Last time, we went over some of the most common supposed stumbling blocks to learning Japanese: Structure, kanji, and all the people telling you that it just can’t be done, as well as how to deal with it. In this article, we’ll be following up with a few last tips to get you started.
I’ve often said that the hard part of Japanese is not the language itself but the mindset it’s packaged in with, and I stand by that. The grammar is simple enough; I have the native speaker’s curse where I can tell you what ‘sounds right’ without knowing any of the proper rules except instinctively, but even so, it’s a lot easier than… oh, English, for example (I realise this is a low bar to set). Pronunciation is simple, too: Every letter is a vowel, consonant or vowel-consonant combination, with maybe one exception, and a variation if the letter has two dots or a circle over its top right corner. Every letter is read phonetically, exactly as written. That’s it, really; it’s all very simple. Kanji can have a couple readings, which is a separate but slightly trickier issues. You can usually trust it to make sense, but turn into total chaos when the names of places or people are involved; no shame in giving a road sign your best guess and finding out you’re wrong later, in those cases.
I should take a moment here to say that pronunciation is, despite all this, still a stumbling block whether for English speakers learning Japanese or vice versa. There’s no mystery to how a word is said, but when it comes to the sound of certain letters, there’s a lot of unlearning to be done (for example, how ‘R’ sounds are handled between English and Japanese, and no, I don’t mean the old joke about mixing it up with ‘L’).
So what’s the part about ‘mindset’, then?
Japanese in its natural environment is a language all about dancing around the point, using subtext, reading between the lines and picking up on things that were never said at all. It’s also a language with, for example, several different ways of speaking depending on how you want to present yourself, or the degree of formality that’s needed based on the relations and gaps in status between the two people talking. In short, about half of the language is cultural, and that’s not something easily picked up from a dictionary or a textbook. My best suggestion would be to immerse yourself in the culture as much as you can, but at the same time, Japan is a very difficult place to live in if you don’t know the language, so that’s easier said than done. My more sensible suggestion would be to familiarise yourself with the country, and in this specific case, a lot of the articles on this site concerning culture, life and work; it should help you to go in a little more prepared.
If the last few parts made Japanese seem more intimidating, I have good news: As a foreigner in Japan, the bar is unbelievably low in terms of expectations. Yes, it’s still hard to live here without knowing much of the language, but the people will (in my experience, but then, I’ve lived here my whole life) be amazed and impressed if you can manage even a few clumsy words of Japanese despite being foreign. Which is to say, most of all, that little mistakes or missing out on cultural nuances aren’t nearly as much of a huge issue as you might think.
In the end, learning Japanese is only sometimes a choice; it’s practically mandatory if you plan on living here. Having said that, I hope this article helps anyone who’s on the fence, and if you were going to start studying, now you know what to be ready for! Remember, there are difficulties, but it’s not as hard as you might have been told.