Crash Course in Learning to Understand Japanese

Take everything that you think you know about the Japanese language, and wipe it from your memory. The majority of what you “know” is probably false, or so terribly complicated you’ll never understand this language. Japanese is a much older language than English, along with the romance languages, so it is much simpler and easier to learn (believe it or not). I still don’t quite understand how Japanese got the reputation of being difficult learn…

I am not an expert in Japanese, mainly because there are multiple dialects (unique to the smaller islands and specific prefectures), and because I’m still studying it. Even so, I can give you plenty of basic pointers and information that can help make studying Japanese a simple process, as it should be. For this article, we will focus on the most commonly used dialect of Japanese, sometimes called the core language, or standard Japanese (in other words, the language that almost everyone in Japan speaks daily).

The most important aspect of the language is the Hiragana alphabet. Like English, Hiragana are sounds that make up every word in the language. You can write EVERY SINGLE WORD in Japanese with Hiragana. Hiragana begins with the five sounds, あ い う え お, which are pronounced as follows: AH, EE, OO, AY, OH. Don’t say “OO” like “ohhhhhh”, instead like “OOPH” without the F sound, or “AY” like “Aye, captain!” Those sounds don’t exist in Japanese.

Here is the entire alphabet:

あ い う え お (A,I,U,E,O)
か き く け こ (KA,KI,KU,KE,KO)
さ し す せ そ (SA,SHI,SU,SE,SO)
た ち つ て と (TA,CHI,TSU,TE,TO) The “T” in TSU is silent.
な に ぬ ね の (NA,NI,NU,NE,NO)
は ひ ふ へ ほ (HA,HI,FU,HE,HO)
ま み む め も (MA,MI,MU,ME,MO)
や   ゆ   よ (YA,YU,YO)
ら り る れ ろ (RA,RI,RU,RE,RO)
わ  を    ん (WA,WO,N)

It is a common misconception that the L sound does not exist in Japanese. This is not true. When reading the Hiragana alphabet, the R sounds are pronounced as L, “LA, LI, LU, LE, LO”. Generally, the majority of Japanese words containing sounds RA through RO are pronounced with an R sound, but there are some exceptions where words have an L sound. For the H sounds, ふ can also be pronounced HU, and it depends on the word you are using. FU is a much more common sound than LA through LO. The only sounds Japanese does NOT have are V and X. If you want to hear pronunciations of Hiragana, and see how it is written, I recommend this resource that my current Japanese course uses: http://genki.japantimes.co.jp/site/self/site/hiragana/hiragana.html If you click on any of the Hiragana, it will give you options to hear the sound, and see the stroke order. The Japanese people believe there is a right way, and a wrong way to write Hiragana, and if you don’t follow the stroke order, it shows.

This alphabet might seem like a lot to take in and learn right away. Memorization is not a viable way to learn the language, because you are not using it. It’s more important to practice the stroke orders, and when you are ready, start writing sentences.

But you don’t know how to form a basic sentence yet… So, we’ll start with the most commonly taught sentence structure: X は Y です(desu). The particle は, which in this case is read as “wa”, identifies the subject, and generally means “is, am, are, were” etc. です is used to close the sentence, and identify the state of being. If you are familiar with Spanish, です has a similar usage and meaning as ‘estar’. (You may have noticed that TE had two little marks beside it, and those marks indicate that TE should be read as DE. We’ll delve into that later).

The most important pronouns you need to know are わたし, and あなた. I want you to look at the Hiragana written above, and decipher how each of these words are read/pronounced. I’m assuming you’ve taken the time to check the Genki Self Study Room link I provided. わたし is the word for “I”, and あなた is the word for “You”. Note that outside of a sentence, referring to someone as あなた is very disrespectful. So anyways, let’s make a sentence! わたしは___です。 Fill in the blank with your first name. “I am ___” is how it translates. Another way to look at the sentence is it began with the subject, you described the “object” that you are, and ended it with the verb です. Japanese is always “subject, object, verb”, and that never changes. Also, if you want to use more than one pronoun, noun/object, and/or verb, you list them based on the subject/object/verb rule: Pronoun, pronoun, noun, noun, verb, verb. There’s something special you need for verbs, and we’ll explore that later. Pronouns can be listed, but, there can only be one subject, and a different particle is needed for additional pronouns. Don’t worry, particles are our next topic. Nouns require many different particles in order to be listed in a sentence.

So, here is a list of all the particles and what they mean:

は:WA, identifies the subject.
の:NO, identifies what the subject owns, or is related to.
で:DE, at a specific place where an action happened. Cannot be used the same way as に.
と:TO, means ‘and’ when listing nouns. Means ‘with’ when describing something you did with another person.
を:WO, but read/pronounced the same as お. Connects the object/noun to the verb. NEVER use this to connect a human to a verb. NEVER use this before です.
も:MO, identifies what the subject also did. “I went to the park. I also went to the store.” Also used when making requests.
に:NI, means “in, to, at, or, for, on”. This is to reference places and dates/times, NOT to refer to people, actions or interacting with objects. For example, you don’t use this particle to say you turned on a light, there’s a specific verb for that instead.
か:KA, Turns a sentence into a question.
よ:YO, This means along the lines of “isn’t it?” Such as, “It’s a nice day, isn’t it?” Also used at the end of a sentence when making requests/granting permission.
ね:NE, This one is not so easy for me to explain, so I’ll do my best. It’s sort of like an affirmation at the end of a sentence, for example, “Yes, I agree” or “Yes, that’s right”.
And it’s technically not a particle, however, でも means “but”. Another fun particle-like word is から, which means “because”.

Another thing you should know about particles is that very few of them can be used more than once in a sentence. と can be used multiple times when listing nouns. の on occasion can be used more than once if needed. に can also be repeated, and is less restricted. は, however, can only be used once in a sentence when identifying the subject. You cannot have more than one subject in a sentence. Even so, when talking about a specific date, weekday, time, month, year, は can be used. Why? Well in this instance, it means “as for”, and does not read as a subject identifier.

Without verbs, it is nearly impossible to use most of those particles, since they require verbs in order to make sense. Let’s say you wanted to make a sentence stating that you are going to the library. If you write “わたしはとしょかんにです”, you effectively wrote “I am the library”. This is why we use the verb いく, which means “to go”.

BUT! We can’t just say わたしはとしょかんにいく。 いく is the dictionary form. In casual speech, you can leave verbs as their dictionary forms, or in a standard form. We are going to concentrate on the present affirmative, which is more polite. To make a verb affirmative, you need to add -ます at the end of it. With the exception of sounds ending in あ and え, all other sounds need to be changed to having an い sound at the end of them. So what should く change into? Look at the Hiragana from KA to KO. Which one has an い sound? If you guessed き, you are right. So いく changes into いきます. The sentence should read as わたしはとしょかんにいきます, (I’m going to the library).

Some verbs end with る. These verbs don’t need to have any changes in sound. Just drop る and add ます. If a verb ends with う, it gets the same treatment. Verbs ending in す have that sound changes to し. Here are some verbs that you can practice with: (Answers will be provided in the next volume).

たべる —–>
かえる —–>
けす —–>
みる —–>
のる —–>
かう —–>
よむ —–>

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