This post is going to be really, really short. This is just a reminder to let everyone know that the final deadline for submitting your essay for the Kanji/Kana flash cards contest is tomorrow, Friday April 23 (Japan time). I look forward to getting all your essays and reading about your studies with Japanese.
One of the most popular posts on Japanese words has been the common Japanese Words list containing over 1000 Japanese words and kanji. That page has received quite a few comments asking for pronunciations in romaji (English Alphabet). While having romaji may seem to make studying easier when you first start out, learning using the English alphabet will actually hold you back. This article will cover the main reasons why you should start studying and master the Japanese Kana (hiragana and katakana) as soon as possible. As well as listing a few tools to help you learn more quickly.
Thinking in Japanese
If you want to learn Japanese as quickly as possible, then you need to immerse yourself in it. The more you are seeing and thinking in Japanese the faster you will be able to learn. If you are trying to learn using the English alphabet, then your mind is only half thinking in Japanese. You are seeing Japanese words, but your mind is trying to translate them into English. If you read using the kana (and eventually kanji) it is easier for your brain to make the change.
Once you learn to read the kana, you will realize how difficult reading Japanese in romaji really was!
More Japanese Materials
The more Japanese materials you have available to you the better. It doesn’t mean that you will use them all, but you will have a larger selection from which to choose the best ones. Once you learn the kana, you aren’t limited to only Japanese language study materials (textbooks, Japanese language books, etc). You can start trying to read Japanese magazines, mangas, websites, and subtitles on movies. This will also help you start learning the kanji, which are essential for anyone serious about Japanese.
Japanese has far fewer sounds than the English language. Furthermore, each kana can only be read a single way. Not like English where vowels can have different sounds depending on the letters next to them. Once you learn the correct sound for each kana, you will be better at pronouncing Japanese words. Of course you will still need a lot of practice to learn the correct pronunciation, but getting away from romaji (which can have several) is a good move in the right direction.
Travelling/Living in Japan
It’s true that you can find a lot of English signs in the main cities in Japan now days. However, there are many places that have no English signs at all. Having the ability to read at least hiragana and kana will really help you get around. Learning the first 100 or so Kanji will be an even bigger help.
Tools for Learning the Japanese Characters
Remembering the Kana– James Heisig, Author of Remembering the Kanji has created a unique and effective method for remembering Japanese characters. Using creative stories to remember each kana and it’s reading, the book teaches you the hiragana and katakana in about 3 hours each. You can read a full review on the book here: Remembering the Kana.
Read The Kanji– Now that you have finished Remembering the Kana, it’s time to get some practice. Read the Kanji is a great site that allows you to practice using Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji in sentences. It highlights the word and you type the reading. Not only is it great reading practice, it’s also great typing practice. The website keeps track of your progress and makes you review characters and words you know less, more often. I highly recommend this site.
Learn the Kana– This site has all the kana, but more importantly they also have the sounds. Very helpful if you are just getting started.
Rikaichan– Rikaichan is an amazing addon for Firefox that will give you the reading, definition, and a ton of other information of any Japanese word or character you mouse over. You can find a more detailed review on Rikaichan here: Reading Japanese Words Like A Pro With Rikaichan.
Anki– Anki is a spaced program that helps you learn quicker by showing you the right items when you need to see them. A great tool for learning Japanese and completely free.
Smart.FM– A website that uses spaced repitition to help you learn faster. There is a downloadable list for hiragana and katakana with sound.
Learning to read and write Japanese is by far the most difficult part of learning the language. There are a lot of characters and they have no resemblance to the English alphabet at all. It takes hour after hour of writing them down again and again to remember them, and soon as you stop them for a while you forget them. This was the method I used to learn Hiragana and Katakana, the two simple alphabets in Japanese. Surely there must be a better way. There is, thanks to James Heisig’s book Remembering the Kana.
James Heisig first came to Japan without any experience or study in the Japanese language. He enrolled at a language school in Kamakura, but ended up studying on his own because the Japanese course had already started. After he had been studying for about a month, his teachers recommended that he should start learning the Japanese characters as soon as possible. Since he wasn’t taking a class and wasn’t influenced by the traditional class method of learning (writing them again and again) class, Heisig designed his own system. He then managed to learn almost 2,000 kanji in one month. Eventually he wrote his process into a book called Remembering the Kanji and then applied the same process for the kana.
Instead of trying to remember each kana visually and through repetition, Heisig assigns basic elements to the kana and then creates imaginative stories that make writing and remembering them easy. In Remembering the Kana he has also added the pronunciation into the story so you not only learn how to write it, but also how to read it.
The layout of the book is very unique. Similar to the roman alphabet, the Japanese alphabet also has a set order. The characters in the book are listed in the traditional Japanese order making them easy to look up. However, Heisig’s system has you learn them in the order that’s easiest to remember. So there are directions on each page on where to find the next character to study. It seemed a little weird at first going from page 9 to 62, but makes perfect sense to allow you to learn the characters quickly and still arrange them in the normal order.
