I have been studying Japanese for a couple of months now. I have primarily been using two apps for learning Japanese: MindSnacks and Memrise. Unfortunately, Duolingo doesn't currently offer any Asian languages.
Let me start by saying that Japanese (or any other language) doesn't need to be extremely difficult. I believe that it's all about mindset. It's exactly as difficult as you tell yourself it is. That's not to say it will be easy, but it's not impossible, either.
You can learn any language by maintaining a positive attitude, putting in a lot of hard work, and embracing "unrealistic" expectations. In other words, just go for it!
Next, we will cover some of the tools that I have used so far.
The MindSnacks app is great for what it is. I like the variety of little games that help with learning vocabulary, rapid recall, error recognition, and other important aspects of language learning. The gamification approach of this app has helped motivate me to try to break my own records in the games, which no doubt helps push me to be better. I'm also in a friendly competition with my eight year old (he is definitely winning at the moment), which keeps me on my toes. I don't think this should be your primary tool for learning the language, but it is a very helpful and fun app to add to your language learning arsenal. I am also using MindSnacks for Spanish. They don't offer a version of their app for Russian or I would be using it as well. Overall, I would give MindSnacks a 7/10 as a supplemental app.
I don't really know where to start with Memrise...
First off, Memrise is amazing! It's well worth the $8 or $9 per month. It's amazing, but it's also frustrating...
The great thing about Memrise is that there are so many users creating courses in such a wide array of languages. The bad thing about Memrise is that there are so many users creating courses...
Not all courses are created equally.
I have used this app daily for a couple of weeks for Japanese, Spanish, Russian, and ASL. Nearly every course has been of high quality. However, I have also dabbled in Ukrainian, Estonian and Urdu with this app and the results were varied. The Estonian lessons were especially bad. The audio on the courses I tried was barely audible. I have been interested in learning Estonian for several years, but there are only 1.3 million people in Estonia and many of them speak Russian as their first language. Nearly all of them speak either Russian or English (or both) as a second language. This makes it very difficult to find a satisfactory method of learning Estonian. Memrise is the best option I've found yet, without actually going to Estonia, but it was disappointing, to say the least.
Most of the Japanese lessons that I've tried, however, have been comparable to my experiences with Duolingo for Russian and Spanish. The quality of the lessons is good and the variety is refreshing.
Overall, I give Memrise an 8/10. Your mileage may vary, but as long as you have reasonable expectations, I think you will enjoy this app. I would add that, as soon as Duolingo adds Japanese courses, I will add that to my practice, but I will most likely continue to use Memrise.
- I have also purchased a book that teaches Kanji through Manga, which seems interesting. I haven't actually used it yet, so more on that later.
- To help with listening skills and comprehension, I suggest watching movies in Japanese, even when you can only understand a few words. It will help familiarize you with the speech patterns and rhythm of the language.
It's fairly easy to find good Anime and Samurai movies in Japanese, either on DVD or on Netflix. If you consider yourself a cinephile and are also studying Japanese, I would suggest that you check out www.criterion.com. They have several high quality transfers and remasters of old Samurai films on DVD and Blu-Ray. The prices can be a little high, but if you appreciate film history and high quality sound & video, they are well worth the cost. There is also a streaming service designed specifically for Japanese anime, called CrunchyRoll (www.crunchyroll.com). I haven't used this service, so I can't speak to the quality of the experience, but it's an interesting concept.
Specific Challenges with Japanese
I am still at the beginning of my journey with learning Japanese, so this will not be an exhaustive list of challenges. As a beginner, these are just the ones that stand out to me. Some of these will apply to other Asian languages, as well.
- Pronunciation - Struggles with pronunciation can only be overcome with a lot of listening and speaking. This is where listening to audiobooks and music, and watching movies in the target language will prove helpful. I also find it helpful to imagine that you ARE Japanese and to practice speaking with a Japanese accent, as well as mirroring some Japanese mannerisms. This will seem strange at first, but it will help you become more confident in your skills.
- Writing System - The writing system in many Asian languages is very foreign to native English speakers. This makes learning these languages more challenging than learning a language that uses the same alphabet, such as Spanish, French or Italian. Luckily for beginners, you can learn to speak using Romaji, which is basically Japanese written in our Latin alphabet; it's a transliteration. When you begin to learn to read and write, however, you will need to learn Japanese characters. These consist of two sets of characters: Kana and Kanji. Most written sentences will consist of a mix of kana (both hiragana & katakana) and kanji. Here is a summary of the differences and uses of the different types of characters.
- Kana - Kana is divided into two syllabaries:
- Hiragana - used for native Japanese words
- Katakana - used for loanwords, scientific terms, and certain emphasis
- Kanji - Kanji consists of Chinese characters which were borrowed to make writing more efficient.
- Kana - Kana is divided into two syllabaries:
- Culture - I love Japanese culture. I love the art, the history, and the stories. The Japanese have mastered the art of visual storytelling, whether in woodblock prints, film, or video games (Japanese RPGs have some of the most in-depth storytelling of any form I've seen). More than anything else, I love the food! However, Japanese culture can be hard to understand. The Japanese are more respectful, especially toward elders and language learners want to be conscious of these cultural differences. It is doubtful that you will actually offend anyone, however. Most likely any cultural snafus will simply receive a laugh. Japanese speakers will appreciate your efforts to learn their language and will understand that your culture is different. I would suggest that you try not to be too formal or too casual. Some slang or colloquialisms are fine, but try not to be crass. Try to enjoy speaking practice as much as you enjoy eating sushi or yakisoba and don't forget to have fun!
Good luck as you expand the borders of your world through language learning! Learn to speak, learn to listen, and experience something new! You won't regret it!