While most Japanese are fascinated with foreign countries and cultures, just as many are simply stumped encountered with the real thing. Social interactions in Japan, well anywhere in the world really, are driven (to a large extend) by gestures and language. However, in Japans largely heterogenous culture, gestures and language are more tightly interconnected than in English speaking ones. If either what you’re saying or how you deliver it is off or unexpected, it could become pretty awkward, as most Japanese simply aren’t used to foreign behaviour patterns.
So it is upon you, the intruder, the migrant, the foreigner to humor your hosts by adjusting your behaviour and, most importantly, your speech to meet expectations. On the bright side, the expectations aren’t high. Most Japanese are conscious that their country is unique, and they are very forgiving. But that doesn’t mean that they’ll help you a lot during your transitional phase either. You will have to make the effort, or you won’t be able to communicate with the natives beyond the barest essentials. (”Me want hamburger, now!”)
Despite their enormous determination, the majority of Japanese are notoriously bad at English—not to mention other languages. Another reason why it’s up to you whether you’ll sink or swim. And, to make things worse—unless you have some sort of Asian linguistic background—Japanese is HARD. If you’re not making a conscious effort, you’ll never get anywhere. You may have easily picked up another language similar to your own, but don’t expect the same experience with Japanese.
The biggest hurdle to learning Japanese is kanji—twenty thousand of them. On top of that there’s hiragana and katakana (an additional hundred or so characters) and, of course, there’s the vocabulary and grammar structure. To truly understand and use Japanese effectively you’ll need a good grasp of all of these. The grammar is also very different from any European language, so you’ll have to relearn a lot of basic concepts you might have taken for granted.
Learning Japanese takes a huge initial investment and it can be a very frustrating experience. It’s sort of a chicken and egg problem: without knowing kanji it’s hard to read the Japanese around you, without being able to read Japanese in real life it’s hard to learn it in context. And without learning Japanese in context, you’ll have a hard time remembering kanji. This vicious cycle makes effective learning very hard, and more than a few have given up and fallen by the roadside. I have talked to people who are married, have kids and live comfortably here and still said that they “probably would’ve learned some Japanese already, if it weren’t for them darn kanji.”
Does that sound familiar? Well, get over it. There are some 130 million Japanese speakers living around the world, and they all get by using it on a daily basis. Including kanji. There’s no reason why you couldn’t do it. All it takes is some initial energy.
And once you get started you’ll find that Japanese is actually a really fun language. It can be really convenient. It lets you express things in a very different way, which is quite an enriching experience. The writing system is very efficient once you get used to it. And, of course, being able to speak and understand Japanese allows you to experience the nuances of the Japanese culture, which is probably why you’re here in the first place.
Having said all that, I’m still learning myself. I have yet to take any of the JLPT tests and I’m not even seriously planning on doing so anytime soon. I’m being congratulated for my Japanese ability on a regular basis, but I know I still have a long way to go. I’m finding myself in situations every day where I’m not able to express myself exactly the way I want to. But after I started to make a conscious effort to improve my Japanese every day, I’m getting a little bit of satisfaction with every single word I learn. Suddenly I find myself understanding signs that I had previously only stared at or smoothly weaving a newly learned expression into a conversation where before there would have been an awkward pause.
Learning Japanese sure is a long and frustrating process, but eventually it’ll be even more frustrating to realize that you still can’t communicate properly with the people around you. If this seems familiar, you’ll have to get started—for your own good. Every once in a while I will share a bit of my experience of learning Japanese, problems I’ve struggled (or am still struggling) with and ideas on how to overcome them.
My first advise to any Japanese learner is to FORGET ROMAJI. Wait, let me make that a little more clear:
It’s a nice security blanket to use the set of 26 Latin characters you’re already familiar with when getting started, but Japanese just doesn’t make any sense in romaji. It’s already very ambiguous in itself, but it becomes even more ambiguous when written in a foreign character set. You’ll be able to comprehend Japanese a lot better when reading it as it was intended to be read. And you’ll eventually have to learn the Japanese writing system anyway, so you might as well get over with it ASAP. Written and spoken Japanese are so tightly intertwined that one can hardly be learned without the other. Sorry, there goes the “I don’t need to read, I just want to speak” excuse.
So while you’re getting comfortable with the thought of the life-long journey that learning kanji will be (there’s virtually nobody on this planet who knows them all), you best get started with the two finite sets of hiragana and katakana. The latter will be slightly more useful to you immediately since it’s used to write foreign and loan words, which you will readily understand. You won’t be able to survive without learning both though, so just get done with it in one long sitting over the weekend. Given regular practice you’ll be comfortable reading hiragana and katakana within a few months. And there’s enough material to practice on all around you every day if you live in Japan. Make sure to burn any textbooks you might have that use romaji for more than a few introductory pages.
Learning either of the two syllabaries will also familiarize you with the (pretty limited) selection of sounds used in Japanese. This will immediately help you to make a lot more sense of what you hear and it’ll be easier for you to look things up in a dictionary. It’s the very first step of a long and exciting journey.
Next time I will expand on some of the peculiarities of Japanese and talk about learning techniques that worked and didn’t work for me. Textbooks aren’t everything.
Thanks to Luke for his awesome contributions to this article.