So you're living in Japan and the only Japanese you know involves food names like sushi and tempura or brand names of electronics or cars. Some other expats may jokingly reassure you that you can get around with just saying "sumimasen (excuse me)" and "arigato gozaimasu (thank you)," but you can only get so far just by pointing and gesturing. Whether you are scheduled to be in Japan for just a few months or a few years, learning Japanese will definitely make your stay more enjoyable and fulfilling.
Japanese may be hard to master but it is not so hard to learn. Since the best way to learn Japanese really depends on the person and the situation, here are 7 starting strategies—active and passive—to pick up the language and improve your listening and speaking skills. Active strategies usually involve a social setting while passive ones often mean exposing yourself to the language through various media and absorbing it. Feel free to mix and match to fit your learning style and available time.
Learning survival phrases such as how to order food and how to ask for directions is always a good idea in any foreign language. Even if you can't string together a proper sentence, learning the words for the 5Ws and 1H—who, what, where, when, why and how—will help you convey your basic intention. Of course, you would want to follow up with being able to say "thank you" in Japanese, and it's not hard to learn these situational set phrases.
To aid your learning progress by building your knowledge naturally, it's good to learn some basic phrases such as, "what is this?", "what does this mean?" or "how to say XXX in Japanese?"
For example, "what is this?" is most commonly expressed as "Kore wa nan desu ka?" The more times you ask that question, the more chances you give yourself to learn new words and phrases. Another useful phrase is asking someone to repeat him or herself: "Mou ichido itte itadakemasu ka" is a polite way of asking someone to please repeat something. Because learning phrases like this helps you to survive in the present while also learning something new for the future, it is certainly among the best ways to learn Japanese language!
Keeping a notebook or journal of your learning journey is useful to whip out at times when you want to jot down what you've learned or use a survival phrase you've prepared.
Of course, learning Japanese isn't just about using complete words and phrases. If you listen to a Japanese conversation for a while, you'll soon notice that space-fillers such as "eettoo", "nee", "sou desu ne" or "eettoo desu nee" are often used. To express surprise, "eee" is said with various intonations. These fillers are called aizuchi. While many people might first think of aizuchi as literal translations of "uh," "ummm…" and other English-language fillers, they are actually important for showing that you are listening and also to express your emotions on the subject at hand. These are basically noises or sounds that anybody can copy quite easily, but are essential to making you sound natural in the language and putting the person you are speaking with at ease. Do try adding these fillers such as "sou, sou (That's right/I agree)" to express agreement. Of course, some universal body language such as nodding or an interested facial expression helps to convey your meaning without any doubt.
Gestures are also an important part of Japanese language. Some of them are cheeky, such as lifting your little finger to indicate "girlfriend" or something to do with the fairer sex, or the "okay" sign in the West refers to "money" in Japan. Counting with your fingers in Japan is slightly different, where you point your fingers to your open palm to indicate "five plus X" - X being the number of fingers you are adding to your other hand's five fingers. Finally, unlike in many Western countries where you point to your chest to signify "me" or "myself," in Japan people point to their noses. Learning just a few of these local gestures might help you speak louder than words.
Speaking of words, many people may find the lack of cognates (common words between languages) to be one of the most difficult things about Japanese—until they realize that that isn't true at all! There is actually quite a large penetration of foreign words, especially English words, into everyday language. Many of the words and phrases used may not retain their original meaning, but many basic nouns do. You'll just have to learn how to pronounce those words a bit differently than you're used to. Pronunciation of foreign words and names is governed by the katakana Japanese alphabet, and it's best to learn how it sounds so as not to leave your Japanese listener confused. For example, if you say "cup" as you normally do you are likely not to be understood, but if you say "kappu" as it is written in katakana, you'll immediately see a spark of comprehension and probably a filler response of "aaahh"! Look at the chart above to get an idea of how the consonant-vowel pairing (and the single vowels) are pronounced in Japanese.
If you're wondering how to pick up Japanese language naturally, One obvious way is to make friends with the locals, preferably outside of the classroom—language exchange activities and Japanese classes, while valuable in themselves, can only go so far. You can start by starting a conversation or greeting your neighbors, which is where survival phrases, gestures and even the occasional katakana-English word might come in handy. Or go to the local baths, bowling alleys, concerts or festivals, places where you can get to know people and catch snippets of local banter. Once you become a regular in such settings, from the sento to the park, and people recognize you, it'll be easier to strike up a conversation and become casual acquaintances.
