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10 Things To Do When Learning Japanese

Updated on September 29, 2016
CYong74 profile image

Cedric earned a bachelor's degree in communications studies in 1999. His interests include history, traveling, mythology, and video gaming.

Learning Japanese could be an exasperating experience. Here are 10 tips to help you.
Learning Japanese could be an exasperating experience. Here are 10 tips to help you. | Source

As of this year, I have been learning Japanese for 20 years. I am extremely un-proud to announce I still need subtitles when watching anime.

It's shameful. But I have good excuses. I ever only attended formal lessons for a year and a half. The rest were on-and-off "cram-塾" attempts before trips to Japan. I also rarely get to interact with Japanese people face-to-face, and so even if I had a thousand Japanese friends on FB or Youtube, I don't get to practice speaking Japanese. Most of all, the language itself is devilishly difficult. Some publications, such as Business Insider, consider it among the most difficult languages for English speakers to master. Just google "hardest languages to learn." See how often Japanese gets listed, in infamy.

But I shouldn't discourage others from learning Japanese. What a sin it would be, to discourage folks from the wondrous realms of anime and manga and games and maid cafes! So instead of doing a Grouchy Smurf list of what I hate about the language, I've compiled a list of tips for all Japanese language students. Note that these are based on what I personally found most challenging about the language. This is also not a JLPT tips list. It's geared towards achieving a functional capability with the language.

1. Learn Street Japanese

It happens in every language. There's the classroom version, and then there the very different street version. You'd realise this just by watching five minutes of anime or Japanese drama. Nobody feels to be speaking in the sentence structures you learnt in class. Worse, they don't even seem to be using the same words for basic pronouns like "I" or "You."

There are many reasons for such differences. First of all, Japanese is a high context language. The message is often implied, not spoken explicitly. The condition in which a conversation takes place also affects the choice of verbs and pronouns. Secondly, the language itself heavily reflects the Japanese mentality towards gender and social hierarchy. For students learning Japanese, what's important to know is that there exists plenty of variations in the real world. You need to have a working familiarity with these variations if you ever hope to understand spoken Japanese. Either find some resource that deals with this area explicitly, or start watching hours of Japanese media daily. To begin with, determine what is the best way to refer to yourself in different situations. Watashi will sound odd half of the time. Believe me.

In informal Japanese, a young guy would refer to himself as boku, while a young guy would call herself atashi. To avoid confusion, you should be familiar with these differences and words.
In informal Japanese, a young guy would refer to himself as boku, while a young guy would call herself atashi. To avoid confusion, you should be familiar with these differences and words. | Source

2. Learn Japanese Contractions

The unfortunate truth is that Japanese is a verbose language. In English, we say, "I think." In Japanese, it becomes kamo shiremasen.

A mouthful, isn't it? So Japanese people do the expected in daily life. They contract, they shorten, and they simplify. Kamo shiremasen becomes kamo shirenai or just kamo. Most of the time, the commonly used stems of phrases are shortened or omitted.

This seems easy till you encounter the more exotic contractions. Matte-iru (waiting) becomes matteru. Katte-iku (to buy and go) becomes kaiteku. And then you have the multi-talented ~chya sound, which is capable of replacing a variety of sounds from ~tewa to ~nakereba to ~shimau. In summary, the contractions can get otherworldly. You wouldn't understand even shopkeepers, if you're not familiar with at least some of these contractions.

3. Do Verb Drills. A fundamental part of learning Japanese

How many ways can you transform the English verb, eat?

Eat, eating, ate, eaten. Simple, progressive, past, perfect.

Of course it's not limited to four transformations. "Have eaten" and "had eaten" have different rules of usage. And then you have"eats" too, which is a noun. No matter how the transformation gets though, the base form "eat" changes no more than the above-stated four variations. It is a matter of adding a "s" or "ing," or changing the word before it.

Now consider the conjugations for the Japanese word for eat.

Taberu, tabemase, tabemasen, tabemashita, tabemasendeshita, tabete, tabeta, tabenai, tabenakatta, tabetai, tabetara, tabenakattara, tabereba, taberareru, tabesaseru, tabero, tabeyo.

And I'm sure I left out a few.

