Learn Japanese: What it takes to master the language

learnjapaneseWith 125 million speakers, Japanese is a great language to learn. You will always be able to find someone to speak Japanese with! Most people choose to study to help their career, to read their favourite manga books, or to talk to their Japanese friends. Despite being labelled one of the hardest languages for English native speakers to learn, Japanese basic conversation and pronunciation are simple and straightforward.

For anyone yet to learn a new language, this may seem intimidating. You’d actually be shocked at how easy it is. In just over an hour, you can learn the writing systems and basic phrases. As you advance the language formalities can make Japanese seem difficult, but like any new skill, it takes practise to make perfect.

The more effort you put into learning Japanese, the better results you see. This guide is aimed at anyone wanting to wrap their head around what it takes to master the Japanese language, whether you are an absolute beginner or have some experience already. First, we touch on the reasons to study Japanese, before giving an introduction to the four writing systems, pronunciation and grammar. We will outline the different ways you can learn Japanese, and teach you some simple phrases as we go. Finally I cover one of the biggest components of Japanese culture, their ability to always be polite, and some final thoughts on mastering the language.

Reasons to study Japanese

Today’s world is a mess of connectivity. To adapt, cope, and succeed, every one of us is going to need to step outside of our comfort zone. The reasons to master a foreign language are endless, I believe the most important is enhancing your ability to communicate and connect with people. Research has also shown learning a new language, regardless of your age makes you a better listener, boosting both your creativity and empathy towards other individuals. It can even delay the onset of Alzheimers! Here are some additional reasons to master this language:

1. Business Opportunities

Many of the top companies in the world have their origins in Japan. Toyota, Hitachi, Honda, the list is endless. By understanding both a person’s culture, as well as their language, you will have an edge when dealing with them. Whether it’s a negotiation, or helping you to build a strong relationship, if you can communicate with someone in their native tongue, you definitely impress them. Many positions in international companies require staff who are effective communicators in Japanese for this reason alone, within Japan and abroad. The international environment present in today’s business world means that even if you don’t want to leave your home country, Japanese is a great skill to have. The British Council found that whilst Japanese was one of the top 10 most important languages for UK citizens to learn, fewer than 1% could hold a conversation in this language. Alarming, right? Why not set yourself apart from the competition and develop your Japanese skills. It might just help you land your dream job.

2. International mindset

When learning a new language, it’s virtually impossible not to gain an understanding of the culture that developed it. The structural features in Japanese, like honorific verbs and special kinship terms give insight to their culture. As you consume more Japanese media, you will expand your understanding of not only the language, but the culture this language reflects. This opens your mind to differences in society, and allows you to also reflect on the cultural norms present in your own country. Companies seek staff that are able to empathise with different cultures, and who can work effectively in an interconnected world. Learning a new language is a great boost, proving that you have an international mindset and the desire to live outside of your comfort zone.

3. It’s fun.

The ability to read, write and communicate in a language that is not your native tongue is fun. You can pick up your favourite manga comic and read along, chat to your Japanese friends and build stronger friendships, or even meet new people that you wouldn’t normally bump into while you are in your language class or conversation groups. This is one of the best reasons to learn Japanese.

4. It rapidly develops your interpersonal skills

Boosting your ability to communicate, learning a second language forces you to think about the grammar and structure of your native language. Because the order of your words, verb tenses and grammar are different when speaking a new language, whilst you are learning a new language you are also developing a better understanding of your own. Applying this knowledge will make you a better communicator in your native tongue. Research has also found that bilingual individuals are better able to identify a speaker’s voice when there are other distracting noises interfering. A strong ability to communicate in a second language can help you focus better on what it is your boss, employee or customer is saying in a noisy bar, restaurant or club.

5. It boosts your creativity

Every time you say something in a foreign language, you are challenging yourself. In your native language, speaking comes naturally. In a foreign language, you have to put effort into correctly constructing sentences. This continual effort enhances your brains ability to adapt, improving your planning, cognitive flexibility and working memory. These three traits are the keys to thinking outside of the box.

6. It sharpens your mind to make smarter decisions

When you think in a foreign language, it’s essentially exercise for the brain. Continually learning and developing makes your brain more efficient. Translating and analysing questions in your non-native tongue makes you consider both the question and answer more analytically than you would in your native language. Studies have shown that candidates given two identical questions in different languages, the problems evaluated in the non-native tongue were given more deliberation, with answers based on cold hard logic. Exactly what you need to make smart decisions. Next time you have a difficult decision, try thinking about it in a foreign language.

