Konnichiwa (こ ん に ち は)! Japanese is a great language to learn, whether you plan to use it to do business, absorb information from your preferred Japanese medium (like manga), or to speak with a friend in Japanese. At first, learning Japanese can seem intimidating as it has nothing to do with Western languages like Spanish. The writing system and the formalities are complicated, however, the grammar, pronunciation and basic conversation are really very simple. Start by learning a few useful phrases, then immerse yourself in Japanese sound and writing systems.
Method 1 of 3: Understand the Basics
Step 1. Learn the Japanese writing systems
The Japanese language has four writing systems, each of which consists of different characters. This may sound like there is a lot to learn, yet every word in Japanese, no matter what writing system it comes from, is pronounced with a combination of just 46 basic sounds. An important part of learning Japanese is classifying the different writing systems and their uses. Here is a brief summary:
- Hiragana is a Japanese syllabary of phonetic characters that make up a Japanese writing system. Unlike the Spanish alphabet, each character represents a syllable, which can include a consonant and vowel sound.
- Katakana is also a syllabary and is often used for foreign words or onomatopoeic sounds (like "boom"). Together, the hiragana and katakana represent the full range of sounds of the Japanese language.
- The kanji consists of Chinese characters that were adopted as the Japanese writing system. While hiragana and katakana are simply phonetic letters, kanji are ideograms, that is, characters that have meaning. There are thousands of kanji characters and nearly 2000 are in common use. The hiragana and katakana were derived from these characters. The same 46 sounds that are used to pronounce hiragana and katakana are also used to pronounce kanji.
- The Latin alphabet is used in Japanese to write acronyms, company names, and other words for aesthetic reasons. It's called romaji ("Roman letters"), so Japanese can also be written in Latin letters. This is not done in Japan, but beginning Japanese speakers use it to “explain” Japanese characters. However, there are many sounds in Japanese that are difficult to express in Latin letters, in addition to many homonyms (many more than in Spanish), thus they become confusing. For this reason, Japanese learners are encouraged to start learning Japanese characters as soon as possible so that they avoid the use of Latin letters for support.
Step 2. Practice Japanese pronunciation
The 46 sounds of the Japanese language consist of one of the five vowel sounds or a combination of a vowel and a consonant, except for a sound that is made up of only one consonant. The vowel sounds are not modified (as is the case with the pronunciation of some consonants in Spanish, for example: the “p” in “ball” is different from the “p” in “capa”). Learn to pronounce each character of hiragana and katakana so you can start practicing pronunciation. Check out this website for examples of how sounds are pronounced.
Concentrate on the intonation of the different sounds. Variations in sounds change the meaning of the words you speak. A long syllable can have a completely different meaning than the same sound when it is shorter (“o” versus “oo”)
Step 3. Learn the variations of the basic sounds
Japanese characters may have markings to indicate that they should be pronounced slightly differently, so sometimes the meaning of the words that are formed may change. In Spanish this is similar to "s" when it sometimes sounds like "z".
- Hard consonant sounds are pronounced with a hard stop between two sounds.
- Long vowel sounds (pronounced by holding the vowel sound with an additional beat) are distinguished from short sounds, indicating a different word.
Step 4. Learn Japanese grammar
By knowing some basic grammar rules, you can begin to understand Japanese and create your own phrases. Japanese grammar is simple and flexible, therefore it is easy to put words together in a way that makes sense.
- The subject is optional and can be omitted.
- The predicate is always at the end of the sentence.
- Nouns have no gender and most do not have separate plural forms either.
- Verbs do not change according to the subject (he, she). Nor do they change according to the number (singular and plural, such as "I" and "we" or "he" and "they").
- Particles, which mark words like subject, object, etc., always follow the word they refer to.
- Personal pronouns (I, you, etc.) differ according to the level of politeness and formality required in each situation.
Method 2 of 3: Seek Professional Instruction
Step 1. Get an audio learning program
After you've learned the basics, it's time for you to get some outside instruction to improve your skills. If you are going to learn Japanese for travel or for fun since you like Japanese culture like manga and anime, an audio learning CD might be all you need. So spending just one hour a day can reinforce your use of grammar and teach you simple set phrases and useful vocabulary.
- Listen to the show on your commute to work or have it ready on your portable music player for lunch and breaks or for walks in the park.
- You don't have to learn to read and write to enjoy the language and culture, since if you plan to take a short trip to Japan, it will be more practical to know some useful phrases rather than fill your brain with obscure characters.
Step 2. Sign up for classes
If you are learning Japanese for business or want to live in Japan, consider enrolling in a college-level course, an intensive language program, or online classes. Learning to read and write will be important to your long-term success, and having a mentor in the early stages is great for developing good study habits. This way you can ask him all the questions you have about the Japanese language and culture.
