How to make mistakes

At any point in language learning, we have what I would call a “gut meter” based on patterns or word usages we’ve seen before and how often.

This “gut meter” is what allows us to avoid mistakes based on “feel” without having to consult hundreds of grammar rules and linguistic jargon. It is also constantly evolving. For example, a native English speaker looked at me like I was crazy when I pronounced “forehead” as “fore-id” simply because it was unfamiliar.

So if you feel like you’re stuck at a certain stage eg, 私は元気です, etc., I would say it might be a good time to experiment. Even 15 years in, I like to get out of my comfort zone and try to use words and patterns that I’m not too sure are correct. Being on the internet all the time is probably not a good influence either. LOL

The important thing to realize is that language is evolutionary so you don’t want to make up random nonsense out of thin air (unless I guess poetry?). So I try to base things on other stuff I’ve seen before but also get creative and have some fun with it. So it’s really important to keep that input flowing. Even in our native language, writing and speaking styles can change based on what we read and hear. Especially for language learners, input is essential for seeing and getting accustomed to a large number of new concepts and vocabulary to enrich a nascent repertoire (see what I did there?).

The last perhaps most important part is to get feedback so that you can keep your “gut meter” calibrated. You don’t want to get used to your own mistakes and weird grammar and start thinking that saying “私は” every time is normal. Basically a sanity check with the rest of the world is always a must.

  1. Get more input
  2. Experiment with input
  3. Get corrections

I’d like to say I’m some sort of Japanese Master and I never make mistakes but of course, only a delusional and arrogant fool would claim mastery of any language (unless you have a Nobel prize in literature, I guess).

We all make mistakes and in this case, it’s not a bad thing at all. So if you see me make a mistake, shoot me a comment cause I definitely ain’t embarrassed about them (just don’t bring up that パンツ vs pants episode…)

みんなで素敵なへんてこな文章を書きまくりましょうよ!決して自分の間違いの言い訳をしているわけじゃないんですからね!

What’s the best way to learn Japanese?

Q: What’s the best way to learn Japanese?
A: It depends.

Q: What’s the best way to learn Kanji?
A: The question is vague.

Q: How long until I can become fluent?
A: What does “fluent” mean? Also, it depends.

I get very short emails of this kind all the time and I usually don’t respond (sorry if this was you). But really, 99% of these generic, vague questions I can answer: “It depends”.

Triage

Learning a language is a big job. You’ve been practicing it and learning it for years and years from your parents and school all the way up to adulthood and beyond. Now that you’re starting ALL OVER AGAIN, it’s time to set priorities.

Even if you don’t set priorities, they will get set whether you like it or not. Of course like you (I hope), I strive to be natively proficient at everything but frankly, my writing skills can use work, a LOT of work. That’s because instead of writing in Japanese, I’m spending my time writing this blog post in English and mostly reading. Even though I can naively wish my writing would magically improve, it won’t happen unless I work on it (I’m not).

So if you need Japanese for your work, have family, interested in anime or whatever, you can easily break it down into one of four skills: listening, speaking, reading, writing. Once you have your priorities, you need to work on improving those skills by actually DOING IT.

Triage and focus on one of:

  1. listening
  2. reading
  3. speaking
  4. writing

However, when it comes to output skills, you need input otherwise you’re just making up random nonsense. So if you want to work on speaking, start by listening, reading before writing (about 2-4 times more input over output).

2-4X input over output:

    listening > speaking
    reading > writing

Finally, even if you triage (which will happen regardless), you should still work on the other areas. Our brains are a complex neural network and stimulating different parts of it helps retention. So if you spend all your time buried in a book, get out and talk to some people. If you’re just winging it in Japan, go home and do some reading.

Having a visual image of an object for example, a “vending machine” with the Kanji 自動販売機 “self moving sell machine” after hearing the word in conversations is the best way to cement it in long-term memory.

Maintain a good balance

Counter examples

Take these stereotypical examples and it’s easy to see where the problems lie because priorities were not in line with desired result.

1. Advanced Japanese student who can’t hold a conversation
Didn’t actually spend time outside classroom speaking to people.

2. Cannot speak with Japanese significant other
Always speaks in English with significant other. Has some excuse for not studying or reading.

