The Japanese language, or Nihongo as it is called in Japan, is spoken by roughly 125 million people in the world. Its speakers make up one of the most stable economies in the world with a very high purchasing power.
The Japanese language is very distinct, and linguists believe it does not share a close relationship with any other language family. Korean perhaps comes closest, but there is considerable Chinese influence, too.
However, it is the distinct nature of Japanese that often poses a challenge to learners, especially to those who do not speak Chinese or Korean.
If you wish to learn Japanese, read this blog post first. Here we discuss the benefits of learning Japanese, a brief description of its characteristics, and how you can learn it online. We also discuss some study tips below.
Why learn the Japanese language
A language is a portal to a world that would be otherwise closed to us. This is truest in the case of Japanese. Here are some important benefits that learning Japanese bestows on us:
1. It’s a great addition to your curriculum vitae. Japanese is one of the difficult languages to learn. This is why if you have Japanese in your portfolio, it automatically puts you ahead of many others in the race to many a career opportunity. You could be a professional from any domain, like a doctor, a scientist, or a software engineer. Your earning potential gets multiplied manifold when you learn Japanese. Translating to and from Japanese is also highly lucrative.
2. Exposure to Japanese culture. If you wish to experience Japanese culture, learning the language is mandatory. The Japanese are immensely proud of their language and prefer to speak, read, and write in it even if they know other languages. Learning their language is certainly one of the best ways to learn many things that are part of Japanese culture, not limited to martial arts, fashion, history, and entertainment.
3. Helps you appreciate your own culture and language. Learning another language and understanding its culture always makes us keenly aware of our own culture and language, as everything gets juxtaposed against each other.
4. Sharpens your thinking. Learning another language, especially one like Japanese, provides immense stimulation to the brain. It is a known fact that language learning aids cognitive development.
Characteristics of the Japanese language
Vocabulary: Three types of words exists in Japanese: the largest category is that of native Japanese words; then there are words borrowed or influenced by Chinese; and finally, there are words borrowed from Western languages, mainly English.
Script: The Japanese script is beautiful and complex at the same time. Over time, it has evolved three sets of characters: kanji, hiragana, and katakana. The kanji characters run into thousands, while hiragana and katakana have 46 each. There are rules for when each character set must be used, but often there are exceptions. Kanji characters are used mainly for verbs and nouns, while hiragana is for particles, auxiliary verbs, and noun suffixes. Katakana is used when writing foreign words or when an emphasis has to be added.
It’s not just this that makes the Japanese writing system complex: it’s also the orientation of the script. Japanese can be written horizontally as well as vertically. Usually, the more traditional Japanese texts are written in vertical format, while scientific and business documents are written from left to right.
Word order: The syntax of the Japanese language is different from that of English. In Japanese, the verb appears towards the end of a sentence. The subject and the object can often change places, but the verb always appears last.
Formality levels: The Japanese society used to be strictly hierarchical. Accordingly, the language, too, imbibed these hierarchies and reflected them in its many formality levels. The way you say the same sentence differs depending on whom you are addressing. So, knowing the context is critical when speaking Japanese.
Learning Japanese online
Japanese is one of the most difficult languages to learn, but despair not. There’s help available online these days, with many e-learning opportunities in the form of apps and educational websites. In fact, they may be better than trying to learn it from a textbook because speaking actual Japanese may vary significantly from the textbook version. With online learning, you can hear samples of people saying everyday phrases and interact with Japanese-speaking people. You could even learn interactively in the form of games so that learning is bite-sized, fun, and engaging.
When learning to speak Japanese, keep these tips in mind:
1. Begin by learning everyday phrases. Conversational skills come most handy when you need to speak a language. And, speaking in Japanese involves an awareness of many elements such as formality levels, how to pronounce the words, and so on. Japanese is also spoken pretty fast, and beginners often fumble for words when trying to speak with native speakers.
So, never underestimate the importance of spoken Japanese. From Day 1, read out everything aloud, taking care to mimic the intonations of native speakers.
2. Learn the contractions native speakers use. In everyday language, Japanese people use shortened or informal forms of verbs when they can. This can significantly vary from the textbook version. If you come across a long verb, you can assume that there’s bound to be a short form one too. Check with your teacher or Japanese-speaking friends on how they would contract it.
Learning contractions will help you navigate through formal and informal Japanese. You need to be aware of both and their use cases.
3. Verb drills – no way around them. In English, you have about four ways in which you can transform a verb: sleep, slept, sleeping, had/have slept. In Japanese, there are more than a dozen ways in which you could transform the verb. Create verb drill charts before every lesson, so you become familiar with the many verb formats. Practise and practise again. Write them down yourself instead of copying them from somewhere. This way you will remember them better.
4. Distinguish between transitive and intransitive verbs. Transitive verbs are those that require a direct object, while intransitive verbs do not require an object. In Japanese, depending on whether the verb is transitive or not, the form and pronunciation of the verb changes.
5. Start with low-hanging fruit. In this case, children’s books. They can be interesting to read, while consisting of simpler sentence structures. It’s a great place to start. Gradually, widen your horizons and move on to more complicated texts.
6. Get the hang of Keigo. This is Japanese “respect language”. It dictates how you talk to a particular person, depending on their social hierarchy. Keigo is split into two: Kenjougo and Sonkeigo. The former refers to the way you address yourself humbly, and the latter involves honorific terms and phrases when addressing someone superior. One quick way to get familiar with Keigo is to listen to service announcements on the Japanese metro service.
7. Immerse yourself in Japanese movies, telesurgeries, and anime. Yes, you read it right. Learning Japanese doesn’t have to be all hard work – you can mix in a healthy dose of entertainment. The only way you will learn a language is by listening. If you live in Japan, of course, there will be a whole lot of immersive learning going on.
Else, fear not. Japanese movies and other media can be easily accessed online. The more you listen to the dialogs, the more you will learn about the culture, mannerisms, and how people use the language. But it might not all be smooth sailing all the time. Sometimes, you may feel pretty lost because you cannot catch whole chunks of conversations. Be patient and use subtitles where you can.
But, if they are fan subtitles, do take care to check the quality. If they are videos on YouTube, you can just scan the comments below to see if anyone has remarked on the subtitles.
8. Read Manga. Yes, Japanese comics. Though puritans might disagree on reading Manga as a way of learning Japanese, it works. The dialog in the Manga comes very close to how ordinary people speak Japanese in their daily life. You will be introduced to local slang and maybe some regional dialects, too. It’s sure to enrich your learning experience.
9. Onomatopoeia is a thing in Japanese. Repetitive words that sound very similar to the thing they are trying to describe is very common in Japanese. For example, ton-ton could be a light knocking sound, while don-don is a heavy banging noise. It may or may not exist in your native language, but you have to get used to it in Japanese.
10. Live the language. To truly learn a language, you must immerse yourself in it. In today’s world, there are several opportunities available to do so. For instance, if you are on social media, try doing short posts in Japanese and invite your Japanese friends to give you feedback on it. If there is a movie you liked or a product you recently bought and want to tell your friends about it, do so in Japanese. Think back to a recent conversation you have had and see if you can re-construct it in Japanese. Do small writing assignments in Japanese. It’s always great to see how you are able to translate your thought processes from your native language into Japanese.
All in all, learning Japanese is a big undertaking, but keep at it daily for a fixed amount of time, and you will see that you are making progress. Sustained practice can make it feel less intimidating and make the experience worth your while.