Writing Systems

Japanese has a combination of four writing systems, each of which has different characters. Remember how I said this was the complicated part? Getting your head around these, as well as learning the uses of the different systems is critical in learning Japanese. On a positive note, despite which of the four writing systems have been used to write a word, everything in Japanese is pronounced using a combination of only 46 sounds. You can master the first two writing systems in just a few weeks.

People learning Japanese typically begin by learning Hiragana and Katakana. It’s possible to write entire sentences in these two writing systems, and once you have a good understanding of these progress to Kanji. All of the writing styles (except Romanji) have been designed to be written in vertical lines, from right to left. Historically, almost every piece of Japanese writing was vertical, but slowly horizontal writing is becoming the norm. It makes it easier to include text from other languages, as well as Arabic numerals. Newspapers are one of the main forms of media still using a vertical style.

The four writing systems are as follows:

1. Hiragana

This is a syllabary containing phonetic characters. It’s different to English, as every character stands for a syllable. This means that every character may have both a vowel and a consonant sound. Hiragana is typically the first set of characters people learn when studying Japanese, both foreigners and Japanese alike. Children’s books usually only contain Hiragana, so that young kids can get an understanding of these characters before progressing to the more difficult Kanji. Hiragana is used to construct native Japanese words for which there is no Kanji.

2. Katakana

This writing system is also a syllabary, used for onomatopoeic sounds (words that imitate a sound, e.g. buzz or murmur), or foreign names and words with foreign origins. Together with Hiragana, these two writing systems account for every sound in the Japanese language. Characterised with straight, short strokes with sharp corners, Katakana are the simplest of the Japanese written scripts.

Some examples are as follows:

  • Australia オーストラリア Ōsutoraria

  • Supermarket スーパー sūpā (the word is condensed)

  • Ramen ラーメン   rāmen

  • Ding-Dong ピンポン pinpon (the sound of a doorbell)

3. Kanji

Borrowed characters from Chinese are called Kanji. Adopted into the Japanese writing system, Kanji differs from both Hiragana and Katakana as they are not phonetic letters. Kanji are ideograms, characters which represent a specific meaning. A block of meaning is assigned to every character. Thousands of characters make up Kanji, and about 2000 remain in common use today. They require the same 46 sounds to pronounce the words,  Hiragana and Katakana were derived from this writing system.

The most frequently used Kanji can be found here, a strong list of definitions, based on the relative frequency which the character appears in modern Japanese newspapers.

4. Romanji (Roman Letters)

The Japanese also make use of the Latin alphabet as their fourth writing script. Romanji literally translates to mean roman letters. Company names, acronyms, and for aesthetic reasons, Japanese can also be represented in Latin (i.e. our ABC alphabet). The most popular method is the Hepburn Romanization system. Latin letters are not typically used in Japan for everyday writing, but it is useful for beginning language students to grasp Japanese characters. The downside is that there are many Japanese sounds difficult to express in Latin letters, and the presence of many homonyms (a lot more than English) can be confusing for students. Those learning Japanese should start mastering the Japanese characters as fast as possible to progress in the language.

Pronunciation

The 46 sounds in Japanese are either a vowel sound (there are five), or a combination of a vowel and a consonant. There is only one exception, one sound is a consonant only. A difference to English is that there is no inflection on vowel sounds (for example the different sound of “a” in apple vs. ace). There are many places to practise the pronunciation of the Hiragana and Katakana characters, if you are looking for something a little different, KanaBeats offers a musical approach to learning these characters.

While you are studying, focus on the intonation of each sound. Longer syllables can have completely different meanings from their shorter counterparts (“o” vs. “oo).

Japanese also has variations on the basic sounds. Characters may have additional marks to highlight they need to be pronounced differently, changing the meaning of the words they make up entirely. Think of it like changing an “s” in English to a “z”. Hard consonant sounds have a hard stop in between the two sounds, while long vowel sounds (where you hold the vowel sound an extra beat longer), are different from short sounds, and result in different words.

Grammar

Japanese grammar is quite simple, flexible enough that you can string words together and have it make sense. Learning a few basic rules will let you better understand Japanese, and allow you to create your own sentences:

  • Subjects are optional, and can be omitted.

  • Nouns do not have a gender, and most don’t have separate plural forms.

    • “hon” can mean “a book,” “the book,” or “books”

    • “kuruma” can mean “a car,’ “the car,” or “cars”

    • “tomodachi” can mean “a friend,” “the friend,” or “friends”

  • Verbs don’t change depending on the subject (he/she/it) and also don’t change according to number (singular/plural). The same verb is used no matter what:

    • 私はビデオをよく見ます。“Watashi wa bideo o yoku mimasu”

      • I watch videos often.

