Thursday, November 10, 2005

Learning Japanese

(OK, Shana has nothing to do with learning Japanese but she's kawaii [cute] so why not post a picture of her...)

A lot of anime fans at some point decide to take the plunge and try to learn Japanese, either so they can understand more of the nuances of the language, watch raws without waiting for the fansubs, or because they want to go to Japan someday and not be completely lost when they do. I'm only about halfway through the Japanese textbook I'm using right now, but I've learned a lot that was useful when I went to Japan, and it's fun to be able to understand even a fraction of what people are saying in anime without having to look at the subs. I'd definitely recommend learning at least a little Japanese, it just adds to the experience of watching anime.

I think the best way to learn it is to take a course, at least an introductory one--most community colleges will have Japanese classes, or a "Japanese for Conversation" class more geared towards people who will go to Japan for work or vacation and want to be able to have basic conversations (such as "where does this train go?" or "six more Sapporos, please" or "how the hell did I wake up in a ditch in Hokkaido hugging a Kotori pillow?"). Here's what I've found useful in learning basic Japanese:

Japanese Online - website for learning Japanese; not as good as a class or a textbook like the one below, but not bad as an introduction and it's free.

Japanese for Busy People I - available at Amazon and some bookstores, this is the textbook my Japanese conversation class used. Some of the chapters, like exchanging business cards, are geared to business travelers, but the majority of it is really well done, and the later chapters do a good job of pulling in material from the earlier chapters so you don't forget it. This is the best textbook I found--but don't get the "kana version", the kana version quickly dumps you into hiragana (the Japanese phonetic writing system), which is notorious for discouraging beginners. The regular version does introduce the hiragana, but it has romanji (roman characters, like we use in English) throughout as well. Quizzes at the end of each chapter have answers in the back of the book, so you can check your progress. There's also a workbook, which also has answers in the back if you're teaching yourself.

Remembering the Hiragana: A Complete Course on How to Teach Yourself the Japanese Syllabary in 3 Hours - also available at Amazon, the title exaggerates more than a little (at least *I* sure took longer than three hours) but it's a good guide to learning the hiragana, which is one part of the three writing systems used in Japan. The hiragana alphabet is used to spell most words; words with a foreign origin, however, generally are written in katakana, which has the same number of characters as hiragana but are written differently. Then there are the kanji, or Chinese characters, of which there are 2,000 that are used regularly. Not all Japanese even know all 2,000...but if you want to learn written Japanese and at least be able to read some signs, learning hiragana is a good place to start. The book tries to come up with a story behind each hiragana character to help you learn to draw it, and overall it does a pretty good job.

If you use a Mac, there's also a good hiragana/katakana program called Nuku - it can quiz you on whichever characters you want and keeps track of how well you do.

If you decide to learn Japanese, ganbatte (do your best)! It's hard work, but if you pace yourself (one chapter a week works for me) you'll find yourself understanding more bits and pieces of conversation in anime before you realize it. And unlike regular students, as an anime fan you have the advantage of listening to Japanese every day, which can't hurt your pronunciation (unless you only watch Abenobashi and wind up talking in a Kansai accent).

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