Learning Japanese

If you told me at the beginning of this year that I would be spending 3 weeks learning Japanese in Tokyo this summer, I wouldn’t have believed it.  Not that Japan wasn’t on my list, but the idea of visiting Japan this summer (after 5 months away in Amsterdam) and trying to get a grasp on their language (when languages are not my strong point) still seems surreal.


Japanese is a beautiful language. Beautifully complicated.  From what I understand (after 2 weeks of learning), there are three “alphabet” sets.  The first, hiragana, is comprised of 46 individual characters each with their own sound. Combining the characters, and sounds, makes words.  The second set, katakana, is 46 DIFFERENT characters with the SAME SOUNDS as hiragana.  Katakana is used for foreign words, aka words taken from English.  So for example, “intaanetto” is katakana for “internet” and “aisukuriimu” is “ice cream”.  And here I was thinking Japanese people were just speaking English with an accent – turns out, they’ve made English their own!

Lastly, there’s kanji.  Kanji are the same characters used in Mandarin, Cantonese and probably a bunch of other Asian dialects.  But, there’s a twist: these same characters I might be familiar with from my years taking Mandarin are now pronounced differently in Japanese!  And, to make it even harder: hiragana, katakana and kanji are all used together in any given passage of Japanese.  So to say tackling this language is tough would be a HUGE understatement.

Luckily, there is no better place to learn than where I am right now.  Every day I trek into the city and meet my classmates for our Japanese lessons.  There are only 8 of us in the beginner class and we spend most mornings learning new vocabulary, grammar, characters, etc.  In the afternoons, we often go on mini-fieldtrips around the Shinjuku area.  It gives us a chance to practice what we’ve learned (like the time we practiced ordering in Japanese at McDonalds), get outside the classroom and grow an immense appreciation for our building’s air con.

After class we usually spend some time exploring new areas of Tokyo or grabbing a snack before heading back to our respective host families.  It’s cool to see how much Japanese we can use outside of the classroom and away from our always-correcting sensais (teachers).  For a city as big as Tokyo, it’s still strange to me that it seems so isolated from foreigners.  Of course, there are a good number of tourists, but non-Japanese expats don’t seem to account for much of the population.  And, accordingly, English is not commonly spoken, seen or understood.

Finally, we start and end everyday with our wonderful host families.  What better way to absorb a language than to live in a house where it is spoken all the time? To see the language in the daily newspaper, hear it on the TV and watch it come to life across the kitchen table.  And while most of it goes over my head, I’m always excited when I understand a few words or have a chance to use one of my well-rehearsed greetings.


With our final week upon us, I only have a few days left to soak up as much culture, sight-seeing, delicious food and Japanese language as I can.  Wish me luck!