In Europe, you often find that you break out your most refined sentence in German, Spanish or French only to find to your dismay that they speak back to you in English. Some people may look at this as blessing. "Yea, I already know English! I don't have to learn another language!" But for those native English speakers who are looking to climb the latter to proficiency in another language, progress can be difficult when no one beside your Spanish teacher will give you a chance to actually try conversing. In Japan I've found that people are also eager to use English, but are most of the time more than happy to speak in Japanese with you, especially if it means making the communication a bit easier. Additionally, Japanese is both the language of state of the art technology, and ancient scriptures at the same time. How could you pass that up?
     If you're interested in starting on the road to learning Japanese, read on. If you already know the outline but would like some suggestions on learning/reading material; skip down Next Steps.

日本語: An Introduction

If you asked me "How many kanji do you know?" six months ago, I'd have given you a blank stare. Because I know this the case for too many in the Western World, let's start briefly from the beginning.

    The Japanese language has three scripts, all of which are important. What do I mean by "script"? I mean three different sets of characters that are used for different things throughout the language. The first, called "hiragana", and the second, called "katakana" (no not "katana" as in the samurai sword) are extremely similar to each other; we'll discuss more below. The third script, called "kanji", are somewhat different than the first two scripts.

  1. ひらがな - Hiragana - This set of 48 characters you may think of as a phonetic "alphabet". Five of them represent single vowel sounds like "a" [あ], "i" [い], "u" [う], "e" [え], "o" [お] (not so different right?). The other 43 hiragana represent combined sounds. We can think of each of these sounds as a combination of of a consonant and a vowel, such as "ka" [か],"ri" [り] or "ne" [ね]. This set is used primarily for native Japanese words (more on this in a bit), and to help Japanese children (and Japanese learners in general) to pronounce other words (such as "kanji words"). Hiragana are really just simplified versions of kanji.
  2. カタカナ - Katakana - This set also consists of 48 characters and is symmetric to hiragana with respect to the sound set. The only way that katakana is different from Hiragana is the actual drawing of the character. The lines used in katakana characters are somewhat straighter than the rounded lines used in hiragana characters. Katakana too are really just simplified versions of kanji.
  3. 漢字  - Kanji - Kanji literally means "Chinese character". Look here for the full history, but let it suffice to say here that they were imported from China and are exactly the same as the kanji used in Chinese script today. This website claims that a massive, ancient, Kanji reference book called the 和辞典 (daikanwajiten) contains 51, 109 kanji characters! In Japan however, knowing 2042 characters will allow you to read newspapers, decent books, and most names. 
So lets sum it up:

Next Steps:
     Like anything worth having; proficiency in the Japanese language takes time and effort. When I began studying Japanese I did a lot of research as to what books/study methods/programs worked best, and here is what I found:

Genki -- The Genki Series of textbooks is perhaps the most well known textbook series, and for good reason. While it's slightly more expensive than books like Japanese for Busy People, it is more thorough and includes both a listening/speaking section and a reading/writing section of the the textbook. It is used heavily on college campuses in Japan and the U.S., but with the audio CD included, and the available workbooks, I think it is just fine for self-study as well. Other options include Nakama, Minna-no-Nihongo, and others available here. I also found this review of Genki very helpful in making my decision.

Computer Programs
Anki -- Anki is a SRS, or spaced repetition system. Each time you remember a word the length of time the program waits to present it to you again increases. If you answer 「むずかしい」 correctly the first time, it will ask you again in four days. If you answer correctly after four days, it will ask you, perhaps after six days (the actual amount of days varies depending on your overall performance on the deck, and your settings). This greatly increases the amount of material you can learn in a given amount of time because you spend less of your time reviewing cards you already know. This is a VERY powerful program that I use for everything from studying Japanese to studying for finals. The desktop client is free, but the iPhone app costs anything between $12 - $24, depending on how the developer is feeling that day. Other, less phenomenal knock-offs of Anki exist.

General Study Methods
Regular, Consistent Study -- If you buy the Genki textbook and study every three weeks, you're no better off then before you bought the book (and you're out 58 big ones). The same goes for Anki. The Japanese language is very different from the European languages, and so I have found that it does not stick in your head so well as European vocabulary (You learned "casa", the Spanish word for house, in like 5th grade right?)  This means increased study and repetition is absolutely essential if you actually want keep you keep all those vocabulary words in the brain bank.

Thanks for reading! E-mail with any questions.

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