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Learning Japanese

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Welcome to the Learning Japanese Guide.

Introduction

Japanese is a difficult language to learn, if for no other reason than because it just takes so long. The fundamentals are markedly different than Western languages which can make starting out rather difficult. This guide will be mostly aimed for beginners to intermediate-level learners.

Student Types

Foreigners in Yamanashi have a wide variety of experience with and knowledge regarding Japanese. The two most common types of students are the absolute (or near absolute) beginners, and then those who have studied a few classes in college before arriving. Any formal study before arriving in Japan will be an immense help.

Most learners will choose to take formal classes, to join informal community tutoring, and/or to self-study.

How to Learn

Formal Classes

A few ALTs in Yamanashi choose to take formal classes. Kumon has on-site classes for various levels, as well as correspondence courses. Unitas is another choice for on-site learning. You may also be able to find classes available through universities, as there are many foreign students in Yamanashi.

Informal Community Classes

Many retired Japanese residents enjoy helping foreigners adapt to the local culture and language by offering their help in informal community tutoring on the weekends. Most often, groups of foreigners and Japanese volunteers will meet at local restaurants to have conversation. The exact format will vary depending on the group. This is a great way to meet people and a more relaxed alternative to formal classes.

Online Classes and Conversation

There are a few sites dedicated to helping foreign-language learners that are great for learning Japanese. This is especially convenient for people that live in especially rural areas.

One site is called iTalki and allows you to post journal entries to be corrected, have quick chats with other learners, get help with informal tutoring, or even to study with experienced teachers. The last two options come with a fee. The cost is set by the teacher, and is usually relative to their experience and the complexity of the lesson format (less for chatting, more for studying from a textbook). Costs range from about US$3-20 per hour, and there is a trial discount with many instructors. You can use programs such as Skype to meet with your instructors.

Lang8 is a similar service, except that it is dedicated to writing and doesn't have video tutoring.

Mixxer is a service that is used to connect language learners around the world. Users will both teach and learn from other users.

Self Study

Self-studying can be difficult for beginners. Many people waste far too much time researching resources instead of actually learning the language. Indeed, it can be hard to tell which resources fit your needs. Please look down to the Resources section for recommended books, apps, and websites.

Self-studiers should try to join a group of like-minded learners to help keep them motivated. Reddit's r/Team_Japanese and r/LearnJapanese can be decent communities. Be aware though that most online groups like these tend to be filled with many beginners and not too many experienced students. Take everything with a grain of salt, and try to learn who is knowledgeable and reliable. There are also many Facebook groups, including some specifically for groups of JETs. The more you feel like you relate to the group, the better, so try to find something a little personal but not too small.

What to Learn

A Sample Outline (Self Study)

Stage 1:

  • Find a Japanese-Learning Community
  • Learn Hiragana fairly well.
  • Find a Beginner's Phrasebook, be sure to listen to the CD.

Stage 2:

  • Learn Katakana fairly well.
  • Start using Audio Lessons.

Stage 3:

  • Choose a Textbook like Genki to study from and start from Page 1.
  • Decide how you will Practice Conversation.
  • Get a beginner's Kanji Book if your textbook doesn't use much kanji.
  • Practice Grammar Points in journals on Lang8 or iTalki.
  • Make mnemonics for the kanji you learn and write them down, or use a site like kanji.koohii.com

Stage 4:

  • Practice Japanese in the real world.
  • Try to find Native Material at your level.
  • Move on to More Advanced Textbooks as necessary.

Stage 5:

  • Start using All-Japanese Resources (Dictionaries, Grammar Books, etc.).
  • Consume lots of Native Material.

In steps 4 and 5 you start to be able to pick things up from immersion, random conversation, books, and so on. This is when it starts to feel less like studying. This should be your goal, as when you get to this point there's still a long path ahead of you but the most difficult and confusing parts are over.

The Writing Systems

The suggested course of study by this guide is to first learn hiragana (あ), then katakana (ア), and finally to work on kanji (亜) in earnest. These are three of the four writing styles used in Japanese. The fourth is romaji, which is the Latin characters that we use in English.

It is pretty much universally suggested that you should avoid romaji for learning. If you already have a book and it only uses romaji, it's better than nothing. Otherwise try to avoid it.

Hiragana and Katakana are syllabaries. Each character represents a syllable. The syllables represented in hiragana and katakana are the exact same, they are just different ways to write it. Katakana is usually only used to write loan words, some onomatopoeia and slang, animal/plant names. It's convenient for reading food menus, and not much else for a beginner. Hiragana is much more useful for beginners.

Kanji will take a long time to learn. There are 2,136 Jouyou kanji. These are the kanji that students learn, and that are required to be able to be proficient at Japanese and able to read a newspaper. There are thousands more kanji, but 99% of them are rarely if ever used anymore. You should start learning kanji as soon as you start studying Japanese, but you can go at a very slow pace. Once you have become somewhat proficient with hiragana and katakana you can start to focus on kanji.

