What's the best way to learn Japanese

Learn Japanese - Understand the Japanese language with these tips and apps

Learning Japanese is on the to-do list of many Japan lovers. But what's the best way to start? And how much should you be able to do? For comparison: A Japanese elementary school student learns 80 Kanji characters in the first year, mastered around 1000 Kanji by the end of elementary school, and around 2100 at the end of middle school (9th grade). There are also 46 additional hiragana and katakana characters Japanese grammar is of course taught. Sounds a lot and complicated? A look at a Japanese book or a Japanese daily newspaper such as the Yomiuri Shimbun seems to confirm this assumption. But if you understand how the Japanese language and the Japanese characters came about and with the right approach to learning, learning Japanese is no longer that difficult.

Hiragana, Katakana, Kanji - understanding Japanese character systems

Hiragana are the simplest writing system in Japanese. Japanese elementary school students and international Japanese students learn it first. - Image: © calmlookphoto - fotolia.com

There are four different character systems in Japanese. In addition to our well-known Latin letters, which are called "Romaji" in Japan, there are the three main writing systems of the Japanese language, which are divided into "Kanji" (漢字, Chinese characters) and "Kana" (仮 名, syllables). Each character has - regardless of which writing system it is - a fixed stroke sequence, i.e. the sequence and the direction in which the individual strokes are written. This is not only important in calligraphy - the art of writing - but also in everyday Japanese life. A distinction is made between the following writing systems:

  • Hiragana: These 46 characters are the simplest Japanese syllabary script. They appear round and soft and are the first characters to be taught in Japanese elementary schools as well as in Japanese classes outside of Japan. In addition to the 46 basic characters, there are two accented characters that turn a "ha" (は) into a "ba" (ば) or a "pa" (ぱ), as well as combinations of the characters from the i-series and the characters from y Row (example: shi し and ya や become sha し ゃ). Hiragana are used for grammatical constructions (for example when conjugating verbs or displaying subjects) or as phonetic transcription for Kanjiso that they serve as a reading aid. In the latter case, the hiragana characters are written in lowercase above or to the right of the corresponding kanji and are called "furigana".
    Hiragana is a Japanese syllabary with 46 different basic characters that play an important role in Japanese grammar.
  • Katakana: These 46 characters are also a Japanese syllabary. They appear much more angular and straighter than the hiragana characters. Katakana are mainly used for the phonetic description of foreign terms. Usually they stand alone, sometimes they are also found in lowercase above or next to a foreign term in Latin letters to make it easier for the Japanese to pronounce the foreign word. Here, too, there are the same combinations and stress symbols as in the hiragana, in order to be able to represent words like "Japanese" (ジ ャ パ ニ ー ズ) with the katakana symbols.
    Katakana is a Japanese syllabary with 46 different basic characters, which are mainly used for foreign terms.
  • Kanji: These are the characters used for nouns, names, places, and the stems of verbs and adjectives. At the same time, Kanji are the character system that often causes the greatest problems when learning Japanese. Many shy away from the sheer number and complexity. in the Dai Kan-Wa Jiten, the great Kanji dictionary, contains 50,000 Kanji. In everyday use, however, "only" between 4,000 and 13,000 characters are necessary to understand texts, educated Japanese are able to speak about 5,000 characters. In everyday life and especially at the beginning of the learning process, a significantly lower number of Japanese Kanji is sufficient. Kanji are differentiated based on their "components", called radicals. In many overview tables and dictionaries you can find Kanji sorted according to the number of lines or radicals.

Contrary to popular belief, not all kanji were taken from Chinese. It is true that Japan in the 3rd / 4th Century AD adopted the written language from Chinese, but this does not apply to all characters. There are also Kanji that were developed in Japan (called "Kokuji"), as well as the Hiragana and Katakana. Independently of this, the Kanji characters have changed, simplified and adapted over the centuries. This process also existed in China and other countries, albeit independently of one another, so that many Japanese and Chinese characters are now completely different from one another, both in terms of presentation and reading.

The Japanese language and its stumbling blocks

Japanese grammar is just one of the stumbling blocks in learning Japanese. As usual in Japanese, the detail counts. - Image: © taka - fotolia.com

It is also due to the adoption of the Chinese characters that Kanji in Japanese have two different readings: the On reading and the Kun reading. If you have just started learning Japanese, you may be confused why the 1 (Japanese Kanji 一) is pronounced "ichi" (一, one) and another time "hitotsu" (一 つ, once / a piece).

