Japanese is spoken by about approximately 122 million people in Japan. There are also speakers in the Ryukyu Islands, Korea, Taiwan, parts of the US, and Brazil. Furthermore, its important to know the language was a spoken language before it became a written language, hence the difficulty of actually writing it.[1]

Phonology Edit

The sound of Japanese is very distinct due its CV(n)CV(n)-structure. Consonants must always be followed by a vowel except for the consonant ん (n/m) which has no vowel following it.

Hiragana Chart

k s t n h m y r w

Grammar Edit

Japanese is a language with few irregularities, however, its grammar and structure are very different from Indo-European languages. Translating word-for-word to or from Japanese will often render the translation incomprehensible.

Japanese sentence structure is Subject-Object-Verb, as compared to the structure of English, which is Subject-Verb-Object.

E.G. わたし   は   がくせい   です。(watashi wa(ha) gakusei desu) (I am a student)

わたし= I      は=topic marking particle   がくせい= (a) student(s)   です= to be

E.G. Japanese sentence: 'I-(subject marker)-apple-(object marker)-eat'

English sentence: 'I-eat-(the)-apple'

This difference in sentence structure can make it difficult for some students of Japanese, who have to learn to rearrange their way of thinking. Languages with similar grammar and SOV structure include Turkish, Korean and Mongolian, although these languages do not share similar vocabulary.

Japanese also makes extensive use of grammatical markers. For example, 'wa' marks the topic of the sentence (often the subject but not always), 'o' marks the object of the sentence, and 'ni' marks the direction or place of action.

Orthography Edit

漢字 Kanji - Chinese charactersEdit

During the 7th century AD the Japanese borrowed Chinese characters from China.

Have you seen How to study Chinese signs?

ひらがなとカタカナ "Hiragana to katakana" or KANA for short.Edit

Kana consists of two syllabaries (phonetic alphabets); hiragana (ひらがな) and katakana (カタカナ). Each syllabary has about 46 basic characters which correspond to different consonant-vowel and vowel only syllables of Japanese, with the exception of the nasal sound 'n'.

Hiragana is used for writing native Japanese words (e.g. 'arigatou', 'sushi'). Text for very young children who cannot read kanji yet is written out using hiragana only, as this is the first writing system Japanese children learn.[2] When used with kanji, hiragana is used for Japanese words without kanji characters, grammatical markers and attached to the end of words written with kanji characters.

Hiragana developed from simplified Chinese characters used for writing Japanese sounds. The hiragana symbol か (ka) comes from the kanji 加, of which one pronunciation is 'ka'[3].

The appearance of hiragana is flowing, curved and rounded, and is said to be easy to write, which is perhaps one of the reasons why Japanese children learn it first.


When using kana to write Japanese it almost exactly corresponds to how the word is pronounced, except when using the particles は ha [wa] (topic marker) を wo [o] (object marker) and へ he [e] (direction marker). To write out long vowels in hiragana one duplicate the kana sign, thus: ああ for [a:], いい for [i:] and うう for [u:]. お and え can be lengthened using う and い, respectively, thus: おう [o:] and えい [e:]. In katakana all vowels are lengthened with a horizontal stroke ー.

Historical Kana Usage Edit

Since 1946 Japanese spelling of kana has almost exactly corresponded to the spoken language with the exception of the particles e (spelled with the kana he), o (spelled with the kana wo) and 'wa' (spelled with the kana 'ha') when used in specific grammatical situations. E.G. 'e' when used as a direction marker, 'o' when used as an object marker and 'wa' when used as a topic marker.

Relationship to other languagesEdit

The relationship of Japanese to other languages has always been a hotly contested issue and the matter is still far from resolved. It is not considered an isolate however, rather as a member of the Japonic family; which also includes the Rykyuan languages, Amami, Miyako, Okinawan, Kunigami, Yaeyama & Yonaguni.

There is a possible relationship between Japanese and Korean. The grammar of the two languages is very similar, however it is harder to find similarities in the phonology and vocabulary.

Japanese is also sometimes included as a member of the Altaic family, along with Mongolian, Turkish, Korean and Manchu among others. The Altaic family is still controversial among linguists.

Although the genetic relationship of Japanese to other languages is still unclear, superficial similarities in vocabulary exist in loanwords from other languages. A great number of Japanese vocabulary derives from Chinese loanwords or Chinese roots. This can be seen in the 'onyomi' readings of kanji, which are based on the Chinese pronunciation of the kanji at that time. As Japanese borrowed kanji from Chinese over several centuries, the 'onyomi' pronunciation can often differ greatly from modern Chinese pronunciation.

The amount of English loanwords in Japanese has increased greatly since the late 19th century. Sometimes the loanwords can appear unfamiliar, unless you are familiar with how the borrowings are 'Japanese-ized'. Sometimes English loanwords exist where there are already native Japanese words. E.G. The English loanword miruku ミルク, and the Japanese word gyuunyuu 牛乳, both meaning milk.

