Taking the world less travelled

Is Nihongo Right For You?

Posted by on Jul 18, 2007 in Language | 0 comments

According to How-To-Learn-Any-Language.com, Japanese is one of the hardest languages an English speaking person can learn. Not only does it have a difficult writing system, the grammar is vastly different to English and most of the words are completely alien sounding. Compared to other languages you could be learning, Japanese is quite difficult.

However, that being said, with a bit (or perhaps I should say a lot!) of dedication, Japanese can also be quite easy. For instance the pronunciation for English speakers should be quite easy. With perhaps the exception of the “R” sound, we already have all the sounds needed to speak Japanese. The number of sounds in Japanese is really quite limited. Compared to English, with all the different vowel sounds, “th” and other difficult pronunciations, I feel sorry for the Japanese trying to learn English. I think they must have it a lot harder!

Another great thing about Japanese is I find the language very logical. English is a mash of other languages with lots of exceptions to the rules. Japanese has very few irregularities. If you can get a rule once, it is easy to replicate over and over again.

OK, so you want to learn Japanese?

Really think for a moment… You want to learn Japanese, right? But will you be able to?

Of course you will be able to. You can learn a language at any age, time, place, situation. What I mean is, will you put in the required effort? Will you keep it up for the rest of your life, as you will most likely have to (after all, if English is your native language, you most likely practise that every day in some form!). Do you have what it takes to learn this language?

First, work out WHY

Why do you want to learn Japanese? What’s the driving force behind this decision? Do you even know?

I’m not sure that I even know why I’m tackling this difficult language. First off, I know that I want to learn a new language. It’s a desire I’ve had for a while. I’ve half heartedly dabbled in learning German and Swedish, but never got much further than “Gutentag”. Over and over again, however, I kept coming back to Japanese.

There is this strange curiosity with Japanese and Japan. I know a lot of people feel it. I learnt Japanese for a couple of years in primary and high school. I wish I had taken it more seriously back then, and I would be light years ahead in my studies than I am now. But because I had this experience, I know it is one of the reasons why I decided to go all out with Japanese now. It’s a bit crazy, I know, but I thought to my self “I already know Hiragana, I already know how to pronounce all the sounds, I have a basic understanding and some vocab… so let’s do Japanese.”

There were other things as well. I got into reading Manga. I started collecting as much Manga as I could. I have had limited exposure to Anime but I (usually) always enjoyed it. Then there was the allure of the Japanese culture, so different to “Western” culture that it immediately becomes a curiosity.

Also, I’m a sucker for learning. I think some how subconsciously I chose such a difficult language to learn as my first second language because I enjoy (somewhat!) a challenge.

So, two years ago, because of all these factors, I bought myself a text book. Yet, it still took me two years to really sit down and become serious with my Japanese learnings.

What are your reasons for wanting to study Japanese? A desire to be able to watch your favourite dramas without subtitles? So you can read your manga? What is your driving force? Is it strong enough to keep you going for a long time?

What is actually involved in learning a new language?

So you have your reasons all figured out – well, as much as you can. I’m sure there are a lot of people out there who want to learn Japanese “just because”. I can relate to that. Why do I want to learn Japanese truly? Because I do…

Before you go out there and start learning, let’s see what is involved with learning Japanese. No, I’m not trying to scare you (much), rather trying to make sure you are making an informed decision, so that you know what you are getting yourself into!

With any language there are four areas of focus. They are: Reading, Writing, Listening and Speaking. Reading and Writing seemingly go together, as do Listening and Speaking. One would think that because you can listen to something you should be able to speak it. However, the reality is this is not true. I like to think of the difference as between your “active” knowledge and your “passive” knowledge.

It may be different for different people, but I see reading as so much easier than writing. In English I can easily read most, if not all words. However, that does not mean when I go to write them, without any reference, that I would be able to spell them. The same goes for Japanese. Perhaps even more so. It can be easy to recognise a character, but difficult to write it down.

Also, I think that reading and listening can be developed easier, especially if you are not living in Japan. It is somewhat easy to get access to actual Japanese speakers and real Japanese text. With the internet, you can have access to Japanese text through their websites, as well as Japanese radio and videos. There are even resources aimed at the English speaking audiences with Japanese speakers, such as the Japanese Podcast 101.

