Few countries have influenced the West as much as Japan has. From sushi and ramen noodles to video games and reliable cars, Japan has influenced the way we eat, work, travel and play. Coupled with the fact that Japan is the world’s third largest economy and a global center of economic power, you can see why so many people want to learn Japanese.
The problem is that learning Japanese is hard. There are complicated grammar rules, a vast character sets, and a pronunciation system completely alien to most English-language speakers.
Having said that, it is more than possible to learn Japanese. Over the past few decades, hundreds of trailblazing entrepreneurs and language teachers have devised unique methods to teach Japanese – methods which help you pick up the language in months instead of years. With courses like the Speak Japanese Fluently masterclass, anyone can learn Japanese with just a little practice and dedication.
In this lesson, we will first learn about the differences in Japanese and English, and later, pick up some valuable tips for learning the Japanese language.
How Different is Japanese from English?
Kinship between languages (or the lack of it) can be determined on the basis of the following coordinates – form of alphabets or symbols, nature of grammar, sentence structure, tonality and source of meaning. For instance, Chinese is distinct from English in as many ways as is possible. Japanese, not so much. Even though the alphabet and grammar rules are very different, it is possible to find similar patterns in English and Japanese.
For instance, both English and Japanese have vowels and consonants. Since the Japanese script borrowed freely from Latin in the late 19th and 20th century, you will even find many characters that correspond to the English alphabet. Even sentence structures, though different, follows somewhat similar patterns.
Romanization of Japanese
Romanization refers to the representation of a language in the Latin alphabet. The romanization of Chinese, i.e. the Pinyin system, occurred in the 1950s. In contrast, the romanization of Japanese, called rōmaji was devised in the 16th century. In fact, rōmaji was so pervasively used in Japan in the early 20th century that many intellectuals advocated abolishing the Japanese writing system altogether in favor of the Latin alphabet.
This means that unlike Chinese, there is already a long precedent for converting Japanese words to English – something that can speed up your progress significantly.
The Japanese Lexical System
Japanese has three alphabets or lexical systems – kanji, hiragana and katakana. While kanji constitutes characters derived from Chinese and are used to convey meaning, the latter two syllabaries are used to represent syllables in speech. Katakana is typically used to signify foreign words. For example, a ‘burger’ would be pronounced the same way as in English but it would be written down using the katakana system.
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Tips for learning Japanese
1. Start with Hiragana
When learning a new language, it’s always a good idea to look for points of similarity with your native tongue. Hiragana has 5 vowels and 13 consonants, each of which has a distinct pronunciation. By pitting these syllables against their English counterparts, you can get a basic idea of the different sounds in Japanese.
Unlike foreign languages like Spanish or French, writing Japanese will be way more difficult than speaking it. The symbols used to signify syllables in hiragana are quite intricately designed and you have to copy them as precisely as possible. For best results, take a printout of the symbols and copy them stroke-to-stroke repeatedly. Gradually, your hands will get a hang of the turns and curves involved.
2. Be Patient with Kanji
When it comes to learning kanji, there are no shortcuts. This part of Japanese is derived from Chinese; hence, each symbol refers to a word, not a syllable or a sound. For instance, the symbol for mountain is 山, and is pronounced as ‘yama’, and the symbol 車 stands for a car and is pronounced as ‘kuruma’.
Altogether, there are thousands of symbols which refer to objects or concepts. So, how exactly is one supposed to learn them? In earlier times, children in Japan were forced to memorize all the symbols by rote. Luckily for you, there are many memory tricks which integrate images and symbols to make the learning process easier. Nevertheless, it still demands a lot of hard work and retention abilities on your part. The key is to be patient. Start by learning 5 kanji symbols a day, learn five more the next day and revise the ones from the previous day, and so on.
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3. Use Innovative Learning Techniques
There is only so much you can memorize by rote. To increase your retention ability, you will have to rely heavily on more innovative techniques like dynamic flash cards or imaginative memory. For instance, the Heisig method, used for learning kanji, encourages people to associate bizarre images or stories to every symbol. The aim is to fascinate your mind to such an extent that it remembers the story or the image along with the symbol. While performing this exercise, follow the simple rule – let your imagination run and wild and come up with the most absurd stories or images. The stranger the image, the better for you.
4. Practice Writing Simultaneously
When you are learning a foreign language which has the same script as English (say Spanish, French or Italian), the writing part isn’t that much of a problem. However, Japanese is written in a different script altogether, one which is very different from anything you have even come across in the past. Because of this, you might just start speaking Japanese fluently before you can even write a full sentence in the language. Make sure that you write something in Japanese everyday; there are no tricks involved here. Begin by writing simple sentences, then move on to writing letters or daily diary entries.
5. Understand the Sentence Structure
English follows the Subject-Verb-Object or the SOV sentence structure while Japanese follows the Subject-Object-Verb structure i.e. the verb is placed after the object. Let’s take an example – in English, you would say ‘John eats a chocolate’, but in Japanese, the same sentence would read something like ‘John chocolate eats’. No wonder that Japanese is often called the ‘Yoda’ language. Jokes apart, once you understand the basics of the language’s sentence structure, things will start falling into place much faster.
6. Think Japanese, Speak Japanese, Hear Japanese
Basically, for a few months, be as Japanese as you can possibly be. The best way to learn a foreign language is to immerse yourself in the culture of that country. Listen to Japanese songs, read Japanese comics, make Japanese friends online, e-mail them regularly, and most importantly, think in Japanese.
Remember, a language speaks you more than you speak a language i.e. even when you think, you are thinking in your native language. Try to incorporate Japanese into your mental framework. For instance, when you want to say that you will get ready by 9 in the morning in Japanese, don’t say it in English and translate it later. Instead, form the sentence in Japanese itself, using the grammatical and syntactical rules of the language. It might sound complicated and impossibly difficult in the beginning, but soon enough, you will get used to the entire exercise.
7. Don’t Overuse Romanji
Romanji should be a stepping stone in learning Japanese – a crutch to ease the learning process – not the final destination itself. Far too many people start using romanji permanently and never cross over to the next level i.e. start using hiragana and kanji. This stymies the learning process altogether. As intimidating as the Japanese characters might look, it’s important to dive right into them. Sure, you will make mistakes in the beginning, but this approach will prove beneficial in the long run. No pain, no gain, right!
Learning Japanese is tough, challenging, and a whole lot of fun. It is also very similar to Chinese. In fact, with courses like this essential guide to Chinese pronunciation, you can learn the basics of two languages at once!
Do you have any tips, thoughts and stories about Japan and the Japanese language? We’d love to hear them in the comments below!