Give longer answers

If you only give short answers, you will always be a beginner

When practicing conversation in another language, if you only give short answers, you will always be a beginner. For example, if someone asks, “Where do you want to travel?”, and you just answer, “France” or “I want to travel to France,” you’ll never reach intermediate proficiency in speaking. Get used to volunteering extra information, and your proficiency will grow quickly.

The most obvious way to add information is to give reasons for your answers. “France because I love the French language, and everyone says Paris is wonderful.”

Another way is to compare two things. “Either France or Mexico. In France, I can practice my French, but in Mexico, I can get more sun. I can’t decide.” In fact, a good exercise is to compare two or more things as a conversation topic. For example, you can compare two countries you’ve visited or two cities you’ve lived in. You can compare schools you attended or homes you lived in. You can compare yourself with your siblings or with your parents. You can compare sports you like or foods you cook. This will stretch your language skills and will help you to reach the intermediate level much faster.

You can lengthen your answers by giving specific examples. “I want to travel to Paris and see the cathedrals there. Especially, I want to see Notre Dame before I die.”

You can also lengthen your answers by telling a story. “I want to go to France again. I went to Paris as a teenager and loved it. My family traveled there for a weekend. I saw the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre. Now I want to see more of France.”

In summary, whether you talk to yourself or practice conversation with someone else, always get in the practice of giving longer and longer answers. If you practice by talking to yourself first, you can look up words in a dictionary as you speak. This way, you can learn specific vocabulary you need rather than the general vocabulary taught in textbooks. If you also study and practice grammar, you can go from beginner to low-intermediate level quickly.

Strategies for avoiding kanji

Supposing you only want lower-intermediate conversational skills. What can you do?

This post is a complete antithesis of my last one.

Recently, someone wrote to me, “[In my opinion] trying to learn Japanese without learning the Kanji is futile.” Well, actually, if a person only wants to learn Japanese for travel or for the goal of attaining lower-intermediate conversation skills, they can avoid all of the Japanese scripts—kanji, hiragana, and katakana. They can just use romaji (the Latin alphabet—similar to English, Spanish, French, and German).

Supposing you only want lower-intermediate conversational skills. What can you do? Surprisingly, there are a lot of study materials you can use. I expect that there are websites and apps that can help you. Since I learn languages almost entirely from books and audio courses though (many of which cost money), these are mostly what I’m going to talk about below.

First, I would start every language with fun courses. I say this because it’s hard to be truly committed to a project in the beginning. (See my article, “A honeymoon for language success”, for more information.) In this regard, I recommend starting with Dr. Blair’s Japanese in No Time, an audio course available from audiobook clubs such as eStories and Audible.

I also find JapanesePod101 entertaining, at least in some “seasons.” Different levels and seasons have different writers and hosts. If you try a season and don’t like it, try another. (My favorite is Beginner Season 1.) Those podcasts are free for the first week, and include PDF documents if you want to read along with the dialogs. If you like them, my personal preference is to get a Basic membership for $21 every 3 months (automatically renewed until you tell them to stop). Keep going with podcasts for as long as you can because they’ll help you with your listening skills, without which you can’t carry on a conversation.

If you can afford the Premium membership for JapanesePod101, you can listen to a podcast episode and then listen several times to the dialog-only track in order to get away from the English and listen only to Japanese. You can even download the dialog-only tracks to an MP3 player and play them in shuffle mode to improve your listening even more. To save money, I prefer to study it for a few months with the Basic membership, then switch to Premium membership for a couple of months to listen to the dialog-only tracks.

When you’re ready for serious studies, try the (completely audio) Michel Thomas series. It breaks the grammar down into small pieces and gets you speaking and creating sentences. (I wrote a review about it last month.) An audio course I enjoyed less but still learned from is Pimsleur. You can download the first lesson for free from the official Pimsleur website. If you choose to continue, either search your public library or you can buy lessons cheaply if you join one of the audiobook clubs I mentioned earlier. There are books for learning which only use romaji, but I would study audio courses first so that you learn good pronunciation skills. Some learners have purportedly ruined their Japanese pronunciation by starting with books, and then native speakers couldn’t understand what they said.

If you want to improve your pronunciation, the Fluent Forever website sells an inexpensive course (Pronunciation Trainer) which is written both in Japanese scripts and in a phonetic script (International Phonetic Alphabet) somewhat similar to the Latin alphabet. I haven’t tried it, so I can’t comment on its quality or usefulness.

A course book which uses romaji from beginning to end is Teach Yourself Complete Japanese. There are some reading passages, but you can skip over them. Other options include Japanese in 10 Minutes a Day, Get Talking Japanese, Japanese for Dummies, and probably many more. I enjoyed Japanese in 10 Minutes a Day–which is in a workbook style–and I used Complete Japanese for listening practice, but I haven’t tried the other courses in this paragraph (so I don’t know if they’re any good).

Most of the beginning grammar reference books are written in both Japanese scripts and romaji, so you can get by with just the romaji. In fact, my favorite is written entirely in romaji (even the example sentences). It’s called Japanese Verbs and Essentials of Grammar. What worked for me was creating my own sentences aloud over a period of weeks until the grammar became easy, and then I could remember it to use it in conversation. The book summarizes all of the basic grammar of Japanese in about 100 pages, including hundreds of verb endings to help you communicate many nuances of meaning. This book helped me to achieve lower-intermediate conversation skills earlier this year.

