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Learn Japanese

1830 Learn Japanese

About the Japanese language

As the name suggests, Japanese is an East Asian language spoken in Japan by approximately 127 million people. It belongs to the Japonic or Japanese--Ryukyuan language family spoken in the main islands of Japan, and in the Ryukyu Islands. Japanese is spoken exclusively in Japan, but it is spoken in few other parts of the world too. During World War II, when Japan annexed Taiwan and Korea, and also partially occupied the Philippines and China, people in these countries learnt Japanese as the language of the empire. Most of these people in these countries still speak Japanese.  

History of Japanese language 

Japanese went through stages of development to finally become the modern Japanese that it is today- from old Japanese, to Early Middle Japanese, to Late Middle Japanese, then Early Modern Japanese and finally Modern Japanese. Old Japanese was the oldest stage of the language, and used the Man'yōgana system of writing. The earliest texts in Japan were written in Classical Chinese, which was imported to Japan with the spread of Buddhism. Old Japanese had 88 distinct syllables, due to which it has been assumed that its vowel system was larger than that of Modern Japanese -- perhaps carrying eight vowels.  ‘Kojiki’ is the earliest text in this language. It dates back to the early 8th century, and was written completely in Chinese characters. Old Japanese ended in the year 794, though its several remnants continue to be used in Modern Japanese, for instance, particle tsu is preserved in words such as matsuge (eyelash), modern mieru (to be visible) and kikoeru (to be audible) retain the suffix yu(ru).

After this, came Early Middle Japanese or the Japanese of the Heian period, from 794 to 1185. This language had a significant amount of Chinese influence on its phonology. Late Middle Japanese spans from 1185 to 1600, and is divided into two sections, equivalent to the Kamakura period and the Muromachi period, respectively. Further, Early Modern Japanese was the dialect used after the Meiji Restoration. It is very similar to Modern Japanese and gradually evolved into Modern Japanese completely, during the 19th century. In 1945, soon after World War II, Modern Japanese become the standard language, and saw use in most official communications. It is during this period that the Japanese in addition to their use of Katakana and Hiragana, also started using traditional Chinese characters called ‘Han’, which later developed into ‘Kanji’, which is a form of writing used for expressing thoughts in the Japanese and Chinese languages.

Japanese writing system 

Initially, Japanese was written was written in Classical Chinese, wherein Japanese names were represented by characters used for their meanings and not their sounds. Later the Chinese-sounding phoneme principle was used to write pure Japanese poetry and prose, excluding some Japanese words, which were even then written with characters for their meaning and not the original Chinese sound. This is when Japanese began to establish as a written language.

Over a period of time, the Japanese writing system evolved. Chinese characters (kanji) were used to write words either borrowed from Chinese, or words in Japanese that had similar meanings. Kanji is based on the Chinese writing system and has about 2,000 signs. It was brought from China to Japan in the 6th century AD. Chinese characters were also used to write grammatical elements, and they gradually developed into two syllabic scripts- Hiragana and Katakana, which were based on Man'yōgana.

Hiragana, used for simple words, conjugations, particles and children’s literature, is syllabic and the most original writing system in Japan. It is the first set of writing that is taught to Japanese children as early as in the foundational years of schooling. Hiragana is used for words that are no longer written in Kanji and also for following kanji to show conjugation endings. Kanji cannot be subjected to variation without losing its essence, and it can also not convey that tone and tense of the language alone. Thus, hiragana is suffixed to the ends of kanji to represent verb and adjective conjugations. These hiragana are termed okurigana. Like Hiragana, Katakana is a set of written symbols used to write foreign words, names of animals and plants, and for emphasis. For example, ‘supermarket’ has been adapted and shortened into sūpā (スーパー). The word katakana means "fragmentary kana", as the katakana characters are derived from fragments of the more complex kanji.

