Best Books for learning to speak Japanese
I lived in Japan for a few years and loved experiencing this exotic culture. One of the highlights was learning to speak Japanese - learning to speak a new language is sometimes like learning a new way to look at the world.Eventually I passed two levels of Nihongo Nou Ryoku Shiken, the difficult Japanese tests carried out by government. The tests are only carried out once a year.
If you're studying Japanese, preparing for the tests can be a huge motivator. You can write the tests in many major cities around the world. In Vancouver the tests are conducted at Douglas College in New Westminster. The test results can be used to prove your competency when applying to Japanese companies, colleges or universities.
The other great motivator is making some Japanese friends. Every big city has some sort of Japanese club. Now with the internet, even people in the remote Canadian North can build online friendships. Learning a new language is a long journey, I can't stress how important a network of Japanese connections will be in keeping you motivated.
When you're looking for learning resources don't forget to check out the bookstores at local colleges and universities. Often the material in the university bookstore will be much better that what you pick up at the local mass market bookstore.
The first book series I recommend is:
Japanese for Busy People Book I, II and III with tapes/CDs
When i started studying Japanese I was living in Ottawa. This was back in 1992 before Amazon made getting books a few mouse clicks away. The only book I could find in my local store was "Japanese for Busy People". There are three books in the series and each book comes with a set of conversation tapes. If you have only a short amount of time each day to learn Japanese this is probably the best series to use. The title is very appropriate. The series uses only Western characters to represent the Japanese words, so it's very easy to get started. There are about 20 chapters which cover the most common travel situations like meeting someone for the first time, buying something at a convenience store, and so on.
Book 1 also has an appendix that gives an introduction to writing Japanese characters and common signs. Part of my recommendation is probably sentimental because I have so many warm memories of practicing the chapter with friends and excitement as I used bits of the dialogues word-for-word when I arrived in the confusion and excitement of Tokyo Narita airport.
Shin Nihongo No Kiso (New Japanese Fundamentals)
This is the textbook series used at University of British Columbia (UBC) which has excellent programs in Asian languages. This series is written using simple Japanese characters gradually progressing to using more and more Japanese characters. There is a steep learning curve in the beginning as you learn the Japanese alphabets, but you will progress much faster later on. This series is good if you have a substantial amount of time to devote to studying Japanese before you leave.
The dialogues are more complex and more Japanese grammar is introduced early. So I'd definitely recommend having a Japanese friend to help you. If you put in the extra study time this will really accelerate your time in Japan.
Essential Kanji Characters Book I and II
These two books teach the 500 most basic Japanese kanji characters. Why is writing so important to learning to speak Japanese. Well try to imagine learning English without knowing the alphabet. By learning these basic characters, you will hugely expand you Japanese vocabulary since the majority of everyday words are made up of combinations of these basic characters.
To sum up, learning some basic Japanese before you take off will expand your opportunities in Japan. But don't be afraid to head off even if you only know your arigatou from shinto. Being thrown in the deep end is one of the best ways to force yourself to swim. One of the gaijin (foreigners) I worked with managed to thrive in Tokyo for 12 years while stubbornly using only American English. Living in a new culture is a little like being reborn - highly recommended.