~ THE BEST TOOLS ~
How best to learn Japanese grammar and syntax:
How best to learn the Kanji:
The companion website to the book, vital to increasing the speed of learning:
To the assimilating Westerner, Japan offers the most bewildering set of obstacles of perhaps any country. While the society is fully post-industrial like the United States or Europe and relatively easy to accomodate to in matters of common convenience, the language, written or spoken, is quite incomprehensible to non-speakers.
The difficult part about learning Japanese for an English speaker is, frankly, everything: the grammar and syntax, the writing system, and even pronunciation can be very challenging. Perhaps more daunting than trying to express oneself is being able just to understand the language, reading being even harder than listening. Americans who learn many European languages, or none, will be on equal footing in Japan: almost nothing one has learned in Spanish or French class will significantly prepare a Westerner for the difficulties inevitable with apprehending Japanese.
But don't dismay! The barriers are high, but not insurmountable. When I arrived in Japan, I found that my fluency in several European languages offered little to help me, and even the year of Japanese I took in college was so elementary (and backward in teaching method, like most university Japanese classes, as I will discuss below) as to be inconsequential. My experiences abroad in Europe did prepare me, however, to do what it takes to figure out how to learn this language as quickly and effectively as possible.
The Best Tools for Japanese
When an American (or other English speaker) comes to continental Europe, one may be overstimulated by the new sights and appearance of things, and even confused by the differences in society, but for the most part one can at least read everything. Don't mistake me — an American may be totally ignorant of German, but in Germany they use the same Roman alphabet as we Anglophones, so even if one can't understand German, one can make out a rough pronunciation, and look up unfamiliar terms in a pocket dictionary to understand probably 80% or more of the written language. This opens the assiduous Anglophone in Europe to comprehend the full spectrum signs for restaurants, stores, and other venues with relatively little effort.
But Japan is very different. Despite the smattering of signs in the Roman alphabet (the Roman alphabet used in Japanese is called rōmaji), an American plopped in the middle of Tokyo will find himself to be completely illiterate.This is such a shock that many give up learning Japanese before they begin. A different alphabet, like Cyrillic in Eastern Europe, is difficult at first but learnable without too much strain. Yet even if one knows the two phonetic Japanese writing systems, hiragana and katakana, one remains just as illiterate because almost every word written contains at least one Chinese character, called a kanji. Moreover, the kanji have almost no phonetic value whatsoever, so looking them up in a pocket dictionary without at least a basic knowledge of this complicated writing system is virtually impossible.
But it can be done! And armed with the proper equipment to tackle the challenges that await the eager Westerner, learning Japanese can be even more fun and stimulating than studying a comparatively easier European language.
So here are the best tools for learning Japanese as quickly as possible, along with my advice for how to approach studying the language while living in Japan:
STEP 1: LEARN THE HIRAGANA AND KATAKANA IMMEDIATELY.
And I mean, right now! If you've just come to Japan and you don't know how to read and write in the two phonetic writing systems, you have 24 hours. Seriously. Be ambitious. Write them out again and again and again (some schools of thought say repeating something 200 times will allow you to remember something for life; others say just 80 times); write words in Japanese; learn every syllable as quickly as you can.
Upon acquiring the two syllabaries of Japanese (they're not "alphabets" technically since they aren't composed of letters, but entire syllables), you'll find you can pronounce about half of everything you might read in Japan. That's a huge first step, and builds confidence in the eager learner.
I also recommend learning the katakana as quickly as possible, even before the hiragana (if not both at the same time), for the simple fact that katakana are used almost exclusively for foreign words — and the vast majority of foreign words used in Japan are from English. As katakana makes up a sizable fraction of the non-kanji text in Japanese (I would say up to a quarter on signs in the city), the student of Japanese, armed with katakana, will discover he can understand words everywhere because they are in fact English (even if the Japanese don't think of them that way, any more than we think of "haiku" or "ninja" as foreign words).
STEP 2: Begin to Learn the Grammar, First
Learning phrases from a phrasebook is good and necessary, but I guarantee you, if that's the sum of your understanding of Japanese syntax, you actually have no idea what you're saying. No joke. Unlike using an Italian phrasebook in Italy to talk with people, reading familiar looking words all the way, if you attempt communication with no more than a phrasebook your capacity to truly know what you're saying and what your communicating will be even less sophisticated than an online translator (and many of us know how unclear those can be).
