Chances are that as someone who has an interest in things of a Japanese nature, at some point you’ll want to learn a bit of Japanese language – even if it’s just to be able to shop online! We’ve had quite a few questions about learning Japanese recently (get in touch!), so Samuel and I have put our heads together to come up with a few top tips for acquiring some Japanese language skills.

As our language abilities are wildly different, Samuel will provide a few suggestions for advanced learners while I’ll be getting stuck in at beginner level. These are all pretty personal tips rather than must-follow rules, but we hope you’ll find them useful…

How do you learn best? From a textbook, or from a teacher? I know I tend to pay more attention when I absolutely have to, so language classes work really well for me, as I know that if I was left to my own devices with just a textbook then I’d be doodling in the margins and looking out of the window in thirty seconds. If you feel you’re better off with a book, then get stuck in! Don’t try to learn too much in one go, or you’ll burn out and your expensive books and hand-made flashcards will just end up collecting dust.

Oh, I only learnt 800 kanji yesterday…” I think we all know someone who takes kanji a little bit too seriously! Yes, kanji is important, but so is being able to order a cup of tea – all those compounds won’t help you when you need a brew a.s.a.p.! Subjectively for me, being able to hold a conversation with someone is more important than being able to write 自動販売機 (vending machine) flawlessly. If being a kanji king or queen is your main aim then that’s great, but for the rest of us don’t let intimidating kanji put you off learning the practical side of the language as well.

Like quite a few people my age, I became interested in Japan through fashion and music, and the wonderful overlap between the two. After many hours plugged in to headphones, it’s certainly strengthened my listening skills, even though I still have no idea what Dir en grey’s Kyo is singing about! On a more serious note, I learnt a lot of clothing vocabulary from browsing Japanese websites – try Google Chrome’s browser translation option, then switch back to the original Japanese and see what you remember.

Okay, confession time: when I’m in full-on language learning mode I like to imagine that I’m hosting a cooking show in our kitchen. I name all the ingredients, try to use the correct verbs for what I’m doing, and then decide if it’s delicious or too spicy or needs more salt… you get the idea! As well as being a bit of a weirdo in my own head, it forces me to make up sentences and learn new vocabulary – I don’t think I’ll get my own real-life show just yet though. I also try to keep a paper diary in Japanese as often as I can, and I’ve found this really useful; at the moment as part of my long-running love-hate relationship with plain form verbs, I’ve been writing solely in plain form to help it get stuck in my head. I’m not quite there yet, but I think it’s working!

Extra credit: With the modern miracle that is the internet, access to Japanese language resources has never been easier. Make friends on Lang8, and take a look at NihongoUp for starters. I think it’s now almost impossible for anyone outside Japan to sign up to Mixi, but you can always try starting your own blog in Japanese or even simply setting your Facebook language to Japanese.

Samuel’s advice for more advanced learners:  So you have a good grounding but you can’t read a light novel without a dictionary and having a conversation still feels like you have to “try” – well welcome to the grim no man’s land you will be in ’til you have lived in Japan for at least a couple of years.  Even after months spent working in a Japanese office, I still never feel like I am “fluent” by anyone’s standards – my electronic dictionary still comes with me to meetings and filing taxes still fills me with dread.  But the important thing to accept is that is OK, you are on the right path and the fact that you have come this far is evidence that you can go further.

So what can you do to push yourself further into fluency, especially if you are outside Japan?  Surround yourself in Japanese.  Turn your computer langauge settings into Japanese, turn your phone settings into Japanese, play games in Japanese, read manga, books and magazines in Japanese.  Now, because that can be a bit of a chore, the best thing to do is try and do things that you enjoy, but in Japanese.  Case in point, I play all my games in Japanese, sure that can make an RPG a bit of a chore (negotiating with demons in Megaten can be a bit of a learning curve) but you do learn and you do enjoy it.  The other prime example from my personal history was reading the first couple of Harry Potter books in Japanese, because I had read them before I knew where the story was going and thanks to the overall level of language I don’t think I had to reach for the dictionary more than a handful of times.

If you are in Japan you don’t really have any excuses not to improve, but the reality of formulaic conversations, familiar locations and trotting around with your headphones in means you can easily never break out of your comfort zone.  Push yourself, for example, whether it is a shop staff, hairdresser or a friend/co-worker, try to say something with meaning over the normal pleasantries.  Try to read a newspaper; I do still read the tabloids in Japan over the ‘proper’ papers, but it is still a bit of challenge and well worth your time and energy.

As for the fashion world, the absolute best thing you can do to improve your fashion specific Japanese is to get one magazine you know and love and read it from cover to cover.  All the magazines have their own specific vocab, so stick to one at a time and work through it inch by inch making sure you understand and have absorbed every single word.  Once you have done this with a couple of mags, you can move on to a dictionary of fashion terminology, but by the time you are this point you are more than capable of studying on your own…

There you go, a few of our tips for learning Japanese – good luck everyone, and let us know how you get on!

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6 Responses to Tokyo Telephone’s Top Tips: Learning the Japanese Language

  1. Corey Lee says:

    Some great points here. I totally agree; the best way to learn a language is to make it a part of something you enjoy doing. that way it never becomes a chore.

  2. Rebecca says:

    @ Corey Lee – Great to hear from you!

    I’m so glad you liked this post – I just get a bit bored of people telling me to write kanji 50 times every day! I think you’re absolutely right, make it part of something you enjoy. 🙂

  3. Leanne says:

    Eep, a lot seems too far beyond me, but I do need to spend a bit more time in the books now my course finished (and I missed the second half due to moving, travelling, nursing hangovers etc!) Since I’m coming in 2 months, I need to set myself some weekly goals…and practice aloud, like you do in the kitchen 🙂

  4. Rebecca says:

    @ Leanne – Trust you to remember the embarrassing bit! 😉
    It seems scary now, but just focus on what you enjoy and then add a little Japanese to it – reading the front cover of a fashion magazine for example. Learn how to look up kanji, practice your hirgana/katakana and maybe learn a couple of names of trends. Much more fun than a textbook!

  5. Leanne says:

    Great ideas, Rebecca 🙂 I now have an excuse to go to Kinokuniya and buy the last Japanese fashion mags, n’est-ce pas?

  6. Rebecca says:

    @ Leanne – I’m finally at a point in my life where I can justify fashion magazines as a business expense.

    Let me know if you’d like to me to put anything aside for you before/after you’re in Japan 🙂

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