3. Loves anime, can’t understand a word
English subtitles always on. Doesn’t spend time looking up the words. Doesn’t read manga or light novel with a dictionary.

4. Can’t write Kanji by hand (this is me and probably many Japanese people)
Always uses an electronic device to type. Rarely writes by hand.

5. Can’t write that novel in Japanese
Writes English blog post about learning priorities (yeah you know who you are).

6. Grammar is confusing
Didn’t read my book (shameless plug)

You can’t “learn” Kanji!!

One of my pet peeves is when somebody says the phrase “learn Kanji” such as, “I learned 100 Kanji in one week!” Kanji has way too many parts to simply say that you “learned” it. Saying you learned Kanji is like saying “I learned computer!” or “I learned a car!” What does that even mean? Let’s break down the concrete things you can learn with Kanji.

  1. Learn the meaning(s)
  2. Learn all the readings
  3. Learn the stroke order
  4. Learn how to write it

Now, let’s see how useful all these possibilities are for learning Japanese.

Learn the meaning – Useful

Learning the meaning of a Kanji is great if it’s a word by itself. For example, 「力」 is also a word meaning “strength” so the meaning directly translates into a word you can actually use. However, you can also argue that since 「力」 is also a word, you are essentially saying that you learned the meaning of a word. So in the end, this is really the same as learning words and doesn’t really count as “learning Kanji”.

Having said that, knowing the meaning of a Kanji is certainly very useful for simpler words and concepts. Kanji such as 「続」 or 「連」 will definitely help you remember words such as 接続、連続、and 連中. In conclusion, there’s nothing wrong with learning the meaning of a Kanji and something I would recommend.

Learn all the readings – Waste of time

To put it bluntly, learning all the readings of a Kanji is a complete waste of time. Yes, as a general rule of thumb, Kanji compounds use the on-reading while single characters use the kun-reading. However, this rule is nowhere consistent enough to make it more than a good guess (this is particularly true for 大 which we can’t seem to decide to read as おお or だい).

In addition, many Kanji have multiple readings kun or on-readings such as 怪力(かいりき or かいりょく?), 外道(げどう or がいどう?), or 家路(いえじ、うちじ、やじ?). Even if you guessed the correct reading, it might be voiced or shortened such as 活発 and 発展. Also, Kanji such as 生 have so many readings, it’s completely pointless to memorize them because you won’t know which one will be used in a word such as 芝生、生ビール、生粋、and 生涯. Not to mention the various words that only use the Kanji for the meaning while completely ignoring the reading. These words such as 仲人、素人、and お土産 are literally impossible to guess the readings for. At the end of the day, if you see a new word, you always want to look up the reading to make sure you learn the correct combination. In addition, the readings will be easier to remember in context of real words that you can actually use. Essentially, memorizing the readings by themselves is a complete waste of time.

Learn the stroke order – Essential at first

I’m not going to go into all the reasons why memorizing the correct stroke order is important. Without going into detail, of course you want to make sure to remember the correct stroke order. However, you’ll find that once you’ve mastered all the compounds, stroke order for most Kanji are consistent and easy enough that you no longer need to look it up. Every once in a while, you’ll run into odd Kanji such as 飛 or 鬱 where you’ll want to check the stroke order. So yes, definitely look up the stroke order and make sure you’re not developing any bad habits until… you don’t need to look them up anymore. That happens sooner that you might think.

Learn how to write it – Depends

This is going to be a controversial stance but nowadays, technology has progressed to the point where we never really have to write anything by hand anymore. Yes, it’s embarrassing if you’re fluent in a language but can’t write it by hand. This is an issue even for Japanese people.

By “writing Kanji”, I don’t mean just 2,000+ characters based on keywords. Unless you know which combination of Kanji to use for any given word with the correct okurigana, that is a useless parlor trick.

Being able to write any word in Kanji is an extremely time-consuming goal that may not have much practical value. If your daily life requires writing a lot by hand such as teaching Japanese, I feel that necessity and practice would naturally lend to better writing ability. In other words, if you don’t need it, it’s extremely difficult to keep up your memory of how to write Kanji by hand.

Conclusion – Learn words with Kanji!

