How to Learn Japanese

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How to Learn Japanese

Figuring out how to get started learning a language can be tricky and that’s especially true of Japanese. Misconceptions about the difficulty of the language and the best way to learn Japanese abound. Can you really learn Japanese in just a few minutes a day and how effective are those online lessons at helping beginners to understand and speak the language?

While it’s true that you can pick up a few words or phrases of any language online, you’ll need a more comprehensive and immersive approach to get a handle on conversational Japanese. Language learning is most effective when lessons are both practical and fun, providing feedback on pronunciation and helping learners get a grasp of Japanese grammar and vocabulary.

Rosetta Stone, a trusted language learning software with 25 years of experience, has a method that teaches the foundational concepts of Japanese in a particular order that allows learners to build towards success. By working and practicing with bite-sized lessons through Rosetta Stone’s award-winning app, even beginners can learn the fundamentals of how to speak, read, and write Japanese.

Learn the Japanese Alphabet

One of the first steps to speaking Japanese is to learn the alphabet. Japanese has three basic writing systems: hiragana, katakana, and kanji. Hiragana and katakana are the phonetic alphabets you’ll need to learn to speak Japanese. These two sets of 46 characters represent the same sounds, and because most characters have only one pronunciation, hiragana and katakana are straightforward to learn. Hiragana is primarily used for native Japanese words while foreign words are represented by katakana, so it may be helpful to focus on hiragana first.

Kanji, the written script for Japanese, is a bit more complex. You’ll need to learn this system, adapted from Chinese, if you want to read and write Japanese. Adults are considered fluent in kanji when they know 2,000 characters, but practicing even a little of this adapted writing system can help you learn Japanese vocabulary faster. The characters in kanji, made up of smaller parts called radicals, are pronounced using sounds from the Japanese phonetic alphabets.

Pronounce Words in Japanese

Learning Japanese may seem intimidating at first, but it’s relatively easy to begin speaking the language. Because most characters in Japanese have only one pronunciation, it eliminates a great deal of ambiguity for beginners. Sounds in Japanese are similar to those in English, with five vowel sounds and just a handful of consonants.

Syllables in Japanese are also easier to pronounce because they have equal stress but there are some differences in intonation. Japanese has two pitches- low and high. Some pronunciations, however, can change from region to region so it’s best to mimic local speakers. Note that the pitch in Japanese can change the meaning of a word so listen carefully to make sure you get it right.

This is where Rosetta Stone’s method can really help. Patented speech recognition technology called TruAccent® fine-tunes your pronunciation by instantly comparing your voice and pitch to that of native speakers. Rosetta Stone’s Japanese pronunciation is based on that of a Tokyo speaker, which would be the most commonly heard and spoken Japanese pitch or dialect.

Lady on a street sidewalk asking a man for a restaurant recommendation
Learn how to say, "Could you recommend a local restaurant?" in Japanese.

Learn to Read and Write in Japanese

Once you’ve learned the basic sounds and had some practice speaking Japanese, kanji is a natural next step to accelerate your language learning. As previously mentioned, Kanji is the Japanese written system of characters, adapted from Chinese. It’s made up of characters that have smaller parts called radicals, where each brushstroke emphasizes balance and composition.

While some language learners find writing one of the most challenging parts of Japanese, there are a few tips that can make learning kanji a little easier. And despite the difficulty, knowing kanji is extremely helpful if you’re traveling through Japan and trying to navigate your way around a busy city like Tokyo. Being able to read road signs, menus, and maps will ease your journey and make communicating with locals a bit easier.

While there are no shortcuts to mastering kanji, there are a few tips that may help language learners pick up the basics of writing and reading Japanese.

1. Image associations
This helpful memory trick works for any language that utilizes more complex characters and involves associating the image with an object. Look at each Japanese character and try to find something familiar that it resembles. It’s best if the object you associate the character with also conveys the meaning of the word.
For instance, this is the kanji character for the word stop in Japanese: 止 . As you can see, it looks very much like a stop sign and works well for an image association method because it resembles the word it represents.

2. Read manga
Manga is the art of Japanese comic books and is famous throughout the world as an integral part of the country’s culture. Reading manga can be especially helpful for language learners as comic books are rich with image and contextual cues to help decipher the meaning of the written words.
It’s best to start out with manga titles geared towards younger audiences, such as Sailor Moon, and then work your way up to the more complex subject matter. Another good place to begin is the Japanese manga series called One Piece by Eiichiro Oda holds the Guinness World Record for the most copies published of the same comic book series by a single author.

3. Learn Kanji radicals
Radicals are specific parts of a written character and once you learn a few of them, you may be able to guess at the meaning of a more complex word. Although kanji is not always as simple as breaking each character into smaller parts, once you get a feel for Japanese you can see connections between components of written words.
For instance, 今日 is the kanji character for “today,” but the radical in the second part of the character, 日, means “sun” or “day”. This same radical also turns up in phrases like “good afternoon” 今日は.

