The writing systems in Japanese are often seen as insurmountable challenge to chose who speak English or use the Latin Alphabet. However, that’s far from the truth. There are plenty of English speakers who’ve learned to speak Japanese.
If you want to learn a new language, it will always be a challenge. It doesn't matter if it is a European language such as French, Spanish, or Portuguese, or a language that doesn't use the Latin alphabet, such as Arabic, Korean, Mandarin Chinese, or Japanese.
As often happens, people see the artistic nature of the Chinese characters used in Japanese kanji and they have no idea where to start. After all there is no way of deciphering a sentence in Japanese if you have no prior experience of the language.
But if you dedicate yourself to learning the language you will reap the rewards in the long run.
With Japanese being in the top 10 most spoken languages, the advantages of being able to communicate in this language will open many doors.
But is it really harder to learn than any other foreign language? Let's find out...
How to Speak Japanese Fluently
Are you getting ready to study or work in Japan? Is not speaking Japanese going to be a major stumbling block? While in the 1990s and 2000s, Japanese businesses didn’t often recruit foreign employees, things have definitely changed in recent years.
In that time, Japan’s visa policy has changed quite a bit as well, and there are a number of countries that can benefit from special visa dispensation. However, one of the most important requirements for anyone wanting to get a job in Japan is that they speak Japanese to a decent level.
Obviously, once you’re in Japan, you’ll be expected to speak their language. This is why it’s absolutely necessary to be able to speak Japanese and read kanji, hiragana, and katakana in order to live and work in Japan.
Although it's not the only way to learn the language, learning Japanese in Japan is the best way to become fluent.
But what do we mean when we say you need to be fluent in a foreign language? It means you can speak to your colleagues, customers, friends, etc. on a daily basis. Broadly speaking, you should be able to ask and answer questions at the very least.
As a foreigner you will more than likely learn Nihongo (the type of Japanese learnt as a second language). In order to be conversational in a new language, you usually need to have a vocabulary between 1,000 and 5,000 words, and the same applies to Japanese. When talking about fluency, this number jumps up to around 10,000. However, you can’t just learn any 10,000 words. You should focus on the most commonly used words. Once you get to this 1,000-word mark, you should be able to start having everyday conversations with anyone you meet.
Of course, fluency is more than just how many words you know. In order to speak to Japanese people, you need to familiarize yourself with the intricacies of Japanese; grammatical structures, verb conjugation, and of course Japanese vocabulary.
But your language learning will need to go beyond just studying Japanese grammar. In order to speak to Japanese people in their native language you will also need to learn about Japanese culture, too. But don't worry, whilst studying Japanese, you will learn about the culture, and vice-versa.
Take a Japanese tutor to help you.
Should You Take a JLPT Exam?
The JLPT (Japanese-Language Proficiency Test) is the official exam for establishing your level in Japanese. There are two qualifications:
JLPT 1: The highest of the two levels.
There are many people who say that passing the JLPT 1 means that you’re fluent. However, no qualification is perfect. The JLPT is a listening and reading exam. At no point do you actually have to speak Japanese. You can pass the exam just by listening, understanding, and reading, but as you probably know, speaking is one of the most demanding parts of learning a language, and this test doesn't test your Japanese pronunciation skills.
There are certain jobs that require you have the JLPT 1 or 2. However, that might not be enough. If you end up getting a telephone interview, you’ll have to be able to speak as well as ask and answer questions. At this point, the JLPT won’t help you.
Learn Japanese: It Isn’t More Difficult Than Any Other Language
Where does the idea that Japanese is difficult come from? Learning Japanese is probably easier than you think. While people often say that the most difficult languages to learn are those that don't use the Latin alphabet, this only affects the reading and writing aspects. Speaking is no more difficult than any other language, and speaking Japanese can be really easy if you know where to begin.
A lot of people say that English is really difficult to learn, after all. It really depends on your point of view. While the Latin alphabet might seem simpler, English can be much harder to read because how words are pronounced has no relation to the letters written on the page.
At the end of the day all languages are a mixture of verbs, nouns, adjectives, tenses, but to name a few. This means they all have the same ingredients, it is just the way that they are used which differs.
Although you can learn Japanese independently, it would be helpful to have someone to whom you can ask questions if you do get stuck.
But if you do everything right, there is no reason learning Japanese should be harder or easier than most other languages. If you want to learn Chinese, it is also considered difficult due to all the characters used in its writing system which Japan has borrowed for its kanji. On the other hand, while Chinese grammar can be quite simple, there are 4 different tones you have to learn.
