Top 10 Japanese hacks

Whether you've been studying Japanese for years or are considering giving Japanese a try, the following 10 hacks and simple tricks can help you to learn Japanese fast and effectively.

1. Start with Sounds

Now that you've decided to learn Japanese, it's time to dig into the language learning process.

But where should you even begin?

The answer is simple: sounds. Learning how to hear, pronounce and recognize written Japanese sounds is a great place to get started even before you begin memorizing words and their meanings.

In order to do that, you're going to need to learn the Japanese alphabet.

You might have heard that Japanese is easy to speak, but hard to write. That's because it uses THREE sets of characters.

First, there are the phonetic alphabets - Hiragana & Katakana - where a letter represents a sound syllable.

The Hiragana Alphabet:
    A I U E O
     あ   い   う   え   お 
k  
s  
t  
n  
h  
m  
y      
r  
w        
n          
The Katakana Alphabet:
  A I U E O
a   ア     イ     ウ      エ     オ  
k
s
t
n
h
m
y    
r
w      
n        
 

Listen to how each syllable is pronounced - note how they are kept SHORT and CLIPPED, in contrast to our drawn out vowels in English!

あ い う え お
か き く け こ
さ し す せ そ
た ち つ て と
な に ぬ ね の
は ひ ふ へ ほ
ま み む め も
や ゆ よ
ら り る れ ろ
わ を

Then there is Kanji, where Chinese characters represent a word - or if not a word then at least a meaningful unit of language.

Some Kanji are derived from pictures or images. See how the word for "mountain" (yama) is formed:

Japanese is written with a combination of Hiragana and Kanji, while Katakana is normally reserved for foreign or borrowed words. For example, you would write your non-Japanese name in Katakana. 

名前ケニーです。
(
Watashi no namae wa Kenī desu.)
 "My name is Kenny"

Audio

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Kanji is highlighted in red, Katakana is blue, and Hiragana in black. Can you see how these three writing systems are used together? 

The first step in your Japanese adventure is to spend some time just focusing on Japanese sounds and spelling so that they are no longer foreign to you.

Study the Kana alphabets (Hiragana & Katakana) and practice pronouncing different Japanese words.

Listen to pronunciation guides on YouTube, watch movies or series with subtitles in Japanese and read along, or use Rocket Language's Hear It Say It audio recognition to learn to recognize and repeat sounds.

2. Learn on the Go

Let's face it: you probably have a busy life, and it's difficult to set time aside to study Japanese. Fortunately, however, one of the best ways to take advantage of your free time is to learn Japanese on the go.

A great way to do this is by taking advantage of American academic and polyglot Alexander Arguelles' Shadowing Technique.
 

This language learning technique involves listening to Japanese with earphones and simultaneously repeating it out loud while walking outdoors. There are three main keys to this exercise:

1. Walk outdoors as quickly as possible.
If you feel shy or embarrassed to do this in public, find a road or path where you can speak Japanese loudly and proudly without many other people around you.
2. Maintain a perfectly upright posture.
According to Arguelles, maintaining a good posture contributes to this method's efficacy.
3. Articulate well and in a loud, clear voice.
This is very important in order to effectively learn the rhythm, structure and sound of the language.
Say the sounds as soon as you hear them. Don't wait for the entire word. In fact, at first you may only catch a small portion of what's being said and sound like you're speaking nonsense.

This may feel silly at first, but its results will amaze you. By speaking out loud as soon as you hear Japanese sounds, you're developing a sense of how the language is structured and sounds, even if you don't understand everything that's being said.

Don't worry if you can't catch and repeat everything. As you improve, you'll gradually begin developing the accent and rhythm of Japanese. You'll also understand more and more words as your studies progress.

Audio

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Some other great tricks for learning Japanese on the go include taking advantage of your morning subway or bus commute by studying flashcards or listening to Japanese eBooks or music in the car.

Make learning Japanese a part of your life, and you'll be amazed how much time you have to study when you learn on the go.

3. Learn the Practical Words First

Learning a new language requires learning a lot of new words. There's no way around it. Many people use their "bad memories" as an excuse for not learning a new language, but we have some comforting news for these people (and even those with great memories): you don't need to know all--or even the majority--of the words in a language to be able to speak it well. In fact, you don't even need to know half!

