I’ve been speaking with three different people recently about learning Japanese and figured it would be worth sharing some tips for those just starting out. It can be intimidating to learn a new language (it is for me!) but these hints will hopefully be helpful in your quest to learn an interesting, efficient, and fun language.
1. Learn hiragana and katakana first
Japanese uses different characters than our familiar alphabet. “Hello” in Japanese isn’t just “konnichiha”, it’s 「こんにちは」. Japanese actually uses three different writing systems (they aren’t really alphabets, but it would be like us having three alphabets). Hiragana characters are the first things you should learn. You can technically write all Japanese in hiragana and it would make sense. But as you learn the other writing systems, you can add them, as hiragana used entirely alone would seem a bit childish. Katakana is typically reserved for foreign words. Japanese people call pizza the same thing we do, but they would write it in katakana characters to show that it’s a foreign word. The last and arguably most difficult set of characters are the kanji, which are actually traditional Chinese characters. While hiragana and katakana characters represent phonetic sounds (if you read a word, you’ll know how to say it but maybe not what it means), the kanji characters have meanings and can be thought of as words. As you get better at Japanese, you can use all three writing systems in a single sentence. It sounds intimidating but it’s not if you approach it sensibly. As you learn the kanji for words like dog, shop, ocean etc, you can use them but the more grammatical words (and particles) will still be written in easy hiragana. It actually makes reading a lot easier!
This might sound boring to some people. I would agree that the real excitement I get for Japanese is in learning the grammar, learning things to say. I want to communicate. Memorising characters isn’t quite the same. There are two approaches you can choose from. The first, and the one I recommend, is that you learn hiragana (and katakana if possible). It’s a bit boring and it’s not overly useful at first. But when you start learning how to read and write Japanese, you can actually learn the words in Japanese. The alternative approach would be to start learning some grammar from websites where the Japanese words are written using our alphabet. Japanese people call this writing romaji. This is the most immediately satisfying at first, as you can quickly learn some phrases and start getting to grips with the grammar… but the fun is short-lived. Soon you will learn that you can’t progress further without actually learning Japanese characters and then your progress suddenly stops. It’s much better to get hiragana out of the way, then start learning from resources that actually use Japanese. There are only a few hiragana and katakana characters. There are thousands of kanji characters but you can learn them throughout your journey, picking them up from websites and textbooks as you go. Learn hiragana before anything else. It’s a slower start, and not as immediately interesting, but you will regret putting it off.
2. Write the characters, don’t just read them
When you’re learning these new characters, actually write them down. There’s something about learning the strokes that makes them easier to recall later. It will help your writing when you finally get round to it, but in the short-term it will also improve your memory for reading the characters. There are a few that are quite similar in appearance, and it’s only in writing the characters that you really get a feel for the differences.
3. Interact with Japanese speakers
There are so many ways to interact with Japanese speakers online. The problem is that you need to find people speaking at a level that you are ready for. Visiting the website for a popular Japanese newspaper is going to be difficult because it will use many kanji characters you probably haven’t come across before if you are still new to the language. Social websites like Twitter can be a lot more accessible, but obviously the difficultly is variable. It definitely doesn’t hurt to start following some friendly Japanese Twitter users and making new friends! The one website I would recommend over all others is Lang-8. Users can make posts in the language they are learning, and native speakers will correct them and provide advice. You can also read posts from people learning English (or your native language) and correct them. It’s a very useful website and I’ve found that the atmosphere is friendly and helpful.
4. Make good use of your smartphones/tablets etc
So many people have smartphones or tablets these days that it’s worth mentioning that most have access to brilliant apps for learning Japanese. There are many that list the hiragana and katakana characters and test you by asking you to draw them or identify the correct characters from a list. I’m choosing to add this as a tip because I think that practising in this way for a few minutes while on the bus or while waiting for a friend can really make a difference in learning the writing systems.
5. Speak out loud
When you learn new words or phrases, don’t just say them in your head, say them out loud if possible. This maybe isn’t ideal on a train, but at home you should be speaking at a volume you would use for normal conversation. This will increase your confidence and your pronunciation. Once you’ve learned some basic conversational Japanese, I’d also recommend speaking with natives or even with other people learning Japanese. Try buying things from a Japanese shop in town if there’s one. Perhaps Skype with any Japanese-speaking friends you make from places like Twitter or Lang-8. Some people sit with books but never really speak. I’ve seen people get so good at Japanese that they can easily read Japanese newspapers or write letters, but they mumble and make mistakes when speaking despite the fact that their knowledge is adequate for conversations. Speak out loud!