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When the idea pops into your head that you want to move to Japan, work in Japan, and potentially live for a considerable amount of time in Japan, there is something else you should be thinking about too. Do you know the language? Granted, you might just be coming to teach English, so learning Japanese might be the last thing on your mind. But, if there is one thing I know after living in Japan for a number of years and traveling around is this: Japanese will make your time your so much more satisfying.
Knowing Japanese has given me the ability to create friendships with Japanese people from all over, not just other foreigners living abroad. I’ve been able to assimilate in ways English-only speakers can’t. Moreover, being able to speak, read, and write in the national language simplifies life, making you feel more independent when working as a member of functioning society.
In short, you should learn at least basic, day-to-day Japanese if you want to live in Japan.
I know what you’re thinking. “How am I going to master one of the most difficult languages to learn in x-amount of days?”
Good question! Luckily for you, I have mastered the language to a degree–and it has only taken me nearly a decade. I’m still learning. It’s a never-ending process, but if you want to accelerate your Japanese ability, then allow me to enlighten you to some of the best ways to study and learn Japanese.
When I started studying Japanese, it was in the sophomore year of high school. I had gotten the itch to learn after downloading a vocabulary list of names from the hit anime Naruto. If you are like me and can commit hours to studying by yourself with textbooks, audio files, and the like, then self-study is a route you can certainly take.
Here are some of the textbooks and websites that I recommend:
- Minna no Nihongo I and II — One of the most comprehensive textbook sets I have come across. You will need common knowledge of Japanese hiragana and katakana to begin reading it, however.
- Japanese from Zero! — Comes in a range of texts and audio CDs for both college students and professionals.
- Japanese Hiragana & Katakana for Beginners — Where you start if you know absolutely nothing about the writing systems.
- A Guide to Japanese Grammar by Tae Kim — You can either download the ebook for free or visit the website. I continue to visit Tae Kim’s website for grammar practice.
- Japanese on About.com — Here is another super useful website that has videos, sound clips, online exercises, and useful cultural information about learning Japanese. This is another tool that I’ve used since the beginning of my studies. It’s evolved into a truly comprehensive and free resource.
The advantages of self-study:
- You don’t have a time limit. Whether you want to study in small clips throughout the day or spend hours with your nose in the books, you can.
- It’s flexible. You don’t like a textbook? Don’t use it. Can’t stand listening to Youtube video guides? You don’t need them.
- Great for shy, timid people. Not putting yourself in a classroom could be better if you get nervous speaking in front of other people.
- Access to a wealth of information online.
- You can get creative. Choose your own study techniques and mediums. For example, I would transcribe anime dialogue into hiragana then look up the appropriate kanji. I still do this sometimes. Or you can translate manga for the same effect.
- Get your confidence up to delve into a Japanese language course at college or a study abroad program.
The disadvantages of self-study:
- It may take years to master something simple, because you might overlook something simple like adjective and adverb use.
- You never get a chance to have conversation practice with native speakers, meaning your listening and pronunciation skills will have a handicap.
- Materials can be hard to come by if you don’t know what to look for.
- There is no one immediate to ask if you don’t understand something.
Intensive Language Course
Another option if you are financially able is to attend an intensive language course in Japan. Many places offer short courses that are done in 3 months or can last for about 2 years.
A year and a half into college, I decided to enroll into KCP International Japanese Language School, a prestigious Japanese language school in Shinjuku. I was there for about a year and half. When I left, I was fluent in Japanese. No, it wasn’t easy. I had to study about 3-5 hours a day outside of school, meaning there was no time for fun and games. That said, the school itself offers culture courses, clubs, and other events to make sure students lead healthy and satisfying lives while learning Japanese.
If you think you can handle the rigors of studying the Japanese way in an international setting that enables you to converse, read, and write in Japanese rapidly, then I highly recommend attending an intensive language course.
There are many throughout Japan, including Tokyo, Sapporo, Nagoya, Osaka, Kyoto, and Fukuoka.
The only disadvantage to learning Japanese at a language school is the cost. These aren’t cheap programs, and they are truly grueling. Also not the recommended route for absolute beginners.
Online Chat and Tutors
Can’t leave your home country to learn Japanese but still want to chat with a native speaker? There are online groups and tutors for that. In the same way you may be offering online English lessons via Skype or Google Hangouts, you can find people willing to teach you Japanese through your computer or smartphone.
Here are some of the trusted sites with quality teachers:
- Nihongo-Pro.com — there are both private and group lessons. Guess what? There are also freebies on the site for you to print.
- Japonin.com — another site that is similar to Nihongo-Pro with private and group lessons. They also have JLPT-oriented lessons. Great for beginners and those with specific goals.
- Kakehashi Japan — an online school that works through Skype. All lessons are one-on-one. Modules are goal-oriented.
- Livelingua.com — Calling itself the “world’s first total immersion school online,” Live Lingua offers a free trial but is also one of the most expensive on the list.
You’re not limited to just these four, but I think they are good examples of what to look for.
Whether you choose to self-study at home with textbooks or opt to join an online classroom, there are other ways to squeeze in Japanese studies throughout the day.
- Rosetta Stone — I used Rosetta Stone as preparation for the Japanese Language School course. Though it didn’t make me anywhere near fluent, as I tested into only level 2 out of 7, Rosetta Stone is a decent primer that comes with software and audio CDs to listen to wherever you are.
- Manga and Anime — Even if you can’t read or understand spoken Japanese, these are essential tools to getting your brain used to seeing and hearing it. Overtime, you begin to pick up on pronunciation, grammatical patterns, and phrases that the Japanese most often use. If you don’t like manga, then why not try Japanese children’s books that you already know, like Dr. Seuss or fairy tales?
- Music — Listen to Japanese pop songs. Read the lyrics and their translations. You can pick out phrases that are useful, memorize them, and as you sing along, you are actually learning how to say them. Or listen to Japanese children’s music, like the video seen below to learn some great grammar:
Learning a new language is never easy, but with the right tools, you can definitely acquire more skills than you would just winging it. Japanese is no different. Whether the language is close to your native tongue or the complete opposite, having a passion to learn that is driven with the correct materials can truly enable your ability to speak, read, and write. Hopefully this list has given you some ideas about studying and learning the Japanese language.
勉強、頑張ってください！（Good luck with your studies!)
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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