Yet there is hope! Tae Kim's Guide to Learning Japanese is several times more advanced in quality and effectiveness than almost any Japanese course I've seen or taken. I recommend Tae Kim's Guide even over a university course. Some classroom environment can be very helpful, and having critical feedback from an instructor is a plus, but if you live in Japan your best instructors will be the Japanese friends you make and speak with every day.
The most ineffective aspect of most university courses that teach Japanese is that they do not teach you the Japanese way of thinking about language. After studying Latin, Greek, modern European languages, Russian, Hindi, Sanskrit, and even Finnish (and also, for fun, a little Elvish and Klingon), I thought I had seen it all, and had come to understand all the varieties of thinking about language. — Nope! The way the Japanese communicate is the most wonderfully alien way of thinking linguistically I've yet come across.
But while unfamiliar, it is actually in many ways a streamlined and efficient language. Once you get the hang of thinking the Japanese way, it all becomes easy.
In a university course, perhaps the biggest problem is that students are taught the polite form of the language first (used in formal workplaces, Japanese classrooms, and between strangers), as opposed to the casual speech used between friends, family, and as children. This is totally and utterly backward. From experience, I can tell you that the year of college Japanese I took taught us polite first, and then casual. I never understood casual, and I realize now I really never got the polite form either. This is because the casual speech is not slang — it is the fundamental core of the language. Like I mentioned, since it's used first by children and among friends and family, this is the form of language most often used. And it's easy! It's actually much easier than the polite form. And once you learn the casual form, you can add the little garnishes of the polite form (which really isall the polite speech is, garnishes and mild alterations of the casual) with extraordinary ease. Going backwards makes learning both way too hard.
For that reason I strongly recommend Tae Kim's Guide, who leads you through these complexities, and makes it easy. Make sure you also read his introduction, where he lays out his method in full.
No mere phrasebook for you! You get to read learn the real language.
STEP 3: The Kanji are Your Friends
While Tae Kim will propel you into the full expanse of Japanese grammar and usage, he has little to offer the student of Japanese on learning the kanji beyond emphasizing their importance and suggesting you learn them as you go.
Not good enough!
Why is this not good enough? There are 2,200 kanji approved by the Japanese Ministry of Education for common use (a rare several more are used in uncommon names and need not worry the beginner). However, those 2,200 kanji are all important. All of them.
Why on earth would the Japanese foist upon themselves the burden of memorizing a full two thousand plus Chinese characters except for pure masochism? They seem so useless, you might think, so complicated and unhelpful.
In fact, now that I understand how they work, I can assure you that the kanji are eloquent, concise, and vivid written symbols that convey rich mearning through concrete and abstract ideas, bound efficiently by the fewest strokes possible. This is the reason the Japanese started using them to begin with, and why they continue to use them (along with speakers of Chinese) despite having the option of utilizing the Roman alphabet and their own phonetic sillabaries instead.
That said, let's count the number of written characters we must know in order to understand written Japanese: 26 rōmaji letters (if you're reading this, you're good!), 48 hiragana and 48 katana, makes 122 phonetic characters; plus the full number of kanji, and that's 2,322 total characters you must know in order to learn Japanese. And just like you need all 26 letters to read English, you need all 2,200 kanji (plus the syllabaries) to read Japanese. What's worse, the Japanese take a full 10 years of public education to learn them all. And who has 10 years just to learn how to read?!
Daunting? Not necessarily.
Enter James Heisig and his book Remembering the Kanji. Heisig's method makes the process of learning kanji extremely efficient, while at the same time revealing the inherent beauty and fun of the kanji. He contends there are two primary kinds of memory: visual, and imaginative. Using visual memory is akin to recalling a face or a symbol; imaginitive memory involves forming a story to explain how elements of an idea come together. Both can be applied to the kanji, but the latter is hundreds of times more effective.
Japanese children take 10 years to learn all the kanji because they learn nearly all of them with visual memory only by rote memorization; that is, by writing them again and again — remember my comment above about repeating something 200 times to remember it forever? Multiply that by 2,200: 440,000. If you wrote a character once every five seconds, and accounted for sleeping and eating and nothing else, it would take months of writing and writing just to try to internalize them all — and even then, since visual memory is not as reliable as imaginitive memory, you could forget most of them along the way!
