Japanese is one of the hardest languages for an English speaker to learn and getting started can feel like a daunting task. However, thanks to the technology of today and much easier to access to Japanese media than America used to have, there are plenty of resources available.
I have been studying Japanese for over a year, and I have participated in numerous amounts of language learning activities, sometimes even unintentionally! Here are the five activities that I think proved to be the most helpful.
Study hiragana and katakana immediately
Japanese is a complicated language, and this is partly attributed to its three alphabets. Yes, three. Honestly, it sounds worse than it is, though that does not change the fact that it is a definite challenge. Learning the first two alphabets, hiragana and katakana, immediately is essential. Learning kanji, the third alphabet, is necessary to become literate and will help when learning vocabulary, but it is not necessary at the beginning, especially if you are only interested in listening comprehension and speech.
Hiragana and katakana are close siblings vernacularly. Each hiragana character has a katakana character that shares the same phonetic sound. Indeed, phonetically, hiragana and katakana are identical, and both alphabets share the same number of characters. Where they differ is in the characters themselves and the situations in which they are used. The hiragana character “あ” (ā) and the katakana character “ア” (also ā) look different but sound the same. Hiragana is used when spelling a natively Japanese word, while katakana is used when spelling a foreign word or a sound effect. For example, my name, Trent Gleason, is spelled using katakana when written in Japanese, versus a native Japanese person whose name would be spelled using hiragana.
Again, all of this sounds complicated, and it might be at first, but once you learn these two alphabets, you will be on the right path towards becoming a pro. Websites like Tofugu have amazing guides to help with learning hiragana and katakana. Language learning apps like Duolingo and Memrise can help too, but they are not much better than trying to cram information from a textbook. A dedicated Japanese educational website like Tofugu is the superior choice.
Don’t worry about kanji right away
As stated in the first point, kanji is an important part of the Japanese language, but it may not be necessary to jump into right away, unless you are looking at living in Japan in the near future or desire to read Japanese above all else. Your energy is better spent beginning to expand your vocabulary. This is where using language learning apps like Duolingo and Memrise will really help you out. Taking a class at a community college, such as Tulsa Community College, is also a great idea, as it usually takes a while for the curriculum to introduce kanji and will give you the opportunity to meet likeminded friends and study partners.
Become an anime nerd
This looks like a joke, but believe it or not, watching Japanese television with subtitles is an amazing way to build listening comprehension and will help with speech pronunciation as well. Now, there are other Japanese things you could watch that aren’t anime, such as the amazing reality TV show Terrace House which is available on Netflix, but anime just so happens to be amazing and wildly entertaining, so it is a pretty good choice. Anime covers a lot of genres, with action shows like Attack on Titan and My Hero Academia getting the most mainstream attention. Unfortunately, as amazing as those shows may be, they are not the best resources for learning to speak like a real Japanese person, as much of the language used is more akin to an impassioned radio host or an angry mafia guy.
No, your best bet probably lies with shows about boring people dealing with everyday life. Anime has a defined genre for that exact thing, referred to simply as “slice of life.” Watching shows in the romance genre is usually a good choice, too. Famed animation house Studio Ghibli has many amazing “slice of life” films, such as “Whisper of the Heart.” One of my favorite anime in recent memory is a realistic take on youthful relationships in 月がきれい (tsuki ga kirei (the moon is beautiful)). The show has a pretty reserved tone and strives for an authentic atmosphere, and I think this lends well to studying Japanese. However, no matter what kind of Japanese television or movies you decide to watch, it will help with your studies. Go crazy!
Use your Japanese to annoy friends and family
After going through the first three phases, you should have a decent amount of Japanese under your belt. Not enough to make conversation with an actual Japanese person, but enough to insert random words and phrases into conversation! Your friends and family will hate this, and that is ok. Use this weapon responsibly, lest people begin to avoid you entirely, but giving yourself opportunities to speak Japanese will help you grow comfortable with using it in real life. Even speaking to yourself in Japanese will help, and that may be more acceptable socially.
Find your reason for pursuing fluency
Personally, I find studying Japanese to be a lot of fun, but it is most definitely a challenging endeavor. You will need a reason to keep pushing through when the going gets tough, and honestly, I think it needs to go beyond wanting to visit Japan or your geeky anime fantasies. After all, you do not need to be fluent in Japanese to visit the country and have a good time, and your geeky anime fantasies will probably remain as just that. That is not to say that your geeky interests cannot play a part in your motivation. I love Japanese video games, and there are many games I want to play that have never come to the west. Getting better at Japanese means I can someday enjoy those games. Having this carrot at the end of the stick helps when things start to get tedious. Additionally, considering a career that could utilize your potential language abilities will help keep you going. But personally, more than anything, my driving motivation is to be able to have better and deeper conversations with people in another language. As I was living in Japan, the language barrier was often demoralizing, and simple things like trying to order sauce to go with my French fries at McDonalds extended into difficult sessions of trial and error. But as time passed, and I challenged myself to continue trying to speak to people in Japanese, I felt myself becoming more capable and confident, and it was a thrilling experience.
Hopefully these points will help you begin your language learning journey, and perhaps, like me, you will someday decide to visit the country all together to really experience Japan, in all of its weird, fascinating glory.