Japanese is a bit of a difficult language to learn for native English speakers. First of all, the sentence order is different, which can make organizing your thoughts a little trickier at times. Also, some things that are expressed as adjectives or sometimes expressed as verbs. And there are a ton of other more difficult phrasing you need to know and worry about.
But one of the biggest hurdles to learning Japanese compared to other languages is the fact that you simply can’t read the language when you first get started. There are three different writing systems, which means there are approximately 2000 or so characters you need to know just to read a novel or newspaper.
And there are tricks to learning those writing systems. For instance, you can use mnemonics to help you lock in what each character means and how to say each one. But, drilling how to write them is something you will inevitably have to practice, at least a little bit. The problem with drilling of course is that nobody really likes drilling.
It’s important to be able to write some of these characters quickly, automatically, without thinking though. For instance, if you are sitting in on a meeting or even taking the higher levels of the JLPT (N3+) you may need to write very quickly to record what you are hearing. This becomes critical at N1 and N2 levels, because you will need to take notes on a listening passage and then answer questions based on that passage that are not printed in the test booklet.
Drilling doesn’t have to be stab-your-eyes-out boring though. You can have a lot of fun just goofing off while you do it. There are also some key things you should be doing to make sure all that drilling doesn’t go completely to waste. For instance, you should try to keep the mnemonic in mind while you are doing it. So, if you are drilling あ, keep imagining that it is an A on its side while writing it out.
Also, try to engage more than just your writing skills. Try saying the sound for the character out loud while writing it. This should help burn in the connection between the sound and the physical action of writing it out. Again, you want to be able to do it automatically, without thinking. You can even try out a few weird intonations and just, well, go crazy with it.
Below, I go over exactly what I am talking about with the drill book Learning Japanese: Hiragana and Katakana.
Phrase books, at times, can seem like the fast food of language learning textbooks. They seem filling and they can give a good tasty morsel of what real language use is like, but they don’t really give you a full meal. They don’t give you full meal because they don’t go into details about grammar and vocabulary use. They aren’t really filling because you can’t actually have a healthy, flowing conversation with them.
So, should you drop phrase books completely and labor over vocabulary lists and grammar lessons until you have brought yourself up to the point that you can have a healthy conversation? Well, no, not exactly. Although that approach can work for a lot of people. If you are learning a language, you want to use it right?
You wouldn’t want to practice guitar for 3 or 4 months and hardly be able to play even the most basic songs. You are going to want to bang out a tune as soon as you can because, you know, that’s why you are putting in all those hours. You want to play.
And that is what phrase books can do for you. They help you dive into the conversation as soon as you can so that you can start playing with the language from day one. Of course, you can’t play very well and you are going to struggle a little bit, but a good struggle usually helps you learn things more easily and remember them for a longer time.
They can also help give you a feel for the language, the big picture of what phrases and expressions look like. A lot of times when you are down in the trenches trudging through a particular grammar point or devouring piles of new vocabulary, it is hard to see the whole picture. How does all this stuff get used in the real world? Because when you first start studying a language, you can use it and people will understand you, but no native is going to talk like you.
A phrase book gives you a nice safe taste of what the native language is like. In addition to giving you the English translation and a phonetic guide of some kind, it also gives you context, which is sometimes overlooked when you drill through large lists of vocabulary. I mean, you might learn the English definition of a word like “げんき” for instance, which really doesn’t have a good English translation. But, then not really know when and where to use it in conversation.
A phrase book will help fill in those gaps a little bit. It isn’t a complete view of course, just bits and pieces that you can pick up and use right away. However, it can jump start your ability to get an overall feel of the conversation.
One thing to keep in mind though, is to not get too curious. There are a lot of phrases and phrase books that are there because they sound the most natural to natives. But, the grammar rules to explain why they sound natural might end up being pretty complex.
If you go asking your Japanese teacher to explain every little reason for why you say a certain thing in a certain way, you might end up driving you and your teacher mad. Try to treat it as an overview to help you get started, a taste of what is to come. Eventually you will stumble across another phrase or a grammar explanation that will help clear everything up for you.
So how can you use these to practice with? Well, the obvious way is to practice the phrases out loud enough times that you are pretty comfortable with saying them as well as comfortable with their meanings. Then, go out and immerse yourself in the situation where they should be used. If they are shopping phrases, go shopping for instance.
Ok, so that is great and all, but what if you don’t live in Japan? How about trying them out with a Skype conversation partner? or a native friend you have? You can role play the roles and act it out. In the process, your conversation partner will inevitably find a few things you say strange, and help you out. They will also come up with expressions that they would use in those situations and help you out.
At the very least, and this might sound a little strange, but you can practice a conversation with yourself. It’s not as weird as it sounds. Part of language learning is being able to physically produce it with ease, automatically. It’s like learning to play baseball, at first you are slow making a swing, you have to think about how every muscle moves. But, over time, with a good amount of practice, the process become so automatic that you no longer think about every muscle, you just do. And that takes some practice with or without a person. Also, if you practice them out a loud in a mock conversation, inevitably you’ll come up with some questions that you can save for a one on one session with a tutor later.
How do you drill?
How do you make use of phrase books? How did you drill kana writing? What worked the best? Let me know in the comments below.