You also need vocabulary. Topical vocabulary books are perfect for conversation practice. Two I use are Barron’s Japanese Vocabulary by Nobuo Akiyama and Japanese Vocabulary for English Speakers: 9000 Words by Andrey Taranov, both of which include romaji for every word. Bookstores also have paper dictionaries entirely in romaji, but they tend to have few words. However, you can always use Google Translate and look at the romaji down below. There’s even a button that allows you to hear the word or sentence in Japanese.

Finally, you need to practice conversation. Hire a tutor if you can (for example, from italki) or find an exchange partner. Or use an app such as Amikumu to find another Japanese learner near you that you can practice conversation together with over a cup of coffee. Or find a Meetup group near you that practices Japanese conversation together. Italki tutors are the most expensive but most efficient resources I’ve found so far without living in Japan. However, in my case, I couldn’t find tutors early in the morning when I wanted them because early morning for me is nighttime in Japan.

If you follow these steps (or use other resources which others recommend or which you find yourself), you have the potential to go all the way to the lower-intermediate level without learning any kanji, hiragana, or katakana. Personally, I started Japanese in a high school class, so I was forced to learn the Japanese scripts. Also, I want to read novels in Japanese, so this was never an option. Nonetheless, I’ve found romaji-only and completely audio resources helpful along the way.

Strategies for mastering kanji (for beginners)

Take it slowly and enjoy the language.

This article is for anyone who has been learning Japanese as a beginner. As you would have found out by now, Japanese has three writing systems: two alphabets called hiragana and katakana (about 50 letters each) and thousands of Chinese characters (called kanji). Once you’ve learned the hiragana and katakana (which doesn’t take as long as total beginners might expect), you need to choose a strategy for learning kanji. Actually, this is done for you in beginner textbooks, but eventually you’ll have to take up the responsibility for mastering kanji yourself (unless you’ve chosen to avoid them completely and stick to conversation skills only).

Because kanji are used both for native Japanese words and for borrowed Chinese “words,” the characters have multiple pronunciations and sometimes multiple meanings. In my experience, it’s almost impossible to memorize all of those pronunciations and meanings at the same time, so I end up learning each character multiple times before I feel that I really know it.

Actually, I consider these various pronunciations and meanings to be merely intellectual constructs–that is, they exist in scholarly studies of the language, but not in real life. What exists in real life is words. Sometimes, one kanji can be used by itself to represent one word. Sometimes, it’s combined with hiragana to form a word. But usually, two or more kanji are combined to make a word. A kanji’s pronunciation varies depending on which word it’s in. In reading and writing, people don’t read and write kanji, they read and write words. So, my strategy is to memorize words.

Specifically, I memorize from one to three example words that contain the kanji I want to learn. I can always come back and memorize more words later in order to learn additional pronunciations that I didn’t learn the first time. Fortunately, as I’ve said, both the kanji to learn and the example words have been chosen for you in beginning textbooks and readers. You ought to learn how to read and write (or at least, read and type) individual characters, but then if you’re going to memorize anything, memorize the vocabulary in your textbook, and you’ll automatically start getting used to the kanji in words.

Learning to write (not just type) is helpful in preparation for reading handwritten Japanese, which often looks very different from typed Japanese. It also helps you to get used to recognizing character parts, so that complicated characters look less complicated.

There is something more important than kanji, and that’s grammar. Even if you set aside a year and memorize 2000 kanji–enough to read a newspaper–Japanese will still be gibberish to you unless you also know the grammar. So that’s where I prioritize my studies: grammar first, then kanji. Grammar is essential for conversation skills, too. You can’t say or understand much without grammar. In fact, in Japanese, sometimes a sentence will seem to say the exact opposite of what it means until you understand the grammar.

My advice, then, for beginners, is to buy a two-volume beginning textbook series, such as Genki, Yookoso, or Elementary Japanese (my personal favorite). These all teach about 300 kanji–but more importantly, grammar. There’s still a lot more grammar to learn after you finish these books, but they’ll give you a good foundation. In fact, I would start with the Michel Thomas series first, as it breaks down the grammar into small pieces and forces you to make sentences aloud. If you can’t afford Michel Thomas, Duolingo will do, as long as you also make up your own sentences in Japanese using the grammar which Duolingo teaches you. Then buy one of these textbook series and continue your studies.

If you would like additional help with kanji, many people have found success in a series of textbooks called Remembering the Kanji by James W. Heisig. Nobody recommended that series to me until recently, and I already know around 600 kanji. By now, I’m familiar with the character parts introduced in Heisig’s books, so I don’t need the books. But other people swear by them.

What helped me was Reading Japanese by Eleanor Harz Jorden and Hamako Ito Chaplin. This university textbook introduces only one kanji at a time, 25 per chapter (425 total) and then gives a lot of reading practice with it, while reviewing earlier kanji at the same time. Each chapter ends with more reading practice, so that each kanji is reviewed multiple times. When I studied that book, I never needed to memorize anything. It also provides a little practice at reading handwritten Japanese, a skill rarely taught elsewhere.

For beginners, strategizing learning kanji is simple: Select your textbooks and readers. It’s only when you finish those textbooks and readers and ask yourself, “now what?”, that you’ll need to take the initiative in your kanji learning. Focus on grammar first, then kanji. Learn conversation and practice listening, as with any other language. Mastering Japanese requires patience and persistence. There’s no need to rush and fret. Take it slowly and enjoy the language.