If you are planning on staying in Japan, it’s always helpful to try and learn some of the language. Most of the essentials can be learned from your run of the mill phrase books and can get you around on your trip. But, what if you’re staying here long term? What if you want to travel somewhere with little to no English? Well, you are going to have to learn more than what’s in that phrase book! Lots of people opt to take Japanese language classes. These can be great and will really help you improve, but not everyone has the time or the money to do this. So instead, you decide you want to teach yourself Japanese! But how? This can seem a very daunting task to undertake, but it can be done! Here are my top tips, and too resources for doing just that!
The first thing you absolutely have to learn, before anything else, is hiragana and katakana. These are the characters used to write Japanese. Not learning these first will make the rest of your study much harder. Every Japanese course will tackle these monsters first, and you should too!
Recommended resource: Dr. Moku’s hiragana and katana apps (iOS and android).
These apps turn the characters in memorable stories so you can remember the reading. Even now, I often find myself thinking of the ウ (u) character as a unicorn…!
Ok, so you’ve got a good grasp on hiragana and katana. But wait! What is that strange symbol? And this one? What’s going on? These are kanji, or Chinese characters. Kanji are used to represent words rather than sounds. There are thousands of kanji in Japanese, and it can really take a lifetime to learn them all (even for Japanese people!). Even so, it’s a good idea to get started right away! Learning both the meaning and the reading for a kanji will also help along your vocabulary study! There are many different ways to learn kanji and it’s important you discover which method works best for you. I have always found that pneumonics work really well for me to understand both the meaning and the reading. Others find it easier to learn the kanji by turning them into pictures of what they represent.
Recommended resource: Wanikani– this is a great website! It teaches you the kanji using interesting and funny pneumonics and stories. Each level introduces a new batch of kanji and radicals (the strokes that make up the kanji) so you never feel too bogged down with the sheer amount of kanji there is out there! The first three levels are free – so give it a try!
As with any language, understanding how it works is essential to fluency. So, yes, you have to spend the time and study grammar. This is not always the most fun activity you can do, but if you keep it interesting, you can survive – I promise! First of all, finding the right textbook for you will be essential! I have tried a few different ones, and now I finally feel happy with my selection of study materials. Also, trying to find as many chances to use your grammar will ensure you’ve got it right in your head. So read, write, listen and speak everything you learn!
Recommended resource: Genki: An Integrated Course in Elementary Japanese. This is a fantastic beginner textbook. It starts every chapter with example dialogue, a vocabulary list, a detailed but easy to understand explanation of the grammar, then lots of exercises. I’d also recommend getting hold of the Workbook companion. This is filled with loads more exercises; writing, reading and listening to go along with each lesson. Practice makes perfect remember!!
If you’re not in Japan, immersion may feel like an impossible task here. But, there are many ways you can surround yourself with a language, wherever you are! Anime, J-Pop, Manga and Japanese video games are a great way to have access to Japanese related to your own interests – but just be sure to listen to the Japanese as much as reading any subtitles! Also, thinking in Japanese will really help you to get a good grasp on essential vocabulary and grammar. If you’re walking down the street and see a guy/ girl and think “Wow! They are really hot!”, then translate that in your head into Japanese! If you eat something delicious, don’t think it in English – think “おいしい！” Eventually, you’ll start to use the Japanese phrases every time!