Learning Japanese on your own can seem like a daunting task. But it is possible. I know, because starting in 2003, that’s exactly what I did.
I had taken Japanese classes at California State Universtiy – Fresno, but they didn’t do it for me, so I had to figure it out on my own. Really, it’s not hard and anyone can do it. But you do need to have the right methods becuase not all methods work. For example, my university Japanese classes didn’t help me much at all.
Humans Learn Languages Naturally
If you are wondering how possible it is to learn Japanese on your own, remember that learning languages is natural for humans. With the right learning methods, materials and motivation, you can and will learn Japanese. Biology has stacked the language learning deck in your favor. But your desire has to be strong enough and your methods have to be good enough.
Don’t waste your money
I have bought many Japanese textbooks, even after coming to Japan. Some of which are still sitting on the shelf, collecting dust. Many of my students have asked me which textbook they should use to study English. My advice to them is simple: the textbook that you find interesting. If you are surrounded by things that bore, you will give up. Don’t waste money. If you find a good source that you find interesting (even if it’s not a great one) chances are that you will be coming back to it again and again.
Don’t waste time
I tried to force myself to learn “proper” Japanese as it was in the textbooks. After coming to Japan, I quickly learned that people don’t talk that way. That’s why when developing our Japanese lessons, I chose the way people really speak. I had spent many years forcing myself to learn dry (and ultimately useless info) but you don’t have to: and shouldn’t! If you have seen Japanese textbooks, you’ll notice a stark difference between them and our lessons. I wanted our lessons to help people to be able to really communicate.
Follow your passions
Textbooks aside, whatever it was that drew you to the language in the first place is the main way in which you should expose yourself to that language and culture. For example, maybe learners of Japanese as a second language are interested in anime or manga. That is an excellent place to begin. Although using comics and animation may not be the most accurate representation of language and culture, it is a part of a larger system of study. For me, one of the beginning ways of learning Japanese was cooking. Even though I really couldn’t read anything, I bought some Japanese cookbooks. It was a subject that I was already familiar with, and there were plenty of pictures, so I could work my way through simple recipes and learn along the way.
Don’t limit your experiences
One of the things that interestingly helped me the most was watching TV commercials. The messages are simple and they are easy to understand. Especially since many Japanese commercials are quite crazy and some are even hilarious. I still remember them! So learn about the entertainment of the country or countries that speak the language that you are trying to learn. Look at their cinema, TV shows, and music. As you get more ability in the language things like poems and books would also be helpful. The list of possibilities goes on and on.
However it is that you connect with the language, the important point is this: frequency, frequency, frequency. Your brain needs to get used to the new language.
See how the language works in different situations
After having lived for 16 years in Japan, I still find it difficult to explain or describe some things. It’s not enough to simply directly translate words into a different language. You must learn how things are expressed. Now you might think, “of course, there are idiomatic expressions.”But this point is far deeper than that. It’s not just about culture, but it’s about a way of thinking. This way of thinking not only determines how something is explained but also the mechanics of the explanation itself. On top of that, what aspects you are trying to explain: what points do you consider to be important or interesting. And of course beyond that, how things are described in terms of expressiveness. English has a large number of words that mean “big”: for example, large, giant, humongous, enormous… and there are many more. The concept of “big” is very important in our culture. Simply translating the word “big” into a language isn’t necessarily going to give you the same effect.
When in Rome, you have to learn what the Romans do
In this case, textbooks can actually be useful for reference. They aren’t exciting, but they could be useful to you to help give an idea of differences. A textbook can explain to you in your native language how your target language actually works. It can show you examples of how the two languages differ. Of course there is one caveat: many textbooks, I have found, are a little too much like their native language rather than the target language. This was my experience with my first text book when I began learning Japanese at University. Every sentence had the Japanese equivalence of a subject. But after having come to Japan, I was very confused. ‘Why was no one using any subjects?” It took months for me to figure out that in Japanese (and in many Asian languages) a subject is not necessary.
Give your brain something to work with
Giving your brain something to work with is really important. You need a place to start and stock phrases are simplest. When I develop-ed our Japanese lessons, I made sure learners had phrases for situations they would actually be in, or even imagine themselves in.
In the beginning, when trying to speak a new language you will find yourself tongue-tied. It’s excruciating to sit there waiting for words to come out of your mouth and watching people around you patiently stare at you. Memorizing words for basic knowledge is good but also phrases to use in response to someone is a great way to begin trying to communicate with someone.