4. Chat online with other learners
Practice makes perfect and what better way to set aside time to work on kanji than to commit to writing in Japanese. Rosetta Stone has a web app that allows you to chat with other learners, helping you hone in on the characters that are used more often in daily conversations.
Writing online really help if you’re concerned about your ability to craft the balanced characters and brushstrokes of kanji. Some keyboards can be switched to Japanese characters using a few simple commands or you can use a Japanese keyboard online.

Is it hard to learn Japanese?

One of the first questions many people have about Japanese is whether it will be difficult to learn. It’s likely the impression of Japanese as challenging arises from some misconceptions about the language. Kanji, with its mysterious brushstrokes, may seem a bit unapproachable but learning to speak Japanese is a very manageable endeavor.

One of the reasons spoken Japanese is easier to learn is that it has consistent pronunciation and grammar rules. It also mimics the structure and sounds of English in ways that will feel familiar to foreign speakers.

Japanese has five basic vowel sounds

Like English, Japanese has five vowels. Once you know the vowel sounds, there are some basic Japanese words made up of only those sounds and one consonant that you’ll be able to pronounce. Words like き, which means “tree”, are pronounced as ki. Another good example is the word “hand” or て which is pronounced as te.

Japanese also has only 14 consonants, each with just one possible pronunciation. Because the alphabet has a limited number of combinations, you’ll quickly learn all the variations of sounds that can occur.

Japanese grammar is straightforward

In other languages, verb tenses can be complicated and sometimes, the rules for conjugation don’t make sense. Thankfully, Japanese is much more consistent. And unlike many of the romance languages where nouns have different genders, you won’t have to worry about that complexity in Japanese. In fact, Japanese speakers often leave out pronouns and rely upon context to imply meaning.

A great example of this is one of the very first Japanese phrases speakers learn : お名前は? (pronounced O-namae wa), which translates into “your name?”. It seems like an incomplete sentence that you might be tempted to preface it with “What’s”. Japanese native speakers, however, shorten the phrase and imply the word by the tone of the question.

Japanese is stress-free

Being stress-free isn’t a metaphor. In this case, it means Japanese as a language is not tonal or absent of stress. This refers to the words being based on syllables that give equal volume and time to each sound, so no one sound is longer or louder than another. Japanese does however emphasize pitch, meaning that some syllables rise or fall. Pitch is a very important component of Japanese can convey a different meaning for words with the same sounds.

In Japanese, the word for chopstick, 箸 (pronounced ha-shi) has the same sounds as the word for bridge but is pronounced with a different pitch. When the rise is on the first syllable of the word it means “chopstick”. When the pitch rises on the last syllable, the sounds form the word “bridge” instead.

Benefits of Learning Japanese

In New York city, you'll find surprises...

In New York city, you'll find surprises...

Posted by Rosetta Stone

Learning Japanese translates into some very concrete benefits, especially in the world of business. With 130 million native speakers, Japanese continues to exert a rising influence and is listed as a critical language by many government agencies, including the U.S. State Department. In addition to practical concerns, picking up enough Japanese basics to communicate on the street in Tokyo is within the realm of bragging rights for any world traveler.

Here are a few others ways speaking Japanese can help language learners earn lifelong benefits.

Learning Japanese is a career booster

Japan has the world’s third largest GDP, so speaking Japanese can translate into real-world dollars and is always in demand. It can be especially helpful in certain industries such as manufacturing, banking, and the auto industry which are cornerstones of the Japanese economy.

You’ll gain an appreciation for Japanese culture

Language learning can open windows into other worlds and ways of being. That seems particularly true of Japanese, which can be a gateway to Eastern culture for Westerners. Because Japan is an island, it has very distinct traditions and a sense of history that has arisen from the isolation of its geography.

Knowing Japanese can help you online

Japanese is one of the most frequently used languages on the internet, coming in just behind Russian and German. Media genres like anime (Japanese animation) and manga (Japanese comic books) have a devoted fan base across the world eager to speak and understand Japanese in order to engage with other authors, artists, and fans.

Learning Japanese can help you learn other languages

While Japanese is its own language with distinct regional dialects, it also shares similarities with other Eastern languages like Chinese and Korean. Korean and Japanese are sometimes referred to as sister languages, but there are a few caveats. While these two languages share some features and sounds, they have entirely different written systems.

Speaking Japanese is an asset for studying and working abroad

Japan tops US News & World Report rankings for best countries in the world, earning the number five spot with a technologically advanced and well educated populace. Tokyo also makes frequent appearances on best places to study abroad lists due to exceptional educational opportunities. If you’re looking to adopt a more nomadic life and travel, Japan can be a good jumping off point to begin working and studying abroad.

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