From time to time I get asked about what is a good way to start learning Japanese. What is the fastest way to get started in the language and get going with it, especially since Japanese has a barrier of entry that a lot of other languages don’t have – the writing system. From day one, the cards are stacked against you because you can’t even read the language.
So, what materials are better? What textbooks or materials should you pick up first? Should you use romaji (romanization of Japanese) to study Japanese? (spoiler alert – no). How can you get started and master hiragana and katakana (the two phonetic Japanese writing systems) quickly and easily so that you can actually read the language?
And how about typing in Japanese? Being able to type and use the language is obviously a huge advantage for you because it allows you to communicate with kanji without having to actually know how to write it. And to be honest, as someone using it as a second language, you may never really need to be able to write kanji. It is fun and useful to know though.
I’ll go over all those questions and more in this handy little quick start guide.
Romaji Bad, Kana Good
Romaji, literally roman letters in Japanese, is a common writing system used in beginner Japanese textbooks. It’s meant to lower the barrier of entry to just get into the language and start using it. And if you only have a passing interest in Japanese, it is probably something that you can reasonably stick with and jump into the language and be able to learn a few handy phrases to get around when you visit Japan.
But, if you are looking to use the language at any level past some simple caveman conversations, you will want to invest a very small amount of time to learn hiragana and katakana. You can easily master hiragana in a month at a lazy relaxed pace, and with some good dedicated studying you can get it done in a few days to a week (maybe even a very dedicated day of studying).
There are a lot of tools for doing this. The worst way to practice is through brute force writing or drilling. You’ll die of boredom long before you master the system. Instead, there are a couple of good courses on Memrise that can ease you into it. Or if you like physical books, Remembering the Kana (US, JP) was the one book that really locked everything in for me. Although, Pictographix (US, JP) with it’s small section in the front for kana was a big help as well.
Now, there tends to be this debate of which kana you should learn first – hiragana or katakana. A lot of people suggest learning katakana first because you can pick up a lot of foreign words if you can read katakana. And indeed, if you like reading tech news from Japan, you can learn katakana and probably understand the general idea of most articles very early on.
But, I would argue that hiragana is a lot more useful to be able to read and write well, because you will be using it a lot more often than katakana once you get pretty good at Japanese. I personally rarely use katakana now, except to write my name in forms and such.
Install an IME, Use it
An IME, or input method editor, is a handy little tool that converts your typing in roman letters into Japanese kana and kanji. It is the best way you can type in Japanese on your computer. So in order to practice Japanese with Memrise, or practice writing on lang-8 you will need an IME install.
Now Microsoft Windows (Win98-Win7, Win8) , OS X, and most other OSs have their own version of a Japanese IME to help you do your typing. However, a lot of people prefer the Google IME at least for the desktop. It is what I personally use to do all of my practice with. I find it is a lot easier to type with and can hold a good number of the common phrases that I use a lot, so that I don’t have to worry about forgetting how to write certain expressions.
Google IME’s download page is in Japanese, but the actual program has English menus and options, so once you have it installed you don’t have to worry about hitting any wrong buttons or anything. I recently posted a quick video on how to download and install Google IME on Windows 8.1, but the steps are probably pretty similar on most platforms. There is also a version available for Mac.
Don’t Worry about Methods, Worry about Motivation
Some people can get bogged down with methods when it comes to learning a language. I have personally done an incredible amount of research on some of the top polyglots and language learners in the world. And they have a lot of common practices they share (use it, don’t be passive). But they also have different methods that they swear by. So, whose method is the best? What should you be doing to get the most out of your studies?
I don’t know.
I don’t know because every one learns a little bit differently. Everyone has their own style of learning and ways of absorbing information. And part of the fun of language learning is trying out different methods to see what works best for you. Don’t get run down if a particular guru recommends a certain method and it doesn’t fit your personality or your schedule, just try something else.
I think some language learners get a little nervous at the prospect of having to jump into talking with a tutor or conversation partner and that’s okay. Maybe a more structured approach is better for you. Or maybe you are exploding with thoughts and things you want to communicate to the world, and can’t be bothered with a structure to confine your speaking to. Is one way better than the other? Not really. One way has different advantages than the other, but that doesn’t mean it is better.
I’ve been teaching all sorts of students for well over 10 years now, and I can tell you that the biggest thing holding people back is their motivation. Sometimes all they need is to do a little extra practice to get more out of the class, but they just ‘don’t have time’ for it, but have plenty of time to watch TV and go drinking.
So the real secret, the real key to being a successful language learner is to find how you study best. And that might take a little bit of some experimentation before you get it right. You might like drilling some vocabulary before you do some reading. Or you might like to do some reading and try to pick up vocabulary as you work through the text. Some people might like to do a lot of listening. Others want to jump into a conversation from day one. There are a million ways to get from here to there and half the fun is finding out what works best.
How did you get your start?
If you have been studying Japanese for awhile, how did you start learning Japanese? What do you feel was the most effective use of your time? Let me know in the comments.
Photo by Todd Dalley