The On reading is the Sino-Japanese reading of the Kanji, the reading that the Japanese took over from China. The Kun reading is the old Japanese readingwhen a Japanese word has been mapped to a Chinese character. Each kanji has an On reading (sometimes two) and two to five Kun readings. When learning Japanese, this often creates confusion about how to read the word correctly. A tip: If the Kanji is used individually or if the word is made up of a Kanji and a subsequent Kanji, the On reading is usually used; if the Kanji is followed by a hiragana, one usually uses the Kun reading - as in the above example with "one" (On reading: ichi, Kun reading hitotsu).

Another stumbling block is Japanese grammar: The conjugation of Japanese verbs seems complicated. There are only two irregular verbs in the Japanese language - "suru" (す る, to do) and "kuru" (く る, to come) - and "desu" (で す, to be) as an auxiliary verb. All other verbs are either Ichidan verbs or Godan verbs.

  • Ichidan verbs only have one shape. They keep their root when inflecting and only change their ending. If a verb ends in "iru" or "eru", 99% of the time it is an Ichidan verb.
    Example: "miru" (み る, see) is an "iru" verb, "taberu" (た べ る, eat) is an "eru" verb. If you form the past tense, they become "mita" (み た, sah) and "tabeta" (た べ た, aß), the stems "mi-" and "tabe-" are retained in each verb form.
  • Godan verbs have five forms. They change their word stem when inflecting, depending on the verb form, the last syllable of the word stem of these verbs shifts from "u" to "a", "i", "e" or "o".
    Example: "kiku" (き く, to hear) changes to "kikitai" (き き た い, to want to hear), so there is a shift from "ku" to "ki".
    With some forms, such as the past tense, it is crucial which syllable the Godan verb ends, because there is no simple sound shift.
    Example: "au" (あ う, to meet) ends in "u" and becomes "atta" (あ っ た, met) in the past tense, while "kiku" (き く, to hear) ends in "ku" and becomes "kiita" (き い た, heard) will.
    There are also a handful of verbs that end in "eru" or "iru" but are not Ichidan verbs - these should be memorized in order to be able to bend them properly.

Politeness in Japan is a complicated construct - there are several Courtesy Levels, from the very respectful Keigo to polite Japanese and standard Japanese to street slang. In between there are countless nuances. Most Japanese lessons focus on standard Japanese (taberu, to eat) and polite Japanese with -masu (tabemasu, to eat); both are usually sufficient.

By the way: There are many ways of saying "I" or "you" in Japanese. Depending on the level of politeness and who is the speaker and the person being addressed. There are also countless Name suffixesthat are appended to a person's first or last name - depending on how you relate to them or what rank the person has. In addition to the well-known, neutral "-san", there are other suffixes that are, for example, very respectful ("-sama"), belittling ("-chan", "-pon") or related to the job of the other person ("-sensei" ) could be. You can't go wrong with "-san" appended to the surname.

Last but not least, a stumbling block that should be familiar to anime fans in particular: Japanese dialects. The best known is probably the "Osaka-ben", the dialect spoken in Osaka and the surrounding area. It sounds a bit rude and direct - it can best be compared to the Berlin dialect in Germany. From the high Japanese "Baka desu ka ?!" (Are you stupid ?!) in Osaka-ben an "Aho ya nen ?!" This example shows that in Japanese, just as in German, there are very large local differences in the everyday language spoken, in some cases completely different words are used. Japanese dialects are often perceived as impolite or unintentionally amusing, especially when they are used by foreigners, one is quickly ridiculed or, in the worst case, given the cold shoulder. Therefore, one should definitely concentrate on standard Japanese when learning Japanese.

Learn Japanese - How To Do It Right?

You can learn Japanese in different ways, for example as a course at a language center, self-study using an app or at a university. - Image: © kazoka303030 - fotolia.com

The stumbling blocks of the Japanese language can seem daunting at first. But if we look at the German language in comparison, we use, for example, many more different verb forms, articles and plural forms (both are not available in Japanese) as well as complicated grammatical constructions and character rules. The only hurdle that must first be overcome when learning Japanese is learning the first system of signs, the hiragana. Japanese beginners often learn vocabulary and grammar without kana and kanji at all, until they can master the first Japanese syllables and kanji. But what's the best way to learn Japanese? In self-study or in language courses? Online, offline or via app? We present some alternatives.

