Let this be the year you master Japanese
When we think of Japan, we imagine snowy temples in winter, cherry blossoms blooming in spring, the bustling streets of Tokyo lit up at night, high-tech gadgets, and age-old traditions. But we also think of the Japanese language, with its complicated but beautifully intricate characters.
Japanese is the native language of 128 million people, almost all of whom live in Japan. But how long does it take to learn Japanese? Experts and polyglots of the world estimate you need to invest 2,200 hours into studying Japanese (that’s almost 92 days!). In recent years, more and more people have decided to take on the challenge of learning Japanese.
Hello to you too! Konnichiwa, meaning “hello” is probably the most common basic Japanese word out there. But it won’t get you that far when practicing the language with native speakers. As 98.5% of the Japanese population is ethnically Japanese, it can be somewhat difficult for foreigners to integrate themselves into Japanese society. If you learn to speak Japanese, it can go a long way in breaking down these barriers and getting to know the people and culture of this fascinating island.
With the Tandem app, you can find a language exchange partner in Japan to help you go beyond “Konnichiwa” and learn Japanese online for free from the locals themselves.
Throughout this article, we’ll use both Japanese characters and Romaji - a transcription of Japanese into the Latin alphabet - to help you grasp the way one writes and pronounces the words.
1. Japan is a country rich in culture and tradition. For many, being able to experience this culture first-hand is what brings them to Japan in the first place.
Actually speaking the language allows you to immerse yourself in everything Japan has to offer.
2. Show it off. It’s always fun to show off your language skills to your family and friends. Learning Japanese is a big challenge, and those closest to you will no doubt be impressed when you start speaking Japanese at the dinner table. On top of that, adding Japanese language skills to your CV is bound to catch some attention the next time you apply for a job.
3. Japan is a beautiful country to visit. You can experience the modern buzz in Tokyo, take a trip to Kyoto to visit the ancient temples, or visit the slopes of Mount Fuji, the highest mountain in Japan. Knowing some basic Japanese makes it easier to travel around.
4. It’s the gateway to other Asian languages. OK, it might be the hardest Asian language to learn, but that just means that anything that comes after is much easier. Once you’ve mastered Japanese, try your hand at Korean or Chinese. If they don’t take your fancy, try a language that doesn’t use the Latin or Roman alphabet, like Russian, Thai, or Arabic.
Making sense of the Japanese writing system is a little tricky. There are three different writing systems that you need to know. Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji. Hiragana is a syllabic alphabet of 48 characters and is usually the first alphabet that Japanese children learn. Next comes Katakana, which is also a syllabic alphabet of 47 characters. Thankfully for us, the two sets of alphabets represent pretty much the same sounds.
Hiragana is used to represent Japanese words whereas Katakana is used to represent foreign words
So what’s the difference between Hiragana and Katakana? The main difference is that Hiragana is used to represent or sound out Japanese words such as ねこ (neko) meaning “cat” and さくら (sakura) meaning “cherry blossom.”
Katakana, on the other hand, is used to represent foreign words or loanwords like スマートフォン (sumātofon) meaning “smartphone” and ペン (pen) meaning "pen." You’ll also notice from the examples that the characters look a bit different too. Hiragana characters are more curvilinear in shape, whereas Katakana character strokes are shorter and straighter, with angular corners.
The final Japanese writing system you will come to learn is Kanji. Kanji symbols are Chinese characters that represent words or ideas. Here are some examples below:
Notice how kanji functions here. The kanji for “one” is one horizontal line, “two” is two lines, and “three” is three lines. Similarly, the kanji for "woods" consists of two single kanjis "tree", and "forest" consists of three single “tree” kanjis.
There are tens of thousands of kanji characters and unfortunately, you have to learn kanji to become fluent in Japanese. That being said, there are 2,136 kanji symbols that are needed for everyday use. Most kanji symbols are nouns, but many are also verbs, adjectives, and adverbs among others.
Japanese grammar is arguably the easiest part of the Japanese language to learn. Even though its grammar is very different from English grammar, for example, it’s not that difficult to grasp. In the next section, we’ll cover some basic Japanese grammar points, from Japanese sentence structure, to tenses, to verb conjugation.
In Japanese, the subject comes first in the sentence, followed by the object, and finishing with a verb - meaning it’s a SOV language. In English, the verb always comes directly after the subject, so there’s a slight difference here. Take a look at the example below:
|私は犬が大好きです。||Watashi (I) wa inu (dogs) ga daisuki desu (love).||I love dogs.|
|メアリーはトムに電話しました。||Mary (Mary) wa Tom (Tom) ni denwa shimashita (called).||Mary called Tom.|
|エリザベスは毎日日本語を勉強しています。||Elizabeth (Elizabeth) wa mainichi (every day) nihongo (Japanese) wo benkyou shiteimasu (studies).||Elizabeth studies Japanese every day.|
To conjugate a verb is to change it from its infinitive form into the tense you would like to talk in. Let’s take the English verb “to eat” and conjugate it. Although English has twelve different tenses, we’ll stick to past, present, and future for the sake of this explanation.