Of course I highly recommend language101.com. Spaced repetition has been shown to be very effective. It gives you phrases to use, the situation and the type of practice helps your brain to produce learned phrases more quickly than simple flash cards.
Of course you have to try it out
Trying out your new language is worth mentioning again. Regardless of where you live, you can find someone to practice with. There are various ways to connect with people from around the world.
A good way to connect to a language partner is online. I use a service called “Italki” to practice the languages that I am studying now. It can be fun and interesting to make a new friend, especially when they are half way around the world. But if you are fortunate enough to have people in your community, by all means, try to make some new friends! If you are an expat living in a foreign country, my advice is to spend more time with native people. All too often people living in foreign countries gravitate to those that speak their native language. Here in Japan I know many such people who have lived here as long as I have, or longer, and don’t speak a word of Japanese. When I ask them how they spend their free time, it’s always with other expats.
Although it can be lonely, especially when you are in a new place, if your goal is to become proficient, you should speak your new language as much as possible. It took me about six months to become functional in basic conversation.
Learn by listening to native speakers talk to each other
This is the point where I think most people fall short. Listening to the way native speakers talk to each other and copying them is the absolute best way to become more natural. You can experience not only what they say, but how they say it, express it and even what they talk about. You can see how they express the same situation. Simply translating what you want to say directly often doesn’t work and can even lead to large misunderstandings.
Talk to yourself
This is something that I often do, even now. I imagine myself having a conversation and I basically practice what I would say. Of course when you’re just starting out, the conversations will be very short. Imagining the situation can help you prepare for it emotionally. That may sound strange, but I’ve often found it a little embarrassing trying to express myself in a different language. Your imagination can help you get ready and practice, which will build confidence. It will also help you to remember words and phrases.
Learning a new language by yourself is possible. Even if you study with a teacher, many of the points I made will be necessary to become fluent. It’ll take awhile and timing is different for everyone. But remember, learning language is something that we are all wired to do naturally.
For people who have an interest in Japan, learning Japanese is a dream. But learning Japanese is hard. Truthfully, textbooks and typical courses don’t prepare you for learning to communicate in Japanese. One of the biggest points is that they push the “proper” or polite Japanese onto students. Not that that is too hard. You can do it, but it’ll take a lot of time! On top of that, it’s not necessary and not very natural. That’s why there is a slight mixture of polite and casual language in the Japanese lessons at language101.com.
Returning to the motherland
Anytime you talk to someone who speaks a second (or more) language fluently, they inevitably say, “You have to live there.” While that isn’t easy or even possible in many countries, it is very possible and downright easy in Japan. But, not all is a walk in a rose garden. So I’ll break down the three main options, giving the good and the bad points of each. I briefly introduced them in my last post, so if you haven’t read that yet, please take a look before you continue here. I don’t want to make this too long.
the JET program
This is the government program and perhaps the easiest to get into. It was once the only way to actually get into teaching in the public school system. In the past few years, the number of JET teachers has dropped though.
A JET teacher usually gets sent to elementary schools, so if that’s your thing, it might be a good choice.
The program also supplies you with an apartment (furnished) and a rather kind salary. The contracts are for one year and usually people can renew for up to 6 years.
The jets that I have known work in a large number of schools. The bad side is that you’re never there enough to get to know the kids or make a difference. You’re kind of like a guest or special speaker.
Another thing is that because the program has fallen out of favor with local boards of education, jets are mostly put out into the countryside. But appointments are up to individual boards of education. So there is a chance to be somewhere a little closer to a big city.
Probably in the 80’s or 90’s when Japan’s economy was skyrocketing, an industry popped up. Japanese people have been studying English in school for decades, but to no avail. (I’ll write about that in another blog.) So, people began to study privately. And they paid big bucks to do it too!
Basically, there are advertised as a foreign experience. Ryu gaku, which means to study abroad, is how these are billed. These private schools bring young English speakers over and teach conversational English to people willing to spend a lot of money.
If you want to stay only for a year or two, these schools are a good way to start out. The pay is the minimum allowed in order to qualify for a visa.
The work is easy (sometimes long though). No study or certification is necessary. In fact, I started teaching on my first day of training! There is paid vacation and paid sick days (not all that common in Japan). People who want to travel around Japan and hop over to other Asian countries find this type of job to be convenient.
These companies, big or small, are private businesses and many of them started out because it was easy to make a lot of money without putting in any effort. If you are serious about teaching, this probably isn’t for you. It’s like a dietician working at a fast food restaurant. And the lessons are monotonous!
