While not a necessity, learning a little Japanese can be very rewarding for any traveler. While lots of people do speak English in Japan, knowing some Japanese can help initiate conversations with those reluctant to test out their English skills. And learning a few greetings and useful phrases can help make you trip more fun and rewarding.
Becoming fluent in any language is a pretty big commitment, and don’t believe all the books or websites promising fluency in a few minutes a day. While it might be possible for some people, it’s just not the norm. Take a moment to decide how deep you want to go, and study accordingly.
At some point, you’ve probably heard that Japanese is one of the toughest to learn, and this is true to some extent, however, there is a bright side. For English speakers, the pronunciation is actually pretty easy unlike other Asian languages like Chinese. The Kanji ( Chinese Characters ) are notoriously hard to memorize and master, but there is a phonetic writing system called Hiranga that is relatively easy to learn. Moreover, you can start learning right away with romaji or Japanese written in the roman alphabet.
And best of all, there are so many free resources and software programs available today that didn’t even exist a few years ago. This can make learning some Japanese very convenient and fun. Below is a list of recommended resources for those who’d like to try their hand at learning Japanese before you travel to Japan.
Free Resources for Learning Travel Japanese
NHK, which is sort of the BBC of Japan, has a great website with lessons for Japanese language learners and also a dedicated travel Japanese section. They have lessons on basic grammar and useful expressions using a fun audio-drama style. You can download audio and texts for the lessons free of charge.
The wildly successful language learning app called Duolingo now has a Japanese track. The gamification aspect keeps you motivated to study, and the learning tree provides a path forward. The app is best for training yourself translate back and forth from English to Japanese. The exercises cover reading, writing and listening. The basic app is free but ad supported.
Memrise is another popular and free language learning app for your phone. It uses audio, images and memory techniques to help you learn vocabulary and it is well suited to beginners. It’s focus on learning and memorizing vocabulary makes it a nice enhancement to whatever books or software you might be using. Memrise combined with Duolingo is pretty effective as each program has a different emphasis – learning vocabulary and how to create and translate sentences.
Anki is a free, open-source intelligent flash card software for learning everything from languages to studying for the bar exam. Since it is an open platform, many users share there decks with the community. So if you are studying a particular book, someone may have already created a deck with all of the vocabulary – a big time saver. Another big plus is that Anki is available for pretty much every device and operating system.