Top 10 Japanese hacks
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 and katakana - where a letter represents a sound syllable.
The Hiragana Alphabet:
The Katakana Alphabet:
Listen to how each syllable is pronounced - note how they are kept SHORT and CLIPPED, in contrast to our drawn out vowels in English!
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Rocket Record lets you perfect your Japanese pronunciation. Just listen to the native speaker audio and then use the microphone icon to record yourself. Once you’re done, you’ll get a score out of 100 on your pronunciation and can listen to your own audio playback. (Use a headset mic for best results.) Problems? Click here!
Then there is kanji, where Chinese characters represent either a sound or a meaning.
Some kanji are derived from pictures or images. See how the kanji for "mountain" 山 (yama) is formed:
Japanese is usually 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:
わたし の なまえ は ケニー です。
Watashi no namae wa Kenī desu.
My name is Kenny.
In the example above, kanji is highlighted in red, katakana in 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 so that they are no longer foreign to you.
Study the kana alphabets (hiragana and 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 Languages' 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 what you hear out loud while walking outdoors.
There are three main keys to this exercise:
- Walk outdoors as quickly as possible.
Doing this will allow you to get used to speaking Japanese in a foreign environment. 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.
- Maintain a perfectly upright posture.
According to Arguelles, maintaining a good posture contributes to this method's efficacy.
- 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, you're developing a sense of how the language sounds and is structured, 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.
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 きょういく かんじ (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:
evening / night
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.
This is where gairaigo comes in.
がいらいご (Gairaigo) 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:
- スーパー (sūpā) "supermarket"
- キス (kisu) "kiss"
- バター (batā) "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."
- 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 (anaunsu 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 a country name to talk about 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. Get 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 たべる (taberu), "to eat," is to pun-ify it! たべる (Taberu) sounds like "table," which is where we sit "to eat."
In Japanese, you can use mnemonics to help you remember hiragana or katakana characters (the phonetic alphabets) by relating the sounds to images, for example:
You can also use mnemonics to recognize and remember kanji (Chinese characters). Take this example of the kanji for "bright":
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.
First, keeping a vocabulary notebook will help you to keep all the practical words you've learned in one place. It's also a fantastic future reference for studying and can be used anywhere and anytime you have a few minutes free.
In addition, the very process of writing down a word (alongside any translations, notes, images, or mnemonic devices) will help 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” (たべ (tabe) is the stem of the verb たべる (taberu) "to eat")
- もの means “thing”
Put these two 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 (nomimono).
Now, if のみ (nomi) means "drink," then what do you think this word means?
If you guessed "drink thing" or "beverage," then you are right!
beverage / drink
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:
- Read a sentence out loud.
- Say each word aloud again as you write it.
- 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, radio programs, books, newspapers, magazines; anything you can read, watch, or listen to is 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 have 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 Traveling
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
- contribute to a blog or forum in Japanese
- sing along with music in Japanese
- 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 Japanese (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, more effectively, and really enjoy the process.
Sayaka Matsuura: Rocket Japanese
Make It Stick With Rocket Reinforcement
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