How to Learn Japanese
How my Journey with Japanese Started
As I sat in the airplane ready to fly to Sapporo, Japan, I had a panic attack. It dawned on me that I knew no Japanese other than a few phrases. Konnichiwa (good afternoon), Sayonara (goodbye), and Hajimemashite (nice to meet you) would only get me so far as an exchange student about to live with a Japanese family and go to a public high school for my entire junior year. I furiously flipped through the little dictionary I had in my lap. This was pre-Google Translate. Pre-smart phones. Pre-most-things, actually. The year was 1986.
What is the Japanese Language Like?
Don’t worry, Japanese has a straight-forward phonology, or sound system. There are only 46 syllable forms to learn, and they’re “phonetic,” meaning how it is written in Roman letters is pretty much how you pronounce it. These syllables are the basic building blocks for all the words you’ll learn. For example: a, ka, sa, ta, na, o, ko, so, to, no. Put any two syllables together, and you probably have said a word (e.g., kasa = umbrella; asa = morning; ato = after). It’s uncommon for Japanese words to end in a consonant. That’s why you’ll hear Japanese people adding a vowel sound to English words, such as raisu for “rice.”
Basic Japanese grammar is pretty simple too. English follows the Subject-Verb-Object word order (e.g., “I like sushi”), while Japanese follows the Subject-Object-Verb word order (e.g., “I sushi like”). It’s a bit more complicated than that, since there are various grammatical markers to add. “I like sushi” is Watashi wa sushi ga suki desu. It breaks down into: Watashi (subject) + wa (subject/topic marker) + sushi (object) + ga (object marker) + suki desu (verb).
Writing is more complicated. There are two syllabaries, hiragana and katakana, which are like alphabets but for syllables rather than letters. The four syllables in the word “hiragana” look like this: ひらがな hi-ra-ga-na. Katakana is similar, but used for borrowed words, concepts, and names, such as the English word “box”: ボックス bo-ku-su. The third and final type of writing is called kanji.
Kanji are based on Chinese characters. Kanji are considered “ideographs” because they are symbols that represent ideas. For example, 木 means “tree.” Doesn’t it look like a tree with branches? 森 means “woods.” See the idea? Sadly, only the elementary school level kanji really look like something recognizable. But don’t get discouraged! Just learn a few a week and you’ll be able to get by eventually. You need to know a few thousand kanji to read the newspaper, a goal I never attained without a dictionary.
Different Ways to Learn Japanese
The best way to learn Japanese is to live in Japan. There are programs for older students to study in Japan for a few weeks, a few months, and even a few years. There are lots of jobs one could get in Japan as well, especially English teaching or tutoring. If moving to Japan is not feasible for you, the next best thing is to find a person to teach you who has high proficiency in the language.
Interacting with real humans in the real world is the surest way to improve proficiency in any language. There are language organizations where you can learn from a professional Japanese teacher. Or you can find a private Japanese tutor to teach you. Make sure to find an experienced teacher, even if the price is higher, because knowing a language from birth does not always translate into knowing how to teach effectively. If money is an issue, you can participate in a language exchange where, at no cost, you teach English in exchange for being taught Japanese.
For those of you who are solo flyers or lone wolf language learners, there are many reputable online programs and self-paced apps that offer Japanese learning opportunities as well. Just make sure the program is based on research and the science of language learning. Speaking of lone wolves, it is shocking how many people have been able to teach themselves Japanese on their own! I know teenagers who, through many hours of watching anime, have amassed an impressive accent and vocabulary. I know adults who were disciplined enough to learn the language just through YouTube, gaming, subtitles, and other forms of self-study. These people are truly dedicated, and also unusually self-disciplined.
Top Six Tips for Learning Japanese
Flash back to Sapporo, Japan in 1986. I spent a few months in the Silent Period. This is where someone doesn’t speak, but instead listens intently and absorbs as much as they can. It’s kind of what babies do, or anxious people who are afraid to make a million mistakes (me!). After a few months of my self-imposed silent treatment, I decided it was better to make a fool of myself and just start talking poorly one word at a time. Lo and behold, it worked! My host family siblings were very patient (and amused) as they corrected my speech and taught me 1st grade kanji. By the time I flew home in 1987, I was fluent in conversational Japanese, and after college, had a stint as a Japanese interpreter and translator.
In conclusion, my top six tips for learning Japanese are:
1. If you can, go to Japan.
2. When possible, learn from a real person.
3. Do research before you begin a language program.
4. Learn what you can for free: anime, TV, movies, YouTube, etc.
5. Learn a phrase, word, or character every day. It adds up.
6. Just try. Make a fool of yourself. The effort will pay off.
Ganbatte kudasai! (Good luck!)