August 9, 2005 2:36 PM   Subscribe

I want to learn Japanese, specifically to read it, preferably quickly.

I've been trying to teach myself off and on with limited success. I planned to use the likes of kanjisite.com to gain a basic vocabulary, then start reading text found in the wild using my kanji dictionary to fill in the gaps. When I try this, I encounter too many unfamiliar characters that don't occur frequently enough to stick in my mind.

I suspect that the solution to this will involve either artificial graded texts, flashcards, or both, so I'm interested in product recommendations, but mostly advice. So, now-fluent non-native Japanese readers, how did you learn?
posted by squidlarkin to Writing & Language (16 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I learned with a combination of 1) flash cards, 2) paper, and 3) competetive friends.

Basically, you'll learn to read much better if you learn to write. This is especially true because at the start you may learn a character from its overall look (i.e. "Yeah, 目 is eye, and 体 is body"), but then will later come across characters which match your overall look impression, but be different ("休? That's 'body', right? Oh, body is 体, not 休"). Learning to write them means you learn not only the overall look but every individual stroke, which helps reading comprehension incredibly.

Past that, your big problem is the "relatively quickly" bit. As far as I know, there is no shortcut for learning to read. It takes a long time, not because people don't use the fast method, but because there isn't really a fast method. The only way I can think of to learn to read it in a short time is just to spend a lot of time every day instead.
posted by Bugbread at 3:47 PM on August 9, 2005

Kanji is definitely the hardest part of learning Japanese for me. I've learned about 200 characters by now via college language classes (about 4 semesters), but supposedly you need to know about 2000 to read a Japanese newspaper :(

I would recommend a combination of various methods- a formal text that shows stroke order and the radical element and any other elements that make up the character; I think it helps in remembering to know the different elements and what they mean. As you learn new kanji, I would practice writing new them with the proper stroke order over and over - maybe 50 times or so. Then start making flash cards with words that incorporate the kanji to keep refreshing your memory in your spare time.

Other than that, I would stick with your book reading/kanji dictionary thing too. Good luck!
posted by p3t3 at 3:50 PM on August 9, 2005

The quickest way by far is to move to Japan. Nothing will get you reading Japanese more quickly than being surrounded by it every day. I learned so many Kanji (about 1800 in the first 6 months) that I would never have learned in the states. Nothing is better for teaching multiple readings of characters than bus/subway stops and Sumo names.

The problem with textbooks is that they offer a distorted view of reality. Many of the most common and useful characters I ended up learning on my own (洋式トイレ vs. 和式トイレ, sooo important). Dialogs between Suzy and John about where they want to go for vacation just don't cut it.

However, if you aren't planning on going to Japan and just want to read I would recommend two things. First, buy an electronic dictionary. They are easier to carry around than a book and they have lots of example sentences and Kanji compounds.

Secondly, if you have mastered Hiragana, Katakana, know at least a few hundred Kanji and have a firm grasp of basic grammar then buy regular things to read, like children's books or manga (I can make recommendations if you like). The Asahi shimbun is also useful because it uses much more basic vocabulary then other local papers. It's much easier to motivate yourself if you are reading something interesting. Write down the words you don't know (I use post-it notes) and learn the vocabulary.

Also, find a Japanese language partner. They are easy to find at larger universities if you advertise. Get them to help you with things you don't understand (slang and grammar) and in exchange help them do things like rewrite research papers. I translate at a local Japanese church and get lots of help there when I need it.

Good luck!
posted by Alison at 3:51 PM on August 9, 2005

Dive in with kanji. The more you learn, the easier they are to learn. I had hundreds of kanji under my belt before I started observing the patterns in them, which made them vastly easier to remember. You'll need to do some brute-force memorization, but knowing up-front that characters are assembled from a few recognizable components, not just a random bunch of single strokes, makes all the difference.

Frankly, I think that kanji are the easy part. It's the grammar (especially how subordinate and parallel concepts are laid out in a sentence) and the completely different mental starting points in Japanese that throw me.

NHK offers Japanese lessons online (and not just for English speakers). Give that a shot.

Once you get a little momentum, find a subject you already know about and are interested in, and try to read Japanese sources on that. Manga and children's books are good too, as Alison recommends.

And if possible, move to Japan.
posted by adamrice at 5:14 PM on August 9, 2005

Lots of good advice here, so I only have one thing to add. When you first start out with manga, look for manga that has furigana - that's the small characters of hiragana and katakana that tell you how to read the kanji. This is great for two reasons - looking up the word in your electronic dictionary is much easier, since you have the yomigata, and you can quickly learn to recognize the words as you go, and even obviate the need to look up some previously unfamiliar kanji because you recognize the word, and thus learn the kanji for that word on the fly.
posted by birdsquared at 5:49 PM on August 9, 2005

My big problem with kanji is learning the ふりがな。I can grok meaning just fine for the most part, but learning the pornunciations and transliterations was really hard.

What's worse, the more you think you know the meaning whilst reading, the less likely you are to be able to remember how it's actually pronounced.
posted by blasdelf at 7:37 PM on August 9, 2005

Response by poster: like children's books or manga (I can make recommendations if you like)

Please do. Specific recommendations would be very helpful.
posted by squidlarkin at 8:24 PM on August 9, 2005

My favorite children's books are (don't laugh) the Kogepan series. The stories are short and gloomy at times but they have a real sense of humor. They were the first real books I read in Japanese.

