This post is contributed by Valera. She lives in Pennsylvania and loves learning and teaching languages! Her blog, lerara-english.tumblr.com, is for English learners and ESL enthusiasts.
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So you’ve decided to learn Japanese! Whether you’re in it for friendship, travel, business, or just straight-up otaku goodness, the promising adventure teems with fun—and challenges. The intimidating alphabetic system, the “backward” grammar, the culture shock, among other things, often slap beginners with such intensity that many drop out before the real journey even starts. But you’re different; and you’ve determined to stick with learning Japanese until you’ve reached your goal, whatever it may be. The problem is, where do you start? And once you do start, how do you stay on track?
As a language learner myself (English is my second language—ten years ago I didn’t know what “what’s up” and “so far” meant), I’ve figured out at least one answer to those two questions: start somewhere, and once you start, don’t look back. With Japanese, however, the starting points seem too numerous and complicated at first; for this reason, I’d like to share with you some pointers and tips on how to start learning Japanese—and stick to it.
Granted, take my words with a grain of salt. Each person’s learning style is different (maybe you’re one of those rare species who can read—and whip out—高齢化社会 on the second page of their kanji workbook like it’s no big deal). So while I’m suggesting a certain order, I’m only doing so because it’s most intuitive to mere mortals like me; if you feel like changing the order to fit your learning style, change away!
Tip #1: Learn hiragana and katakana first.
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Some of you may be sighing a duh! at this point already, but mark my words: if you start by reading romaji (the English transcription of Japanese words), your brain will quickly get used to it, rendering the study of actual Japanese letters—hiragana and katakana—more difficult than it really should be. On the other hand, if you start by learning hiragana (46 letters total), you will be able not only to read basic words (and feel incredibly accomplished) but also to learn katakana (another set of the same 46 letters as hiragana, just written differently) more easily and quickly. On a side note, it makes sense to learn hiragana before katakana because the former is used more often for native Japanese words and Chinese character transcriptions, while the latter is used mostly for either foreign words or for spelling out proper nouns (i.e. names). In any case, drill those hiragana and katakana letters into your head before even looking at kanji—I’ll explain why later.
One of the most helpful tools for learning the two kanas for me was the app called TenguGo Kana. It provides you with everything you need to know about the alphabetic system, plus pronunciation and stroke order. If you’re looking for a place to start, download that app and learn the kana!
Tip #2: Write out everything.
One of the best ways to reinforce newly learned information is to make it personal; so when it comes to learning a foreign language, repeatedly writing out characters with your own hand helps to solidify information in your brain. Think of this process as making abstract concepts—letters, meanings, whatnot—tactile and relatable. After you pen them down in your own handwriting, they’re no longer foreign; after you write them out, they’ve become personal. They’ve become yours. So when you learn the kana and kanji, don’t just look at them on the screen or in a book—write them out as you learn! Don’t settle for typing them (seriously, even my cat can do that), but draw them out with your own hand.
Tip #3: Listen to real Japanese, like, all the time.
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Forget about English-speaking singers. Don’t even think about watching dubbed anime or j-drama. Fill your playlists with Japanese artists, your podcasts with Japanese programs, your YouTube channel with Japanese videos. Even if you have no idea what they’re saying/singing/yelling, still do it. In short, immerse your ears—and your brain—in Japanese language. For those of us who can just take off and land in Japan the next day—great! But for most of us, total immersion is probably one of the biggest challenges. Yet immersion in the sounds of the language serves as probably the most effective step toward mastering that language’s sound system and pronunciation. Ultimately, the goal of immersing yourself in Japanese is to replicate the sounds of native Japanese as much as possible and eventually to start thinking in Japanese. If you think humming a song in a foreign language is nothing special (even if you don’t understand any of it), you’re greatly mistaken. I mean, there is a reason why your ears are on your head—and their proximity to your brain corresponds to the process of auditory learning, too. Bottom line: listen to native Japanese as much as possible and imitate it as much as you can, even if it seems counterproductive at first. This exercise will help you familiarize yourself with the sounds of Japanese and develop a much more comprehensible accent as you begin to speak.
Tip #4: Learn kanji wisely and don’t overwhelm yourself.
Once you got your kana down, you can boldly move on to learning kanji. Admittedly, kanji (Chinese characters) are probably the hardest part of learning Japanese. You’ve likely heard the numbers: there are at least 200 most basic characters, and you need to know at least 2000 to be able to read an average newspaper. On top of that, each kanji can have two, three, or even five different ways of reading, depending on the combination with other kanji. Many Japanese language enthusiasts get swamped right about this point: overwhelmed with the amount of kanji and their complexity (the reading, the meaning, the stroke order), people drop out because they just don’t see an end to all the learning they’d have to do.