While pay is ok, keep in mind, you’ll never be treated that well or even as a professional. Basically, you’re there to entertain people who have money to burn. Some students are more serious, others just do it for something interesting to do.
Health insurance is not given. Some places offer a sort of accident insurance that pays if you get sick or have an accident. Actually, they are not legal, but they are still used.
ALT stands for assistant language teacher. This is the job that I currently do. It’s an opportunity for native English speakers to teach in the Japanese public school system, usually in junior high.
It’s the chance to see the real Japan. You meet a lot of people who have nothing to do with the ESL interest group. You meet a lot of children and see the basis for a lot of the culture. You get public holidays off and a long summer and winter vacation.
The pay isn’t bad, but it’s the lowest of all the available jobs. You are offered cheap insurance (which isn’t actually legal in Japan, but it works). The hours are probably the shortest out of all the jobs.
With an ALT job, you have a lot of time to travel and opportunity to get to know about real Japanese culture.
The downsides of this job depends on your feelings about things. Despite Japan’s spending huge amounts of money on English education, they’re not very serious about getting students to the point where they can actually speak!
Working with kids isn’t for the feint of heart, or at least those who don’t like kids. Especially if you teach junior high. There are more discipline problems than the Japanese stereotype would lead you to believe.
Many schools in Japan don’t have heating or air conditioning (depending where in the country it is.) so if you’re succeptible to humid weather or freezing temperature, it might not be a fun experience.
To be honest, all jobs are good for getting you here. That being said, none of them are fulfilling. There are other jobs here, but the ones that I outlined are the ones for people coming for the first time. The others require more experience.
its important to know that in any of these jobs, you will not be treated fairly by the company that you work for. The owners and managers are often unethical and or incompetent. Yes, harsh, but I wish I had known that before I had come.
But, once you are here and get to know your way around, you can make choices that are best for you. Many people put up with it and just use it to earn money so they can easily and cheaply travel to mainland Asia and around Japan.
so, if you are interested in living in Japan or Asia in general, you can find a job pretty easily.
When Japanese people learn English, they are taught to say, “Could you repeat that please?” or “Could you speak more slowly, please?” Consequently, when we learn Japanese, we are taught to say the same kind of things. Sounds like a good idea, but there’s just one problem: it doesn’t work.
It’s just not natural
If you think about it, when you are talking to your friends, if someone says someone that you didn’t quite catch or could understand, you don’t use those phrases. Japanese people don’t use those phrases either. Furthermore, Japanese people aren’t used to talking with non Japanese people so when someone can’t understand they often don’t know how to react. So when you ask someone to repeat something or to speak more slowly, it often has the opposite effect. It stops the conversation.
What to say
There is a way in Japanese to indicate a quote. It’s a glottal stop in front of the syllable, TE (て) (pronounced teh) Because it’s a glottal stop, you hold back your breath before pronouncing the “T”. It kind of explodes, but don’t do it too strongly. You don’t want to spit on anyone!
This way of quoting is written like this; って. The small つ (TSU) indicates a doubling of the consonant that follows. The pronunciation changes to a glottal stop. The word or phrase in question comes first and the って comes last. It’s kind of like saying, ” ____ you said?”
Here is a simple conversation.
Daisuke: さば は すき です か？(approximate pronunciation) Saba (WA) ski dess kaw?
Do you like makeral?
John: さば って？saba tteh
You said, “Saba”?
Daisuke: はい、魚です。(approximate pronunciation) hai saw kaw naw dess
Yes, it’s a fish.
Of course the conversation would go on but John could quickly, naturally and easily get at least some idea of what Daisuke was talking about.
Where the rubber meets the road
So learning those phrases aren’t a bad thing, but most of the time they will not bring about the desired result, even when talking with your Japanese friends. As I listened to Japanese people talk to each other, I picked up on this gem, and it has helped me ever since.
は (HA) (pronounced WA) is the topic marker. It tells you what the sentence is about. There is no English equivalent.
私 は(topic) アメリカ 人 です。 Watashi WA amerika jeen dess. (I am an American.)[literally: I America person is.)
が (GA) is the subject marker. It tells you which noun performs the verb. (However, subjects in Japanese do not behave the same way as they do in English. It is not always evident what the subject is doing.)
赤 が 好き です。Awe kaw GA ski dess (I like red.) [literally: red like is]
を (WO) (pronounced O) is the direct object marker. It shows you which noun is acted on by the verb. (Again, objects and verbs do not always behave the same way as they do in English.)