I find Atashin'chi and Azumanga Daioh to be the easiest manga to read. Atashin'chi is especially great because the story of a teenager embarrassed by her parents should be universal enough to make up for unfamiliar cultural territory. The stories are short and episodic, usually three pages each and filled with basic, everyday language. They can also be read in any order if case there are some you want to skip over. I have every volume, even two copies of volume #9 if you want to buy one off of me.

There is also a non-fiction series by Oguri Saori called 'Daringu wa gaikokujin' ('my darling is a foreigner') about her married life with her polyglot husband. They are a bit tougher to read, but they are wonderful and worth the effort.

These should be common enough to find used at Book Off if you find yourself in New York or on the west coast.
posted by Alison at 9:14 PM on August 9, 2005 [1 favorite]

i learned in college, but that's not to say i can actually speak japanese. for me anyway, the grammar is so, well, foreign, that the only way to really learn it was to keep practicing, reading, watching japanese TV, etc. nowadays i don't get the chance and i'm quickly forgetting everything. and i dont think i ever properly grasped the 'meanings' of all the verb tenses, even at my peak.

i think it would require an extraordinary amount of self-discipline to learn japanese entirely on one's own.

anyway, have you looked at rosetta stone? they have a very interesting method of teaching which seems to be different than most online/book courses i've seen. the beginning levels are available free on the web. its pretty much direct immersion (which is how they did things at Cal -- it was japanese from the beginning of day 1 of class with only a few minutes of english at the end to explain the basics of what went on during the class.)

although pricy, as far as kanji go, i found that the Nelson Japanese-English character dictionary was invaluable. there are others but i believe this one is considered the gold standard. it was pretty much required at Cal. our teachers would brag that sometimes they'd even find chinese scholars sneaking a peek at it, since the japanese meanings of kanji compounds provide a window to older chinese kanji meanings.
posted by joeblough at 10:02 PM on August 9, 2005

Another manga recommendation is Crayon Shinchan. I don't know why, but it seems that every person I've personally known who has become proficient in Japanese has been, at some point, an avid reader of Crayon Shinchan. It's not like we recommended it to eachother, either. It just kinda happened.
posted by Bugbread at 4:50 AM on August 10, 2005 [1 favorite]

Another manga recommendation is Crayon Shinchan.

Hee. I have the first ten volumes of that. It's quite easy to read, but I found myself hating Crayon Shinchan after a while. Crayon Shinchan is basically a tiny, lecherous Dennis the Menace.
posted by Alison at 4:58 AM on August 10, 2005

I received an email from someone without a MeFi account who would also like to offer advice:

The Internet can also be a great source of material that may be of interest to you. I often look for lyrics to songs that I like, as well as downloading recipes to items I'd like to cook. That said, I lose interest quickly if the level is too difficult and that's why I enjoy reading manga as well. It's not necessary for me to look up every character I don't understand as the pictures provide meaning too.

I also found it useful to know the meanings of the most common radicals first. The radicals often contribute to the meaning of the character. Whilst, as adamrice mentioned, it will take time to notice patterns, I found this was something that sped that along somewhat.

Relating to Alison's recommendation of an electronic dictionary, if you have a Palm PDA, KDIC is some good free dictionary software. I've only used the Chinese equivalent, but found it to be a very useful tool. Whilst looking for the KDIC link, I stumbled across this link worth mentioning, which claims that WDIC is better.


George Ziady
posted by Alison at 5:10 AM on August 10, 2005

I highly, highly suggest the Anime Lyrics Japanese Forum; it has many native speakers, 12-year learners, and more, and they have always been dilligent in asking any question I have ever had. As for resources, check out the top thread for links to other sites.

I highly suggest the book series "Japanese for Busy People--" it's not just quick overview, and by book 3 you are getting pretty advanced.

Also check out Nine-House Kanji Quiz, a good useful kanji book of 100 most useful kanji.

Pimsleur's Japanese courses are amazing too, hop on soulseek and you'll find the mp3s in no time (whaaaat?).

As for online dictionaries, Jim Breen's is absolutely unparalleled. When I'm in a translating session, I have Jim Breen up at all times. Multiradical/Stroke-Search for kanji, extremely detailed search with tons of features, translate words option for multiple words...it's truly a godsend, and I would not be where I am today without Jim Breen.

A great site to try to learn grammar and verb conjugation (as he says on the site, verb conjugation, grammatically speaking, is 90% of japanese) is Tim's Takamatsu.

Overall, I wish you the best of luck; I'm kicking myself for not answering sooner and letting this fall down the page, but it's an exciting world of Japanese out there. Difficult: but don't give up!

I myself am a 4 year learner and I am at the stage where I can play through a game like Final Fantasy VI in Japanese with relative ease. It's incredibly satisfying.
posted by Lockeownzj00 at 11:01 AM on August 10, 2005

Sorry. Just felt I should mention if you're ever wondering about something, I'm always glad to help prospective learners. you can e-mail me or IM me at any time (with same name as my Mefi one), and I can help you get a jumpstart. Just if you're feeling lost or anything ^_^;

I also should have mentioned it's best to start with hiragana and katakana--then kanji.
posted by Lockeownzj00 at 11:06 AM on August 10, 2005

Response by poster: Thanks all; some useful recommendations here. In particular I think I'll acquire a copy of Rosetta Stone, and if I find a source for manga I shall be armed with a good starter list.
posted by squidlarkin at 9:08 PM on August 10, 2005

In case you're still checking the thread, I just discovered this site (via Plep), which looks like a great resource.
posted by languagehat at 1:23 PM on August 13, 2005

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