Japanese 101: No Better Place to Start Your Mission to Fluency!

  • Are you interested in learning Japanese? Have you been dreaming of speaking Japanese fluently one day or watching anime without referring to the subtitles? Guess what? We have something in common!

    Learning a new language can be challenging sometimes but if you have the passion, speaking in Japanese will be a piece of cake for you very soon! This article is a brief and simple introduction about the Japanese language, written with love for people who do not know where to begin. So, if you have been struggling to find a place to start, this article may be an excellent kick-start for you!

    The Japanese Writing System

    The Japanese writing system may be the world’s craziest writing system. You may not have to exhaust your brain every day if you just want to be able to speak the language fluently. Learning basic grammar and memorizing frequently used vocabulary will do. However, when it comes to mastering reading and writing skills, be prepared for the pain. Remember, no pain no gain.

    Basically, the Japanese writing system consists of 3 sets of characters or letters, namely Hiragana, Katakana and Kanji. Yes! It is possible to write a sentence in 3 types of characters without affecting the meaning. For example, Japan can be written as “にほん” (in hiragana)、”ニホン” (in katakana) and “日本” (in kanji). All these three are read as “Nihon” and they mean the same. You can write Japanese in only hiragana, katakana or kanji. However, in modern Japanese society, the practice of using 3 types of characters/letters at the same time is prevailing.

    The First Step – Hiragana

    As a beginner, the first step is to memorize all the hiragana letters. Yes, you have to know them all before being able to type or write in Japanese. Hiragana and katakana are akin to English letters, every hiragana/katakana letter has no meaning by themselves. They have to be combined with other letters to form a word. For example: ‘わ+た+し’ = watashi in romaji or “me/I” in English.

    Learning hiragana is the first approach because Japanese is mostly written in hiragana. Apart from that, it is also used to indicate the pronunciation of Kanji characters in movies, lyrics et cetera. This is why it is impossible to learn Japanese without knowing hiragana first. For some hiragana letters, the pronunciation is not the same as how romaji is written. So, it is advisable to google hiragana lessons with audio recordings.

    The Advanced Level: Katakana

    After you have mastered Hiragana, the next step is to memorize the katakana characters. You may ask: “Why do all these characters look the same? They are like alien writing to me!”. Don’t stress, there is an easy way to differentiate between hiragana and katakana. Hiragana letters usually have a curved side while katakana letters are usually written in straight lines. Pretty easy, isn’t it?

    Just like hiragana, all these katakana characters have the same pronunciations but they are just written in “another form”. Again, katakana letters have no meaning by themselves but have to be merged with another letter to form a word. So when to use katakana? Katakana will only be used for words that are originated from foreign languages other than Chinese. For example, ホットドッグ (ho tto do ggu) which means hot dog and アメリカ (A me ri ka) which means America. Common words that are written in katakana include countries’ names (mostly), western food and anything that does not “traditionally” exist in Japan. So, next time you see something written in Katakana, it means something “non-Japanese”.

    The Final Boss – Kanji

    Here comes the Big Boss! Kanji or 漢字 is an aspect that can even give the Japanese a headache at times. Kanji is basically Chinese Characters. Yes, they exist in Chinese, Korean and Japanese but currently, it is not used in Korean anymore. While Kanji remains as the writing system for the Chinese, only some of them are adapted in Japanese. There are 85,568 identified Chinese characters, but only 2,136 of them are taught through Japanese secondary schools. If you know Chinese, writing Kanji is at your fingertips. However, they are not pronounced the same. So, you still need some effort to memorize the pronunciations.

    Wondering when to use Kanji? Well, Kanji is used to “simplify” Hiragana letters. For example, わたし(watashi) or “me/I” is usually written as 私. As you can see, a single kanji character is enough to replace 3 hiragana letters. That’s what Kanji is all about! In ancient Japan, Japanese was all written in Kanji but as times change, hiragana has become the main writing system in Japan.

    Being the final boss in your challenge to learn Japanese, it will take some time to beat it. However, some good news for you is that even the Japanese have trouble with Kanji. So, don’t give up too quickly when it starts to get tough. Practice makes perfect!

    Is Japanese hard? No doubt. Japanese is ranked as one of the hardest languages to learn, but I believe that passion can beat anything! Once you have the enthusiasm, even Kanji will be as easy as ABC for you! Once you have learned hiragana and katakana, the only thing left for you is learning basic grammar and daily-used vocabulary. With that, you can start constructing simple sentences. Kanji, however, you need to read a lot to be familiar with them. He is the boss after all, it’s either you screw him up or you let him screw you up! Happy learning!