Learn to speak and read, but not write, Japanese?
August 30, 2009 3:19 AM   Subscribe

What's the best way to learn Japanese, if you don't care about being able to write it?

My extended family includes a family who was born in Japan but now lives in the USA. I am therefore semi-regularly exposed to spoken and written Japanese, and I'd like to be able to speak it back, and hopefully, read it as well.

I am aware that this is a monumental undertaking, but I don't have deadline and I'm not doing it for school, so I figure I can take as long as I want. I'd prefer to teach myself, rather than go on a course.

What would you recommend? Books? Mac applications? iPhone apps? CDs or DVDs?

All suggestions welcome, with the proviso that I have a Mac and no Windows PCs.
posted by Mwongozi to Writing & Language (18 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
I doubt you would be able to learn it without learning to read it. At least, you'll need to learn Katakana and Hiragana, which are just phonetic alphabets (well, according to wikipedia they are Syllabries, but whatever). You probably won't need to learn Kanji, which are Chinese characters.
posted by delmoi at 3:33 AM on August 30, 2009

First of all, speaking Japanese and reading it are two COMPLETELY different things. The gap between speaking Japanese and reading (not to mention writing) it is a lot larger than it is in English. So, if you want to be able to converse with your in-laws, then I suggest some basic Japanese conversation books. I don't have any specific recommendations. In this case, avoid getting bogged down in the written language, which is incredibly interesting but a bear to learn, as much as possible.
posted by zachawry at 3:35 AM on August 30, 2009

The neo-"Michel Thomas Japanese" courses (Foundation & Advance) are surprisingly good. But how much info can an eight-hour course provide?

You could always sign up at "JapanesePod101". They have amassed a great many very nice lessons since they first came out.

/ ... but frankly, if you're putting in the effort to learn the language, I wouldn't settle for half-measures -- I'd go the AJATT route ... complete with Heisig and ANKI. In fact ... I *am* doing that. ;)
posted by RavinDave at 4:52 AM on August 30, 2009 [2 favorites]

The fastest* way to learn to speak a language is to actually speak it. Can you spend time with that part of your family? Is there a way to immerse yourself in a Japanese language environment? The problem with solo study by using textbooks is that it's great for the exact opposite of what you want. Studying by book helps with reading and grammar, but there is no substitute for actually using the words in conversation. The more you speak (and make mistakes) the faster you'll be able to get to a desired level of commucative ability.

Look into tutors, classes, anything that will put you in direct contact with someone who will make you use the language at all times during the lesson.

*Learning to speak a language takes a long freaking time. Don't get discouraged by slow progress.
posted by Ghidorah at 5:13 AM on August 30, 2009

I think you might find the Pimsleur language courses very useful. They teach entirely without writing and should allow you to get a basic grasp of conversational Japanese. Obviously you will struggle to become fluent but the Pimsleur course are a great start to learning Japanese. The courses are split into three parts (beginner, intermediate, advanced) and are very expensive. However they are available free to those who know how to use torrent sharing websites. Obviously I'm not the kind of unscrupulous monster who would use torrents but I'm sure if I was I would be able to tell you that the sound quality remains excellent and that the application Azureus is best to download the files.
posted by Spamfactor at 5:37 AM on August 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Japanese is not any more "other" or diffcult than any other non-indoeuropean language to learn if you are a native English speaker: at least it is not tonal or ergatic. Get a copy of a Teach Yourself Japanese book that uses the latin "romaji" alphabet (Colloquial Japanese by Routledge is good) and stick to it. Immerse yourself in Japanese media: films, anime, TV shows, stuff you can find on the web like cooking shows or talk shows or comedies. The dialogue in these shows is usually formulaic and repetivive, easy for you to catch on. Read a bit about the linguistics of Japanese when you begin - knowing the abstract sentence structure and the use of "marker particles" like 'wa' 'ga' and 'o' will make using them easier as you gain vocabulary.
posted by zaelic at 6:44 AM on August 30, 2009

Best answer: Japanese for Busy People is a solid series that emphasizes conversation. It comes in two forms: all romaji and all katakana-hiragana. That there's a romaji-only option indicates the course's commitment to conversation over writing and reading.

I'd go with the katakana-hiragana version, just because it takes only a couple of hours to learn them, and it makes understanding the "logic" of the language easier. But you seem certain that your priorities are strictly conversation, so you might just buy the romaji version of the books.

To complement a textbook, see the many free resources available on the web. Here's a link to Columbia's Asia for Educators Project. Check under "Language" for links to resources.