    • 彼はテレビをよく見ます。“Kare wa terebi o yoku mimasu”

      • He watches videos often.

  • Verbs only have two tenses. The present and the past tense.

    • Present tense is habitual actions or refers to the future.

    • Past tense refers to actions completed in the past.

  • The predicate is always at the end of the sentence.

  • Particles marking words as subject, object etc. always follow the word they relate to.

  • Personal pronouns differ according to the level of formality required in a situation.

These rules may sound confusing at first, but once you get them straight in your head, they make learning the language a lot simpler. The most difficult part for new students to grasp is the word order. Japanese uses Subject Object Verb, which is very different to English. A sentence in English like “I watch television” would be structured as “I television watch” in Japanese. Listeners need to be patient as they participate in a Japanese conversation, you have to wait for the very last word in the sentence to know the verb.

Learning Methods

As you advance beyond the basics of what you can learn by yourself, outside instruction is the best option you have for improving your Japanese skills. Here it’s important to determine why you are learning the language. If you are doing it for fun, because you like Japanese cartoons or have an upcoming trip to Japan, a simple audio course may be all you need. If you are planning to relocate for work to Tokyo, you may need a more intensive training schedule.

Listening is a great passive learning tool. The more you hear locals speaking the language, the better your ears attune to pick out the differences between words. Soon you will be very comfortable with the language. Even if you don’t grasp what they are saying, the first step is being able to recognize Japanese when those around you are speaking it. The best resource you can develop at this stage is the understanding of how Japanese “should” sound. As you progress in your learning, you will have a much better handle on pronunciation, accents and tones than if you are reading from a textbook. Dive through all the media you can find in Japanese, be it movies, TV shows, cartoons or music, and get comfortable with the language.

Building on this comfort, the simplest way to grow your grammar and vocabulary is through listening combined with continual practise. Now you have a base and understand how things should be pronounced, you need to learn the words. Passive listening is only going to get you so far, now you need to step it up with some active learning. Having podcasts ready on your mp3 player, or a CD in your car will allow you to continually study as you have time in traffic or on the train. The BBC has a great audio track that teaches you a number of key phrases to get started. An hour a day is easy to find while you are driving to work, or enjoying your lunch. At this stage, you will have a good basic understanding of the language, and be able to communicate in short commonly used phrases. If you are only planning a short trip to Japan, knowing a few key phrases is better than having your head filled with Hiragana and Katakana. If you are more serious about the language, a great lecture series to start with is Yuichi Hagio’s learn casual Japanese conversation.

For those studying Japanese seriously, classes are the ideal way to master the language. Most major cities have college level courses, or intensive language programs, but if neither suit your schedule you can also look for online classes. The Japanese Online Institute is a fantastic resource where you can choose a study schedule and find teachers to meet your needs. Learning to read and write will be critical to your success, find a course that offers this as well as having access to the teachers so you can clarify all the questions you have. This access during the early stages of learning Japanese will help you rapidly learn the language.

To advance in a language you need to master the writing systems as fast as possible. It’s very possible to learn Hiragana and Katakana in a few weeks, and you can use these to write anything you want in Japanese. Kanji is a little bit more difficult. With around 2000 in common use, it typically takes a new student several years to become “native-level” fluent in Kanji. If you are planning on this level of success, spend the time developing good study habits and use a system to help you remember. Flashcards are a great way to get your head around vocabulary and simple phrases. You can even get app’s for you phone with flash cards, to allow you to do quick practise anytime you have 5 minutes free. A Google search will bring you many free resources to print at home, or you can visit your local bookstore and pick up a higher quality set. The best way to practise Kanji is to use cards that demonstrate how to write the character. You can even grab a set of blank cards and make your own flash cards with the Kanji you have trouble remembering.

Finally, remember to participate. Spending money on learning is not worth it if you are not doing your homework, contributing to class discussions and making friends to practise your new found skills with. If you are not actively trying to improve, you won’t.

Immerse yourself in the language

To really progress in your Japanese skills, you need to dive in the deep end, immersing yourself in the language.

Meetup has many language exchange groups, through this great site or your community find a Japanese language conversation group. If you can’t find this online, a call to your local library or civic centre may be able to assist. Being part of a conversation group has two benefits, it means you commit time to practising, and can expose you to individuals who are more advanced in their language skills. If you attend a meeting and you are completely lost, don’t fret. Listen and pick apart the words, even if you don’t understand their meanings. It takes time, and at the beginning simply focus on repeating the words you can hear to yourself. As you practise and get better at listening, you will find that you grasp more and more understanding of the conversation taking place. Build on this, and try your hand at using the phrases you have learnt, or answering a question that has been posed to the group. Everyone is here to learn, don’t be afraid to speak up.