Heisig’s claim is that each syllabary can be learned and remembered in 3 hours each. While this is quite fast, I don’t think it is unrealistic at all. Remembering the Kana really does make it much easier to learn the kana. I think this is a great book for anyone who is looking to learn the Japanese syllabaries without spending weeks or months to do it.
I will be reviewing Remembering the Kanji in the near future once I have had a chance to completely go through the two books, but so far it seems very promising. If you would like to give it a try, you can find the links below.
Regardless of whether you are just starting or have been studying for quite some time there are always stumbling points. Times when you feel you will not attain the level of fluency you had hoped, that your progress is going to slowly, or that the immediate benefits you are receiving just aren’t worth the amount of time you are spending studying Japanese. I have certainly gone through these times myself. It’s pushing through them that will keep you on the right track to become a great Japanese speaker. So here are some simple motivation tips I have used to keep myself excited about learning Japanese.
Focus on why you started Learning Japanese
With all the studying, the flash cards, the kanji, and the speaking drills it can be easy to lose track of why you started learning Japanese. Since that reason also probably gave you quite a bit of motivation, take some time to think about it. I recommend writing it down so you can look at it again later. If the reason you started studying Japanese doesn’t get you excited, I recommend that you choose better one. You will be putting a lot of time into becoming fluent in Japanese. You will be much more likely to get there if you have a good reason for learning.
Speak Japanese with a native speaker
All that practice is important, but it’s actually speaking in Japanese that’s the fun part. If you are not able to find a native speaker, then at least try to find someone who you can converse with in Japanese. I used to sign up for tutoring when I was a student so I could practice speaking with Japanese exchange students. Even a fellow student studying Japanese is better than nothing. Just be sure to only speak Japanese.
Look at your overall progress
Language progression is accomplished in a lot of small steps. Each new word or grammatical structure you learn helps you understand and communicate just a little bit better. You may have learned 10 new words today, but compared to yesterday you still don’t feel you’ve made much progress. This can be a little bit depressing. Progress can be much easier to spot if you look at it overall. Look at your progress from the time you started until now. An easy way to do this is to go back and look at the material you started with. You will be surprised how easy it seems compared to when you first started learning . It’s much easier to see the distance you covered if you look at all the stairs you have climbed, rather than just the last step.
Break your Japanese study goals into smaller parts
Setting goals is a good thing. But what if you goal is really big? Maybe your goal is to speak business level Japanese so you can eventually work in Japan. If you are just starting out, it may seem if you will never get to that point. In this case, it can be very helpful to set a number of goals in between. Maybe set goals for learning 100 kanji by a certain date, speaking for 10 minutes in Japanese, passing the JLPT 4 this year and 3 next year. With each goal you acheive you give yourself a small reward. This will not only help you stay motivated, but also keep you working towards your goal.
Saturday I received all 4 of the “Remember the Kanji” books. Three of the books are designed to help a Japanese learner master kanji and one is focused on learning hiragana and katakana. I will be posting reviews on all of these books once I have had a little more time to evaluate them. I started reviewing the book on learning kana and it reminded me of something I think is important in learning Japanese; reviewing the basics.
The Japanese language, or any language for that matter, is kind of like building a house. In order to have a strong house you need a good solid foundation. To learn the more advanced grammar rules of Japanese you need to have a good understanding of the basic ones. I first realized how important this was as a study abroad student in Japan. To decide what Japanese classes students should be put in, we were required to take a test that included various grammar patterns, kanji, as well as writing an essay. Since I hadn’t studied nearly at all during the summer, my Japanese ability wasn’t at it’s best. In turn, I ended up in a Japanese class was covering material I had already learned.
At first I was a bit annoyed. I felt I was wasting my time in Japan relearning things I had already studied. Luckily, the class progressed at a pretty fast rate and we eventually got into some material. The thing that surprised me though was how much my Japanese had improved by gaining a stronger grasp of the the basics I had already studied. The review helped set them more firmly in my mind and I didn’t have to “think” about how to use them.
I think there are two very simple methods to making sure you understand the basics. The first is to make sure you study them well and repeatedly until you have a very strong grasp. Practicing them in conversation is a very key part of this.The second part is to occasionally review material you feel very confident with. I am always surprised the things I realized I have forgotten when I do this. I also find that I can usually “re-learn” a structure or word much better after I have been using it it for a while. When I first learn something it is foreign and I struggle to grasp it. When I review it I am learning about the details of something that is familiar to me.
I encourage you to make sure you have a firm understanding of the basics and occasionally review them. You may feel that you are wasting your time, but you may be surprised what you will learn. The better understanding you have the better your Japanese will be.