by Eliza Medley
Japanese is a difficult language for Westerners to learn – at least, that is a common thought. And this thought has been perpetuated because we still think in terms of learning languages in traditional ways – get a textbook, get some videos, take classes, etc., and learn to read, write, and speak all at the same time. This approach may be right for those who will actually have to master reading and writing, but it is not right for those who really want to master the language in order to converse with Japanese people. And, even for those who must ultimately master reading and writing, speaking it first may indeed be the best approach.
Online learning of any language, even Japanese, is a good place to begin, and some social media channels can be great venues. Here is a series of steps and sites/tools that you can use.
There are several sources for learning basic conversation. You can access a site like JapanesePod101.com. This is a free access site, although there is lots of promotional material for fee-based options. Still, by sticking to the basic conversational lessons, from absolute beginner to more advanced, you will be able to practice the most common phrases in the language. Many of the JapanesePod101 lessons are also on YouTube and can be searched easily. And, by watching the YouTube videos, you will also get the writing symbols for each word/phrase you learn.
This app is for either iOS or Android devices and is a free language exchange. You can hook up with native Japanese speakers who wish to learn English, and you both teach one another. With HelloTalk, you can speak with your Japanese “partners” or send voice-to-text or text-to-voice messages, to practice both writing and speaking. Your partners will correct your pronunciation and writing in real time.
Sites like iTalki.com allow you to have face time, via Skype or another video chat feature, with a Japanese teacher. You select a teacher based on other student feedback, set up a lesson time, and then connect. This is also a good way to begin to learn to write, as well as speak.
Once you have mastered some basic conversational skills and increased your vocabulary, you will want to begin the writing phase of learning Japanese. While these are not “social” sites per se, there are a number of sites that do teach writing. Here is the challenge: there are actually three written forms of Japanese. Two of them, however, are much simpler – Katakana and Hiragana. The third, Kanji, is based on Chinese writing and has thousands of characters. In present day Japan, the two simpler forms are commonly used, so one of these will do well for you. Hiragana, for example, only has 46 characters in its entire alphabet. You will want to learn some basics of writing in either Katakana or Hiragana, so pick a site that you like and stick with it. JapanesePod101.com has a series of YouTube videos that teach both Katakana and Hiragana, with very easy explanations and demonstrations. You can search for these on YouTube – a lot easier than going through the site itself.
Once you are able to write phrases and sentences in either Katakana or Hiragana, you will want to access Lang-8. This is a social community made up of people who are interested in perfecting their writing skills in a foreign language. You can post something and have a native Japanese correct it for you. By the same token, you can correct the posts of those who are learning English.
There are several popular Japanese social media channels. For people still learning the language, OhMyJapan is probably the best site. While the site has a feature that is more like match-making, anyone can opt out of that feature and focus on learning the language and establishing friends, just as is done on Facebook. Current membership is about 40% native Japanese and 60% non-native Japanese.
There are other very popular social networking channels too. Facebook and Twitter both have Japanese sites. Others are Mixi, Gree, Mobage, and LINE.
While you are learning to speak and write Japanese and increasing your vocabulary, some total immersion listening practice is always good. You can access NHK News and listen to its broadcasts, which are geared toward those who are learning the language and use English words interspersed with Japanese. In addition, access some of the most popular Japanese TV programming for free. Listening practice is really critical if you intend to be fluent yourself and to understand conversations in the language.
Eliza Medley is an enthusiastic blogger and marketing expert for the Get Good Grade. She started travelling over ten years ago and learning the languages as a hobby. Now her writing experience includes articles about her "passion". You can follow her on Twitter.