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6 tips for learning Japanese

19 Comments
By Evie Lund, RocketNews24

If you love Japan, chances are you’d love to be fluent in Japanese (if you aren’t already). Think of all the friends you could make, and all the anime, manga and video games you could enjoy as their creators intended.

But the road to fluency is long, arduous, and full of pitfalls. Japanese is considered a Category-5 language, which means that roughly 88 weeks or 2,200 hours of study is needed for the average native English-speaker to achieve everyday competency. In comparison, a Category-1 language like French requires only 24 weeks or 600 hours of study time for the average English speaker to get to grips with. Japanese also has two different syllabaries to learn, along with at least 1,945 jouyou (regular use) kanji, or Chinese characters, most of which have more than one possible pronunciation. In short, learning Japanese a pretty daunting task for your average English speaker.

But just because there’s a lot to learn, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try! Even if you don’t have a natural talent for languages, haven’t been raised in a multilingual environment, or don’t have access to Japanese classes, anyone can learn to speak, read and write Japanese as long as they can put in the effort.

Since most of us here at RocketNews24’s English site learned Japanese as a second language, we reckon we might have a few tips to share for those who are looking for a little kick up the booty when it comes to getting serious about learning. So, let’s get started! (Note, the following is a basic primer for some of the things that have helped us to study Japanese in a general sense. If you’re looking for specific study resources, this post has got you covered.

Tip #1: Immerse yourself

If you’re really serious about learning Japanese, you’re going to have to put in a lot of hours of studying. But simply cracking the books isn’t going to make you a well-rounded speaker, or listener for that matter. Believe it or not, it’s totally possible for someone to pass the highest level of the JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test) without uttering a single spoken sentence. And although they’ll definitely help, passing those tests doesn’t mean you’ll be able to communicate well.

In real life, fluency comes from practical use, which requires immersion. Luckily, there are plenty of ways to get lots of Japanese into your day no matter where you live (as long as you have an internet connection, which covers just about everybody). Love playing video games? Great! Play Japanese games. Love watching anime? Ditch the dubbed stuff and break out the subtitled versions. Like to read manga? Look for bilingual versions. Need some background music? How about some J-pop? By making sure each and every day has some exposure to Japanese language material, you can create an immersion environment for yourself wherever you are. The bonus part is that it’s fun, too.

Tip #2: Structure your studies

People who are self-taught in Japanese do exist, but sometimes they can find themselves getting into bad habits. Read enough manga and watch enough anime and you can definitely pick up enough to get by if you’re an observant type with a good ear, but there’s really no substitute for organized, structured studying. The absolute best thing to do is probably to study Japanese in college or at a dedicated language school, but if that’s not an option, try to check out shorter courses or perhaps find yourself a tutor. Even if you can’t get access to any Japanese tuition, pick up some textbooks and work your way through them with your own study plan. Working your way through the prep books for the JLPT is an excellent way to teach yourself everything you should be studying. In fact, prepping for and sitting the JLPT at each level is an excellent way for otherwise self-taught students to continuously “level up” and meet study goals.

A combination of points 1 and 2 should be the foundation upon which you base your language learning. Book smarts will only get you so far without any of the more practical stuff, and daily exposure to Japanese won’t get you where you need to go without a solid basis in structured studying.

Tip #3: Build your vocabulary naturally

Rather than studying dry lists of vocabulary, a handy trick is to buy yourself a little notebook and write down a new Japanese word (along with its written form and definition) every time you hear it while you’re immersing yourself (see hint #1). Doing it this way will help your brain to make connections between the word and the situation in which it’s used, and will ensure that the vocabulary “sticks” more firmly than it would if you had simply come across it on a vocab list in a textbook. I started learning Japanese around nine years ago and I’ve filled countless notebooks like this, and continue to practice this little trick to this day.

Tip #4: Learn the patterns

One thing you might not initially have noticed while studying is that Japanese tends to follow a series of sentence patterns. Along with the variety of situational phrases like "itadakimasu," "otsukaresama," and so on, which don’t appear in English, Japanese people also tend to say certain things in ways we just don’t in English. One pitfall English speaking learners of Japanese fall into is attempting to memorise Japanese vocabulary and then trying to use those words to express what they want to say in the exact same way they would in English. In reality, Japanese and English are very different languages and simply swapping words about is going to make you sound like something Google translate might spit out. Memorising a bunch of sentence patterns and adapting them to fit your conversational needs is going to get you a lot further than trying to take the English thought in your head and verbalise it the same way using Japanese words.

