A Newbie’s First Impressions of Japanese

Slightly late, but あけましておめでとうございます!Feliĉan novjaron! Felice anno nuovo! Joyeuse année! Feliz año nuevo! Happy new year!

… and, you know, all that jazz.

We’ll be starting the year at the Polyglotist with the honor of a guest post by Lindsay, of Lindsay Does Languages fame. You know, she of the awesome Youtube videos? Well, as it turns out, while I was going crazy with Italian during the October Italki Challenge, Lindsay was starting Japanese! It’s really refreshing to see so many people learning the language that got me started in this whole business, but learning’s so different now than when I started (and things were decidedly more analog back then!), so I asked her what it is like to learn Japanese nowadays. Over to you, Lindsay!

Oh, hey there! I’m Lindsay. Nice to meet you. I blog about language over at Lindsay Does Languages and make videos about language over on my YouTube channel. Today, however, I’m very lucky to have been allowed to write on the lovely Sis’ blog. Yay! I’ve decided to write about my early experiences learning Japanese. Enjoy!

Japanese is always up there with Arabic, Mandarin, and Korean among others as one of the hardest languages to learn. So what kind of lunatic would want to bother? So much of the time, we want a quick fix when it comes to languages. To speak in a week, a month, 6 months. There’s nothing wrong with this of course. I’m most definitely in this crowd from time to time. Last year for example, I added basic Portuguese and Dutch to my list of studied languages, which, with my knowledge of Spanish and German, wasn’t too much of a challenge. Maybe that’s why I decided to follow it up with Japanese. For a challenge. Or maybe it’s because I love the country, the culture, the people, and the food. I couldn’t possibly pinpoint one reason – Japanese had been at the back of my brain shouting “Hey! Learn me! I’m cool. You’re totally gonna love me!” for too long. So I decided to give it a shot.

When I decided to start Japanese, italki announced another Language Challenge. Having already completed 2 Language Challenges last year, I couldn’t really miss out on the third. That would be rude! So with a little help from my favourite speaking practise website, I spent many early mornings on Skype attempting to communicate in Japanese. And by early mornings I mean 5.30am. Eek. The time difference between Japan and the UK meant waking up a little earlier than I had done previously. But surprisingly, this was ok. It felt amazing to start the day with something I love: languages! It’s also a really cool feeling to achieve something before breakfast.

I also committed myself to a little Instagram video each day documenting my progress and saying something in Japanese. I loved this because it was regular, enjoyable, and it gave me something to watch back and cringe over as I realised how far I’d come. As my italki lessons and Instagram videos progressed, so did my all round knowledge of Japanese.


The Good

Despite its reputation of über difficulty, Japanese does have some lovely bits to it. For starters, there’s the incredible politeness of the Japanese. I love all the extra little bits that make stuff really polite. You know, because it’s nice to be nice. Something else I love, which was a little weird at first, is that in Japanese, the verbs go at the end of the sentence. I love this because I recently learnt some German and found this took ages to get my head around. Now I know there’s another language (and probably many more, I’m sure) doing the same thing, it’s flowing a little more naturally. Hooray!

There’s one more thing that makes me happy when I’m learning Japanese: hiragana and katakana. Yes, reading and writing Japanese is no easy task, but katakana and hiragana are like alphabets and a little less intimidating than all the kanji (more on that later). What I love about katakana and hiragana is that I can read things. Even if I can’t understand what I’m reading, I can make sounds from what I see. I don’t know why, but this has always been important for me. I’m constantly looking around and reading words in my surroundings. Shampoo bottles, food packets, warnings on trains. I can’t help myself. So being able to read some, if not all, of what is written is a win for me!

The Bad

That said, the kanji sometimes prevent me from reading as much as I’d like. Kanji are based on Chinese characters which are logograms as opposed to an ‘alphabet’. This means that each kanji represents a whole word, meaning, or concept, which means they have to be learnt individually. But not always. There is a light at the end of what has just become a dark tunnel. Kanji radicals. Gotta love ’em. Kanji radicals are simple kanji that form part of a bigger, more complex kanji – or even sometimes just mean something on their own as well. For example, 木 means tree, 林 means woods, and 森 means forest. Simple, huh?

Also, there’s the incredible politeness of the Japanese. Hey wait, I said that, right? As a good thing? I know, but hear me out. Being so polite makes for maaany different verb forms depending on who you’re talking to and how well you know them. This is something I can’t talk about yet because I don’t know much about it because I’ve been avoiding it not got there yet. I’m hoping it’s not that bad.

The Ugly

Sis suggested I write about the bits I love learning Japanese, the bits I don’t love, and the stuff that makes me go ‘argh’. Well, the truth is, nothing really makes me go argh. I’m really enjoying the process of learning Japanese. I’m taking it slowly. I tend to burn out on early overexcitement when I start a new language and with Japanese I don’t want that to happen so I’m purposefully avoiding it. It is definitely not an easy process but it is one that’s constantly being made easier I think. For example, Memrise has been a great help – something I’m sure you’ve used yourself with language learning. So has Erin and other Japan Foundation sites, Tofugu, and, as silly as it sounds, the Japanese keyboard on my phone! With a language that’s so different from a lot of other languages, such as Japanese, technology really can make a difference in helping people to understand it and gain a basic knowledge. However, does this take the fun out of the process? Or make it more enjoyable? What do you think? I’d love to read your thoughts on this in the comments.

  • ferulang ,

    It is a great article. I want to start learning Japanese, so thank you for your explanations about this language. Now I am ready to admit: it will be not easy. Ah, and it is nice to find more and more polyglots 🙂

    • locksleyu ,

      Japanese is an amazing language, I’ve been studying Japanese over 15 years and still learning more every day.

      Good luck in your studies!