The most frequent question I get asked when talking about Japanese culture is; Can you speak Japanese? To which I usually retort with “にほんごをすこしだけはなします” (nihongo wo sukoshi dake hanashimasu) meaning “I only speak a little Japanese”. Having studied Japanese for almost two years, it’s clear to me that unfortunately there is no easy method to learning the language.
I used to watch Japanese movies, and listen to Japanese music and not understand anything that was said, but I wanted to know. So I wondered, how I would go about accomplishing this. Back in high school, I spoke French quite well, it was easy for me to pick up and understand in just a few months. Sadly, the Japanese language would not follow this path…
The first thing I did was the same thing anyone of the “Internet generation” does these days, and turned to Google-sensei. I scrolled through pages of websites to find topics including “How to learn Japanese quickly!” and “Speak Japanese fast!” Alas, these were all methods which gave the illusion of being “quick and easy” but soon unwound into incoherent useless “tips” such as: “Try watching anime without subtitles, some of it will stick!” Useless.
I’d heard good things about Rosetta Stone software from people I knew that had studied languages such as French, Italian and German. Luckily there was a Japanese program available. For roughly a year I used Rosetta Stone as my primary learning tool, with podcasts and teaching CDs coming in a close second. The techniques used by Rosetta Stone are the same as when you studied a language back in high school. It shows a picture of the item, says the word in the language you’re learning, and asks for you to repeat. The voice recognition software is VERY forgiving, often it would totally ignore my gross misinterpretation of a word, giving me a nice big green tick. But this basic “drilling” technique is very effective, the phrases and words taught do actually stick with you. However, I’d say 50% of what does stick with you, is useless. For example; when will I ever need to say “This is a book!” or “This is a pen!”?
This is when I realised I needed other options. I turned to the website “Japanesepod 101” which offers weekly podcasts, interactive online worksheets and forums of people ready to help (all for a cost of course). Depending on how intense you’d like to get into learning the language, they offer a number of packages, and regularly send out discount codes to new subscribers. There’s also an app to go with the website where you can organise your selected podcasts and organise your own learning planner. My only issue with this learning method, was that nothing would stick. My ability to recall anything taught in Japanesepod 101 was almost none existent. I understood what was being said, which is something to take away from this resource at least.
After over a year of studying Japanese at this point, I felt I was ready to engage with actual Japanese people. There are a handful of websites available for this, my favourite being “My Language Exchange“. There are people out there who want to learn the language you’re speaking right now, but can’t afford a personal language tutor, or are just looking for someone to practice with. As with Japanesepod 101, there is a small fee to pay which allows the exchange of messages between members, but during that subscription period you can send unlimited messages. This is how I met about 70% of the Japanese friends I have now, and had people to meet up with when I finally visited Japan.
It was around this time that I realised perhaps it’s not the materials I’m using, but rather the way in which I was using them. I started to look at how to improve my memory, and also researched into learning techniques. My advice is for you to figure out what type of learner you are; Auditory, Visual, or Kinaesthetic. Then use the materials to their full effect. I’m a mixture of visual and kinaesthetic, so techniques such as spaced repetition work wonders for me. That is, practicing a topic, trying to recall it the following day, and then the following week, and so on. There are websites you can use to determine which type of leaner you are.
Coming back to the Japanese language, here are some short tips:
– Get stuck into written Japanese as soon as possible! Start with hiragana and katakana, don’t worry too much about kanji for now. Once you start to decipher your friend’s posts on Twitter, or signs you see in photos, you’ll get an awesome sense of accomplishment.
– Focus on Japanese that’s relevant to you. When I visited Japan, it was only then that I realised I’d wasted my time learning how to say things like “私は医者でわりません” (I am not a doctor) (Thanks Rosetta Stone) rather than learning numbers. Numbers are obviously everywhere, times, prices, addresses, and loads of other places, which makes them more important than describing someone’s profession.
– Study every day! The moment you fall behind by a day or two, is when you start to forget things you’ve learnt. Repetition is the key, and as exhausting as it might be initially, and you say to yourself “I’ve been studying this topic for days!” just keep at it. This way, you’ll be able to recall what you’ve learnt mainly because you’re sick of saying the same things repeatedly.
– If you have a smartphone, download and instal an international keyboard. iPhone users are lucky because under the “Keyboards” tab, there is a romaji and kana option. Use these whenever you can instead of resorting to Google Translate. Which brings me to my next tip…
– Don’t rely on Google Translate! It’s a great tool, but it’s a computer program. It doesn’t understand the complexities of language and grammar. There have been times I’ve dropped some Japanese text into it, and it comes back as total gibberish. It can be used as a dictionary (on occasion) but don’t rely on it.
– Listen to Japanese music, if you hear a word of phrase that you want to understand, look it up and the song will help you recall it. There are times when I can’t remember how to say something I want to say, then suddenly I remember a lyric from a song, and it comes back to me.
Hopefully this blog post has given you some idea where to start learning Japanese. If you have any of you own tips, or if you’ve found my suggestions helpful, please leave a message in the comments.