Give me advice on learning Japanese
July 13, 2004 9:43 AM   Subscribe

I think I'm learning Japanese, I really think so... How do I proceed?

I've always wanted to learn the Japanese language, and over the last couple of months I've begun. I've been listening to the Pimsleur audio CDs. Was that a good idea? What about the written language? I've heared it's best to stay away from romanji altogether and learn the hiragana and katakana, then move on to kanji. Again, good advice? What's the best way to begin learning the kana? Flash cards? Children's books?
posted by jpoulos to Education (14 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
What worked for me was to get children's books (or manga; most of them have kana printed alongside the kanji) and read them out loud until I got the kana down. That wasn't quite as boring as flash cards for me.

Try writing out the words and phrases you learn with Pimsleur in hiragana and katakana, too.

I concur that it's best to stay away from romaji (there's no n in there, by the way) as much as you can. Learn hiragana before katakana, and once you have the hiragana down, you can start throwing in the most important kanji. (First grade kanji are listed here).

Definitely get a book that tells you stroke order--for both kana and kanji, if possible. It's surprising how easy they are to get wrong.

For books, I like the following:

"Reading and Writing Japanese" by Florence Sakade--it's old, but you can pick it up used very cheap. The most essential kanji arranged in order by grade. Unfortunately, it's useless as a kanji dictionary, and the books that are good as kanji dictionaries run at least $40 (I wouldn't buy one until you start reading native materials).

"Japanese for Everyone: A Functional Approach to Daily Communications" by Nagara Susumu--a basic textbook that I happen to like more than any other basic textbook I've encountered. Hard to find. "Japanese for Busy People" is much easier to find, and pretty good, but get the kana version if you get it.
posted by Jeanne at 11:00 AM on July 13, 2004

Hearing people speaking nihongo is essential; that Pimsleur sounds like a good idea. Try to find someone you can practice speaking with, too. For the written language, do avoid romaji as much as possible, it's a crutch; learn hiragana as soon as possible. After that katakana will be pretty easy, but learning both at the same time can be confusing, as many of the characters look similar in each. For kanji, flash cards are the best thing, and be sure to practice writing them a lot. I heard children's books and manga (later on) are a good approach, but I don't speak from experience on that. (I studied nihongo in a classroom settting.) Anyway, hope this helps.
posted by Mark Doner at 11:01 AM on July 13, 2004

Oh, also, you might want to check this out at some point, once you've gotten going:
The dictionary available with the word processor is pretty good, and it's free.
posted by Mark Doner at 11:07 AM on July 13, 2004

Is your emphasis on learning to read and write Japanese, or in learning to speak it? I ask because if one is more important to you than the other, it'll change your approach.

For reading and writing, the advice above is solid: learn hiragana and katakana, and then start on the kanji. The Japanese education system has already taken the guesswork out of deciding which kanji to learn first, just about every curriculum I've ever seen does the kanji in the same order that they're taught in Japanese public schools.

If you want to learn to speak, however, you're going to have to find someone to talk to. I'm assuming that moving to Tokyo isn't an option, but depending on where you live, you may be able to find a Japanese ESL student to do a sort of "language exchange," where you take turns practicing conversation in your respective languages. Or you could make a nuisance of yourself at local Japanese-owned businesses. Whatever it takes. But having actual conversations is crucial.
posted by varmint at 11:12 AM on July 13, 2004

Response by poster: I primarily want to speak and understand. (I'd like to be able to watch Japanese films without the subtitles.) But learning the writing style, I assume, will help immensely in that I can then use a dictionary to learn tons of vocabulary fairly quickly.
posted by jpoulos at 11:27 AM on July 13, 2004

Learning the basics of reading and writing will definitely help. Just don't get lost in academic Japanese. When I lived in Japan, I gave up learning the kanji at the equivalent of fifth grade. It just took too much time, and what I really wanted to do was improve my speaking and listening skills. It was much easier to function as an talkative illiterate than as a scholarly deaf-mute.

Listening to tapes is a helpful exercise in beefing up your listening skills, but not as helpful as a Japanese-speaking buddy.

As far as the book learnin' goes, once you've got the kana down, I second the recommendation of Japanese for Everyone. Excellent textbook, with examples that actually helped me in my day-to-day struggle to communicate.
posted by varmint at 11:40 AM on July 13, 2004

For whatever it's worth, I'm a J-E translator by trade, and I still rely on English subtitles to some extent--more with the costume dramas. I think it would be extremely difficult to get to a level of competence such that you could do without the subtitles without total immersion--ie, moving to Japan (perhaps Hawaii as a second choice--gosh, that'd be rough).

I've met the children of expats in Japan who were sufficiently fluent speakers that they could pass for natives on the phone, but were completely illiterate in Japanese. This is kind of mind-boggling. Learn at least some kanji, because there's such a strong interplay between the writing system and the language. Kanji represent the morphemes that are building-blocks for bigger words (much as Latin roots are in English). You can learn words like "television" as a unit, or you can learn "tele" and "vision" and have the building blocks for more words. Same idea in Japanese--the more kanji you know, the more you're likely to be able to figure out novel words based on their parts.
posted by adamrice at 12:12 PM on July 13, 2004

I think it would be extremely difficult to get to a level of competence such that you could do without the subtitles without total immersion

Depends on what you mean by "do without", doesn't it? I mean, sure, you're never going to have the same level of understanding in your new language as you do in your native language. For example, I know a Russian ESL speaker who is fluent enough to teach English to others, but still has trouble understanding movies at times.

