The best way for me to learn (and retain) something is to ‘teach’ other people. Since I can’t afford going to school right now but don’t want to give up on my goals, I’m trying to study Japanese on my own for awhile. Basically, I’m watching my old lectures of my first year university course (I took video on my shitty camera) and making notes.
After years and years of taking the basics over and over and over again, I think I have a pretty solid grasp on the initial lessons. Like, I could teach the first few weeks myself! One benefit of not progressing very far early on was that I had several different sensei and several different approaches to the first things you should know. I have taken all of it and tried to organize it in what I consider to be the preliminary lesson, covering everything a beginner should learn.
Here it is:
Japanese makes use of 3 different types of writing: Hiragana (round shape), Katakana (boxy shape), Kanji (more complex – Chinese characters)
Both Hiragana and Katakana are derived from Kanji, but they are both phonetic symbols and have no meaning. Kanji characters always have meaning. One kanji may have several different meanings which you have to decipher through context.
-used for words, particles, inflectional morphemes (ending of a verb or adjective, etc. – where the “stem” is in Kanji but the ending is in Hiragana)
-foreign words (like your name), loan words from other languages
All 3 scripts are used in 1 sentence.
レストラン で 寿司 と うどん を 食べます.
restaurant at sushi and udon eat.
(I’ll eat sushi and udon at a restaurant.)
Three different scripts to learn may seem tiring. 仕様が無い. (Shouganai. “It can’t be helped.”)
It helps with understanding because Japanese doesn’t use spaces between words in writing.
In English, it’s very difficult to read.
But in Japanese, it’s easy.
If it were written all in hiragana, it would be difficult even for native Japanese speakers to read.
Note: There is also a 4th script used – Romaji (English letters). It’s mostly used only stylistically.
Hiragana and Pronunciation
There are 5 vowel sounds in Japanese – A (ah), I (ee), U (oo), E (eh), O (oh)
On their own, they are short, almost clipped sounds.
When they are written doubled, they are longer. (Example: aaaaaah)
The long vowels are written in Romaji (English letters) as AA, II, UU, EI, and OU. (Note: EI is still pronounced as “ehhhhh” and OU is pronounced as “ohhhhhhh” – not like they would be in English.)
There are consonant sounds that are paired with each of the vowels (example: ka, sa, ta, etc.)
Consonants are never by themselves without a vowel after it, except ん (n).
ん can never begin a word.
In the “i” line, both s and t rows have an exception. There is no “si” – it’s “shi”. There is no “ti” – it’s pronounced “chi”.
In the “u” line, row t has an exception. There is no “tu” – it is pronounced “tsu”.
In the “u” line, row h is pronounced as “fu” (but not quite as in English – the teeth don’t touch the lips).
The regular consonants are the K, S, T, N H, M, Y, and R lines and わ、を、ん. These make up the 46 basic characters.
K, S, T, and H are considered “voiceless”. When you add a marker to the upper right corner, they change to their voiced counterparts. K line becomes G line. S line becomes Z (exception “shi” changes to “ji”). T line becomes D (exception – the “i” and “u” lines are the same production as in the Z row: “ji” and “zu”). The H line becomes B or P (the only line with a circle marker).
That adds another 25 characters (adding up to 71).
The Y line has nothing in the “i” or “e” row.
R is not pronounced like in English. It’s a “soft R” and sounds more like something between R and L.
The W line only has “wa”. The character in the “o” line is pronounced the same as お, and is only used as a particle.
There are “glided sounds”. These are made with a combination of the “i” row – using K, G, S, Z (ji), T, N, H, B, P, M and R lines – and a small “ya”, “yu” or “yo”. Example: “ki”き + small “ya” ゃ = kya. きゃ
That adds another 33 characters, bringing the total to 104.
