A Japanophile who has survived 15 solo trips to Japan. His visits focus on discovering the country’s lesser-known attractions.
Are you learning Japanese, and finding the language quite an impossible task to master?
If so, despair not. Though one of the toughest languages in the world to pick up, with a grammar system that would make English feel primitive in comparison, Japanese is not as tough as it seems. After all, some 126 million natives speak it every day.
In turn, the key to smoothening your learning journey is to know what to expect and to make use of the myriad of resources available online. The following ten study tips are all about these.
Needless to say, diligence and perseverance are part and parcel every step of the way. Studying smart will help you improve, but only if you’re willing to also throw in hours and hours, and hours, of devoted effort.
1. Do Not Neglect Conversational I.E. Spoken Skills
Apart from being one of the fastest spoken languages in the world, according to an analysis by the University of Lyon, a complex system of suffixes makes Japanese an immense challenge to master verbally i.e. speak naturally. More often than not, beginners will find themselves unable to think or react in time when speaking to a native.
The heavy vocal emphasis on vowel sounds could additionally be challenging for some students. Not just in terms of pronunciation but also comprehension, because a sentence could sound like a long, garbled string of “ah” sounds.
What I’m saying here is, never neglect spoken skills. From day 1, read your sentences aloud when studying. Read aloud every sentence in your study materials till you can speak each naturally and effortlessly. As much as possible, try to emulate the pitches and flow of native speakers too.
Know too that “textbook” Japanese is significantly different from informal, conversational Japanese. Worse, most textbooks do not begin to cover such differences till the intermediate level.
While there are few ways around this, you can still mitigate the “shock” of transition by always researching online the differences between formal and informal/colloquial Japanese. In the end, there will still be a lot to learn and to get used to, which you reach that level. But knowing beforehand will at least lighten your task.
2. Learn Japanese Contractions
The unfortunate truth is that Japanese is also a verbose language. In English, we say, "I think." In Japanese, it becomes kamo shiremasen.
It’s quite a mouthful, isn't it? Correspondingly, Japanese people do the expected in daily life. They contract, they shorten. Whenever they could, they simplify too. Or they use “informal” verb forms.
Kamo shiremasen thus becomes kamo shirenai or just kamo. Matte-iru (waiting) becomes matteru, while katte-iku (to buy and go) becomes katteku. And so on.
As for more exotic contractions, or should I say, replacements, nakya replaces nakute wa. Both phrases used when stating necessity after an action.
The short of it, start on these contractions/replacements as soon as possible. When you come across a long phrase/verb form in your lessons, assume there will be an informal, shorten version used in daily speech.
Do a hunt for the presumed shortened form online thereafter and if there’s indeed one, remember it and start using it in your conversational practices.
As a whole, doing so is to help you overcome the often stunning differences between formal written Japanese and informal conversational Japanese. Such differences will be a significant study area from the intermediate level onwards. What you want to accomplish beforehand is to enter this study area with a basic knowledge of the fundamentals.
3. Do Verb Drills. Create Your Own Verb Chart Too
In English, how many ways can you transform the verb, eat?
Eat, eating, ate, eaten. In other words, simple, progressive, past, perfect.
In Japanese, the word for “ to eat” is taberu. Using the “stem” of the word i.e. tabe, the following transformations are then possible.
Taberu, tabemase, tabemasen, tabemashita, tabemasendeshita, tabete, tabeta, tabenai, tabenakatta, tabetai, tabetara, tabenakattara, tabereba, taberareru, tabesaseru, tabero, tabeyo.
(I’ve left out a couple)
In short, complex and confusing verb transformations, usually via changing the suffix, is a core part of the Japanese language. There is no escaping this. If you examine textbooks, you will also notice intermediate and advanced level lessons largely focusing on more complicated transformations.
Renshu, renshu, renshu i.e. drilling practice is thus the only way you will ever learn; there is no other study tip. Like the Karate Kid relying on muscle memory, you ultimately have to rely on linguistic memory to internalize such transformations.
While drilling, create your own verb chart. Make sure you write every form yourself and not just copy from elsewhere. Tedious as doing so is, the act helps with memory work. Ultimately, you will also understand the correlations between the suffixes used to transform Japanese verbs. This makes remembering the various forms much easier.
Japanese Transitive and Intransitive Verbs
While going through your textbooks, ever wonder why "drop" is sometimes otosu, and at other times, ochiru?
Or hajimeru versus hajimaru. Both meaning “start.”
It’s because of the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs.
Simply put, transitive verbs are those that take a direct object, while intransitive verbs do not. Another way of putting it is that of transitive verbs giving action to an object, while intransitive verbs describe the condition of.