In short, there are two tasks here. Learn the myriad of ways to conjugate Japanese verbs, and know when to use which. Daunting task. And no easy way through it except renshu, renshu and renshu. Drill, drill and drill. Like the Karate Kid relying on muscle memory, you ultimately have to rely on linguistic memory to get through this. For a start, search online for verb conjugation tables. A tip here, you don't have to memorise entire rows and columns of those. After a while, the transformations become intuitive.

Like for other languages, verb drills are a must when learning Japanese.
Like for other languages, verb drills are a must when learning Japanese. | Source

Bonus Tip: Japanese Transitive and Intransitive verbs

If you are already learning Japanese, ever wonder why the translation for "enter" is sometimes 入る, sometimes 入れる?

Or why fall could be both 落とす and 落ちる?

Or hajimeru versus haijimaru.

This is all due to transitive and intransitive verbs.

Simply put, transitive verbs are those that take a direct object, while intransitive verbs do not. Or you could think of it as transitive verbs giving action to an object, while intransitive verbs describe the condition of. For English speakers, this gets confusing enough although we largely do not notice it because the verb usually remains unchanged in spelling and pronunciation. In Japanese though, it often necessitates different pronunciations and variations of the stem.

According to some teaching resources, it is only important to understand the exact differences from intermediate level onwards. Personally, I think it's a good idea to start working on it as early as possible, if only to avoid the shock of encountering it later.

4. Read Children's Books And Gradually Progress To More Complicated Writings

Japan publishes loads of books for children, many of which are graded. Other than being entertaining, these books also contain one invaluable resource.

Furigana. The pronunciation guides written above Kanji characters.

Kanji are the logograms imported from the Chinese language. They are no doubt the most frightening part of learning Japanese for most foreigners. Even native Chinese speakers have only a slight advantage for while they might recognise the characters, they wouldn't have any idea how the pronunciations should be. Most Kanjis have at least two pronunciations.

Children's books help for they include Furigana for all Kanjis except the most basic ones. It might feel a tad silly to read kiddy tales, but trust me, you learn more from one novel than a whole year of lessons. Besides, there's a great variety of title, some of which are adapted from popular mangas and animes.

And when you're ready, you could progress to "higher fiction." Such as those by renowned Japanese writers like Soseki, Kawabata, Mishima, etc. These are difficult text, but publishers like Penguin and Kodansha have compiled collections with parallel translations. Do have a look at these collections. Even if they don't benefit your Japanese lessons, they are great introductions to the subliminal world of Japanese literature.

Japanese customer service personnel speak in extremely elaborate keigo. These verbose phrases can be bewildering for the uninitiated.
Japanese customer service personnel speak in extremely elaborate keigo. These verbose phrases can be bewildering for the uninitiated. | Source

5. Master Keigo

It is well known. The Japanese society places a lot of emphasis on social hierarchies. This is utterly reflected in the language through the usage of Keigo. Keigo is translated roughly as "respect language." Within Keigo, you have the two main classes of Kenjougo and Sonkeigo. Kenjougo are the phrases to use when referring to yourself humbly. Sonkeigo is used when you are addressing a superior.

Kenjougo and Sonkeigo are complicated. Other than the need to know when to use which, the word changes are drastic. VERY drastic. Fortunately, there is a convenient way to tackle Keigo when learning Japanese. Official announcements. Japanese announcements, be it at transportation hubs, stores, or tourist attractions, are drenched with Keigo. They are also typically spoken cleanly and slowly, and with online resources like Youtube, you can slowly dissect the many verbose phrases in your quest for Keigo mastery.

6. Master Onomatopoeias

An onomatopoeia is not some Percy Jackson Greek goddess. These are words which phonetically resemble what they are describing.

Some textbooks and lessons describe Japanese onomatopoeias as fun or easy to learn. They might be, if there aren't so many of them. In many cases, you really have to be quite imaginative too to see the association. For example, giri-giri. A popular usage is giri-giri safu. (Near save) How on earth does giri-giri sound near to, near?

Or doro-doro. To the Japanese, this makes sense, since doro is mud. But how would the rest of us be able to tell that doro-doro means dripping?