If you live near a university or college try to go to its "language table" and practice conversation. Students tend to avoid those things like the plague, you'd get practice, and you'd give the volunteers something to do while they sit bored at the table.

For one-on-one practice on a regular basis, contact the Japan Society or Consulate for your area. They could put you into contact with Japanese interested in free conversation exchange (English practice in exchange for Japanese).
posted by vincele at 9:24 AM on August 30, 2009

If you're willing to pay for it, I can recommend Rosetta Stone. I used it in conjunction with regular lessons whilst learning Arabic and although you don't think you're getting much out of it at first, you'll rather quickly be surprised at the amount of random vocab you've picked up, and how useful it is in general conversation.
posted by Biru at 9:42 AM on August 30, 2009

Babysit Japanese children.
posted by StickyCarpet at 10:14 AM on August 30, 2009

Best answer: DO NOT use any romaji if you want to learn to read (don't use it at all if you can avoid it, seriously). Pimsleur is okay, Rosetta Stone is not (according to language prof I know) , but none of these systems will give you anything close to fluency (I speak from experience, I've done all 90 Japanese Pimsleur lessons). You need to immerse yourself as much as possible. Go read the AJATT site as suggested and at least consider what he says. It's a revelation compared to most conventional methods and attitudes.
posted by dubitable at 11:52 AM on August 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

Oh, and a general tip (which comes from AJATT as well), ignore ANYONE who tells you anything resembling "it's too hard" or "you can't do it." You can and will if you really want to.
posted by dubitable at 12:03 PM on August 30, 2009

You should enlist this family's help too. Are there members still working on their Japanese? Do language exchange with them. Do they import TV or movies? Ask if you can share. If your goal is to be able to chat with them, actually attempting to chat with them will be the best way to practise (once you know enough to at least attempt to form a sentence, that is). It'll also have the added benefit of making you closer to them, which sounds like your true long-term goal.
posted by No-sword at 4:41 PM on August 30, 2009

Zaelic says "Japanese is not any more "other" or diffcult than any other non-indoeuropean language to learn if you are a native English speaker: at least it is not tonal or ergatic."

But this is just not true. Japanese is definitely harder than many other non-indoeuropean languages. If you don't believe me, the Foreign Service Institute (part of the US State Department) classifies Asian languages along with Arabic as requiring 2200 hours for proficiency, while other languages are half that or less. And, most people who have studied both Japanese and Chinese say that Japanese is more difficult than Chinese. The tonality of Chinese is a significant barrier, but that's about the only one. The grammar is very much like English, for one thing, as opposed to Japanese, which is, as one famous Japanese professor put it, "both upside down and backwards." And, in Chinese each character only has one pronunciation, whereas in Japanese most have two or three, and you have to figure it out depending on context.

All of this is not to dissuade you from learning Japanese, of course (I think it's incredibly fascinating). However, you are fooling yourself if you becoming even semi-conversational is not a huge undertaking.
posted by zachawry at 11:12 PM on August 30, 2009

zachawry: And, in Chinese each character only has one pronunciation, whereas in Japanese most have two or three, and you have to figure it out depending on context.

While it's largely true that each hanzi has one pronunciation, it's also true that each pronunciation can have dozens and dozens of hanzi, so it sorta evens out, difficulty-wise.
posted by RavinDave at 4:11 AM on August 31, 2009

Mod note: few comments removed - if your comment is not about how to learn Japanese, it's probably not germane for this thread.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 11:13 AM on August 31, 2009

If you are able to learn hiragana, some basic kanji and basic grammar without bothering to learn how to write, say, hiragana, you would probably be able to master basic Japanese. You know, "hi", "hello", "my name is" etc etc.

Without learning how to write Japanese characters, it would be very very difficult to learn to read. Writing the kanji out helps you figure out how to differentiate them.

But, fundamentally, if you don't learn how to write kanji (and, I would posit, the entire 2000 every high schooler graduates with), you will never truly be able to communicate in Japanese.

For one thing, the Japanese are a great believer in the concept of "ishho kenmei", or to try with all one's heart. You never do anything half-assed, ever, which is why you should learn how to write.

But, as I said, if you decide you don't want to bother with it, you'll probably be able to master some basic greetings.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:56 PM on September 1, 2009

BTW, I started out with Basic Kanji Book. There are actually three volumes that teach you the first 1000 kanji. By the end of book three, it's possible to read a newspaper.

I learned most of my basic conversation from Mangajin. Some back issues are still available.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:59 PM on September 1, 2009

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