The language of a country says a lot about the nation it emerged from. A mere utterance of a sentence represents so much history and personality already; its phonology, syntax, pragmatics, and semantics all give hints about the culture it belongs to. Not only do you get an entirely new world of expression with each language you learn, you also get an inside look at how the people who speak it think and work. Here, we will consider the Japanese language; its history, uses, tips on how to understand its alphabet, how to quickly learn it, and other fun tidbits that go along with learning the beautiful language of Nihongo – which is Japanese… for, well… “Japanese”!
Being A Gaijin (Foreigner) In Japan
It’s very easy to tell who is and who isn’t from there, so if you’re visiting or planning to live in Japan for a while, it’s good to know the upsides and downsides of being a foreigner in Japan. Here’s an example of an upside: Let’s say you’re from Texas, and you want to visit Tokyo. Although it would be extremely helpful to read and understand bits of Japanese, you can still get around easily with the English language. Transportation, ordering food, and talking to the locals won’t be as big a problem as it could be in other countries. Also, many Japanese people want to be able to understand and speak English, so they respect you for being fluent in this global language. It’s critical to know a key Japanese word or two like thank you (arigato) that you can say after someone lends you their services. A downside that is also language-related is that if you don’t know how to speak Japanese well, there won’t be that many jobs available for you. In most career options (except the occasional rarity in the educational field) they will require you to pass an exam certifying that you understand and speak Japanese with a certain level of proficiency. Specifically, you’ll need to be recognized as level 2 in the JLPT, or the Japanese Language Proficiency Test.
Learn Japanese Easily
It’s fantastic that there are accessible tips and means online that can help you learn Japanese easily. Aside from the usual option of going for a class, you have the option to download apps to help you brush up on a lesson or two of Nihongo. It also helps a lot to consume a lot of Japanese media. Whether it’s reading manga, watching a Japanese horror flick with subtitles, or binge-watching anime, it familiarizes you with their culture, how certain words are written down, or are pronounced (for media forms with audio), and the right moments to use those words. It also helps to have a friend you can practice with! Constant exposure to the language you want to learn helps more than you can imagine.
If you’re very serious about learning Japanese through and through, then it is advised that you combine learning how to speak it with learning how to read it. The alphabets and characters used to write Japanese are in no way similar to the alphabet we use to write English, so learning to write these alphabets hand in hand with orally practicing your vocabulary gives you a better groove and handle than learning them separately. When you enroll in a class, just make sure that it gives you that combination option. There are tools online that specialize in making sure you digest the meaning, the look, and sound of the language. To measure how well you’re doing, you can make the levels of the JLPT something to achieve. Research on the kinds of questions you might run into during the test, and how hard you must study for it. Remember, the minute you pass level 2 of the JLPT, you’re qualified to work in most jobs in Japan!
Remember, it takes time to get to know a language, and Japanese isn’t just a stones-throw away from English - if that’s your native language. All it takes is persistence, practice, and dedication.
Katakana, Hiragana, and Kanji; Japanese Writing Systems
When writing Japanese, three main alphabets are used; these are the Katakana, the Hiragana, and the Kanji. Hiragana and Katakana fall under the category of “Kanamoji”, “Kana” for short. Combined to form Kana, the Hiragana and Katakana make up 48 standard phonetic characters each. The main difference between Katakana and Hiragana are what they are used for.
Original Japanese words are represented in Hiragana. If there is a word that cannot be expressed using Kanji, then Hiragana is used instead. It’s also used to write auxiliary verbs, postpositional particles, verbs’ and adjectives’ inflectional endings, and lastly, for when it is needed to be shown that the person writing is referring to Kanji. It also has a more emotional connotation and feel to it.
Katakana’s main use is to refer to borrowed words from other languages, or anything foreign from the Japanese language. That includes technical/scientific words, onomatopoeias, and proper nouns of companies, places, things, etcetera.
Kanji is used most frequently, and its main purpose is to compose most Japanese words, as it’s their language’s major alphabet. It’s composed of 8000 characters, which individually represent an abstract concept until you form a solid idea by putting them together. Most nouns and stems of adjectives, adverbs, and verbs make use of Kanji characters, even names of places in Japan, as well as personal names, are spelled using Kanji. Studying Kanji can be a little complicated, as Kanji characters can hold more than one meaning. This alphabet is used when the writer wants to sound formal.
Each alphabet can be used independently of each other to create the same idea, but they can also be intertwined. Katakana and Kanji are often mixed, while Hiragana sometimes lends characters to Kanji (they put it on top of the Kanji characters) to emphasize proper pronunciation.
The origin of these writing systems – firstly and most particularly Kanji - stem back to an ancient Chinese writing model called the Manyogana. The Japanese picked up this language during the 5th century through acculturalization, and ended up deriving their own, polysyllabic form of writing compared to the monosyllabic kind their Chinese neighbors had. More changes occurred later, during the Heian period, where the language was divided into an alphabet for concepts (the logographic Kanji), and two other alphabets (Hiragana and Katakana) that connote different sounds.