What about Japanese, then? It’s a difficult language to read and write. As we said, learning kanji is no walk in the park. However, learning how to speak Japanese can be much simpler than learning to speak English.
Start by learning to speak Japanese. In addition to being far more rewarding, it’s a great way to get yourself motivated before you start learning to write it. It’s pretty sound logic. Everyone learns to speak before they learn to write, after all. It would be weird to see a Japanese person who could read and write perfectly in English but not speak a word, wouldn’t it? It’d be almost impossible for them to find a job. There’s no reason you should do the same.
5 Tips for Learning Japanese
There is plenty of advice for learning Japanese on the internet. In order to overcome the perceived difficulty of Japanese, make the most of this advice as it is designed to help you succeed. Here are a few things to bear in mind:
Be motivated: when it comes to learning a language, motivation is one of the most important factors. Why do you want to learn Japanese? Do you want to travel to Japan? Work in Kyoto? Wow your friends? Whatever your reasons for learning Japanese, they need to be enough to ensure that you remain motivated in the long term. You can’t learn a second language in just a few weeks or without a lot of hard work and consistency. If you don’t have the time to put in the effort, you may as well not even start.
Expose yourself to as much of the language as possible: With anime, manga, video games, and J-pop, you’re spoiled for choice in terms of Japanese-language media. Even if you don’t understand at the start, listening is the cornerstone of learning a language. Exposure to a Japanese language environment will help your ear get used to the sounds, tones, pronunciation, and the syntax used in everyday Japanese sentences (think of a japanese language course london). In linguistics, this is known as the input. This is the stage of learning where we store information. The more you input, the easier it is to move on to the output stage. This is when you start saying everything you’ve assimilated.
Find a Japanese mentor: Ideally, you should be looking for a Japanese native speaker to practice with who can help you speak as much Japanese as possible. Of course, you could still hang out with a non-native speaker. They can help you to practice regularly, learn about Japanese etiquette, and correct your pronunciation. Finding a Japanese teacher is also a good idea as they can help you how to learn the more complicated stuff.
Speak, speak, and speak: The output stage is an essential part of learning a language. No matter what language you’re learning, listening and reading isn’t enough, you have to talk! Even if you make mistakes, it doesn’t matter. It’s better than just repeating an expression in your head and never saying it because you’re scared of making a mistake. If you never speak, who’ll correct your mistakes? You can’t expect to become perfectly bilingual without ever daring to speak. Making mistakes and forgetting words is an integral part of learning a language that you can’t skip.
Learn the kana: kana (both hiragana and katakana) are part of the Japanese writing, and are essential for even basic Japanese. If you want to move onto writing in Japanese, you’ll have to at least learn these systems by heart. You can’t study Japanese writing without this step.
See an article on the benefits of Japanese immersion here on Superprof.
So What is the Best Way to Learn Japanese for English Speakers?
Undoubtedly the best way to learn is with a native speaker. And if you move to a Japanese speaking environment, you will learn faster.
As a new learner, there are a number of books to learn Japanese, and you might even be tempted to take an online Japanese course. But with these options you are unlikely to experience the accent, not to mention having no support if you run into difficulties.
For a long time, Japanese was thought to be an isolated language with no other languages related to it, until a relationship to Ryukyuan languages was established. However, since it has no relation to English, it can make it harder to read and write than European languages. But different languages have different challenges, and this particular one doesn't make Japanese any harder or easier to learn than other languages.
With that said, it’s probably a good idea to take Japanese lessons when you first start.
If you want to start speaking right from the get-go, you should look for a Japanese course or teacher who’s happy to do that. There are plenty of teachers who are happy to focus on speaking.
Do you remember your languages classes from school? Can you still “speak” that language? Most people will probably say “no” because the classes focused on passing tests by reading and writing.
Just because writing Japanese is difficult, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t learn it. Speaking Japanese can be a lot easier than several other languages.
It’s no harder for a native English speaker to learn than any other language, really. Japanese can be really easy to pronounce because there are so few vowels and a lot fewer than there are in English.
It’s not really necessary to take the JLPT since there aren't many people will ask for it and it doesn’t test speaking, which is probably one of the most important aspects when it comes to working in any given language.
With a lot of hard work, you can learn to speak Japanese. Start by trying to memorize a few Japanese words and phrases in order to build your confidence.
See an article on high school Japanese lessons here on Superprof.
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