Friday, December 23, 2016

Learning Japanese Is Not That Hard

Say you like manga and anime, things made in Japan, in Japanese. One day you feel a calling: you got to learn Japanese, because you love this stuff, and this stuff is in Japanese. Not knowing Japanese hinders your ability to enjoy the content one hundred percent. Then you start... and everyone tells you learning Japanese is too hard and learning it just for manga is a really stupid idea. That may not be exactly true.

Learning Japanese to read manga in Japanese and watch anime in Japanese is in fact far, far easier than most people think. Of course it's still no small task, but it is indeed smaller.

The reason for this is that, when you ask someone: "how hard it is to learn Japanese?" They will think you want to... well, "learn Japanese." But what does learning Japanese means? It means learning a second language, or maybe a third, and maybe a very foreign one at that. So of course they will say it's basically the hardest thing to learn language-wise.

But the goal they imagine is (possibly) different from yours.

Think of it this way: why do you want to learn Japanese? Is it to read manga? Then it's easy. To watch anime? Also easy. Watch J-dramas or read light novels? Harder, but still kinda easy. Or is it to travel to Japan, pass the Japanese Language Proficiency Test I, get a job teaching English in some school, marry some hot asian person, have a family, and spend a few decades talking to people in foreign-ish?

That is hard.

Japanese Language Needs

There are two ways you can communicate in a language: written and spoken. And there are two directions of communication: receiving and transmitting. Thus we can divide the fluency of a language in four parts: reading, writing, listening and speaking.

In order to read manga in Japanese, you only need to know how to read Japanese, and know only a small part of the Japanese vocabulary. Better yet, you can actually suck terribly at reading Japanese and still be able to succeed. This is because you can just look up each and every unknown word in a dictionary all the fucking time.

Now if you were to write Japanese, say, in a chat... then you are screwed. Because you need a good grip of the Japanese grammar. Constructing sentences with proper grammar is much harder than interpreting sentences written by someone else with proper grammar. Not to mention that writing a word you know in English but not in Japanese is also incredibly difficult and the dictionary hardly helps in that case.

Next we have listening. This is easy. Listen enough and you get used to the Japanese fast-paced pronunciation. You are able to tell syllables apart, words apart, and so on. If you are watching anime and you don't know a word, just replay the same bit a few times and look it up in a dictionary. So easy!

Now, speaking, on the other hand... you get the idea.

There are even terms for this. Passive and active vocabulary. The passive vocabulary being words you can understand when used but can't use them yourself, and the active vocabulary being the words you can actually use. For example, in English we have the words "but," "however," "though" and "although." An English learner can understand all of them but still avoid using some because he isn't certain about their nuances. The same applies to Japanese.

I should note that, specially because of kanji, we could add reading handwriting and handwriting to the list. Because writing on a computer is very easy and writing on hand is not very easy. Reading handwriting is exceptionally hard in any language, too. 

Incomplete Learning

The point I'm trying to make here is: you don't need to learn the whole language, you can study only the part you care about. Only the part you need.

If you consider all the stuff you need to become a full-fledged Japanese speaker, there is a lot of it. There is knowing all of the grammar, all the particles, all the verb conjugations, knowing how to use polite words, knowing when to use polite words, knowing the kansai dialect, knowing a much greater vocabulary, etc. etc. etc.

It is a long road to master the Japanese language. A road you don't necessarily need to take. Because to read manga or watch anime, the amount of skill you need is far less than that. It's a feat a lot more achievable.

Time needed to learn japanese to read manga in Japanese, to watch anime in Japanese, to read LNs in Japanese, to write fluently and to speak fluently as a line diagram.

Yes, yes, this is incomplete learning. You won't be able to say you can speak Japanese if you can't actually speak Japanese, that is, if all you can really do is read manga in Japanese or watch anime in Japanese. But do you really want to speak Japanese? What are you going to speak Japanese for?

Goal Reached Journey Ended

To give you a concrete example: me. I can read and write English pretty fine. I'm Brazilian, and for almost ten years I have used English to write posts on the internet, to read posts on the internet, to chat with people, to study, little by little I got better at English to the point I'm probably better at writing it than your average American.

However... I can't actually speak English. Worse yet, I can't even listen to English. I can't understand what vloggers say on Youtube, or what the lyrics of a music are like. I need English subtitles to watch English movies, series and cartoons because I can't make out what the actors are saying.

