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.
What other tools you should consider besides Textbooks?
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.