So you think you want to learn Japanese? An excellent choice if you ask me. It's exotic enough to be endlessly fascinating, while being spoken by over 100 million citizens of one of the world's major economic powers makes it a practical skill for anyone interested in international dealings.
Then of course there's anime, manga, and the rest of Japanese pop culture – let's admit it, these are the real reasons most of us get interested in Japanese in the first place. And as learn the language, you'll only grow to appreciate both the traditional and modern culture of Japan more and more.
That being said, there's quite a bit of misinformation floating around about Japan and the Japanese language. Most Americans, at least, are woefully ignorant of any foreign cultures, Japan being no exception. So, a large part of this introduction will be dedicated to setting the facts straight so that you can start your journey with accurate picture of the landscape.
The Language of Japan
Japan's population as of 2011 is just under 130 million people, which also roughly the number of Japanese speakers worldwide. Nearly every person in Japan is ethnically Japanese and speaks the Japanese language, and nearly all Japanese speakers reside in Japan, though there are also a small number of native speakers living in emigrant communities throughout the Western Hemisphere.
Since the 1980s, though, the number of foreign speakers has grown tremendously. I don't have any official stats at the moment, but the number of students worldwide is over 2 million, mostly in China, South Korea, Australia, and the United States.
Despite this, the Japanese is still the language of the Japanese people. It's deeply interwoven with the culture, far more so than in many languages. It's not just that the language is built differently; a Japanese speaker will say different things and in a different way than an English speaker would in the same situation. So, if you want to learn the language, you're going to learn the culture too – there's simply no way around it.
I wouldn't say this is a bad thing, though. It means that there's more to speaking the language than just learning the grammar, which thankfully is a lot more logical than English grammar in many respects. So have fun with it! The Japanese are the most technologically advanced, traditional, wacky, and endearing people I know of. If you're only going to learn one language, it might as well be Japanese.
Now for a bit about the language itself.
Japan is known as Nihon or Nippon in Japanese; its people are Nihonjin and the language is called Nihongo. "Jin" is a suffix meaning "person" or "people" and "go" of course means "language".
Before we get any further there is one thing that I want to make very clear: Japanese is not related to Chinese. Not in the slightest. Yes, there's some cultural influence and quite a bit of imported vocabulary (much like the wealth of French- and Latin-derived vocabulary in English), and the Japanese writing system grew out of written Chinese, but the languages themselves are completely unrelated.
Japanese isn't related to Korean either, or at least we don't think it is. Some linguists put both in a hypothetical Altaic language family that also includes the likes of Mongolian and Turkish, but otherwise there is very little conclusive evidence linking Japanese to any other language, save one, which I'll discuss below. Here's a fun fact though – Japanese might instead be related to a now extinct language that was spoken on the Korean peninsula before what we now call "Korean" became dominant.
Dialects of Japanese
Like most languages, Japanese still exists in a number of dialects, showing gradual variation from northeast to southwest. In fact, speakers of geographically distant dialects are essentially unintelligible to each other. This strikes most English speakers as somewhat strange, since the standard dialects of the UK, North America, and Australia are very similar is most regards, and most regional dialects are quite understandable to outsiders. Don't be misled though – historically there were very different dialects of English in different parts of England (to some extent there still is), and the English found today in Africa, India, and East Asia can be quite different from that spoken by westerners.
In addition to the dialects of Japanese, there is in fact one separate language related to Japanese; this is the language of the Ryukyu Islands, off to the southwest of the four main islands. Ryukuan itself is divided into several dialects, and together with Japanese makes up the Japonic language family. This pair of languages then, having no proven relationship to any other known language, is called a language isolate.
In any case, how do Japanese people from different parts of the country communicate with each other? (Anyone who's taken at least a couple years of French or German should be able to answer this one.) You see, in addition to the regional dialects, or hougen, there also exists a standard language, called kyoutsuugo ("common language"), that is based on the Tokyo dialect. This is the language of education and the media, and the language you will be learning as a foreign speaker.
This is not an unusual situation, and in fact is precisely what you would find in France, Germany, China, and the Arabic speaking countries, while in other countries there are several, or perhaps many distinct languages spoken in public. The difference between related languages and dialects of a language is mainly one of degree, but point to remember is that if you can speak the standard language, you will be able to communicate with any educated Japanese speaker. Given that Japan is one of the world's most highly developed nations, this shouldn't ever be a problem ;).
Is Japanese a "Hard" Language?
It should be no surprise that as a non-western language (and a language isolate), Japanese is very different from English. Fortunately though, despite the common myth of Japanese being "the world's most difficult language" there isn't much about the language itself that is inherently difficult.
Pronunciation is extremely straightforward, with just 15 distinct consonants and 5 vowels, most of which exist in English or have a close approximate. English, on the other hand, has around 34 distinct sounds, depending on dialect, and trying to fit these to 26 letters is the source of many, though not all of our spelling problems.
Syllable structure follows an alternating consonant-vowel-consonant-vowel scheme, giving the language a fast, even rhythm much like Spanish or Italian.
The grammar is complex, but logical and systematic. The sentence structure is flexible, but straightforward. The language lacks the inflections for gender and number found in most European languages, and verb conjugation is almost entirely regular, unlike the disaster known as English.
I would say that the number one problem beginners face is getting you head wrapped around the different way that a Japanese sentence is put together, and most of the continuing difficulties stem from the fact that things are just said differently in Japanese. Put another way, direct, word-level translation in either direction produces poor, even laughable results.
Because of this, it is especially critical that you don't focus only on memorizing individual sentence patterns, which will fail you in new situations, but instead make a commitment to try to understand why any particular construction means what it does. In other words, focus on the general grammar first, particulars second. This way you'll at least be able to guess at the meaning of unfamiliar constructions, and you'll also be able to add new ones to your web of practical knowledge more quickly. This is not just relevant language learning; it's also they key to success in most other conceptual subjects.
For those who are interested, this article by Scott Young is a good introduction to to the concept of holistic learning.
So is learning Japanese hard? Well, yes and no. Becoming fluent in any language is a lofty goal, and it is true that learning a language that is distant from your first language takes more time and effort than learning one that is closely related. The good news is that in absolute terms, spoken Japanese isn't terribly difficult to achieve functional fluency in.
Written Japanese is another story with its 2000+ Kanji (Chinese characters) required for full literacy, but as you'll soon see, the phonetic scripts Hiragana and Katakana (a total of 92 symbols) are more than adequate for our needs in the beginning stages.
At this point, there are multiple directions you can go. You'll need to learn a bit up front about pronunciation, writing, basic sentence structure, and politeness and formality, but you can go about it in whatever order suits you.
If you've come across this page from the outside web, you should go first to the Beginning Lessons top page for more information on how this section of the site is built.
That being said, if you'd like go ahead and follow my ordering, you should start with one of the following pages.
A Guide to Japanese Pronunciation – if you'd like to start with just a brief coverage of pronunciation and dive straight into grammar, expressions, and so on
Introduction to the Japanese Writing System – if you're interested in learning how to write in Japanese from the start (you can also read just the introduction and delay starting on Hiragana for a bit)