The Only Three Sentences You Need to Learn Japanese
By John Dinkel
How to 'Hack' Japanese
As host of Learn Japanese w/ Manga Sensei podcast, I often get asked about how to ‘hack’ Japanese. People want to learn a language faster and without the pain that comes along with learning a new language. Ya know, the tough stuff that makes you want to roll into a ball and ask yourself why you even started learning it in the first place.
While I do believe that people should work as hard as they can to learn a language, I have found a couple of key sentences that have helped me orient myself in this space.
”How would you say it [as a native speaker]”
Native speakers of Japanese or any language for that matter, are one of the greatest resources for learning the target tongue. However, most people are not professional language learners or teachers. Which often leads them to say things ‘improperly’ or ‘wrong.’ This prescriptive type of language learning has its place. No much of a place, but a place. I believe that people should try to articulate themselves as closely as they can to how a native speaker would. Hence a wonderful question is indeed “How would you say that?” I find this most useful when I say something ‘correctly’, or at least how I understand it should be said and I’m not immediately understood. If they appear confused, I quickly clarify and then ask them how they would have said it. After hearing it and repeating it to myself I often type a quick note into my phone so I can make sure I can speak more like they do.
“I’m sorry, would you mind writing that down for me? ”申し訳ないけど、ちょっと書いてもらえませんか？
When I first lived in Japan and could hardly speak the language, I was told to quickly learn this phrase. I was working with a fellow foreigner who had wonderful Japanese but was too focused on what we were doing to teach me every little word I didn't know. He also didn’t want his work slowed down by someone who was always asking questions like I was. Instead of pestering him or one of our native co-workers all the time, and if I was given something to do but didn’t quite understand, I quickly learned to asked people to write it down for me.
While them may seem more annoying than having them explain it to me in simpler Japanese, I found this actually took LESS time and I was able to literally see the grammar. This helped a ton and I was able to have a physical reminder of some key expressions/thing they wanted me to do. This helped me a lot, particularly when I was working in Japan.
“Could I ask you a question?すみません、ちょっといいですか？
“Could I ask you a question?すみません、ちょっといいですか？ The fear of making mistakes is real. I used to be so caught up on having perfect Japanese that I would often cry during my language study. I was so stupidly focused one saying things properly, that was too shy to actually try the grammar that I had been learning when I had the chance. I figured, if I didn’t say anything at all I couldn’t make any mistakes. How right I was. So right in fact, that I retarded my Japanese speaking ability until I learned a simple truth.
No one was going to remember me anyway. While this may sound harsh, this was a great comfort to me. I realized that if I spoke to somebody on the train and they didn’t understand me or felt pestered by, would inevitably forget me as soon as they stepped off the train. I thought of how many times people had asked me in broken or non-native English for me to take a picture for them or where the [insert word here] was and I couldn’t recall a single face. I was so caught up that I forgot how forgettable and forgiving people really are. With that, I decided to try and talk with random people on the train, on the bus, in line at the store, and even standing on the street corner. I literally talked to everyone I came across. Now I should mention that I was awkward and had a horrid accent. I didn’t know how to start up a conversation out of thin air and had little to no idea what to talk about. (This is not permission to be a creep or say things in inappropriate circumstances)
However, just like when you buy a PT cruiser and suddenly you see PT cruisers everywhere, I saw people making short and friendly conversation all the time once I started. I listened to how normal native people started casual, friendly, and easy to understand conversations. I found that just by asking if I could ask them a question, I could also learn tons of new words (and amazing places to eat.) I asked where things were, I asked how to get there, I asked what was the best [insert favorite thing here] was. I even made friends this way. I found great places to buy clothes and after the first 3 months or so it became like second nature. I also got to see Japan from a new perspective. The perspective of the Salaryman, the Mother-in-law, and the High School Student. I got to see people having a conversation and where they liked to hang out. I found nice Cafes and quiet little parks. But more importantly, I learned how to overcome fear and feel natural in conversation. I learned that if I screwed up in Japanese it is 100% ok. Yeah, there are some bad apples who will be rude, but they are the exception, NOT the rule. You can find bad eggs anywhere.
Basically, I learned that to 'hack' Japanese you need to hack away at your insecurities and fears. The only shortcut to learning Japanese is how much of your fears you are willing to cut into. Japanese is a wonderful and lovely language that has changed my life, which is why I teach it on my podcast every single day, 365 days a year. If you love Japanese or any language, I recommend you try and speak, even if it is only these three sentences.
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