It has been nearly three years since I began teaching myself Japanese. Sure, it’s not an easy process as it took a good amount of effort, practice to start understanding. So far, I can understand a good amount with a dictionary.
Just the last past week, a post by 10bit has caught my attention as he thinks that learning Japanese is a lot easier than everyone thinks. However, I have mixed feelings about his post not because he didn’t really list any starting points, but for the fact that not everyone will have the same experience.
Is learning a new Foreign Language easy or difficult?
Before I started teaching myself Japanese, I have learned a good amount of programing languages (besides Java and SQL, which I learned in college, I taught myself Visual Basic and Objective C) on my own. While grasping the concepts of object-oriented programing and syntax is simple once you understand the concepts, foreign language is a different beast. Unlike programing where you can always refer back to past code or the documentation, for a foreign language, you need to know the grammar rules and vocabulary in order to understand a person. In short, if you don’t use the foreign language you just learned, you will lose it.
While both require a degree of hands-on experience, learning a foreign language takes more effort and time opposed to programming. However, with technology, better availability of language-study textbooks, accessibility of Japanese learning courses in college/language schools and sites like Lang8, learning Japanese is no longer an impossible feat. Despite this, people will have different learning styles and some will do better with class instruction rather than doing self-study and vice versa.
Although Japanese is not the most difficult language in the world (Chinese is most difficult), it’s definitely not a walk in the park. Sure, one can pick up ひらがな and カタカナ after a few weeks and get a hang of the grammar after doing some worksheets or writing some sentences, I don’t think that is the most difficult part of the language. To me, the difficult part of the language is 漢字 (かんじ) or Chinese characters (敬語 (けいご, Honorific Language) is another that takes practice). While they look intimidating, they are a necessarily evil as they give meaning to the word. If everything was written only in かな, people will have a hard time figuring out the context of a word since there are other words using the same spelling.
While there are various methods like “Remembering the Kanji” also known as the Heisig method to help you memorize them, you don’t need to use that method. Kanji are basically made up with parts of other characters referred to as radicals. They can be used as a mnemonic device besides the English meaning given to the character on most flashcard decks. This is probably why children in Japan learn simpler characters like 女 (woman) first before learning more complex characters like 好 (fond, liking). Once you realize this, memorizing the characters and its readings will become a bit easier.
I’m convinced that I can do it! What textbooks should I use?
When it comes to textbooks, there are a lot of choices especially at a beginner level. Personally, I used Genki I and II from Japan Times since these textbooks have good grammar explanations and culture notes. I admit that the readings are somewhat cheesy since they are usually about Mary doing things with Takeshi. Still, I think they serve the purpose. Of course, there are other beginner’s textbooks besides Genki such as Japanese for Everyone and Tae Kim’s Guide to Japanese Grammar or apps like “Human Japanese” you can buy on mobile devices.
As you advance to Intermediate level Japanese, there are not that many choices. While I used Intermediate Japanese an Integrated Approach (Tobira is another option), I just used it as a grammar reference and wrote sentences to understand the grammar and didn’t bother with the readings. When you approach this level, you should start looking into supplemental materials such as news articles in Japanese, Japanese podcasts, playing Japanese language video games, or reading Manga/light novels to get an exposure of how language is actually used in practice.
By the time you reach Advanced level, textbooks like 生きた素材で学ぶ中級から上級への日本語 or any Japanese Grammar books at that level, you will realize there is little to no English to fall back on (except for the grammar explanations). I realized this when I started the first chapter. Like with Intermediate, it focuses more on specific phrases you will see in higher-level Japanese (some of it is on the higher levels of JLPT), so it shouldn’t be any more difficult from Intermediate providing you know enough vocabulary and Kanji.
Aside from that, where can I get these textbooks? Amazon, CDJapan, Kinokuniya are good places to start.
What other tools you should consider besides Textbooks?
The two main tools I highly recommend are Anki, Lang 8 and an electronic dictionary, which I mentioned in an earlier post.
If you use a Mac, I highly suggest taking advantage of the Japanese Text to Speech voices that you can install for free. While it won’t replace a native speaker, at least it will give you some idea on how to pronounce the words, which can be useful for auditory listeners when paired with AwesomeTTS Anki Plugin. As for Windows, options are pretty limited without installing third-party applications. However, there is a Japanese TTS voice if you have a Japanese version of Windows 8.
Also, don’t bother with Rosetta Stone. You are better off studying from textbooks and using electronic flashcards.
As a whole, I don’t think learning Japanese on your own is impossible, but it definitely takes effort and motivation to get better at it. I would not say it’s easy, but technology in general has made language study less painful. Even so, you should learn the language for a good reason like to have a better understanding and appreciation for Japanese culture and/or to improve yourself by knowing another language. Don’t do it just to watch Anime without fan subs or to play Japanese video games. You might find yourself giving up before you even started.