I hate the phrase “learn Kanji” because almost every time someone says that, they don’t realize that they haven’t really learned anything that’s directly applicable to Japanese. Compare “learning Kanji” to learning a word. In order to learn a word, you obviously need to learn the definition, reading, Kanji, and any Okurigana if applicable. There is no question of what you learned and whether it’s useful for Japanese. And yet the idea of learning 2,000 Kanji is so attractive that we can’t seem to get away from that broadly undefined notion.

I don’t consider a Kanji as being learned until I know the most common words using that Kanji with the correct readings and can write those words randomly months after I initially memorized it. Unfortunately, given that standard, I probably know about 100-200 Kanji but hey, we all need goals, right?

Whatever cool method to “memorize Kanji” someone tries to peddle you, at the end of the day, you still have to do lots of reading and memorizing tons of vocabulary. This involves daily struggles starting with remembering that 「き」 in 「好き」 is okurigana and continuing with which Kanji to use for 真剣 vs 試験 vs 検査 vs 険しい, or constantly forgetting which kanji is for net vs rope (網/綱). You may be thinking, “Wow, 2,000 is a lot!” But don’t worry, it pales in comparison to the tens of thousands of words that an adult has memorized in her lifetime. And believe it or not, having a fixed set of characters with mnemonics and compounds actually helps with the much bigger job of learning vocabulary. Once you’ve learned a new word in seconds based on characters you already know, you’ll know what I mean. Trust me.

Sound more Japanese with interjections

When I tutor Japanese, I try to correct non-Japanese interjections whenever possible, the most common one being “umm”. Even the most skilled speakers including native speakers sometimes need to fill the air with fillers to buy a little time to collect their thoughts. But it doesn’t sound very Japanese to say, 「私の趣味は umm サッカーです」. I also suspect it taps your English part of the brain and makes it difficult to stop thinking in English. That’s why I gently remind my student to say 「ええと」 instead of “umm”. It’s a simple change that can instantly make your Japanese sound more natural. Have you been saying “umm” while speaking Japanese? If so, a quick tip from me, replace it with 「ええと」.

Here are some other interjections to practice:

  1. ええと – Err, umm
  2. あのう – Umm (usually to get somebody’s attention)
  3. あれ? – huh?
  4. えっ – eh?
  5. あっ! – Oh!, Ah!
  6. こら! – hey!
  7. うーん – hmm (wondering/pondering)
  8. へえ – really? (surprised/impressed)
  9. いたっ – ouch
  10. よいしょ – when exerting effort such as picking up something heavy

A gentle introduction to Kanji

Posted on my Facebook group (which in facebook’s ultimate wisdom requires you to login to view, lame).

Ok, let’s learn some Kanji today! You’ll see that it’s not so scary!

口【くち】 – mouth
Just picture an open mouth except um… more square. This box shows up ALL THE TIME in Kanji so MAKE SURE you get the correct stroke order.

五【ご】 – five
I guess it kind of looks like 5 with a line on the bottom

日【ひ】- sun; day
Similar to mouth, it’s a circle made into a square with a line in the middle to represent sun rays or something.

木【き】 – tree
Pretty much exactly how I would draw a tree (my drawing skills are terrible)

本【ほん】 – root; book
The Kanji itself means root. As you can see it’s a tree with a line on the trunk bottom to emphasis a root. It’s also the word for book as in “books are the root of all knowledge”. Quaint, ain’t it?

日本【に・ほん】 – Japan
Root of the sun, you know, the “Land of the Rising Sun”? It would be pretty hot over there if it were really the case.

言う【い・う】 – to say
言 is like four lines of dialogue or sound waves on top of a mouth (notice the first top stroke is slanted). Easy!

語【ご】 – language
Combine the radicals for “say”, “five” and “mouth” and you get the single character for language. To say with five mouths, I guess it kinda makes sense. It’s not a word by itself but you can just tack it onto countries to describe that country’s language such as スペイン語 = Spanish. Cool!

日本語【に・ほん・ご】 – Japanese (language)
Just tack on the character for language to the word for Japan to get Japanese as mentioned above.

Ok, let’s make a sentence with KANJI!

これは日本語でなんと言いますか?
What is this called in Japanese?
lit: As for this, what do you say in Japanese?

Replace これ with whatever you want to know the Japanese word for.

Hopefully this will give you an idea of how to make up mnemonics for memorizing Kanji.