Tip #5: Make mistakes

Perfection is the enemy of good, and being afraid to make mistakes when it comes to learning a language is only going to hinder your progress. Our brains tend to remember unpleasant memories a little more clearly than pleasant ones (grr!) so making an embarrassing Japanese snafu is in actuality an excellent way to make sure you’ll never repeat the same error. And if you’re not making any mistakes at all, then you’re clearly not studying hard enough. The person who dives into a conversation head-first, making tons of errors yet doing their best to communicate is going to become a better speaker much, much faster than the person who buries their head in a book and hesitantly regurgitates only those nuggets of language information they’ve already completely mastered.

Tip #6: Stay humble

Japanese is such an awesome language, full of interesting turns of phrase and exciting little squiggly characters to draw. It’s also got that “cool” factor that sometimes tempts people to brag about how awesome they are for being able to speak some Japanese. But it’s really important to stay humble when learning any language. Start thinking your Japanese is the cat’s whiskers (plastic sensei, much?), and you’re going to get complacent and stop improving. Of course, it’s completely your choice how much Japanese you want to learn, and everyone has different needs and goals when it comes to learning another language. Most people who’ve studied Japanese as a second language in a group or school setting, however, can name at least one person who tries to undermine the confidence of others with one-upmanship. The best thing is to stick to the pace that works for you, and ignore what everyone else around you is doing. Learn with friends, make mistakes together, pool your knowledge and be open to criticism.

Read more stories from RocketNews24. -- The “doya-gao” phenomenon and where you’re most likely to see it -- Valentine’s Day is coming in Japan! If you’re lucky, you just might get some blood and hair -- You’re not seeing things, that’s a cat selling roasted sweet potatoes

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19 Comments
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Worth noting that there are actually more than 1,945 daily use kanji as the list was updated around 2009, getting rid of a few old ones and adding many more.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

I just learn to listen and talk ... that's enough for me :)

2 ( +2 / -0 )

4 is a really good one. In fact, I would say it's the most important one if you want to learn to actually communicate, rather than have people just nod as if they understand while in their heads they are saying 'what the hell is this guy talking about?'.

I knew a guy who pushed me so hard to ask how to say 'how are you?', in Japanese rather than accepting that they just don't say that in Japanese, and rather say 'are you healthy?' I eventually taught him (調子はどう?), and for the rest of the year he spent in Japan I kept hearing him saying to people we knew '調子はどう?' and sounding foolish.

If you want to speak proper Japanese, you need to stop translating your words, and instead find out how to express the concept you want the way the Japanese would express it.

3 ( +5 / -2 )

I did a Japanese language course, got help from Japanese friends... but when in Japan it's useless. For one thing they speak faster, and also if you're able to say a few things convincingly and flawlessly Japanese people think you are fluent and off they go... leaving you staring open mouthed with no idea what just happened. I'd say my Japanese was at moron level... I can use the basics, but I can't have a conversation.

The only way to really learn is to move to Japan and stay a long time. I've tried the immersion technique - it doesn't work. No interaction.

1 ( +3 / -2 )

.....if you are in Japan, start off by getting a job in a Japanese restaurant. well, you can pick up loads of bits. How language is learned? Don't translate it to english. Try your hardest to make yourself think of the meaning visually, when you say a word in Japanese.

ps- Thunderbird2, listen to that JLPT N1 audio course again, sped up 2x XD

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Well, some may not be as lucky as I was before I came to Japan 42 years ago. Previously to coming here, I studied Japanese for three years at the Univ. of Wisconsin. My professor and TA's were very strict. Wanting to improve my Japanese, I immediately came to Japan. Yes, I was able to communicate, but immersing myself within the culture was my greatest asset. I had few English speaking friends for my first three years here outside of my friends from work and I purposely lived in a small town in Chiba. I came here when 'This is a pen' was still popular. Having a solid structure of the language as I learned Toyo Kanji (what Japanese elementary school basically learn through sixth grade) I was able to read and write. But what an awakening I had when local people talked so fast I had no clue. Yes, I had my ups and downs and mostly ups, but I truly feel if you want to understand Japanese well, that years of hard work, practical daily conversation and reading and writing kanji is important.. My biggest mistake was not enrolling in some kind of structured class after arriving here.

