Up until now, I have only spoken English mainly because somehow in my childhood, I decided not to attend Chinese school. Sadly, being monolingual is painful because now I have become interested in playing The Idolmaster, which is only in Japanese. Not only that, I wanted to prepare myself for the future since knowing another language looks better on the résumé opposed to just English.
Since I have motivated myself to self-study the Japanese language, I memorized all the Kana along with two lessons (currently on the 3rd) in one month. Through my experiences, I found the beginning rather easy to grasp. Thus, I share my experiences thus far. (Image Source)
Note: This post uses the ruby HTML5 tag to view the Furigana for any Kanji used. If you use Firefox, install this extension. This is not necessary in Safari, Chrome and Internet Explorer.
The Kana (Hiragana & Katakana)
The main reasons I decided to study Japanese opposed to Chinese is not because the latter had hardly any media to motivate me, but it its writing system of just pictograms is complex and there is a vast number of dialects than the former. Sure, the Japanese language borrows a lot from the Chinese language, including the characters. What makes the former easier is the Kana, which consists of Hiragana (ひらがな) and Katakana (カタカナ). Each character represents a syllable that makes up a certain word and easy to pronounce. Both systems work the same, but it use different characters. In addition, there are the diabolical marks, sokuon (little つ that doubles the consonant before the next character) and digraphs that make different sounds, which is also easy to grasp. In short, they are the building blocks for Japanese needed to understand anything aside from Kanji.
When I studied the Kana, it only took me two weeks just to memorize both systems. Although it looks tough to study just the characters and it’s syllabaries from a chart, mnemonics and flash cards made in Anki made it easier to remember. Once I got Hiragana down, Katakana was a piece of cake since some of the characters are slight changes of the former. For instance, りなせか ヘやきそare simplified into リナセカヘヤキソ respectively. However, there are two traps as シ (shi) looks like ツ (tsu) and the same with ソ (so) and ン (n). The only way you can tell them apart is through the slant of the curve and the two strokes.
The interesting thing with Katakana is that words written in it are usually easy to understand. This is because there are a good number of loan words from English got incorporated in the Japanese language and they sound like the actual word. For instance, the word “ice cream” is written as アイスクリーム in Katakana. Obviously, there are other uses for it aside from transcribing foreign words, which I will not go into detail.
Although I practiced Hiragana on paper, I’m not too concerned about doing the same with Katakana at the moment since I use an IME (input method editor) to input these. I might practice more when I get the time. Besides, my Hiragana writing is still messy and slow.
Compared to English, sentences in Japanese uses a Subject Object Verb structure. During the first two lessons in the Genki I textbook, it explains the grammar rather nicely and gave some examples. Although the grammar in the Japanese language can get hectic later on before it gets easier, it’s very logical compared to English. For instance (Subject is bold, normal is the object and italic is the verb):
千早さんはアイドルです。（Chihaya is an Idol.）
Considering that the verb is always placed at the end of the sentence, it’s less likely you will mess up the sentence structure. Not only that, adding か at the sentence makes it a question instantly.
これは渚さんの日記ですか。（Is this Nagisa’s diary?)
On the other hand, the grammar takes a lot of practice getting used to. Eventually, it will become a walk in the park. The only downside is that the textbook covers mostly the polite forms opposed to casual forms that are used mostly in anime, manga, video games, talk shows, etc.
Looking ahead, I think the vocabulary and memorizing the Kanji to go along with some words can become a difficult task. Hopefully through some good old repetition, I will manage to bang these into my head. Also, there are the verb conjugations. The る-verbs (いちだん, ichidan) makes sense, but the う(ごだん, godan) and irregular ones can get a bit tricky, especially the latter. With some extra consideration, I can tackle it in due time.
In conclusion, Japanese so far is not too difficult as most people say. It’s just different, although honorifics and possibly the degrees of politeness is a different story. Heck, any language can be difficult if you aren’t motivated or putting enough effort. For most people, class instruction is usually better, unless you are diligent to study it alone. Just remember, know the Kana before jumping into the lessons. In addition to this, don’t learn using just romaji, pay close attention to grammar rules and most importantly, don’t needlessly abuse random Japanese words in English sentences (e.g. using です incorrectly just to look cute).