Learning Japanese is no piece of cake; it has a daunting and complicated writing system and unintuitive grammar, but learning it will enhance your experience in Japan infinitely. One of the pleasures (and pains) of living abroad is learning the local language so that we can make our stay, no matter how long, a little more comfortable.
As many of us move into 2020 with some resolutions to tackle, you might find yourself wanting to do just that. Whether you’ve been studying Japanese for one or five years, there might be a point or two in your language journey you want to work on this year. Below are a few resources and tricks that were kindly suggested by the other members of the Tokyo Weekender editorial team. There are different types of learners, and chances are you already know what works and what doesn’t work for you, so keep that in mind while you read.
If your mother tongue stems from Latin or German, be prepared to be completely disoriented. Most importantly, however, be patient with yourself. It will take hard work and practice before you can naturally shift in and out of Japanese, and reach a level that is comparable to that of a person your age. Remember that it took you at least 16 years to learn your native language and that you’re preparing to cram that in much less time.
From alphabet to syllabary
Japanese uses three different writing systems and neither resemble the Roman alphabet. The first one you’ll want to learn is hiragana. This will allow you to read basic words and distinguish the different (grammatical markers) within a sentence. While you’re learning hiragana, if phonetics are important to you, this is a good time to also learn Japanese pronunciation. Then, you can move on to katakana and start studying kanji.
A Japanese sentence also follows different syntax rules, notably placing the verb at the end and preceded by the direct object. For example, “Alice is eating lunch” would become “Alice lunch is eating” in Japanese. And if this reminds you of a certain character from a popular science-fiction franchise, it’s because his character was based on the image of a Japanese sensei.
The best place to start learning is with a good ol’ textbook. There are many on the market, but below you’ll find two that we think stand out amongst the chaos.
The Genki series is really great if you don’t have classroom support because it uses English to explain essential grammatical points and includes lengthy vocabulary lists. If you’re starting from zero, this the best way to kick off your learning. Because of the series’ popularity, it’s also really easy to find pre-made flashcard decks online or exercises based on the books’ lessons.
Relying on English after a certain period of time, however, can be hindering in the long-run. I suggest switching to an all-Japanese textbook and start applying everything you’ve learned as soon as you feel a little more comfortable reading basic Japanese. The Minna no Nihongo series is one that I used in school and loved because it relies a lot on illustrations, which is perfect for the visual learner, and is full of examples.
If you plan on studying in Japan, it’s strongly recommended to memorize grammar-related vocabulary. Learning words like ‘verb’ or ‘adjective’ can make or break an experience. Chances are the classes will be all in Japanese, so having this lexicon of words will make the lessons a lot easier to follow, and thus make your time a lot more worthwhile.
Learning Vocabulary and Kanji
This is what brings a lot of learners to quit. Japanese has more words than English (many of which are untranslatable) and if you think it’s a daunting task to learn them, it’s because it is.
Kanji will probably be your biggest enemy for a long while. In order to read a Japanese newspaper, most learning resources recommend learning roughly 2,000 kanji. Speaking from experience, it only gets easier after the first 500.
It’s also really helpful to learn how to write kanji, especially when living in Japan. If you work full-time, the iKanji app is a great way to practice kanji on the go without having to drag around a pile of papers and notebooks. For those who might prefer a more hands-on approach, try keeping a Japanese journal or diary. This will help identify the words you use on a daily basis, which sometimes aren’t included in vocabulary lists. I also found it really helpful to learn vocabulary and kanji together.
Memorizing the vocabulary lists of your textbook is good when you’re starting out or if you’re learning Japanese very casually. The downside is that it takes a lot of maintenance. Instead, serious and advances learners turn to a Spaced Repetition System. SRS is a studying method that has been successful for a lot of language learners. Especially if you live outside of Japan, this is a really good way to make sure you’re exposed to a word or kanji as much as possible. It’s also a great way to keep track of what words aren’t sticking.
You can create your own with personalized flashcards or a spreadsheet, but for students or working adults, it can be too time-consuming, so below I’ll recommend a few websites that can make SRS more accessible to busy learners.
For kanji and vocabulary, WaniKani is the best option for Japanese learners. You’ll also receive a lot of guidance when it comes to what pace you should be studying based on your level. Finally, for the students who like having the classroom support but aren’t available to go to school, there is also a forum with book clubs, more learning resources and testimonies. The one thing I don’t love about WaniKani is that it lacks explanations about nuances. (More on how you can learn nuance below.) While 望み (read nozomi) and 希望 (read kibou) both translate to ‘wish’ in English, there is a slight difference in its usage in Japanese. There is a space to add your own notes, but keep in mind that some extra research might be required.
To use in tandem with WaniKani or the textbooks mentioned above, Bunpro uses SRS with various grammar points. What’s good about this website is that you can set paths that follow the Genki or Minna no Nihongo lessons so that the reviews match the pace to which your studying, making sure everything you’re learning sinks in overtime. Bunpro also includes a comprehensive list of online resources to every grammar point if you want some additional explanations.
Finally, intermediate and advanced learners can review everything together with the Kanjibox app. Especially if you’re aiming to pass a proficiency test, this is great to get some practice that isn’t your textbook example sentences.
Output, Nuance and the Road to Fluency
When I started learning Japanese, my teacher used to tell my class that a visit to Japan was a necessity to reach fluency. While the concept of true fluency in any language is often debated among linguists, when it comes to Japanese, I think it’s really important to know that there is a significant difference between colloquial and scripted Japanese.
While you can reach a high level of understanding without setting foot in Japan, anybody who aims for a native-like Japanese should prepare to make the trip, be it for a week or two, or a few months. If not to help your comprehension level (input), a visit to Japan will incomparably help the level to which you’re able to speak (output). Like all languages, no Japanese person speaks respecting all the grammar rules out there, so chatting with locals will help you get a hang of that.
There’s no easy way to it, so the best speakers recommend to throw yourself in the thick of it. Going to a bar or open-space izakaya near your house and communicating with locals in real-time is the best thing you can do to improve your spoken Japanese ability. A good way to avoid slipping into using English is to try as hard as possible to never look up words you don’t know, especially in the middle of a conversation. Instead, ask to explain the word or concept to you in easy-to-understand Japanese. This might be hard to do as a beginner, especially with dictionaries at the tip of our fingers, but once you can grasp a few words, it can definitely be beneficial.
Other Japanese Learning Resources
Probably the most well-known resource for everything Japanese language. You’ll find reviews of various textbooks and in-depth articles about everything you can think of. If you’re seriously considering learning Japanese, I recommend reading this detailed guide.
If you’re looking to check up on a specific grammar point, this guide provides explanations and many examples. This is also a great one for those who might want to polish their Japanese on the go without carrying a grammar dictionary.