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6 Tips for Learning Japanese

2 Jul

JapaneseHave you wondered why some people learn a language better than others?  I’ve had a long time to think about this subject, because I’ve spent most of my adult life using my second language – English.  When I moved to the U.S 16 years ago, I spoke very little English.  After many trials and errors I began to realize some essential knowledge that applied to acquiring English that no one had taught me.  And then I realized that the same principle applied to learning Japanese, while teaching Japanese to Americans.  Here are 6 tips for learning Japanese:

1. Let go of your fear of being embarrassed

I think this is the most important aspect of learning any language – let go of your fear of being embarrassed.

When we’re trying to speak a language we don’t know very well, it is natural to be self-conscious.  We want to pronounce words correctly while appearing intelligible.  But being concerned about these things won’t help you improve the language.  You’re going to make mistakes and possibly going to embarrass yourself.  The sooner you accept that, the faster you’ll become fluent.

And here is a good news:  No one cares about your mistakes as much as you do.   So don’t worry about it and move on.

2. Speak clearly and loudly

Japanese people speak to each other as if they were whispering or mumbling.  But if you spoke in this matter with your beginner’s Japanese, they can’t understand you.

Believe it or not, sometimes it is a simple matter of speaking loudly, clearly, and slowly that will help a person understand you.   This is related to the first point – Don’t be afraid of making mistakes.  So when people don’t understand you, here is what I want you to do: First, repeat exactly what you just said, but do so more clearly and loudly.  Then, if the person still does not understand you, try a different word or a sentence.

3.  Practice it every day

Learning a language is very much like learning to play a musical instrument.  It’s better to practice it 15 minutes every day than 1 hour once a week.  Learning a language takes discipline, commitment, and willingness to do the same thing over and over again until you master it.

4. Develop a good sense of hearing

Having a good sense of hearing is imperative to learning a new language, because it requires you to distinguish subtle nuances in sound.  I believe that being a musician has helped me learn new languages over the years.

So how does one develop a good sense of hearing?  For starters, turn down the volume when listening to music or watching TV. Listening to loud sounds can damage your ears, and it has long term consequences.

5. Learn Japanese from a person of the same sex

This is very important if you want to learn casual/informal Japanese, because Japanese men and women speak quite different when speaking casually (We speak polite forms similarly).

Over the years I’ve met many American men who speak Japanese like Japanese women, because they learned it from their Japanese ex-girlfriends or female friends.  As you can imagine this is not the most attractive thing.

6.  Find a person who wants to understand you

How well someone understands you has partly to do with how well you speak the language, and partly to do with how much they want to understand you.  You probably already know this, because it’s the same thing even when two people speak the same language.

In my first year in America when I spoke little English, people who understood me the best were those who were interested in what I was trying to say and who cared enough to make that effort.  Whenever we’re having a conversation, it’s a two-way street.

I hope you’ll find a Japanese person who is willing to spend his/her time and energy to understand you.  This is probably the fastest way for you to learn Japanese.

If we spoke a different language, we would perceive a somewhat different world. ~Ludwig Wittgenstein

Related Article:

Is Japanese Hardest Language to Learn?


Please answer “Yes” or “No”: Why are Japanese so vague?

23 Sep

 Lilly (640x360)

If you’ve known a Japanese person, you’ve probably wanted to say it to him or her at least once: “‘Yes’ or ‘No’!”  Japanese vagueness can be frustrating, but I advice you not to demand a yes-or-no answer from us.  Why?  Because asking Japanese to answer questions by “yes” or “no” is like asking Americans not to answer them by “yes” or “no.”  It’s just not the way we communicate.  On the other hand, if you’re Japanese living in America, you must learn to answer questions clearly or you’ll make the same mistakes I’ve made.

In my first year in the U.S I struggled to communicate with Americans not only because of my poor English but also because of our different communication styles.  Either case it was frustrating, but the latter took me much longer to recognize.  Misunderstanding happened frequently, and I couldn’t figure out how they occurred.   During that time of great confusion, one question came to my mind:  Why are American men so clueless?

Mike was a nice guy whom I met through mutual friends.  He was interested in Japan and had been there a few times, so it was natural for us to become friends.  But a few months into our friendship Mike began asking me out.  I wasn’t interested in him, so when he called to ask me out, I’d say something like, “I think I’ll be busy this weekend…” or “I’m watching TV tomorrow, so I don’t think we can get together…”  I rarely had any plans on weekend nor did I like watching TV.  But I wanted to let him know in a “polite way” that I wasn’t interested in dating him.

Mike’s response was often shocking:  He’d say, “Okay, how about next weekend?” or “Do you want to watch TV at my house?”  On one hand he seemed optimistic.  On the other hand he seemed totally clueless.  I felt trapped, not knowing how to convey my message to him without being rude.