Japanese courses at community colleges, language centers, or universities

In order to learn Japanese at a university, you don't necessarily have to study Japanese studies. An example for a university that offers Japanese courses for external students, is the Humboldt University in Berlin. There you can attend Japanese language modules as a guest student, provided the university has sufficient capacity in the respective semester. Information on the individual courses can be found on the website of the HU Berlin, information on the conditions of the guest student status can be found here. Depending on the learning progress, the appropriate course for beginners or advanced learners can be selected. A weekly semester hour (SWS) costs 15 euros at the HU Berlin. The courses run over a semester (usually four to five months) and take place during the lecture period, i.e. during the day or in the afternoon. In any case, you will be rewarded with structured, high-quality teaching, although the groups are often large.

Various courses that take different language levels into account are offered at universities, language centers and adult education centers. The learning methods and group sizes differ. - Image: © desert - fotolia.com

Courses at an adult education center or at language centers are suitable for working people like the GLS language center in Berlin. Evening courses can be taken here, which are offered once a week after work for eight weeks. The lessons take place in small groups, the courses are differentiated according to previous knowledge and the course materials such as textbooks are included in the course price of 200 euros. Intensive courses and one-to-one tuition are possible, the quality of the teaching is good. Information is available on the GLS Language Center website. The jdzb (Japanese-German Center Berlin) offers similar courses with a special learning approach, whereby the courses here are designed for a whole year and cost between 4 and 7 euros per 60 minutes. A final exam is aimed for. Information is available on the jdzb website. Here everyone has to decide for themselves which learning methods are best for them. In addition to various other providers (e.g. DIALOG, ESL, Columbus), GLS also organizes language trips to Japan, where beginners can learn Japanese and advanced learners can refresh or expand their knowledge of Japanese.

In other larger cities, too, there are similar offers from adult education centers and language centers that enable high-quality Japanese learning. All courses mentioned prepare for the internationally recognized Japanese certificates (JLPT N5 to JLPT N1) with which you can prove your level of Japanese. The exams for this can be taken for 60 euros (as of June 2016) at the HU Berlin, for example; other examination centers are the Volkshochschule Düsseldorf, Volkshochschule Stuttgart and the University of Hamburg.

Learn Japanese App: Kawaii Nihongound Human Japanese

Why do without tablets and smartphones as self-learners in the digital age? In the meantime, you don't necessarily need Japanese books to learn - even if they still provide a good basis and can be extremely helpful, especially when learning for the JLPT exams. But in the modern age there are other ways too. A learning Japanese app like Kawaii Nihongo or Human Japanese facilitates access to this language and illustrates the learning content in different ways.

Kawaii Nihongo (kawaii 日本語) is an app for iOS and Android that aims to make learning the Japanese language easier and more accessible. The app is aimed primarily at Japanese beginners who want to learn Hiragana and Katakana. If you have the character systems on it, you can also use the Kawaii Nihongo app to learn selected vocabulary for the JLPT N5 test (the lowest level of language certificates for Japanese). Future updates of the app should include an extension for Kanji and Japanese grammar. Anyone who likes anime and manga will love this app, because to improve the learning effect of each flashcard, there are cute motif drawings for each character or each word. In this way donkey bridges can be built and the recognition value increased.

Kawaii Nihongo is an app that lets you learn hiragana, katakana and vocabulary with ease. The cute flash cards make learning easier with their matching illustrations.

After installing the kawaii 日本語 app, you will be welcomed by the app's characters and taken to school. In the "teacher's room" you can get all the "books", that is, the flash cards of the app. Then you find yourself in the classroom, where you can choose the individual lessons: Hiragana, Katakana or vocabulary. Navigating the app is easy. The little fox girl Riko accompanies the Japanese learners the whole time, explains the functions or invites them to play. Since the app is structured like a simplified city with a school, amusement arcade and temple, there are little stories and many starting points to consolidate what you have learned. In addition, the fox girl Riko is a cute companion who leads through all levels of the app. The loving, colorful design of the Kawaii Nihongo app is primarily designed for a young and adolescent target group who are just discovering the Japanese language for themselves (primarily through anime and manga), and impresses with its playful character and appealing story.

