How to Learn Japanese

by David Ockey

Before I came to Japan I had studied Japanese in college for 3 1/2 years. When I came to Japan, I could say virtually nothing!

I could say my name, where I was from and “The apple is on the table.” To this day, I have not been asked one time where the apple is.   I could also ask how much something costs.  Of course I couldn’t understand the answer, so I never asked…

Eleven years later, I can speak Japanese reasonably well. The moment I knew that I had finally “made it” is when I could order pizza over the phone. (Speaking a language that you’re not confident with is particularly difficult over the phone.) I was elated!

Getting by in Japanese is Easy

So how did I do it? Well, the good news is that getting to the point where you can get by in Japanese isn’t that difficult. (Higher levels of proficiency require a great deal of difficult study.)  If you can speak English, then you already speak what I believe is the most difficult language in use today. There are many rules to English. But what makes English more difficult is that there are many exceptions to those rules!

Many Rules – Few Exceptions

Japanese is a relatively pure language. It hasn’t really been affected by other languages (although that’s changing.) Yes, it has many rules too, but I haven’t encountered any exceptions.

Another thing that makes basic communication easier is that Japanese has a lot of set phrases. You can communicate a lot of meaning with just a simple phrase.

Japanese Crunch – Boom Crash Words

There are also two types of words that are very common in Japanese that communicate an exact idea. The closest thing we have in English is onomatopoeia (words like crash, crunch, boom, etc.) The Japanese version of these words express not just sounds, but a lot of other things, even texture!

However, the best thing about tying to get by in Japanese is that Japanese people are very forgiving. A non Asian person speaking Japanese is still pretty rare. In fact, when I travel with Japanese friends to other Asian countries, the people in those countries are pretty surprised to hear me speak Japanese. Sometimes that’s the best part of traveling!

What Should You Start With?

If I were telling someone how to learn Japanese, I would suggest starting with greetings, compliments and other common phrases.  Learning a few disarming phrases will make your Japanese friends feel good and is a good way to get started in Japanese.

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