There is no easy way of learning another language. It’s a fine line between feeling stupid as you fumble through lessons, mispronouncing words and becoming elated when your brain starts to understand the new language. More often than not, it’s hard to believe that practice will indeed make perfect, so when looking for a Japanese expert I wanted to find someone who proved me wrong. Luckily I didn’t have to look too far, our friends at Cactus Language Training pointing us in the direction of Rinko Sakuma, a Japanese tutor living in Tokyo. An expert worth battling the time difference for, this is one lady with a story to share. Moving to America for her degree, Rinko had a limited understanding of the English language. After being thrown in at the deep end, Rinko became proficient and tells me it is this experience that led her to teaching – ‘I felt a great sense of personal achievement and was excited to know that I could communicate in another language. I wanted to share that feeling with students who wanted to learn Japanese.’ Humble, honest and happy to help, Rinko left me with the realisation that with a little determination, anything really is possible.
So Rinko, what is the best part of teaching Japanese?
The best part of my job has to be the interaction I have with my students. Being able to learn about their different cultures and backgrounds is very rewarding.
What is the most difficult part?
There is sometimes a big variation between the levels of students in group lessons. This means I need to adjust the pace and content of the lesson to get it right for all the students in my class. I want everybody to be able to come and join in with what is going on and enjoy learning the language.
In your experience, what is the most difficult thing for English students to pick up when it comes to learning Japanese?
Pronunciation can be one of the most difficult things for English students to learn, as the English language has a stress accent, whilst the Japanese has a pitch accent. The different tones and pitches can be difficult to grasp for some students, as sometimes the accent has a rising pitch and sometimes a falling pitch. Another tricky thing to learn is the writing system called Kanji, which has more than 2000 characters and takes a lot of time to memorise. However, you just need to do a little each day and one day you will be amazed when you realise how many you’ve learned.
For foreign students, is the Japanese language harder to speak or write?
It is definitely harder to write than speak. For example, when we are writing an official letter or a business letter, we will write completely differently to the way we speak. Furthermore, the writing system is more complex than spoken Japanese.
How long do you think it takes to become fluent in the language?
It completely depends on how much effort you put in. Normally, the estimated time needed for students to pass the highest level of the official Japanese Language Proficiency Test is 3100-4500 hours of study. This level is near native fluency so is very high. However, it is possible to learn enough Japanese to get by in everyday situations quite quickly.
What do you think attracts English students to the Japanese language?
Many of my students are learning Japanese because of an interest in Japanese culture, both contemporary and traditional. There are a lot of English people who are interested in anime, manga and pop culture; others are interested in our art, traditional music, history or food. Of course some students are fascinated by technology and all the futuristic machines we have in Japan. I think there are lots of opportunities for students to enjoy discovering new things, some of which are completely different to their own countries. This can be the motivation students need to learn and many will study for a long time to achieve their goals.
What would your advice be for someone wanting to learn the language?
I would strongly recommend learning another language, especially a language such as Japanese which is very different to your own. It can be so rewarding and enjoyable to learn something new. The Japanese language is very different to the English language, but it is not so hard to learn – at least from beginner to intermediate level. I would advise students concentrate at first on the grammar and vocabulary which is not difficult at the entry levels. Japanese pronunciation is easier that English, so do not be afraid to speak! Also, it is fun to learn the artistic writing system, so try to enjoy it and not treat it as a chore.
What are your top tips when it comes to retaining the language over here in the UK?
My top tips are to find someone you can speak Japanese with and practise with them a lot. If there isn’t anyone you can practise with, then watch a Japanese film or listen to Japanese music or radio. It is good to try and create a Japanese environment in your daily life, even if it is just for a few hours. Of course, besides these things, you need to study regularly. If you can, organise yourself to have a regular study routine; self study is a good option, or go to school and get support from a teacher. If it is difficult to find regular time to study, then take online lessons which are always more flexible and can be tailored to you.
Do you think it is easier to pick up other languages once you have learnt Japanese?
Yes, I believe so. Once you have learned how to pick up and memorise one language it’s much easier for you to learn other languages, as long as you enjoy learning.
If Rinko has left you wanting to find out more about learning Japanese, why not take a look at the courses listed on our site and find the option best suited to you? With plenty of options available, remember that practice makes perfect and take the plunge, you won’t regret it!