Japanese Language and Culture

Self-Study Guide

When I first put this site up, I had been studying Japanese on my own for perhaps a year. A lot of my study time was spent on collecting and creating materials and figuring out strategies that worked for me. There wasn't much to go on. Bookstores' offerings on Japanese were sparse and not very good for someone whose goal was fluency rather than travel or casual interest. Amazon wasn't what it is now. Some online resources were available, but none of them comprehensive, and finding useful ones took lots of time.

After going through all that and getting to a place where I was finally making good progress, I felt I could share what I'd found out and maybe help other self-studying students to think about and set up their own self-study programs a bit faster. I know from comments I've received over the years that many people had found my guide useful, so even though I'm much further along in my study and can't write from the perspective of a beginner anymore, I do want to update and maintain this resource. The available support for Japanese self-study has dramatically changed in the intervening ten years, and so while many of my basic ideas are intact here, I've updated to include the newer resources.

At this point, my work would be about half done if I just send you over to JapanesePod101.com. They haven't paid me to advertise them: my admiration is genuine. Just as I wish my interest in Japanese had developed early enough for me to take university courses, I wish JapanesePod had been around when I started studying on my own.

As a resource, JapanesePod is so comprehensive and well constructed, it almost makes you forgive their relentless marketing. Some of the lessons (audio) are available as free samples, but for most you now need a basic subscription, which also gives you access to the PDF lesson notes. The lessons are fun to listen to, and it is simply not to be missed if you are self-studying, because listening practice with material at an appropriate level is one of the hardest things to replace when you don't have formal instruction.

Even beyond the advent of JapanesePod a few years ago, the available materials and the ability to lay your hands on them in the internet age has changed so much for the better. Now if you are starting out, there is a variety of good materials that are easy to get.

Creating a Study Program

If you are looking at working towards fluency, you need to create for yourself the same things that would be provided to you if you were in a formal study program: a goal, a plan, and a way to measure progress.

First set a realistic time-based goal. When I started my goal was to be basically functional in the languge in a five-year time frame, that is, to navigate basic tasks and manage basic general conversations. Also, I wanted to know enough grammar and vocabulary that I would be able to continue to learn more from context (conversations and reading). You might set a different kind of goal, for instance to pass a certain level of the Japanese Language Profiency Test (JPLT) within a certain amount of time.

From there, you can break your goal down further into specific measurable goals, such as "a 3000 word vocabulary," or "working knowledge of 1000 kanji," etc. within a specific time frame. It is important to draw up some specific numerical goals and track progress on them. It focuses your effort, and gives you a sense of what must be done next.

From there, you can build a curriculum that tracks by date exactly what you are setting out to accomplish. Your plan should include specific chapters to work, lessons to listen to, or topics to study. You should also include targets for a certain number of words or grammatical forms to learn in each particular tracking period.

So first you'll put this plan in place, and then work it and track your progress. Remember the Eisenhower quote "plans are nothing; planning is everything." You can revise your plan constantly to coincide with your realistic ability to work on the material or flow study around your life, but you need to have it to stay on track.

It's important not to slack off, because attaining even marginal fluency is going to be a lot of work and slow going, but it's equally important not to burn yourself out, because then you'll lose all motivation to move forward. Persistence is going to be your greatest asset.

So let's talk about the kind of things which should be a part of your plan. There are four basic skills that need to be well covered in a good self-study program: speaking, listening, reading and writing. In support of these skills you will work to acquire vocabulary and learn grammar and usage to put that vocabulary into meaningful and natural-sounding utterances or written sentences. Let's address the materials and techniques for getting there.

Textbook Work

It is important to have a good comprehensive textbook to guide and structure your other study. Whatever else you learn on the side, working through a good textbook prevents you from missing basic things and leaving gaps in your knowledge. It also provides material at a carefully measured pace.

Most textbooks are geared to classroom use, of course, so you may need to seek additional advice when you have questions (finding such help has become much easier with online forums). Exercises in textbooks are often written for teacher-guided interactions between students. You may want to find someone to work with, if this is feasible, or else simply practice being both parts of the conversation. A little imagination sometimes helps here.