Trivia On Variations Of The Japanese Alphabet
Kanji has several characters that are pronounced as “Shin”, but can be written in more than eight different ways. That proves how truly logographic it is; as you should know how, where, and when to use the right character. “Shin”, depending on how it’s used, could mean anything from “God” to “Stretch”. Also, when you want to speak politely, there’s a way to do it. This system is called honorifics, and it’s used for when you want to address someone with respect and intimacy. An example of this would be the word “san”, which you add to the end of someone’s name (or job title) for added respect. “Sama” is a more intense version of “san”, which is used to talk to VIP’s, customers, etcetera. “Kun”, is a little different in the sense that it’s not used to address someone superior – rather, men (not women) use it to address other men/women of similar or inferior levels, such as schoolmates. Lastly, “chan” is used when referring to a child, or even young women, friends, and romantic lovers.
Easily Translate English to Japanese
Some Japanese words in Katakana surprisingly sound a lot like the original words that they mean to represent. For example, “kiru” is Japanese for “kill”. Potato Fry is widely known in Tokyo and all over Japan as “Poteto Furai”, game center is “gemu senta”, summary becomes “tsumari”. These are all informally known as “wasei-ego”, or English turned into Japanese. If you listen intently, you may find that a surprising number of Japanese words are under the wasei-ego category.
Of course, there will always be other words that will be hard to identify and translate. That’s what translating websites and apps are for. It’s always handy to keep a translating application on-hand in case there’s something you really don’t understand. The more you translate, the more you learn – and the easier it’ll be to get the hang of turning English into Japanese.
Desu, Baka, And Other Popular Japanese Terms
Every now and then, you may hear a few words thrown around in Japanese often. This may make you wonder – why does everyone keep saying that?! An example of this is the word “desu”. Many end their sentences in Japanese with “desu”. “Desu” is a copula; it means “to be”. It’s a way of ending your sentence with a kind of polite confirmation of being. along with “masu”. On the other end of the spectrum, you have “baka” which means idiot. You must be careful not to play around with this word and use it even jokingly, as it can be deemed as offensive. Other than those two words, it’s good to know a bunch of other words that you may need in your travels around Japan. The word help in Japanese is “Tasukete’, English is “eigo”. If you want to ask for where the toilet is, the translation is “toire”. At a store and want to know how much something is? Say “Ikura”. You may want to keep a little notepad full of the words you think you’ll need – just in case! In fact, you may want to try out your usage of these popular terms (except for baka, of course) out in a commercial place.
Test Your Language Knowledge In An Omakase Style Restaurant
Just for fun, go to a restaurant and try to make conversation with the Japanese that you have under your belt. Practice saying words that you’ll probably say while in the restaurant before you go. You can try research the basics first, like in case you’re wondering how much this experience will cost, you can ask, “Kore wa ikura desu ka?”. You can get the attention of the chef by saying excuse me, or “sumimasen”. If you do end up eating in an Omakase style restaurant, you can skip the ordering process in general, because Omakase literally means “to entrust”, as you leave the choice of the food you are going to be served up to the Chef. Gear yourself up linguistically and prepare to enjoy a truly authentic Japanese gastronomic experience.
Linguistic Factors Of Japanese Names
In western countries, it is common for your name to come first before your surname. In Japan, that’s turned around. The surname comes first all the time. These names can be written in Kanji, but if parents choose to be more specific with phonetics (Kanji can be interpreted in many ways, so the pronunciation of the name may change depending on how the person chooses to read it) they can opt to use Hiragana or Katakana. Japanese parents typically give only one name to their child, unlike names in western countries where people sometimes go as far as giving four or five.
Popular Japanese Girl Names and Surnames
As of 2014, there are 10 popular names for girls. The most popular name is Rei, followed by Yui, and Rin. Koharu comes in fourth place, Rio in fifth. If you’ll notice, there is a trend in how Japanese girls are currently being named - their names consist of two syllables! Koharu seems to be the only exception to this rule as if you continue down the list, the two-syllable trend persists. In 6th place is Airi, 7th is Sina. 8th belongs to Aoi, followed by Yua. As for surnames, Saito, Kobayashi, Suzuki, Takahashi, and Yamamoto, and Watanabe top the lists when it comes to popularity.
What’s In A Name? Meanings Behind Japanese Last Names
When you break down a Japanese surname, you’ll find that some of them are made out of a combination of words. Let’s try to assess the surname Kobayashi. “Ko” is Japanese for “small”, while “Hayashi” means forest – put that together, and you have “small forest”. The “suzu” part of Suzuki means “bell”, while “ki” means tree. Bell tree! Many of these surnames were willfully chosen during the Meiji period to represent clans.