Maybe you had a Japanese friend when younger; maybe you grew up a fan of anime and manga. Maybe your favorite food is sushi; or you have an interest in studying Japanese literature. Despite the varying reasons for why one might want to begin a study of the Japanese language, one question remains the same for all who decide to take on the task: Where to begin?
If you’re in high school, see if your school offers Japanese as an option for foreign language learning. If not (many high schools in America do not, the high school I graduated from being one of them), see if any local community colleges or universities in your area have classes that are offered to high schoolers. If that doesn’t prove successful, there’s always the Internet! We’re lucky to live in an age where so many valuable resources are available to us with the simple click of a button. There are many online Japanese learning websites, such as YesJapan.com and ReadtheKanji.com, that can help you get started with learning Japanese. My biggest recommendation is to memorize hiragana and katakana right away. These are the two basic phonetic writing systems of Japan (We’ll get to Kanji later, which are the traditional Chinese characters).Hiragana is the phonetic writing system used to spell and pronounce all words originating in the Japanese language.Katakana is the phonetic writing system used by the Japanese to spell and pronounce all foreign words borrowed by the Japanese language (we do this in English too, with words/phrases like å la mode, which is French…we just don’t spell these words/phrases in a different alphabet. The Japanese do).
Hiragana looks like this:
Katakana looks like this:
If you can master hiragana and katakana, congratulations: you can now pretty much write or say anything you want in Japanese (assuming you learn the vocab and grammar necessary to do so!). Many beginner learning resources use onlyhiragana and katakana to help teach students Japanese…children’s books in Japan are often written entirely in hiragana(and katakana). So – take advantage of all the online beginner resources out there, and also check out what your local library might have to offer! If you know you want to pursue Japanese in college (if college is your general game plan after high school) then make sure your colleges of choice offer Japanese (many more do than high schools).
When it comes time to master Kanji, either on your own or in school, definitely use online resources, as well as good Kanjidictionaries. There’s actually an excellent Kanji dictionary for the Nintendo D.S. – and there’s also a really fun Kanji learning app for the iPhone! Really take advantage of the technology that’s available for Kanji study, as learning Kanji is one of the most difficult parts of learning Japanese.
What are Kanji? Kanji are Chinese characters – and there are over 700 of them! The Japanese language changes these characters a bit from their original Chinese forms, and adds “Japanese pronounciations” to them which you will have to memorize. Learning Kanji is a tedious task, one that involves a lot of hard work and straight memorization. Try to find every opportunity you can to practice writing Kanji – make flashcards, carry a Kanji notebook, etc. And read! Read all you can in Japanese, to keep up your knowledge of Kanji, and of Japanese in general! You can find Japanese-language books on websites such as Amazon.com; you can also visit the Kinokuniya bookstore, if there’s one in a city near you (I know there’s one in New York City, for example).
If you are IN college right now, and you want to begin learning Japanese – sign up for classes (if your college offers them)! Start taking them right away – college foreign language courses are often rigorous, but rewarding. Students usually have class every day of the week, and are quizzed and tested often. This is a good thing! Learning a foreign language, especially Japanese, takes a lot of repetitive practice.
After signing up for those Japanese classes, start looking into study abroad options. Studying abroad in Japan is the bestthing you can do for your Japanese language study. There’s no better way to learn a foreign language than by living in the country where they speak that language natively. I’ve studied abroad in Japan twice, and both experiences were critical for my Japanese language study. Most universities want to help students study abroad, and will be more than willing to aid you should you decide to do so. If your universtiy or college does not personally have a study abroad program that goes to Japan, check out other schools – just because you attend a certain school does not mean you cant apply for programs at other schools – especially summer programs. Most summer study abroad programs are open to all students from all universities – some are even open to students that have already graduated. I urge you to speak with your study abroad office/advisers at your own college or university if you plan to study abroad…and if you do want to, start working towards doing so as soon as possible! Going abroad during college can take a lot of paperwork and effort ahead of time, but when you get there…it will all pay off!
Finally, if you’re out of college, but want to continue to study Japanese (or maybe you want to begin studying, having never studied it before), again, definitely check out all the online resources that are out there. There are also many options for work or school in Japan, too, that do not necessarily involve a university study abroad program. There are intensive language schools, such as KCP International, that will take anybody (who is serious about studying Japanese intensively, and who can afford the program), not just current college students. If you think you’d like to start a career in Japan, there are many ways to do so – mainly, by teaching English. The JET Programme and GABA are two companies/groups that hire English-speakers to work in Japan. Granted, these programs often require you to use English all the time, in order to do your job, but you will get the chance to live in Japan extensively, and as I have stressed before: living in Japan itself will help imrpove your Japanese skills – just because everybody there speaks Japanese!
So, you want to learn Japanese. No matter how old you are, what stage of school you are in, or where you happen to live: there are resources for you, on the Internet, in libraries, and at schools that can help you. Go to Japan, if you can afford it! Find ways to read in Japanese for practice – manga or comic books are great for this. Listen to Japanese being spoken as much as you can: download Japanese music, or watch anime without subtitles. Try to have conversations in Japanese whenever you can – places like our very own Japan American Society of Greater Philadelphia often offer free conversation clubs and meetings.
Take the advice I’ve suggested above. Sooner or later, you’ll find yourself learning.
You might even find yourself speaking Japanese!