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Introduction to the Japanese Language - Learn Japanese

Japanese is, for all intents and purposes, a language isolate. This means that despite numerous attempts to relate it to other languages such as Korean or the Ainu family, no links have been conclusively demonstrated. Its origins remain elusive. It has links only to several languages spoken on the surrounding islands.

Japanese is the native language of 122 million people on the islands of Japan. It is spoken almost exclusively in Japan and is the official language of only that country. Japanese is a useful language to know because Japan is a significant business partner of many American firms and because Westerners who speak fluent Japanese are both rare and valued.

English speakers learning a new language often rely on similarities between the two languages, called cognates, which are abundant in many Indo-European languages—English “run” is close to German “rennen”; English “aquatic” is related to the Italian “acqua” (water). There are almost no cognates found between English and Japanese, except words that English has borrowed directly, such as things like sushi or tempura. Even then, an English speaker would not recognize 寿司 or 天婦羅 without having studied the language extensively.

Many language-learning websites or books will tell you that Japanese is one of the most difficult languages for an English speaker to learn. The good news is that learning any language, no matter how different from your own, is only a matter of consistent, diligent practice. Moreover, there are some really clever ways of helping you learn the writing system. Honestly speaking, Japanese is no more difficult than English—remember that any four-year-old in Japan speaks better Japanese than most foreigners who have studied it. If children can do it, so can you.

Major Obstacles for English Speakers

1)    The writing system. You probably think that Chinese is complicated; well, Japanese uses four separate writing systems to express itself. All are used in combination.

  1. The first is kanji, or ideographic characters. These were borrowed from Chinese and usually have both a Chinese and a Japanese pronunciation. However, many are completely new to Japanese. “Book” or “volume” is written 本 and is pronounced hon or moto.
  2. Hiragana is a syllabary and is used for teaching children to read as well as to add grammatical endings to the characters. 食べる means “to eat” and is pronounced taberu. The first character contains the meaning (eat) and the “be ru” characters are added to indicate that this is the basic form of the verb. There are 48 charac­ters in hiragana, each being either a consonant-vowel syllable, a vowel, or “n”.
  3. Katakana is also a syllabary and has the same characters as hiragana, but the strokes are more angular. It is largely used for scientific words, for transcribing foreign words, or for sounds (bang! whoosh!).
  4. Romaji is the roman alphabet that we use. It is used to transliterate Japanese terms in text written in English or for instructional materials used to teach the language to foreigners.

As you begin your study of Japanese, you will learn hiragana or katakana first, and as your studies progress, you will gradually begin to learn kanji.

The word for “sun” or “day” in Japanese is written 日. In fact, it used to be written , which looks pretty much like the sun. Early Chinese people wrote the word for “moon” as the same. looks pretty logical, doesn’t it? That changed over time to 月, and the Japanese borrowed these characters. Put those two together and you have the word for “bright” (明) which the Japanese write 明るい (akarui). The Japanese word for “man” looks just like a man walking: 人 (hito). The word “big” 大 (dai) is just like a fisherman saying, “You should have seen the one that got away—it was this big!” The word for “heaven” 天 (ten) can be remembered easily if you think “man, no matter how big, is still under heaven.” A Japanese tree is written 木 (ki), and if you put a picture of the sun rising behind a tree, you have the word for East: 東 ( or higashi). As you can see, it’s not that scary. Naturally, many characters are more complicated than these, but every character has a story.

2) Japanese has a completely different word order from English—the subject comes first, then the object, and lastly the verb. Japanese grammar is complex enough that it’s possible to understand every word in a sentence and still have no idea what is being said. The language is also highly idiomatic.

3) Japanese pronunciation has some quirks to it. It is fairly regular, but certain sounds are not the same as the ones we use in English.

4) Japanese culture is polite but closed. Westerners in Japan are tolerated but rarely accepted as being a part of Japanese society. Even those who learn Japanese fluently (タレント外, tarento-gai or “talented foreigner”) are usually looked upon as an oddity rather than an equal. This is not to say that you can’t have success dealing with Japanese counterparts, but it should be taken into consideration.

How long is learning Japanese going to take? With diligence you should be able to carry on basic conversations within a year. Overall, it will depend entirely on you—how much you study, how you study, and whether or not you’re living in among native Japanese speakers. Three years or so will probably enable you to handle unfamiliar situations and read basic texts. But know that mastery of any foreign language is a journey of a lifetime—the longer you study, the better you’ll get.

As you study the Japanese language, you will learn much about Japanese culture. Americans love individuality and distinctiveness, but one famous Japanese proverb says “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down.” Japanese culture values tradition, conformity, and harmony above almost all else.

Examples of Words in Japanese

horse: 馬 (uma)

mother: 母 (haha)

father: 父 (chichi)

tea: お茶 (o-chá)

come: 来る(kuru)

teacher: 先生 (sensei)

friend: 友達 (tomodachi)

Some useful Japanese sentences: 

Hello. こんにちは (konnichi-wa)

What is your name? お名前は何ですか?(o-namae wa nan desu ka?)

My name is … 名前は … です. (namae-wa … desu.)

Good morning おはようございます (ohayō gozaimasu)

Goodbye さようなら (sayōnara)

Where is the toilet?  トイレはどこですか? (Toire wa doko desu ka?)

I don’t understand. 分かりません。(wakarimasen)


If you’re up for a challenge that could have immense benefits in the worlds of business or tourism, not to mention simple personal satisfaction, Japanese could be just the ticket for you.