In many respects, Japanese can be a difficult language to learn. Especially to the western newbie who hasn’t taken the hiragana/katana plunge just yet. I like to think that a person’s language abilities are based around six key factors: 1) speaking, 2) listening/listening comprehension, 3) reading/reading comprehension, 4) writing, 5) vocabulary, and 6) grammar. If a person has a solid foundation in these six things, I thing their Japanese will be quite sound as well.
I am teaching Enlglish at an Eikaiwa えいかいわ*, and the emphasis is primarily on speaking English. Many Japanese students learn the basics of English grammar and reading in school, so many of them can read. However, when it comes time to speak there are many more challenges involved. The first major challenge is that you’re responding in real-time. You don’t have the luxury of reading, thinking about it, and then responding. During conversations…it’s go time!
In my opinion, how well you can hear Japanese at native-speaking-speed is just as important as being able to speak well. If you can’t aurally understand what’s being said, it’s going to be a bit hard to respond orally. If you don’t understand (as I often don’t) it can be a real conversation killer.
Reading and reading comprehension are essential skills because they can be the precursor to truly great Japanese. Having this basic foundation is the key to learning more Japanese. Learning hiragana and katakana not only have allowed me to read basic words and phrases on a the train, but it’s given me the opportunity to start reading children’s books. What do childrens’ books have inside of them? Kanji with furigana (small hiragana next to above a given kanji to make it easy to read). Learning new kanji as I read these low-level books will help me to transition to learning more and more kanji, more vocabulary, and to becoming a more advanced reader.
This is perhaps the most challenging aspect of learning Japanese because I’m simply not accustomed to a writing system which is so much more complicated/detailed than my native one. I’ve seen kanji which can represent several different words or sounds, and there are literally thousands of these things. Yes, it’s challenging to remember so many kanji, but it can be even more challenging to write them from memory (in the correct stroke order no less). The writing system isn’t easy to learn, but it’s worth knowing if you want strong overall Japanese skills.
Being able to speak is one thing. Knowing the words to say is another. If you have large, comprehensive list of Japanese vocabulary in your brain it can do wonders for communication. Even if you can’t make decent sentence, knowing just the right word to say can make all the difference in the world. I’m not saying it’s good to walk around with Incredible-Hulk-One-Word Japanese, but it can be a crude from of communication. Whether or not your Japanese is advanced, vocabulary is extremely important.
Personally, I think grammar is the most important aspect of all. With this skill you can speak intelligently among your Japanese friends and peers. Granted you know the writing system, good grammar will allow you to write sentences that make sense. A good understanding of grammar will also help you to better understand the Japanese you’re hearing. As far as reading and vocabulary go, I think grammar is somewhat independent of these factors, but nonetheless necessary.
How about you? Which factor do you think is most important when learning Japanese?
Thanks for reading,