Nakama is one good choice for a textbook. It has two volumes (equivalent to 1st and 2nd year university studies), and has workbooks and CDs to accompany each volume. It is geared to classroom study rather than self-study, but it is comprehensive in a way that many books advertised for self-study are not. The latter are aimed mostly at travelers and businesspeople and often aren't a good stepping stone to fluency.

One good point about Nakama is that it introduces Japanese writing immediately. If you find a different textbook to use, this is an important quality to look for. Rather than use roomaji (the use of the roman alphabet to write Japanese), you will be much better off if you are using hiragana (typically the first taught of the two Japanese syllabaries) right from the start.

Once you choose a text book, plan a certain pace through it and write it on your curriculum. For instance, maybe you can handle one chapter every two weeks.

Speaking and Listening Practice

Back when I first started, I used all three levels of the Pimsleur program to bootstrap myself into spoken Japanese. These worked well for me, and gave me the boost I needed to continue my studies. Nowadays, though, JapanesePod provides a much better alternative. Over the past several years they have created a huge amount of material at several different levels. Even if you don't want to pay for a subscription, the audio portions of the lessons are free. This is an absolute no-brainer.

Audio programs for travelers are definitely not what you want, so steer clear of those. Besides presenting only a travel-oriented vocabulary, their presentation techniques are quite often ineffective.

It is extremely important early in your study to hear and practice with good Japanese speech examples from native speakers. Obviously if you can get some form of instruction, this is the most valuable, because then you can get live feedback on your speaking. You may be able to find something at a local Japanese society or college that fits your schedule and budget, or find a tutor locally. If that's not an option, JapanesePod will fill the gap, but you need to be careful to imitate what you hear as carefully as you can.

Especially for self-study, it is important to internalize the correct sounds of Japanese. There are some basic differences in Japanese and English pronunciation that are not captured by romanized text used to represent them, such as the palatalized "shi" and "chi" sounds, the Japanese "r" sound, or the "syllabic n" nasalized vowel. It is also important to be able to handle "sokuon" (the small pause in sound between what are represented as doubled consonants in roomaji), or to distinguish in listening and speaking between long and short vowels. Furthermore, you need at least to be aware of the pitch accent, and in removing your own tendency to place stress accents.

These things are tough for any learners of Japanese, but the self-studying student must be additionally vigilant, since there is no external correction during the course of daily study and practice.

Although it will be incomprehensible to you at first, and probably for a while yet, there is value in occasionally listening to other sources of speech as well, such as online news casts or radio programs, television dramas, movies, etc. Listen to the flow and intonation of spoken Japanese and get used to the patterns and mannerisms. Try to tune your ear to the Japanese and pick out individual words and phrases. See if you can hear grammatical patterns you've studied, even though you don't know the content.

Here are some sources for online audio material: (more coming)

  • FNN Headlines
    Most of these stories have the full text included, though for a beginner it might be premature to bother with trying to work through a large written passage.

In addition to announcer-based programs or news, try to find programs that feature a conversational exchange, so you can listen to how two or more people interact. Find programs with both male and female speakers.

Vocabulary

Vocabulary acquisition cuts across everything else that you are doing. You will acquire vocabulary from your textbook, from example words during kanji studies, from listening to JapanesePod, etc. Every aspect of your ability with the language is impacted by word recognition and recall, and understanding of natural usage of each word. Along with internalizing the grammar, it is the essence of learning the language, and there's no way to cheat. You simply must find a way to remember each and every word, and learn them one by one. You will get much faster at remembering new words as time goes on, but it will seem to be a long slow slog at first.

Perhaps the most valuable strategy I discovered was to maintain a list of all the vocabulary I encountered as I studied. This does two things. First, it gives a tangible measure of progress in acquiring vocabulary which you can track that against your goals, and second, it provides a source from which you can pull vocabulary to do other exercises such as sentence construction. Especially important is that you can continually review the vocabulary in a systematic way so that once you learn it you retain it.

