If you hadn’t noticed, I’ve been in Japan for nearly a year now. Initially I thought I’d come, get some childhood curiosity out of my system and then return to the UK all fine and dandy. Overall I’ve had a pretty enlightening experience. Not that I’ve found myself through rigorous zen practice or that Eastern culture has put my neurotic Western mind into higher perspective. More that it was an experience that taught me how to be independent, to make friends and connections, to try new things and make an effort to get to know my wider community. In all honesty, I was a lazy f*~#er who did little in my first few years of university, barely studying enough to get good results in my essays and that all changed.
So I reached Japan and was compelled to learn how to communicate. When I was 15 I tried to teach myself Japanese only reaching far enough that I could say これはりんごです[kore wa ringo desu]. Five years later I revised hiragana and recalled only こんにちは [konnichiwa] and ありがとう [arigato], all said with appalling pronunciation. Joining Elementary Japanese 1 I realised that I really enjoyed studying the language, unlocking the keys to communication, learning a new writing form. I found myself studying several hours a day driven by a desperate need to improve, to engage, to communicate with the kind old ladies asking me where I was from.
I came with only the ability to read one of the syllabaries and here I am able to read and write hundreds of kanji, make basic conversation and an even greater ability to listen and understand what is being said. I love studying Japanese, I love speaking it, it’s a beautiful language that I hope I can continue learning and improving in.
So this post will be about how to get into studying Japanese, the trials and tribulations and the endless fun.
I’m a history undergraduate so I will indulge. Really though, the history of the language is fundamental in explaining why Japanese has three writing systems, katakana, hiragana and kanji.
Japanese began as a language lacking a writing system with roots either coming from continental Asian or Pacific islander settlers. A writing system was later adopted from Classical Chinese with the spread of Buddhism. Using Chinese characters both for their meaning and phonetic value, they were grammatically altered to be read as if Japanese. Earliest Japanese texts are found to be written in Classical Chinese or Kanbun which is the process of using Chinese characters to transcribe Japanese.
Around the 9th century two syllabaries, hiragana and katakana, were developed (not alphabets as different vowel sounds are attributed a character, for example ha can be written as either は or ハ). Hiragana arose as cursive abbreviation for kanji and was used primarily by women. The epic Genji Monogatari written by Murasaki Shikibu utilises hiragana and kanji. Katakana on the other hand was the product of priests in Buddhist temples, translating Chinese works into Japanese and inserting katakana beside the kanji as a mnemonic device.
The development of the Japanese writing system into a three fold kana (character) system was necessary as Japanese greatly differed from Chinese. Nowadays, Japanese utilises katakana primarily for loanwords and foreign names. Most Japanese words either use kanji or hiragana and particles are usually written in hiragana.
Before learning any grammar I would strongly suggest learning hiragana and katakana. Do not fall back on writing Japanese out in roman characters [romaji]. Get used to writing and reading katakana and hiragana as soon as you can. Before you know it you will be writing and reading both syllabaries naturally.
If memorising is hard I suggest using memrise.com and this nifty little website in which you drag the kana to their corresponding pronunciations. From there grab a grammar book and get as much vocabulary in you as possible. I used Genki with my class and as a supplement I would read through Tae Kim’s guide. Genki is a bit pricey but Tae Kim’s resources are all available free online.
Vocabulary is incredibly daunting. I studied French for seven years, grammar was frustrating but easy enough to make sense of, yet I could never remember any vocabulary. I found out about an application called Anki which uses SRS, or spaced repetition. It is a learning technique that uses increasing intervals of time between reviews of previously learned material. This method exploits the spacing effect of our brain in which learning is greater when spaced out over time. Memrise uses the same system as Anki but follows a game format whilst Anki functions offline. With Anki on my computer I create my own decks and add to them as I please, on my phone I use a downloadable deck. Personally I prefer Anki to Memrise but to each their own. A lot of Japanese learners, much more linguistically capable than I, actually don’t use SRS and find it difficult to keep up when you’re busy or on holiday. I can agree to that as whenever I have gone travelling I have seriously neglected any Japanese study. Give it a go if you have a shitty memory and hate learning vocabulary as I do.
Do not be daunted by kanji! It can be frustrating and overwhelming, but try to find the fun in it. I would say that learning it as soon as you can after hiragana and katakana is a good idea. I use the website wanikani which has its first three levels free. It uses SRS and mnemonic methods to help memorise the meanings and readings. First you learn radicals, components that make up a character, then a kanji – its reading and meaning – and finally some vocabulary. In my spare time I practise writing individual kanji in one notebook with the kanji’s meaning and in another notebook I dedicate to writing down vocabulary. I then practise writing them. I still struggle to remember a lot of kanji and the proper stroke order but I enjoy writing them. There are other methods such as Heisig which uses the mnemonic system of stories. Really it is up to each individual to find a method that suits them best. As I’m a learner that benefits from writing I try to do as much hand-writing exercises.
The first term of my year abroad I spent hours each day studying Japanese. As well as doing Genki exercises, I also signed up for Japanese Kumon course. In Kumon I received worksheets teaching me new grammar. That along with Genki helped reinforce new grammar. Whatever new grammar you learn make sure you practise using it either by writing example sentences or speaking. Get someone to proofread it, if you have no Japanese speakers nearby there are applications and websites in which you can make language exchange partners such as HelloTalk or Lang8.
I would dedicate hours a day to studying. More than just a Japanese class a day. You need to practise vocabulary and grammar everyday in order to improve. Staying motivated is difficult but keep strong! There are plateaus and peaks but keep it going and it will be worth it.
Finally, download a Japanese dictionary on your phone like ‘Japanese’ or ‘Imiwa’, if you only have a computer, websites like Jisho are incredibly useful. All three of these dictionaries have example sentences and kanji stroke order animations.
Good luck Japanese-ing !