To learn to speak Japanese... or not? It's a good question and one you're probably asking yourself as you plan your holiday to Japan. Will you be able to use the language of your home country? Is English ok? Will you be able to cope without any Japanese or will you need some survival Japanese phrases to get you through? How can you learn basic Japanese that's going to help you on your travels?
Well technically you don't need to learn to speak Japanese to have a good time in Tokyo. But it definitely helps if you can master just a few words and expressions for everyday use. If you're going to visit some of the more remote areas in Japan then this advantage gets even bigger.
In Tokyo things like train signs are available in English as well as Japanese, Korean and Chinese. When you start heading out to the countryside, however, access to English and other languages gets less and less and the probability of you needing to ask how to get somewhere goes up.
Regardless of whether you're in Tokyo or in the back of beyond in Japan though, having just a little Japanese under your belt will give you the confidence to get out there and do the things you want to do. You'll know that if you get stuck you have a way to ask for help! Imagine needing to go the toilet and either a) not being able to see where they are or b) not being able to figure out which is the mens or ladies as the signs are all in kanji. All you need is some survival Japanese and you'll be able to avoid the discomfort of these kinds of situations.
When you hear it for the first time, Japanese can sound pretty difficult but it's really not that hard. There are some basic questions and phrases that will help you get the answers you need... even if the answer has to be in gesture form : ) All you need to do is get used to saying the words before you get here. That's the most important thing. Once you've familiarized yourself with the phrases it becomes much easier to actually use them when you're here.
How well do we speak Japanese? Honestly we're not the best students. Our jobs are all in English and our main areas of study mean that we use English... there's little time left to study Japanese. We call our Japanese functional. What do we mean by that? We know the language we need for our everyday life. Is it enough? We'd like to be more fluent but until the day when we can spend more time doing the things we want to do and less time earning money to pay the bills, this is the way it is.
Well there are so many travel books available it's confusing trying to pick one that's really going to do what you need it to do. You want to find the ones that will help you learn to speak Japanese that you'll need on your travels.
A good phrasebook and dictionary are essential items for communicating when you travel overseas. But you don't want to buy the phrasebook that tells you how to say things like, "Coud you tell me where the local factory is?" and "My second cousin is a deep sea diver!"
With the above in mind, these are the books that we've used, and still use sometimes, to help us learn to speak Japanese.
My favourite Japanese phrasebook that I personally think has the most useful language for travellers to Japan is 15-Minute Japanese: Learn Japanese in Just 15 Minutes a Day (Eyewitness Travel 15-Minute Language Packs). It's a book I have myself and I still carry with me for times when my memory draws a blank. It's got a really easy to follow contents guide and the sections are both practical and necessary for every day situations.
It's a handy size and will slip into pockets and handbags without too much hassle. You can also order it either with or without a CD so you can get used to hearing the language before you arrive if you want. We recommend the CD option so that the language doesn't all sound so alien the first time you step off the plane!
For a dictionary, you need one that translates English to Japanese and Japanese to English. There will be times when you need to both. I like the Periplus Pocket Japanese Dictionary: Japanese-English English-Japanese Second Edition (Periplus Language).
Again, this book is a handy size so it's not going to take up loads of room in your baggage. Of course, being pocket size, it's not a fully comprehensive dictionary but then you don't need that if you're only going to be using it for your travel in Japan. If you're looking at something more long term to help you learn to speak Japanese, then our recommendations would change. You can see them over on our learn Japanese online page.
Want a quick look at some of the words you'll meet in Japan? Visit our Japanese word list page and get the very basics under your belt now.
Wouldn't you love to find a guidebook that is just for first-time visitors to Tokyo. Find those all important things that only a local would know like: what to expect at the airport, what Japanese is most useful for a traveler to know, what packing tips are specific for Tokyo, what should you do in an emergency, the basics of using the trains, and much more. Head over to Taming Tokyo today and judge for yourself.
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