Following on from this, Japanese friends are a great way to practise. Many Japanese foreign nationals want to improve their English ability, you may find a mutual friend, or even a new friend who is willing to help you practise in exchange for help with their English. The best part about learning from Japanese people is they can give you insight and understanding into the culture as well as the language. But don’t do this like a study session. Try to find fun things to do with your Japanese friends that lets you converse in Japanese and English. Show them around town if they are new to the country, go sightseeing or for a road trip. You will get a chance to practise your conversation, and have fun at the same time. Much more fun than stressing about 2,000 Kanji to memorize!

If you are stuck for time, you can always call your Japanese friends to have a conversation purely in Japanese. As you improve, you will find what is at first a 5 minute struggle, soon becomes lengthy and interesting conversation. The more practise you get, the faster you are going to improve.

Japanese media is a great way to get practise in everyday. Check out a newspaper, a Japanese book, a movie or a TV show, it is very easy to find content that lets you get an hours worth of practise. On the internet there are endless game shows and soap opera’s, you will be able to find whatever takes your interest to make learning that much easier. Reading newspapers is great for your writing skills, you will be exposed to the most common vocabulary and grammar in Japanese. As your skills improve, shift to novels for a more comprehensive style of writing. Watching Japanese films or anime will give you hearing practise, just make sure there are no English subtitles for you to cheat from!

Many students enjoy reading comic books as a study material. Japanese manga is fun and easy to follow, especially with the illustrations to aid your understanding. It’s drawback is that the level of sophistication can vary greatly. Be aware of the target market when selecting a comic book, one developed for a mature audience will provide greater practise than once created for children that’s full of slang, impolite phrases and sound effects. Be careful when repeating phrases from comic books, you don’t want to sound like a Yakuza gangster.

The most extreme method to improve your Japanese is to get on a plane and visit Japan. The exciting experience of immersing yourself in another culture, even for a short period, is without equal. No matter how much you have prepared, being on the ground in Tokyo is going to expose you to parts of the culture you could never have imagined. College students, ask if there are any options for you to do exchange for a semester in Japan. This is one of the easiest ways to get long-term exposure to the language, and you may even be able to apply for financial aid while you study!

Practise

The most important part is practise. Without spending time every day, or every week repeating and using what you have learnt, you will forget. Even taking a break for a year, you will lose practically everything you have learnt. Japanese foreign nationals also complain that they start forgetting Kanji after being overseas for many years. Imagine someone who has only studied on-and-off for a year or so. You don’t stand a chance! Japanese is a hard language to learn in one go. Continual study over a long period of time will do your learning much more good than cramming for 2-3 days every six months.

It can be discouraging to be practising everyday and feel like you are not making progress. We all set very high expectations of ourselves without often realising the difficulty of a task. If you can’t read or write as well as you expect, remember that it takes many years to become truly fluent in another language. There are many difficult parts of the Japanese language that make it hard to master, but it’s also what makes it a beautiful language.

Learn some simple Kanji characters

This is going to guide you through the most common phrases that will make your first steps into the Japanese language a breeze. Once you master these, you can check out the advanced guide written by Nicholas Kemp. He takes students from a basic understanding to conversational Japanese through a great study program you can complete at your own pace.

  • Hello (in person)                           今日は                                             konnichiwa

  • Hello (on the phone)                   もしもし                                             moshi moshi

  • Pleased to meet you                   初めまして                                        hajimemashite

  • Long time no see                           久しぶり                                           hisashiburi

  • Good morning                 お早うございます / おはようございます   ohayō gozaimasu

  • Goodbye                                             さようなら                                       sayōnara

  • Excuse me                                         すみません!                                   sumimasen

  • How much is this                          いくらですか                                     ikura desu ka?

Needing a special mention, these are the signs that will be displayed on bathroom doors. Handy to know for anyone visiting Japan who doesn’t want to inadvertently walk into the wrong washroom!

  • Male 男 otoko

  • Gentleman 男性 dansei

  • Female 女 onna

  • Ladies 女性 josei

Major cultural aspect, the level of politeness.

Everyone knows Japanese people are polite. In Japan, this isn’t simply holding the door open for someone, and saying your please and thank you’s. In Japanese, the word for polite “teinei” can apply to more than simply an action or a person. In the Japanese language, you can treat a fragile item politely (meaning: gently), or wrap your son’s birthday present politely (meaning: clean and orderly).

