Tumbleweed's Tips and Tricks for Learning Japanese

Tumbleweed's Tips and Tricks for Learning Japanese

Maitta na! Nihongo ga muzukashiiiiiiiii!

But all is not lost....

Yes, Japanese is a very difficult language to learn, but it's not impossible. If you're reading this page, then it's a good bet that you already have a strong enough interest in learning the language, and you should be told that it is not a hopeless quest.

I've heard it described that learning Japanese is liking sitting on a cold rock. It takes a long time to get comfortable, but as soon as you get off that rock, it's like starting all over again.

There's a certain truth to this. The most valuable advice I can give anyone studying this language is to make it a daily habit. Keep that rock warm!

Here are some ideas to help you through it. ^_^

Flash Cards

This is a time-honored and tested learning tool. There are companies that publish kanji flashcards (Tuttle has several good ones), vocabulary, and so forth. I've found it's even more useful to make your own. Take some 3x5 cards, cut them in half, write the Japanese on one side and the English on the other. The nice thing about this though is you can design your own flashcard for your own needs.
You can keep it simple, and just do vocabulary, but there are many other options available. Make a set of cards for kanji recognition. Make separate cards for kanji-combinations, and if you can, include stroke order information on it. You can also make cards to practice verb forms for recognition. Write a past tense negative potential verb, and the English on the other side (along with the grammar info).
For vocabulary cards, create separate cards for nouns, adjectives, and verbs. Then create an additional set of cards with sentence patterns. Use the vocabulary cards to fill in the blanks with the pattern cards and practice making up sentences and translating them.


Advantages: This is very good for listening practice. Anime purchased in the U.S. is most often available with subtitles, so you can read along while listening. You'll be amazed at how quickly you will pick up certain words and phrases common in use. It's also just plain entertaining! For general information regarding anime, go to Tumbleweed's Anime and Manga Page. It may also be interesting to take a peek at The 100 Most Essential Words in Anime page. Finally, I have to recommend anime viewing for students of Japanese because it's a great way to pick up information on various cultural tips such as holidays, school systems, and (to an extent) gender relationships.

Warnings: The biggest danger in using anime for language practice is the level-of-language issue. For the most part, people will be speaking in plain forms, and often using slang that is not always appropriate. Be very careful in trying to use certain phrases in general or polite conversation.
Also, be aware of what kind of character you're picking up phrases from. Takahashi Rumiko's characters often have very non-standard dialects which are not used in general Japanese speech. Some of the magical-girl series such as Sailor Moon use language that is often only used by young girls, this can be quite awkward if you're a 31 year old American man. ^_^
Certain interesting speech patterns such as Rurouni Kenshin's "de gozaru yo/de gozaimasu"; and Fushigi Yuugi's Chichiri's "no da" endings are interesting from a literary point of view, but are not generally used in spoken situations.

Hints: use some easily-removable opaque tape to cover the portion of your TV screen that displays the translation, try to understand as much as you can, then view the anime again without the tape to see how close you've come.
Also, try copying some anime shows direct to audio cassette. I do this and listen to the tapes at work. You'll be amazed at how much you can follow, and how much you recognize new words and phrases.


Advantages: Here is a good way to practice reading comprehension. Once you've mastered hiragana and katakana (not as hard as it sounds), you're ready to start!. Many manga are published with furigana. This is kana sound readings printed next to the kanji. With that you can at least read everything even if you don't understand it all yet. The advantages are similar to the advantages for anime, plus manga is much more portable! I usually stuff a manga or two into my jacket pocket or backpack for reading at idle moments. This is a great way to make Japanese learning part of your daily life.

Warnings: As with anime, one should be careful of dialect and character issues.
On issues of translation... beware! American companies (and I don't mean just Viz....well... mostly Viz) have a nasty tendency to not provide accurate translations. They'll even remove whole sections from the original, so if you're using an American translation to compare to the Japanese original, be forewarned. However all is not lost. There are manga translations available on the Net! (Marmalade Boy and Touch have had some excellent panel-for-panel accurate translations, see The Anime Web Turnpike for more info on Internet translations).

Hints: Carry along a small dictionary (or an electronic dictionary) for quickly looking up words that are not understood. A lot of times you can guess meaning by context, but for words that are necessary for following the storyline, have a dictionary nearby.
Keep a notebook with you to write down new words you think would be useful for your vocabulary lists. Take advantage of learning and remembering kanji! After awhile you'll start to recognize the more common ones. Start copying them down in your notebook (and learn the stroke order from a reference guide).


