Monday, March 06, 2006

My Essential Guide to Japanese Fluency

Looks impossible to read? Don't fret, because you too can learn Japanese!

There are several ways to learn a new language. But among them hard work and diligence seems to work the best. Without a desire and love to learn, the process will be tedious and perhaps even painful. But if you truly are interested, tackeling a new language can be tons of fun, not to mention extremely rewarding!

As I have progressed through the various levels of Japanese language proficiency I've used a myriad of study aids and text books including both the Yokoso and Genki textbooks. Yokoso tends to have more vocabulary, but Genki was more well ballanced and easier for me to follow/comprehend.

The transition from beginner book to intermediate is also smoother in Genki. Both Yokoso and Genki books are accompanied by chapter work book excersizes and lessons as well as a CD companion for listening comprehension practice.

Japanese Alphabet

After I passed the intermediate state I found the 200 Essential Japanese Expressions guide book. This and the subsequent 500 Essential Japanese expressions for advanced users have been the best texts I have ever used. They focus on the multiple forms of conversational grammar with notes on the difference of written types. These books are deffinately for intermediate and above, but are the best grammar aids I have seen.

For first time learners, I would recommend Marc Bernabes Japanese in Mangaland series. These text books combine manga drawings with practical Japanese language lessons which are excellent if you want to learn how to read, learn some Japanese, and be able to understand certain elements in manga that differ from every day language.

As for my dictionaries I ust the Kodansha's Essential Kanji Dictionary for looking up 2,000 plus Kanji Characters (Chinese ideograms). It has three easy kanji look up methods including: by radical, on/kun readings look up, stroke order/number look up, which make finding the exact kanji you need to locate easy and efficient (often times faster than using the electronic dictionary).

I also use an electronic dictionary, and for any Japanese person or advanced Japanese speaker, this becomes the must have tool for high end users. It also works well for beginner, but I recommend you study hard & memorize as much as possible before relying on just an electronic dictionary. They may be marvelous tools, but they can act as a crutch as well. My model is a few years old, but I use a CANON IDF-4600 Intelligent Dictionary series.

Kanji are ideograms derived from real life images!

Choosing the right Dictionary for you can be tricky. Especially electronic dictionaries which cator to specific user types. Some offer full dictionaries with language support, and others have thesaurus functions with full color displays. Buying the right denshi-jishou (electronic dictionary) isn't always easy. I had to take my Japanese friend to the electronic store with me when I bought mine, just to make sure I got the right dictionary for me.

Top that off with four years of formal university language classes, and having lived in Japan I am considered fluent in Japanese. This means I can hold a fluent conversation for considerable time with listening around 90% comprehension, and read a book with limited assistance. The goal of almost any Japanese language student is to be able to read a Japanese newspaper, as it is the most complex form of the language. However, it's not exactly a language you can peg as being 100% fluent in, because there's always more kanji or new hogen (regional dilect), and zokugo (slang) to learn. Not to mention the difficulties of kego (honorific) words, which is a language itself within the language. The only way to really get a grasp of the language, like anything else, is to experience it first hand by going to the country where it is spoken.

Another way I learned was by studying Japanese comic books i.e. manga. Manga isn't cake however, because reading it and knowing all the kanji and words doesn't necessarily mean you'll understand it. Manga uses so much contemporary slang and is written in conversational format (much like American comics) that understanding the conversational style dialogue means having an awareness and comprehension of certain "speaking" elements of Japanese that you typically don't see in standardized text books or written works such as novels.

Tenjou Tenge by Ogure Ito

Although, there are manga for most every level of reader, so finding something within your skill level range is doable. For instance most SHONEN JUMP titles have furigana (the small hiragana a katakana) printed alongside the difficult kanji so understanding the words becomes easier. These books are typically targeted at a 15 age group. However books like Tenjou Tenge or Vagabond are targeted for more adult level readers and so the furigana is non-existant making these books more advanced reading.

These are just the means I have implimented in learning the Japanese language. Manga itself becomes one of the best tools later on, as my drive and love for the medium forced me to study manga and so study my vocabulary & grammar too. It really does help you improve if you're motivate to do it correctly and take the necessary time to work hard at it. One of my roomates wasn't big on manga but loved J-Pop music and so he translated the Japanese from the lyrics inside the CD booklets and improved his Japanese that way. Japanese is not a language you can learn overnight. It's not Latin based like Spanish or other languages, so picking it up by ear or merely reading thoroughly won't happen at all.
Here's a haiku poem I wrote. One with and one without kanji. Contrary to popular belief, haiku poems are not easy. In Japanese, finding the right syllables is limited by their phonetic language. Since the language is already formatted by a consonant/vowel, consonant/vowel pattern, making the haiku work it slighty more diffucult. In English, anything goes, but in Japanese one must pay close attention to details. However, this focus gives a serene beauty to the poem whereas most my English haiku's sound like random surreal babble.



You can find all of the textbooks and certain electronic dictionaries at Although they are a bit expensive, you still can find things there that most American books stores don't carry.

I hope this infromation helps those who want to take on a challenging new language, or just for curious fans of Japanese culture. If you have any other questions feel free to drop me a line!

All photos and images are copyrighted with a known source. It is believed that the copyright holder has granted permission for use in works such as educational purposes, in the alternative, it may be used under the fair use provision of United States copyright law.

“Tenjou Tenge,” tankobon Manga, vol. 12.
© Ogure Ito/ factory Edie, 2004. Young Jump Comics. Shueisha Inc., Japan.

Bernabe, Marc. Japanese in MangaLand. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2003.

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