If you check out this link, you will see too that there are different onomatopoeias. The most difficult ones are those composed of not two repeating sounds, but ending in ~ri. These adverbs are widely used to describe or emphasise actions and emotions, and because there are so many of them, with little way to guess at the full meaning, they do start to sound the same after a while. Sukkari, suppari, sukkiri ... ... To overcome this learning difficulty, your only choice might be:

Japan produces an astonishing variety of movies, anime and television programmes. You will easily find something that's both entertaining and educational to watch.
Japan produces an astonishing variety of movies, anime and television programmes. You will easily find something that's both entertaining and educational to watch. | Source

7. Watch Japanese Movies, Dramas And Anime

It's the same with all languages. The more you hear, the more you improve. With the sort of online resources we have nowadays, there's really no excuse for any student learning Japanese not to use this age old method. At the same time, dramatic visual moments can also assist with memorisation of complicated words, like onomatopoeias. These scenes become cues etched into your head. In a very natural way, new words are assimilated into your brain.

Two warnings though. Firstly, it takes time. At the beginning it would be disheartening because you cannot comprehend entire chunks of conversation. Secondly, if you are using platforms like Youtube, spend some time checking for comments on subtitles. Not to discount the effort of volunteers and fans, but sometimes subtitles do not accurately reflect the whole context of the Japanese phrases used. Again, Japanese is a very contextual language. If you really want to master it, you must fully understand the nuances between the lines.

8. Read Manga

My language teachers would balk at this suggestion. Mangas? Comics? Those cesspits of poor and vulgar language? Well, it's true that manga uses very informal dialogues. But to a great extent manga also reflects how Japanese people speak in real life, and manga artists frequently incorporate regional slangs and dialects into the dialogues. The benefit of learning these might not be apparent immediately. But over time, you would get a grasp of how the Japanese language tends to vary. This assists in your overall learning.

Not to mention, how addictive, mesmerising the world of manga is! Why on earth would you be learning Japanese, if you do not intend to read manga?

Admittedly, manga uses very informal Japanese. But this does you an idea of how many Japanese speak in real life.
Admittedly, manga uses very informal Japanese. But this does you an idea of how many Japanese speak in real life. | Source

9. Find Someone to Speak Japanese To

The JLPT is the international accreditation examination for Japanese students. Most students, I dare say, take it to be a benchmark. With great dismay though, I recently read how the JLPT is in all a test of passive language skills.

Through the testing of reading, answering and listening skills, the JLPT equips a student with the ability to survive in Japan. But by not having storytelling and conversation segments, the JLPT does not train a student in the skills necessary for active interaction with the Japanese society. How much of a flaw this is depends on one's purpose for learning Japanese. All I can say is, I find my classroom lessons mostly useless when visiting Japan. Talking to a store clerk could get difficult. And the only way to overcome this challenge seems to be:

About the JLPT

The chief criticism of the JLPT exam is that it tests one's ability to respond in Japanese, be it in writing or speech. By not having an oral segment, it does not test your ability to initiate contact in Japanese.

10. Consider Immersion In Japan

You know, there's that belief about how the best way to teach a person to swim, is to throw the person into a river. We don't need to get suicidal in the case of learning Japanese. But immersion could overall be the best way to learn.

Immersion, with a consistent effort to learn. I think that if you choose immersion as your method, you still need to pair it with continuous, aggressive studying. You don't simply talk to various people throughout the day, read some materials, study some signages etc, you still need to grind through your worksheets and test papers daily. In short, learning Japanese, like any other language, is a slow mastering of a life skill. It's something that takes time and persistent effort to accomplish.

Japanese is one of the most exotic countries in the world. Take the chance to explore its many attractions while mastering its native language.
Japanese is one of the most exotic countries in the world. Take the chance to explore its many attractions while mastering its native language. | Source

Another Bonus Tip: Watch Programmes With Japanese Subtitles

Instead of watching Japanese programmes with English subtitles, consider watching them with Japanese subtitles. It's a grill. You are forced to listen, read and comprehend almost at the same time. But exhausting as it is, I think it is without doubt it's a great exercise for truly keen on mastering this devilish language.

Check out the skid sections of this lesson video.

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    • CYong74 profile image
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      Cedric Yong 10 months ago from Singapore

      You know, some pedantic people scorn Anime as a learning tool. I think they miss out sooooooooo much! :P

    • Cheeky Kid profile image

      Cheeky Kid 10 months ago from Milky Way

      Oh, I know a lot of words already from watching anime. Not fluent though and I don't know how to write and speak yet. I'll study Japanese soon though. For now, I'm learning German. Haha.