Games can be used to consolidate what has been learned in the Kawaii Nihongo app. But there is more to discover in the learning environment, which is designed like a city.

The German-language Kawaii Nihongo app is available for 2.99 euros in the AppStore and Google Play - or free of charge for the winners of our current competition (participation period from June 28 to July 10, 2016). Older and / or advanced learners are sure to find a good alternative with the next app.

Human Japanese is a comprehensive app that leaves nothing to be desired when it comes to learning Japanese. However, it must be said in advance that the app and therefore all of the learning content is only available in English. If you have a good command of the English language, you shouldn't have any problems with the Japanese learning app from Human Japanese.This app offers a solid foundation for learning Japanese for both beginners and advanced learners. Japanese characters (Kana and Kanji), vocabulary, Japanese grammar and structures are taught in individual chapters. But that's not all. In the thematically subdivided chapters there is a lot of background knowledge about Japanese culture and language as well as explanations of grammatical constructions, learned Kanji and displayed dialogues. Many example sentences and animations of Hiragana, Katakana and Kanji complete the offer. Vocabulary chapters alternate with grammar chapters and character chapters. In addition, there are audio examples from native Japanese speakers for every word and dialogue. Listening comprehension and correct pronunciation can be trained by repeating.

The app is available in four different versions: Human Japanese (9.99 euros or 8.04 euros) with 42 chapters for beginners and beginners with prior knowledge, Human Japanese Intermediate (9.99 euros or 8.06 euros) with 42 new chapters for advanced users, as well as the free one Human Japanese Lite App and the free Human Japanese Intermediate Lite App with the full first eight chapters of the paid version. Attention Apple users: There are separate apps for iPad and Mac that are more expensive. Here, too, there are free lite versions with the first eight chapters. All apps are available in the AppStore and on Google Play.

Imiwa? is a feature-rich Japanese dictionary for iOS. The app JED - Japanese Dictionary is the equivalent for Android.

Dictionaries are included to help you learn Japanese. There are two very good free dictionaries on the app market that can do more than simply translate a search term. imiwa? for iOS and JED - Japanese Dictionary for Android work in the same way and offer other functions in addition to translating search terms: The display of the reading / Kanji and whether the word is in use; a list of examples and explanations; Verb conjugations and memory functions. But that's not all. Kanji can be searched for by input or based on their compounds - JED even allows the Kanji to be drawn by hand with a subsequent search. And if you stumble upon a sentence that you don't understand on the Internet or while chatting with Japanese friends, you simply copy it and paste it into the analyzer - it immediately provides a word-by-word translation of the content and the corresponding reading of the words .

With imiwa? and JED not only can you look up individual words, the apps also offer verb conjugations, examples and analysis of existing text.

Conclusion: Find the right method and practice!

The only important thing is that beginners do not try to learn everything at the same time. Either way, the key to success in learning Japanese is: practice! The more often you write the characters and learn vocabulary and grammar, the faster your knowledge is consolidated and the more confidently you will be able to use it. It is essential to pay attention to details so that no mistakes creep in, which are also consolidated in the repetition - which can happen quickly, especially in self-study due to the lack of correction by a teacher. A Japanese tandem partner (i.e. a Japanese native speaker who would like to learn German in return) is not only suitable for self-learners. This ensures sufficient practice through conversation and can correct errors if necessary.

All in all that is Learning Japanese has become a lot easier thanks to the internet and apps like Kawaii Nihongo or Human Japanese than just a few years ago. Those who want to deal intensively with the language and possibly even work towards one of the language certificates cannot avoid a lot of practice and regular, concentrated learning. Although you can learn a lot in self-study, well-organized courses at language centers or universities with suitable learning material remain the better alternative. Those who want to pursue professions in Japan or with a strong connection to Japan are still well advised to study Japanese studies or a comparable degree. But not everyone wants to become a Japanese professional - for some, it is enough to be able to ask for directions on a Japanese vacation or to be able to better exchange ideas with Japanese friends.

Whichever path you choose: There are currently such an abundance of good opportunities to learn Japanese that there is certainly the right method for everyone. The most important thing is: get started! With this in mind: 日本語 を 勉強 し ま し ょ う! (Nihongo o benkyou shimashou !, Let's learn Japanese!)