak.
Move to Hiragana ASAP
In addition to the Chinese characters that represent meaning, Japanese has a phonetic script. In fact, Japanese has two parallel phonetic scripts, hiragana and katakana. These scripts are syllabaries, two parallel systems each with 50 symbols, which represent syllables rather than individual sounds, as would be the case in a true alphabet. Hiragana is most widely used, and katakana is usually limited to foreign loan words or to words that represent sounds.
Much of language learning consists of listening. When you first listen to any language, it is very difficult to distinguish the sounds. Therefore we need to rely on a phonetic alphabet in order to make sense of what we are listening to. Japanese has a romanized script called Romaji, which is helpful when you first start out. However, you should start reading in hiragana as soon as possible and introduce Kanji as soon as you are able.
Japanese writing consists of a mixture of hiragana, Kanji and occasional use of katakana. It is difficult to get your brain used to this. The earlier you start the better. We don’t see katakana nearly as often as hiragana, and personally I tended to neglect it.
Read and Listen a Lot
Japanese has fewer phonemes than most European languages. This makes it appear at first as if all new words sound the same. To some extent we feel this way in learning any new language. However, in the case of Japanese, with its limited range of sounds, this seems to be particularly the case.
It is important to remain patient. As with so much in language learning, time heals all wounds. You simply have to trust that by continuing to listen, to read using hiragana while gradually mixing in more and more Kanji, the sounds of of the new words in the language will become easier to distinguish from each other.
As you move to more challenging authentic content, you will be enriching your vocabulary. This larger vocabulary is a necessary condition if you hope to understand television and movies. If you are able to read well, and start to understand at least some of what you see in movies, this will prepare you to understand rapid fire conversation when you are with Japanese people.
Even though I lived in Japan, I read and listened constantly, always challenging myself with new compelling material. I did this mostly using readers and books with glossaries. Today the range of material that we can access, radio programs, podcasts and more, with audio and text vastly exceeds what was available to me. Online dictionaries make the texts more accessible. Mobile devices make the listening more portable.
Focus on verbs
As in all languages, it helps to focus on verbs. You can Google to find a list of the most common Japanese verbs. You should become familiar with these verbs, what they mean, and their different forms. Google for the most frequent 100 Japanese verbs and make sure you focus on learning them.
There is good news and bad news when it comes to verbs in Japanese. The good news is that the verbs don’t change for person, number or gender as they do in some European languages. There are also fewer tenses than in most European languages.
The bad news is that the verbs change in other ways. There are simple forms of verbs and standard forms. There are humble or polite forms, and more casual forms. If you Google “Japanese verbs” you will find plenty of useful resources explaining them, so I won’t go into detail here.
I can only say that I never worried about politeness level. I tended to use the most neutral form of the word, until I gradually developed the ability to discern what level of politeness was required in a particular situation.Only then did I start to vary the politeness level of my Japanese. Unfortunately textbooks often like to teach these things that are unique to Japanese culture, but in my view this is an unnecessary burden on the beginning learner.
After a great deal of exposure, it will become easier to deal with politeness levels and different forms of the verbs. It is not necessary to always use the appropriate verb, reflecting the appropriate level of politeness. It is far more important to communicate. I lived in Japan for nine years and have no recollection of having offended anyone by using the wrong politeness level. It’s something that you gradually get used to.
Go Light on Grammar, Focus on Patterns
I suggest that learners ignore complicated grammatical explanations and technical terms for different tenses or other aspects of Japanese. It is far more useful to focus on the patterns of the language, on how certain concepts are expressed in Japanese and how they correspond to the equivalent phrases in English.
One such pattern is the tendency for Japanese to use what I call directional double verbs. If I do something for you, I “do-give” something to you. If you do something for me “ I do-get” something from you, and so on. You will encounter them and be confused, but with enough exposure these things start to feel natural.
In English we say “I think you are beautiful”. In Japanese we say “You, beautiful are, I think.” The verb comes at the end. In English we say “I am going to Tokyo”. In Japanese we say “I, Tokyo to, am going”.
Not only is the main verb at the end, but the preposition that precedes the noun in English is replaced by a word that appears after the noun or pronoun. These are apparently called particles, although I didn’t know that term for all the years I lived in Japan. I just got used to these little words. They are pervasive. They replace “to”, “from” “by” and much more. Two of them, “wa” and “ga” are used sort of like commas, to separate the subject of a sentence from the rest of the sentence. Again google for Japanese particles and you will learn a lot.
The endings of verbs also tell us things about tense, as in European languages, but also reflect whether the verb is positive or negative, a question, or other information that we in English use conjunctions like “because”, “in order to”, “since” and many more to express. I Googled for Japanese verb endings and the explanations I saw were rather complicated. I would leave these until you have experienced quite a bit of the language. You may want a short overview, and may want to refer back to these explanations in more depth later.
You Can Learn Japanese — What Are You Waiting For?
The process of learning Japanese, with its unique structure and patterns, is a process of gradual discovery. It is not something that you will suddenly understand because someone explained it to you. It is something that you will hear, read, touch feel and gradually get used to. There are far more resources today than when I learned Japanese. This blog post is a good place to learn some basic phrases. There are graded readers with online dictionaries. At LingQ we have beginner material with English translation.
The most important factor to your success will be your motivation to learn, and your willingness to accept that much will remain somewhat unclear for quite a long while. However, gradually you will realize that your comprehension is improving, and that you are able to express things in this different and in some ways intuitive language. There will be moments of victory and achievement, as well as periods where you are struggling. Just stay the course.
This post was originally published on my blog at The Linguist.