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Advice on Learning Japanese

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1. If you have any choice about which textbook to use: I recommend "Learn Japanese: New College Text". This text is in four volumes (tapes available) and is published by the University of Hawaii Press. They are far superior to any of the "Learn Japanese in 10 Minutes a Day" type texts you will find. Special order them if necessary. I have encountered people who hate the text I recommend. Admittedly, it has been several years since I actively studied Japanese. There are very likely better texts available today. Search the web. Talk to people who are currently studying.

2. Whatever texts/materials you may use...DO NOT skip over the part about pronunciation. Japanese has only 5 vowel sounds. Make sure you aren't using any others. Good habits developed at this point will pay off later. There is no use working and memorizing words with the wrong pronunciations. This will only cause others trouble understanding you and you trouble understanding them.

3. Here are some things that tend to throw many English speakers about Japanese...

  • There are no articles (a, an, the)
  • In general, there are no plurals
  • The present tense and the future tense are one and the same
  • Adjectives conjugate, they have negative forms and past tenses just like verbs do
  • The subject of the sentence can often be left out, as can other parts.
  • There is no particular need to speak in "complete sentences" (From an English speaker's way of thinking)
  • Some grammatical markers can be left out of the sentences if they are obvious
  • Japanese has LOTS of pronouns and avoids using them whenever possible
  • There are two ways of saying every verb, grammatically the same, but having different "politeness levels"
  • There is a "continuative tense", so that in a string of verbs, only the final one need show whether the entire sequence is in the present/future tense or in the past tense.

4. Do the drills. No matter how boring they may be, do them. Hard work now internalizing these patterns pays off later in being able to use them without particularly thinking about them.

5. When you have a firm grasp of how to use a structure correctly, create tons of sentences using it yourself. Your goal is to be able to speak, and hopefully to speak correctly. Make a sentence in your head (or out loud) and drill yourself in every possible permutation of it that you are certain you can use correctly. DO NOT do this with structures you aren't sure about. This ties in with #4 above. Too many people avoid this, thinking it to be too much bother. Stepping away from the textbook drills and making your own original sentences mirrors exactly what you will have to do in real-life situations. Do it now and do it often. Then actual conversations where you have to make every statement yourself from scratch, and not merely rearrange a textbook drill sentence will go so much more smoothly and be so much more enjoyable. If you think it's too much trouble now, when no pressure is on you, do you really think it will be any easier in an actual conversation?

6. If you see a couple of words which to you look/sound very similar, ABSOLUTELY DO NOT attempt to learn them on the same day. They will be confused in your head for years. Learn one now and leave the other for a week or so.

7. No matter what a pain it is...learn to read/write the hiragana and katakana systems as soon as you can. If you really seriously want to progress in your studies, there is no avoiding it. Also, start to learn the kanji as soon as possible. Don't rush it or burn yourself out, but don't neglect it either. A good knowledge of kanji will help you not only in reading, but also help you to figure out new words you encounter in conversations. It is said that fire is both man's best friend and his worst enemy. Kanji can be either your best friend or your worst enemy in studying Japanese. Make friends with them as early as you can. You'll be glad you did. Wishing they didn't exist will NOT make them go away. Being illiterate in a highly literate society is no damned fun. If you are or will be in Japan, life will be much easier if you can read things for yourself rather than relying on a Japanese to hold your hand and wipe your linguistic butt for you.

8. When you start to lose heart at your progress, turn back and look at Lesson 1 or Lesson 2. Try to remember when that lesson was kicking your butt the same way the lesson you are on now is kicking it now. You'll get it. Back off and give your subconscious a couple of days to work on it. It'll be easier to understand when you come back to it. It is extremely hard to see your own progress because you are bogged down in whatever the lesson at hand is. Sometimes you need to turn around and look how far you've come.