We don't even use the majority of our active vocabulary on a daily basis, and only need about 3,000 words to understand  95% of common texts. By extension, just 300 words make up 65% of all written and spoken materials. That means there are approximately 625 words and their forms that can help you to go beyond a beginner level in any language, and 1,500 that can have you communicating at an advanced level.

So what does that mean for you as a Japanese learner?

By learning the practical words first, you can cut your work in less than half. You'll be able to communicate faster and with significantly less effort.

Check out this list of Wikipedia's 10,000 most frequent Japanese words. It may sound like a lot, but if you learn all of them, you'll be able to understand 92% of Japan's Wikipedia! 

When it comes to Kanji, it helps to follow the prescribed Kanji that Japanese schoolchildren are taught for each year of school. This conveniently organized list is called 教育漢字 (kyōiku kanji ), meaning "education kanji", and will help identify the most common Kanji and their readings.

Here are some of common Japanese words to get you started... 

4. Take Advantage of Loan Words

Even if Japanese is considered one of the most difficult languages for English speakers to learn, this fascinating language actually borrows plenty of words from English. These words can save you time when learning some Japanese vocabulary.

That's where Gairaigo comes in.

Gairaigo (外来語), or "borrowed words", are Japanese words with a foreign origin, normally English. These words, usually nouns, are written using the Katakana alphabet. 

There are countless Gairaigo, but let's take a look at just a few of them:

  • スーパ [sūpa]: Supermarket
  • キス [kisu]: Kiss
  • バター[bata]: Butter
  • コンピューター[konpyūtā]: Computer

Now  here's a handy tip! Many of these loan words can be easily turned into verbs just by adding する (suru) "to do".

For example:

  • キスする [kisu suru]: To kiss
  • ドライブする[ doraibu suru]: To drive
  • アナウンスする [annaunsu suru]: To announce
  • チャレンジする [charenji suru]: To challenge
  • ターンする [tān suru]: To turn

You can also add the word for "person", 人 (jin), after country names to make nationalities in Japanese

  • アメリカ人 [amerika jin]: American
  • カナダ人 [kanada jin]: Canadian
  • フランス人 [furansu jin]: French

Pretty easy right? Imagine all the words you know already!

These words are definitely your friends and can make learning some Japanese vocabulary much easier and faster.

Here's a handy list of Japanese words that are easier to learn because they sound like English words or have English roots.

Take advantage of them!

5. Hooked on Mnemonics

As many who have learned a foreign language already know, simply repeating vocabulary usually just isn't enough. Sometimes, our brains need a little extra jump start to remember tricky words.

That's where mnemonics come in. Basically, mnemonics involve telling yourself a fun, goofy or memorable story, song, or rhyme to associate with a particular word.

For example, one trick for memorizing the Japanese word  食べる (taberu), "to eat", is to pun-ify it! 食べる (taberu) sounds like "table", which is where  we sit "to eat".

In Japanese, you can use mnemonics to help you remember Hiragana or Katakana letters (the phonetic alphabets) by relating the sounds to images, for example:

From "Kana Flashcards" by White Rabbit Press

You can also use mnemonics  to recognize and remember Kanji (Chinese characters).  Take this example of the Kanji for "bright":

From "Remembering the Kanji" by James Heisig
It may sound like a lot of extra effort, but you'd be amazed at how effective mnemonic devices are in making your learning faster. They're also fun!

And remember, if you have troubles memorizing a word, phrase, or grammatical rule, you can always make your own!

6. Keep a Japanese Vocabulary Notebook and Flashcards

Keep a journal, document, or book with all of the Japanese vocabulary you learn in one place.

Not only does keeping a vocabulary journal help you to organize all of your new words and phrases, but the very process of writing down a word and its translation, notes, image or mnemonic device helps you to memorize it.

This notebook can be transformed into study-friendly flashcards by using flashcard generating programs like Anki for your phone or computer. You can use your Anki flashcards on your phone to learn on the go when you're on the bus, walking to work or simply waiting in line at the grocery store.