Learning and reviewing vocabulary becomes significantly more tractable with the use of a good flash card system. I used to use a flashcard program called JFC, by Glenn Rosenthal, which is free and is still around.

These days as I get back to drilling I have switched to Anki. Anki is a spaced repetition system (SRS) which has an algorithm to track how well you know material and figure out the best time to show it to you again. It is free and customizable, runs on several different OS's and has online synchronization so you can use your data set from both your computer and from mobile devices.

Every new word that you learn should go on your word list. You can maintain this as a text-based list, an MS Excel file, a database of some kind, or put the information directly into Anki and maintain it there. Words will come from your textbook, from JapanesePod or other lessons, and from any incidental sources or even real life experiences.

Take in words that you have worked with as part of your lessons, or which you have run across in real life. You may want to keep a reference to the original source, or include the context in which you originally found it. Skip words you've just brushed against but haven't been given a good feel for so you don't overload with unfamiliar new words. You'll see them again if they are at all common. If you discover a word you know well but missed, add it.

On my own lists, I do a lot of work figuring out the most common written forms, getting good glosses, matching glosses to parts of speech, adding pitch accents, finding common patterns and examples, etc. You can use my lists as a cross reference to avoid having to repeat this work for your own list, but the words you include should be the ones you have run across yourself.

Drilling vocabulary should be a daily part of your study. Anki makes this easy by tracking how much and what you should work on each day.

Say each word out loud several times as you practice. If you can keep a browser open as you work, you can use the audio on WWWJDIC (which were recorded by the folks at JapanesePod) to give you a speech model you can emulate. Pay attention to the pitch the native speaker uses and try to match the pronunciation as closely as you can.

The key thing to remember when working with any flash cards is that you don't cause yourself to remember things very well just by statically reading it over and over. First, always learn any new word in context, or find some correct context for it. Since you will get many of your words from your textbook or JapanesePod lessons, or other study material, this is usually not a problem. Look others up in a good learner's dictionary or a good English-Japanese dictionary and get some example sentences in mind. You can and should put some context examples into your Anki deck (not as something to drill, but just as something to reference when you study the card).

Tips for studying with Anki or other flashcards:

  • Resist the urge to quickly reveal any answer you can't immediately get. Each time you dredge something almost-forgotten from your memory, you forge a new connection to it that makes it easier to remember next time. Only when you have given yourself a good amount of time (15-30 seconds at a minimum) should you reveal the answer.
  • Don't quickly move on from a card once you reveal the answer, unless you are confident the word is already a part of your active vocabulary. Take the time to study words you haven't mastered yet.
  • As you study or review a word, don't just match it to the English in your mind. Use the English gloss to bring up mental pictures of what the word represents — as detailed as you can think of, and if possible an actual situation you find memorable — and then apply the word in your mind to that object or situation.
    Example: For "urusai" (noisy, bothersome) you might think of yourself in an apartment with noisy neighbors. Picture yourself calling them "urusai", or associate the neighbors with the word "urusai" in your mind.
  • Say every word out loud, paying attention to vowel length, devoiced vowels, balancing stress on syllables, and correct pitch contour. Use the recorded native speaker samples at WWWJDIC, or whatever others you may have, as a model to emulate.
  • As each word comes up in drilling, think about how you might use it. Can you think of a sentence that the word's meaning and nuance might correctly fit into? If not, pause your drilling and look up example sentences. Doing so not only helps you learn to use the word, it helps you remember it. See below for some ideas on where to find examples.
  • Your best bet is to simply drill from the usual Japanese written form (include the kana reading as a hint on the question side of the card if you are a beginner with kanji) to your answer card, and not necessarily from English to the Japanese. At the very least, I would create a separate card model for the English-to-Japanese direction, because the mapping does not always work well in both directions.

Sources of Usage Examples

Glosses you find in a Japanese-English dictionary almost never give you a complete idea of how a word actually fits into the language. Words in different languages, with the exception of simple nouns, don't overlap perfectly. For instance, you might see the gloss "to work" for "hataraku," but unlike in English where you can say "my car doesn't work," you cannot use the verb "hataraku" for this meaning.

