Learning any language is no easy feat. Some people absorb it naturally while others suffer through endless classes and audio tapes trying to master those elusive pronunciations and grammar structures. Japanese, in particular, is classified as a somewhat easy language to learn. Despite having 3 alphabets consisting of different sounds and symbols, many have overcome this challenge by actually travelling and checking out the land of the rising sun.
Textbooks and classes can only take you so far. You have to understand that Japanese is a language, not a story or structure of words put together. Everything has meaning, slurs, convictions and all that other fancy jazz. Here are the 5 key takeaways from my experiences learning Japanese while studying abroad at Keio University in Tokyo.
This is not a lesson on grammar. Rather, these are a few realizations from what I learned to what I discovered.
5. No One Talks Like an Audio Tape.
I learned this lesson the hard way. The first 5 minutes of my arrival to my exchange dormitory were horrendous to say the least. My dorm manager was an old man who slurred his words in Japanese to the point that no class could help me distinguish the babble from his mouth. It was something you have to learn through forced experience. When your professor plays an audio tape for you in class, the language is often “pitch perfect” and “pleasantly paced.” In reality, this is never the case… especially with older people. Brace yourself for this kind of speech if you truly want to master a language.
4. A Smart Phone Doubles as a Dictionary.
New words appear all the time. You’ll struggle to decipher them especially if they’re not written with the English alphabet. It’s a no brainer to use a dictionary when studying a language, but never overlook its value and handiness. The moment you step on a train in Japan, you will be attacked by probably 15-20 advertisements that can teach you new words only if you can read them and understand their meaning. Who reads a dictionary on a train? You should! I learned from one experience what lactose intolerant meant in Japanese after reading a poster on a train that was advertising milk. But the tricky part is no one wants to carry around a dictionary with them on a train. But wait! There is a solution!
Your iPhone, Android or other smartphone device have come a long way since the age of the brick phone. There are several apps that do the work of an offline dictionary for your phone. This gets tricky when you try to learn Kanji (Japanese derived from Chinese characters). Today, smart phones come with pretty cool applications that allow you to take a picture of other languages and have it translated back to you. Smart phones are more than just phones. They are an invaluable tool that is both portable and convenient for learning Japanese. This is something I didn’t get the chance to do while in Japan because I had a cheap phone from au by KDDI, but I’m sure a quick Google search can bring up a ton of useful suggestions of great apps to use if you do happen to use a smart phone.
3. Anime Doesn’t Teach You Japanese… But It Can Help Reinforce Concepts.
Watch Japanese TV instead of anime if you truly want to learn the language. Often in an anime, characters are vulgar and will use words like “omae” which directly translates into English as “you” but in context, translates to “Hey jerkface!” Characters from anime often slur their words and add thick accents (as earlier stated). You will have difficulty learning Japanese if you just watch anime all day. I mean, if you want to speak with someone in Japanese and sound like a strange pirate or ninja, go for it, but expect weird looks when they think you’re crazy! Don’t worry. It’s not all bad. Watching anime can help you distinguish what the “rude” words are from the “polite” words so that when you’re conversing, you’ll know how to not sound like a pirate and/or ninja.
Instead, learn Japanese through live-action shows or the news or something a little more boring. They often come with subtitled Japanese so it’s not only good practice for listening but also reading. Movies are also a great way to learn the language. Try to watch Japanese movies (NOT ANIME) once with English subtitles, a second time with Japanese subtitles and a third time without any subtitles. It will definitely help improve your listening and maybe reading abilities. A good movie I recommend is Okuribito (Departures). It’s a story about a musician who leaves the big city and finds work out in the country with a small artisan business.
2. Context is Key.
Languages don’t translate into English perfectly. Imagine a word in another language that did not exist in English. For those of you currently studying Japanese, you’ll notice there are two words tagged onto the end of most sentences: “yo” and “ne”. These words don’t directly translate into English yet they exist. Why? A language is built around more than what’s in a textbook. Context plays a key role in truly understanding a language. Context can make the difference between knowing when to be polite and when to be friendly. It can make the difference between sounding rude and sounding shy. To make something sound as friendly as possible, add “yo” or “ne” to the end of all of your statements. “Yo” is somewhat of a “Did you know?” expression while “ne” is the Japanese equivalent of the Canadian “eh?”
1. Force Yourself to Speak.
Order food, call a cab, ask where the washroom is… it doesn’t matter what you say as long as you actually say it. Don’t be afraid because you have nothing to lose. You can read all you want but until you practice you won’t know for sure if you truly communicated what you wanted to say. The neat thing about forcing yourself to speak Japanese means that your mouth and tongue will remember what you said and can say it faster a second time. The more you do it, the more fluent you will become. Classrooms usually do a poor job with actually forcing students to practice speaking because they only speak the language with other students at a snail’s pace. Speaking is a killer when learning any language because writing is so much easier. It’s the one aspect of a language most people tend to suffer at if they’re just learning inside a classroom.
The reality is every single lesson you learn in school, every single word and every single grammar structure is used in writing, reading, listening AND SPEECH. The ability to speak is probably one of the most difficult to overcome. Overcome this and you will reach a milestone in the pursuit of your language.
This video is truth.