The Japanese Language

Where to begin ... ?

Only some thousand Westerners per year learn Japanese. It is not only because Japan is faaar away and most exotic, but also there are so few courses and teachers. Then literally ten thousand complex kanji charachters are scaring, and so many are discouraged in the first place. But, to some, these kanji are just a challenging fascination ...

Because there is no traditional way for "us" to learn Japanese, "we" do it somehow. Just need to be a little hard boiled :) I learned most on myself during the last 20 years. You can, too.

I became interested into Japan in 1981. Because I watched the "Shogun" series on TV. I "painted" these weird characters, that was fun!

In 1986 I wanted to know how to write Japanese really. So I bought two lecture books. (You think I must have been good at school ? No, I was in fact B-A-D :)

Then I wanted to know more about Japanese grammar ... and still I never met any Japanese in real life. Until 1988, when I met Japanese at the university.

In 1990 I went to Japan as student. I had a Japanese homestay family for 8 months, and they tought me real Japanese.

And in 1995 I found Japanese homepages on the internet.


Grammar is the framework of any language. The Japanese grammar is rather easy. Any European grammar is much more difficult!

The method of learning a foreign language by starting with grammar (instead of confusing beginners with examples like "My name is ...") is good for adults, not for kids. It enables You to take grasp on the language quickly and systematically. Adults learn slower than kids, but they can make the same speed of progress when guided systematically. To learn Japanese grammar goes fast, because it has a quite limited number of forms and flections.

Writing Japanese

It is a saying that Japanese is too diffucult to learn for Westerners. This is not true - everybody can learn Japanese (and Chinese and more). But this much is true: You need to memorize a paramount of several thousand similar-looking but still different characters, and a completely different mindset about how to communicate at all ... but in the end, there are ways through the jungle :)
  1. Start with the "simple" Syllable Alphabets Hiragana and Katakana: both have only some 50 characters. It takes just acouple of weeks. And it is pure memorizing and training, like in the basic school (well, the old style maybe...). Once You learned the base of these Kana, You are able to understand all other forms and composites of the language and its pronounciations. Japanese think in these syllables, not in our western alphabet!

  2. Continue with Kanji. That will take Your lifetime :) But You will find a lot of good dictionaries.

    Japanese kids drill "Koku-Go = National Language" at least 6 years by memorizing 10 - 100 kanji per week, starting with a few in basic school, then ever more in the upper classes. And they "only" learn the 2000 Joyo Kanji for everyday life. A good educated Japanese can read about 4000 Kanji. And there is nobody on this planet, not even a Japanese, who can read all existing Kanji. The biggest kanji encyclopedia lists up 40.000 kanji. My biggest one has 20.000. Since then it never happened again to me that I could not find a Kanji. But in normal life, there is no need to overdo this ... You would only need it when You ARE living in Japan :)

  3. Learn pronounciations and grammatic constructions, by which some syllables (i.e.: its pronounciation) change (BUN = "Sentence" + HOU = "Method, Art" → BUMPOU = "Grammar"), but You do not see that change from H to P in the Kanji! You can only understand these alternations when You have adapted to the Japanese syllable systems Hiragana and Katakana, and quit questioning why this one sounds different; it just does (BTW English is also very far away from its way to write it).

Japanese Grammar and Characters form a unity. So You should learn this in parallel.

Lessions and Courses

Those few of "us" who engage in learning Japanese do it long after school. Universities offer lessions and courses mostly for adult students. These courses are good to learn some basics, but if You want more, You definitely should visit Japan and try to live there for a while.

I never attended any courses before I came to Japan, but I already knew some Japanese from 5 years of isolated self study and my Japanese friends. So in Japan, I had skipped the basic courses. Instead, I was invited to an advanced course of the Berkley School, sponsored by the Geographic Survey Institute in Tsukuba, where I studied in 1990/91 ... long time ago: a time where internet was yet beyond any fantasy =)

Today You can find much more lecture books and materials than 20 years ago when I started. To read a Japanese newspaper or book, You may also need a good dictionary (e.g. by Hadamitzky or Nelson). Many books are suitable for self teaching.

In the Internet Era

The "classic" Internet as we know it came about 1995 - it was an entirely new concept of a medium. Long time it was a problem to display Kanji on the screen - the modern Operating Systems do that now without any extra setups ... how times have changed in 25 years =)

Today (since about 2010) You can even use GOOGLE to translate ONLINE from any language into Japanese and vice versa! And there are many new ways to learn Kanji online.