Recently, I became acquainted with a British fellow, who has serious plans of moving to and working in Japan. There is nothing special about this – there are many people thinking about living in another country, and there are many expatriates sharing their experiences – except for the fact that this fellow and I are both deaf. He noticed on my public resume that I have passed the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, level 2 (old system, equivalent to the current N2), and asked me how I learned Japanese. I pointed him to an article I wrote a few years ago on another website, which I am reposting here with some edits. He told me he has been looking for this kind of information since a long time ago. The reason is that most language learning websites also suggest listening to audio tapes, and other methods which are not really suited to deaf people who also want to learn the language.
So here is my advice. Please note that this advice is by no means limited to deaf students – I believe everybody who wants to learn the Japanese language, will benefit from this article.
I am going to introduce a few books in this article. There may be newer editions out there, but the book covers shown are of those which I actually own. Links to Amazon will be included at the end of the article. These links point to the latest editions.
I started with the yellow book “Essential Japanese Grammar” by E.F. Bleiler. It covers a lot of basic grammar in romanized print (romaji), so you do not have to learn the script (kana/kanji) first to get started. As you learn the grammar, you will be provided with example sentences, from which you will build up some basic vocabulary.
Then, to get to the next step, I used the “Handbook of Japanese verbs” and “Handbook of Japanese adjectives and adverbs”. These are both written by Taeko Kamiya, printed by Kodansha. They offer you an overview of common Japanese sentence structures and constructions, accompanied by numerous example sentences in both romaji and kana/kanji. There are also practice exercises at the end of every chapter, so you can test yourself as you go.
With these books you will have a solid foundation of making Japanese sentences, and I have to say they helped me a lot: after the latter two books, I have been able to talk about more things than just greetings, the weather, and simple statements in Japanese.
The writing system
The Japanese writing system has three scripts: hiragana, katakana and kanji. Now you wonder, why three scripts?! Japanese is a logographic language, deriving most of its script from Chinese – that is the kanji part. More on this later. The other two are collectively called kana. They represent the Japanese “alphabet”, which, compared to the Western alphabet, is a bit different in that they are actually simple syllables. They consist of an optional consonant, followed by a vowel.
Now, you may wonder, and perhaps complain, why do Japanese have two scripts for their alphabet? I’ll have to remind you that the Western script also has two variants: uppercase and lowercase. In fact, katakana is used to emphasize words, just like our uppercase letters. They are also used to write onomatopoeic words describing some sound (called giongo 擬音語), or to transscribe foreign loanwords (called gairaigo 外来語) into the Japanese pronunciation system.
I suggest you start with hiragana, as this is the most used one. Hiragana also accompany kanji in children books to help children read the characters, and in normal literature/newspapers when the reading of the kanji is not commonly known, for example when the characters are not from the jōyō kanji list (常用漢字, the standardized list of 2136 common kanji as officially announced by the Japanese Ministry of Education). These small hiragana on top of kanji, or right next to them in vertical writing, are called furigana. With newer browsers you should see them in action here: 漢字
You can actually ignore the “wi” and “we” ones, as they are not used in modern Japanese.
It seems like quite a lot, but actually, I used a method that helped me memorize the whole table in under 3 hours. Here is how:
- Learn the first column at the far right (a, i, u, e, o), write them repeatedly until you’re confident you’ve mastered them all.
- Go to the next column on the left (ka, ki, ku, ke, ko), and do the same thing as in step 1: write them repeatedly until you’re confident you’ve mastered them all.
- Now, write and memorize all the columns you have done so far. If you succeed in writing them all out without looking at the original source, proceed with the next column.
- Do the same as in step 1 with the next column (sa, shi, su, se, so)
- Repeat step 3.
- Repeat the process until you have mastered all the 46 letters.
I had a friend use the same method, and he could memorize them all within 3 hours as well. So I am sure you can too!
When you have familiarized yourself with hiragana, the next step is to learn katakana, using the same method.
Again, you can ignore the “wi” and “we” ones here.
The hardest part for every beginning learner of Japanese is the kanji. I was fortunate enough that the University I was in, offered an optional Mandarin Chinese course in their curriculum. The method we used during that course is probably the most boring method, but it gives the best result: repetition. We were made to learn at least 15 words every week. We used blocked sheets, and we drew a chessboard pattern of squares big enough to draw a character in. And then you just write the characters you are learning, over and over again.
As you learn more and more kanji characters, you will see a pattern. There will be parts of the character that are the same as in other characters. These parts actually have a name: radicals. Learn these radicals – know them, because they will help you memorize the kanji. When you know the radicals, you don’t need to know the strokes that make up the kanji – just know the radicals, and you’ll remember the kanji. This is actually very important: never learn the strokes! They will get you nowhere. Instead, go with the radicals.
One more thing about kanji: kanji which have a common part with other kanji, will probably also have a similar reading. 安全 (safety) is read as anzen. The an part (安) appears at the top of 案, and this is actually also read as an in 提案 (teian, suggestion). The zen part (全) can be found back in 栓 (stopper, cork), and this one is read as sen. These are just a few of the many examples, so knowing radicals and their common reading will certainly help you read new, unknown kanji you have never seen before!
A very good book that will help you learn kanji, is the Kanji and Kana book by Wolfgang Hadamitzky and Mark Spahn. This book goes through all the jōyō kanji in an organized order. Every kanji comes with up to five example words in which the character is featured, and these words are composed of kanji you’ve seen before – at least, if you go through the order in this book. I have found this very helpful as it re-introduces characters in example words, so you’ll have a chance to re-practise these ones as well while you’re practising the current character.
Again, repetition is the key. I have scribbled many, many pages with repetitions of these kanji as I went through the book. Keep practising if you want to be able to write kanji on a daily basis.
Where to go from here?
A good online source of Japanese language learning is Tae Kim’s Guide to Learning Japanese. It is awesome, but it requires you to be able to read hiragana. They also have an awesome section on Japanese grammar.
I also like the grammar book series by Seiichi Makino and Michio Tsutsui. These books are actually heavy reference books, and they are very detailed. For example, many expressions in Japanese are very similar in meaning, but these books will explain what the subtle differences are. So for the student who wants to understand the subtle differences, these books are a must.
- A dictionary of basic Japanese grammar
- A dictionary of intermediate Japanese grammar
- A dictionary of advanced Japanese grammar
I have all three of them, and I have to say that (1) can be a good reference book for beginners, but (2) and (3) require you to be a bit more comfortable with Japanese. If you are practising for JLPT N2 or N1 levels, (2) and (3) will be excellent resources.
I hope this article has helped you deciding which way you want to take on your adventure in learning Japanese. Please let me know in the comments section! Also, if you have any other advice – please throw them in the comments section as well!
Essential Japanese Grammar by E.F. Bleiler
The Handbook of Japanese Verbs by Taeko Kamiya
The Handbook of Japanese Adjectives and Adverbs by Taeko Kamiya
Japanese Kanji and Kana by Wolfgang Hadamitzky and Mark Spahn
A Dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar by Seiichi Makino and Michio Tsutsui
A Dictionary of Intermediate Japanese Grammar by Seiichi Makino and Michio Tsutsui
A Dictionary of Advanced Japanese Grammar by Seiichi Makino and Michio Tsutsui