Many people who come to Japan are nervous about various things, and one of the top three is definitely the language. Unless you picked up some Japanese during university, odds are you’ll be coming fresh off the plane with very little speaking skills. If you are one of those people and plan to come to Jaapn, don’t panic! Hundreds of people come over to Japan with only konnichiwa and sayonara as their whole Japanese vocabulary. They all manage to live normal lives and get by just fine, so you can too.
But how much Japanese do you need to live a “normal” life? Well, that depends on your situation, and your end goal language wise. Each person who comes over has different lifestyles and language goals in mind for when they decide to live here. Here are three questions to ask for how much Japanese you need.
First off, where are you living in Japan? The more rural you are, the more Japanese language skills you’ll need to acquire, especially survival Japanese if you’re living alone like I was. It’s best to spend as much time learning the basics: colors, numbers, directions, your address, emergency contacts, and so on. If you can get someone who can teach you basic Japanese, all the better. Your local municipal government might have free Japanese language courses available for you, or perhaps someone teaches Japanese to foreigners in the area. If all else fails, YouTube and the internet have many free resources on hand to help you out.
The more urban you are, say Tokyo or Osaka, you probably won’t need Japanese as much. English or other languages are easily accessible in such places. Odds are if you need to find someone who knows English, there is an information center to help you out in the area. However, I still think you should pick up a textbook and go to a Japanese conversation class. Having the bare basics at the very least can help you find your way easier in the big cities than without needing help all the time.
Secondly, how long do you intend to stay? If you’re only staying a year, most likely you can get by with the bare minimum Japanese of numbers, colors, directions, and limited small talk. Jump over to a Japanese YouTube channel, grab a Basic Japanese textbook, pocket dictionary, and you’ll be fine. More than fine, really. Learn to spell your name, your address,but besides that don’t focus too much on writing. Speaking skills are top priority.
If you’re coming in here long term (3-5 years or more), go ahead and get your hands on a more advanced level textbook, like the Genki series. Learn kanji in conjunction with hiragana and katakana (trust me, the earlier you know basic kanji the better). For you, lean towards learning more speaking than writing, but still put an emphasis on writing. You’ll want to be able to have more freedom in the coming years, and knowing how to read will be big part of breaking away from needing to ask for help all the time.
Notice how for both short and long term I really want you to focus on speaking rather than writing. Reading and writing will be useful for long term endeavors, but for the most part being able to communicate with the people around you is the best priority to have if you’re coming here to live in Japan. Many Japanese teachers will try to hound you with hiragana, katakana, and kanji, but unless it’s menu language, it probably won’t help you to be able to get around and talk with people.
My biggest recommendation is to get into as many chances as possible to speak Japanese as you can with someone who also knows English. As you progress, make more friends who speak less and less English, because without that to fall back on you’ll be forced to learn. Classes can only get you so far, and after that, you’ll need to be able to talk all on your own.
Finally, do you intend to use Japanese in your career? Odds are if you’re an ALT or educational employee of some kind, you can take your sweet time learning Japanese to better communicate. If you want to get a job in translation or interpretation like I do, then it’s in your best interest to study up in both speaking and writing in equal parts.
I would imagine that most people coming over who intend to go this route already have a major or minor in Japanese culture and language, but if not you might end up like me learning on your lonesome. I took classes available for free in Ibaraki until I left. In Tokyo, I simply didn’t have enough money to get proper language classes, but if you want to pas the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) upper levels then usually most people have to take those classes to pass. Most likely you’ll need to pass the JLPT N2 at least to make a career out of interpretation or translation.
I still highly recommend learning to speak before learning to write. After over four years of living in Japan, I’m intermediate. I can hold a conversation, read manga if an e-dictionary is handy, and I can stumble through a phone call in only Japanese with the gas company people when they randomly call me. Most of my language acquisition came from simply going out and talking to Japanese people and less with textbooks or classes. My speaking skills are much better than writing, and with those skills I can get around and do what I need to do, and live a normal life.
Having a second language under your belt can open all sorts of doors later on in life. With Japanese, you might even become a hot commodity in technology and business fields. If you intend to live in Japan at all, try your best to accumulate as much of the language as possible. Why not? After all, it’s part of the experience!
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