Past - “I ate”
Present - “I eat”
Future - “I will eat”
There are only two tenses in Japanese, the past and the non-past tense. Japanese uses the same tense for present and future, which is called the non-past tense. It’s one of many languages that doesn’t differentiate between present tense and future tense.
The non-past form of the verb “to eat” in Japanese is 食べる (taberu). One could say, for example,
私はチョコレートを食べる。 (Watashi wa choco-leito wo taberu) - I eat chocolate or I will eat chocolate.
Sometimes, the non-past tense is ambiguous, and it’s not clear whether you’re talking about the present or the future. In these instances you can add a time marker ie. 明日 (ashita), meaning “tomorrow”, or 来週 (raishuu), meaning “next week” to the beginning of a sentence.
明日チョコレートを食べます。 (Ashita choko-elito wo tabemasu) - Tomorrow I am going to eat chocolate.
Notice here that although we’ve turned the present tense into the future tense, we didn’t have to conjugate the verb. Ka-ching!
In order to conjugate 食べる (taberu) into the past tense, we need to find the stem of the verb, which in this case is 食べ (tabe) - essentially just removing る(ru) from the end. Now that we have the stem, we need to add the appropriate ending to the verb that signifies it’s in the past tense. In this case, the ending is た (ta). So the correct conjugation of verb 食べる (taberu) in the past is 食べた (tabeta).
私はチョコレートを食べた。 (Watashi wa choco-leito wo tabeta) - I ate chocolate.
There’s a lot more to verb conjugation and tenses, but that should give you a quick overview to get you started!
One of the most important aspects of Japanese culture is etiquette and good manners. Although most Japanese people don’t expect foreigners to know the ins and outs of how to behave in certain situations, showing your respect for the culture and trying to learn some simple rules goes a long way.
First and foremost, like many other languages, there’s informal and formal speech in Japanese. In general, if you’re speaking to your close family or friends, you should use the informal form, and for anyone else, like colleagues, people working in hospitality, or strangers, you should use the formal form.
There are also specific etiquette rules for business meetings, which should be noted if you’re ever doing a business deal in Japan. These include, removing your shoes before entering the office space, seating around the table by rank, and only sitting down once the host invites you to. Exchanging business cards is also a very important part of Japanese business meetings; it even has its own special protocol.
When greeting someone in Japan, you always bow as a sign of respect. The degree to which you bow the top half of your body (from 15 to 90 degrees) changes depending on the social status of the people you’re bowing to.
If you’re going to Japan anytime soon, the most common types of bows you need to know are Eshaku 会釈 and Futsurei 普通礼. Eshaku is the most common and most casual way of bowing, used when greeting friends, neighbours, teachers, and other acquaintances. Essentially in any informal setting, you’ll see the Eshaku bow.
Futsurei, on the other hand, is used on more formal occasions, such as an important business meeting where no one has met each other before. If you purchase something in a store, the shop assistant will most likely offer a Futsurei bow as a sign of gratitude.
Japanese is often called a mora-timed language. In simple terms, this means that each syllable is pronounced for the same length of time and you never stress individual syllables like in English.
Take a listen to some of these basic Japanese phrases and notice the equal length of each syllable.
Sakura season, or cherry blossom season, is the most anticipated time of the year in the Japanese calendar. There are many beautiful Japanese words for cherry blossom season, such as 花霞 (Hanagasumi) meaning “flower haze” and 桜吹雪 (Sakura fubuki) meaning “cherry blossom snowstorm” that all Japanese learners should know.
Regardless of what type of learner you are, there are tonnes of great resources out there for you. The following resources can be used alongside your Japanese lessons, online courses, or however else you're learning the language.
With Tandem, it’s so easy to find Japanese language exchange partners to chat with. We might be a little biased, but we believe Tandem is the best way to learn Japanese online. With millions of members in the online community, you’re bound to find someone with similar interests to you, ensuring your language learning remains motivating. Sign up for Tandem here for a fun and free way to learn Japanese!
If you’re more of a visual learner, manga or 漫画 is your best bet. Manga are Japanese comic books and are very popular among Japanese learners. Try to find manga titles with furigana included, as they translate any kanji characters into hiragana and katakana, and are therefore easier for beginners to read.
We’d recommend the children’s manga series Doraemon, which you can also buy in English so you can compare the English and the Japanese texts.
Blogs dedicated to learning Japanese are great in-depth resources, often written by people who have successfully learnt Japanese themselves! One excellent example is Tofugu, a Japanese culture and language blog, complete with videos and illustrations in a typical Japanese style. It compiles loads of guides, articles, and recommended resources for all aspects of Japanese language learning.
For beginners, try NHK World, Japan’s national broadcaster. They offer downloadable free audio lessons for Japanese learners, covering different themes such as “at the university” and “shopping and restaurant.” If you’re an advanced Japanese learner, and want to work on your colloquial phrases and slang, check out the JUNK podcast. It’s a long-standing favourite of many and one of the most popular podcasts in Japan.