Japanese is Possible!
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- Introduction to Japanese Grammar
- Learning new vocabulary!
Introduction to Japanese Grammar
Japanese sentences are very different from familiar languages like
English and Spanish. Incidentally, Spanish is very similar to English
grammar-wise. Japanese, on the other hand, uses short words called
"particles" to mark a word's purpose in a Japanese sentence.
More on particles later.
However, no worries! Japanese grammar isn't as difficult as most
people think, and in many ways, it it more logical than most other
languages and has few exceptions.
I will start by giving a literal translation to the example sentences
that may look a little strange. In order to avoid this as much as possible,
I will incorporate already taught concepts into translations, so they for the
most part will not be 100% literal. In any case, a completely natural translation
will always be provided.
Japanese Sentence Structure
Here's a typical Japanese sentence:
Kore wa mizu desu.
This (topic marker) water is.
If you've seen Star Wars (and who hasn't), think back to
the way Yoda spoke. Japanese would sound a lot like that
if you translated it literally.
"Your father is."
"An abode of evil it is."
"In you must go."
Japanese is also a bit vague, or can seem that way.
Japanese speakers tend to have a bit of an aversion to redundancy,
and if they see the opportunity to leave something out of a sentence
(say, a subject or a direct object), they will most likely take it.
In fact, Japanese pronouns actually have roots in meanings that are
unrelated to "I, you, he..." For example, two of their words for 'I'
(there are many)literally mean "personal" and "slave." As a result,
Japanese will usually avoid
pronouns like the plague, and most often refer to other people by name,
even when talking directly to that person.
Back to redundancy: I know I'm getting a little ahead of myself,
but I'll take you by the hand and guide you as you look at this
Person A: Mise e iku ka.
Person B: Hai, iku.
Person A: Are you going to the store?
Person B: Yes, I am going there.
"mise e iku" literally translates, "to the store, [I] go"
mise - store
e - particle meaning "toward" or "to"
iku - to go
ka - particle signifying that the sentence is a question
hai - yes
Notice that there is no mention of 'you, I or there' because they aren't
really needed. To a Japanese person, it is perfectly natural to say (literally),
"Yes, I go."
Note: these are by far not the only meanings for these particles, they are
only the most common usages. Other uses for these particles will be discussed
at a later time.
To put it simply, after many of the words in a sentence, you have a
particle telling what the word "was" to that sentence.
- wa marks the topic of a sentence. Very often this topic is the subject
of the sentence, but not always. It most closely resembles the phrase "as for"
- ga marks the subject of a sentence and puts emphasis on it. It is very confusing
at first to distinguish between the uses of wa and ga since both can label a subject,
but they are very different sometimes and I will strengthen this distinction as we go
- no signifies that the item before it posesses the item after it. This meaning
can be broadened to the sense of attatching attributes to nouns.
- o marks the direct object of a sentence. It tells what or
who receives the action of the verb.
- e shows the direction or destination of a motion.
- ka shows that a sentence is a question. In English, questions can often
be very different from their corresponding statements, for example, "Does he
go to the store?" has a rather different word order from "He goes to the store." In
Japanese, this is usually not the case and a statement can be changed to a question
simply by tacking a ka onto the end.
Nakamura san wa sensei desu.
[Matt (as for) teacher is./As for Matt, he is a teacher.]
Matt is a teacher.
After the word "Matt", the "wa" tells us that Matt is the topic
of the sentence - the sentence will be about Matt.
Let's add something to the sentence. Let's modify what kind of teacher
Matt wa anata no sensei desu.
[As for Matt, he is you('s) teacher.]
Matt is your teacher.
We can turn it into a question by adding ka:
Matt wa anata no sensei desu ka.
[Matt is your teacher?]
Is Matt your teacher?