Check out our guide to learning kanji!

Take a look at some words you should know!

Speaking

Speaking is very easy for some people and very difficult for others. Every student should start learning to use actual spoken Japanese as soon as possible. Phrases are a pretty easy thing to pick up, and there are tons of phrase books and audio courses (like Pimsleur's) to help you out. Too many students focusing on reading and writing until far too late, and they can read a book before being able to have a 5 minute conversation.

Don't worry about making mistakes. Don't worry when people can't understand you, or fail to recognize that you're speaking Japanese (this is often more their fault than yours, actually). Just keep practicing. It is so much easier to learn the written form of a Japanese word or phrase when you are already comfortable with its spoken counterpart. Also, speaking Japanese makes you friends, and friends give you motivation to learn more!

You shouldn't hesitate to use the above mentioned resources to practice speaking Japanese if you need extra practice.

There's no real course you should follow when learning to speak Japanese. Try to learn basics like foods, direction words, emergency words, and activities first. Then just follow your interests or the interests of those you often communicate with. Picking up a hobby is a great way to help your fluency!

Listening

Many people practice speaking and are able to ask questions wonderfully, but are completely lost at interpreting the response. This is why listening is every bit as important as speaking! You will probably have many chances to practice listening in Japan, but immersion doesn't lead to automatic learning. You need to listen to things at or just above your ability level. This means staff-room chat and morning meetings probably won't be too useful for beginners. Again, Pimsleur audio courses are helpful as well as other audio lessons. There are tons, so try to find one that fits your needs. TV shows can be another good way to practice - try to find a J-Drama that you like! JapanesePod101 is also good for listening, but the banter can be annoying.

Just like speaking, you'll need to start small. It may be harder for your to remember a word that you've hard than to remember a word that you've spoken. Try repeating things as much as possible, as well as shadowing exercises (shadowing is when you speak just behind another speaker, trying to mimic them as precisely as possible).

Luckily, most textbooks these days have CDs and lots of listening practice.


Reading

Reading requires three things: A grasp of the writing system, a vocabulary base, and an understanding of grammar. You will need to develop these independently. Look at the resources section for some help. However, even if your grasp of these three things is strong, it will be next-to-useless if you don't practice them together in reading comprehension.

NHK News Easy is great for upper-beginner and lower-intermediate learners. Children's stories can be great for beginners. While the lack of kanji can be confusing, it's useful for those who don't know much kanji yet. And of course, textbooks usually provide plenty of reading practice.

Make sure to practice reading long passages and not just one or two sentences at a time. Understanding longer passages requires very different skills, such as being able to keep track of unspoken subjects.

Resources

In Print

For beginner phrasebooks (Stage 1), it's hard to go wrong. Most things will have the same phrases. Try to get something that looks like it explains well and has culture notes. I have Berlitz's Essential Japanese. You can probably find something plenty sufficient at the nearest major bookstore.

For textbooks (Stage 3), Genki is a fantastic textbook. Get it if at all possible. As an alternative, Minna no Nihongo is also very good but harder to use for self-study. If you are learning from a textbook through lessons, Minna is a very good choice. Both are a series.

Genki has two official textbooks, but there is an unofficial "Genki III" by the same publisher called "An Integrated Approach to Intermediate Japanese." These three books will take you through the beginner stage of Japanese, and they hold your hand very well.

Any resource published by the Japan Times (publishers of Genki) is generally a great resource. For example, the series A Dictionary of ______ Japanese Grammar (Basic, Intermediate, Advanced) is a fantastic grammar resource. You can read them straight through and learn a ton.

The same goes with ALC (どんな時どう使う), although they don't have as many beginner resources.

Different people have different opinions on Heisig's Remembering the Kanji. Personally, I recommend the Heisig method but I think it should be adapted to add readings and sample vocabulary whenever you learn a new kanji. I have a notebook and use kanji.koohii.com to get Heisig-style mnemonics whenever I run into a new kanji.

Online

As mentioned, iTalki.com and Lang-8.com are excellent for practice.

There is a cute site operated by The Japan Foundation called Erin's Challenge. It follows a study abroad student through various experiences and adventures, and is suitable for a wide-range of student levels.

There is a new website called WaniKani. After over a year of trying it out, I do not personally recommend it. I find it inefficient and lacking in some vital features.

| Memrise is another new service. Users create courses, and it is similar to WaniKani and Anki (which I will mention soon). It's free and some people love it, so you should consider trying it. Memrise has hiragana and katakana courses so beginners should definitely check it out! The mechanics bugged me when I tried it, but it seems to be a lot more polished now.

Tatoeba is a great place to get example sentences. This is especially useful to see how a word or piece of grammar is used. The site is a little unstable though.