In English, the difference is likewise confusing although we largely do not notice it because English verbs usually remain unchanged in spelling and pronunciation. (Or a completely different word/phrase is used) In Japanese though, the difference often necessitates different pronunciations and variations of the stem.
According to some teaching resources, it is only important to understand the exact differences from the intermediate level onwards. Personally, though, I feel it's a good idea to start as early as possible. You really do not want to be shocked later on, by finding out you’ve long been using the phrase for “put in,” when you actually mean “enter.”
4. Read Children's Books and Gradually Progress to More Complicated Literature
Japan publishes loads of books for children, many of which are graded. Other than being entertaining in a nostalgic kind of way, these books also contain one invaluable resource for foreigners struggling with learning Japanese.
Furigana. These being the pronunciation guides written above Kanji characters.
To go into a bit of history, Kanji are logograms imported from the Chinese language. Undoubtedly the most daunting aspect of learning Japanese for foreigners, even native Chinese speakers enjoy little advantage as far as Japanese Kanji are concerned because each character inevitably has multiple pronunciations.
Pronunciations that could be as different as day and night. For example, the Kanji for “temple” could be pronounced as tera or ji.
Coming back to the present, publications like newspapers will still include Furigana but they will only do so for Kanji officially deemed uncommonly used. All Kanji for actions and names like “run,” “talk,” “sky,” or “country” will not have such guides.
You will thus have to rely on Japanese children’s books if you need all Kanji voiced for you. Of note here, even children’s books become increasingly rare with Furigana as you move up the grades. Following which you will have to consider reading adult fiction with parallel translation such as this. Doing the latter will, in turn, introduce you to the world of formal Japanese literature.
5. Master Keigo by Listening to Japanese Service Announcements
As is well known, Japan places a lot of emphasis on social hierarchies. This is, in turn, reflected in the language through the heavy emphasis on Keigo. Or Japanese “respect language.”
Within Keigo, there are also two distinct groups, these being Kenjougo and Sonkeigo. Kenjougo are the phrases to use when referring to yourself humbly. Vice versa, Sonkeigo are the honorific terms and phrases to use when addressing a superior.
For students, the worst part about Keigo is that the same “action” could involve utterly different words. For example, “to do” is suru in dictionary form. As Kenjougo, it becomes itasu. In Sonkeigo form, it becomes nasaru.
The confusing differences considered, it is not as daunting as it seems when it comes to internalizing Keigo. One highly effective method to try would be to listen to Japanese service announcements. For example, train announcements.
Such public messages are drenched with Keigo, to use a colorful description. On video-sharing platforms like Youtube, there is also an abundance of recordings of such announcements uploaded by travelers, Japanese culture lovers, etc.
Listen to enough of them, and you will soon find yourself “spewing” Keigo within every sentence. Eventually, it might even become the situation of you having to consciously avoid Keigo, because you are sounding too weird, too stiff, with everything you say.
6. Master Onomatopoeias
Onomatopoeia are words that phonetically resemble what they are describing. In Japanese, they could also be compound words that generally serve the same purpose as English adverbs.
Some textbooks and lessons describe Japanese onomatopoeias as fun or easy to learn. They could be, except that there are so many of them. (With new ones constantly being coined too) In many cases, a non-native student also has to be quite imaginative to see the phonetic association. For example, giri-giri. As an English speaker new to learning Japanese, would you be able to guess giri-giri means “barely?”
If you check out this link, you will see too that there are different types of onomatopoeias. The most difficult ones are the adverb-like ones composed of not two repeating sounds, but ending in ~ri. These adverbs are widely used to describe or emphasize actions and emotions, and because there are so many of them, with little way to guess at the full meaning, it’s very easy to mistake one for the other.
Regardless, onomatopoeias are an integral part of the Japanese language. The ability to insert an appropriate one into your spoken Japanese will also be that magical touch that makes you sound like a native speaker.
In other words, don’t be frustrated by them. Take the effort to learn and to use them too. The effort will be worth it.
7. Watch Japanese Movies, Dramas, and Anime
It's the same with all languages. The more you listen, the more you will learn, the more you will improve too. With the sort of online resources we have nowadays, there's also no excuse at all for any student learning Japanese not to use this age-old method.
At the same time, dramatic, thrilling moments such as those in Anime can assist with the memorization of complicated words such as onomatopoeias. These scenes become cues etched into your head. In a very natural way, new words are assimilated into your vocabulary.
Two warnings though, about this study tip. Firstly, it requires patience. In the beginning, it would be disheartening because you cannot comprehend entire chunks of conversation. Often, the plot might even be lost on you.
