5 tips for beginners in Japanese

Adam, 15, recently spent two weeks at EuroTalk for work experience. He’s passionate about languages and is currently learning Japanese. Here are his top tips for other beginners.

In November 2012, I decided to start taking Japanese lessons once per fortnight. As a younger learner, I thought it might be interesting for you to see some challenges that I have already faced while learning. If this post was about a language like French, quite a lot of the tips would be generic and applicable to other European languages, such as Spanish or German. Therefore, I hope that most of my tips will remain unique, just like the Japanese language.

Here are 5 tips for starting Japanese, from the viewpoint of a beginner!

1) Consolidate your kana before tackling Kanji

When I started to learn, I was pretty frightened at the prospect of learning kanji. In fact, I only started to learn kanji about nine months after starting, because my teacher advised me to gain a basic knowledge of the sound system, grammar, vocabulary and kana alphabets before learning. She was absolutely right – I couldn’t have imagined being able to pick up any of the theory behind kanji without the basic grounding first. Often, the On’Yomi reading is written in katakana. Considering I had been learning for 9 months at the time, my katakana knowledge was pretty poor, which inhibited some of my kanji learning. Getting a basic knowledge of Japanese is definitely a must before learning kanji!

2) Choose your learning materials wisely

There are a variety of Japanese learning materials out there, ranging from internet courses to books. It is important to choose learning resources that can cover every aspect of the language, without leaving any gaps in your required knowledge. This is why I would recommend the ‘Japanese for Busy People vol. 1’ book. It covers grammar, various verb forms, vocabulary, information on the culture, particles, conjuctions, sentence structure and counters. Another important feature is that it features no kanji, allowing you to consolidate your knowledge of kana and general understanding of the language. One negative aspect could be the fact that the book is quite business-orientated. In terms of grammar, this is fine, and means that politeness is emphasised throughout. However, some of the vocabulary might not be useful to some learners. For me, it’s quite funny to be able to tell a taxi driver how to get to the main branch office! Otherwise, you could use online vocabulary resources and of course don’t forget the uTalk app!

Studying Japanese

3) Don’t overload yourself with kanji readings!

When I learn languages, I want to know everything when I first come across it, even if it is really complex. For example, when I started to learn German, I was really eager to learn the perfect tense within the first few lessons. It was exactly the same as in French – just use ‘haben’ and add the past participle, right? Of course I failed, because I put the past participle straight after the auxiliary verb, rather than at the end of the sentence. In Japanese, I wanted to learn all the readings of a kanji as soon as I had learnt it. Eventually, I would have probably ended up using it incorrectly because I had just memorised the words associated with that kanji, without ever encountering them in a sentence!

Instead, you might want to try and learn a new kanji of a word that you have encountered frequently, rather than learning multiple new words from a kanji. In my Japanese book, I have a section for all the vocabulary that I need to learn for homework. I started to look up the kanji for each of those words. If I came across a kanji that I already knew, I would right the corresponding word down, with its kanji written next to it. Furthermore, if an unknown kanji came up a lot, I would write it down with the familiar readings next to it. This method ensures that I learn the readings of words that I am already familiar with.

4) Be organised

When learning Japanese in particular, I like to keep a routine to ensure that I learn kanji, vocabulary and do homework well. Some learners might not like repetition, but I think it’s one of the best ways to learn. By revising for 10 minutes every evening and recalling the information in a mini-test the next day, I can make sure that I remember vocabulary, grammar and kanji well. I like to take advantage of the brain’s ability to work better after waking up. This means that I only learn new words in the morning, during weekends, and revise words in the evening. Furthermore, I think it’s also important to test yourself after a longer period of time following the learning of a word, to ensure that you have maintained the word in your mind! However, it’s also important to state that our brain works even better passively, so doing some occasional Japanese writing, reading and listening is good when learning. You might pick up some new vocabulary without even trying! Try and be organised by placing short revision sessions, mini-tests and activities consistently over an allotted period of time.

5) Make your own learning resources

Lots of people have different methods when learning. I am quite old-fashioned, and approach language with the ‘no pain, no gain’ approach, using repetition and regular tests. This means that I need to locate places to find materials, suitable for my way of learning. Owing to the surprisingly low amount of Japanese kanji resources online, I recently made my own kanji grid on MS Word with 19 rows, and 15 columns. I could then put the kanji and their Japanese readings on the top row, with room for 15 kanji on one grid. I then had the perfect number of rows to have 10 boxes to practise each kanji, 7 boxes to test myself on one kanji everyday, each day of the week, and then had one box left over to test myself 7 days later. This is an example of using a self-made material, suited to my way of learning. I find that everyone has their own way of learning kanji, whether it be using flashcards, writing it repetitively or doing online exercises. Find the best way for you to learn Japanese!

I really enjoyed writing this post, so I hope you enjoyed reading about this. Even though I’m very passionate about language, I still make mistakes, so please forgive any potential inaccuracies in this post!



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