A Quick Overview of Japanese for Beginners at First has been transcribed from Steve’s YouTube channel. You can download the audio and study the transcript as a lesson at LingQ.

Hi there, Steve here. Today I want to talk about Japanese. I’m thinking of doing a series on different languages, which I would call Steve’s Easy Introduction To and this one is Steve’s Easy Introduction to Japanese.


Many people have sort of an anxiety attack when they approach a new language, especially if they open a book and it’s full of detailed explanation about the pronunciation. In the case of Japanese they talk about pitch, which I’ve never understood. People get hung up about those things that are different in Japanese, so let me just give you an easy introduction to Japanese.


Japanese is not, obviously, a language related to English, so it’s going to take you longer to get used to the structure of Japanese than say a language like French. You are going to encounter immediately the difficulty that a lot of words seem to sound the same because Japanese, in fact, has fewer sounds than English, but it’s one of these things that you jut get used to.


So if we start with verbs — and I like to approach languages in terms of verbs, nouns, adjectives, adverbs, pronouns, cause and purpose and maybe a few other things. If you’ve got a sense of those things the rest of the language is going to fall into place.


Now, a problem with Japanese is the writing system because you have to learn three of them: katakana, hiragana and the Chinese characters, the kanji. I recommend you start with hiragana. Don’t spend too much time on katakana, which is parallel to the hiragana, but do make an effort to learn the kanji, the Chinese characters, if you intend to stay with your Japanese in order to achieve a high level of proficiency because once you have the Chinese characters you can read. You can read newspapers, magazines, books and so forth.


 Japanese for beginners: Verbs

Now, verbs. In Japanese, very simply put, there are a few things you have to be aware of. One, there’s a simple form and a not-so-simple form of every verb, that’s before we get into the issue of politeness, okay? So ikimasu is to go. It can be I go, you go, he go, they go — ikimasu. So an advantage in Japanese is you don’t have to worry about all the different changes in verbs that happen in say French — ikimasu. And there is a shorter form which is iku. Ikimasu, iku, the same — go. Taberu, tabemasu — eat.


I’m not going to go through them all because if you don’t know Japanese it’s just so much noise. Just be aware that there’s a simple and a longer form. You can kind of use them interchangeably and you needn’t worry about when one word is used or another word is used because until you have enough exposure to the language you won’t get it right. Once you have enough exposure you’ll naturally start to use it right. In the end it probably doesn’t matter. You can use them interchangeably regardless of what people say.


Now, to express the past tense iku or ikimasu — go, I go, you go — becomes [insert Japanese]. [Insert Japanese] is the past tense. Taberu, tabemas, tabemashita — now we’re in the past tense. Again, there’s a simple form of that. Instead of ikimashita you can say [insert Japanese]. Instead of tabemashita [insert Japanese]. So you’ll start to see these. The shorter form is typically less formal, but in fact in real life they are used kind of interchangeably.


Now, the future in Japanese is a little different from in English. So tomorrow is [insert Japanese]. So the ikimas word [insert Japanese] can work in the future. You do have a form of the future which is sort of maybe-type future. [Insert Japanese] tomorrow, [insert Japanese] or likely to go [insert Japanese]. But you can also say [insert Japanese]. That means I am going tomorrow. [Insert Japanese] likely to go. [Insert Japanese] also likely to go. That’s the future, very simple.


That’s enough for the basic concept of the verbs and then we get to nouns. Nouns in Japanese are pretty straightforward, no gender, no plural. Hon is a book. It can be one book, many books. There’s no masculine book, feminine book, it’s hon. Le is house. Kuruma is car. You tell from the context, so if you say hon takusan (takusan means many) hon takusan, many books.


 Japanese for beginners: Counters

They do have a thing called counters, but I always use [insert Japanese]. [Insert Japanese] means one. [Insert Japanese]. I’m not sure what the counter is for book. I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. I don’t worry about counters. I do quite well in Japanese. [Insert Japanese], one sheet of paper, obviously. An animal is [insert Japanese]. These are counters. [Insert Japanese] works. There is a generalized counter. I don’t worry about it. The key thing about nouns is that there’s no gender and there’s no numbers. You tell from the contents how many we’re talking about.


 Japanese for beginners: Nouns

The next thing about nouns, the sort of bugbear for many people in Japanese, is what they call particles. In some languages the case ending changes depending on the function of the word. In Japanese you have this particle, so [insert Japanese], [Insert Japanese] is I. [Insert Japanese] is sort of a marker that that’s the subject of the verb. If I give someone a book [insert Japanese] me, I, [insert Japanese] indicates that it’s a direct object. I have picked up a book. [Insert Japanese…]

 Japanese for beginners: Particles

These different particles, as they’re called, attach usually to a noun and they indicate the direction. So [insert Japanese] from the house [insert Japanese], to the house. [Insert Japanese] to you, [insert Japanese] from you. Actually, not that difficult a concept; an easier way of doing things than the case endings in Slavic languages. Again, you just have to get used to it. Don’t try to remember them all at once, you’ll slowly get used to it — that the little particle after the noun tells you whether it’s an object or an indirect object or it’s to something, from something, for the purposes of something and so forth.


Adjectives typically come before the noun. [Insert Japanese], red book. [Insert Japanese], big house. Adverbs are usually or very often formed from adjectives. So [insert Japanese]. [Insert Japanese] is an adverb. For example, when they say it’s not red [insert Japanese], it’s not red. [Insert Japanese] is fast. [Insert Japanese] is the adverb fast. A fast car [insert Japanese] and then [insert Japanese]. And, again, the adverb comes before the verb, very simple.


Purpose in Japanese is provided by whatever comes after the verb. In order to is [insert Japanese]. So [insert Japanese], in order to run, [insert Japanese], in order to understand, [insert Japanese] and that gives you the purpose. If is [insert Japanese], so you can say [insert Japanese]. [Insert Japanese] is if it’s fast. [Insert Japanese] is also if it’s fast.


One of the things about Japanese is there is always, it seems, two, three or four different ways, interchangeable ways of sayings things and you can use them, whichever one you want to use. Don’t worry about it too much. Because is [insert Japanese]. So, again, [insert Japanese]. Japanese is full of these filler phrases like [insert Japanese]. [Insert Japanese], if that’s the case [insert Japanese], if that’s the case, [insert Japanese]. You get to use these. They’re great. They give you time to think.


To me, and I can’t go through all the grammatical forms of Japanese, you get to learn very quickly that the verb comes at the end and a lot of good things come at the end, at the end of nouns, at the end of verbs.


Japanese and politeness

Politeness [Japanese honorifics] is something that I wouldn’t worry about at the beginning. As a foreigner I would try to speak as neutral as possible and eventually you’ll get a comfort level in being extremely informal or being formal depending on the situation, but it’s not something that you’re going to be able to do without a lot of exposure to the language. So I don’t think it’s something you can learn theoretically. It’s something you have to gradually get used to. That’s why, getting back to the original point, do a lot of listening and reading. But in order to read you have to learn the writing system, the hiragana, the katakana and the Japanese characters. With enough exposure and enough listening and reading you’ll get a sense for the language and at that time go and pick up a simple Japanese grammar book or even a starter book and then you will encounter a lot of these explanations.


Don’t make it too complicated. It’s actually not a difficult language from the point of view of grammar. However, the issues of politeness, the issues of the writing system and the fact that it is structured differently from European languages make it a language that’s more difficult to get used to and that’s all the more reason that you have to exposure yourself to as much of it as you can. And don’t worry about struggling to speak in the early stages, you’re going to struggle.


Okay. Thank you for listening, bye for now.

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