Is it possible for someone to go almost 10 years without figuring out how to listen to English despite using the language almost every day? Well, yes. And the main reason is: I don't need to be able to listen to English, since I can just get the English subtitles instead. If I made an effort, I could learn it, but I'm lazy so I don't.

The same thing applies to Japanese. If you spend 10 years only reading manga in Japanese, you will be a star at reading manga in Japanese... but you won't be able to hold a conversation for one single minute. The question is: is reading the manga all you want? Or do you want to become a perfectly fluent Japanese speaker?

If all you want is to read manga, you can basically get to a good spot after studying for a mere year or two. Not five or ten years. A year or two. Then you can actually stop studying, because by that point you already manage to read manga. If a manga has too many kanji and is hard to read, you can still manage to read it very, very slowly, with the help of a dictionary. So you can basically read any and whatever manga you want at this level.

And the best of all, if you learn manga-reading level of Japanese in your 20's after a year or so of studying and stop there, so long as you keep reading manga and not forget the Japanese you learned, you can still change your mind and become fully fluent when you are in your 30's or 40's or whatever. So you aren't actually ditching away your chances of becoming fluent by half-assing learning the language at first.

Anyway, this is what I wanted to say with this post: it is easier to learn Japanese to read manga than what people make it to be. It's not a task that daunting, that impossible. It doesn't require studying every day for hours for years. Anyone can do it. So if you want to do it, just do it!


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  1. Just found this and I am going to read the whole blog :)

    1. Good luck. May the blessings of Eris help you in your journey :D

  2. When you said you're from Brasil it just felt like home!!
    Muito bom teu blog, keep going with the good work!

  3. Ai, que massa este blog! I work for a Japanese company and I stumbled across your blog. Not that I have any hopes I will ever speak/write/listen/understand Japanese, but the joke at the office is I have very good pronunciation and co-workers teach me rude Japanese. I just read the "dame" post and it gave me more vocabulary to interact tomorrow. Who knows, maybe I could read very basic phrases after exploring your blog. =P Keep up the good work!

  4. Whoa mind blown. You write so well!

  5. "Or is it to travel to Japan, pass the Japanese Language Proficiency Test I, get a job teaching English in some school, marry some hot asian person, have a family, and spend a few decades talking to people in foreign-ish?

    That is hard."

    Ahhh!!! That is why I have been failing all this time! ^_^ I have been on and off learning Japanese for years. (Plus a few other languages when the mood arises.) I always try to learn how to do it all at one time. I generally get hung up on what one kanji means by itself or grouped with this one and then different when paired with another. On and Kun readings are also very confusing. I am going to try this however, as I have seen the one for "genki" and you explained a lot, much more than any other website or app I have been to or tried. And it looks like you have about two years worth of content and I hope you continue, although sadly I see very few comments so far. I hope people have been using and enjoying all your hard work.

    By the way, do quite a few Japanese live in Brazil? I had been researching Japanese towns/people and I think quite a few went to Brazil.

    1. Yes, there are a lot of Japanese in Brazil. Brazil and Japan have a bit of a history. It's a bit of funny, in a way. I met this guy who went to Japan and married there, but after the Fukushima disaster he and his wife decided to move to Brazil. Then, there was the Olympics, the impeachment of a president, and justice going after the ex-president and the acting president. The guy thought Brazil had no future, so he wants to go back to Japan so their children can be raised there.

      I think this kind of zig-zag is common and it intertwines the two countries.

      Good luck learning Japanese, by the way.

  6. "Learn japanese" they said. "It's not that hard to do" they said. But why no one hass told me about kanji?!?! Thousands of symbols with no particular system of getiing their reading or at least their meaning!...

    Ok, japanese grammar is good. It's logical in it's own way and, moreover, it's interesting. Words? Ok, not a problem, people learn new words in their life everytime even in their native language, whether it's some tech terms or slang stuff. But learning pictures? It's just... I mean... 絶対無理です

  7. Such a good post! I just felt home when you told being Brazilian! I am trying to learning Japanese because I wanna live in Japan, studying Japanese, pos graduation or working. Of course it will be awesome when I get able to read manga and watch anime!

    I liked to see that maybe that goal in Japanese learning its nearer than I thought! Good work here, made me want to read your entire blog