Learn. Japanese. Fast?

So, as previously mentioned in this space, Kate and I will be spending a few weeks in Japan in August/ September. Out of a combination of politeness and self-interest, it would be good if we knew at least a smattering of Japanese before going there. Back in '98, I did the book-and-tape thing, and learned at least phrasebook Japanese ("Eigo ga hanashimasu ka?"), but I remember very little of that, and Kate doesn't know any.

We've heard good things about the Rosetta Stone software packages, but those are really expensive. The goal here isn't to be able to watch anime without subtitles, it's just to avoid embarassment in a three-week vacation. They've got an online subscription service for less money, which is a bit mroe reasonable, but I'm curious what the Internet has to say.

So, does anybody have any suggestions regarding the best way to pick up a little bit of Japanese at a level that will be useful in getting around on vacation? The real ideal thing would probably be to take a class from a local college or community college, but we're doing a whole bunch of other travelling this summer as well, so that really doesn't work with our schedules.


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I hear that many Japanese schools also require their students to learn English, as do many other schools in Asia. That may at least help. At the very least, don't do the whole speaking reeeeeally slowly thing.

By Mike Saelim (not verified) on 04 Jun 2007 #permalink

I have used Pimsleur's tapes and Rosetta Stone for Spanish. My take on it is that Rosetta Stone is better if you're trying to really spend some time learning to speak a language fluently.

Pimsleur is geared towards getting travelers up to speed on conversations they'll encounter while abroad. They don't worry about grammar, spelling or reading...it is strictly spoken language.

Pimsleur works great and may be available at your library. (I know Pimsleur Japanese is available at Buffalo, New York's central library.)

I hear that many Japanese schools also require their students to learn English, as do many other schools in Asia. That may at least help.

That's pretty much how I was able to function when I was there in '98.

On one occasion, I stopped someone on the street to ask directions, and after three rounds of me asking in Japanese "Where is {name} subway station?" and not understanding the answer, the woman I was talking to said, in English, "There is no station by that name."

(I was pronouncing the name wrong, and standing practically on top of the station in question. I felt like a genius that day, let me tell you...)

There was a japanese-langugage podcast available for a while (I forget where, but you can probably find it by looking) that featured regular (and free) rank-beginner-level lessons. That might be helpful for picking up some useful phrases.

The earlier comment about many Japanese speaking English is dead-on: you're unlikely to find yourself in a situation where communication is impossible.

Two quick notes - in relation to JS's comment about padcasts, you can try JapanesePod101 (http://www.japanesepod101.com/) which is also available via iTunes.

I've had several friends who have lived/worked in Japan for a significant time and they all said that most people can speak english *however* it might help to learn to speak english with a japanese accent (beer => beeru). No, I'm not kidding, it really does help move the conversation along. Speaking japanese when it isn't expected can cause some interesting reactions as the person strips some mental gears adjusting (I do this to a friend occasionally).

Finally - for software I personally really like the Rosetta Stone software. The web version is the same as the bought version, the only difference is that you can keep the bought version (hence the higher price). Both web and software versions are flash based and quite good.

Hmmm, speaking as someone who studied Japanese for five years back in the late '80s and then went back to Japan for the first time in 17 years last year without much practice in the interim, I can say that you're always going to wish you knew more Japanese to get around no matter how much you started with. But in Tokyo at least, there is also a lot more written in English than there was 20 years ago.

But maybe you want to try an electronic translator or one of the good textbooks out there. Though it's not one that I've used, there are a lot of enthusiastic recommendations for this one, Genki 1: http://tinyurl.com/yr4he3

"Japanese accent" - this kind of works because Japanese has been a very gregarious language with lots of loanwords, including about 1500 words from English in common use today, including "biiru" for beer (And if you get sick, knowing German can help a bit since a lot of medical terminology is of German origin).

As for language, in your situation I woudl pick up a CD-based travel phrase-based short course and focus on getting those phrases right. Without knowing the three writing systems (and not nearly enough time to pick them up), you can forget about reading anything. And due to some complications regarding politeness level you will have a very hard time understanding what people are saying to you in this short time frame. But phrasebooks (and CD:s) will focus on the Japanese you will actually expect to hear and use a lot so that gives you a chance at least.

For bonus effort, try to learn Katakana, the writing system in which many English loanwords are written. You still won't be able to guess the meaning too often, but you'll get it right once in a while, and feel inordinately smug about it :)

I had good luck with Rick Steve's phrase book when I went to Portugal. It doesn't have an audio component, but it does provide phonetics, and a good list of the phrases you would use in everyday interactions. I'm not sure he's got a Japanese book though...

Last summer I visited China for the first time. I bought both the ...for Dummies and the Teach Yourself... courses, and put the accompanying CDs on my iPod (in fact, that's why I bought the iPod). I found the Teach Yourself course better for conversational Chinese and the Dummies book better for reference. It helps to listen to what the standard accent is (especially so with a tonal language like Chinese).

The other thing I did was to write out a "cheat sheet" of useful words and phrases with their English equivalents. As with coursework, writing out the cheat sheet is a useful study aid.

In Japan, use the romaji whenever they are provided, which they generally are in locations where foreigners often visit, such as subway lines and JR trains (but not commuter trains). I agree with Janne that you shouldn't expend too much effort on the written language since your time is limited.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 04 Jun 2007 #permalink

For bonus effort, try to learn Katakana, the writing system in which many English loanwords are written. You still won't be able to guess the meaning too often, but you'll get it right once in a while, and feel inordinately smug about it :)

Back in '98, I learned katakana, and got to where I could recognize a bunch of the hiragana characters. The latter were only useful for odd place names-- railway signs tended to have the pronunciations written above the kanji-- but the katakana were really good for deciphering menus and signs.

One of my students was talking up JapanesePod a while back, and I may look into that.

Since you sort-of learned it once, why not watch some movies in Japanese? There is a large set of Studio Ghibli movies available from Disney that (by contract) are uncut and have the full Japanese soundtrack. [And, if you start the movie with Japanese audio selected, the original Japanese title sequence animation and music.] This has the added advantage of some cultural re-education (shoes, bowing), particularly if you watch the ones primarily intended for children (e.g. Totoro and the Yamata's). Combine that with the other suggestions and you should be halfway there.

By CCPhysicist (not verified) on 04 Jun 2007 #permalink

Well, if you want to brush up on the alphabets, and learn some vocab, there are a couple of interesting little japanese-learning games:
Knuckles in China Land
Slime Forest

These won't teach you grammar or conjugations or anything like that, but they're useful when used in addition to something else. Also, they are surprisingly fun.

By CaptainBooshi (not verified) on 04 Jun 2007 #permalink

Don't forget to check your local public library. Ours now has a bunch of audiobooks that you can "check out" and download directly from their website, including a bunch of languages in the Pimsleur series. I know you're an ipod owner, so this would be perfect for you if your library has them.

By Scott Coulter (not verified) on 05 Jun 2007 #permalink

Our library has the Rosetta Stone series accessible thru its web site. You should check your own public library for this resource as well.

By Joanna Mirecki… (not verified) on 05 Jun 2007 #permalink

For medium term self study I would recommend the minna no nihongo series of books and the corny Let's Learn Japanese series of videos ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Let's_Learn_Japanese )

Short term, beyond 5-10 phrases I wouldn't really worry about it. You're not going to learn much with Pimsleur or Rosetta Stone.

You could also check out streaming lectures/course materials from various universities e.g.


arizona software makes an excellent vocabulary training program for mac that i highly recommend.


they have downloadable vocabularies as well, this is a great tool to go alongside any japanese study.