Japanese Grammar: How to Differentiate “To study” and “To learn” in Japanese
This is the continuation of our series of articles on Japanese grammar. We have talked about differentiating between Japanese words that appear similar but are different in usage. And this time we will be discussing the various verbs that are used to mean “to study” or “to learn.”
If you want to learn the difference between “suru” and “yaru,” click here!
Interested to learn about words for linking phrases and sentences? click here!
Do you know the difference between “iu,” “hanasu,” “shaberu,” and “kataru,”? If not click here!
Japanese Grammar: How to Differentiate “To Study” and “To Learn” in Japanese
Benkyou Suru (勉強する)
“Benkyou suru” is a “to study” verb, and is often the first of the “study/learn” verbs taught in Japanese textbooks. It is the verb most commonly used in contexts such as the following:
- “I’m studying right now” (今勉強しています, ima benkyou shiteimasu)
- “Because I have a test tomorrow, I have to study” (明日はテストがあるから、勉強しなくてはいけません, ashita wa test ga aru kara, benkyou shinakute wa ikemasen).
You can detach “benkyou” from “suru” and used as just a noun. One of the most commonly used phrases with “benkyou” as a noun is 勉強になりました！ (Benkyou ni narimashita!). It is similar to the English “I learned something new!”
This phrase does not necessarily be in the context of studying. It often carries a nuance of pleasure or gratitude when used after the person you are speaking to has explained how to do something. Or give out information that you did not know.
“Manabu” is one of the “to learn” verbs. It is one of the most useful of the “to learn” verbs because it is one of the most general.
It correlates closely to the English “to learn” in that it has very few restrictions in meaning. You can “manabu” at school or at home, by yourself or with other people. You can also use it in both scholarly and completely non-scholarly situations.
Kyou wa gakkou de, kaeru ni tsuite manabimashita (Today at school, we learned about frogs).
Nagai tabi o shite, ippai manade kimashita (I went on a long journey, and learned many things).
Like “manabu,” “narau” is also a “to learn” verb. The primary difference between “narau” and the two verbs above (“benkyou suru” and “manabu”) is that you cannot “narau” all by yourself. This is aside from the fact that “benkyou suru” has more of a nuance of “study” than “learn”.
The person you “narau” from does not have to be a teacher. And the context does not need to be school (you can “narau” from a friend at home, or you can “narau” from a boss or a coworker, etc).
But there must be a person in the position of “instructor” (however informal) for you to “narau.”
Tomodachi ni cupcake no tsukurikata o naraimashita (I learned how to make cupcakes from my friend).
You can also use “kara” rather than “ni” in this type of sentence. Doing so does not change the meaning:
Tomodachi kara cupcake no tsukurikata o naraimashita.
“Osowaru” is another “to learn” verb, and is fairly interchangeable with “narau.” Both of these verbs must have an instructor of some kind. And you cannot use it to describe studying or learning by oneself.
Tomodachi ni cupcake no tsukurikata o osowarimashita (I learned how to make cupcakes from my friend).
Similarly to “narau,” you can use “kara” in place of “ni” in this sentence without changing the meaning of the sentence.
“Osowaru” uses the same kanji as the verb “oshieru,” which is “to teach” or “to inform.” Bear in mind that although “osowaru” may seem as though it is the conjugation of “oshieru,” the two are actually separate verbs.
Gakushuu Suru (学習する)
The meaning of “gakushuu suru” is a sort of combination of “to learn” and “to study.” It can be a fairly straightforward “to study” similar to “benkyou suru,” and it can be a fairly vague “to learn” similar to “manabu.”
It is usable both when learning by oneself or from a teacher. “Gakushuu suru” is used with regard to both academic and non-academic learning.
One feature of “gakushuu suru” is that it is often used to describe learning acquired through gradual experience, or through trial and error.
Kanojo wa gakushuu shite, piano o jouzu ni hikeru you ni narimashita (She studied/practiced piano and became able to play skillfully).
“Gakushuu” as a noun is often attached to the name of a subject to mean “___ studies.”
Kawakawa Learning Studioというサイトは、日本語学習に役に立ちます。
Kawakawa Learning Studio toiu saito wa, nihongo gakushuu ni yaku ni tachimasu (The website called Kawakawa Learning Studio is helpful for studying/learning Japanese).
There are also several other useful words that include “gakushuu” as a noun, such as:
- 学習者 (gakushuusha, learner or student) and
- 学習机 (gakushuuzukue, studying desk).
Dokugaku Suru (独学する)
“Dokugaku suru” is the last and perhaps the most specific of our “study/learn” words. It means “alone learning” and it describes self-study.
“Dokugaku” is used as a “suru” verb, but is often used as a noun paired with the particle “de” plus “benkyou suru” instead.
Doitsugo no kurasu o uketa koto ga aru kedo, ima wa dokugaku shiteimasu (I have taken German classes, but right now I am doing self-study).
Doitsugo no kurasu o uketa koto ga aru kedo, ima wa dokugaku de benkyou shiteimasu (I have taken German classes, but right now I am studying by means of self-learning).
And that covers pretty much all of the common Japanese “study/learn” verbs!
One final note:
Most of these words presented in this article (including “gakushuu suru,” and with the exceptions of “benkyou suru” and “dokugaku suru”) are used to describe animals as well as people. So your dog can “narau” from you to sit on command!
If there are any verbs we did not include in this list that you are curious about usage for, or questions about Japanese grammar, leave us a comment and we’ll include them in a future article!