It was many years later that I realized what I had done wrong:  Instead of telling Mike clearly that I didn’t want to date him, I only tried to “indicate” my lack of interest.  Even though I was living in the U.S, I was still communicating in a Japanese style – making vague statements to convey thoughts and feelings.

You may wonder how Japanese get things done by communicating in such a manner.  Actually, it works just fine most of the time.  Unlike the U.S, Japan consists of people from similar background and culture, so people have an easier time understanding one another at least on a surface level.  And Japanese have been trained to get the nuances behind words since childhood, so it’s not so difficult for us to communicate in this manner.  Had I told a Japanese man what I told Mike, he’d  have understood my point and stopped asking me out.

Since the incident with Mike I’ve worked hard to express myself more clearly.  The problem wasn’t that I didn’t have an opinion.  In fact I had lots of them, but expressing them in a culturally appropriate manner took me a long time to master.  As for American men, I’ve learned that sensible and intuitive ones can understand my vague Japanese way that still comes out every now and then, but that straightforward communications always work the best with them.  Today I have no problem saying, “Thanks, but I’m not interested.”

If you’re frustrated with Japanese vagueness, you have my sympathy.  I, too, get irritated by how ambiguous Japanese are sometimes.  But don’t lose your patience or corner them by demanding a “yes” or “no” answer, because attitude is everything when it comes to communications.  If you listen carefully – I mean really listen – you’ll begin to understand what he or she is trying to say.  This is true in all communications regardless of our cultural backgrounds or native languages.

Is Japanese the hardest language to learn?

9 Sep

water lily (640x360)Is Japanese the hardest language to learn?  The answer depends on your native language.  If English is your native language, then Japanese may be one of the hardest languages for you to learn, because English and Japanese are very different in terms of pronunciations, grammars, and writing systems.  On the other hand, if you’re Korean, learning Japanese is probably much easier than learning English because of similarities in our languages.

Once my American friend said English was the hardest language to learn.  That’s not true, either.  If your native language is French, for example, English isn’t such a difficult language to learn, because they share number of similar words.  When I studied French a few years ago, I was shocked to learn that nearly 30% of all English had a French origin.  This made it easy for me to learn French vocabularies.  So there is no such a thing as “the hardest language” to learn.  It all depends on how different the language is from the language(s) you’re fluent in.

When considering the difficulty of mastering a foreign language, one must also consider cultural differences.  Learning a language from a culture significantly different from your own is challenging, because one can’t properly use the language without understanding its cultural background.  For instance, Japanese language consists of complicated use of polite forms and impolite forms.  We use different forms depending on number of factors, such as the age of the person we’re speaking to in relation to our own age, how well we know the person, what our relationship is with the person, and so on.   This adds to the difficulty of learning Japanese especially to those from the Western countries where such a concept doesn’t exist.  Because of the close relationship between language and culture, one may not be able to truly master a foreign language unless one immerse oneself in the culture.

Japanese begin learning English in middle school, but the focus is on writing and reading, not speaking or listening.  So when I came to the U.S to attend college, I could read and write in English but spoke very little of it.  I understood the meanings of many English words by then, but I didn’t know how to properly use them.  The word “love” is a good example. Americans use “love” quit differently from how Japanese use the word “ai (meaning “love”).  In America people may use “love” toward people, animals, and inanimate objects (i.e I love this movie).  In contrast, Japanese use “ai” only toward people.  We use a different word “suki (meaning “like”) to express similar feelings toward inanimate objects and animals.  So instead of saying, “Kono eiga aishiteru (I love this movie),” we say, “Kono eiga suki (I like this movie).”

What also makes “ai” different from “love” is the frequency of its usage.  You’d hardly hear Japanese say “aishiteru (verb of ai).  In fact I’ve never heard my parents say it to each other.  Perhaps it’s because saying such a word too often would cheapen the meaning of it or because Japanese find beauty in understanding another’s feelings without being said.  In any event Japanese don’t express their feelings openly; thus we don’t say “ai” as often as Americans say “love.”  That doesn’t mean that Japanese don’t have deep feelings.  I have never doubted my parents’ love for each other, because they show that in their actions. Love and ai describe the same feelings, but they’re used differently in its cultural contexts.  Without understanding its cultural background, it’s hard to speak the language.  So the more different the culture is from your own, the harder it is to acquire its language.

English and Japanese are so different, and the cultures in which they’re used are contrasting.  Needless to say, it took me a long time to learn English and took even longer to be able to use it appropriately.   So I understand the challenges you may be facing if you’re one of those brave souls who are trying to learn Japanese or any foreign language for that matter.  In this blog I’ll write about Japanese language and offer some tips of learning it.  In the meantime please feel free to contact me if you have any question on the language or Japanese culture in general.

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