You will find similar sense restrictions for many words, so always use example sentences to learn word usage and nuances. Incorporate some examples with your flash cards. Here's how to go about finding context for your words.

  • Your textbook or other original source material, such as a JapanesePod lesson is your first line source for examples.
  • Learner's dictionary
    The very purpose of a learner's dictionary is to provide examples of how words are used. Mine is:
    Basic Japanese-English Dictionary
    The Japan Foundation, 1986
    ISBN 0-19-864328-4
  • Reverse lookup in an English-Japanese dictionary
    A good E-J dictionary enumerates the meanings of an English word paying attention to nuances, and then matches corresponding Japanese words to those meanings and nuances, demonstrating them by examples. Often these will include examples of incorrect usages to avoid. There will be an index in the back that lets you start with a Japanese word and find all the English entries that correspond to it. The one I have is:
    Kodansha's Basic English-Japanese Dictionary
    Seiichi Makino, Seiichi Nakada, Mieko Ohso
    Kodansha International, Ltd., 1999 ISBN 4-7700-2628-5
  • WWWJDIC examples
    A large set of Japanese-English sentence pairs called the Tanaka Corpus is tied in with WWWJDIC and a lot of work in recent years has been done to clean them up and make them reliable and useful. Example sentences can be cross-referenced from lookup results by clicking on the [EX] link when it appears next to a word.
  • Eijirou on the Web
    [Intermediate] Eijirou is a huge dataset geared towards translators. Sometimes it will return useful examples and other times you have to be discerning about what you find there.
  • Google Advanced Search
    [Intermediate] A search in Google using Japanese text will generally return a good number of real-life examples of a word in everyday usage. You can fall back on the translation functions of WWWJDIC to help you make sense of what you find.
  • Kokugo jiten
    [Intermediate] A kokugo jiten (i.e., a Japanese dictionary for Japanese speakers) is essential to an intermediate student. The definition in Japanese lays out the meaning and nuances of a word and often gives examples. The Sanseido kokugo jiten (the site also includes J-E and E-J dictionaries) is a valuable online resource.

Vocabulary in Action

As you learn more and more vocabulary in Japanese, and some basic grammar, you will be able to describe some of the world around you with Japanese. As you go about your daily routines, keep an internal monologue going during idle time that lets you associate real world objects with your Japanese vocabulary. As you eat lunch, what foods can you name? As you walk around, what objects can you name? As you perform various actions, do you know verbs for them? What adjectives describe the people and things you see around you?

This is an exercise in thinking in Japanese, and as such you should try to banish English (or whatever your native language is) from your mind as you do this. If you can't think of the word for something, just let it be a blank, or try to think your way around it in Japanese and describe it some other way. Try to keep your native language from mediating between your thoughts and the Japanese expression of them. You must learn to do exactly that to attain fluency.

This exercise will show you what you don't know, as well as giving you a sense of gratification for what you do know. You might be brushing your teeth, and be able to see your self ("watashi ga mieru") in the mirror ("kagami") holding your red toothbrush ("akai haburashi") with water ("mizu") coming out of the faucet ("jaguchi") into the sink ("nagashi"). Thinking of these words in a real-life situation is practice for fluent recall. As you progress, start to arrange these bits and pieces into grammatical Japanese sentences, as an inner commentary on the things you see and do.

Reading and Writing

Learning Kana

For a beginning self-studying student, I don't recommend attempting to read more than simple sentences in Japanese beyond what your textbook provides. It is not an efficient use of time. The reading and writing of longer passages should be put off until intermediate study.

However, you should definitely learn the kana syllabaries, both hiragana and katakana as soon as possible, and exercise that skill frequently. Normal learning order is hiragana first, katakana next (both together may take you a few weeks to a month for basic recognition, and a bit longer to be comfortable, if slow, in reading them).

If you have an iPhone (warning: shameless plug ahead) you may want to try my Kana Complete app. Even if you don't, you're welcome to download the kana writing practice sheets you'll find on that page.