This may not be the best way to practice, but it's entertaining and a bit different. I'm a fairly big fan of Japanese pop music (J-pop for short). CD's can be found at many Japanese bookstores as well as import stores in your local Chinatown. Personally, I recommend anything by Nanase Aikawa, Evergreen, Miki Imai, or Hayashibara Megumi.
Like anime, listening to Japanese music can help aid your listening practice. It's a bit more challenging than watching anime, but you'll be pleasantly surprised when you start to understand parts of a song. As with the warnings for anime, beware of idiomatic usages and dialects, as well as altered grammar due to the lyrics. This suggestion is meant more for fun. There are better suggestions in this list, but this is another good way to make Japanese part of your daily routine.
If you want to preview some music before shelling out the money (be it dollar or yen), visit Shudaika Online Productions. This is an English language site with many downloadable MP3 files of current j-pop. I recommend downloading the samples from Kyoko Date (DK-96), the Virtual Idol singer.

Movies and TV

Many communities have a Japan Society such as the Rhode Island-Japan Society. Often these organizations have libraries of Japanese movies and TV shows for rent (very cheaply) to members. Like watching anime, this is an excellent way to practice your listening skills, especially considering that they are rarely translated. What's good is the variety available.
My local group has tapes of TV shows carying from Sunday morning news to quiz shows, dramas (soap operas) to documentaries, and more. Often available too are full length feature movies, samurai dramas, and American movies dubbed into Japanese.
Documentary and news shows are particularly good to listen to as the dialect is usualy pretty standard and straightforward. Dramas tend to be pretty good for this too, but I personally don't find them as interesting. ^_^ Beware of samurai-period movies and yakuza films. The dialects used in these movies is very hard to follow.

If there are no Japan societies near you, check your local video store or library. The chances are good that you'll find the classic movies of Akira Kurasawa (warning: tough dialects, historical themes, but most higly recommended). I wouldn't be surprised if your local video rental store has some Beat Takeshi movies (highly recommended) in their foreign section (warning: tough dialects, gangster).


So what good is it to understand if you can't speak? So far all my suggestions have concerned themselves with comprehension. Time to talk about communication. And this is also where I admit my weakest ability. Once a week I spend an hour and a half trying to make up sentences for the class I attend, only to not do very well. My comprehension is good, but my ability to talk intelligently in Japanese is miserable.

Well the first thing that I need to do, as well as you folks out there, is to overcome the fear of sounding dumb in a second language. This is probably the most frustrating part of learning any language. No matter how intelligent and cultrued we are, we tend to sound much less so when learning to speak another language.
We can take time to learn various smart-sounding phrases and words, but that doesn't do us any good when we can't seem to recall them when urged for conversation. Simply put, we need practice practice practice!
Go out and find someone to practice with! It could be a native speaker, it could be a fellow student. Find someone who is willing to put up with the mangling of their language (pay them if you have to ^_- ). Find someone who will not be afraid to correct your usage.

By the way, if you live near Providence, Rhode Island USA, write to me at tumble@ids.net. We can get together and practice conversation. If you're a fellow student we can help each other out. If you're native speaker of Japanese who wants to improve their English, let me know.
If such a person cannot be found, consider writing to someone in Japanese. There are plenty of folks out there on the Internet willing to write back and forth with you. (No more waiting for weeks for letters to cross oceans). Most Japanese are happy to write to you to help improve their English. Most also encourage you to write to them in Japanese (fair is fair of course).
I readily admit that, aside from a few common phrases, I have not yet taken advantage of this much lately, but that'll change (hear that Juri? ^_^ ).

For more information on using Japanese with your computer for e-mail, go to my Japanese on the Computer page.

Go to Japan

Probably the best thing to do is go direct to the source. I've yet to go to Japan myself, but it cannot be argued that the best way to learn any language is to be surrounded by it. Most folks I know who have lived in Japan for any length of time come back with a pretty good handle on the language. Granted, they have to stay on top of it so as not to forget much, but they've had the best exposure there can be.


Well, that's about all I have for now. I should note that this page is a pretty rough draft typed out in one afternoon. I welcome any comments, criticisms, and most importantly, additional suggestions!

I hope this page has helped a few of you out there. if it has, or if you have any questions, please write to me at tumble@ids.net. I'd be happy to talk with you more on this subject.

Thanks again for visiting this page. Here are links to my other pages for your viewing and information pleasure. Click below! ^_^

Tumbleweed's Pages

Tumbleweed's Corner
Tumbleweed's Computer Shack
Tumbleweed's Anime and Manga Page
Tumbleweed's Picture Albums
Tumbleweed's Guide to Learning Japanese
Comics Page
Links Index

Tumbleweed's Shack / tumble@ids.net / last rev. July 3, 1998, 9:15 p.m.

Oh yeah! To send mail, comments, vague threats and whatnot... do so! at John Teehan at tumble@ids.net!