Fog Creek Software
Discussion Board




Pointers to learn Japanese.

Hi All,

I am sure that the JoS wide readership will include readers who are interested in learning Japanese or who have already mastered it.

I wanted to know what all books/resources/cassettes/CDs you suggest to help accelerate your Japanese learning??

Any suggestions are most welcome! :)

JD

JD
Thursday, March 18, 2004

Yes, the is no topic JoS readers cannot address :)

Japanese is one of the hardest languages in the world for non-native speakers to learn (English is one of the others, along with Basque)

I should know, I have a Masters degree in it (!)

My lecturer used to say: after 3 years of University level Japanese you should be at the stage where you can tell if your interpreter is gypping you.

Dare I ask, for what purpose do you wish to learn it? That might help suggest an answer.

Les C
Thursday, March 18, 2004

A friend in university took Japanese in his last 3 years of engineering.  After graduation, he worked as an engineer for a year or so, continuing a bit of conversational Japanese.

Then he went to Japan to teach English (which we always joked about - he had a thick, thick New Zealand accent) and never came back.  He taught for a year or so - whatever the maximum allowed was with his visa - then the last we heard he was running a bar.  It's been a few years since anyone heard from him, we figure he's still there.

Sorry, that has nothing to do with your question...

Except that it's hard to beat the total immersion you get when you're actually there, surrounded by the language.  Visiting Russia a couple years ago, I found that the sheer necessity of figuring out Cyrillic made it go quite quickly - luckily it's fairly easy to sound words out (badly) once you know the alphabet.

Ward
Thursday, March 18, 2004

Here's an article about learning Japanese:

http://www-unix.oit.umass.edu/~thoureau/japanese.html

Glenn. B. Hansen
Thursday, March 18, 2004

Like previous replys, it does depend on what you want to learn - some people just want to speak, others want to read. Being immersed in Japanese is your best bet for becoming efficient in the language. I've been in Japan over 4 years, but still everybody wants to speak to me in English for their English practice =(

I would strongly advise picking up hiragana/katakana as a foundation, as a guide to pronounciation. Without those you're going to be stuck with misleading romaji text like "dou itashimashite" (pronounciation: doh ee-tah-she-mash-teh). You'll find a basic guide to hiragana/katakana in many books.

Japanese for Busy People (kana version!!) is a good start, although I got bored towards the end of book 3. Don't worry about kanji unless you're really serious, and even then I would delay your descent into kanji until later (assuming you have no Chinese kanji experience).

For speaking, you definitely need a Japanese someone who is willing to listen to you, whether that be a teacher or friend.

My biggest recommendation is try to find interesting Japanese things to keep you going through tough times, like a book you really want to read or some Japanese programmes (doesn't have to be anime) you'd want to watch.

Please feel free to e-mail if you have any specific questions.

Joel Goodwin
Thursday, March 18, 2004

>> I would strongly advise picking up hiragana/katakana as a foundation, as a guide to pronounciation

No offense, but I'm always puzzled as to why people stress the importance of kana so much. Look, you need to recognize the jôyô kanji (2.000 of them chinese characters) to read adult-level Japanese. So... learning the few ten's of phonetic signs that are kana is the least of a student's problem.

The reason Japanese is considered difficult to Occidentals, is that it's not linked to European languages, its writing system takes years to master, Japanese is not used anywhere else besides Japan... and  very, very, very few Japanese will speak in Japanese to a gaijin, no matter how willing and able he is about learning the language.

However, since speaking Japanese isn't that hard (the pronunciation is a lot easier than tone-based languages like the chinese dialecs, for instance), you might want to zero in on conversation first, and delay the reading/writing part for later.

As for books... following what I wrote, I would recommend that you choose textbooks that present Japanese in rômaji, ie. in romanized Japanese (the vast majority of books written by Japanese publishers insist that you learn to read Japanese).

And here's a couple of dictionaries I find good:

Nihongo Jitsuyo Jiten
http://www.3anet.co.jp/english/text_e_dictionaries.html

http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/4770019831/ref%3Dsim_books/103-0158577-9412632

Fred
Thursday, March 18, 2004

I learned Japanese while living for a few years in Japan.  You can't beat the speed and the accent you get living in the country and speaking it every day.  It's relatively easy to find a job in Japan too, either in IT http://www.jobsinjapan.com/jobs/it.html or English teaching http://www.jobsinjapan.com/jobs/teaching.html

Matthew Lock
Thursday, March 18, 2004

> The reason Japanese is considered difficult to Occidentals, is > that it's not linked to European languages

Actually Japanese *is* considered to be related to European languages by some linguists, particularly Hungarian and Turkish.

http://www.yourdictionary.com/languages/altaic.html
http://www.linguistlist.org/~ask-ling/archive-most-recent/msg05452.html

Matthew Lock
Thursday, March 18, 2004

> very, very, very few Japanese will speak in Japanese to a
> gaijin, no matter how willing and able he is about learning
> the language.

