Having been studying Japanese since high school, I can tell you that learning the language is not an easy feat—but it is definitely a worthwhile one. Japanese is one of the most complex languages for a native English speaker to learn, because the way it is spoken is the direct opposite of English in many ways. Therefore, it is not just how you speak that is different, the tone, nuance, and even formalities you choose might feel strangely foreign on your tongue at first.
However, with some diligence, ambition, and time, you too can pick up Japanese and start using it almost immediately. Here are some tips and tricks from a fluent non-native speaker of Japanese:
Learn Basic Greetings
Back when I first started learning Japanese on my own in high school (I was determined), I selected a number of greetings and basic statements that I deemed “for survival.” Now, the statements you think will help you survive in a foreign country are more than just hello and goodbye. Really think about the things you ask for or need help with on a daily basis. Write out a list of 10-20 sentences pertaining to what you talk about most. On top of that, add around 5 greetings or simple opening questions.
For example, my list was:
And so on. Obviously, questions like “where is the nearest train station?” or even “where is the ATM or bathroom?” can be a lifesaver, especially in a wild, confusing city like Tokyo. Though many of these questions can be easily stated in English when you’re at the airport or hotel, they are easy to remember and can help build a solid foundation in the Japanese language. You will start to recognize general grammatical patterns and vocabulary words that can be interchanged.
Attend Japanese Language School
After I graduated high school and attended college for about a year, I made the decision to ramp up my Japanese language studies by going to Tokyo for an immersion course. It was honestly one of the best choices I have ever made in my entire life.
Though there are a number of Japanese language schools all throughout Japan, some of the best, like KCP International Japanese Language School (which I attended for 1.5 years), do more than just teach you Japanese. You learn about the culture, receive special mentorship, can join clubs with Japanese people, go on field trips, and much more.
There are special courses for business people too, so you can fit your language studies in to your work life. Every day will immerse you into Japanese, and you get to build up your skills. The class you are placed into depends on your level of comprehension, so you don’t have to worry about getting put into a class that is too difficult. However, the downside of Japanese language school is that you’re studying all the time. You have to really want to learn Japanese, or else the entire system fails.
For example, I would wake up for class around 6:00, leave my apartment around 7:00, get to school at 8:30, study for 30 minutes before class, have class from 9:15 to 13:30, go to club activities until around 15:00, and then return to my apartment for several hours of studying. Granted, I was able to pick up an alarming amount of Japanese in a short amount of time, but the burnout was unfathomable.
Practice Listening to Everything
Now, let’s say you don’t have time to go to Japanese language school but you have a chance to listen to native Japanese speakers through music, anime, and NHK news or other variety programs. Do this without subtitles at first. Just listen.
Practice mimicking the sounds that you hear after running through the audio a couple of times. What vowels and consonants are most pronounced? How can you move your mouth to get the right sound? Where are you having trouble? Just like many Japanese cannot distinguish between L and R or wind up using D instead of Z (zoo because du; earth becomes er-t), English speakers often have difficulty with L/R/D sounds in Japanese, as well as the difference between su, zu, tsu, and dzu.
I practised these repeatedly. Because I have trained my mouth and throat to handle Japanese pronunciation and articulation, I actually have different vocal ranges. My Japanese voice is higher pitched than my throaty English (and don’t even compare my French voice to the Japanese one, because I sound like two different people).
Familiarize Yourself With Writing Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji
A huge mistake that a lot of Japanese learners make is relying on romaji to get them through their studies. Yes, Japanese uses a lot of alphanumeric symbols in their signage—and there is nothing wrong with writing out your Japanese must-know statements in romaji. For example, otearai wa doko ni arimasu ka? (Where is the bathroom?)
If you know the pronunciation of every syllable, then this is no issue. The problem comes in when you start learning hiragana and katakana. The above question transitions to おてあらいはどこにありますか？
Eventually, you add in kanji: お手洗いは何処にありますか？
“Wa” in the particle form is written with the hiragana for “ha.” And you might notice that for every two or three letters, there is one symbol for it. Thus, romaji becomes a handicap rather than a useful tool for remembering spoken and written Japanese.
At the very least, learn how to write your own name in hiragana, katakana, and if possible, Kanji. Many documents ask for it. Once you are comfortable with writing your own name and the names of family members, go on to learning the hiragana for vocabulary. This will come in handy when you find yourself at an izakaya where all the signage and menu placards are written solely in hiragana and katakana.
Practice Makes Perfect
I cannot preface this enough—you need to practice. The good news is that while in Japan, you will have plenty of opportunities to listen, read, and write in Japanese if you make the effort. However, you can also get caught in the trap a lot of native English speakers find themselves in: you get comfortable with the amount of English everywhere and surround yourself with English speaking Japanese and other expats.
If you really want to learn, you need to throw caution to the wind. Find yourself Japanese friends that don’t know any English. Go to outings, events, and extracurricular activities, like dance or fitness classes, and just try to soak in all the Japanese you can.
The good news is that Japanese people aren’t going to make fun of you for trying to speak the language. However, the bad news is that most Japanese people are too polite to correct your mistakes and too nervous to ask you questions. If they don’t believe they can speak to you in English, they might dismiss your attempts entirely.
Don’t give up.
Getting the Native Sound
Lastly, a lot of people—both native Japanese and expatriates—marvel at native sounding, bilingual speakers of Japanese. The trick to sounding native? Part of it has to do with listening and repeating everything you hear. For instance, if someone asks me a question, like “どこから来ましたか？(doko kara kimashita ka? Where are you from?)” I don’t simply reply, “America.” I repeat the ending: “アメリカから来ました。”I mimic their pronunciation and cadence entirely, as well.
Another way to sound “native” is to practice thinking in Japanese. Once you have mastered the art of thinking in a second language, you will automatically sound more fluent, because you don’t have to analyze what you need to say. You simply spit it out.
Additionally, don’t overthink what you need to say. Sure, you might mess up a particle or end a verb the wrong way, but don’t beat yourself up over it. Japanese people make mistakes when they are talking too. Sometimes they get tongue-tied or make a pronunciation mistake (just look at the history of the word “fuuinki” which is actually written as “雰囲気（ふんいき；funiki).”
Again, don’t give up. As long as you are trying to pick up words and apply them to your daily life, you will one day be able to converse in Japanese and comprehend everything you hear.
Learning Japanese is not easy. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Even with daily studies, it has taken me well over 8 years to actually master the language—and I’m still not done learning. The key to picking up Japanese quickly is to give yourself some foundational phrases and use them whenever you can. From there, listen to native speakers, emulate their pronunciation and cadence, and repeat those lines. Stay confident in yourself, and know that even if you mess up, you can just laugh it off and try again.
By Valerie Taylor
東京都在住。太陽光発電に関する企業で通訳・翻訳、 国際関係業務を勤めている。 また、ダンスと忍術を訓練している。
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