- Study writing systems. Start studying the four writing styles early on if literacy is important to your purpose of learning the language. Hiragana and katakana can be learned in a few weeks and you can use them to write whatever you want in Japanese. Currently almost 2000 kanji characters are in common use in Japanese, so it usually takes several years to learn them, however it is worth it if you really want to be able to understand and speak Japanese.
Use flashcards to learn vocabulary and simple phrases. You can use them when you are waiting for a meeting, a train, etc. You can find some free cards on the web to get you started, or you can buy higher-quality cards at most college bookstores or online.
To practice kanji, look for cards that show the order of the strokes (how to write the character) and that represent the calligraphy on one side and sample compound words on the other side. You can get a pack of 3x5 blank cards to make your own mnemonics with exactly what you want to learn
- Participate in class activities and discussions. Do all your homework, put your hand up high and participate as much as possible so that you get the most out of the language classes. If you don't, your skills won't improve.
Method 3 of 3: Immerse yourself in the Japanese language
Step 1. Join a Japanese language conversation group
Talk groups abound and can usually be found easily with a simple internet search or a phone call to your local library or civic center. Train your ears so that you understand what is being said. Even if you don't understand, try to repeat what is being said so that you can begin to understand and develop understanding.
Step 2. Make Japanese friends with whom you can practice regularly
Many Japanese want to learn Spanish, so you may be able to find some people who are willing to help you in exchange for help in Spanish. Having friends to simply switch notes can help everyone improve skills.
- Do things with your friends that involve the language, but are not "study time." If your Japanese friends haven't visited your country in a long time, show them the city. Go sightseeing. Remember, you have to relax regularly or you will get stressed out with all the kanji characters that you have to memorize. Having fun is the best way to achieve two goals at the same time.
- On the days you don't have outings, call a friend every day and have a half-hour conversation in which you only speak Japanese. If you practice more, you will improve faster.
Step 3. Review Japanese media
Whether it's a newspaper, novel, movie, or show, read or watch Japanese media every day. There is quite a bit of TV content on the Internet, from comedy to game shows to dramas. Find something that fits your interests and learning will be a lot easier. Japanese newspapers will expose you to the most practical grammar and vocabulary. As you get better, read novels as they will give you a kinder writing style. Watch classic Japanese movies and anime without subtitles or with subtitles in Japanese characters to mix things up.
Comics (manga) can be good reading material, but keep in mind that the level of sophistication varies widely. A more formal and literary comic could be good practice material (mainly because the illustrations will help you understand what you read), whereas a material that is for younger children is likely to be full of sound effects and jargon. Be careful repeating what you read in a comic
Step 4. Study in Japan
This is simply the best way to apply what you have learned in a practical way and thus learn more. Immersing yourself in another culture is a very exciting and unpredictable experience, even for a short period. Even if you've done extensive research, actually experiencing a place will expose you to things you could never have imagined.
- If you are enrolled in a university or institute, ask about the programs to study in Japan. It is one of the best ways to get long-term exposure to the Japanese language and you may be eligible for financial aid.
- Don't be discouraged if you don't understand what they are saying or if you can't read or write as well as you expected. It takes many years to become fluent in another language. The complexities and nuances of the Japanese language make it difficult to master, but they are also part of its beauty.
- Learn from the context. If the person next to you bows or responds to a greeting in a particular way, follow their lead the next opportunity you get. People of your own sex and age group are the best to watch. What is appropriate for an older man may not be appropriate for a younger woman.
- Be careful with gadgets. You shouldn't buy an electronic dictionary too soon. They are expensive and most of the features are useless if your Japanese reading ability is not at a reasonable level to get you started. Ideally, you should be able to recognize at least 300 to 500 kanji characters before purchasing.
- Any language is easy to forget if you don't practice it, so keep practicing. If you studied Japanese for many months and then stopped studying it for a year, then you WILL FORGET all the kanji characters you learned and most of the grammar. Japanese is a difficult language to absorb immediately. Even the Japanese will tell you that when they live abroad for a long time they start to forget the kanji characters. Learning a little over a long period of time will be more effective than filling up on everything in a few months.
- If you go to Japan and try to speak Japanese outside of business or formal occasions, they may sometimes ignore you. Some people just don't want to bother with what they assume you're going to speak, judging by your slow, incorrect, and awkward form of Japanese. Don't let this put you off learning the language. The number of people who will kindly and patiently listen to what you are trying to say far outnumbers those who do not want to deal with you.
- Try to stay away from language exchanges. Studies have shown that when you learn a new language your brain is taking a completely new route. When you return to English, your fluency can drop by almost 16%.
- Using expressions from comic books and cartoons is often inappropriate for common situations. Try to learn how real people use the language, rather than just learning trends and bad habits from pop culture characters.
- Learn to write with kanji at the end, not with hiragana or katakana or any other word. This way, when you are given a kanji character, you can apply the Japanese meaning so you don't have to worry about translating it to fully understand it.