Saturday, December 20, 2014

What's the best way to learn Japanese?

A week ago my older brother asked me about the best way to learn Japanese.

Chuffed to be asked for advice, my reply turned into an essay-length email. Having made several big mistakes in my initial approach to picking up the language, I wanted to prevent my dear brother from making the same blunders. Also, I love teaching and learning languages. What could be more exciting or cool than speaking another language?

So now I am using that email as a base for this post.

My brother, I have to point out, has been very busy studying to become a brilliant emergency physician and thus has not realised that I'm not actually a completely fluent, near-native speaker of Japanese. I don't do anything to spoil the allusion though, and I can definitely hold my own in a conversation as long as it's not about something tricky, like the discovery of the Higgs boson particle.

One natural advantage I have with learning languages is a keen ear, imitating what I hear and then having no fear trying it out on someone else to gauge their reaction and figure out how to use new chunks of language. This aptitude helped me learn French and Spanish before I moved to Japan. 

But the more important advantage is that I love my mistakes. Not because I don't care about making mistakes or am sloppy, far from it. It's because learning from mistakes is a valuable way of learning, and the funny slip-ups made when a beginner are some of the best jokes to tell to native speakers in conversation once you're finally able to converse. I definitely approach my own language learning with a growth mindset. 

So here is my advice.

First step is: learn all the kana. 

Master hiragana and then move on to katakana. 

Kana are the building blocks of Japanese, and as they are phonetic (for the most part!) they are really useful because if you can read them, you can pronounce any word correctly. Japanese syllables don't make sense without knowing kana and there's a big difference between, say, ゆ and ゆう. So when you are writing Japanese down, here is a big pearl of wisdom:

Avoid taking notes in romaji. 

Why not? Because Japanese isn't written in romaji. The first 6 months in Japan I wrote new vocabulary down in romaji because I presumed that learning kana was impossible, only achievable by Stephen Hawking or Terence Tao. Now I know that if Japanese was so difficult to learn, many of the Japanese people I know wouldn't be able to speak or write it either. 

When my American friend who arrived with me in Japan mastered kana in the first few months, I realised that writing in kana right from the beginning would have helped me learn faster and just made a whole lot more sense. So, don't make my mistake and write new vocabulary down in kana and kanji as soon as you can.

I'd say on any given page of Japanese text, hiragana is used more often, so learn that first. Some Japanese people think foreigners should learn katakana first because foreign words are written in it, but overall I'd say katakana definitely makes it into less words per page than hiragana. My first Japanese teacher was a one a million teacher who got us to learn them in that order, so I recommend it. 

Start learning kanji right from the beginning.

I recommend learning the kanji actually as you go, right from the start. Otherwise it's double handling and you just have to go back and learn the kanji for words you already know, which is more precious study time misspent. So 1) learn about stroke order and 2) get a good app which has stroke order diagrams and videos, such as Midori which is my favorite Japanese dictionary app, and you are all set to start writing kanji.

So just say you learn the verb tabemasu, to eat.

Write it in kanji, even if your kanji looks like a drunk salariman's. It's good for your brain and you will get better at writing later. Then put the hiragana on top of the kanji (furigana) so you remember how to pronounce it. Like this:


Verb forms: start with ~ます.

It makes sense to learn lots of verbs first all in the ~ます form first because it's polite and often used. Then you can start to learn other forms like past tense, dictionary form, etc.

Get a good textbook.

My favorite textbook as a beginner was 'Japanese in 45 Hours'. Does that sound like a lot of hours? It isn't, really. We got through it in a year or even six months and most importantly, it was funny and had helpful cartoons illustrating the exercises which made it easy to follow. Get the workbook too, and practice away. When you're done, there is a sequel called にほんごつぎの45じかん - Japanese, In 45 Hours and More. The only drawback with the series is that it is all in hiragana, no kanji integration right from the beginning as I advocated above. 

Get a teacher. Get a study buddy.

I took private lessons with my American study buddy for a year and a half. The teacher came to one of our apartments once a week and it was great way to learn for several reasons.

1) Both my friend and I found one-to-one lessons too intense, but group lessons tend to get a bit unfocused. So learning with one other friend took that pressure off but gave us both the right amount of attention from the teacher.  Also having a friend there was a great motivator.
2) Our teacher was awesome - no app or textbook can ever replace having a human being explaining things to you. She was relaxed enough to teach us any words we ever asked her no matter what the topic, and strict enough to give us kanji quizzes at the beginning of lessons to help keep us on our toes.
3) Sensei had great resources. One book in particularly liked that she used was 絵で導入・絵で練習 Practice with pictures, Learn through pictures, a fantastic aid for students because it is all cartoons, which it helps keep the dialogue with the teacher in the target language - Japanese. I liked it so much that I went out and bought it myself, even though I'm not a Japanese teacher.

My last advice is: get a good mindset about kanji.

Don't let kanji intimidate you, or dismiss them as unimportant. They are not scary and they are important. 

For one thing, one big ol' scary-looking kanji is actually just lots of simple kanji squished together.  


木 tree  き
林 wood はやし
森 forest  もり

Without knowing kanji, Japanese just does not make sense. When I learnt that kyou means today but kyonen means 'last year' I got confused and exclaimed, "Why? That makes no sense." to the principal of one of my first schools. He then explained that it isn't the sound, but the kanji that gives the words their meaning.

今日 now day

きょうねん kyonen
去年 gone year

Just start from the beginning with kanji, like a kid.

Learn the kanji that Japanese elementary school kids learn, unless you're learning Japanese for a test which is slightly different story.

If Japanese children in primary school learn about 100 kanji a year, then an adult who works full time, has two kids and spends his working days saving people's lives can do it too.

A kanji practice notebook with the squares and the gaps for furigana is good idea. So just use muscle memory to learn kanji by writing them over and over again - probably 8 times minimum per character. Get one of these kanji notebooks and GO FOR IT!

Good luck on your Japanese learning journey.

*And remember, you can learn anything. #GrowthMindset

*That's from the Khan Academy, but I don't think Sal would mind me borrowing their slogan.

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