Just to debunk this too ;) I have had no trouble speaking Japanese with Japanese people.  Only a small percentage of people in Japan actually can speak English so after arounf 6 months of study in Japan you almost entirely speak Japanese all day.

Matthew Lock
Thursday, March 18, 2004

>> Actually Japanese *is* considered to be related to European languages by some linguists, particularly Hungarian and Turkish

I know that, but it's still pretty hairy... In any case, you get the point.

>> Just to debunk this too ;)

No debunking. Any gaijin who's lived in Japan has experienced this. Not that I blame the Japanese for this, since, as you point out, very few gaijin can speak the language, but it's a pain to be constantly spoken to in broken English when you are at the intermediate-advanced level.

Reminds me of the good-bye letter Edward Seidensticker wrote to be published in a major English-language daily. Hearing an other "Haro!" in a café when you have translated the Genji Monogatari and know more about the country and language than the average native... does get on one's nerves :-)

Fred
Thursday, March 18, 2004

> No debunking. Any gaijin who's lived in Japan has
> experienced this. Not that I blame the Japanese for this,
> since, as you point out, very few gaijin can speak the
> language, but it's a pain to be constantly spoken to in
> broken English when you are at the intermediate-advanced
> level.

As a gaijin in Osaka and Tokyo, I honestly never experienced this more than once or twice in Japan, and in those cases I just kept on talking in Japanese.

I consider it the height of rudeness for someone to answer you in another language - it's so patronising. And it works both ways, I have been to a lot of dinner parties where some annoying gaijin insists on speaking in simple Japanese when others are speaking in English.

Matthew Lock
Thursday, March 18, 2004

Actually I found that if I walked up to a Japanese person and started with "ano..." or "eto desu ne" ("um" or "well.." in English) it usually worked a lot better. I theorised that those words are kind of like handshaking that modems do to establish which communication protocol to use.

Matthew Lock
Thursday, March 18, 2004

We don't have the same experience then, and it doesn't match the experience of a lot of gaijin I met/read about.

Regardless, until non-Asian-looking foreigners (or foreigners, for that matter) represent a significant % of the population, the Japanese can't be blamed in assuming that a foreigner can't speak the language. It's just a pain that they prefer to stick to broken English even though you can perfectly hold a conversation in Japanese.

Note to the original poster: You know you have reached a decent level in spoken Japanese when they stop complimenting you on the pathetic little phrases you've learned (The familiar "Watashi wa Amerika-jin desu". "Ahh, Nihongo, jôzu desu ne" pattern)... and remain stony faced :-D

Fred
Thursday, March 18, 2004

JD,

get to Japan if you can.  Assuming a year's immersion in Japan is out of  the question I'd suggest....

...enrol in a class but use more than just the class text book. Unlike a previous poster, I'd advise against Japanese for Busy People - although it it is  used by many teachers. (Particularly in the first book  you spend too much time in polite expressions and not enough in the real grammar at the hear t of the Japanese being studied).

...do study hiragana / katakana (collectively the kana). Not necessarily for their immediate usefulness to you but because it is fun and you get the 'wow' factor of being able to read at least some Japanese. I'd recommend 'Remembering the Kana' by Heisig (now one book , formerly two separate books, Remembering the Hiragana and Remembering the Katakana)

...do all you can to get to intermediate level before you get bored with Japanese. (This probably means spending time in Japan). Once you are an intermediate speaker it is way easier to get past the 'Japanese won't speak English' barrier and also you can study by watching TV soap operas if you can get your hands on them.

Drop me an e-mail if you like, I've a few notes I can send over.

Gambatte kudasai.

Slough Bloke
Thursday, March 18, 2004

I think Japanese is actually easier to learn than a lot of other languages--your main problem is going to be vocabulary, because there's so little overlap with English.  But from a grammatical standpoint, Japanese has no masc/fem/neuter, only a small # of verb forms, no moods (subjunctive, optative), and only a couple of irregular verbs.

I'd second the advice to stay away from kanji for a while, even if your main goal is reading, not speaking.  The kanji are just a straight memorization issue, and you don't want to get bogged down too much in that while your brain is still trying to make sense of the word order in the sentences, or the politeness levels.

