A brief post with a few tips on learning Japanese

Learning a language is something of a lifelong battle, particularly if you want to keep your language skills at their best. As of spring 2012 my Japanese sits in the back of my mind, unused on a daily, or even weekly basis. Yet when I look at a Japanese page of text, that language faculty, somewhat amazingly, spring to life – and comprehension dawns.

That isn’t to say I’m still at the level I was when I took and passed JLPT N2 Japanese (business level) two years ago – my speaking skills in particular are pretty rusty now. But if my experience is of any assistance at all to others beginning a journey in learning Japanese, I’m happy to pass on what little advice I have to offer.

First, a brief Japanese language history. While living in Japan for two years, I took and passed levels 4級 and 3級 of the JLPT. Don’t dismiss these levels as quickly as many people do – they provided valuable short-term goals that motivated me to study, and the money spent taking them was as well spent as any on a Japanese textbook. Following this, I was in Korea for a year, during which time I made my way through Heisig’s Remembering the Kanji book 1. While I didn’t continue my drills of this on Anki (more of which later) for long after, the process of learning to write 2050-odd kanji, even without knowing what they meant, provided valuable experience, and I’ve been able to pick up kanji shapes very quickly thanks to it. It took 6 months to complete, and provides a solid base in recognising kanji. More and more I’m realising that kanji are simply building blocks – while it’s nice that they ‘make sense’ (人+形=人形, person plus shape = doll, for example), you shouldn’t read too much into this, as when you get to more advanced vocabulary you’ll be thinking about things in the wrong way. In 2009 I took a higher intermediate course as part of a Masters degree, where we used the 中上級日本語教科書日本への招待 series of textbooks.

Essential Resources

Anki – Using one of what are known as “spaced-repetition” programmes is essential to learning and remembering languages, including Japanese. By doing reviews every day you are constantly consolidating your knowledge. If you are on the move a lot, consider spending the £15 it takes to get the iPhone version- it seems like a lot of money, but it will be more than repaid in the amount you gain from it, especially if you commute to and from work/college. If you are on Android, download AnkiDroid for free.

Textbooks

UNICOM日本語能力試験2級漢字単語ドリル – this is the basic book for vocab and kanji I used. Having said this, I came at Japanese with a less than systematic approach, based on actually living in Japan and then picking up pockets of knowledge here and there. It’s not the most efficient way to learn a language, but it’s been fun. This book should consolidate your vocab and kanji knowledge to JLPT2 level. It misses out a lot of 擬音語 and 擬態語 however, so I recommend finding a ‘resource’ that you can add to Anki to make up for this.

完全マスター日本語能力試験2級文法問題対策 – this is the standard book for learning N2 grammar, is well organised, and gives examples for each point. It needs to be used in combination with a Japanese Grammar dictionary – どんな時どう使う, or the three-book dictionary series (blue, yellow, red). Failing this, use the online JGram database website, as I do.

Online Resources

The Japanese Grammar Database – very useful! Check grammar you don’t understand

Japanese Pod 101 – the best listening practice with English as well. Obviously living in Japan / getting a language partner is the best way to get speaking/listening practice.

Other Books

Jay Rubin – Making Sense of Japanese – interesting and insightful into things you think you understand but may not actually. A good read, though a little short, but some of its lessons will definitely stay with you.

Read Real Japanese – I bought this ages ago, and haven’t really used it but it seems like it might be good reading practice.

A book on particles – particles are easy to ‘learn’ but hard to master. There’s a book out there that looks really good for consolidating your particle knowledge- I’ll try and root out the name.

Essential Japanese Kanji Odyssey 2001 – this provides all 2001 kanji in a systematic approach, with vocabulary and example sentences. If you have the time, or are starting from scratch, could be a worthwhile approach.

Tae Kim’s Grammar Guide – useful basic grammar resource, alternatively, work your way through the ‘Minna No Nihongo’ textbooks as I did.

Support Sites

Reviewing The Kanji– as well as being a Heisig support site, the forums on this site have lots of advice about learning Japanese in general. Usual forum caution applies – for every generous and helpful person on these kind of sites, there are the internet weirdos who delight in antagonising people.

Japanese Pod 101 Forum – not so useful for the JLPT, and questions get answered less frequently.

That’s it. If you have a Japanese language question I’m happy to answer it. I hope these few tips are useful!