Japanese is ranked by the US Foreign Service Institute as one of the hardest languages to learn for English speakers. The difficulty in going from English to Japanese (or vice versa) probably lies in the huge disparities between the two languages:
- The Japanese alphabet is fairly complicated, consisting of hiragana (a phonetic lettering system), katakana (the alphabet used mainly for imported words), and kanji (the Chinese characters that have been adopted into the Japanese language).
- Japanese is a pitch-accent language, meaning that the same word can have different meanings depending on the tone or pitch of a particular syllable. A classic example is ha-shi (chopsticks) or ha-shi (bridge), where the highlighted syllable in bold has a higher pitch than the rest of the word. [For more on pitch accents, we have included an excellent introductory video at the end of this article.]
So, is Japanese Really Hard to Learn?
At Japan Nakama, we are strongly of the belief that Japanese is not as hard to learn as you think. We’ve recently posted our very own beginner’s guide to learning Japanese, and many other resources also exist to help the beginner learner.
In this article, we are not looking to replace those resources, but aim to provide a list of supplementary tools that help you learn and use Japanese more naturally. These can be used when you just want a quick search whilst travelling in Japan (Google translate may not always be the best tool as words may be taken out of context), or if used to their full potential, reinforce your Japanese learning. In the list below, we have listed 5 tools, all of which are free.
Jisho is essentially an English to Japanese or Japanese to English dictionary, but it is not your average dictionary. It consists of a very simple interface, where the input can be English text, or Japanese (hiragana, katakana, kanji). If you don’t have a Japanese keyboard, you can still type in the Romaji, draw the word, by the radical, or even by audio.
Once the word has been searched for, the results show all the words related to it with their possible definitions. In addition, it also shows you the difficulty of the word (JLPT / Wanikani level), and whether it is a common word.
The best thing about this is that from the “Links” section of each word you can do a “Sentence search”, which shows you example sentences of the word being used in practice. This will allow you to learn more natural Japanese instead of sounding like a textbook/dictionary.
Rikaikun is a Chrome extension (Firefox also has an equivalent called Rikaichamp). When toggled on, it allows you to hover your mouse over Japanese words. A pop-up box will appear showing the specific vocabulary (with alternatives/variations), its pronunciation in hiragana, and its meaning in English. Japanese learners will know the pain of coming across kanji, and having no idea how to pronounce it, making it difficult to type or search for it, or even remember the word. This is a quick, one-stop solution to this problem which avoids you having to copy and paste and do a Google or dictionary search for every kanji you can’t read!
Next on the list is Mazii, which is available as an app (as an English to Japanese dictionary), or as a Chrome extension. We have included this because of the app’s offline functionality, as you may not always have access to the Internet, especially when you are travelling! The app is lightweight and will not take up much space at all, and definitely functions better than a pocket-sized phrasebook.
Mazii provides lots of example sentences for each possible definition of the word, with furigana for the pronouncing the kanji, and even an audio pronunciation of the sentence.
Perhaps a distinct feature of this is that it also shows an animation of how to write kanji stroke-by-stroke – definitely a must-have for native English speakers as it will make learning to write kanji much easier! Whilst showing the specific kanji, Mazii also gives more example vocabulary containing that kanji, so you can make connections between different words (for example, 教授 (kyouju; meaning professor) and 教室 (kyoushitsu; meaning classroom) are shown for the kanji 教).
Sometimes, it is just more useful to ask a person whose native language is Japanese. In comes HiNative, which is a global Q&A platform that allows language exchange to happen. HiNative exists as an app on iOS or Android, or even as a website. It allows you to post any question on the platform, and having a large pool of Japanese users, you will usually receive an answer fairly quickly. You are also able to search for past questions and answers if you think it has probably been answered before. For example, some of the things you can do on the app are:
- Record an audio clip and ask if your pronunciation sounds natural
- How to translate a specific word from English to Japanese
- Ask whether it is more natural to say A or B in Japanese
- Ask any open question
Here are some screenshots of the type of questions available on the app:
Last on our list, we have Anki, a flashcard app. This is basically an app that allows you to make your own flashcards, but unlike traditional handmade flashcards, we highlight what is special about Anki:
- The most distinct characteristic is perhaps that Anki automatically uses the “space recognition” memory technique. This is referring to the fact that we are more likely to learn a new word if we see it a lot when we are first exposed to it, and this reinforcement need is reduced as we see it more and more often. While using the app, you will be shown a variety of old and new flashcards every day, with new words being repeated more often, and older words get spaced out more until it becomes stored in your long-term memory.
- Learning Japanese with flashcards can be used at all different levels. For example, at the start of your learning journey, flashcards with hiragana and katakana can be made to learn the alphabet. As you progress, you can also start adding in flashcards of specific vocabulary with kanji, flashcards for certain verb conjugations, or even flashcards for learning grammar (文法).
- It is also possible to download decks of flashcards that other people using the app have shared. This means that you don’t have to make your own if you don’t have time, and you can also see how other people are using the app to learn Japanese!
80/20 Japanese has made a very comprehensive guide about learning Japanese using Anki. We encourage you to check it out if you are interested!
We hope that something in this list will aid you in your Japanese journey, and for making that English to Japanese conversion much easier (in real life and in your head)! Finally, as promised, here is the short introductory video on pitch accents. Good luck!