Turning Japanese: Learning Basic Nihongo in 30 Days

A recent trip to Japan made me realize that if I learned Nihongo, I would understand and appreciate the culture even more
Image from Engin Akyurt on Pexels

After my first trip to Japan, I fell in-love. With the country, the architecture, their fashion sense, the food, and their way of life.

But something felt amiss.

It was hard to communicate with the locals, especially those who didn’t know how to speak or understand English, the only language I was fluent in aside from my mother tongue. At times, I found myself lost, confused, and ostracized in a place I was unfamiliar with. What was more unsettling was that I also found myself ostracizing people within their own country just because I don’t speak their language.

It was this experience that made me realize that if I learned Nihongo, I would understand and appreciate Japanese culture even more.

Never Too Cool for School

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The last time I tried to learn a new language was in college when we had to take mandatory Spanish units. I took two classes for two terms and to this day, I still couldn’t conjure a single sentence without stumbling over my words.

Now that I’ve graduated and I’m free from the pressure of grades and report cards, I decided to take studying a language seriously. As a gift to myself, I enrolled in a 30-hour Nihongo N5 Level course with CEVAS, a reputable language center in Metro Manila.

I had to pay P10,500 (plus P450 for materials) to book individual classes. Rates are much lower for group classes (P5,500), but since I wanted more control over my schedule, I went for the former. The center recommended taking two classes a week and so I did, dedicating Tuesdays and Thursdays to my lessons.

Have Some Class

Roxie 先生 (Sensei) teaching me basic Japanese grammar
Photo from the writer

I was fortunate enough to be assigned to Ms. Roxie, one of the kindest instructors I’ve met. She constantly asks me about the nature of my job, my schedule, as well as my preferred pace of learning just so she can match her lessons to my needs.

Roxie introduced me to three kinds of Japanese characters: Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji.

Hiragana is the most basic Japanese writing system, representing syllables. Katakana is also composed of symbols for Japanese words, but is used to write borrowed words and foreign names. Kanji is adopted from the Chinese writing system that is used alongside both Hiragana and Katakana to form a complete thought.

According to Roxie, the best way to practice Hiragana is to write them over and over
Photo from the writer

Our first lesson was all about memorizing the Hiragana characters as well as their proper strokes. Since we only had three hours, I had to do my own homework and memorize the rest of them at home.

Nihongo on the Go

A huge part of learning a new language is finding creative ways to integrate it in your daily life, especially if you live in a country where the language is seldom spoken during conversations. As a tech-savvy millennial who’s always glued to her phone, I figured downloading apps was a good way to start.

I use an Android phone so some apps may not be available on other types of OS.

I named the folder 日本語, which are the Kanji characters for “Japanese language”

Duolingo

I consider Duolingo to be the toddler of all language-learning apps. It covers the basic Hiragana characters and helps you memorize characters and words, visually and phonetically. It’s completely easy to use as long as you have stable internet connection.

Just don’t rely on this app alone because it doesn’t teach you the correct way to write characters, which is apparently an important aspect of learning the Japanese language.

HelloTalk

Think Facebook Messenger, but bilingual. You can go to the app and practice your Nihongo through instant messaging as well as correct other people’s English whenever you see fit.

Use it wisely. Beware of people who turn the platform into a dating app or those who might ask you for sensitive information, posing risks to your safety.

ELer Japanese

This app contains a Japanese radio as well as a large set of learning modules for those who want to speak Japanese. I used this to sharpen my Japanese accent and memorize basic conversational phrases and sentences.

Google Translate

This is useful for reading Japanese characters for labels and materials, especially when you haven’t memorized all the characters yet. But as with all Google Translate languages, this isn’t very reliable when it comes to accuracy. Use it if you just want a general idea of the material you’re reading.

Obenkyo

Recommended by James from CEVAS, this app is perfect for learning how to write Japanese characters while in transit. The app creates huge previews of the characters and draws each in the correct order of the strokes, making it easy to follow and remember.

Learn Japanese Speak Japanese

Similar to ELer Japanese, this app is also great for practicing greetings, directions, numbers, and other day-to-day Japanese conversation sentences.

What I Know So Far

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After a month of formal classes and self-study, I can safely say I know enough Nihongo to get me around Japan without feeling like a headless chicken. I’ve memorized Hiragana, familiarized myself with Katakana, and know basic Kanji characters that are essential for Japanese reading and writing.

With practice, I’ve also gotten better at pronouncing Japanese words without sounding like my tongue is stuck in my throat.

If you want to learn Nihongo too, you can start with these sentences:

Good morning. – Ohayogozamaisu.

Good afternoon. – Konnichiwa.

Good evening. – Konbanwa.

Goodnight. – Oyasuminasai.

How are you? – Ogenki desu ka?

Fine, thank you – Hai, genki desu.

I’m pleased to meet you. – Hajimemashite.

Nice to meet you. – Douzo yoroshiku.

What is your name? – Onamae wan an desu ka?

I am sorry. – Gomen nasai.

Thank you. – Arigato gozaimasu.

Of course, learning doesn’t end here. I still have a looooong way to go, but being a few steps ahead gives me enough motivation to keep going.

お疲れ様です(Otsukaresama deshita or Thank you for your hard work)!

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