Want to Try Speaking Japanese in Japan? Here are My Tips

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I was obsessed with the cabs in Japan. (Photo by Neil.)

I’m a believer in trying to speak the language in whatever country you’re vacationing in, even if only a few phrases. Other than learning something new, it also gives you more respect from the non-native speakers in your own country. Being less-than-fluent and even illiterate is tough stuff. Trust me, I just did this for two weeks in Japan! If you want to give learning Japanese a shot, here are my tips from my short time there.

  1. Get Thee Some Pimsleur Audiobooks

I have tried everything when it comes to learning languages, from Rosetta Stone to old dusty library books to Duolingo. I have by far had the most success with Pimsleur audiobooks. Why? They train your ear and your mouth first. Playing a game, Rosetta Stone / Duolingo-style, teaches you how to beat the game, but not necessarily how to get used to saying phrases confidently. That’s the most important thing, and the hardest for me. You can get these audiobooks through Audible or just rent them from the library. Start with Japanese Phase 1 and it will make a huge difference.

2. Shell Out $10 for Human Japanese

This inexpensive app is seriously just as valuable as a semester of a college course in Japanese (trust me, I took one semester of Japanese, and this is a lot less expensive, and easier to do in your pajamas). It gives you the context and the why behind the language, plus a bunch of valuable cultural notes. Unlike with Pimsleur audiobooks, it will teach you to read all three writing systems in Japanese: hiragana, katakana and kanji.

3. Learn Some Chinese

Part of what prepared me most for visiting Japan, surprisingly, was the three years of Chinese I took in college. (1/3 of written Japanese is Chinese symbols, aka kanji.)  You obviously don’t need to learn all of Chinese in advance of your vacation. I would suggest buying a book about Chinese symbols that will teach you to identify radicals that denote sound and meaning. This can help you memorize the symbols for places you’re going to on the train, for example. (Bonus points for the visually inclined: Take a class in Chinese calligraphy. You’ll learn so much from this.)

Also, I noticed Chinese-speakers everywhere in Japan, so knowing a bit of Chinese will make you more equipped to talk to fellow tourists, or at the least, eavesdrop!

4. Learn These Key Phrases

This is a great list for learning some of the basic phrases you’ll need to get around.

5. If You Want to Nerd Out …

Fiction writer Haruki Murakami’s translator, Jay Rubin, has written a couple books that may be of interest to you. If you want a higher-level look into what it’s like to translate Murakami, read Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words. If you have a fairly advanced grip on Japanese and want to read Rubin’s thoughts on the language, grab a copy of Making Sense of Japanese: What the Textbooks Don’t Tell You.

6. Know What to Expect

The trickiest part of trying to speak a language abroad is not knowing how your attempts will be received. I found, for example, that people in Portugal would far rather speak English with me than watch me stumble through their language. In Brazil, on the other hand, knowing even a few words of Portuguese was a godsend.

In Japan, I found that a fair amount of people spoke some English, but in general most of them were relieved when I tried to say something in Japanese. A friend who lives there explained that Japanese people are reluctant to do things imperfectly, so they tend to not reveal how much English they actually speak.

Overall, it’s definitely worth your while to learn and try some Japanese before going to Japan. Hope this helped!