There are also borrowings from other Indo-European languages, such as Portuguese, Dutch and German. E.G. The Japanese word pan パン which came from the Portuguese pão, meaning bread[4]. Also the word arubaito アルバイト which came from the German word Arbeit, meaning part-time work[5].

Common difficulties Edit

The Foreign Service Institute has classified Japanese as a "Super-Hard" language. It is estimated that learning Japanese to a Professional Working Proficiency in the language (a score of Speaking-3/Reading-3 on the Interagency Language Roundtable scale) will take an average of 88 weeks (2200 class hours).[6]

The Japanese way of expressing politeness with the language can seem very exotic and strange to non-Japanese.

And undoubtedly kanji can be a very big hindrance to learners of Japanese.

Resources Edit

Commercial courses Edit

  • Genki I and II
  • Rocket Japanese (Rocket Languages)
  • Situational Functional Japanese
  • Minna no Nihongo
  • Pimsleur Japanese
  • Assimil Japanese with ease
  • Linguaphone Japanese Complete Course
  • Beginning Japanese (Cornell University Audiolingual Course)
  • Rosetta Stone offers a course in Japanese

Free/Internet resourcesEdit

  • Mazii - FREE japanese dictionary

Dictionaries Edit

Mazii Dictionary . You can search with Japanese - English dictionary, kanji vocabulary and Japanese grammar.

RomajiDesu Dictionary - Easy to use Japanese-English bidirectional dictionary with sample sentences, audio, stroke orders.

Tangorin Dictionary - English ⇆ Japanese dictionary with a responsive interface.

Denshi Jisho - Online Japanese dictionary

Weblio - Online Japanese-English and Japanese-Japanese dictionary

Learning Games Edit

Slime Forest Adventure game - Downloadable game that teaches the hardest parts of Japanese. Also see the wiki - Learn Japanese by playing games! Gain exp points, level up, and get ranked!

Full courses Edit

Mazii - Kanji dictionary: 11,000 words.Grammar dictionary: 600 samples.

TUFS Japanese - Elementary & intermediate multimedia lessons on everyday situations. Register for free to keep track of your progress. Video and drill-based approach.

Mango languages - 50 audio lessons for learning conversational Japanese. Audio and flashcard based approach.

LiveMocha Japanese - Teaches entirely in Japanese through audio and pictures. Lots of activities and an active community. Available to learn through English, Mandarin Chinese, Spanish, Portuguese and Japanese.

NHK Japanese lessons - An audio drama with pictures that teaches you useful phrases. Available to learn through Arabic, Bengali, Burmese, Chinese, English, French, Hindi, Indonesian, Korean, Persian, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Swahili, Thai, Urdu and Vietnamese.

Let's learn Japanese - TV series that teaches you Japanese. Fun way to pick up the basics.

Teach Yourself Japanese - Teaches basic Japanese with a linguistics approach. Also available to download.

Go Go Japan 1, 2, 3 - Interactive flash courses with lots of audio and lessons. Also has an accompanying podcast. Only available in Cantonese.

Japanese Online - Beginning, grammar and multimedia Japanese lessons and a vibrant community. Note: Free registration required.

Survival Japanese from AJALT - An online textbook with audio teaching Japanese phrases, grammar, vocab and conversation.

Japanese Reader for the Middle Years - An interactive course for Australian students with audio and pictures. Some basic knowledge of Japanese may be needed.

Cooori Online Japanese Learning - An efficient way to learn Japanese vocabulary online. Covers JLPT N2, N3, N4 and N5, and supports popular textbooks such as Genki and Minna no nihongo.

Nihongo Master - A free public dictionary with over 160,000 words and 13,000 kanji including stroke order animation, example sentences, and more.

Podcasts Edit

Mazii - Synthesis of JLPT N1, N2, N3, N4, N5, kanji and Grammar.

Japanesepod101 - Many lessons for different levels, takes apart dialogues and teaches vocab & grammar.

Learn Japanese with Beb and Alex - Useful beginner lessons and podcasts on Japanese culture.

Japancast - Learn Japanese language and culture through examples from anime and everyday conversation.

日語自遊行 - 1 & 2 - Learn basic Japanese words and phrases for travel and everyday life. Only available in Cantonese.

日語自遊行 - 3 - Teaches more advanced Japanese words and phrases for travellers. Note: Only available in Cantonese.

Nihongo-Juku - Advanced Japanese podcasts with transcripts explaining common difficulties of learning Japanese.

Survival phrases Japanese - 10 lessons and PDF guides available free, 50 more to pay for.

Gilhooly, E (2003). "Teach Yourself Beginner's Japanese Script"


  1. Disputed. Most languages were spoken before being written.
  2. Gilhooly, H: "Teach Yourself Beginner's Japanese Script", page ix, Hodder & Stoughton, 2003
  3. Gilhooly, H: "Teach Yourself Beginner's Japanese Script", page ix, Hodder & Stoughton, 2003
  4. Infoseek
  5. Infoseek
  6. U.S. Department of State; FSI's Experience with Language Learning;
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