If you’ve ever studied a foreign language before, you probably know that sometimes it can be a bit of a drag. Textbooks aren’t exactly well-known for teaching you the most useful vocabulary for everyday life, and the presentation can sometimes be pretty boring (although there are exceptions!). For these reasons many people who have learned a second language encourage immersion learning – simply surrounding yourself in the language. But if you don’t live in a country where your target language is spoken, this can be something of a challenge. Or even if you do, any extra practice certainly helps! Learning a language in a way that is enjoyable to you is key. You’ll learn more quickly and remember more!
If you’re reading this article, I’m guessing you probably like video games at least a little bit. If you happen to like video games AND you are learning Japanese, you are in a great situation. If you can at least read hiragana and katakana (the two phonetic alphabets which look like this: あいうえお and アイウエオ) and have a small foundation in Japanese grammar, you can start playing games to practice Japanese. I think it might be easiest to jump into playing Japanese games after a year of study, but you don’t necessarily need to wait that long if you’re dying to try.
I’ve been learning Japanese for about 2 years now (mostly self taught on a busy schedule, so I’m not super advanced) and decided to play the Final Fantasy X/X-2 HD remake because I didn’t want to wait a whole, long month for the English version (plus the Japanese voice acting is a little less embarassing). Because the Final Fantasy games are targeted towards a more mature audience (say, teens and up) there’s no furigana (phonetic reading of the kanji) over the kanji (the Chinese characters you see in Japanese writing: 日本語) , which makes things a bit tricky, especially when you only know 400 characters or so. I was worried that I would be in way over my head with this. To my surprise, I ended up learning a lot of new kanji and around 300 new vocabulary words. Some of them, like the “otherworld” might not be so useful, but I did learn a lot of words that I still hear often enough in everyday life for them to stick. Sweet!
Inspired by my positive experience learning Japanese via video games, I’ve included some tips that I found worked for me, as well as some games that might be especially good for language study!
1.) Get some study tools. I know this might not sound like the most exciting piece of advice, but if you want to retain more of what you read and hear in a game, it’s never a bad idea to have some outside help. These are some of the tools I used.
Japanese for iOS (iOS- duh) $7.99: This app does come with a price tag, and the name doesn’t get any points for creativity, but I’ve found it to be indispensable in my Japanese learning, and not just when I’m playing games. If you hear a word you don’t know, you can look it up, check out the example sentences and then save it to a list which can then be used as flashcards. This. Is. Awesome. When I was playing Final Fantasy X, I’d look up some words, add them to a dedicated Final Fantasy X list I made and then save them for later. You don’t have to make the flashcards yourself, which saves A LOT of time. During breaks at work or while I was on the train or the bus, I’d use the app’s built-in review system to study the words I had found the previous evening. It also has a handwriting feature for you to draw in kanji if you don’t want to install another keyboard option on your phone.
Imiwa (iOS)) Free: If you don’t feel like shelling out 8 bucks for the Japanese app, Imiwa is a great free alternative. While I don’t find as many words with Imiwa as I would with Japanese, it’s still a really useful little dictionary.
Tae Kim’s Japanese Guide (Web version, Android, iOS) Free: Tae Kim has a very comprehensive guide to Japanese grammar that’s well organized and easy to understand. When I came across a grammar pattern I had forgotten or was unfamiliar with, I’d use Kim’s guide to sort me out. The guide is available for free on the internet, or you can use the Android and iOS app (more convenient if you’re camped out in front of your console).
2.) If you’re playing a voiced game, enable subtitles (in Japanese, of course). Enabling the subtitles allows you to pinpoint kanji and unknown words. This is especially helpful if you’re using a dictionary while you play!
3.) Remember to actually enjoy the game. Don’t obsessively pause your play through to look up unfamiliar words or kanji. If you can glean the meaning of the sentence through context, you don’t have to look up every single word. This will drag you down and you’ll get super bored super quickly.
4.) Start with a game you know and love. It might sound like cheating, but if you play a game you’re familiar with, you’ll know the basic framework of the story which will help you to understand the game through context.
5.) Use story-heavy games. Games that have a lot of dialogue or storytelling are the best. Of course JRPGs tend to have crazy storylines and use strange words that you would never say in real life. I mean, how often are you going to use the word “summoner” with your Japanese-speaking friends? Despite this, you’ll still find plenty of useful vocabulary that you won’t find in a textbook. And with RPGs or visual novels there are a lot of words.
With that said, here are some games that I found to be accessible as a beginner/intermediate Japanese learner.
Pokémon (GB/GBA/DS/3DS): You can easily buy Japanese versions of the Pokémon games online, and if you live in Japan you might even be able to get your hands on one of the old fashioned Gameboy or Gameboy Advance titles. Any one will do. Pokémon is a kid friendly franchise, so there’s no kanji (yay!). Of course, this is bad news if you’re trying to focus on Chinese characters, but if you’re just starting out in Japanese, Pokémon is the way to go. Japanese Pokémon names are a surprisingly fun way to learn new vocabulary because they tend to be puns or a combination of different Japanese words. It’s easy to associate these words based on the Pokémon’s characteristics. In Japanese, Charmander goes by ヒトカゲ/hitokage, or fire lizard. Boom! You now know two new words because you can easily remember that Charmander is, indeed, a fire lizard.
Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch (DS/PS3): If you feel like diving into a loooong JRPG experience in its original language, Ni no Kuni is a safe option. Kanji is present here, but the furigana is written on top of each character. This is perfect for both beginners and people who want to learn more kanji. Ni no Kuni is also voiced so it’s great for listening practice. Additionally Drippy (or Shizuku a la Nihongo) speaks the glorious Kansai dialect, which is fun if you want to branch away from the typical standard Tokyo dialect you are used to.
Golden Sun (GBA/DS): The Golden Sun series are fun little JRPGs that were first released in the era of the Gameboy Advance. Unlike Ni no Kuni, the Golden Sun games do not use furigana. They do, however, stick to simpler kanji. This is great practice for late beginner and intermediate learners – it gives you some independence and forces you to remember things you’ve already learned. The Golden Sun series is standard JRPG fare, but the game’s Djinn magic system makes things a little more interesting and the artwork is beautiful. I first played these games in English and they’re some of my favorite RPGs for the GBA. They aren’t as long as other JRPGs so the chance of getting fatigued and giving up on the game is much lower. The third entry in the series, Golden Sun: Dark Dawn (黄金の太陽 漆黒なる夜明け) can be found quite easily on Amazon but the GBA titles are no longer in print and will cost you unless you choose to use an emulated version.
Studying Japanese on its own can be highly rewarding, but it’s perfectly normal to get bored or burnt out on occasion. If you find yourself struggling, taking up a video game in Japanese might be the perfect way to get out of the rut you’re stuck in. It’s fun, and the challenge will encourage to keep studying.
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