9. Do try to avoid what everyone seems to get into to some degree...making Japanese ability a contest. You speak as well as you speak...I speak as well as I speak. We're all going the same place and it is not a race. So some other guy knows a couple hundred kanji but katakana still has you breaking out in cold sweats...don't worry about it. I can read well over a thousand kanji and I remember very clearly when I thought that even having to learn a hundred would surely burst my brain. Of course, I've been at it for over a decade now. If you work on it that long, you don't have to be a genius to pick them up. On the other hand, you would have to be pretty stupid not to (especially if you were in Japan the entire time)

10. Dictionaries are crutches. Try to learn to walk without them if you can. If you are using them to look up a Japanese word that you have run across, first make your best guess about what the word means. Look at the situation the word is used in. Use all the knowledge you have of Japanese grammar to at least deduce what the part of speech is. Apply common sense. Figure out what is possible. Narrow it down to your best couple of choices. THEN look it up. See if your idea was right. If it was, you feel like a genius. If it wasn't right, that's OK too. Now you go back over your reasoning and see where you went wrong. Try to keep that situation and that usage in mind. If you hear the same word later in a different situation, try to figure out what those situations have in common.

It is important to develop the skill of deducing vocabulary from context. Practicing, as outlined above, is important. Like any skill, the more you do it, the better and faster at it you get. Until some day you find that (combined with your kanji study) you can often pick up words "on the fly" in a conversation and turn around and use them right back at your conversation partner, who won't have a clue that that was the first time in your life you had ever heard it.

11. When choosing words to memorize, ask yourself "Do I normally use the English equivalent of this word?". If the answer is "No.", then leave the word for later. You have more important stuff to remember.

12. Given a choice of learning 10 new nouns or 1 new verb.....learn the verb.

13. Given a choice of learning 10 new verbs or mastering one new verb tense.....learn the verb tense.

You can pick up nouns during a conversation relatively easily, either by pointing, drawing, or describing. Anyway, in Japanese you can often be a bit vague and there are techniques for getting around using the noun (at times). It is not so easy to pick up a new verb during the conversation. It is much more difficult to try to work out new verb tenses from the conversation. Japanese verb conjugations are very regular. So that if you learn a new tense/conjugation, it is very very easy to apply it to every verb you already know. If you know more tenses and verbs, you can often describe the noun you want to know and have your partner teach it to you on the spot.

14. Making mistakes goes with the territory. Not being able to recall a certain word or tense during a conversation and them suddenly remembering it just after the conversation is over is normal. It happens to everybody. Go ahead, chastize yourself. Feel stupid. That's good for you. It makes you more determined not to let that happen again. With enough practice and enough times of this happening, they do start to gradually decrease.

15. "wa" and "ga" confuse the hell out of everybody. Don't feel like the Lone Ranger. With "ni" , "de", and "wo", you are on more solid ground and can expect someday to get a very firm handle on them. It'll come, you'll get it.

16. During the drills, if your mind goes blank on you....let it. But continue with the drills. Just go with the flow. Trust your first instinct and you'll be surprised to find that quite often it is correct.

17. Unless you're studying for a graded only as long as it's fun. The second it starts to feel like work, put it down and leave it for a day or two. Haven't studied for a few weeks/months? Don't feel bad, just go back at it. Rome wasn't built in a day. Presumably when you decided to study Japanese you had in mind the goal of becoming somewhat proficient in it. It's sort of hard to reach that goal if you let yourself develop a hatred of the language while in pursuit of your goal.

18. For kanji recall I recommend using some sort of small reference book (not a textbook, or perhaps in conjunction with a text book)

  • Start at the beginning. Read the section about stroke order and stroke count. It looks like bullshit now, but if later you ever need to look up kanji in a dictionary, this will be a very valuable skill.
  • Use your finger and trace out the kanji on your palm, thigh, whatever. Do that several times, envision it.
  • Try to remember at least one meaning, one reading, or both.
  • Make sure to remember whether a reading is a "kun" or an "on" reading. This will come in handy later.
  • Get a piece of notebook paper, use a ruler to mark it off in grids big enough to hold one kanji each.
  • On the paper, write every kanji you can think of. Go until you just can't go anymore.
  • Now, go back through your little handy reference book and see which ones you missed. Mentally kick your own butt.
  • Wait a while and do it all over again. Hopefully you will have gotten the ones you forgot on the previous go. If you work on this diligently, you should be able to increase your recall dramatically, perhaps to over 90% of all the kanji you have learned.

This was posted by Mike Cash, written in 1997. The original thread is here

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