MAKE SURE to practice after checking the stroke order which you can see here:
http://jisho.org/kanji/details/口五日木本言語

Japanese from Scratch 1.1.8 – y vowel and double consonant

If you’re new to this series, check out my previous posts under the “Japanese from Scratch” category.

I know I keep saying we’re done with Hiragana only to have another lesson with more sounds in Hiragana. Well, we’re almost done with learning all the sounds in Hiragana. In this lesson, we’re going to learn how to attach a /y/ vowel sound to another consonant and how to make a double consonant sound. Once more lesson after this, and we will be done with Hiragana!

Reading Practice

Here’s a list of random vocabulary you should read over for some simple reading practice. Once again, don’t worry about memorizing the definitions.

  1. いしゃ – doctor
  2. おちゃ – tea
  3. りょくちゃ – green tea
  4. にんじゃ – ninja
  5. しゅと – capital (city)
  6. しゃしん – photograph
  7. まっちゃ – (ceremonial) green tea
  8. しっぽ – tail
  9. じゃっかん – slightly
  10. ざっし – magazine
  11. もっと – more
  12. けっちゃく – conclusion

Japanese from Scratch 1.1.7 – Voiced sounds in Hiragana

If you’re new to this series, check out my previous posts under the “Japanese from Scratch” category.

So actually, while we learned all the Hiragana characters, there’s still more sounds to be learned using the same Hiragana characters we’ve already learned. In this lesson, we’re going to be learning the voiced consonants, which are indicated by two small lines or circle (only for /p/ sounds) in the upper-right of the character. There are five voiced consonant sounds: /g/, /z/, /d/, /b/, and /p/.

On computers or other digital displays, a small font can make it hard to distinguish between the lines and small circle (ex: 「ば/ぱ」) so make sure to increase the font if you’re having trouble seeing the circle. You can easily do this in your browser by using the “Zoom” functionality in the “View” menu.

Sounds to watch for

Learning to read and write these sounds is not very hard since you’ve already learned the characters. The pronunciations are pretty much what you would expect except for: 「じ」 and 「ぢ」. Both are pronounced “ji”. 「ぢ」 is very rarely used and normally only in voiced Kanji readings which we will learn about later so you’ll see 「じ」 more often than not for “ji”. 「づ」 is also usually only used as a voiced Kanji reading of 「つ」. It sounds almost identical to 「ず」 except for a slight press of the tongue to the roof of your mouth for a faint “d” sound at the beginning. It should sound like “dzu”.

Reading Practice

Here’s a list of random vocabulary you should read over for some simple reading practice. Once again, don’t worry about memorizing the definitions.

  1. ご – five
  2. ふじさん – Mt. Fuji
  3. はなぢ – nosebleed
  4. ひづけ – (calendar) date
  5. にぎりずし – nigiri sushi
  6. びじん – beautiful person
  7. ともだち – friend
  8. ざぶとん – cushion
  9. ぱん – bread
  10. じかん – time
  11. おんど – temperature
  12. つぎ – next
  13. かばん – bag
  14. おんがく – music
  15. ぴあの – piano
  16. うで – arm
  17. おび – belt
  18. かぐ – furniture
  19. ちず – map
  20. ぷりん – pudding
  21. かぞく – family
  22. みず – water
  23. おぺら – opera
  24. かぜ – wind
  25. かげ – shadow
  26. ぼく – me;myself;I (masculine)
  27. いべんと – event
  28. ばれんたいん – valentine
  29. ぽけもん – Pokemon

Also check out my page on Hiragana.
My Youtube channel: http://www.youtube.com/user/taekimjapanese

Japanese from Scratch 1.1.6 – y/w sounds

If you’re new to this series, check out my previous posts under the “Japanese from Scratch” category.

In this lesson, we will learn how to read and write the remaining Hiragana characters.

Sounds to watch for

The /r/ sound is notoriously difficult for English speakers. It is a hard sound between “r” and “l”. You want to make sure that you flick your tongue against the roof of your mouth, similar to how Spanish speakers roll their r’s.

