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Learning Japanese: Tips and Tricks

Japan, Traditional Japan

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As a huge fan of Japanese culture it was inevitable that I started to pick phrases like “Baka! Kawaai!” and “Sugoii!”. So it was only a matter of time before I decided to put my time watching anime to use, and try to learn the language. Almost a decade later I’m still learning and honestly I haven’t improved that much. Partly it’s because I’ve only studied on and off, but also because even when I did work hard my methods weren’t great. So how can you improve faster and easier? These are some of the things I’ve learned the hard way…

Make the decision

This may seem like a no-brainer, but sometimes your biggest stumbling block is your attitude. If you’re like me you like Japan, you watch anime and Japanese cinema, so you’ve decided to study the language… or not.

Everybody’s different so you’ll probably have different things that interest you. More importantly if you’re going to Japan you’ve also got a timeline, so you need to take these things into consideration before you start. Think about what you’re willing to put into your study of the language and what you want to get out.

Which all makes sense except…

When I started my goal was to learn conversational Japanese, I wanted to watch my favorite shows with no subtitles. This seemed like a good goal except that I was trying to cut the language in half, learning only “easy” stuff and throwing the “hard” things away. This single decision cost me years of  misspent effort.

By all means if you’re going to Japan in a month stick to learning basic phrases (I’d start with “Sumimasen”). But if your real goal is learning the language then you need to learn the whole language, which includes complex grammar, hiragana, katakana and kanji.

Yes, you do have to learn kanji

If you know about the Japanese laguage you know kanji consists of an incredible multitude of impossibly complex-looking characters.   There are almost 50,000 of them in all. While Japanese learners are required to learn only 2000 kanji in school, this amount is still boggling to people used to a 24 character alphabet. The prospect of learning kanji is probably the single greatest reason people don’t attempt to learn Japanese. And yes, it is mandatory.

What makes kanji even more intimidating is that they don’t work like the letters you’re used to. Kanji stand for a specific concept and their reading changes according to their context.

Here’s an example:

This is the character for “Sun”: 日

It can also mean “Day”: 日

So this same character appears twice in the word “Sunday”: 日曜日

Sunday is pronounced “Nichiyoubi”, with “Nichi” meaning “Sun” and “Bi” meaning “Day”. What’s happened is that while the kanji representing the concept stays the same, the character is read in such a way as to reflect its meaning in context.

You won’t be the first to wonder why it all has to be so hard. Learning kanji is a huge adjustment, but ultimately it’s a huge benefit.

Making it work for you

Consider the following: What the difference in meaning between a stick and a branch? In Japanese these words would be written identically. Now consider: rock, sand, pebble. Again different words but with a shared concept.

Here’s an example

“Wood” is written like this: 木

“Grove” like this: 林

“Forest” like this:

And “Book” looks very similar: 本

Sure kanji is a difficult and unwieldy system, but by understanding it you are understanding the basis of Japanese itself. Words which are spoken differently and seem unrelated are revealed to have hidden connections and layers of meaning, all of which help when you need to memorize them.

Where to get started

Japanese is all around you when you start looking. Utilize your hobbies by learning the words associated with them. Learn the word, look up the kanji and understand the concept.

If you’re new to kanji, the best way to start is by learning the first 80 kanji which Japanese schoolchildren learn in Grade 1. These kanji appear in even the most basic manga, and form the basis of more advanced characters. They’re available here for free.

Another great resource is Japanese Pod 101 which podcasts lessons daily. Despite having to pay for access it’s better value for money than any book, and doesn’t teach old and excessively formal Japanese like some programs. There’s also classes for every level and a selection of blogs to keep you inspired and entertained.

Some final advice

When learning Japanese it’s easy to get stuck trying to memorize individual details like specific words or characters. If you try to learn five kanji and a week later you could only remember two don’t worry about it. Instead to trying to memorize them again just move on. Sooner or later you’ll see the character again and remember it. You can’t learn anything but writing out a character fifty times in one sitting, but after seeing it ten times in different contexts you’ll know it by heart. The same thing goes for vocabulary, by learning little by little you start to build up a surprisingly large bank of words.

While learning Japnaese outside Japan is difficult it’s also by no means impossibe. がんばってね!

One Response to this post
  1. Posted on February 15, 2010 by Brenda Van Niekerk

    Just found this blog, very interesting. Will make a point of revisiting it.

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