Lastly, one thing I haven't seen anyone mention (maybe 'cause it's so obvious) is, you should carry index cards everywhere you go, with whatever words you're currently studying (or revising).  Read them whever you get a couple of minutes--standing in line at the grocery store, waiting for the elevator, whatever.

Gav

Gav
Thursday, March 18, 2004

Glenn, thank you.  I had been searching high and low for that URL, when I realized I had forgotten to bookmark it many months ago.

If you finally get around to wanting to learn kanji, there are a couple of good places online.

First, an intro to the concepts of kanji, hiragana, katakana, kana.  It's an old site (last update was 2002), and incomplete, but you can at least get a feel for what's going on.
http://www.kanjisite.com/

For memorizing kanji, my favorite site is this:
http://www.msu.edu/~lakejess/kanjigame.html
Great quick and dirty kanji learning.  Choose a white background to save your sanity, though.

Paul Brinkley
Thursday, March 18, 2004

You don't need to know anything about pointers to speak Japanese.

pdq
Thursday, March 18, 2004

> I think Japanese is actually easier to learn than a lot of other
>  languages--your main problem is going to be vocabulary,
> because there's so little overlap with English.

Another myth to debunk!

Japanese has literally tens of thousands of English words in it: computer, tv, "maker", coffee, salaryman, rice, etc etc

It seems like the Japanese have decided that all new words will just come from English from now on. Pretty much 99% of words written in Katakana are from English, albiet pronounced  in the Japanese style.

Matthew Lock
Thursday, March 18, 2004

As several people have already stated, it's ridiculous to state that Japanese is the hardest language to learn.  Now, it may be the world's hardest language to learn to read and write.  They use Chinese characters, but pronunciation for the same character can vary based on context.  My understanding is that in the Chinese dialects, a character always has a consistent pronunciation.

But Japanese pronunciation is pretty easy, and the grammar is extremely predictable and consistent.  English (and probably many other languages) has far more "exceptions" to rules.

I know several people have said to stay away from Kanji at the beginning, and there's some sense to that.  But I would recommend jumping around, doing some Kanji, doing some grammar study, doing some "listen-and-repeat" pronunciation drills, finding new ways to insult people, etc.  This will keep things interesting for you, and help prevent burn out.

Another thing I found to be fun is kids books.  They're usually in hiragana or simple kanji, and the vocabulary's simple.  Manga that's kid and teen oriented often have "furigana" (hiragana over kanji as a pronunciation guide), which is a great tool for building vocabulary without constantly getting stuck on kanji you don't know.  I even bought kanji books meant for Japanese school kids, that had all the kanji meant for a particular grade level.  You can then say to yourself "I know as many kanji as a Japanese 1st/2nd/etc. grader!" :)

Finding a Japanese person who wants to exchange English conversation for Japanese conversation is a great asset, too (easiest place to find this is a University).  Once you have some proficiency watching Japanese videos with English subtitles might be useful.  What I really want, personally, is Japanese dvds with Japanese subtitles; having both reinforces each other, and often being able to see the characters helps you understand what's being spoken.  All the Japanese dvds I've gotten here, though, have English subtitles but not Japanese.

Learning Japanese is difficult enough that you can continue doing it for a life time.  For me, the difficulty and challenge of it is also what made it fun.

Jim Rankin
Thursday, March 18, 2004

>Japanese has literally tens of thousands of English words
> in it: computer, tv, "maker", coffee, salaryman, rice, etc etc

I think 10s of thousands is an overstatement, to put it mildly.

>It seems like the Japanese have decided that all new
> words will just come from English from now on.
>Pretty much 99% of words written in Katakana are from
> English, albiet pronounced  in the Japanese style.

That's pretty true, but open a random novel (with lots of conversation) and see how many words are written in katakana.  Those words aren't going to get you very far in a normal conversation.

Gav

Gav
Thursday, March 18, 2004

>>It seems like the Japanese have decided that all new words will just come from English from now on

As you know, back in Meiji, they used to invent Chinese compounds to translate all those new concepts that they borrowed from the West. Thing is, Japanese has so few phonems, they sure are a pain to distinguish when speaking. Hence the more varied "English" words.

BTW, nice sites for Engrish:

http://www.engrish.com/
http://www.geocities.com/Pentagon/Bunker/2260/engrish.html
http://www.geocities.com/Pentagon/Bunker/2260/sonofeng.html
http://www.geocities.com/Pentagon/Bunker/2260/revofeng.html
http://www.aaroninjapan.com/quotes.html

>> As several people have already stated, it's ridiculous to state that Japanese is the hardest language to learn. 