I had the thrill of my life five years ago as I returned to my university and had the opportunity to speak in front of four Japanese classes. My biggest surprise was the numbers of students studying Japanese. In 1974 I had 31 students in my first year class, 12 in the second year class and only three in my third year class. Five years ago those numbers had increased to close to 100 in the first year class, 60 in the second year class, and 40 in the third year class. There were 15 in the fourth year class. It appears that interest to learn Japanese is on the rise and YES, maybe manga has influenced that interest some.

I feel fortunate to have chosen Japanese, but I will always question why I find Chinese and the Thai language impossible to learn. Keep working on your language skills everyone.

Saddest part is ..... I arrived here with a full head of hair and was young and full of life. I am now quite old and just happy to see the rising sun each morning.

Happy holidays everyone!!

8 ( +9 / -1 )

a japanese friend told me not to feel bad about not being able to speak as even japanese people can't really speak japanese till they are about 30 yo or so. the reason being is that when you are child, you speak a child's japanese, when you are a student, you speak a student's japanese and after you become an adult, until have you have worked in a company and gone to a wedding and a funeral, you can't really speak the proper japanese to cover every situation.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

NHK radio, the general service on AM, is great for listening comprehension once you've hit the intermediate level. And it's free. TV is too visually distracting. Radio forces you to use your ears.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

Before cell phones, and people listening to music became the trend and people actually talked to each other on the trains, I would try to listen to all ages of people in conversation. THIS was truly an eye opener and a great study for me. When no one was around me in conversation, I would try to read the advertisement signs.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Wakarimasu! Domo! ;)

1 ( +1 / -0 )

I have to concur that 4 is useful. There are frequent recurrences of sentence patterns and you can sound quite fluent immediately you use them. I find there is more onus on the listener to try and discern what you are saying than on yourself for clarity. So be prepared for people to finish your sentences, especially if you hesitate, and this can have mixed blessings. It means you don't have to be completely fluent to sound fluent, as long as you know what they said, but therein lies the problem because at the beginning you often may not know what they said and, besides, there is a tendency among some to finish them wrongly. That means you have to understand what they guessed, deny it and then repeat it as you want to. If you have the patterns down pat you can quickly get your point in and then sit back and listen. You do a lot of listening at the beginning, which can also be frustrating but it can't be helped.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Immerse yourself is the key. Get a Japanese girlfriend or boyfriend. That will speed things up! It did for me and I married her! Oh and 諦めないでね!

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Along with the variety of situational phrases like “itadakimasu,” “otsukaresama,” and so on, which don’t appear in English,

I hate the conformity in the language. I don't say itadakimasu befor eating or drinking or all those other non-catchy "situational phrases" . . . .but rather I just say what how I'm feeling.

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

@Wc626 but the "situational phrases" are a life-saver. Memorize them and you're set, because Japanese business life and the weddings and funerals as fds pointed out are all about situational phrases. In Japanese society using them well makes you sound like a professional, intelligent, well-mannered adult.

For me mimicking was a big help. Listen listen listen to someone close to your age/gender/social status and copy their accent/things they say. Over time you listen to and try copying many different kinds of people and develop your own native-sounding voice.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

In Japanese society using them well makes you sound like a professional, intelligent, well-mannered adult.

I prefer the rougher colloquial edge. I don't need to portray myself as well-mannered and intelligent to "fit in". I wouldn't want to sound like a whimp when other japanese guys aren't either.

Don't japanese stereotype all americans as "yankees" anyways? So whats the point of conforming to how "they" expect me to speak "their" language?

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

Because when you can speak their language the same way they do, they place a lot more weight on what you are saying.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

"In reality, Japanese and English are very different languages and simply swapping words about is going to make you sound like something Google translate might spit out"

Not only English, but Japanese is, of course, different from a lot of other languages.

In Brazil, for example, it bugs me that we learn "anata" = "you". Try to use it in a daily conversation and you will just sound impolite...

1 ( +1 / -0 )

You're right Strangerland. They sure do. Heavy words are so lightly thrown and vise versa.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

I concur with all of it, plus having a relationship with someone who speaks your target language. Definitely gives you the edge! I never forget my husbands friend once who spoke excellent english. I asked him how come and his eyes flitted nervously to his wife sitting a few seats down the table and he pretty much hissed "Australian ex girlfriends. But don't say a word, ok??!"

1 ( +1 / -0 )

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