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Tips and tricks for learning Japanese

Written by Life in Kansai

Have you made a New Year’s resolution to improve your Japanese, but aren’t quite sure how to go about it? Pick up a few hints here…

Why does Japanese have a reputation among speakers of English and many other languages as a difficult language to learn? Well, it has several features that can put people off, like its sentence structure – which appears to be the complete opposite way round to what many people are used to – as well as particles and kanji, of course. Japanese speakers attempting to learn English struggle too, of course, for completely different reasons. In English, identical letter combinations can be pronounced in totally different ways (think ‘wind’) and different letter combinations can be pronounced the same (‘there’ and ‘their’), not to mention the huge variety of articles, pronouns and plurals that don’t exist in the same way at all in Japanese. Learning either language is diffi cult, but non-Japanese speakers living in Japan have one big advantage: Japanese is all around, all the time. But what are the best ways to benefi t from the constantpresence of the language? Here are some ideas.


A bit about the language
Japanese is a member of the Japonic language family, but little is known of its history before the fi rst written texts became available in the eighth century, and its relationship with other languages and language groups is debated. The Chinese writing system was borrowed to provide a method of writing Japanese, but at fi rst the kanji were only used for their phonetic value, to record the sounds of Japanese. Modern hiragana and katakana are simplifi cations of these usages. Over the centuries, as many words were borrowed from Chinese, so were their kanji. More recently, words have come into Japanese from several European languages. Now, the written form of Japanese is expressed through a combination of three scripts: hiragana, katakana and kanji. The Latin alphabet is also used at times, such as for acronyms like NATO, or just for eff ect.

Japanese lessons
City halls and international centres across Kansai offer free or reasonably-priced Japanese lessons, either as part of a class or one-on-one. They are usually run by
enthusiastic, friendly volunteer teachers. Going to this kind of lesson regularly (for example, once a week) will provide you with a basic foundation in Japanese grammar and conversation. You’re likely to work through a textbook such as Minna no Nihongo, which is written entirely in Japanese. However, supplementary grammar books exist in various languages and provide essential explanations of each new grammar point. Buy yourself a copy – they are incredibly useful!

Japanese lessons around Kansai
Kobe: Kobe International Community Center (KICC)
Kyoto: International Community Club (ICC)
Osaka: Osaka International House Foundation

Conversation practice
Regular speaking practice with a native Japanese speaker will really help both your fluency and your confidence! The cheapest way to do this is through a conversation exchange with a Japanese native speaker who wants to improve their own conversational ability in your language. Spend half an hour speaking Japanese, then half an hour speaking your own language. City halls or international centres often have noticeboards where you can advertise for a conversation partner. Just be safe and always meet in a public place. can also be helpful for finding a group conversation exchange in a café in your area (particularly for English, French and Italian). However, the downside of a group exchange is that you won’t get so much practice and there’s the temptation to speak in English.

Your smartphone is your biggest ally in the struggle to improve your Japanese. Get yourself a fl ashcard-based app so you can look at vocabulary or kanji whenever you have a spare minute on the train.
Obenkyo is useful for testing yourself on kanji, which it divides into JLPT levels 1-5.
• On Ankidroid you can add your own fl ashcards for vocabulary or kanji, and even share ‘decks’ of cards between friends.

Japanese news
You could also try reading and/or watching the news in Japanese every day, even just for fi ve minutes. On the NHK website there’s a section called ‘NHK Easy News’ (see blue box above) that contains short, simplyworded versions of news articles, each with a short video clip. More diffi cult vocabulary comes with pop-up definitions, and all kanji have furigana (small hiragana) to help with recognition and pronunciation. Another way of getting hold of simple Japanese to read is through children’s books, which also often contain furigana and fewer kanji.
So what else can you do? Even small things that don’t involve too much effort can make a difference. ‘Have the TV on in the background,’ suggests John, an English teacher. ‘Speak the language whenever you get the chance, and make a note of each new word you hear so you can look them up.’ Small actions like this add up over time and can really help your progress.
Last but not least, have a look at the resources in the following list. They may come in handy forsupplementing your existing Japanese study methods!


Useful websites & resources
Learning kanji
Kanji Damage:
A website that helps you navigate all the pitfalls of learning kanji. Kanji Damage
answers questions like ‘how do I tell this kanji apart from those other three that look exactly like it’ and does so with humour.
Remembering the Kanji 1: A Complete Course on How Not to Forget the Meaning and Writing of Japanese Characters
Remembering the Kanji 2: A Systematic Guide to Reading Japanese Characters
These two books by James W Heisig provide a complete course on learning the two thousand kanji in everyday use. Book 1 teaches you how to write them and remember their meaning, and Book 2 teaches you how to read them. You need to be dedicated to complete the course, but by all accounts it’s worth the effort!
Online dictionaries
Online news/radio
NHK News Web Easy:
NHK Radio:

By Life in Kansai


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