There are also “stopped sounds” (but they don’t count as their own characters). A small “tsu” before characters from the K, S, T and P lines create a small pause or lengthening of the consonant sound. They are written in Romaji as a double consonant. Examples: kitte きって (stamp), isshoni いっしょに (together), ippai いっぱい (one bottle)
*Katakana is exactly the same as hiragana (functionally speaking), but is used for a different purpose. Every hiragana character has a corresponding katakana character. To put it simply, hiragana is used for words of Japanese original and katakana is used for words of foreign origin.
**I can – and probably will at a later date – go in to much greater detail about phonetic Japanese characters.
Parts of Speech
Japanese has the following parts of speech:
Basic Word Order
subject verb object
James ate bananas.
subject object verb
Jeemazu (ga) banana (o) tabeta.
James banana(s) ate.
This is the major difference between Japanese and English.
What if you switch the order of verb and object?
Bananas ate James. No.
What if you switch the order of subject and object?
バナナ を ジェームズ が たべた。Still okay.
You have to pay attention to what follows the noun. “が” and “を” are particles. The role of a noun is indicated by particles. “を” indicates the noun is the object of the sentence. “が” indicates the subject.
It is very important to know the function of particles. If there are switched, the entire meaning of the sentence will change. (Bananas ate James.)
Word order in Japanese is flexible due to the use of particles.
However, the one solid rule is that the predicate always comes at the end of a sentence (usually a verb, sometimes a noun phrase). Why? There is no particle for predicates.
Think of a Japanese sentence as a train. Without an engine, a train does not go. The “engine” or predicate comes at the end of a sentence. It contains the tense, negative or positive, and question. The engine can be noun, verb, or adjective.
A train can be as simple as just the engine. Example: たべました。(I) Ate.
Or it can be more complex with many cars. Example: あした たなかさん と レストラン で すし と うどん を たべました。Yesterday, (I) ate sushi and udon with Mr. Tanaka.
The “cars” of the sentence are modifications. There can be many cars or none at all. Cars are joined together with particles following the modified word.
７じ に ともだち と あいます。
(time) (particle) (person) (particle) (action)
どうぶつえん で パンダ を みたい です。
(place) (particle) (object) (particle) (action)
In Japanese, words are sometimes omitted if the meaning is clear without them.
English: I went to school today.
Japanese: きのう がっこう へ いった。
In the example sentence, the subject is missing because “I” am saying the sentence. It is obvious I am talking about myself.
English: Did you go to school yesterday?
Japanese: きのう がっこう へ いった？
It is obvious that I am asking about “you”.
If I were talking about someone else, I would have to say that to make the meaning known.
*We do this in English too, but only in a very casual/slang way. (“Go to school yesterday?”) In Japanese, it can still be polite based on the language used.
This, That, That Over There
There are three ways to refer to something. “This” is close (or held by) the speaker. “That” is close to the listener. “That over there” is a distance from both the speaker and listener.
Generic – can be used alone
これ this thing それ that thing あれ that thing over there
Example: これ は あかい です。This (thing) is red.
Specific – must be followed by a noun
この(N) this specific noun その(N) that specific noun あの(N) that specific noun over there
Example: この りんご は あかい です。This apple is red.
“This is a pen.”
です = is
これ は ペン です。
This (particle marking topic) pen is.
This is the basic sentence structure all beginner Japanese students are taught. Any simple sentence can be composed by interchanging the vocabulary.
わたし は カナダじん です。
I (particle) Canadian am.
きょう は あつい です。
Today (particle) hot is.
To change to a question – Is today hot? – the question particle か is added at the end of the sentence.
きょう は あつい です か。
There are many particles. They modify the nouns or phrases they proceed.
To expand on a simple sentence, only a few particles are needed.
は topic (pronounced wa)
が subject わたし は アニメ が すき です。
を object ラーメン を たべます。
に in/at １０じ に ねます。
で by/at ちかてつ で きます。
へ toward (pronounced e) うち へ かえります。
の relationship to いもうと の ほん です。
と with/and いもうと と あに が います。/ いもうと と えいが を みます。
も also いもうつ も め が あおい です。
Present affirmative です たべます
Present negative じゃ ありません たべません
Past affirmative でした たべました
Past negative じゃ ありませんでした たべませんでした