Desu is the most often used word for "to be". In English, we have to
conjugate that verb to the following forms:
is, are, was, were, will be
Japanese verbs are not conjugated for first, second or third person
subjects or for plural subjects. There is only one "person" as
far as Japanese verbs are concerned. Also, Japanese verbs do not
distinguish between present and future and as a result, the present-tense
is often called the "non-past" form. Luckily for us learners wading in
"context," they do have a past tense:
Present tense - Desu
Past tense - Deshita (prounounced DESH ta)
Note: Desu is not actually a plain
verb. This will be the one exception to my policy of using
plain verbs, because I think that even in plain speech, one should
use desu, not its plain form. However, since you will
encounter the plain version da in various reading and
visual material, I will teach its forms,
but I do not recommend using it.
Desu doesn't conjugate like most other verbs, but luckily, there are very few
irregular verbs in Japanese, somewhere on the order of 3 to 20, depending on
how you look at it. The other hundreds of verbs follow a strict,
logical pattern that is easy to follow!
English - Japanese
is - desu
are - desu
was - deshita
were - deshita
will be - desu
Learning new vocabulary!
You will begin learning many Japanese words.
Just like in English, some words are more common than others. We
will start with the more common words and progress toward the less
frequently used ones.
doko - where
nani - what
dare - who
ikutsu - how many
ai - love
heya - room
hon - book
hito - person
inu - dog
kami - god
neko - cat
aruku - to walk
hanasu - to speak
- to run
korosu - to kill
miru - to see, to watch
watashi - I
anata - you
kare - he
kanojo - she
watashitachi - we
anatatachi/anatagata - you (plural)
karetachi/karera - them (when referring to a group that includes males)
kanojotachi/kanojora - them (for an all-female
Note: As I stated earlier, Japanese pronouns
are far less common in polite speech than their English
counterparts. Also note that these pronouns can be made plural by
adding -tachi, but where others exist (above), the other ones are
akai - red
aoi - blue
kuroi - black
shiroi - white
osoi - slow
hayai - fast
Effective methods to learn new words
You take a piece of paper, and write the Japanese word on one
side, and its English meaning on the other. You write from 5 - 25
words on a page. Look at your list as often as possible. The
more you look at it, the sooner you will learn the words.
Take some index cards (cut in half if you like) and write the
Japanese word on one side, and the English meaning on the other.
Look at the flashcards when you get time. You can practice in
two different ways -
- Look at the Japanese word and try to guess the English meaning
- Look at the English meaning and try to guess the Japanese word
A combination of the two would be best.
Lists and flashcards are an effective method of learning words for
most people. Some people learn visually, others have to hear something
in order to learn it. You can adapt a technique (like flashcards, for
example) to fit your personal learning style.
If you're a visual learner, you have to see something to learn it.
If you fall into this category, no use wasting time with oral
vocabulary drills. Learning things by sound isn't your strong
suit, so you should take advantage of your visual strengths.
LOOK at your flashcards. Picture the words in your head.
If you have to hear something before you learn it, read the
flashcards aloud. (or have someone else read them, if you have
a study partner)
Tips to get the most out of your study time!
(These apply to flash cards as well as word lists - however for the sake
of simplicity I am going to use word lists as an example)
Don't let lists go stale
Make sure you have a new list every few days. When you have the same
list for more than a week, you start getting sick of it. You won't
want to look at it, and so it does you no good.
You won't find yourself using the words right away
The lists are used to make you familiar with a given word. The word
becomes an acquaintance. You won't become friends with the word (where
you use it all the time and remember it perfectly) until you use it in
sentences and/or hear it used in songs, Anime, and video games.
Just memorize a word until you can get it right on a "quiz". Learning
it for keeps comes later - when you review your old lists. That's when
you start to make the words permanent residents of your brain.
Keep old lists for review
They say you have to forget something 7 times before it enters your
long-term memory. That seems to be true in my experience. Most words
make several "word list" appearances before I know them like the back
of my hand.
