So You Want to Learn Japanese


Languages come easy to little kids; adults, not so much. So kudos to you for wanting to take on learning Japanese. You are in for a challenge, but also, for major rewards.

About Japanese

Japanese is a highly complicated language, with not one, not two, not even three, but up to four different scripts, if you count rōmaji. And you should; rōmaji — which is what the transcription of Japanese characters into the Latin letters we are all familiar with is called — does appear in written Japanese, such as newspapers and books, and everyone that was educated in Japan from WW II on learns it in elementary school. As a foreigner learning Japanese, you will in nearly every case begin to learn the language written in rōmaji.

Japanese Writing System

The other three scripts were all derived from Chinese characters, but otherwise the languages are distinct and not related to each other linguistically. Kanji is the script that most resembles Chinese; many are exactly the same as the characters that were borrowed from Chinese in the 7th century, though pronounced differently and/or having different meanings, while others are modifications.

A kanji can not only represent a word, but also several words or, in fact, just part of a word, such as a prefix. Kanji have what are called readings, and it is difficult for even native Japanese speakers to know which one is meant! Which is where one use of the other two scripts — called hiragana and katakana — come in.

They are in fact syllabaries, meaning each one represents the sound of a syllable, such as “ma” or “ke” or “tsu.” No meaning is attached to these scripts. When they are used as a reading aid to clarify a kanji by revealing its particular pronunciation in a given context, it is called furigana and they appear in a smaller form above the character.

Otherwise, hiragana and katakana (known together as just kana) are used in conjunction with kanji to indicate word endings, prefixes and other grammatical functions. The kana represent the exact same sounds, but katakana is used to transcribe words that come from foreign languages, technical and scientific terms and the like.

Japanese Honorifics

The other challenge — as if the complex writing system were not enough! — is that Japanese uses different forms of verbs and different vocabulary based on the relative status of everyone involved or even mentioned in the conversation. It’s called honorifics, and it all has to do with politeness and formality. A very simplistic example is the use of “usted,” the respectful form of you in Spanish, instead of “tú,” when you are speaking to a stranger, to a person of authority, an older person and so on.

How to Learn Japanese

Given all the challenges — and there are more, such as the difference in grammar and verb tenses — your best option is a classroom setting with a native speaker as your guide and fellow classmates you can commiserate, er, I mean, practice with. You can probably find a night class or weekend class in your town that will fit around your work schedule.

Your next best bet is to choose a multi-media Japanese language software program. While most courses, real-life and computer, will have you start learning rōmaji, you can always teach yourself to recognize and write the kana, and then the kanji, using books and worksheets specifically for this purpose.

But if you are having second thoughts after reading all this, maybe you can just learn something simple like I miss you in Japanese or Happy Valentine’s Day in Japanese that will at least earn you some points with your sweetheart.