ALC runs a website that has a very powerful dictionary and analysis tool. It will give you the English meaning of a Japanese word or phrase, and vice versa. It also pulls up similar terms, example sentences, and so on.

Beta Jisho is the new, slick interface for Jisho.org. The downside to this dictionary, and those you might have on your phone or on another website, is that they are fairly limited. Most people won't really notice this, however, and it has rarely been a problem for me. If it is, I go to ALC.

JGram is a bit like a grammar wiki, and can be very useful for checking pieces of grammar.

Tae Kim runs a pretty famous and thorough web resource. It is sometimes slightly flawed, sometimes confusing, and doesn't go into great depth. With that said, it's an extremely efficient way to refresh grammar points. I recommend bookmarking it. Imabi is even more thorough than Tae Kim's guide, but contains a ton of information that isn't pertinent until you're already a relatively advanced student. The creator has been known pop up and get defensive on various forums, but if you're looking for information on something obscure this is probably the go-to English resource for finding it.

Apps

Anki is one of the most valuable tools for a self-studying Japanese student. It uses SRS methods to quiz you with intelligent flashcards. "Decks" can be made on your own, or downloaded. Flashcards can be simple, or include things like audio or fill-in-the-blank questions. There are also lots of plugins to customize it. When you use Anki, you sync to an account so you can keep up-to-date across any number of PCs and Macs, online at AnkiWeb, and on your iOS or Android devices. It seems simple but is very powerful, and complex if you need it to be. It is highly, highly recommended for any Japanese student. It's also free (except the iOS version).

StickyStudy has iOS apps that are decent for learning hiragana and katakana, although you need to practice writing them on your own.

JED is a feature-rich and free dictionary for Android users. It can export to Anki files, although it is outdated requires some tricks to make work with the newest versions of Anki. It uses the same dictionary files as Jisho.org.

WWWJDIC runs on the same dictionaries as Jisho as well. What it has over JED is the ability to take a picture of kanji to look it up. The Anki export feature is also up-to-date, although it works differently than JED's.

Simeji is a keyboard for Android (and maybe iOS?) that allows you to type in romaji, hiragana, katakana, or kanji with ease and using a number of different methods. It is very feature rich, which can occasionally make it confusing. It's nonetheless very popular (and customizable!).

Kanji Recognizer is an Android app that allows you to write kanji, which it will then attempt to recognize. This is good for looking up kanji when a radical search is inconvenient or not working for you. It can be used in coordination with Simeji to type unknown kanji.

The JLPT

Introduction

JLPT stands for Japanese Language Proficiency Test. It is a test provided around the world that tests students' ability levels. There are five difficulty grades: N5, N4, N3, N2, N1 (previously there were 4 "kyuu" levels until it was changed in 2010). N5 is the easiest, and N1 is the most difficult.

Each higher grade requires approximately twice as much study time as the grade before it. Basically, each is twice as difficult as the one before - so they are on an exponential difficulty curve.

The passing requirements are different at each level. Students that pass will receive certification.

The test is comprised of a few different sections. The format varies by level, but in general there are sections covering: Kanji, Grammar, Vocabulary, Reading Comprehension, and Listening Comprehension.

Signing Up for the Test

There is a fee of roughly 5000yen for taking the test in Japan. There are testing sites all across the nation. In Yamanashi, there is one at the University of Yamanashi Kofu Campus about a 20-30 minute walk north of Kofu Station. When applying for the test, if you want to take it in Yamanashi you will need to select the Koshin Region (this comes from Koushin'etsu, the name of the region including Yamanashi, Nagano, and Niigata). The registration website can be found here.

Why Take the Test?

The JLPT is a great benchmark for testing your Japanese progress. It doesn't include speaking or writing, but it tests your passive skills very thoroughly. Some argue that the N5, N4, and to a lesser extent the N3 levels are useless. Whether it is worth it is entirely up to you and how much the test will motivate you. These lower levels are very unlikely to help with any job hunting (except maybe for JET!) or school applications (a school program that would take you with N3 certification would probably take you even with no certification).

On the other hand, the N2 and especially the N1 are can be useful for school admissions and job hunting. The N2 is generally seen as the minimum for some schools and most work involving Japanese.

Preparing for the Test

The Shin Kanzen Master series are great for preparing for the N3 to N1 level tests. They are a very respected resource, and are great for studying even if you aren't taking the JLPT. There are also practice tests that you can buy (look for 公式問題集) in places like the bookstore in the AEON Mall in Showa. You should definitely try a practice test before taking the actual thing, as the format of the test is very specific.

Closing Thoughts

Learning Japanese is a long and difficult - but rewarding - path. Everyone will have their own way. If you have any advice that you'd like to add to this article, please feel free to do so.

Don't give up if you start to feel like you aren't making any progress. You will have your slow learning periods, but they're invariably followed by periods of great progress. Hang in there, stick to your resources and follow them through, and keep active in an encouraging community.

You can do it! がんばって!