Learning Japanese is a journey. A multi-destination, cross-continental, fifteen-hour layover – including a half day travel by car – adventure. Oh, and to a different time zone too. Suffice to say, not only is it a grueling journey, but a very long one.
It is definitely in the realm of unique languages to learn, as its linguistic properties have many different qualities to that of other languages. There are multiple elements that one would have to take note of when learning the language.
Elements of Japanese Language
For starters, Nihongo has multiple writing systems. These come in the form of Hiragana, which is the simplest form of Japanese writing, Katakana, which is used to spell borrowed words not native to the country, and Kanji, which are characters that contain particular ideas. How many different characters – or letters – does each writing system have, you ask? Well, Hiragana and Katakana have 46 each (many of them having different modifiers to change the sound, thereby changing the meaning of certain words), while Kanji has over 50,000 characters! Thankfully, only around 2000 Kanji are enough to get by day-to-day living, but did I mention one Kanji can mean up to 10 different words?
Next up is speaking the language. Basic Japanese Language grammar is structured in a way that is almost completely opposite from English. As an example, take for instance the sentence “I eat apples every morning”. Without overly complicating things due to the number of nuances in Japanese language, this would be said as “私は毎日りんごを食べます,” which directly translates to, “I every day apples eat”. Add to the fact that there are different levels to politeness based on who you’re speaking to, which influences the words you use (even if they mean the same thing), then you will realize how much of a challenge it truly is!
And then you have reading. As mentioned previously, you would have to memorize a new set of alphabets in order to fully read Nihongo. This takes a lot of time and motivation, as not only do you have to remember how words are said and spelled, but you would have to memorize the specific word mentioned in certain situations and hope you get the right meaning of it!
Add all these elements up, and you have multiple hoops to jump through just to speak the language! You would need to memorize an insane amount of new vocabulary, understand the many different meticulous grammar rules that only a systematic country like Japan would have (such as having a different and specific way to count specific objects such as birds or even mountains), take note of who you’re speaking to so as not to offend anyone, and lastly be able to read all these new words which can mean up to ten different things. Where do we begin, you wonder?
Learning via Classroom Instruction
In my opinion the best way, albeit the worst for your savings account, classroom instruction might be the way to go if you are truly serious about learning the language. Although different schools most probably offer their very own distinctive, contrasting styles to teach you the language, one thing they have in common they offer is this: Discipline.
Not only would you have engaging instructors, sometimes native speakers, teach you from ground zero, but you would have a set schedule, program, as well as friends you will meet on the way who are going to be with you through this journey. Being able to ask questions on the spot, as well as having foreign concepts about the language explained to you in an easily digestible fashion as opposed to deciphering information from multiple google sources, gives this method the upper hand when it comes to learning Japanese.
As we mentioned though, this quite literally comes with a price. Depending on where you are in the world, Japanese language classes can cost anywhere from $5,000-$20,000 depending on reputation, quality, and length of program. In this day-and-age though, online classes have made learning much more accessible and affordable, as some classes can cost as low as $500 for basic proficiency levels!
Learning through Self Study
Now some of you might look at the above and say to yourselves, “I just don’t think I can afford the hefty price tag to learn”. Well, to you I say, not all hope is lost! There are also many ways to learn the Japanese language conventionally, especially if seeking out motivation and discipline is not a problem for you.
The least sexy and arguably “boring” way to learn the language would be buying recommended textbooks that teach you in a similar structure to that of classroom instruction. The great thing about these textbooks is that not only do they target those with zero Japanese knowledge, but they usually teach you in the correct order. By that, I mean that the lessons are based on increasing proficiency levels needed in order to master the language. These contain information that will guide you through the language the conventional way; you will probably even be able to pass the proficiency tests as you go! Books such as the “Genki”, “Minna No Nihongo”, and “Japanese From Zero!” come to mind as great sources of information for beginners that will not break the bank, as they cost as low as $100 on Amazon!
To supplement this, a technique students of the language utilize is flash cards. These are, to put it simply, cards with the different words or writing systems that include their definitions, as well as mnemonics that will aid in remembering the meanings.
An awesome example of this are the flashcards from Hai Hiragana. Getting started is always the hardest step, but the great thing about these is that they help teach you the most basic characters in easily digestible and more importantly, fun ways.
For example, the character for “Ne”, which is “ね”, is taught on a card with a picture of a cat, which in Japanese is “Neko”. Each writing system and simple Kanji will be taught in similar fashion! Here’s the best part: all these are obtainable at just $47!
To round it off is being able to speak and hear the language is another integral, maybe even most important part, especially if you would want to live or work in Japan, or consume Japanese media. Luckily, there are a few free channels you can subscribe to on Youtube that can help you in this aspect – all for free! Youtube channels Dogen, That Japanese Man Yuta, and Learn Japanese with JapanesePod101.com, are great examples of readily available free (and also premium paid) content that will aid in your speaking and listening. These channels offer a variety of ways to improve these skills. Dogen focuses mostly on Japanese pitch-accent and pronunciation, reenacting Japanese situations the way both sides would interact. Yuta meanwhile, has content that ranges from real-life interviews with Japanese natives, as well as accent analysis of different Anime characters. JapanesePod101, meanwhile, has daily streams which teach and help you remember basic words for everyday conversation.
We are lucky to be living in an age where learning Japanese is very easily accessible wherever you are! The above are only a few resources mentioned that will aid in each skill. Find what works for you, and more importantly, have fun learning the language. Mix-and-match all the tips mentioned above, and your arduous journey will be nothing more than a walk-in-the-park.