Don't make the lists too big
Everyone is different, but I'm sure many people get overwhelmed if
they perceive too much work ahead of them. If you have a list with
25 words, you might not look at it if you only have a minute, thinking
"I need at least 10 minutes to study this properly". That's a waste
of the minute you had to study. It would be better to break that list
down into 5 mini-lists with 5 words each - on an index card perhaps.
After a lot of experimentation, I discovered that a list of around
15-20 words works best. Try to make a new one every day or every other
Many words have more than one English meaning - pick ONE!
Don't write down too many meanings at once. The more meanings you have
written down on your list, the more memorizing work you have, and you don't need
that right now. Try to pick one
or two English meanings per word. If there are many synonyms, get rid
of all but one.
sugoi - awful, incredible, amazing, cool, unbelievable
sugoi - amazing, cool
If there are other meanings associated with the word, add the word to
your list again later (with one of the other meanings).
Slow and steady is the best way to go
If you have a choice of studying 10 minutes a day, or 2 hours on the
weekend, choose the 10 minutes a day. Your brain is always working
(even when you're sleeping) so it's best to make use of your brain's
power. I heard that your brain files things away while you sleep - so it's
a good idea to look at your word list right before bed. I have done
that for a month or so, and I've noticed results. I take a brand new
list and by the next day I already know most of the words. I make sure
I look over the list for about 3 or 4 minutes before bed.
Study in the morning
Your brain is very receptive to information first thing in the morning.
Studies have proven that kids do better in their 1st hour classes.
If you wake up and look over your list, you've just set yourself off
on the right foot. Now the rest of the day you can't be scared of
Japanese, because your list (what Japanese is to you) is already
familiar to you. A few months of this and you won't be afraid of
Japanese at all.
You don't have to spend more than a few minutes, but look at your list
around 10 times a day. You should be able to make a big dent in a 20
word list in a 24-hour period. If you're still in high school, you should
have plenty of time, either between classes or even during class if the
teacher gives you some free time or there's a lull in the action. Of
course, in college, there are long periods of "downtime" so you should have
no trouble finding a moment to glance at a list, but more and more colleges
are offering Japanese as a foreign language, so if you have the chance, take
Put old lists somewhere AWAY FROM your current list!
You don't want to feel like you have to study all 10 or 20 pieces of
paper! That will scare you away from your list (which you DO need to
use). I keep my old lists in a binder. When I'm going on a trip
or I have to wait in line somewhere, I grab around 10 lists and look
Reviewing is important
Don't be concerned if you can't remember half of the words after a week
or two. You may be thinking, "but I knew them a week ago!". That is
because they were only in your short-term memory. However, when you
learn them a second time, it will be easier. The third time will be
even easier yet. Keep learning the word, and your brain will get the
message. Eventually, your brain says, "Ok Ok...have some storage space
in long term memory if the word is so important to you!".
Study with siblings or friends if at all possible
When you can make sentences and practice with others, the words become
cemented in your brain. When I first started, I practiced a lot with
my younger sister and brother, and that really helped me learn the
words I was using at the time.
NEVER try to learn two words at the same time that sound or
That is, tf they look or sound alike to YOU. It's way too challenging
to learn 2 similar words at the same time. You will only be confused
about the two words, and will remain that way for months. You are
better off picking one of the words for now, and totally forgetting
about the other at least for a couple weeks. Then you should go back and
put both of them on the same list at a later time, to make sure that
you know the difference. There are plenty of words
Get your words from the right sources
Good sources for words include: Anime, songs, manga, video games,
video game manuals, internet sites and lesson books that use the words
in example sentences (provided you read the sentences.)
It's not all that wise to just grab a word out of the
dictionary because you'll never be able to connect it to anything. The
best thing is to have a context sentence that will connect it to a spot
in your brain. You need to remember where you heard the word as you studied it.
That makes it more real to you, and you will have an easier time
Below each word, write the sentence you heard it in
This isn't critical, but it will help you get a feel for what Japanese
sentences sound like, and you will also learn the word MUCH more easily.
This isn't required, but it allows you to "learn the word" fewer times.
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