You can also get yourself a good workbook for learning to write kana. You may want to drill recognition with flashcards first, but eventually, learning to write them is what will cement them in your mind. Learning kana is essential to taking advantage of many of the learning materials that I talk about here, and it gets you away from thinking of the sounds of the Japanese language in terms of roman-letter representations of them which are not always accurate.

Some additional tips:

  • DO NOT delay learning kana once you start Japanese. Taking full advantage of learning materials depends on it.
  • The typical learning order is hiragana then katakana.
  • Buy or create flash cards and drill recognition.
  • Get a good workbook and learn to write them.
    One such is the first volume of A Guide to Writing Kanji and Kana by Hadamitzky & Spahn (ISBN 0-8048-1685-9).
  • Make your own box paper (or buy coarse-grid graph paper) and write each character many times. You use the boxes to help you learn good proportion for the character shapes (matching a model character in a box). You can also just use blank paper to practice once you are clear on the character shape.
  • As you write or drill kana, always say the pronunciation of the character to reinforce it.
  • When you think you're ready, put your sources away and write the entire set of hiragana or katakana in gojuuon order. This will give you a very good idea of which ones you don't know well enough yet.
  • If possible, find someone knowledgeable to critique your writing.

Learning Kanji

Once you have learned kana, you may want to get your bearings a little in the language before plowing into kanji, but when to start is a personal decision. Some students decide to study Japanese without ever mastering kanji (and therefore never really being able to read). If your goal is strictly verbal communication, this may be viable for you.

Kanji study can seem daunting, and indeed Japanese has one of the most complicated writing systems on the planet, but there is so much of Japanese culture tied up in the writing tradition, that it would be a shame to miss it. Even if you never become fully proficient, it can be well worth the effort. Especially in self-study, you will want access to as many different written materials as possible, and most of those will use kanji.

Expect workable mastery of kanji to take a minimum of one to two years, and possibly several depending on how much effort you are able to put into it. You can approach kanji study in a number of simultaneous ways which reinforce each other. It's a complex subject, so you just have to grab on somewhere and work your way inside.

The first approach is to study kanji in conjunction with your vocabulary. As a beginner, don't place any particular expectations on yourself for knowing kanji compounds for your vocabulary words, but do include the kanji in your flashcard entries so that you see them as you drill. The practical effect is you will start to recognize some of them. Be sure you have the correct or most common kanji for a word if your materials haven't given them to you: some words may have kanji which aren't typically used anymore, and others have multiple kanji forms of which only one is used, or which distinguish different senses of a word.

At first, construct your flash cards so that you see both kanji and reading as the question. Later, as you progress on kanji, you can modify that so you see only the kanji (or whatever the main written form is) as the question.

The next method of learning kanji is a computer-based approach. I have written a drill program for kanji called KanjiLab. For me, this replaced flashcards for kanji study. KanjiLab presents the exact number of readings which need to be remembered, and it allows you to introduce kanji in the same order your primary kanji study method does.

The third approach is to work on writing. As with kana, kanji will only really be cemented in your mind as you learn to write them, because only in this activity will you have an internalized picture of what strokes are where in each one. It is also important to learn in context, and for that reason I recommend the Bojinsha Kanji books (and follow-on with the intermediate books).

  • Basic Kanji Book, Volume 1
    Bojinsha Co., Ltd.
    ISBN 4-89358-091-4
  • Basic Kanji Book, Volume 2 Bojinsha Co., Ltd.
    ISBN 4-89358-119-8
  • Intermediate Kanji Book, Volume 1 Bojinsha Co., Ltd.
    ISBN 4-89358-356-5

In this series, kanji are learned in the context of vocabulary and grammatical sentences, which is the most effective way to retain them and learn to read Japanese, as opposed to just knowing a bunch of unrelated kanji. One problem with the Bojinsha is they don't clearly indicate stroke direction (i.e. where does the pen start from) so if you aren't comfortable with stroke rules, have another reference on hand. Another minor difficulty is that there is no answer key, so you may need to check other sources to make sure that you have answered the exercises correctly.

Kanji in Context is another highly recommended program I have not used personally.