Secondly, if you use platforms like Youtube, spend some time checking for comments regarding video subtitles. Not to discount the effort of volunteers and fans, but translations typed by fans sometimes do not accurately reflect the whole context of the Japanese phrases used. In the worst scenarios, they might even be downright inaccurate. You could be hopelessly misled.
8. Read Manga
Some language teachers will balk at this suggestion. Mangas, as in Japanese comics? Those cesspits of poor and vulgar language? Often with violent and questionable themes too?
Well, it's indeed true that Manga uses very informal dialogues. However, to a great extent, Manga also reflects how Japanese people speak in real life, with Manga artists frequently incorporating regional slangs and local dialects into dialogues. For the latter, it means reading Manga helps you learn words rarely found in textbooks.
Furthermore, constant exposure to such “informal talk” helps you gain an innate understanding of how the Japanese language tends to vary. Very soon, you might even be able to predict word contractions and amalgamations.
Lastly, if dislike comics in general, worry not. With tens of thousands of titles to date, you will surely find something you can lose yourself in for hours each day. Over time, you might even become a diehard fan!
9. Don’t Just Study for the JLPT, Strengthen Your Active Language Skills
The Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) is the international accreditation examination for foreigners, with the test itself split into five levels. Most international students, therefore, regard passing a JLPT test as a learning milestone.
While one can’t say the above belief is wrong, it is a huge mistake to assume getting a JLPT 1 or 2 accreditation is equivalent to successfully mastering Japan’s native tongue. Because the JLPT, at any level, is primarily a test of passive language skills.
To elaborate, through stringent testing of reading, answering, and listening skills, the JLPT equips a student with the ability to survive in Japan. But by not having storytelling and conversation segments, the JLPT does not check a student for the skills necessary for active interaction within the Japanese society.
How much of a flaw this is, in turn, depends on one's purpose for learning Japanese. If your purpose is just to watch Anime without subtitles, or to tour Japan alone for half a year without any difficulties, having a JLPT 3 or 2 pass is naturally a badge that says, “You can do it!”
On the other hand, if you’re thinking of living in Japan, studying for the JLPT is definitely not going to be enough. To supplement, you must simultaneously strengthen your active skills, this being the ability to initiate conversation or written exchanges in the language. To do so, consider doing the following:
- Many apps and online portals nowadays allow to you practice speaking with native Japanese people. Many, naturally, require a small payment for use.
- Are you active on social media? If so, consider “doing” posts in Japanese. You could also start leaving comments in Japanese. For example, when expressing appreciation for a Japanese YouTube video.
- Further to the above point, consider starting a blog written in Japanese. There are many free blogging platforms for you to do so with.
- Do this mental drill every day. Find a picture that you really like. Describe it in Japanese and take the effort to use compound i.e. complicated sentences. Constantly experiment with new words too.
- Do this mental drill at every opportunity as well. Think of a recent conversation you initiated. Then work on how you would start this exchange in Japanese.
- Write reviews for the things you love in Japanese. You don’t have to actually publish any of these online, of course. Just treat it as an exercise involving activities that you love.
- Procedures are a part of daily life, aren’t they? What you do at work, what you do at school, how you entertain yourself, and so on. When free, think about you’d describe these procedures in Japanese.
10. Visit Japan!
According to some people, the best way to teach a person to swim is to just throw that person into a river.
We don't need to get murderous in the case of learning Japanese, of course. But complete immersion for a few weeks is still one of the most effective ways to master any language.
The above said, it is wrong to think an extended holiday in Japan is the best crash course for learning the country’s native language. Much active learning on your part is still necessary. Other than seizing every opportunity to talk with locals, constantly reading everything you can get your hands on, trying new travel words and phrases, etc, you will even have to spend your vacation nights revising your study materials. As well as completing worksheets.
In short, learning Japanese, as like any other language, is the slow acquisition of a life skill. Consistent effort and time are required for success, no matter which study tip you use. Beautiful Japan itself will be but the platform for your lessons.
Bonus Tip: Watch Movies and Series With Japanese Subtitles
Instead of watching Japanese programs with English subtitles, or whichever language you’re most comfortable with, consider watching them with Japanese subtitles.
It will be tough. You are forced to listen, read, and comprehend at the same time. Exhausting as it is, though, it is without a doubt one of the best drills for those truly keen on mastering the devilish language that is Japanese.
© 2016 Yong Kuan Leong
Yong Kuan Leong (author) from Singapore on October 03, 2016:
You know, some pedantic people scorn Anime as a learning tool. I think they miss out sooooooooo much! :P
Cheeky Kid from Milky Way on October 03, 2016:
Oh, I know a lot of words already from watching anime. Not fluent though and I don't know how to write and speak yet. I'll study Japanese soon though. For now, I'm learning German. Haha.