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カテゴリーのアイコン Life in Japan
How I Mastered Japanese! 5 Essential Tips for Learning Japanese!
Feb 15, 2024
7 min read
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Learning Japanese can be a daunting task. As a language with a different grammatical structure from those many people are used to, it's hard to simply "absorb" the language. As an adult learning a foreign tongue, I can guarantee that you WILL NOT learn the language without out first tip. Read on to find more!

Essential Tips for Learning Japanese! Become a Japanese Master!

Let's get stuck in. The first tip may seem obvious, but there are many different ways to learn a language - some don't require structured study. Japanese, however, is different.

1. Study

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I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but as an adult learning a new language, you must dedicate time to studying. If you do not, you may eventually understand what people are saying to you, and you may be able to express yourself (albeit, very brokenly and not very well), but you will never actually become proficient in the language.

In particular, the Japanese language is radically different from other languages. In fact, it generally features in the top 3 of lists showing the most difficult foreign languages to master for native English speakers.

The grammar is different (there is often no subject, the verb comes at the end of a sentence, there are no gendered nouns, there is (an almost) separate honorific language within Japanese, etc.), and the writing system is complicated even for Japanese people. Even Japanese people have to study a lot to learn their own language!

2. And When Studying, We Recommend You...

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Focus on grammar, listening, vocabulary, and speaking.

Japanese grammar is very different from the grammatical rules of other languages, so a firm understanding of Japanese grammar is essential.

When learning any foreign language, the ability to understand what is being said to you is crucial. When I first came to Japan, I used to leave my TV on in the background (even when sleeping) just to inundate myself with spoken Japanese. This was back in the pre-smartphone dark ages, but now, there are plenty of apps for studying Japanese (and indeed, any language) you can get on your phone. When you’re jogging or riding the train (something you will do a lot in Japan), listen to some Japanese.

Vocabulary is absolutely vital in learning a foreign language. The good news is that, according to many linguists, in order to attain “conversational proficiency” in a foreign language, a vocabulary of about 1,500 words is sufficient. You can gain this level in several months. Make a list of two or three hundred verbs, commonly-used nouns, adjectives, and adverbs, and every day, while drinking coffee in the morning, review these.

Also, when learning new vocabulary, new words should be remembered with example sentences because example sentences show how these words are used, especially for Japanese prepositions (joshi).

For example, in Japanese, verbs usually have a transitive form and an intransitive form.

Here's a quick grammar recap - transitive verbs relate to a direct object, and intransitive verbs do not. For an English example, “I grow corn” (subject-verb object) is the transitive form of “grow,” while “corn grows quickly” (subject-verb adverb) is the intransitive form.

In Japanese "deliver" can be “届ける todokeru” or “届く todoku,” with “todokeru” being the transitive form and “todoku” being the intransitive form. By remembering these verbs with example sentences, you will be able to remember that the transitive “todokeru” takes the form “I delivered …..” and “todoku” takes the form of “…was delivered.”

Trust me, remembering vocabulary with example sentences is the best way to remember them AND the correct way to use them.

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As for speaking, this is where you practice what you have studied concerning grammar and vocabulary. This is crucial. One of the reasons Japanese people have difficulty when speaking English is that they study English for years, but they never actually use it. You may think, “I’ll be in Japan, so I will have an infinite number of opportunities to speak Japanese,” but the reality is you might not.

If you come to Japan with limited Japanese skills, you will naturally find yourself surrounded by Japanese people who can speak English. You will likely then pass a year without really speaking Japanese. Nowadays, especially in Tokyo and other big cities, you can get by without speaking Japanese at all. You must find opportunities to actually speak the language with native Japanese speakers. I did it by going to local izakayas (pubs) and chewing the fat with locals. Another great way of finding speaking opportunities is by pursuing your own interests or hobbies. Go to a karate dojo, take up shodo (calligraphy), ikebana (Japanese flower arrangement), or the like. This will also help you make friends.

3. What About Reading and Writing?

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Learning to speak Japanese and learning to read and write it are two different matters. Learning to read Japanese to the level of being able to read a book or a newspaper even takes Japanese people a long time.

The Japanese language has three writing systems used simultaneously. Two of the writing systems (hiragana and katakana) are phonetic writing systems that are used, respectively, to indicate the inflectional endings of verbs and adjectives and foreign loan words and onomatopoeia, and these two can be learned in a few weeks. Learn them, inside and out. Also, learn the correct writing order for these characters, because this will help you when you tackle the third writing system, which is much more difficult.

This third system, called kanji (Chinese characters), is complicated. There are thousands of these characters, and their yomikata (readings, the way to pronounce them) differ. If you learn the correct way to write hiragana and katakana, you can use them to write the yomikata above the kanji which helps you to naturally learn the correct way to read these Chinese characters as you review your vocabulary lists.

Learning to read Japanese requires a certain level of kanji knowledge, a certain level of grammatical knowledge, and a specific vocabulary level, so as explained above, you must first get your vocabulary and grammar in order. Writing comes even later. Nowadays, it's likely you will be text-messaging (using a messenger called LINE in Japan) your friends so that you will get some practice here, but without a strong grammar and reading background, writing will be difficult.

4. JLPT

The Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) is the most widely recognized proficiency test for non-native speakers of Japanese. Currently, it has five levels, with the fifth level (N5) being the easiest and the first (N1) being the most difficult. When employers seek overseas workers with Japanese language abilities, this is the test that is often used as the standard.

As a general rule, for any job requiring Japanese language abilities, N2 is the minimum. The best thing about this test, though, is that it gives you a very structured approach to learning the language. For low-beginners, N4 and N5 will include the most basic kanji and grammar. For beginners approaching the intermediate level, N3 will include kanji and grammar, so you will gain a conversational level of Japanese. For the intermediate student approaching an advanced level, N2 is great. And for the advanced student approaching a level of fluency, N1 will provide you with the required knowledge. More than that, having a test date gives you great external motivation to study.

5. Relax

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Continuous stressing about the language and tests can affect your stress levels and impair your enjoyment of life in Japan. Make sure you schedule time for rest and relaxation between your studying and Japanese exploration

You're On Your Way to Master Japanese!

The Japanese language is not impossible to learn. As long as you approach it with the understanding that it must be studied, and as long as you make the necessary efforts, you will learn. Ganbare!

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