Both Hiragana and Katakana were simplified from kanji. While Hiragana is considered informal and is used more by women, Katakana and Kanji were considered more formal and were usually used in offices by men. The modern Japanese script hence uses four systems of writing, namely Kanji (Chinese characters), two syllabaries- Hiragana and Katakana, and the Latin script Romanji- Romanisation of Japanese words, which is used for simplifying original letters and helping the non-Japanese with the pronunciation of Japanese words.

Learning Japanese

Japanese is one amongst the 9th most-spoken languages in the world, with millions of native Japanese and many immigrant communities using it. People in South Korea, parts of China, the Philippines, Taiwan, Argentina, Brazil, Peru, Australia, Canada and the United States witness prevalence of the language. A sizable presence of Japanese language is also seen in New York, London and Paris. It is considered to be one of the most difficult and complex languages in the world, which makes it difficult to learn Japanese. There are, however, some characteristic features of the language that make learning it quite easy - Japanese has no gender, as in English, and it does not distinguish between singular and plural.

The biggest challenge that one comes across when he starts to learn Japanese language is learning the characters. Since they have no connection with languages of Latin origin, memorising them becomes a difficult task. Hence, the first step towards the process of how to learn Japanese is learning Japanese language alphabets- the Hiragana. It consists of 51 phonetic characters, each of which stands for exactly one sound. This differs from English, in which one letter may have different sounds in different contexts. Knowing Hiragana helps you to pronounce any word in Japanese and also helps to learn how to write in Japanese. It is thus essential to learn Japanese alphabet at the beginning of your Japanese journey.

This should be followed by learning Katakana, which are loan words or non-Japanese words (sofa, French fries, Halloween, etc.) katakana are used for transcription of loan words from foreign languages. For example, ‘tomato’ is written トマト (tomato). It is used for names of people, countries, animals, companies and so on and so forth. This set of symbols is comparatively easier to learn. People mostly want to learn katakana for the English words they use.

Another important step is to learn Kanji (Chinese characters), which depict complete words in Japanese and help to understand and learn to speak Japanese better. Depending on Romanji should be avoided as it is a system of using English letters to spell Japanese, which prevents learners to get a genuine grip on Japanese.  Hence, your process of how to learn Japanese language should be chiefly focused on learning Hiragana, Katakana and Kanji.

The next step in learning Japanese is to learn Japanese vocabulary and grammar. Now one important thing to remember while learning this language is that you have to first unlearn your native language. Since Japanese is different from most of the other languages in the world, it makes it difficult to learn it by applying the rules and concepts of your native language to it. Japanese has different grammar, sentence structure and word order- ‘subject-object-verb’. Unlike most Indo-European languages, Japanese word order has a strict rule of placing the verb at the end of the sentence.

As for the vocabulary, you can make a list of words in the language with the help of internet or books available online, or even by watching Japanese serials and films. You can memorise these words and practice to speak Japanese anytime, anywhere. Learning a handful of key phrases is a good idea when learning any language, since it helps with basic communication, like exchanging greetings. Some such Japanese phrases are- ‘Kon'nichiwa’ for ‘Hello’, ‘Sayonara’ for ‘Goodbye’, ‘Domo arigato gozaimasu’ for ‘Thank you very much’, ‘Hajime mash'te’ for ‘Nice to meet you’ and so on and so forth. This is where Romanji, which is otherwise avoided, plays a role in casual communication. The best way to learn Japanese is to listen and repeat. This can be done through Japanese podcasts, serials and films in Japanese using English subtitles, and Japanese songs.

Japanese is a complex language and not everyone picks it while learning a foreign language, but there is still no doubt that it has high scope in terms of careers money-making. There are plenty of Japanese language jobs like those of an interpreter, translator, teacher, voice coordinator, etc. Japanese translator jobs are huge in number and the easiest ones to find in India, provided you are fluent in both speaking and comprehending the language.

Another advantage of learning Japanese is that it provides job opportunities in Multinational companies, the hospitality industry and also aids studying abroad, especially in the fields of technology and medicine.


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