Beginner Japanese

A few weeks ago I started a lockdown project to learn a little Japanese. I’ve been using Tofugu’s guide to beginner Japanese. which I’ve found excellent so far.

They use a novel approach of starting out with the Japanese alphabets fist, including even Kanji, then moving onto grammar and basic language proficiency. The rationale is that by building up a vocabulary and basic literacy, it’ll save effort later as a learner would otherwise be interrupted over and over again having to look up words while trying to learn grammar.

Another twist is that they recommend learning to read kana (hiragana and katakana) and kanji without learning to write it, which is an art unto itself. Regardless of whether it’s Japan or the west, we’re in the age of electronic input. Learning to write Japanese by hand is high effort and low impact because you’d almost never use it. Conversely, knowing how to read Japanese gives you all the tools you need to input it into a phone or computer.

Their hiragana guide presents each character one at a time, along with a memory aid for each. For instance, the character for fu/hu (ふ) looks like a fu-reaky Hu-la dancer:

The Japanese ふ character and memory aid

It’s a little ridiculous, but effective. In about two weeks, I was able to learn the entire hiragana alphabet (~45 characters plus some combinations that have special pronounciations) and about half of the katakana alphabet (all the same syllables as hiragana except with a whole new set of symbols – thanks Japan). I’m awful at this stuff, so it’s more progress than I ever expected. I follow a few people who write in Japanese on Twitter, and my jaw fell open when I was able to read some of what they wrote 1. At this point in my life I’d internalized the assumption that all asian character sets would forever remain inscrutable hieroglyphs to me.

Of course, the effort of learning kana pales in comparison to the next step, which is to start building a kanji arsenal (over 2,000 characters to get to basic literacy, ideally a few thousand more to get to a more normal level, and each character can have multiple readings – again, thanks Japan). I’m trying Tofugu’s spaced repetition system for that too.

Tofugu seems have struck a nice balance between concepts and tooling for memorization. I tried Duolingo’s English-Japanese course when it was released, but got nowhere with it. Their app is technically impressive, but there’s no context for most of what you’re doing – the idea is seemingly to show you a lot of fragments until you start to internalize what’s going on. I need some background exposition.

It’s possible to swing too far the other way too. I previously tried a course that was more like a textbook, and it suffered from too much background – pages of it before any new concept, most of which I was never had a hope of remembering. Also, the interactive tools available in internet/app form to help with retention are an absolutely key learning implement.

But like learning any skill, there’s no substitute for motivation. The key is consistent effort over a prolonged period, and that’s normally where I fall off the wagon. It’s also doubly true for skills that don’t see much practical use. We’ll see how far down this rabbit hole I make it.

1 Albeit very slowly, and without comprehension because while I can puzzle out the sounds, I have no vocabulary.

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