Your Japanese notebook and flashcards are a fantastic future reference for studying. They can be used anywhere and anytime you have a few free minutes.

7. Break down the words

Let's be honest: every time you look at a Japanese word, it probably doesn't sound anything like its meaning. So how can you learn it faster?

Break down the word into a simpler form.

Let's take the word たべもの (tabemono), or "Food", as an example.

You can break it down like this:

  • たべ (tabe) = means “eat.” (In this case, たべる or 食べる "to eat" is the base verb).
  • もの = means “thing.”
  • Put them together, and you've got "eat thing". It makes sense, doesn't it?

The great part about this is that you have now learned three words for the price of one! This will come in very handy when you start to break down more words in the future.

Then, you can start to recognize other words that have similar parts, like this one:

のみもの

Now, if のみ means "drink", then what do you think this word means?

If you guessed "drink thing" or beverage, then you are right!

You can use this helpful hack to break down any new Japanese word. Remember, though, that this isn't always easy to do when you're starting to learn the language. With time, it will become easier and easier, and it will really help increase your vocabulary and even improve your grammar!

8. The Scriptorium Technique

Linguist and polyglot Alexander Arguelles developed another excellent technique for improving your writing and speaking skills simultaneously. It's designed to help you to really focus on the individual components of Japanese.

The Arguelles' Scriptorium Technique involves three basic exercises:

  1. Read a sentence out loud.
  2. Say each word aloud again as you write it.
  3. Read the sentence aloud as you have written in.

The purpose of this exercise is to force yourself to slow down, pay attention to detail and look up anything you don't know. It's important to be thorough and meticulous. Find good source material and then copy it carefully, saying each word out loud as you go. Make sure to take the time to check any vocabulary or grammar that you're not sure about as you come across it.

The Scriptorium Technique is a fantastic way to refine and polish your Japanese language knowledge, especially at intermediate and advanced levels.

The key to mastering this technique is to take your time, be as detailed and thorough as possible, and remember...practice makes perfect.

9. Read, Watch, Listen

Movies, music, television series, the radio, books, newspapers, magazines...Anything you can read, watch, or listen to are unbelievably useful for learning.

You've probably already heard cases of people teaching themselves a language by watching movies or playing video games. While these things don't directly teach grammar, they do help learning it significantly.

Reading, watching and listening has a remarkable effect on your brain. Simply by being exposed to the language, your brain is put to work. It starts trying to understand new words by making connections to previously learned words and seeks to make sense of any new structures. Basically, you're learning without knowing that you're learning. After a while, you'll find yourself using words and constructions that you didn't even study! This is all thanks to your brain's ability to soak up vocabulary and grammar while reading a book, listening to the radio, or watching a series.

If you're extra motivated to learn and practice, use the Shadowing Technique and learn on the go while listening to and repeating your favorite Japanese radio station, podcast, TV series or movie. This is a great way to pick up the rhythm, structure, sound and rules of the Japanese language without needing to hit the books.

10. Interact...Without Needing to Travel

Try to interact in Japanese on a daily basis. Speaking as much as possible is one of the best tricks to learn a language fast. Here are some great ways to practice speaking (and writing, its slower version) as much as possible:

  • Speak with a friend, family member or neighbor in person
  • Write a letter or email to a friend, family member, co-worker, or yourself
  • Visit a local store or neighborhood where Japanese is spoken and interact with the locals
  • Join a weekly or monthly Japanese conversation group...or start your own group!
  • Speak online with a friend, family member, co-worker, or fellow language learner (Skype is great for this)
  • Contribute to a blog or forum in your target language
  • Sing along with music in your target language
  • Watch a movie, series, documentary or video and repeat the character's lines
  • Read a passage from a book, newspaper, or magazine out loud
  • Talk to yourself in your target language (this really works!)

The key is to interact, speak, and think in Japanese as much as possible. This can be done anywhere and everywhere. Take advantage of all of the excellent Japanese learning resources, and make Japanese a part of your daily life!

By following these ten language learning hacks, you'll learn Japanese faster, better, and enjoy doing so.

さようなら!
Sayōnara!

Signature

Sayaka Matsuura 
Rocket Japanese


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