My advice? Don’t try to look ahead and see the end—because there isn’t any. Native Japanese themselves often speak of their struggle with kanji; and if even they are running into obstacles, how much more do we! So instead of dwelling on how hard or insurmountable kanji are, just deal with them gradually. Learn the numbers (一、二、三、四、etc.) first; then move on to some basic elementary kanji (大meaning “big,” 人 meaning “human”, 日meaning “sun,” etc.); and just keep going. Use everything at your disposal: kanji learning apps, textbooks, websites, videos, people, anything. Some people like to pick an easy kids book or story and learn the kanji that occur in that book; others like to be a little more systematic and learn kanji by levels of difficulty (JLPT levels or grade-school levels). The method is up to you (and there are tons out there), but the point is to develop your own system for learning kanji. In other words, be smart about how you memorize them. Instead of learning all the possible readings of a kanji at once, pick the most frequently occurring and learn those first, and as you encounter new words, you’ll learn new ways of reading kanji, too. Learn to write them, say them out loud, read them in context—get to know them as you would a real person. And if you feel like you’re stuck on the kanji you’ve already covered and just can’t seem to remember them, limit the amount of new kanji and focus primarily on the kanji you’ve learned already. Don’t overwhelm yourself. And finally, don’t be afraid to experiment: if one method doesn’t work for you, try another one. With beginning kanji, it’s really about perseverance; once you get past the 200-characters hurdle, it’ll become much more intuitive. At that point, you should be thinking, “I’ve learned 200 kanji already!” instead of, “I still have 1,800 more to go.”
Tip #5: Learn grammar simultaneously.
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Don’t wait to learn grammar until after you’ve learned the kana or some of the kanji. Start learning some basic Japanese grammar right away. It’s best to begin with the basics: word order (“blue sky” is 青い空, not 空青い); the foundations of keigo, or polite language; the rules of negation; etc. In other words, finding and using a guide to Japanese grammar in order to understand the mechanics of the language you’re learning must accompany the process of acquisition. Otherwise, if you just learn Japanese by memorizing “survival phrases” or stock expressions (called “formulaic sequences” in the Second Language Acquisition world), you may feel like you’re progressing at first but soon enough will realize that you don’t understand half of what you’re saying. On the other hand, if you learn new words or phrases AND study up on the grammar behind them, you not only will remember them better but will actually know why they are the way they are. One thing to take note of: grammar not only shapes language but also connects directly to pragmatics, or the real use of language; if you keep ignoring it, pretty soon your Japanese will hit the wall. So, what can you do? Find a Japanese grammar guide you can actually understand (I like guidetojapanese.org), ask for explanations from your penpals or language partners when they correct your sentences, and explore unfamiliar grammatical patterns when you encounter them. And of course, don’t be afraid to make mistakes—because that’s just how we all learn, anyway.
Tip #6: Make Japanese friends and start practicing ASAP.
As you might have noticed by now, I’m really advocating holistic learning from day one. All four skills—reading, speaking, writing, and listening—require special attention from the learner, since none of them stands on its own. When it comes to communication, listening comprehension plays a vital role in receiving information; however, conversation is a two-way deal comprised of both input and output. If you don’t respond, your thoughts/opinions/emotions will not get across to the other person. Now, some may say, “I can just text—I don’t need to talk right away.” While I get the point behind this argument (texting is much less stressful than speaking), here’s the truth: if you don’t break down that wall from the start, the wall will only grow taller as time goes by. It’s okay to be embarrassed or scared or lost, but it’s not okay to let those barriers prevent you from developing your speaking, one of the fundamental language skills. Plus, your language partner who’s learning English is probably just as embarrassed or scared or lost as you are, so there really isn’t that much of a difference between you two. And when people are in the same boat, especially in a raging storm, they bond much faster. Trust me, after the first try, you will definitely want to try again—because in reality, talking to new friends is more fun than scary. Finally, some food for thought: the way you speak a language creates your identity in that language. Under Tip #2, I argued that writing out characters by hand makes them yours—the same applies here: when you speak Japanese (or any other language for that matter), you identify with it.
So make an effort to create your identity with Japanese as early as possible. Think of a purpose for your endeavor (why am I learning Japanese?) and pursue it. Keep practicing, trying, making mistakes, learning, and persevering. Once you immerse yourself in the language and its people, you will become one of them, too.