Travel, Teach, Live in Japan
Japanese is spoken by 125 million people worldwide, making it the 9th most-spoken language in the world in terms of native speaker population. It is also associated with one of the most powerful national economies in the world.
The decision to study Japanese should not be taken lightly as it can be very challenging. However, given its complexity relative to most other languages, learning and mastering Japanese can be a very rewarding experience.
I have personally been a student of the Japanese language since 1989, having passed the first level (most difficult) of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test in 1995. Since then, I have taught, listened, written, read, spoken and worked with the Japanese language in various business and social settings for a combined total of thousands of hours. Along the way, I have learned a number of lessons concerning how study Japanese more efficiently that I would enjoy sharing with you.
Here are 3 key concepts for learning how to read and speak Japanese:
#1: Work the various language centers of your brain daily: Cognitive neuroscientists tell us that the use of language requires the cooperation of multiple parts of our brains. For me, this theoretical finding plays out in my life whenever I polish my Japanese skills. I have found that to improve my speaking ability, for example, reading books is only indirectly helpful. To really improve my speaking ability, I need to - you guessed it - speak regularly. It is helpful to look at your learning process in terms of four distinct but interrelated dimensions: speaking, listening, reading and writing. I suggest creating a chart and logging the number of hours you are practicing each of these areas each week. That way, you will easily be able to recognize if you have been neglecting one or more of them. Hint: if you have no study partners, practicing speaking by reading dialogue aloud.
#2: Connect theory to the living language: For the first four years of my exposure to the Japanese language, I studied only theory of Japanese but got no real practice with native speakers. However, a year or two later I was stepping off of the airplane for the first time in Japan and suddenly the whole world transformed itself into one giant textbook (I know, what a nerd, right?). Suddenly, the theoretical understanding I already had gained a new dimension of significance, and at that moment I ceased to see Japanese as merely a concept but rather as a real, living language. It was an epiphany which really helped speed up my learning. Tip: do something every day to reinforce the connection in your brain between what you are learning and how people actually use Japanese every day, such as watching free videos on YouTube, renting movies, making a friend who is a native speaker, and reading manga.
#3: Get into kana as soon as possible: Most beginner-level textbooks use a lot of romajii, or Romanized spellings of Japanese words. I suggest learning the 50 basic hiragana symbols (and soon after, 50 katakana symbols) and thereby jump right into studying kana-only materials. This will help you get over any feels of intimidation you have about the writing system and before you know it you will be learning and mastering kanji.
(You can find more key concepts in Part B of this article).
The complexity of Japanese means that there is always a new level of understanding and mastery to be reached. This fact makes the learning of Japanese a very worthwhile pursuit that can provide you with a lifetime of enjoyment.
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