However, it can be more difficult to learn how to write or speak as, unless you have a Japanese friend or teacher to correct you, you can never be sure if you’re doing it correct. Also it takes some confidence to speak a language you are learning out loud. It’s going to be a given that you are going to sound funny, and say things that don’t make sense.

So just what is involved in reading, writing, listening and speaking Japanese? What is it that you will actually be learning when you begin to tackle Japanese?

Reading and Writing

In Japanese there are three writing systems. I will be going through each writing system more in depth in other posts. The three systems are Hiragana, Katakana and Kanji. All three systems are often used in a single sentence, so you can’t just learn one and get by, unfortunately!

Hiragana and Katakana each have 46 characters. They are really easy to learn, trust me with this! The characters are all simple and easy to write, it’s a piece of cake! The real challenge here is Kanji. There are about 2000 Kanji characters that you need to learn. Some are quite easy, many more are difficult with many strokes and are similar to other Kanji characters.

There are many resources out there to help you learn Kanji. There is also for each character a proper order of strokes. These strokes help you remember how to write them. Writing Kanji is really logical as well, so once you know how to write a character you rarely forget (or can easily guess!)

One problem with the Kanji is that unlike Hiragana and Katakana, you can not tell the pronunciation just by looking at it. If you have never seen a particular Kanji before, you will not be able to sound out the word to guess it. You may be able to work out the meaning from the context, but you wont know how to pronounce it. Luckily there are lots of resources (such as dictionaries) on the internet that you can use for free to learn these Kanji that you come across, and a good paper dictionary is probably a must too for those who don’t have Internet access when they are studying.

Overall, learning to read and write Japanese will take time, however once you’re grasped Hiragana and Katakana, and have a system to learn the Kanji, it can be quite easy. Some people can learn it all in a month, while others it takes longer, sometimes years. Take it at your own pace, and it can be quite doable. (If you have confidence!)

Listening and Speaking

Listening and speaking can be easier to a certain degree, but also just as difficult to tackle. As the order of words in sentences is different to English, sometimes when first listening it can be difficult to grasp what is being said. I’ve spoken more about sentence structure in my article Speaking Like Yoda – Japanese Sentence Structure.

There are also limited sounds in Japanese which can be both a positive and negative. The negative is that this means there are many words that sound the same or similar with completely different meanings. However, you should be able to understand what is meant by the context. It also means that you can pronounce everything somewhat easily.

Other Things About the Language

Another thing about the language that you should note is particles. There are no direct translation into English for these particles, which can make it difficult for a learner to understand. Often there is confusion as to which particle to use where. Particles are there in a way to “label” what is what in a sentence. For many sentence structures you will just have to memorize what particle is used there.

Here’s some good news for those thinking about learning Japanese. There are many English words that have had their pronunciation changed slightly to fit in with Japanese sounds. This means that there are hundreds of words that you already know to bring in to your Japanese Language learning toolbox. Listen to a Japanese Drama and I guarantee that at least one word in there will be from English origin. However, some words that have been borrowed from English have had their meaning altered, and sometimes it can mean a totally different thing.

You have to remember that learning Japanese will be a life long adventure. You’ll have to continually keep practising your Japanese or else over time you will forget. Imagine all your hard work going to waste! If you want to learn Japanese, you will have to be prepared to be learning it all your life.

Do You Still Want To Learn Japanese?

If you do, good! Knowing what is involved in learning the language helps you make an informed choice. If you know what’s involved, then you are more likely to stick with it cause you know what’s ahead. On the other hand, a lot of people charge ahead, not knowing what they are in for!

I advise you to go and write down your reasons why you want to learn Japanese. Make some goals. Be realistic, but don’t be too easy on yourself. Set a challenge to see if you can beat it. These reasons and goals will keep you motivated, so put them in a prominent space. If at any time you feel discouraged, have a look at your aims and goals, so that you can remember why you’re doing this!

Next up in this series I will talk about different learning styles that people have. Understanding your own strengths and weaknesses in learning (anything) can help you learn easier and more efficiently. Stop being frustrated that you can’t replicate what others are doing and focus on what you can achieve!

How about sharing your reasons, aims and goals in learning Japanese in the comments?


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