Politeness is also linked to respect. A very unique trait to the Japanese language is its ability to express politeness and formality at different levels according to social status. To determine social status, the Japanese look at a number of factors. A persons job, age, experience and context of the situation all influence the form of speech used. When you are asking for a favour, you will use a very polite form of speech. Typically, the person of lower social status will be more polite, whereas the other will use a more plain form of speech. Strangers are very polite to each other, whilst children will not use polite speech until they reach their teens. This is very important for a foreigner to grasp as they are learning the language, you need to master the formality involved in speaking with individuals from different social status.

To make nouns polite, you can add o- (for words of Japanese origin) or go- (for words of Chinese origin) as a prefix. Best understood with an example, a speaker may refer to water (mizu) as o-mizu to be polite when addressing a crowd. Japanese people will be very polite as an indicator for a lack of familiarity. As you make friends with Japanese people, they will address you using polite forms until your relationship is developed. Once you become closer friends, they will switch to a more typical way of speaking. This happens regardless of your age, social class or gender.

Tips to master the language

Everyone knows that Japanese is a difficult language to master. Truthfully, no foreign language is a breeze to learn, they all require dedication, hard work and diligence to advance in your skills. All foreign languages will have their difficult and easy parts, but ultimately it comes down to you. Accept that it will be difficult, and remember the only person that can help you master a new language – is you. Do whatever it takes, enrolling in classes, downloading music, or jump on a plane to Japan. Yes you may be bad at learning languages, but you can still learn.

Studying is key to your progression. Without a strong determination to spend time, every day, you will never be able to progress past a basic comprehension. If this is what you are looking for, fantastic. The tools to get you ready for a short trip to Japan don’t take long to complete, and you will have a great understanding of the language. If you are looking for more, you need to earn it, plain and simple.

Fancy gadgets won’t help your progression until you have a good grasp of the basics, an expensive electronic dictionary is not a prerequisite to master Japanese. Apart from the hole it burns in your wallet, electronic dictionaries are difficult to use unless you have a good level of Japanese reading ability. In my opinion, make sure you can recognize 300-500 separate Kanji before you buy your first dictionary. This will enable you to get a handle on the characters, and save you from making the mistake of a large purchase if you don’t follow through with the language.

In Japan, your attempts to speak Japanese may not always be welcomed. Compare it to a foreigner speaking French in France. Sometimes it just doesn’t go down well with the locals. Japan can be the same, outside of a formal business setting, a handful of people are going to brush off your attempts to speak Japanese. Don’t let this be a roadblock to your success, there are far more people willing to help you learn and develop whatever it is you are trying to say. Practise makes perfect, aim to get in as much practise as you can – everyday.

Learning how to interact with people can be difficult, it’s hard to master this from your laptop in your bedroom. You need to be out, communicating with anyone you can. From the ticket seller at the train station to the guy where you buy your morning coffee, be aware of your surroundings, and take hints on how to act from those around you. Follow the example of others in how they greet people. or how they bow to the people they are talking to. Copy their examples, but ensure you are copying someone who is of the relatively same age and gender as you. The appropriate way for a younger woman to act is very different to how an older man behaves, do me a favour and follow the example of the right people!

We touched on this earlier, whilst comic books are an entertaining source of reading practise, be careful using the learning’s from these in everyday situations. More often than not, the comic books are inappropriate for most situations. This also goes for anime. Despite being aimed at children, there is a level of language present in many Japanese animation series that should never to be used in conversation between people. You are better off learning how real people use the language, than assuming the bad habits of cartoon characters.

Bridging the plateau

For all students learning Japanese you will inevitably hit a plateau. Once you have been taught sentence structure, grammar and the conjugation rules, you find yourself neck deep in Kanji, vocabulary, and see the pace of your learning slowly grind to a halt. Most people will face this after a few years of self-study or classroom training, and it can be very demotivating.

This is the point where you need to decide your target. The focus of your study is now going to shift depending if you want to learn speaking, the writing, or a balanced mix of both. If speaking is your main goal, focus on improving your vocabulary with Japanese movies, or even Hollywood films that have had the soundtrack dubbed. Watch the same films three or four times until you understand everything that is going on. Imagine how rewarding this is going to be. Believe me, understanding your favourite movie in another language is awesome. If reading is your aim, try to spend a minimum of 30 minutes a day working through a Japanese newspaper or magazine you find interesting. Look up the Kanji you don’t know, until you can understand the entire first page. Rinse and repeat, until you are going through the news-stand like a bat out of hell!

Finally, don’t stress too much about learning the language. You definitely need to have the desire to learn, applying yourself and actually trying to progress, but it doesn’t need to consume your every waking minute. Learning Japanese should be a fun experience. Have a great time with it, make some new friends and learn some new skills, who knows, it may even help you land a new job!