英語 を 勉強する。ey go O benkyo soo ru (I study English.)[literal: English study)
に (NI) (pronounced NEE) performs similar to the prepositions ‘at’, ‘to’ and ‘for’.
彼 に 上げて 下さい。kaw ray NI awe get ay koo duh sai. (Please give it to him.) [literal: Him to give please.]
へ (HE) (pronounced E) indicates direction like the preposition, to.
大阪 へ 行く oh saw kaw EH ee koo (go to Osaka) [literal: Osaka to go]
で (DE) indicates where an action takes place. Performs similar to the prepositions ‘at’ and ‘in’.
列車 内 で resh shaw nai day (On the train) [literal: train inside in]
の (NO) is the possessive marker. (I + possessive marker = My)
私の 犬 watashi no eenu (my dog)
と (TO) (pronounced like TOW) There are 4 different と’s. The two most common ones mean ‘and’ and ‘with’.
彼 と 一緒 に 行くkaw ray toe ish show NI ee koo (I will go with him.)[literal: he with together to go]
か (KA) is the question marker. It comes at the end of a question. Traditional Japanese doesn’t use a question mark.
いい です か。ee dess kaw (is it ok?) [literal: good is ?]
よ (YO) is a particle used for emphasis. It comes at the end of a sentence.
いい です よ。 ee dess yo (it’s good/that’ll be good)[literal: good is]
ね (NE) is another end of sentence particle. It elicits a response from the listener. It’s like saying, “Right?” or, “Don’t you think so?” at the end of a sentence. Feminine speech has more frequent use of ね, which doesn’t require a response from the listener, but is more of a style of speaking.
In English, word order of a sentence is very important. Not just the basic subject, verb, object order, but also things like prepositional phrases. For example:
I saw the lady on the train.
On the train, I saw the lady.
It’s not an important point for the story, perhaps, but it does change whether I was on the train or not.
In Japanese, such differences do not exist. Things like who did what and where, are signified by grammar called particles. Of course Japanese has a typical word order. One does not just put a subject wherever one pleases. But the point is that even if you do, the sentence will be understandable.
For new learners of Japanese, it can be quite a daunting or confusing task. It takes some time not only to get used to speaking that way, but also to understand how they are used. To make matters worse, the explanations that one often comes across are rarely helpful. This isn’t because they are bad explanations, to the contrary, most of them are rather good. But trying to explain the grammar rules of one language, in a different language, well, loses something in the translation. No one explanation ever helps you get a clear picture of what is going on. The answer? Practice.
When I studied French in high school, the masculine and feminine forms of everything was overwhelming. I just couldn’t wrap my head around it. One day my teacher said to the class, “You just lean it (le or la) as part of the word. French people don’t think, “Oh, table… let’s see… it’s feminine, so it would be la table!” You just learn it as a set.
Learning to speak Japanese is the same way. When you say, “Watashi ha (WA)” it means that you are taking about yourself. That’s it. There is no need to think any further. Of course reading various explanations can speed up your learning of grammar points. Just don’t rely on them to solve all the problems.
Knowing is half the battle.
One of the particles that I learned (WO) I thought I had understood perfectly. It is the direct object marker. After all, English has direct objects. But an important point to note is that verbs in Japanese do not behave the same way as they do in English. The sentence that confounded me? “When the bus comes to a complete stop, stand the seat.” (Rough translation) the noun “seat” was marked as the direct object. How on earth do you stand a seat? Of course I knew what the announcement meant, but even to this day, that particular use of the direct object is strange to me.
In Japanese, verbs often become passive. It’s very natural and has a very different nuance than it has in English. If you see something that has been translated from English to Japanese, you are likely to see a passive English sentence. Another perplexing example of English and Japanese differences that I learned was when I tried to explain that I had heard something. In English we have:
I heard something.
Normal, right? Not in Japanese. If you directly translate the sentence from Japanese you get:
A sound was heard.
Sound is the subject so your Japanese sentence is おと(sound) が(subject marker) 聞こえた(could be heard)。 Approximate pronunciation (owe tow GA kee ko ay tah) or, “A sound was hearable.” “Sound” is marked as the subject because of its relation to the verb. In English we would consider it the object because it received an action by the speaker, who would be the subject. Yeah, it can be that different.
So, what do I do?
So the idea is that practice is best. It takes time. Read as much as you can about and see as many examples as you can. Each will help you a little further toward understanding. Remember, there is no magic answer that will suddenly bring you to a perfect knowledge of the subject. Patience pays off and is a lot less stressful.
