Japanese language introduction

Deciding to undertake the learning of another language is often a challenging task no matter which one you choose. For English speakers, Japanese seems more daunting than most and for good reason, its about as far away from English as the country itself; however, its an endeavour that should absolutely be undertaken regardless. Once you begin, you are quickly overcome with a tangible feeling of excitement and wonder (maybe a personal opinion) for this intricate and pleasantly audible form of communication that is the Japanese language.

Before we get too far in, this initial post into learning Japanese will focus on what learning the language entails, and what the benefits are for taking the plunge — aside from the obvious of course. Im still on the path of learning the Japanese language myself, albeit with a few years of studying under my belt, but have encountered some interesting discoveries, thoughts and practices which may spark some interest for those who come after.  

Quick Selection

Timeframe to proficiency

Alphabet/Syllabaries

Structure

Benefits to learning Japanese


What to expect

Timeframe to proficiency

I want to reiterate first that Japanese is a fun language to learn but make no mistake; this is considered one of the worlds hardest languages for English speakers. The time it takes to ‘learn’ Japanese will vary wildly depending on the amount of time available, methods, and the ability to soak up and process new information; however, a common figure that gets thrown around is 2200 hours. Now that equates to 90 days if you were to spend 24 productive hours a day learning.

Getting a bit more serious, with a good few hours a day of dedication, 2 – 3 years is a good time frame to be able to realistically start to understand, use, and comprehend the Japanese language in a real world environment. If we’re going to take ‘learn’ as native level, you can expect much longer; how long? I wouldn’t know, I feel as if I have a long way to go myself for that.

Alphabet/Syllabaries

You likely already know that the Japanese language doesn’t use the roman alphabet that is common for many western countries. This is what makes learning Japanese a little trickier than say learning French or Spanish where we can already pronounce and recognise the letters — just not the meaning. Instead, a collection of syllabaries is used that are based on phonetic sounds. I mention a ‘collection’ as there are three syllabaries to get you head around; good news however, the first two, Hiragana and Katakana (collectively known as Kana), are very straightforward to learn and memorise. The third — Kanji — is another story, but we’ll get to that in a bit.

Hiragana

Hiragana should be the first syllabary to learn as the bulk of the Japanese language can be written and understood with just hiragana. Truth be told, you could study hiragana and, in theory, never need to learn the others at all; when you listen to Japanese, you’re listening to the phonetic sounds of the hiragana syllabary; If you wrote using just hiragana, people would understand what you are saying.

“Then why are there three syllabaries?” I hear you ask. They each have a use to make comprehension easier.

Hiragana consists of 46 visually unique characters; some characters can be slightly altered that produce an alternate pronunciation totalling 70 unique standalone sounds.

A notebook containing Hiragana characters.
The characters of the Hiragana Syllabary

Katakana

Katakana will be the second syllabary you will learn and is in fact very similar to hiragana in a fashion. Visually the characters are different, although the sounds are exactly the same; its usefulness and purpose then is confined to writing. Katakana is most often used for foreign words or loanwords that can’t necessarily be translated without an otherwise lengthy or confusing description; however, there are other usages such as scientific terms and often for attracting emphasis. This is due to the style of Katakana which is written with sharp, well-defined strokes whereas hiragana is cursive in comparison.

Being very similar to hiragana, katakana also consists of 46 unique characters with the same altered variations in sound. Essentially if you have already learnt the pronunciation of hiragana characters, you just have to learn the shapes of katakana.

Kanji

Finally, we have Kanji. This syllabary is quite different to the others as it will most likely become the bane of your life. Similarly to katakana, it is purely used as a form of written communication.

I mentioned previously that you could write in hiragana and people would understand what is being said — that fact still stands — but in reality it would be quite difficult to read as written Japanese doesn’t contain spaces. This means you wouldn’t know where one word ends and the other begins.

Kanji are a series of logograms, or more simply, a series of symbols representing a word or phrase. Many words in the Japanese language have been assigned a kanji to represent its meaning; these are used in writing to make content easier to read and better illustrate the subject matter. The problem then comes, that you have to know which symbol represents which word.

Compared to hiragana and katakana’s 46 or so characters, there is approximately 50,000 kanji in existence.

Before anyone goes on to have a mild heart attack; nobody knows anywhere close to 50,000 kanji — not even native Japanese. Instead, the recommended number that you should know in order to be able to participate with everyday life is 2136 — that’s according to the Japanese Ministry for Education. This is still a lot but breaking this number down even further; 500 Kanji means you’ll be able to understand up to 80% of written content, of course, this depends on which Kanji you learn but breaking that large number into smaller goals makes the task seem much more achievable.


Structure

One thing you will have to get used to, should you begin your Japanese language study, is the fact that sentence order is often completely reversed to what it would be in English. When working out what you want to say in Japanese, you will inevitable think it out in your mind in English first, but soon realise you have to re-order the components before it can come out. Here is an example:

Example sentence – Do you want to go to the shops with me?

Would become.

Literal translation – You with me together to the shop will you go?

Japanese translation – (あなたは私と一緒に店に行きませんか)

There are also smaller differences to get to grips with such as there being no plurals for words. Whenever a noun is mentioned, it could be one or one hundred; using the example above once again notice how the Japanese ordered sentence says ‘shop’ not ‘shops’. You can explicitly put a number after a noun in certain circumstances but generally this would sound strange. Including a number in the sentence above would be an example.


Benefits to learning Japanese

Being able to understand and communicate in Japanese is obviously the main reason to learning the language; however, there are other advantages to successfully being able to use Japanese, Here are a handful of other benefits to learn the language, all are a positive reason to start learning.

  • An uncommon skill – Outside of Japan, the number of proficient Japanese speakers as a second language is considerably low, but admittedly the popularity of learning the language has been on the rise over the last few years. If you were to get to a point where you could comfortably use Japanese, it would be a somewhat unusual and impressive skill to be able to state you have. Even further, due to the relatively small number of proficient speakers in the west, it’s a skill that could potentially make you money with basic translation work.
  • Improves your English – This may sound a little surprising seeing as after all your studying Japanese not English. As you progress through your studies, you will find you are compelled to compare the languages to help understand how they are different. You’ll pay more attention and develop a better understanding of grammar points and terms, such as: Transitive and intransitive verbs, particles, the correct tense in sentences, and sometimes even contemplate why we use certain words in English.
  • Improves your memory – With all the new characters and symbols you have to learn it’s no wonder that memory and recollection will play a big part. At first you may struggle, but over time after constant self-testing and applying memorisation techniques, things begin to stick. However, throughout the constant trauma you put your brain through, even when you’re not studying Japanese the improvements to your memory will help in everyday life.
A set of Japanese language notebooks and papers.
My various Japanese notes and resources

Conclusion

The Japanese language is captivatingly intricate and full of subtleties. It makes you not only want to learn the language, but also learn about it too. Yes, its worth noting again that it will be difficult and won’t be the quickest process, but it is a genuinely fun learning experience that any Japanese enthusiast should consider.

Nathan