Instead of brute memorization (which is far too time consuming and laborious), imaginitive memory allows us to learn each new kanji through understanding its component parts, and making up a story for how they came together. Take the kanji for "sparkle" : 晶. It's composed of three suns, which look like this on their own: 日. When we think of sparkling, we usually think of a diamond, which when held to the light will have many faces that glimmer with the shine of little suns — now you can remember the kanji for "sparkle" forever! Or take the character for morning: 朝. In addition to the sun, you can see the pictograph of the moon, 月, as well as two needles, 十. On its own, 早, which looks like a sunflower, means "early." Putting the elements together, we can imagine the needle-like morning mist falling upon the sunflower, with the final moonrays of night shining on the scene.
While the Japanese don't use any mnemonic method like this to learn the kanji, the Chinese characters were in fact built exactly this way to convey full ideas with a high level of efficiency. And since you can effectively learn a kanji by writing just once or twice with this method instead of 200 times, the 10 years the Japanese take to learn the kanji root meanings can be simplified to just a few months. Now that's a good deal!
In addition to the effective ability to communicate ideas in a fluid manner, a reason that both the Chinese and Japanese still use kanji — despite both having phonetic writing systems/alphabets as well — is that both languages are actually quite poor in variety of sounds. While Chinese and Japanese are perhaps more different from each other than English is from either one (English and Chinese actually have a good deal in common grammatically), this is one thing they have in common. There aren't many possible sounds in both languages because neither end syllables with any consonant except "n," "m," or "ng," and so consonant combinations are rare or impossible.The result for both is lots and lots of homonyms, so many that the written language, without kanji, would be very confusing.
So start using Remembering the Kanji and make your way to becoming literate in Japan! It can be done!
STEP 4: Smartphones and Graph Paper
As I mentioned above, kanji are nearly impossible to look up in a dictionary. If you know the pronunciation of a Japanese word, finding its kanji is easy enough in any dictionary. But the problem with kanji is that a foreigner will have almost zero clues to pronunciation without already knowing the word.
The iPhone saves the day! See the page about How To Use Your iPhone to Read Everything in Japan on detailed instructions. In addition to being able to activate the Japanese keyboard on your phone, you can also activate the Chinese handwriting keyboard as well. While not a tool the Japanese ever use, this handwriting keyboard allows you to write any possible kanji you see in Japan. While there are a few kanji that are unique to Japanese and aren't a part of the modern Chinese set of characters, these account for only about 1% of Japanese kanji. Using the Chinese handwriting keyboard on your iPhone (or other smartphone with this ability), you can now look up and pronounce the other 99% of all the kanji in Japan! Going from illiterate to literate with this one simple tool will open up everything to you.
Another very helpful tip is that, as you begin to practice writing out Japanese sentences (as with Tae Kim's Guide), you might as well work on your handwriting. Out of necessity (due to very complex characters) and through assiduous training their whole young lives, Japanese people have very good handwriting. I'll tell you right now, getting to their level of proficiency as an adult will be hard.
But you don't need to have perfect handwriting to be understood well. Graph paper is the key! Despite the complexity of their kanji, Japanese is printed on books in type just as small as ours, and they write just as small on paper, too. Since every syllable and kanji fits in the shape of a neat box, using graph paper will help train you to fill out a any character's shape with the right proportions.
STEP 5: Get out into Japan!
Armed with a strong grammar foundation and having begun to learn the kanji in an efficient way, with your smartphone as your companion to help you read anything and everything you see, it's time to make Japanese friends. There are lots of Japanese-English language exchanges to be found on the internet, including mine which I host in Fussa (Fussa Japanese-English Conversation Meetup), so just start looking and you will find them! The Japanese people you meet will be impressed that you know more than just a couple phrasebook expressions, and that you are making a concerted effort to immerse yourself in their culture.
The wonderful country of Japan is right outside your door — ikimashō!
- Luke Ranieri, Oct 2012
STEP 6: Take My Japanese Class
If you'd like to learn Japanese with me using these methods, you can sign up for online lessons here.