Why no use of the alphabet for Japanese words (romanization)
When studying a new language it’s always fun to learn those first few words. It feels exciting and adventurous. However, as the phrases grow so too grows the difficulty in remembering. By far, however, the most difficult part has to be learning to read.
English speakers are actually pretty lucky. Many of the major languages use the same alphabet as English or something that looks similar. Of course there are different letters and symbols, but the familiarity helps put us at ease. However, when learning an eastern language, we are not so lucky.
Learning to speak is as old as people and learning to speak a second language is probably almost as old. So many countries have come up with a “sounding system” to represent words for people who are learning to speak their language. The romanized Japanese words are called romaji.
Romaji gives the closest representation using the English alphabet for the pronunciation of Japanese words. This system kind of helps the new learner to wrap their head around what it is that they are trying to say. It puts us at ease. But unfortunately it does another thing; it gets our brain to give us the wrong information. Because our native language is so ingrained in our minds, when we hear these new sounds, they are automatically associated with what we know. That’s why it is so difficult to hear all of the different sounds and subtle nuances of a new language. Using the English alphabet to learn Japanese only serves to solidify that reliance on what we already know.
Starting off by learning the basic sounds and the basic writing of Japanese will help you start off in the right direction. That may be an uncomfortable way to go about things for some people, but that is how we learned our first language. It will also help us to learn things without having to first try to understand it in English. It will also give us the chance to make mistakes as little children do!
One of the hardest things about learning Japanese is hearing all of the little syllables that seem so quickly strung together. I still sometimes miss one or two. But in the beginning, I missed a lot! I was talking to a friend of mine and I was telling him about missing having real cheese. (Japanese people still aren’t big fans of cheese.) The word for “real” is one syllable different than the word for homosexual. My friend kept looking at me strangely. He finally asked me what on earth I was talking about. I used a different word for “real” and then he finally understood! I’m sure he was relieved that I wasn’t trying to strike up a conversation about homosexual cheese.
Sit back, relax and enjoy the ride
So in learning Japanese (or any other new language) you are going to have a rough time at first. You’re going to make mistakes. However, those mistakes will also be some of your greatest teaching points. They also make great stories!
As you go through the Japanese lessons, you will notice that the real Japanese words appear and not words written using the English alphabet. This may be a little overwhelming at first. At language101.com, it’s not our intent to teach you how to read. Nor is it our intent to teach you with through written language. The learning comes through the hearing, repeating and timed practice. All of us learned our primary language by listening and repeating. So that feeling of “wow, this is hard” will only be at first. You’ll become accustomed to it. The learning will come from practice. Your brain will begin listening to and remembering the words and phrases. Then you will begin to
have fun with learning.
In Japanese, they use a type of grammar word called a counter or classifier. This way of speaking exists in many eastern Asian languages.
In English and many other languages, there are ways to indicate plural. For example, one person two people. In Japanese, that’s not the case. Whether you have one or a hundred, the word never changes. In fact, some people I’ve met think its strange to have to refer to plurals of things.
So in Japanese, you don’t usually have to worry about referring to how much or how many of something there is. But when you do, there are specific counting systems for different groups of items.
First, there is a general counting system. This can be used to count anything and it’s the one that I use the most!
一つ hee tote sue
二つ foo tawt sue
三つ meet sue
四つ yote sue
五つ eat soot sue
六つ moots sue
七つ naw nawt sue
八つ yawts sue
九つ ko ko note sue
This system of counting stops at 10.
The three most common you will encounter are for thin objects, 枚 (my); for long slender objects such as pens, pencils and bottles, 本 (hone); and for small objects, 個 (ko).
一本 (ee pone)
二本 (nee hone)
三本 (sawm bone)
一枚 (ee chee my)
二枚 (nee my)
三枚 (sawm my)
一個 (eek ko)
二個 (nee ko)
三個 (sawn ko)
There are many counters for objects, so much so that even Japanese people don’t even know them all. Not to worry though. The ones contained in the counter lessons and ones you can find on the internet are all you need.
The one thing to be careful of is the pronunciation. Some of the counters change depending on what number they are with. For example, 本 (hone) becomes (pone) when put with 1 and (bone) when it’s put with 3.
When counting or stating how many of something, the object comes first, then the counter.
ペン三本 (pen sawm bone) This means: 3 pens
紙一枚 (kaw mee ee chee mai) This means: one piece of paper
Another counter that you will be likely to use is the one for people. For one and two people, it has an irregular form. After that, it’s pretty easy.