Japanese for Dummies

I would like to start this column by welcoming all the newcomers to Fukushima. Settling into life in your new home can be quite difficult at times, but one thing that can make it easier is learning at least a little bit of the language. This column will not teach you any Japanese as such, but with a bit of luck it will equip you with all the tools you need to learn on your own. If you want to learn a bit of Japanese but don’t know where to start, then this column is for you.

Learning Japanese can seem daunting at first, mainly due to its sheer foreignness. It uses a completely different alphabet (actually it uses three), and the grammar has little in common with English. But don’t let that stop you from learning. It’s not actually as hard as it seems. Firstly, there are only five vowel sounds in Japanese. English, by comparison, has between 15 and 20 depending on the dialect. The same goes for consonants. The same lack of consonants that makes us laugh every time one of our students says “flied lice” or “shit down” works in our favour. There is nothing particularly foreign to us about the sounds used in Japanese, which makes it much easier to speak than many European languages. Here are a few tips.

  1. Learn Hiragana and Katakana
    I know you probably can’t be bothered sitting down with a book and memorizing a bunch of abstract symbols, but you really should. I’m not suggesting you go out and learn all 2,000 kanji, just the 52 hiragana and 52 katakana. If you study for 10 or 20 minutes per day then it should only take you a few weeks. The aim here is not to be able to read and write Japanese. It is just to become familiar with the sounds used in Japanese. By learning the phonetic characters you will be training your brain to recognize the sounds you will hear. This will not only help with your comprehension but also with your pronunciation.

    The added benefit of this is that it will help you understand Japanese pronunciation of English better as well. There is nothing worse than when your JTE or a student is speaking English to you but you have no idea what they are trying to say. If you are familiar with the limited sounds they have to work with though, things will start to make a bit more sense. You will need all the help you can get when you are trying to puzzle out what someone means when they tell you something like; “I wento tsoo mukoodonuroodo on sahzudei undo eito a hunbahgah”.

  2. Bug People to Teach You Vocab
    If you are just beginning to learn a language the best thing you can do is to learn as much vocab as you can. Don’t worry if you can’t string together a coherent sentence, just learn words. Then throw the words together with some creative gestures and hope the other person understands you.There are plenty of books that can teach you Japanese but they are mostly aimed towards passing tests. That’s fine if that’s what you are aiming for, but if you want to be able to use your Japanese in the real world, there are better ways of doing things.

    There is no point in learning words if they have no connection to you, so start by trying to name the things around you. Looking around me, I can see things such as a pasokon (computer), memo-cho (note pad) and an insatsuki (printer). Make a note of them in your memo-cho if it helps. If there is anything you don’t know the word for, you can look it up in a dictionary if there is nobody around, but it will tend to stick in your memory better if you ask someone to help you. You get the dual reinforcement of seeing something and hearing it at the same time.  It is an added bonus if you are attracted to the person who is teaching you because you get the positive reinforcement of talking to them too. A fun way to learn is to go to a restaurant with a cute waitress/waiter and get them to talk you through the menu. They usually won’t mind helping you out, and you get to learn new words, enjoy talking to the waiter/waitress and even get the meal you want at the end of it. If you manage to find yourself a girlfriend/boyfriend, then that is better still.

  3. Copy People
    Once you have learned enough vocab that you feel like trying to make sentences, the best way to learn sentences is to watch what other people say in different situations. You don’t need to understand the intricacies of Japanese grammar to find expressions that get you what you want. If you are at an ice cream shop for instance and the person in front of you orders an ice cream, listen to what they say and just copy it. If you see a girl being harassed by a guy and they tell him to bugger off, listen to what she said and store it away for if you ever need it. You can learn a lot like this without ever picking up a textbook.

    You need to be a little bit careful when you are copying someone of the opposite sex though. Japanese language is very different for men and women, so if you are a guy who wants to tell another guy to get out of his face, you probably don’t want to use the expression you heard a girl use at the pub the night before. You would just get laughed at.

Hopefully these tips will help you learn enough to get by without the hassle of sitting down with a textbook for hours at a time. In general the best advice I can give you is just to get out of your apartment, talk to people, and enjoy yourself. And if you are going to make mistakes, make sure they are big ones that everyone can laugh at. It’s much more fun that way.

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