Hi, I'm Angi
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Quarantine Day 19: How I'm Learning Japanese (Part 1)

Dat Quarantine Life continues, and while times are sad and scary, I'm grateful for so many things. One of them, oddly, has been my Japanese language learning. I've been studying Japanese for about a year now, and it's been a daily touchstone for me; a way to feel some semblance of normalcy. Each morning I wake up, make a cup of coffee and study for about an hour or so..

I thought I'd share what my process has been as a self-learner in the language. There's a kind of myth that Japanese is un-learnable, and while I won't downplay its difficulty, I find that idea to be completely false. And though my methods and resources may not work for you (depending on your learning style), I figured I'd share what has worked for me in the event that someone out there wants to embark on this journey. Perhaps it will give you ideas, or at least a place to start. So let's begin!

So here's the thing...Japanese is tough, and learning the language is no small undertaking. There are no shortcuts. If you're an English speaker, Japanese will give you no touchstones. There are few to no similarities between Japanese and English, so you'll most likely struggle a bit in the beginning and at various points throughout your learning. If you don't have a WHY for beginning this journey, you'll probably not last long. So nail it down before you begin.

This why doesn't have to be anything fancy! For example, I'm simply a Japan and Japanese language enthusiast. I have a deep interest in the culture, history and language of Japan. This interest began for me in Junior High and hasn't waned, and its my belief that the best way to get a deep cultural understanding of a place is to learn its language. I plan to travel there more frequently in the future, and want to be able to read and communicate in Japanese. See, nothing fancy! What is your why?

Japanese has three alphabets. Yes, THREE. The good news is that the first two you need to learn - Hiragana and Katakana - are quite easy to pick up.  They are both syllabary systems, meaning each symbol's sound is a syllable, rather than a single letter. So for example the symbol か is pronounced "ka" る sounds like "ru" and も is like "mo" as in "Mo kanji, mo problems." Okay, terrible joke.

Hiragana - which I pulled the examples from above - is like the base recipe for the entire language, so start there. There are only 46 letters, and even better some of those are simply what I like to think of as transformations on the basic theme via what are called dakuten and handakuten. Ever see a Japanese character with two little lines or a little circle next to it? That's what I'm talking about. What this does is change the pronunciation a bit for certain characters. So in the first example above か would visually become が and be pronounced "ga" now. It seems a bit hard at first - simply because of that whole "lack of relation to anything in English" thing - but soldier on and you'll find it's not that difficult.

And in even better news - Katakana has exactly the same pronunciations as the Hiragana syllabaries, but it just looks different. So sound wise, they're the same. Katakana is mainly used for foreign-borrowed words, foreign names, and for stylistic reasons. You'll run across Katakana far less than you do Hiragana which makes it, in my opinion, harder to learn. But only because you won't be seeing/reading it as much and will quickly forget how to pronounce them. So drill, drill, drill!

Where to learn these? There are a TON of resources, so take your pick. Most of them use mnemonics - or learning characters by association with something else - and let me tell you...mnemonics will become your BEST FRIEND, especially when you get to kanji. Just make sure that whatever resource you use has audio pronunciations you can listen to, so that you know you're saying them correctly.

Also, I know you're thinking - should you learn to write hiragana and katakana? It really depends on your goals, and your learning style. If you just want to be able to read a manga or watch a Japanese TV show, there's really no need. But if you find it helpful to write things down when you're trying to commit them to memory, you may want to take the time to learn. The cool thing is that any kanji pronunciation can be written in hiragana, so even if you don't learn how to write the kanji for a word, you can always break its pronunciation (also called "reading") down into hiragana. Be aware, however, that when learning letters in Japanese, there's a specific stroke order so it can take a little while to learn.

This is where Japanese has earned its reputation as being super difficult, for good reason. There are roughly 50,000 kanji (though this number is argued constantly), roughly 2,100 or so of which are common use. Did you faint yet? It's a lot fam. But not impossible! As I said before MNEMONICS ARE YOUR FRIEND! Each kanji represents a word or idea. For example 森 means woods or forest. And doesn't it look just a like a cute little stand of trees? They aren't usually this obvious, but the ones that are like this are sure as hell easier to remember!

