Japanese is an incredibly difficult language to learn, and I should know having lived in Kyoto for 8 years. While nothing beats learning a language by being thrown straight in at the deep end, there’s certainly some great tips and tools I can pass on that should benefit anyone just getting started with Japanese.
If you’re not particularly into Japanese, then check out all our other language learning articles too.
The Alphabet. Both Of Them
Japanese actually has 3 character sets – a huge number of pictographical Kanji of which you only really need about 2,000 – and the two phonetic alphabets used for pronunciation, grammatical structure and foreign words. Thankfully both the alphabets have exactly the same sounds – they’re just written differently.
Hiragana is the traditional Japanese script, the equivalent of our basic alphabet. It’s used for grammar – verb inflexions, sentence structure and such – as well as writing the pronunciation of Kanji. Pictured below are some traditional street signs in a mixture of Hiragana and Kanji.
Katakana is all the same sounds, but written differently – it looks more “modern”, with sharp, straight lines. You might think of it as capitalised version of our alphabet. It’s used almost exclusively for foreign words. Pictured below, a cafe menu written completely in Katakana.
If you’re travelling to Japan for less than a few months, I’d strongly recommend – if nothing else – that you master Katakana. A lot of menus you encounter will be written in Katakana-ized English, by which I mean rather than “burger”, you will read “ba-ga-“. Deciphering these bastardized English words is entire topic on it’s own, but suffice to say you will need Katakana to even attempt to read them!
To learn both, I found Declan’s ReadWrite series ($25 bundle for both apps) to be great – it includes training on the pronunciation and writing (great if you have a tablet PC), as well as comprehensive testing. Basically, it works. There’s a free trial with later lessons locked for you to check it out.
Dump The Textbooks, Study Online
Nearly all the beginner level Japanese textbooks I’ve come across only present a rather dry form of polite Japanese. While this certainly has it’s use in formal situations and the upper echelons of society and business, it’s thoroughly useless in daily life and you’ll stick out like a sore thumb if you speak it.
It’s the kind of Japanese that Japanese people think a foreigner ought to learn, but I’m here to tell you that my “aha!” moment happened once I dumped the textbooks and randomly searched for verb conjugation.
This chart (a small part of which is shown below), by Aeron Buchanan summarises everything nicely, and you can download a PDF directly from Wikimedia here.
Once you understand how to turn the dictionary form a verb into all these other forms along with some basic structures, finding a single new verb gives you access to hundreds of new phrases.
Here’s ten off the top of my head, all made from the base verb taberu, meaning “to eat”:
- taberenai – can’t eat
- tabetai – want to eat
- tabete mo ii? – is it ok to eat that?
- tabete miru – try eating
- tabete hoshii – want you to eat
- tabete kaeru – eat then go back
- tabe ni itta – went to eat
- tabetakunakatta – didn’t want to eat
- tabesaserareta – was made to eat
- tabenagara – while eating
If you’re too lazy to work these out yourself, here’s a basic to tool to work them out for you. Type in the dictionary form, hit enter. Presto.
Read as much as you can about verb conjugations and I guarantee your level of Japanese will skyrocket overnight – if you’re living in Japan, the world will start to make sense again!
Not for just Japanese, Lang-8 is a free web app (the 8 is supposed to represent the sign for infinity) for written language exchange. In return for correcting other’s English, people will correct your Japanese. I’ve used it with students writing an English blog before, and it’s simple to use and free.
Rikai-chan is an essential Firefox plugin (and it’s Chrome port, Rikai-kun) for anyone hoping to read Japanese language websites. Hover over any word, and Rikai-chan will popup with a helpful dictionary entry, including meaning and pronunciation. You need this. Get it.
If you prefer to use Anki to learn vocabulary, you can even save words from Rikai-chan straight to Anki. Here’s how:
Don’t Learn From (Some) Anime
A lot of Japanese learners get quite shockingly embarrassed when they find out that the line they just repeated from Dragonball Z in the middle of the civilised dinner is the equivalent of shouting out “you motherf*****”. Some popular anime (popular in America at least, and mostly reserved for little boys in Japan) uses the kind of language which is in the real world almost exclusively reserved for Yakuza. Using that in polite company will make you look like a big foreign jerk.
If you really want to know the kind of language I’m talking about – here’s a silly little compilation. Do not repeat.
That said, there’s a lot of anime that does use realistic Japanese, and short of moving to Japan it’s the best you’re going to get in the way of real listening practice – any of the Ghibli movies is a good start. If you are preparing for life in Japan, don’t forget to check out my pick of YouTube for learning about real Japanese culture.
Despite no longer living in Japan, my (Chinese) wife and I continue to communicate daily in predominantly Japanese. I’d say it took me about 2 years of actually living there until I was confident in conversational Japanese, but then I did waste a year studying from textbooks. Learn from my mistakes, use these tips, and good luck!
Do you have any other tips and tools you think should be here? Tell us in the comments and if there’s enough, we can do a follow up post. If these tips were useful to you, then please share and tell your friends about it!