The last few sounds don’t really follow the convention that we’re used to. There is no “yi”, “ye”, “wi”, “wu”, or “we” sounds.* And while 「を」 technically is a “wo” sound, it sounds exactly the same as “o” (お) in practice. As you’ll later learn, 「を」 is only used for grammatical purposes and not as part of regular words. Therefore, it will not show up in the reading practice below.

Finally, as the only consonant-only sound, 「ん」 is an curious anomaly. It comes after another sound to add a “n” or “m” consonant sound. I find that if you always pronounce it as “n”, nobody really notices the difference.

Reading Practice

Here’s a list of other vocab you should read over for some simple reading practice. Once again, don’t worry about memorizing the definitions.

  1. そら – sky
  2. やま – mountain
  3. しろ – white
  4. ゆき – snow
  5. よる – night
  6. りす – squirrel
  7. おふろ – bath
  8. わたし – me, myself, I
  9. さん – three
  10. よん – four
  11. ふとん – futon
  12. ゆめ – dream
  13. みらい – future
  14. むり – impossible
  15. みる – to see
  16. れんこん – lotus root (used in Japanese cooking)

Congratulations, you’ve learned all of Hiragana! We’re almost done with all the sounds in Japanese. Review the complete Hiragana chart here.
My Youtube channel: http://www.youtube.com/user/taekimjapanese

*Classical Japanese does have “wi” (ゐ) and “we” (ゑ) but they are no longer used.

Japanese from Scratch 1.1.5 – h/m sounds

If you’re new to this series, check out my previous posts under the “Japanese from Scratch” category.

In this lesson, we learn how to read and write the /h/ and /m/ consonant sounds in Hiragana.

Sounds to watch for

Most of the sounds in this section are exactly how you would expect except for 「ふ」, which is a weird sound somewhere between “who” and “fu”. Basically, your mouth when pronouncing “who” (as in “Doctor Who”) is an open circle while “fu” (as in “kung fu”) is completely closed with your top teeth touching your bottom lip. However, 「ふ」 lies directly in between the two sounds almost as if you’re trying to pronounce both at the same time. In practice, probably nobody will really notice anything wrong if you pronounce it as just “fu”. Incidentally, this is the sound for words like “Fuji” and “futon” so obviously we hear it as “fu” and not “hu”.

Reading Practice

Here’s a list of other vocab you should read over for some simple reading practice. Once again, don’t worry about memorizing the definitions.

  1. ふく – clothes
  2. はこ – box
  3. ほし – star
  4. ふた – lid
  5. へい – soldier
  6. ひく – to pull
  7. ふえ – flute
  8. へた – unskillful
  9. め – eye
  10. うみ – sea
  11. のむ – to drink
  12. きもの – kimono
  13. いま – now
  14. まめ – bean
  15. みみ – ear
  16. かも – duck

Japanese from Scratch 1.1.4 – t/n sounds

If you’re new to this series, check out my previous posts under the “Japanese from Scratch” category.

In this lesson, we learn how to write the /t/ and /n/ consonant sounds in Hiragana.

The best way to practice writing is to use plain old-fashion pen and paper. You can download the Hiragana practice writing sheet here:
http://japanese-lesson.com/characters/hiragana/hiragana_writing.html

Sounds to watch for

Japanese doesn’t necessarily follow how we would normally expect consonant and vowel combinations to sound like. While most are pronounced how you would expect, 「ち」 is actually pronounced “chi” (instead of “tee”). Another very tricky sound for English speaker is 「つ」 which is a sound that really has no equivalent in English. To pronounce 「つ」 (“tsu”), try forming an “o” with your mouth as if you’re pronouncing “sue” and add a hard “t” sound at the start of the sound by touching your tongue to the back of your teeth.

It is often difficult at first to distinguish between 「す」 and 「つ」. The word for “moon” and the adjective for liking something is often used as an example. I got the sample audio files below from forvo.com. Can you notice the hard “t” sound that’s only in the first clip?

Reading Practice

Admittedly, learning random vocabulary is not very useful but it is good reading practice so do read over the list below but don’t worry about memorizing the definitions.

  1. いち – one
  2. て – hand
  3. たつ – to stand
  4. たこ – octopus
  5. かつ – to win
  6. に – two
  7. なに – what
  8. ぬの – fabric
  9. すな – sand
  10. おかね – money
  11. しぬ – to die
  12. ぬく – to extract, to pull out