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Learn Japanese: A U.S. News Guide

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Over the years, Suwako Watanabe has watched how anime and video games can spark an interest in learning Japanese, leading students to explore new subjects like cultural linguistics, poetry and drama.

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“I think studying about Japanese language, culture and society helps learners develop sensitivity to different ways of thinking and approaching how to do things, whether it is business, human relations or the arts,” says Watanabe, a professor of Japanese and the director of the Institute for Asian Studies at Portland State University.

Whatever brings you to the language – Japan’s pop culture, history or position as a global business player – you don’t have to be in-country to start learning. Read on for some tips on how to embark on your Japanese language journey.

Learning how to read and write in Japanese begins with understanding its three alphabets: hiragana, katakana and kanji.

Hiragana and katakana are phonetic, meaning they are spelled the way they sound. Both alphabets have less than 50 letters and cover the same group of sounds. Katakana is frequently used to write foreign words that make their way into the Japanese language. Since native English speakers will recognize some words written in katakana, the alphabet itself might be easier to learn.

On the other hand, kanji is derived from the Chinese, with each kanji character representing a concept. There are approximately 40,000 kanji characters, but only about 2,000 are used frequently in writing.

My advice is to start with reading and writing hiragana and katakana. The kanji will be there when you’re ready to take your Japanese to the next level.

Next, practice, practice, practice. Repetition is key. Children’s books are a great resource for learning to read Japanese. The phrases are simple, and it’s fun to see stories in a different cultural context. A quick Google search will yield online Japanese children’s books and other methods for reading practice.

Also look for online hiragana and katakana quizzes, charts and workbooks so you can practice writing. You also can find or make flashcards to practice learning the letters. Start with individual characters and build up to short sentences.

Ideally, you’d learn to speak Japanese with a native speaker, but that’s not always realistic.

Learning Japanese online doesn’t necessarily put you at a disadvantage, says Momoyo Kubo Lowdermilk, a lecturer at Stanford University’s Stanford Language Center. Today, the internet could be considered an immersive experience that can connect you to teachers and fellow learners.

“What’s very important is to keep your motivation high,” Kubo Lowdermilk says. “To do that, you should become a member of a learners’ community so that you aren’t the only one who is studying Japanese. There are so many other people studying Japanese and trying to get good at it.”

Once you become a member of a larger community, others will share their knowledge and the tools they find useful. Kubo Lowdermilk says not every online community is the same, so whether you are a teenager or an adult learner, it’s to your advantage to find the space you feel is the best fit.

Here are her tips for learning to speak Japanese:

  • Build a community. If you can, take a class locally. If you can’t, find a class online, and build your community from there.

  • Listen and practice. Take the short, basic sentences you learned in class and practice listening for them when you hear speakers or watch Japanese programs, such as anime, which is Japanese animation. (But be warned, anime can use pretty advanced grammar and be hard to follow.)

  • Check out YouTube and Netflix. Kubo Lowdermilk says her students love following their favorite Japanese dramas on YouTube and Netflix, and there are Chrome extensions for Netflix that allow you to control the subtitles. A technique popular with her students is to watch first with the English subtitles, next with the Japanese subtitles and a third time with no subtitles.

Truth: Japanese is challenging. With its multiple alphabets and intricate kanji characters, it’s not surprising that the State Department’s Foreign Service Institute categorizes Japanese as among the most difficult languages for English speakers to learn.

Watanabe says some of the complexities of the language can make it difficult for beginning students. Korean and Chinese, by comparison, have only one writing system. Japanese also uses honorifics, adding suffixes and other adjustments to denote respect to the person being addressed or spoken of, something English-speakers can easily get wrong. A kanji character can be used by itself, Watanabe says. But combining two or more characters can change how they are read.

At the same time, Japanese doesn’t usually make nouns masculine or feminine like other languages, such as Spanish. Also, Japanese pronunciation is relatively simple and consistent.

The FSI estimates it takes 88 weeks to learn Japanese at a level of “professional working proficiency,” based on experience with the average diplomat learner.

But the time it takes depends on what you’re using the language for, Kubo Lowdermilk says. A smartphone app might help you quickly pick up enough basic vocabulary to get through a trip to Japan, but you’ll need more time if you want to go deeper.

So, ganbatte kudasai! (That means something between “hang in there” and “you’ve got this.”) Instead of fixating on learning Japanese fast, focus on learning it well. Before you know it, you’ll be on the road to Japanese fluency.

Here are some resources to help you learn Japanese:

Online learning communities. Online communities, like Reddit’s r/LearnJapanese, are great for learning Japanese, Kubo Lowdermilk says. Free.

Tofugu. This is one of the best sites on the web for Japanese culture and language information. It offers extensive grammar “hubs,” articles and a podcast. Free.

I Will Teach You a Language. This site offers beginner and intermediate Japanese courses and a Japanese learning podcast. Learners can subscribe to receive personalized email tips. Classes cost between $97 and $397.

Duolingo. The app delivers what it calls “bite-sized” amounts of Japanese each day to build user skills. Free for basic or $6.99 per month for Duolingo Plus, after a free trial.

The Japan Society. The New York City-based nonprofit features online and in-person events and classes related to Japanese culture, history and language. Some activities are free, while others charge a fee.

The Japan Foundation. Headquartered in Tokyo with offices around the world, The Japan Foundation has a wealth of resources on language learning, arts and culture, and Japanese studies. Many resources are available for free.

Japan Exchange and Teaching Program. The JET Program places English speakers in schools across Japan as teachers and cultural ambassadors. JET Program participants receive a salary and benefits.

Community organizations. Beginning language classes are often hosted by art centers, the YMCA, Boys & Girls Clubs of America, and similar private and nonprofit groups.

Japanese language tutor. Check with career services offices, message boards and language departments at local colleges for Japanese language tutoring contacts.

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