Advice for Learning Japanese

Updated on May 27, 2018

Introduction

Japanese is frequently regarded as one of the most challenging and intimidating languages for an English speaker to learn. I would personally argue however that it is not necessarily true that Japanese is inherently difficult, rather it is simply very divergent and unique when it is compared to the English language at how its native speakers think. I would say that my overall approach to learning the Japanese language involves a lot of spaced out exposure and immersion with the language and a great deal of contextual analysis.

Is Japanese Difficult or Just Different?

From my point of view, the reason why Japanese would be labelled as so difficult for an English speaker is because it is clearly semantically and morphologically distant from English or any other Indo-European Language. The Japanese language is a unique mixture of isolating and agglutinative morphology and also contains integrated cultural aspects (such as honorifics and terms of addressment) which outright do not exist in many other languages. With these details in mind, learning about and understanding the culture of Japanese society could become equally as important as understanding the semantics and grammatical structures of the language itself. Even though an unfamiliar structure as well as unfamiliar words can be discouraging and perhaps more difficult to get used to at first, an interest in the culture and language as well as simple immersion can easily help you move past these obstacles.

Isolating and Agglutinative Morphology

A single verb in the Japanese language is often much more powerful than its English counterpart, as Japanese verbs have a variety of different conjugations and can take on multiple suffixes which can all convey a variety of different meanings just from a single verb.

食べる (taberu) - (to eat)

食べた (tabeta) - (ate)

食べられる (taberareru) - (can eat)

食べられた (taberareta) - (could eat)

食べさせる (tabesaseru) - (made to eat)

This is arguably the aspect of Japanese morphology which will be most unfamiliar to an English speaker, who is used to so much meaning expressed with the aid of other words working together in specific orders rather than having one verb suffixed. At the same time however, there are other parts of speech in the Japanese language which are virtually untouched by any conjugations, suffixes or inflections; mainly nouns. Even plurality generally is not indicated or marked on substantives save for a few common animate nouns.

車 (kuruma) - (car)

私の車 (watashi no kuruma) - (my car/cars)

私たちの車 (watashi tachi no kuruma) - (our car/cars)



Counters

While still on the topic of plurality, one of the first frightening aspects of the Japanese language which many learners will discover after breaking through the surface is the counter system. Due to the fact that the majority of Japanese nouns cannot be marked for plurality, an extensive set of classifiers/counters is used instead. Although many counters can roughly translate to English words which count specific objects such as 'sheets' for paper or 'pairs' for shoes, the counters in Japanese tend to be more specific and varied, containing classifiers for objects such as vehicles, electronics, buildings, etc.

Example Counters:

台 (dai) - (common counter for electronics/equipment)

道には三台の車がある - (michi ni wa san dai no kuruma ga aru)

枚 (mai) - (counter for various flat objects)

四枚のシャツ (yon mai no syatsu) - (four shirts)


How to Tackle the Counters?

The Japanese counter/classifier system is very expansive, and it may make the task of counting in Japanese seem quite intimidating at first. In my experience however, I found it best to not try to absorb all of the possible combinations or variations of each counter all at once. This is another one of the many occasions in learning Japanese where I found simply reading many different sentences and seeing objects counted and used in context was most valuable, as many of the counters could become second nature after enough exposure instead of relying on rote memorization.

Word Order

The Japanese word order is exclusively Subject-Object-Verb, which means that verbs must come at the end of each complete Japanese sentence. I personally do not believe this is so difficult to get used to, even if you have never studied another language with divergent word order before.

Writing Systems

This is where I believe the primary source of fear and intimidation in learning Japanese originates, its writing system(s). The three Japanese writing systems are Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji. Hiragana and Katakana are both abugidas, or alphasyllabaries where consonants and vowels are represented in pairs. Hiragana and Katakana are phonetically identical although they both utilize different symbols to represent the same sounds. Learning the two Japanese kana systems is not difficult, although having two writing systems which look different although represent the same sounds may seem strange. The reason for this lies in the semantics of the Japanese language. Nouns, adjectives, and verbs are most often represented by a Kanji character and any subsequent inflections or conjugations made to these parts of speech are written in Hiragana, to avoid having to write a Kanji to represent each morpheme. Every verb ends with a hiragana character, as well as any subsequent suffixes or conjugations. Katakana on the other hand are used to write loanwords as well as various exclamations or onomatopoeia which occur in the Japanese language. Although learning Hiragana and Katakana is essentially learning the same phonetic system under two separate representations, they are still phonetic writing systems and you can easily master them with immersion and practice.

ひらがな
カタカナ
漢字
(行)く (iku) - (to go) - (infinitive)
コンピューター (konpyutaa) - (computer)
空 (そら) (sky)
(行)かない (ikanai) - (plain negative form)
センター (sentaa) - (center)
自分 (じぶん) (oneself)
(行)けば (ikeba) - (conditional form)
ケーキ - (keeki) - (cake)
本 (ほん) (book)

Kanji

Kanji are Chinese characters which have been imported into the Japanese language. They are not phonetic and also unlike Chinese and its varieties, a single Kanji symbol can represent more than one syllable. In my opinion, there is no shortcut or ideal method when it comes to learning Kanji and their readings unless you have an eidetic memory. Personally, I find it most ideal to read as many example sentences as possible and use dictionary programs and apps (such as Jisho or Tangorin) to look up common readings for Kanji when they occur in compound words. Please view the table below which documents some common kanji which are common components of larger compound words.

Compound Kanji Examples

政 (せい)(sei) - (politics)
車(しゃ)(sya) - (car)
電 (でん)(den) - (electric)
政治 (せいじ)(seiji) - (politics)
電車 (でんしゃ)(densya) - (electric train)
電気 (でんき)(denki) - (electricity)
政府 (せいふ)(seifu) - (government)
自転車 (じてんしゃ)(jitensya) - (bicycle)
電話 - (telephone)
政治家 (せいじか)(seijika) - (politician)
(自動車)(じどうしゃ)(jidousya) - (automobile)
送電 (せおうでん)(souden) - (electric supply)

Necessity of Kanji

Learning to recognize and read over 1,500 kanji characters in every possible context is a monumental task, especially when homophones and separate readings are considered. This may not be wholly necessary however based on your goals, especially if you are studying Japanese to communicate at a more practical level or you only wish to understand certain media sourced from Japan. If your Japanese studies stem from a professional or employment related goal, then I will re-stress the importance of immersion and constant exposure to written materials.

Vocabulary

Japanese vocabulary is an interesting topic, as the Japanese language does contain a hefty amount of loanwords which are of Western origin. I believe the most optimal way to improve your vocabulary in Japanese (and in any language for that matter) my is to increase your immersion and utilization of the language so, you are exposed to new words and hear them in context as often as possible.

Conclusion

Overall, I would say that the Japanese language is not overwhelmingly difficult to learn if you use immersive methods and try your best to think from a different perspective. Japanese is overall considerably more regular than the typical Indo-European language and if you are willing to spend time analyzing its different structure and set aside the way you think as an English speaker, then you should be well prepared. Of course however, being able to utilize and immerse yourself in the language are also vital. I would also say that it is essential to have an interest in the language and culture which is sufficient to motivate regular practice and immersion.

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