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Top 4 Tips for Getting to Know Japanese

A guide to beginning an expansive language.

Gee, if only I could read this sign.

Japan is famously one of the top countries for business language-learning. It's even become a television trope not to offend the ever-important Japanese client. It's a daunting task: formal situations, complex and specific vocabulary, and new cultural cues all contribute to the stress of learning for business. It's far more than "survival" language that one can learn in a few sittings. 

I've been learning Japanese since I was 13 years old. I'm only now turning 24 and have only just gotten to be able to speak it. Although I'm unable to make my time as a child more useful, I am able to pass on the knowledge my screw-ups, wandering, and procrastination mistakes so you won't make the same ones. I've collected what I've realized to be the most important things to remember in learning Japanese over the years, and perhaps some of these even apply to language in general.

1. Killing Kanji

The Japanese writing system is made up of three set of characters, hiragana and katakana are 42 characters each. They can be thought of as an alphabet of sorts. Kanji is more than 7,000 characters and most of them far more complex. This is mostly used for nouns and verbs. They're the dreaded "picture characters" in writing. Luckily, you aren't expected to know all of them, and the most common ones are simple to get a grasp on.

I've found that incorporating kanji-learning in from the beginning has been much more successful. There's nothing to fear when it comes to it! They can be a daunting task, but learning a language is a daunting task in itself, and kanji is most definitely a part of the language. In fact, because the human brain doesn't see individual letters, but rather words as a whole, learning kanji early on can make Japanese easier from the start! 

2. Don't Compare, Equate

In your head, when you hear the word "dog," you don't think about how to say it or what it means. You know what a dog is. It's a dog! You think to yourself, "Yeah, okay, a dog." When you learn a new language, the tendency is to think, "Oh, いぬ. That means dog." and then you base your image off what the word "dog" means rather than just knowing what "いぬ" is. 

This can be dangerous, especially when it comes to words with multiple meanings and words that aren't used the same way in your native language. The word "dog" is simple enough, but what about the word "まだ" which can mean "still, yet, only, or unfinished"? What about words like "いただきます" which means "I receive," but has connotations far beyond that because of set words? 

The goal is to remove that extra step of association. In learning, one should go from [Target Language →Native Language →Understanding] to simply [Target Language →Understanding] with the target language, in this case, being Japanese. Don't worry if you start to mix languages up: it just means you're learning it!

3. Listen Actively

You may think that all that the Japanese TV you're watching is helping you learn, but let me tell you now that unless you're deconstructing it or listening with the utmost concentration, it's not. There are enough nerds out there who watch anime and can't speak a lick of Japanese to prove it (although anime is a pretty poor example of the language, typically). 

Watching TV or listening to music is a great way to exercise your ears, but you must focus on it. I can take some time to catch up while I comprehend what's being said, and they'll already be on something else, for instance. Pay attention to the formality or the setting. If you aren't actively listening, at least try to pluck out some vocabulary you recently learned or a sentence pattern that you can fill in. 

4. Practice, Practice, Practice

It's not all kanji drills and flash cards. To learn a language, it's absolutely imperative that you use it. For instance, you can study music all day. You can know every note and how it sounds, but if you've never played a song, what's the point? Language is about communication. Langauge-learning is embarrassing. It's messy and frustrating. Language is an ocean of unrelenting and ever changing rules and nuance and slang, but that shouldn't stop you from trying. That's what all of this is leading up to, isn't it? Talk to yourself, eavesdrop on native speakers, do language meetups and exchanges. In the end, a language is pointless if you don't use it.

I'm by no means an authority on language-learning nor Japanese. I am, however, a seasoned mistake-maker. These small points are things that I think are often overlooked when trying to engage the daunting task of a language. You may be just starting with a long road ahead, or a seasoned language learner delving into a new project, but the feeling of being able to communicate with someone you couldn't before is one that will pay for itself immeasurably not only in work but in the enrichment of your life.

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