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Thoughts on Learning Japanese

I took my first Japanese class a few years ago, and found that while it was a fun experience, it wasn’t exactly great use of time.  The entirety of what was taught in the weekly 3 hour classes (throughout the year) could have been covered in a month with efficient self-studying.  So I eventually left the classes because of lack of time and became one of those “self-studying” students of the language.  After about an year of gradually teaching myself the language, I’ve reached the position where I can understand most of the grammar and structure of Japanese.  What’s left is to slowly accumulate all of the vocabulary and associated kanji that will allow me to understand everything I hear and read.

People often say Japanese is a difficult language, but that’s primarily due to kanji.  The actual spoken language is, I find, fairly sensible and logical, and easier to grasp than English.  I must admit, though, that it shares more similarities with my first language than with my most-spoken language, English, so perhaps it’s that familiarity that makes me say that.  Pronunciation is definitely a lot easier, though, since Japanese has a limited and simple set of sounds.  Of course, there are a lot of synonyms and contextual problems you have to worry about, but those exist in every language.  At the end of the day, the primary element of Japanese that drives away most people interested in it is the kanji.

Over two thousand characters to memorize, each with multiple readings depending on context (though those rules are fairly consistent).  It seems like a fairly daunting, and perhaps impossible task, yet millions of Japanese students do it through their school years.  Yet we also have to remember that it takes them almost ten years to complete their study, and that’s with the benefit of being surrounded by it their entire lives.  I picked up English easily because I grew up in Canada, and Japanese kids should have a natural advantage to kanji, yet it still takes ten years.  It’s easy to see why people would be put off with the idea of needing that long just to be able to read a Japanese newspaper.  Of course, in reality it’s not always so simple.  Some people do take years learning kanji, and then give it up when they feel their progress is too slow.  On the other hand, I’ve read accounts of people who picked up most of the kanji they needed within two or three years by using efficient methods which worked for them.

So when I started to tackle kanji, my first thought was to look at the different approaches and figure out a method that worked best for me.  As an engineering student, I don’t have too much time, so I was fine with the idea of a less intrusive method that might take a bit longer.  The big innovation at the time was Nintendo DS kanji games which gradually introduced kanji to the user and allowed for practice and evaluation of your own writing.  I used these for a while, but found them ineffective in the long run, simply because I would often come across words that I didn’t immediately recognize the meaning of, and as there is no English component to these programs, would then would have to look up separately.  In other words,the program would essentially teach only pronunciation (as it expects Japanese kids know what these words mean), while the English speaker had to research the meaning separately.  The whole process was just too cumbersome.  However, if you’ve picked up your vocabulary before tackling kanji, it would be a far better option for you.  For someone who is learning kanji and vocabulary concurrently, it isn’t so useful.

I then went for a more traditional approach, and bought a book, a kanji dictionary that was organized specifically to be used as a kanji learner (in other words, simpler, common words at front, complex, obscure ones at the back).  They also had a very good system of teaching compounds – they would only use kanji that had been taught earlier in the book, thereby reinforcing your kanji knowledge with each entry.  The problem, though, is that this restriction meant they had to show less useful compounds often simply because they met that restriction, which isn’t always particularly useful.  So I found the best way was to combine this kind of dictionary along with the website www.kanjidamage.com.  The good thing about this website is that its written by someone who lives in Japan and includes a rating for each kanji and compound that tells you how useful it is.  The common words get five stars, the obscure ones get less – so as a beginner, you can restrict yourself to the more useful ones and target the others when you are more advanced.

Of course, one of the bigger problems with kanji learning is that its as easy to forget a kanji as it is to learn one.  The Japanese have the benefit of being surrounded by kanji 24/7. The best way that I’ve been able to counter this tendency to forget is fairly simple-keep a small booklet with me, in which I write all the kanji and compounds I’ve learned.  This way, whenever I have a few moments throughout the day, such as waiting for the bus, I can pull it out and read over the kanji that I’ve learned.  It works very well.

I recall reading arguments online about whether one could learn Japanese by watching anime and Japanese television shows.  I think that it’s naive to expect that you can master a language this way – but it certainly helps for obvious reasons.  On the other hand, it really depends on the person and their ability to pick up on patterns.  A smart individual watching anime will easily begin to notice certain quirks and patterns in the language that will stick in his mind when he actually learns the language.  I myself picked up quite a bit of vocabulary and grammar from watching subtitled anime.  There’s only so many times that you can hear “何” used in a sentence while reading the translation before realizing its meaning.  On the other hand, I know many people who passively watch anime without taking in much of the language at all.  It’s all relative.

One of the tutorial videos that I found helpful early on was the “Let’s Learn Japanese!” videos produced by the Japan Foundation.  There are two sets of these videos: one produced in the eighties and one produced almost ten years later.  Both of them are connected through their use  of a story called “Yan and the Japanese People” – an episodic, ten minute series that is played at the beginning of the lessons and then used as a tool for analysis of Japanese grammar.  There are also small skits featuring three Japanese actors acting out scenes revolving around whatever that episode’s lesson is.  The first set of videos is hosted by an American woman, who acts as a sort of intermediate between the audience and the completely Japanese-speech skits.  I found this to be a fairly good formula, as it allowed the viewers to see regular Japanese conversation without getting too lost.

Part two of this series changed things a bit.  The stories about Yan returned, although they now resembled a melodramatic daytime show more than the light-hearted skits of the first one.  The hosts and actors changed as well, with the host being more intertwined with the other components of the show (apart from the Yan videos).   More complex grammar was also explored here.  One aspect that I liked was the absence of writing sections – teaching writing on video just doesn’t work.  The old series spent lots of time teaching hiragana on-screen, which could have been accomplished far more efficiently with a book.  Thankfully, those sections are gone in the second series, which focuses entirely on speaking and understanding Japanese sentence patterns.  If you’re looking for your first introduction to Japanese, I think it’s a great place to begin.  However, they do use a lot of vocabulary in their skits which isn’t always explained, so again, it’s probably better for those f us who picked up a lot of vocabulary from watching anime and other Japanese media.

4 responses so far

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4 Responses to “Thoughts on Learning Japanese”

  1. ojisanon Feb 6th 2010

    I’m in my fourth month of once-a-week evening classes, and still back at the point when I’m pleased to recognize a word in hiragana without first spelling out each of its characters aloud. In short, kanji loom in my near future, and I’ll refer back to this very helpful post when the time comes.
    Hmm, videos from the eighties, though. Will I have to purchase a Betamax?

  2. Theowneon Feb 6th 2010

    To be honest, I found them on the internet. I don’t know if they’re even sold anymore.

  3. maxiewawaon Feb 8th 2010

    i was lucky with my Japanese studies. – I had already learnt to read Chinese by the time I got onto Japanese so could read a lot of the 漢字 from that~!

  4. ReshenKusagaon Apr 4th 2010

    I’m chinese and currently taking Japanese classes in High school

    Being chinese is a bonus since Kanji comes to me slightly easier, but since I learned english as a first language, the usefulness has been limited to mostly common kanji.

    A big problem with learning Japanese in school is whether or not your teacher is any good. I’ve actually been able to learn quite a bit of vocab and slang from anime, as well as some of the simpler grammar patterns. Unfortunately my current Japanese teacher does not teach as well as she could, and she often teaches us the wrong things at times, only to have the heritage learners correct her is another pitfall.

    I’m probably going to end up turning to self-study this summer to prep for the JLPT and AP test >_>

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