So you really want to learn Japanese?

For the last nine months (as of this writing) I have been spending a large amount of my spare time learning the Japanese language. I've discovered that Japanese seems to be a pretty popular language to learn. Although I'm still only a beginner, I've recently found myself making recommendations and suggestions to other beginners.

Why? I think that it might be difficult to move beyond the "completely raw beginner" stage in to the "plain old beginner" stage; the job of "Japanese language beginner" seems to have a very high turnover rate. I see it all the time at the local Japanese conversation group and on Japanese learners' forums on the internet: people are interested in learning Japanese but quickly disappear after a little exposure to the task of actually learning it.

And it really is a task. It takes real work and effort to learn Japanese (or any new language or skill, for that matter). Time and time again I see comments such as, "It shouldn't be too difficult just to pick up enough Japanese to play a video game", or "What's a quick and easy way to learn Japanese but still remember everything?" Well, there is no "quick and easy way". However, the right tools can make learning Japanese "quicker and easier", and even fun.

A few years ago someone named "Dan" wrote an essay titled So you want to learn Japanese. It was an amusing satire which has become more amusing as I've become more familiar with the world of learning Japanese. However, finding really useful beginner-level information is a little more difficult, so I've put together a few of my own observations here.

So, you really want to learn Japanese? Let me give you a few tips and show you some of the tools and tricks which have worked for me. Occasional Japanese words and phrases will appear in romaji rather than in kana; if you're advanced enough to expect kana, you'll be advanced enough to forgive the use of romaji for the beginners' sake.

Someone pointed out that the best way to learn Japanese is to go to Japan, become immersed in the language and culture, and either sink or swim. Great idea...if you can do it. These tips are for the rest of us.

  1. Figure out why you're learning the language (general interest, want to visit Japan, etc) and be able to summarize it in 20 seconds or less. If you stick with the language long enough to start meeting other people (both learners and native speakers), you WILL be asked why you're learning it. You'll get bonus points if your reasons don't center on video games and/or anime. Keep this purpose in mind to encourage and motivate yourself when you need encouragement and motivation.

  2. Track down and read How to Learn Any Language by Barry Farber (lots of Barnes & Noble stores have it on the clearance rack for $6.98). This is a fairly short and chatty book by an accomplished language learner which is very fun and interesting to read. You'll be inspired and motivated to get learning and you'll get some valuable tips on how to learn a language. I found this book almost by chance and it has quickly become one of my favorites; every few weeks I'll take it out and reread parts of it.
    Although Farber's book isn't specific to one language, some of his advice will really give you an advantage in learning Japanese. His suggestions for making use of "hidden moments" (i.e. time otherwise wasted) alone are worth the price of the entire book.

  3. You should get an audio course. Although Japanese pronunciation is not necessarily difficult, in order to learn a language conversationally you must hear native speakers of the language. You must do your best to imitate their pronunciation and rhythm. Modern technology has led to a boom in the number of language courses available. You can get courses in a surprising variety of languages.

    For a Japanese audio course, I have used and enjoyed the Pimsleur Comprehensive Japanese program. It's not perfect and it certainly has its limitations, but if you really work at the lessons you'll be speaking some decent Japanese in a short time. It's expensive, but lots of libraries do have it. My library has all 3 levels, so I've been able to go through the course for free. Tough to beat that.

  4. Learn the kana (hiragana and katakana) as soon as possible, or sooner. I used James Heisig's Remembering the Kana and learned both sets in a weekend. The concept is simple: rather than rote memorization of the kana by endless written repetition, you create a little story about each kana, learning to recognize and write the kana based on the little story. The story is just a memory hook and drops away once you learn to recognize, read and write the kana automatically. However, in the meantime you'll need to use them as much and as quickly as possible to cement them in your brain, which leads to:

  5. Get a good textbook which uses kana rather than romaji. In fact, get 2 or 3 if you can afford them. I'm using Japanese for Everyone which begins with both and pretty well eliminates romaji by lesson 5 or 6. It's a fast-paced book with a lot of content crammed in. At $20 it's a steal.

    Other people like the Japanese for Busy People textbook series, the Genki series, or others. If you have the opportunity, you should really take some time to examine different textbooks to see which match your learning style and goals. Or maybe you'll be taking a class, in which case the choice will be made for you.

    For more textbook fun, see my (forthcoming) page of textbook reviews.

  6. If your goal is to read (and it should be), you'll need to come to terms with the kanji. Unless you're only planning to read children's books, you'll need to be able to read them. If Heisig's "Remembering the Kana" worked for you, check out his Remembering the Kanji series. You can read the entire first section for free online (google for "Heisig Remembering Kanji"). I'm currently working my way through the first book of the series and am enjoying it a lot. It's fun to be able to make sense of characters which were once nothing but chicken stratches. Learning the kanji will probably also help you when you learn Chinese.

  7. You'll eventually want/need to try out your Japanese on real people. Our small town has a Japanese conversation group (through the Sister Cities organization) which meets monthly. Through that group I met a local Japanese teacher who managed to talk me into taking a class (using "Japanese for Everyone") which turned into private lessons when everyone else dropped out. Also I strongly recommend getting Skype and tracking down some native speakers for some regular spoken language practice sessions. You might find some at the Skype forums, but I've had far better results at The Mixxer, a site set up to match language exchange partners. You register your name, email and Skype ID, fill out a brief profile (you'll get better results if you write a few details about yourself), and indicate your native language and the language(s) you want to practice. You can then search for native speakers of any language you want, contact them and set up Skype appointments. Highly recommended.

    If you've worked faithfully at attempting to imitate the Pimsleur speakers, be prepared for a fun time. Barry Farber talks about lighting up the faces of native speakers when you speak their language. Just wait till you surprise a Japanese with words and phrases he/she didn't expect you to know. It really gives you a boost to keep working away at learning the language.

    Several months ago, for example, I visited the local Japanese conversation group. The Japanese woman who runs the group decided to test my greeting skills: instead of "Konnichi-wa" she asked, "Joe-san, o-genki desu-ka?" (Roughly: "Are you healthy/well?") My mind clicked away for a second while I pulled up one of the early Pimsleur lessons, then instead of saying "huh?" or giving the more frequent response, "Hai, genki desu" ("Yes, I am well") I was able to reply, "Hai, okagesama de" ("Yes, thanks") in my best Japanese enunciation. She wasn't expecting to hear that response, and the look on her face was priceless. I'm no Japanese expert, but I was one that evening. After the culture hour came the conversation hour, and she would not allow me to sneak into the beginners' group: I got to sit with the advanced group and practice saying, "Sumimasen, wakarimasen" ("Sorry, I don't understand") for the rest of the evening.

  8. Set goals for yourself so that you know what you're working toward (speaking with a Japanese person; visiting a Japanese restaurant and using Japanese; reading a children's book) and can keep pushing your study forward. Write them down so that you don't forget. Figure out how you're going to achieve those goals and set a schedule for yourself.

  9. Practice and study every day. It's very important to make some progress every day. Learning new things about the language will become addictive; you won't want to end the day without adding to your knowledge. And on the days when you DO want to end your day without adding to your knowledge, drag yourself out of bed, open up a textbook and at least memorize a few new words.

  10. Last but not least, don't forget to have fun! At first learning Japanese may very well seem like a gigantic mountain you'll never be able to climb. However, if you work at it steadily you will be surprised at how quickly you learn and progress.

    I still have a long way to go, but I'm having fun and enjoying myself. Keep learning, even on the days when it doesn't seem fun, and you'll enjoy yourself and reach those goals too.

Comments? Questions? Suggestions?