That said, you can definitely get to the point where you can understand most of what's going on without subtitles, depending of course on the difficulty level of what you're watching. Even if you're only getting 60/70/80% of what's being said, most movies are still understandable and perfectly enjoyable, so don't psych yourself out. I started with Japanese 3 years ago, studying in my spare time, and I can enjoy unsubbed stuff at this point. "Perfectly understand", no, but enjoy, definitely... and occasionally there's something you'll understand 90% or more of on the first try, and that's a wonderful feeling.

The advice others have given above is great, especially the recommendations for Japanese for Everyone. Also, you might want to check out this thread for some free ways to study, and as you improve, come back to this one for intermediate tips. Most importantly, don't give up!
posted by vorfeed at 2:52 PM on July 13, 2004

adamrice: You can learn words like "television"...

That would be "terebi" ;)

I am actually one of those "mind boggling" ones who can speak but has difficulty reading/writing because of a lack of a formal education in reading/writing. Is it frustrating? Yes. But I am working on it and it is challenging but extremely personally rewarding.

While it is certainly important to build the base knowledge of grammar, hiragana and katakana, I think immersion is the best way to learn. If you can finagle a way to be in Japan for a few years, that would be the quickest path to fluency.
posted by gen at 3:42 PM on July 13, 2004

Kuro5hin had an article entitled Japanese for Nerds where they tried to explain basic Japanese in terms of programming language constructs. No idea if it was useful, but the links there if you need it.
posted by seanyboy at 4:36 PM on July 13, 2004

Caveat: I haven't studied Japanese for six years.

There used to be a great magazine about Japanese pop-culture for foreigners/language-learners called Mangajin, and it seems like back issues and some electronic publishing remnants are still kicking around. The biggest problem I had with Japanese language textbooks was that their vocabulary and dialogs were geared towards business travelers, particularly engineers (Your robot-automation is very impressive, Takamoto-san, etc. ad nauseum).

At least 10% of the Japanese newspaper vocabularly is made up of Western loan words (often non-intuitive) or Western-inspired neologisms (e.g. sukinshipu, or "skinship," meaning something like which parent has primary custody). Web resources and maybe hip textbooks will teach you these sorts of everyday words. The classic textbooks did not do such a great job when I was studying.

Re: flashcards--it seems like every student of an Asian language in college walks around with these *tiny* flashcards in their pockets, mumbling vocabularly whenever they have a chance. Often they are hole-punched and put on a key ring. Seems to work for them....

Re: dictionaries--there are an endless number of romaji dictionaries, many quite good--so you don't need to know kanji to look up a word (once you get used to the language and can recognize and transliterate all the phonemes in fluent speech). Kanji dictionaries are a HUGE pain in the ass, and not really very useful for novices, since most characters can have different meanings and different sounds, depending on this and that and the other. Once you get to that point, I think your best bet is an electronic dictionary now. I had a horribly-expensive toy that I bought in Tokyo, but I'm pretty sure you can get ones for Palms and other PDAs these days, where you just draw the character (with proper stroke-order) and it gives yous a handful of guesses.
posted by armchairsocialist at 5:23 PM on July 13, 2004

Re: Pimsleur. I don't do Japanese (yet?) but my other recent language teachers (Russian and Portuguese) have not considered Pimsleur a comprehensive introduction. Definitely not a bad start, but it may not be enough to get into, say, intermediate classes. They much preferred someone who came in having tried the "Teach Yourself..." or "Colloquial..." series (book and audio) than someone who came in with Pimsleur. So, if investigating other series is an option, it might be worth considering.

I've had really good luck with craigslist etc jobs listings for finding native speakers to converse with (Chinese Mandarin, Spanish). Another friend of mine (Spanish, Japanese) has used for finding conversational groups. The best part of conversations with native speakers is that many of them will be willing to trade lessons (you help in English) instead of having to pay them.

Good luck with your studies.
posted by whatzit at 7:34 PM on July 13, 2004

Have conversations with yourself in Japanese.

No, really, this works. Or, at least, it works with me, prepping what I'm going to say in class while I'm in the shower, or getting dressed, or whatever.

Also, if you're moving from spoken to written, pick up this book. It doesn't look exactly like how I was taught hiragana in high school (when I first took Japanese), but it's the same style, and, trust me, it works.
posted by Katemonkey at 12:58 AM on July 14, 2004

What I did when I had to learn fast was

a) find someone who is fluent and ONLY speak to them in Japanese. no cheating! Suffering and making errors are the only ways to really learn conversational japanese. Learn to be embarrassed.

b) get a poster or something like that of the hiragana and post it across from your toilet. Then, stare at it when doing your business. We spend alot of time in there (some more than others) and it eventually sticks.

c) as a beginner, any book is great. I used "Japanese for Busy People" when I started for grammar and vocab, then the Kanji flash cards (which I still use to brush up), and even the Page-a-day hiragana calendar thingy. But dont sweat the decision of which the first year, all books offer the same words and exercises.

There is tons of material out there...anything you do is good. Just dont give up and find a nihonjin to practice with!
posted by Dantien at 7:18 AM on July 14, 2004

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