- What is Japanese?
- How do I see Japanese on my computer?
- How do I type in Japanese?
- Where do I start learning?
- Where do I ask questions and start practicing my new Japanese skills?
- What other materials might come in handy?
Well, let's try to put this simply...
You can probably think of written Japanese pretty basically as 3 "alphabets", 2 of which are essentially the same, sort of like print and cursive for English. (Although unlike cursive in English, hiragana is used pretty much all the time in Japanese, at least in part... but we'll get to that in a moment!)
First we'll explain kanji... kanji are basically the more complex looking characters and represent whole words or ideas, like "fish", "mountain", "journey" etc.. in one character.
Next we have the kana. "Kana" collectively refers to both hiragana and katakana which are the "cursive" and "print" alphabets we referred to a moment ago. Each character stands for a sound, like "a", "ki", "so" etc, and the sounds are the same for both hiragana and katakana, so no worries about even more to learn there. ;)
The "cursive" one, hiragana, is used for Japanese words for beginners who don't know many (or any) kanji yet.
While you can spell out words this way, sometimes the meaning can be unclear because of how many words are spelled the same way. This is part of where kanji come in to clarify which word we mean.
Hiragana are also used along with kanji to specify which tense the word is in etc... such as "go", "going", "went" etc. So while the kanji itself gives the basic meaning, the hiragana characters added right after it clarify how the word is being used.
Lastly we have katakana, the "print" version of the kana. Again, all the sounds are identical to hiragana and some of the characters are even written the same. Katakana is used for things like foreign words that Japanese has borrowed, foreign names, sound effects, etc.
You might wonder why Japanese is usually written without any spaces. Basically this is because as we just talked about, kanji are used to specify the words, with some hiragana added in to show how the words are being used. Add in one final thing called "particles", which are single characters that show the relationships between words... like showing that "A (is going to) B", or that "Y (belongs to) Z", and you have basically everything that makes up Japanese! :)
You'll probably see Japanese written 2 different ways... sometimes vertically and sometimes horizontally. Originally Japanese was written from top to bottom, right to left. Also, what you might think of as the front cover of a book in English is usually the back cover of a Japanese book or magazine. :) From a western point of view, it's like starting at the back cover and reading each page from top right to bottom left. Don't worry, you get used to it quickly! :) Also, most Japanese on computers now is written the same way we write in the west... just like this text. From left to right, top to bottom. Basically if it's written like English, read it like you'd read English, and if it's written vertically, start at the opposite end. :P
One last thing to mention is that the order of sentences in Japanese is different from that of English. Where in English you might say "Tom went to the store", in Japanese you'd say something more like "Tom to the store went". The verb, in other words the action word, always goes at the end instead of in the middle like in English. :)
You'll probably need to make sure you have a font installed that has the Japanese characters in it. Most current modern Operating Systems (Windows Vista, Windows 7, Mac OS X, major Linux distributions etc) come with such fonts installed already. For an older OS like Windows XP, you will probably need to enable support for Asian Languages. We'll walk through this in our guide to getting your computer setup to see and type in Japanese.
This is pretty much just a continuation of making sure you have Japanese fonts (Asian language support) installed. Along with that, or once you have that part setup, you can also add in what's known as an IME, or "Input Method Editor".
We also have guides specifically for this step of getting you setup to type in Japanese on your particular Operating System. :)
You've already started learning! ;)
But seriously, now that you can see and even type in Japanese if you want to, you'll need to figure out what to type! That brings us to the lessons...
Let's run down some of the first lessons and material you'll want to focus on get your foundation set to build on as you go forward.
Generally one of the first things you'll want to start learning is the hiragana. This isn't a very difficult step at all and will really open up a lot more material for you to be able to read and let you start at least sounding out actual written Japanese!
As you practice your hiragana (and maybe katakana, and even some of the very first kanji if you're feeling ambitious!) you can also start learning some basic words and phrases. There's no reason you can't dig into the beginner lessons while you work on your kana. Generally all the very beginner material is offered both in kana and romaji (Japanese words spelled out in Roman characters to sound basically the same... like "watashi" for the Japanese word for "I".) so that you can start studying while you're still learning the kana.
Part of the reason we stress learning the kana early is because there are a few differences that might lead you to pronounce words incorrectly as you learn if you're relying on romaji for too long. For instance there are no separate "r" and "l" sounds in Japanese like in English. In Japanese there is one sound sort of half way between the two. When this is written in English, sometimes an "r" is used, sometimes an "l" depending on the word, but they're both referring to a single sound in Japanese. So if you're saying a word like "arigato" with an English sounding "ri" sound instead of the Japanese sound would sound wrong and could be setting your pronunciation habits off on the wrong path.
- Learn Hiragana
- Learn Katakana
- Hundreds of common beginner level words and phrases with MP3s
- FREE Beginner Conversation Podcasts
- and much more in the beginners section!
First off you should probably take a quick peek at the general rules found at the top of the FAQ, but a simple and safe rule of thumb at TJP is "If your Grandma wouldn't approve, don't do it here!" ;)
We all want to learn and have fun, and as we have many people of all different ages from many different cultures, we want to try to keep things as friendly as possible while we learn together.
The chat is a little more informal and tends to just be general off-topic friendly chat, both in English and Japanese (or even other languages like Swedish) depending on who is in the chatroom at the time. The forum is a little different in that we'd like people to put a little more thought into what they're writing for a forum post before submitting it. Spelling, grammar etc... as these posts will be sticking around for a very long time and be read by many different people, some of whom don't speak English as a first language and might have trouble understanding something written very informally with poor spelling and punctuation. A little extra effort goes a long way! :)
Once you start getting serious in your studies one thing you really should consider getting is an actual textbook. These can be invaluable resources to walk you through the learning process in a very ordered and structured step by step process, with each lesson building on what you've learned in the previous lessons.
Some of the most popular of these include Genki, Japanese For Everyone, Minna No Nihongo etc. We have a variety of reviews and opinions on these textbooks that you might want to check out to decide which one is right for you.
There are a variety of free programs and some other fairly inexpensive games and programs that can really make a world of difference in helping you enjoy your studies.
Some of the best of these are the Rikaichan plugin for Firefox, and Rikaikun plugin for Google Chrome, which let you hover your mouse cursor over Japanese text and see possible definitions etc... JLS, short for the "Japanese Learning Suite" which comes with a variety of small programs bundled together to help you drill the kana, kanji, vocabulary etc to help you with that initial step of learning them for the first time... Anki, a Spaced Repetition program that both helps you learn new material, but perhaps more importantly keeps track of what you're learning, and based on how well you say you know the answer to each question it will ask you again just often enough to keep the memory fresh and help strengthen what you learn into long term memories.
There are also plenty of very cheap iPhone apps, several of which are produced by Clay himself right here on TJP, and many different Nintendo DS games, etc.
There are of course a variety of other excellent resources on the web that you'll probably want to bookmark such as Tae Kim's great "Guide to Japanese", Jim Breen's WWWJDIC, an invaluable and extensive free on-line dictionary and more... alc.co.jp that lets you look up a word and see a variety of contextual examples of words given in sentences so that you can get a better feel for how the word can be used etc.
Anything else to mention?
The most important part of learning a new language like this is just to keep motivated! Find different ways to stay interested and entertained... keep taking baby steps if need be, as long as you're moving forward. :) We'll do our best to help you do just that.
And with that let me say again, Welcome to TJP! We hope you'll enjoy your stay and please let us know if you have any questions!