There is no shortage of good reasons to learn Japanese. Japan has a fascinating, refined, and in many ways unique culture. Much has been written on the vertical nature of Japanese society, or of the insularity of Japanese culture. In my own case, I found the culture welcoming, fascinating, friendly yet full of contradictions.
If you would like to embark on a Japanese language journey, here are my tips on achieving fluency.
Learn Hiragana and Katakana
Japanese writing consists of a mixture of hiragana, kanji (Chinese characters) and occasional use of katakana. It is difficult to get your brain used to this system. The earlier you start, the better.
Hiragana and katakana are syllabaries, two parallel systems each with 50 symbols that represent syllables rather than individual sounds, as would be the case in a true alphabet. Hiragana is most widely used, and katakana is usually limited to foreign loan words or to words that represent sounds.
Learn the Kanji
Learning kanji, or Chinese characters, takes commitment and perseverance, and you will need to work at it every day. You will forget them almost as quickly as you learn them, that is why you need to relearn them regularly and get into the habit of reading as much as possible. Learning kanji also eases access to other East Asian languages.
Kanji are usually used in combination with hiragana and katakana. As if this is not confusing enough, the kanji, which represent the meaning of a word rather than the sound, often have several possible pronunciations.
There is usually an "on" pronunciation, which somewhat approximates the Chinese pronunciation, and this is most often the case when several kanji are combined to form a word, much like in Chinese. But there is usually also a "kun" pronunciation, when the kanji combine with hiragana to form a word. This is the native Japanese pronunciation of the word.
Read and Listen a Lot
Japanese has fewer phonemes than most European languages. This makes it appear at first as if all new words sound the same. To some extent we feel this way in learning any new language. However, in the case of Japanese, with its limited range of sounds, this seems to be particularly the case.
It is important to remain patient. As with so much in language learning, time heals all wounds. You simply have to trust that by continuing to listen, to read using hiragana while gradually mixing in more and more kanji, the sounds of the new words will become easier to distinguish from each other.
As you move to more challenging authentic content, you will be enriching your vocabulary. This larger vocabulary is a necessary condition if you hope to understand television and movies. If you are able to read well, and start to understand at least some of what you see in movies, this will prepare you to understand rapid-fire conversation when you are with Japanese people.
Focus on Verbs
Japanese verbs don't change for person, number or gender as they do in some European languages. There are also fewer tenses than in most European languages. The bad news is that the verbs change in other ways. There are simple forms of verbs and standard forms. There are humble or polite forms, and more casual forms.
I never worried about politeness level. I tended to use the most neutral form of the word, until I gradually developed the ability to discern what level of politeness was required in a particular situation. Only then did I start to vary the politeness level of my Japanese. Unfortunately textbooks often like to teach these things that are unique to Japanese culture, but in my view this is an unnecessary burden on the beginner.
After a great deal of exposure, it will become easier to deal with politeness levels and different forms of the verbs. It is not necessary to always use the appropriate verb, reflecting the appropriate level of politeness. It is far more important to communicate. I lived in Japan for nine years and have no recollection of having ever offended anyone by using the wrong politeness level. It's something that you gradually get used to.
Focus on Patterns
I suggest that learners ignore complicated grammatical explanations and technical terms for different tenses or other aspects of Japanese. It is far more useful to focus on the patterns of the language, on how certain concepts are expressed in Japanese and how they correspond to the equivalent phrases in English.
One such pattern is the tendency for Japanese to use what I call directional double verbs. If I do something for you, I "do-give" something to you. If you do something for me, I "do-get" something from you, and so on. You will encounter them and be confused, but with enough exposure these things start to feel natural.
What Are You Waiting For?
The most important factor to your success with learning Japanese will be your motivation to learn, and your willingness to accept that much will remain somewhat unclear for quite a long while.
Gradually you will realize that your comprehension is improving, and that you are able to express things in this different and in some ways intuitive language. There will be moments of victory and achievement, as well as periods where you are struggling. Just stay the course.
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