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Learn Enough Japanese in a Few Hours to Survive Japan

Many language-learning resources boast seemingly impossible guarantees such as "learn Swahili in 10 minutes per day" or "Learn Russian in 24 hours". Unless you are a robot, these are impossibly ideal goals. However, it is possible to learn enough Japanese in a few hours to actually survive in Japan.

"How is this possible?!? You just contradicted yourself!"

Simple. First of all I said "survive", not have a fluent conversation about 17th century Japanese literature with a professor from the University of Tokyo. Secondly, Japanese people are efficient. Ever since Europeans landed in Japan, they more or less have not created any new native words. Rather than creating a new word for "television", they simply take the English word and coat it with an Engrish accent. "Computer" becomes "conpyuta" and "hamburger" becomes "hanbaga".

As far as written Japanese goes, there are 3 character sets: Hiragana, Kanji, and Katakana.

Hiragana

Hiragana is the fundamental alphabet for native Japanese words. If it's a word they knew about before the Dutch landed, then it can be written with this alphabet. There are 46 Hiragana characters. Hiragana characters are usually fairly simple-looking and are usually curvey.

Kanji

Kanji is the character set the Japanese imported from China. If you see a symbol that's very intricate, then chances are it's Kanji. Kanji usually represents clusters of syllables or complete words or ideas. Or sometimes they merely represent one syllable. There are a several thousand kanji characters.

Katakana

(The one I'd like to focus on in this article)
Katakana is the alphabet specially designed to represent foreign words (99% of which happen to be of English origin) like the examples shown earlier. The cool thing about Katakana and Hiragana is that they correspond directly to each other. Each character in Hiragana has a Katakana counterpart, and to make it easier, in some cases they bear resemblence to each other. Katakana characters tend to be slightly more angular than Hiragana characters, but they are still fairly simple characters only having about 2-4 line strokes each. The Katakana character set is shown below...


a

i

u

e

o

ka

ki

ku

ke

ko

sa

shi

su

se

so

ta

chi

tsu

te

to

na

ni

nu

ne

no

ha

hi

fu

he

ho

ma

mi

mu

me

mo

ya

yu

yo

ra

ri

ru

re

ro

wa

wo

n


  • All characters ending in a are pronounced like the o in plot
  • All characters ending in i are pronounced like the e's in teeth.
  • All characters ending in u are pronounced like the oo in foo.
  • All characters ending in e are pronounced like the e in bleh.
  • All characters ending in o are pronounced like the o in owned.


Memorize the chart!

Done? Ok.

But seriously, flash cards do wonders. Learn them in batches of 6 or 7. Then start mixing your flash cards together. You'll have the chart comfortably memorized in about 2 hours.

If you see something written in Katakana (which you will be able to recognize as Katakana since you've memorized the chart), chances are it's an English word. Convert the syllables you see into sounds, say it outloud, and then try to figure out what they're trying to say.

It's that simple.

Of course, like most languages, there are silly rules and exceptions you need to know. Luckily, these exceptions are few and very consistent.
  • If the "tsu" syllable appears as the same size as the letters surrounding it, then it is pronounced. If it appears slightly smaller than the letters around it, then it is not pronounced and means to put a slight pause at that point in the word. Sometimes this indicates a doubled-consonant. "Letter" would become "Re*pause*ta".
  • If you see one of the y-row syllables appearing slightly smaller than the letters around it, it gets scrunched with the previous syllable into one sound. This only occurs after i-vowel sounds. For example, チョ = "chyo" or "cho", not "Chi-yo"
  • ヲ (wo) is NEVER used. The reason it exists is because the symbolx in Katakana are supposed to map 1-to-1 with the symbols in Hiragana. Its Hiragana counterpart is used solely for grammatical structure purposes and is pronounced "o" instead "wo".
  • If a word ends with a "u" sound, the u is usually sub-vocalized.
  • If you see a dash after a word, that simply means, stretch the ending sound vowel sound of the previous character to give it a little stretched emphasis. Nothing drastic, though.

Also, you may see a " or a ° on the top-right corner of a character. Those slightly change the consonant sound of the characters they are attached to...

  • " after k-row characters change the k sound to a g sound. ガ is pronounced "ga"
  • " after s-row characters change the s sound to a z sound. ザ is pronounced "za". The only exception to this is ジ which is pronounced something like "ji".
  • " turns t-row characters to the "d" sound. ダ is "da".
  • " turns h-row characters to the "b" sound. バ is "ba".
  • ° after the h-row characters changes them to the "p" sound. プ is "pu". Hehe.
  • On rare occasions, you'll see a " after a ウ. This is a "v" sound.


I think that's it. Have fun reading stuff in the background of your anime. It takes some practice to be able to recognize what the Katakanatized-Engrish is saying but it doesn't take long at all to be able to read it semi-fluently. Here are some pictures for you to practice.

katakana_mcdonalds.jpg

マクドナルド

"McDonald's"

ハンバーガー

"Hamburger"

katakana_corn_frosty.jpg

コーン フロスティ

"Corn Frosty"

In little letters coming out of Tony's armpit:

トニー ザ タイガー

"Tony the Tiger"

The thing he's saying is a mixture of Katakana and Hiragana: "Super Ganbari Power"