Is Japanese hard to learn … not of all? But, If you think so, then you’d better not read this article, because you’ve got the wrong idea about this language!
Japanese is not as hard as everyone thinks: it, however, is about as distant from other languages as they come, so at the beginning you can feel as befuddled and confused as a puppy in a den of linguistic wolves.
To make matters worse, and in spite of a huge amount of learning resources, there are very few good teachers abroad, and even less non-natives who speak Japanese fluently, furthering the myth that this is an impossibly difficult language.
I won’t bore you with my story, but I will tell you this: I’ve covered all positions in regards to this language. I’ve learnt it in a class, as an individual, and then the tables turned and I started to teach it. I write about it constantly on my blog, The Polyglotist.
As such, I’ve been in contact with an inordinate amount of people who, in some way or another, are related to the language. In the end, I’ve noticed that since there’s a lot of misinformation about the nature of this language, it’s easy for beginners to step into very discouraging pitfalls, and worse yet, fail to recover from such mistakes. This is in this article, I’m offering you a guide of what to do and what not to do as a beginner of the language.
DO… spell out your ABCs
Or more specifically, your hiragana and/or katakana. A lot of people regard the Japanese writing systems as a foe to be avoided as much as possible. Why, if your goal is learning to speak Japanese, should you learn three different writing systems?
The third and most time consuming writing system, kanji, is a matter for a completely different article, but hiragana and katakana actually amount to exactly the same thing: they’re the written form of Japanese sound (and their only true difference is what they’re used for–hiragana is used for almost everything, while katakana is used for foreign words, biologic names, transliteration, etc).
You see, Japanese is actually a very phonetically poor language, and an incredibly regular one at that. You have five basic vowels, and then nine (or eight, depending on who you ask) consonants: your rule for Japanese is that you either have a vowel, or a consonant first and a vowel after. All the sounds you can produce in Japanese are a combination of these.
When you’re learning hiragana, do yourself a favor: find support in the form of a Youtube video, a Forvo audio bit, or a Japanese friend, and ask them to spell the hiragana out for you, and repeat them out loud whenever you’re working with hiragana or katakana (it doesn’t matter if you’re learning them individually or as words right now). Once you figure out their sounds, your pronunciation will improve drastically WHILE you’re learning to write in Japanese.
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DON’T... use romaji to learn
For the love of all that is linguistically good, just don’t. I’ve seen too many people corner themselves into the beginner’s stage because they thought romaji (Japanese written in our alphabet) would be a good shortcut, and then they realized that there’s close to no material for beginners (let alone intermediate and advanced levels) written in it.
The few that have been willing to get themselves out of this predicament have essentially had to start relearning Japanese from scratch, so you can see why some that make this mistake don’t bounce back.
Even if your goal is speaking and not reading/writing, don’t take the easy way out.
DO… speak as soon as possible
Quite literally, speak as soon as you know how to introduce yourself. If you meet a Japanese person, Say things like “Hi. I’m _____. I don’t speak Japanese, but I’m learning.Yoroshiku onegaishimasu“. And then, ask as many questions as you humanly can.
You may wonder, “what questions?”
Fortunately, there are two questions that will magically open a world of new vocabulary to you. They are “kore wa nan desu ka?” and “kore wa nan to iu?”, which literally mean “what is this?” and “what is this called?” (Those who have already learnt about pronouns may change “kore” for “sore” and “are”.) Memorize them.
The Japanese are exceptionally aware that their language doesn’t come easy to foreigners; this, paired with a naturally gentle disposition, means that if you ask them one of these two questions they’ll be more than happy to help you understand the world around you (in Japanese, obviously).
DON’T… focus on isolated words
A lot of people I know seem to have an almost perverse fixation on learning their Japanese vocabulary as isolated words, through flashcards. To be honest, I’m a big fan of flashcards myself, but Japanese is an incredibly formulaic language, and this approach may only slow your learning down.
After you’ve been learning this language for a while, you realize a lot of patterns repeat themselves, and certain words are used very often in conjuntion with others.
Therefore, if you’re going to use flashcards as a method of memorizing new vocabulary, try to create or find decks that use sentences (or at the very least, conjugated verbs, adjectives, adverbs, et al).
This has the additional benefit of driving home the different nuances and contexts that Japanese has to offer (friendly, informal, formal, respectful, humble, etc.) Again, it’s not a bad idea to spell them out when you’re learning–it will also start giving you a sense of pace when speaking.
DO… be creative with how you express yourself
Japanese is a very descriptive language (don’t believe me? Take a look at how much poetry and literature they put out every year). I noticed this early on, when I realized that in spite of not having a particularly large vocabulary, I could still describe familiar concepts “in other words”.
To use an oversimplified example, when you realize that you don’t know the word for “soccer ball”, you can always say “the round, black and white thing 11 people play with”; in a nutshell, you use words you know to describe words you don’t.
I recommend using this trick repeatedly at the beginning of your learning, as it will supercharge your vocabulary while getting you some conversation practice. It works a bit like a stair does: the more vocabulary you acquire, the more descriptive you can be about concepts you don’t know the word for.
DON’T… use manga and anime to learn
I mean it. Don’t.
Why? Because manga and anime use a very particular brand of Japanese that is NOT used in real life. If you base your learning on watching and reading this type of visual media, you risk having a vocabulary that in reality doesn’t match Japanese social standards. You may actually manage to isolate some vocabulary from reading or watching it, but the context you will find it may provide very few clues as to how to speak real Japanese.
Of course, if you’re learning Japanese with the express goal of watching anime or manga (and that’s a pretty lofty goal in and of itself) and don’t really have the intention of speaking with people, there are resources that will speed you on your way there, such as the site Anime to Manga no Nihongo.
DO… be patient
As I said in the beginning, Japanese is not difficult. Among the languages I’ve learnt (and I’ve learnt quite a few by now), it has by far the easiest grammar and pronunciation, and the large amount of homophones in it make learning vocabulary piece of cake. Indeed, the one thing that makes Japanese “hard” is learning to read and write it well (but even that can be simplified with a little planning).
However, Japanese can also be said to be a multilayered language; more than the mastery of the language itself, the culture that accompanies it is so complex that you’ll find it requires some attention of its own to make sense of the language.
What this means is that while you’ll see results immediately after you start applying some of the advice I’ve given you, you need to account for mistakes, as they’re also part of your learning process. Try to take note of every mistake you’ve committed, and turn it into a lesson.
Learning this language won’t require you to have the IQ of a genius, but you WILL need the patience of a saint. Are you ready?
Well then, 行きましょう！