Where it gets trickier is how to read, or pronounce, each kanji. Each one has at least (often times more) two readings - one derived from Chinese (also known as the onyomi pronunciation), and one that is native Japanese (also known as kunyomi). The reason for this is pretty complicated, but it essentially boils down to the fact that when the Chinese came over to Japan with their writing system, the Japanese already had a verbal language. So the language that already existed in Japan kind of had to figure out how to incorporate the new writing system and its pronunciations.

My absolute favorite resource for learning kanji is Wanikani. It is a lifesaver! Wanikani uses a spaced repetition flash card system to teach you kanji, step by step. The system is set up in two sections - Lessons and Reviews. As you learn new kanji from the lesson section (and yes, they provide mnemonics to go along with them, but you can always make up your own if they aren't resonating with you), they're moved over to the review section. The more you get a particular kanji correct, the less frequently you'll see it. Eventually, if you continue to answer correctly, the kanji is "burned" meaning it's now in your long-term memory. Hooray!

If you keep getting it wrong, however, the kanji will drop down a "level" and reviews will appear more frequently until you start answering correctly. I've found Wanikani to be an incredible resource for my learning, and I'm actually quite astounded at times by what I've learned and how easily/automatically it comes to me. Here's a great starter guide on how it all works. And because Wanikani doesn't have a native phone app, I use Tsurukame to study on the go. It syncs with your Wanikani account, and works perfectly!

When you first start out, Wanikani will seem verrrrrry slow. You'll only get a few new lessons and reviews a day. Just give it time. As you move higher in the system, you'll long for the days of Level 1! I promise. My advice? Keep up with your reviews. They add up quickly, and if you get behind you will want to pull your hair out. Ask me how I know.

I waited a bit to start in on grammar. This may not work for you, but I felt I needed to get a few kanji under my belt before I jumped into sentence structure and the like. I also decided not to use a traditional textbook. Again, this may not work for you and you might want a more structured approach to grammar. In this event, I've heard good things about Genki (which seems to be the standard for Japanese studying in school settings), as well as Minna no Nihongo (also often used in schools).

For grammar I'm using Bunpro, which I quite like because it mimics the set up of Wanikani, which is a learning method I'm very comfortable with. While Bunpro itself doesn't explain nitty gritty grammar rules per se, they have wonderful links out to various resources to help you along.

I also use a bit of LingoDeer, which reminds me a bit of Duolingo, but in my opinion is waaaaay better for Japanese. Your mileage may vary on this one! Again, there are a ton of resources on this, so pick what works best for you.

As you start on Wanikani, you'll naturally begin to pick up some vocabulary based on the kanji you're learning. But you'll need to supplement. Again, there are loads of resources, but I quite like Kitsun for this, which uses a (wait for it...) spaced repetition flash card system to teach you new words. Other folks prefer Anki, but I found Anki a bit impenetrable. Like, I'm trying to learn a tough language here...please don't ask me to also learn a bit of light programming just to be able to use your system! The benefit of Anki, however, is that it's free. So if you have the brain space for it, go for it! Kitsun works similarly, but isn't free and I should ain't cheap. However, Kitsun's ease of use and the fact that you're not limited to using it for Japanese (you can create whatever flashcards you want) makes it, IMO, a worthy investment.

THESE ARE JUST STARTING POINTS. I'm still very early in my learning process, so I'm just sharing what has - so far - worked well for me. I also can't overemphasize enough - listen to as much spoken Japanese as you can. Doesn't matter where its from or whether or not you can understand it right now. Just getting the language into your ears is a must!

There are so many more resources I use to pull all of these elements together. Watch a bunch of shows on Crunchyroll and poke around on YouTube, Reddit and the Wanikani community threads for LOADS more. We're very fortunate to live in an age where your ability to learn is limited only by your curiosity, and Japanese is no exception! So take advantage of whatever you can find to help you along.

Best of luck on your journey! Your learning of Japanese will be helped along by curiosity, determination, consistency and yes mnemonics. Happy learning friends! ありがとうございます!