Learn Japanese

Learn Japanese

So, you've decided to learn Japanese. You want to see Anime with a new “eye”, or you've started to socialize with Japanese on the Internet, or you want to finally understand what you favorite Japanese singer says in their songs, or you want to learn more about what Haiku poetry is, or maybe you want to head to Kyoto and be able to meet people over there... What ever the reasons that motivate you, it will be a very long trip. Japanese differs in many points from English, and usually requires 3 years (or more) to be mastered. But don't be scared, or don't give up. After all, it's well worth it.

There is countless material to learn Japanese. On the Internet, with some books (the very famous “Minna no nihongo” (everyone's japanese) which is used in all japanese language school of Japan), by watching movies or anime, by starting a language exchange relationship (a lot of Japanese are very attracted to this route to learn English).

So just start speaking the simplest sentences possible, learn your hiragana and your katakana (yes, you'll need those ones too). But don't forget the kanji! Start learning some of them (the simplest) as soon as you know all your hiragana! A common mistake is to think they are not “really” important if you just want to “speak” Japanese.

The fact is, Japanese language is “tripolar”. By that I mean that the writing, the reading and the speaking (listening/expressing) are three different aspects that needs to be learn on their own and which will complete each other.

You might know how to say a word but that doesn't mean you'll be able to read the kanji... and even if you know to read them, you may not even be able to write them down ! Many words will have the same “pronunciation”. For exemple, the simple word “kawa” (which can mean river or skin), the word “ame” (which can mean rain or sweets), or again the word “kumo” (which can mean spider or cloud)... Of course the context will help you when speaking, but when reading a word in hiragana, you'll be lost...so the conclusion is clear: you need to learn the kanji as well! Some people who are fluent in Japanese now often say that they “visualize” the kanji when they hear a word. If that makes no sense for you, wait to know 2k + kanji.

The kanji

So now you might think you need to know ALL the kanji before arriving in Japan...Thuth is, in my Japanese language school, a lot of Chinese people knew the kanji (of course, they use the same already...) well better than the Europeans...but they were not as skilled for speaking than them. So don't go crazy only on the kanji, you need to practice everything!

Try and find a kanji learning method on the Internet (or the one of “Minna no nihongo”). Kanji can have different “reading” and different meaning. You need to learn the “main” readings and meanings first. So it would be better to follow a clear path and not to jump by yourself in a pound of complexity that will result in you quitting the stuff for good.

The grammar

Japanese has a different grammar. Not very familiar at first for the English speaker. But not all to different either.

Some of the stuff that might bug you first is that the verb, or the main verb, of the sentence will always be at the end...even for a question. Or the use of the “particles”, to identife subject, complement or what else. Or again, the use of totally different words to say the same thing but more or less politely... But you'll get used to it.

A good way to learn is to follow the “minna no nihongo” book; the grammar is explained with examples and goes from the very basic to the most complex (which is mostly the polite forms of speaking).

The pronunciation

Many foreigner (all of them!) have pronunciation problems. The easiest to fix is: the “R” in Japanese is not supposed to be pronunced like in “Rock and Roll”, but like the “L” in “Lola”. Try to think the R is a L, and you'll get over this stupid mistake very quickly.

One thing that helps would be to find yourself in the all Japanese speaking environment. You'll have no choice but to survive! This is how I proceed, actually. I never tried to learn Japanese in school or university, and headed over there with no knowledge at all. It served me right for the speaking, but not for the kanji!

Not quitting

Japanese is a complex language. And it's simple to. Actually, the grammar needed to have an everyday conversation can be learned in one week, 4 hours a day. No kidding. If you want to speak of more “smart” stuff, you'll need 3 to 4 years to learn everything. But again, it will mainly be vocabulary (one of the difficult part of Japanese, which contains long, complex to memorize, words) and polite forms.

You'll find yourself reaching a lot of plateau. You won't progress as fast as you want. More frustrating, you'll understant a lot but won't be able to express yourself. You'll feel like a baby again. That's normal, and you shouldn't let go only because of that.

Some advice

If I had to give you one advice, it would be : Do not translate!

By that I mean, when you learn something new (grammar, vocabulary, etc...) just accept it as an idea, or a concept. Don't try to translate it in English in your head so you can understand it better. If you start to translate back and forth, you'll be slow to understand, slow to express yourself...

The best way is to create a new space in your brain, let's call it the Nihon no nou (Japanese's brain). You have to think in Japanese, accept that you can not translate or explain what you know, but that you have a part of you (your Japanese's brain) which is able to do it for you.

Two young women speaking Japanese
A Japanese man inviting gesture
Two Japanese businessmen bowing in greeting each other
Two young Japanese women pointing and describing something
A selection of Japanese symbols and their meanings
A Japanese woman in traditional dress smiling