... especially without giving the element of comparison :-) It _is_ a lot tougher for, say, an American to reach the same level of competence in Japanese as when learning, say, German or Italian, ie. languages that are linguistically closer to English. Besides, spending a little time in a truly foreign land like Japan is a good experience to realize how much Occidental countries share in terms of cultural references. This also has an impact on how easy it is to pick up a language.

>> Another thing I found to be fun is kids books

I second that. Generally speaking, I think comics _combined with standard classes_ are a good way to learn how the language is actually spoken in daily life.

>> What I really want, personally, is Japanese dvds with Japanese subtitles

Anybody knows of good sites that sell Japaneses DVDs with Japanese sub-titles and can be ordered from overseas?

To the above, I'll add that NHK Radio Japan Online has been available for listening for a couple of years now
http://www.nhk.or.jp/rj/index_e.html

Fred
Thursday, March 18, 2004

Another vote for immersion; I learned Romanian by living in Romania (and studying hard).

A way NOT to learn:  Listening to little kids.  It seems intuitive that you could learn a foreign language more easily by listening to children who speak it, but you need to remember that they don't primarily learn it from other kids, but from adults.  So should you.

If you should have the opportunity for immersion, there's a book (if you can find it) called Language Acquisition Made Practical that has a method you can try; its primary purpose is to get you to do a lot of speaking and interacting in the language.  It also has a lot of generaly knowledge about languages that will help (like, say, the difference between aspirated and unaspirated consonants).

Kyralessa
Thursday, March 18, 2004

http://www.aaroninjapan.com/quotes.html

I recommend reading this when you feel frustrated in your studies.  It will:

1. Make you laugh
2. Realize you're not the only one challenged by learning a foreign language.

Jim Rankin
Thursday, March 18, 2004

"Actually I found that if I walked up to a Japanese person and started with "ano..." or "eto desu ne" ("um" or "well.." in English)"

And while someone is speaking "Soo desu ka?" (is that so), "Heeeyyy" (Really?!), etc. do wonders for making someone think you understand them and are hanging on every word.  Doing this appropriately will do more to make you seem fluent than memorizing the Jouyou kanji :).

Jim Rankin
Thursday, March 18, 2004

"Language Acquistion Made Practical : Field Methods for Language Learners" by E. Thomas Brewster, Elizabeth S. Brewster

http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0916636003/

Fred
Thursday, March 18, 2004

Wow,
I never thought about asking that question here..
I have been roaming the net sometimes trying to find some forum for learning Japanese and how to get computer tools (editors, email etc) to work with Japanese characters. (Yes, I use Debian! :))

I work for a Japanese computer company and I have always been interested in other cultures, languages and people. I deal a lot with Japanese collegues mostly via email and I would realy like to get started in knowing more.

So much so I bought "Working for a japanese company" by Robert M. March on Amazon. I also bought Peopleware, The pragmatic programmer and the nondesigners design book (2:nd ed.). Joels list didn't have any Japanese book suggestions.. :))
So far I have read 95 pages and can not realy review it. It has a lot of stories about real life experiences so far. Problems encounterd in different projects in different companies. Not so much advice yet, although the stories teach you some lessons.

In some things I recognise the way communication handled at work and I'd just like to improve my communication.

Düsseldorf, Germany is the Japanese capital in Europe. All the Japanese companies have their headquater there.

Fredrik Svensson
Thursday, March 18, 2004

Man,

so many replies!

Thanks everyone!
To clarify, it's not me who is learning Japanese, it's my girlfriend! :) She is looking to mainly concentrate on speaking Japanese as she plans to move to Japan in short time. Certainly she is not going to neglect reading/writing Japanese, but emphasis is on speaking. I will pass on all these responses and see if she finds anything useful! :)


Regards,
JD

JD
Thursday, March 18, 2004

No, Japanese for Busy People is *not* the best book, I grew to hate it. However it can give you a leg up if you intend to take lessons - most courses seemed to be based on it. A debate that rages endlessly is 'should I learn all that polite Japanese or just get the basics and ignore all that stuff?' I think the answer's in-between somewhere.

I'd still vote in favour of learning the kana characters; before learning kana I found progress very slow. It might have something to do with constant reinforcement - as there is a lot of kana amongst the kanji on display in Japan. (Plus, I wouldn't advise learning kanji without kana first, kana is like glue between the kanji in Japanese writing)

One other point I'd like to address, although not strictly related to Japanese - getting a job in Japan has *not* been very easy in the last 2 years. Things are finally improving, but it ain't as good as it was back in 2000. I found this an interesting resource though: http://www.daijob.com/wij/en/colum/terrie.html

Joel Goodwin
Thursday, March 18, 2004

*  Recent Topics

*  Fog Creek Home