Writing workbooks such as the following can also be useful:

  • A Guide to Writing Kanji and Kana, Book 1
    Wolfgang Hadamitzky and Mark Spahn
    Tuttle Language Library, 1991
    ISBN 0-8048-1685-9
  • A Guide to Writing Kanji and Kana, Book 2
    Wolfgang Hadamitzky and Mark Spahn
    Tuttle Language Library, 1991
    ISBN 0-8048-1686-7

These books present kanji with word examples in a self-consistent order (i.e. only using kanji you have learned so far), provide meanings, readings, stroke order diagrams (including stroke direction), a few examples to trace over, and space to practice writing. In practical terms you could gather what you needed from other sources, create your own practice paper, and skip these books, but I find them useful to have around.

Once you start on kanji, I'd also recommend having handy:

The Kodansha Kanji Learner's Dictionary
Jack Halpern
Kodansha International, 1999
ISBN 4-7700-2335-9

Even for a beginner, unknown kanji are pretty easy to find in it because it is arranged by SKIP code, which it teaches you how to use.

Some systems of kanji study you may run across advocate mnemonic methods. For the study of kanji, I don't find mnemonics — making up a story or mind picture to help remember the meaning of a kanji — to be very useful. Some methods promote these stories as if they are etymologies of the pictographs, and in some cases may be accurate, but most kanji are combinations of simpler pictographs, and even if there is an etymology, its connection with the meaning may be vague or inaccurate, and it really isn't going to be useful in promoting memory.

For me, such mnemonics seem to be simply an additional and useless memory burden. Some of these methods even emphasize recognition to the exclusion of learning readings, or putting such learning off until later, and these I particularly dislike. Kanji are sounds as well as meanings, and often I can read completely unknown words by knowing those sounds and some basic concepts about how kanji work together. If you find mnemonics useful, by all means use them, but don't do it to the exclusion of learning how to actually read the kanji.

Verbs and Adjectives

Verbs and adjective conjugations are very important to learn, and are critical to fluency. I've captured an approach to verbs here. Once you have your feet wet with some basic grammar and vocabulary, take a look at learning at least the basic inflections.

To get sufficient practice with verbs, you can use another set of flashcards. The "question" side of the card is the name of the inflection case, if it has one, an indication of the politeness level and if it is affirmative or negative, and a stand-in translation (such as "OK not to [do]"). In actual fact, only the stand-in translation and politeness level indication is strictly necessary for this purpose. On the other side is a rule for its production in the same format in which I express the rules on my verbs page above, and maybe a few examples.

Sit down with a list of verbs from your vocabulary list. Take a verb and a card, and perform the conjugation (only if the verb would make sense in that form, of course, otherwise choose a different verb). Then think of some simple sentence you might use that verb form in. You can combine this with vocabulary drilling. Whenever you hit a verb in your vocabulary drill, draw a production rule flashcard and do the conjugation.

You also do the same thing with adjectives, although you will find adjectives to be far more straightforward.

Grammar Acquisition and Sentence Construction

Grammar acquisition is the other side of the coin from vocabulary. It's good to know a lot of words, but you also have to know what to do with them, so working on the production of actual sentences, especially verbally, is another key activity.

One good book to use is:

A Dictionary of Basic Japanese Sentence Patterns
Naoko Chino
Kodansha International, 2000
ISBN 4-7700-2608-0

Learn one pattern at a time and come up with several sentences per week, using vocabulary that you've already learned. You can use a flashcard technique with the patterns similar to that presented for verbs to create a randomized drill.

Two other great books are:

  • A Dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar
    Seiichi Makino and Michio Tsutsui
    The Japan Times, 1989
    ISBN 4-7890-0454-6
  • A Dictionary of Intermediate Japanese Grammar
    Seiichi Makino and Michio Tsutsui
    The Japan Times, 1995
    ISBN 4-7890-0775-8

These are not really books that lend themselves to "working through" as a textbook, but you could, say, choose one entry per week (in random order, so it doesn't get boring), study the material, find additional examples, and construct sentences based on it.

