Ask most fans of Japanese games, and you’ll probably find that they’ve at least flirted with the idea of learning the Japanese language. It’s not difficult to see why. For a fan of Japanese games, being able to understand the language carries countless benefits: one can bypass localisation and fan translation altogether and play games the moment they’re released in Japan, sample the literally thousands of titles that never see an English language release in any form, and enjoy earlier titles free of the trainwreck localisations and voice acting that were often par the course for the era.
The number of people who actually act on this idea, however, and who follow it over a number of years to the point where they can play and understand Japanese games, is sadly much smaller. Sometimes this is nothing more than the result of one not having the time to study, or other hobbies taking priority. Much as we would like to do everything, we each have a finite amount of time, and this demands that we prioritise, so it’s completely understandable that not everyone will have the time to learn a foreign language, especially for something as trivial as a hobby.
Just as often, though, people seem to quit before they’ve really started because of the fearsome reputation the language carries. You don’t need to look very far online to find someone who’ll tell you that learning Japanese to anything close to fluency is virtually impossible. People speak in hushed tones of the language’s three different scripts and seemingly backward grammar, and the US Department of State rates Japanese as the single most difficult language in the world, above both tough European languages like Finnish and Hungarian, and its similarly tricky distant cousins Korean and Mandarin Chinese. With this in mind, it’s hard to fault people for giving up on Japanese because of its reputation for difficulty. That being said, I find it frustrating that that reputation exists to begin with, and personally do everything I can to dismantle it and encourage people to give the language a go if they’re interested. Because here’s a little secret: I don’t believe that Japanese is actually that difficult.
Now don’t get me wrong, Japanese is not something that you can learn overnight. Any foreign language is a huge time investment, and with Japanese there’s the added challenge of a rather steep initial learning curve, as there is with any language that is too far removed from one’s native tongue. Yet for all its difficulties, there are plenty of areas in which Japanese is extremely logical and – dare I say it – actually fairly easy. And if you’re eager to learn, self-motivated, and willing to put in the hours, I sincerely believe that there’s no reason that you can’t in a few years be playing Japanese titles almost as comfortably as you play those in your native language now. Furthermore, I believe that a large chunk of that learning can be done passively through games. That one can learn not just for, but via Japanese games if they so desire.
Why do I believe these things? I’m a graduate of the school of learning Japanese via videogames myself. I started studying the language back in 2005. I use “studying” here in the very loosest sense of the word, for it was hardly anything so academic. I attended night classes once a week and occasionally dipped into grammar textbooks, but the bulk of my learning came from playing Japanese RPGs and looking up things I didn’t know until the language began to make sense. I started with the Japanese versions of games like Final Fantasy VII and Grandia, which I knew very well in English. And before I knew it, I had finished a handful of games that had never even been released in English. By late 2008 I could comfortably enjoy most games short of the vast mythology of Shin Megami Tensei and the technobabble of Xenosaga without a dictionary. And by the tail end of 2010 I had read a handful of Japanese novels, after which the Japanese used in videogames held little fear for me.
“But Japanese is impossible!” I hear you say. Surely I must be a resident of the country, half-Japanese, or in possession of savant-like language learning abilities. I’m afraid the answers there are no, no and no. I’ve spent hardly more than a month and a half total in Japan, and it was largely as an adult tourist after I learned the language. I’m more or less a British gal through and through, with my bloodline rarely getting any more exotic than a couple of ancient Irish and Swedish relatives, irrespective of how far one traces it back. And I’d struggle to even call myself talented at languages much less prodigious; I’m of very average intelligence, my memory is like a sieve, and my attention span i-
Oh look, there’s a pretty butterfly!
Jokes aside, my point is that I’m nothing particularly special, and that if I can learn Japanese, anyone can. In fact, if you’re smart about it and more focused than me, you can probably learn the language better and more quickly than I did. Of course just saying that to people is all well and good, but that doesn’t help them very much when faced with the daunting task of tackling an entirely new language. Hence this series of columns, where I’d like to do my best to help those interested in learning Japanese to play import games, as I did.
I have no intention of making these columns into a complete course in Japanese. Time constraints aside, I’m nothing close to a competent teacher, and even if I were, there are people out there who have done better and more concise jobs of free online Japanese courses than I could ever do. Still, this is a site about videogames, not a site about language learning. And what I do hope to do is look at what’s involved in learning Japanese for and through videogames, give a basic introduction to the language using specific examples from games, and offer more general advice on language learning that I have gleaned in the years since my initially rather haphazard foray into Japanese gaming for those who are heading down the same path.
Though planned in advance, this column was also very much motivated by comments on the forums here from those who were interested in learning Japanese, and I’m thus very open to suggestions about what you would like to see here. Have a question about Japanese? Feel free to ask! Would you like me to look at the Japanese used in a specific game? Go ahead and suggest it! I can’t promise I’ll respond to every comment nor take on board every suggestion, but I’ll do my best!