Have you tried studying Japanese on your own or you learned in the class setting? Feel free to share your experiences and any study tips you may have.
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6 Comments… read them or add your own.
I agree that Japanese is not an easy language to learn. It’s not the most difficult out there but I’d never really make a claim for any language that it’s easy.
Personally I’m terrible when it comes to teaching myself things and so I’m currently working on my BA degree in Japanese. Having actual teachers and a schedule someone else keeps me to is a must for me (plus my university lets us take our final year in Japan, which is probably the best way to learn any language: throw yourself into situations where you HAVE to use it). I’m always really impressed with people who can learn on their own, but I guess everyone needs different methods 🙂
I use a lot of the things you mentioned to study; Genki l & ll are the books my school uses, along with Kanji Look & Learn, and I find Anki to be a really useful flashcard site. Cooori is another site I use, but a slight problem I have with it is that it doesn’t have enough simple, basic vocabulary (I’m pretty sure they assume people who will be working in Japan as business people are the main ones learning the language and for that it’s fine, I just prefer a more rounded education).
Also, as you mentioned, maintaining the language by using it is really important. I felt quite strongly just after my short summer vacation where I wasn’t studying Japanese much how my abilities dropped. I definitely won’t let that happen again.
Of course there is no such thing as an easiest language as some are better than others learning, which is why some need class instruction to understand it. But I agree that living in Japan makes it easier to know Japanese better since one is forced to use it (besides the immersion factor).
But generally, once one goes beyond an intermediate or even finish beginner, supplemental material can definitely help in building vocabulary as text books teach only a handful, some that are commonly used not used at all in the textbooks. I personally force myself to play Japanese language games exclusively and haven’t played any English titles while writing down what words I don’t know so I can memorize them. Since then, I understand more words and what they are saying without referring to the dictionary as often. Of course, it helps with keeping everything fresh in my mind.
They say that learning a new language is one of the hardest things in the world to do, and I agree. I can’t say that learning Japanese or any new language is “easy” – it might seem “easy” to someone who grew up learning the language during the age when their mind is much more open to absorbing it (before 12 years old I believe), or they happen to have a lot of time, opportunities, and resources to really immerse themselves in it, but for most busy people learning a language as a hobby, it’s not easy even with classes and online tools. Like you said, if you’re not forced to use it on a daily basis, you forget it.
I’ve unfortunately had to put my Japanese studies on hold since I’m back in school, and I can feel some of it slipping away. Not too much though, since I still watch anime everyday at least. I hope to get back to it once I’m done with school XD
I think immersion plays a big factor, which is why it’s easier to learn a language while one is young, but yes it takes a lot of time regardless it’s a language or a programing language. Like with languages, programing languages take a good amount of time to understand and for people that never coded in one’s life will have some difficulties. Same can be said with a foreign language, although it takes more effort.
For me, I’m lucky I had enough free time to do so since I didn’t really have any hard courses that took alot of time. Besides computer science courses, most of the courses are manageable and I don’t think I will lose a lot of free time when I start working. But hopefully you will jump back once you are finished with school.
Learning a new language especially by yourself is probably one of the most difficult things out there, but at the same time self-study is the best way to learn it. Learning it in a classroom environment is pretty easygoing and helps you stay motivated because there’s an excuse (the grade), but from my experience from classes in college – while Japanese teachers tend to be the friendliest teachers out there, and you may get a few excellent ones – you don’t learn enough to justify the length of courses by the end of graduation. The books colleges/universities use tend to be terribly written and outdated. *However*, classes are good supplements to self-study. The books you mentioned, the “Genki” series and Remembering the Kanji, are pretty much the books I found the most helpful at the beginning stage. (I’m self-studying to learn the language seriously and taking Japanese classes for supplements/fun/Japanese Minor.)
From then on, it’s important to keep finding a way to use the language skills in your regular activities – anime, visual novels, manga, dramas, LIVING IN JAPAN, etc. ANYTHING to keep yourself from having it all slip away from you. It’s easy to keep it all in your head if you started as a child, because at those ages your mind is basically like a sponge that easily absorbs information. But as an adult, it’s not that easy. Oddly enough, I find memorizing kanji to be fun. Once you get the hang out it, it feels oh-so satsifying.
Yes, I agree that classroom instruction has some drawback for the fact that you don’t learn a whole lot (probably up to intermediate level) opposed to studying on your own as the pace are slower. Even so, I use my Japanese skills pretty often, mostly for playing games only in Japanese (I plan on doing the same for Pokemon since they have multiple language option) and I even set my OS in Japanese, but that is a bit too extreme.
Still, I find Kanji not overly difficult once I memorized most the radicals and pair vocabulary words that uses it.