In addition to those books, I recommend the following:

  • Power Japanese: All About Particles
    Naoko Chino
    Kodansha International, 1991
    ISBN 0-87011-954-0
  • Power Japanese: Basic Connections: Making Your Japanese Flow
    Kakuko Shoji
    Kodansha International, 1997
    ISBN 4-7700-1968-8
  • Power Japanese: Making Sense of Japanese
    Jay Rubin
    Kodansha International, 1998
    ISBN 4-7700-2310-3

You can use any of these books to help you learn grammatical patterns and practice constructing sentences with them.

Other Thoughts

Seek out additional materials about Japan that suit your interests in books, magazines or online. Reading about Japanese culture (ancient or modern), current events, or other topics can be fun and motivational.

You can see all of the books I've collected thus far here. That page includes ISBN numbers for the books that have been referenced on this page. I will be adding some descriptions, reviews and recommendations as time permits.

Also seek out community online, in person, or both. You may be able to find meetings in your area of people who share your interest through Meetup.com. Look locally to see if there is a Japanese society which might have activities or classes you can join. On usenet, you might want to participate in sci.lang.japan. JapanesePod101 has the comments section on each lesson. There are many other online forums in which you might participate. These activities also help bring you support and keep you motivated, so you don't feel like you're studying in a vacuum.

Beware! Anime, Manga, Children's Books and Significant Others

For a beginning student I highly recommend against considering anime or manga to be study material. Feel free to have fun with it if you like it, especially if that's what keeps you motivated to learn, but as a beginning student, consider it to be entertainment — a study break, and not a substitute for structured study.

Anime can be useful in the sense that it is another way for the immersion-deprived self-studying student to hear the language spoken, assuming the action does not involve nonstop yelling or exploding. It's important to keep in mind that the language you hear has all sorts of things that could lead a beginning student the wrong way, such as highly colloquial usage, abrupt rather than polite language, specifically feminine or masculine language, and made-up words that don't exist outside of the stories they're in. Just as in English-language cartoons, characters will sometimes speak the way real people do, but often don't. Can you imagine what would happen if someone tried to learn English from Bugs Bunny?

Other forms of dramatic Japanese entertainment, such as movies and television dramas may be more appropriate for study purposes. Be aware for any form of Japanese dramatic entertainment, that if the setting is not modern, such as in the case of a samurai movie, the language could be quite different from normal modern Japanese.

Manga has many of the same problems as anime and is written with kanji, so it is also not an efficient use of study time and may lead to more problems than it is likely to answer. However, if you can get hold of them, back-issues of the now folded Mangajin magazine are an excellent manga-based study aid. There are also two books of collected Mangajin material, although they are out of print. You might try here or find them second-hand.

The difference that makes the Mangajin material more useful than raw manga is the copious explanation of the language that is used (including the politeness level) and the explanation of the social and cultural aspects that shape the use of the language in the presented situations. It is specifically designed to teach.

Another thing to avoid at first are children's story books. Being for children, and being usually written all in hiragana, you might think these would be easy. But the language in them can be surprisingly difficult, from including childhood words to frequent mimesis and onomotopia you're not likely to have seen before. Also, without kanji, homophones become difficult to distinguish if you don't also understand the context surrounding an unfamiliar word. This makes looking up words difficult. A two year old Japanese native speaker has certain advantages you don't have, like the plasticity of a two year old brain, and a two-year immersion-based head start. While you'll certainly come to be able to understand such stories in time, they are not always suitable for beginners.

The final point is about significant others. I'm certainly not telling you not to pursue a Japanese love interest, just to be wary of learning all your Japanese from that person (unless he or she happens to be a trained teacher). Many is the poor non-Japanese boy who, after a relationship with a Japanese girlfriend, has come away speaking over-casually and with feminized speech. Sure, it's funny for the rest of us, but not so much if it's you.

In Conclusion

I hope this has been helpful. If you have any feedback or questions you can contact me via the contact page.

Best of luck in your studies. がんばってください!

Copyright © 2010-2011 Collin McCulley. All Rights Reserved.

Page cached 3/24/2017 6:48:10 PM