Keeping notes on what you've learned, interesting words or phrases both fun and practical is very helpful for expanding your vocabulary. Try learning the kanji characters as well as the furigana pronunciation, or write the phoenics in English at least. If you hear a phrase and don't understand what it means, jot it down and check your dictionary later. At the moment you hear a given word or phrase, it may best to check with a local (perhaps using another favorite survival phrase, "Kore wa dou iu imi desu ka?", or "What does this mean?"), which allows you to understand how it's used in conversation.
You also might consider a diary-style journal, with entries about things you're doing on a given day, connecting them with your Japanese study ("Today I went to a Japanese 'teishoku' restaurant. It was delicious! 'Teishoku' means 'set meal' and usually includes rice and miso soup along with the main dish…"). If you want to learn to write Japanese along the way, you might even dare to write your journal in Japanese! However you do it, writing a journal is definitely one of the best ways to learn Japanese.
Japanese television is a great way for learning Japanese as it is casually spoken, but this differs depending on what you watch. If you watch local variety programs, you'll often find that the language used isn't always polite and there may be a smattering of dialects from various prefectures. You can also begin to discover Japanese humor! Subtitles are often shown on the screen both during the program itself and the commercials, which makes for a fun and convenient way for visual learners to study Japanese—be sure to practice reading the hiragana, katakana and kanji and note these down in your learning journal to use in your own conversations later.
In Japanese dramas, you'll also see daily "slices of life" and notice local habits and customs such as taking off your shoes at the door, how and what people eat, etc. Of course there are police dramas and the like, but the average romantic or family drama showcases the ordinary lives of salarymen, housewives and high school students. With some exceptions, the language used is "hyojungo," or standard Japanese, which can be safely used both with friends and in the business world. Some of the most locally popular Japanese movies are known as "o-namida chodai kei" ("tear-jerkers"), drawn-out family dramas or romances that end in a good cry. These have universal themes and are likely easy to understand even without subtitles, and you might learn something—that is if you can keep from leaving your seat for a tissue.
If dramas and movies are the meat and potatoes of passive Japanese learning strategies, perhaps anime is the junk food! Anime, or Japanese animation, is a collection of hugely popular subcultures mostly based on Japanese manga comics. Stories run the gamut but often have an element of the fantastic, so learning Japanese through anime might be less practical than with other methods. But on the plus side, developing a strong interest in anime can also help in making friends, as even adults love it. Whether you choose variety shows, dramas or anime, do try rental, as you can watch a given program as many times as you want. Please be aware that English subtitles are by no means a given even with DVDs or closed-captioning.
Reading manga is another fun way to pick up kanji, as long as you learn the hiragana and katakana alphabets first. Furigana, hiragana characters written above kanji to explain their meaning, often accompanies kanji in manga to cater to a younger audience that may not be familiar with more difficult Japanese characters. This also allows you to learn the words and phrasings at your own pace.
There are lots of idol groups in Japan and you'll often hear their songs being aired on the radio, TV or in shopping centers. Just like everywhere else, though, Japan has its share of musicians in every genre, even rap! Memorizing lyrics can certainly boost your vocabulary, though these poetic phrases may not be applicable in usual conversation.
Just as with watching dramas, one of the best ways to learn Japanese language through music is purely by repetition—accompanied by the other study methods above, listening to something many times over and you're bound to understand something! Of course, it also helps if you're already interested in a particular group or genre. After getting familiar with various songs and singers, why not ask your newfound Japanese friends to join you in a karaoke session - then you can apply your passive learning actively! There are many songs available on Amazon Music.
Last but not least are video games such as role playing games where reading and listen to native instructions provides another entertaining hint about how to pick up Japanese. Also, depending on where you buy your games, you may have the ability to adjust the audio/visual elements of your experience so that you are listening to Japanese with English subtitles or vice versa.
You'll also be able to pick up kanji and words that are used across various platforms, such as the PC and various applications on your smartphone. Of course, there are also games that are aimed at how to study Japanese, such as "My Japanese Coach" on the Nintendo DS. Playing popular games will also give you a common topic to chat with the locals about, which goes again to one of the best Japanese learning strategies around: Making friends!
There's no better place to learn Japanese than in Japan, so make good use of the opportunity to expose yourself to various types of learning, from active to passive, and pick up as many learning tools as you can such as these helpful apps. As long as you keep your eyes, ears and mind open, you'll find yourself being able to express yourself in Japanese—not just for survival but for social interaction, which will ultimately make your time here more productive and fun.
One thing that you will need to be aware of is that there are different levels of politeness in the Japanese language. Knowing when to use polite forms of some words is very important during work. Not only do you need to worry about being polite to customers, but you need to be careful how you speak to your co-workers and superiors as well. Here is a short list of some polite and useful Japanese business phrases that will be useful in the workplace.
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