三(さん)

Definition: three
Kun-yomi: みっ・つ
On-yomi: サン

Overview

This Kanji thing is a cinch! At this rate, we’ll learn everything in no time, right guys?

wink wink

Examples

Example 1

  1. 三 【さん】 – three
  2. 漢字 【かん・じ】(n) – Kanji
  3. 全然 【ぜん・ぜん】 (adv) – not at all (when used with negative)
  4. 難しい 【むずか・しい】 (i-adj) – difficult
  1. の漢字も全然難しくない!
    さんかんじぜんぜん むずかしくない!

    (The) Kanji for “three” is also not hard at all!

Example 2

In this next example, 「姦しい」 is not very commonly used (better to memorize 「やかましい」 or 「騒がしい」). However, the proverb is interesting in terms of the actual Kanji, I just had to include it here.

  1. 女 【おんな】(n) – woman
  2. 三人 【さん・にん】(counter) – 3 people
  3. 寄る 【よ・る】(u-verb) – to approach; to gather
  4. 姦しい 【かしま・しい】(i-adj) – noisy
  5. 死ぬ 【し・ぬ】(u-verb) – to die
  6. ことわざ – proverb
  7. 勉強 【べん・きょう】(n) – study
  8. する (exception) – to do
A: 女三人寄れば姦しい。
A: おんな さんにん ればかしましい。

A: If 3 women gather, (it) gets noisy.

B: 死にたいのかしら?
B: にたいのかしら?

B: Do (you) want to die?

A: ことわざを勉強してるだけだよ!
A: ことわざをべんきょうしてるだけだよ!

A: (I’m) just studying proverbs!

Example 3

  1. 三角 【さん・かく】(n) – triangle
  2. 関係 【かん・けい】(n) – relationship
  3. いい (i-adj) – good
  4. うん – yes (casual)
  5. 多分 【た・ぶん】 – probably; maybe
  6. 今 【いま】 – now
  7. 想像 【そう・ぞう】(n) – imagination
  8. する (exception) – to do
  9. 全然 【ぜん・ぜん】(adv) – not at all (when used with negative)
  10. 違う 【ちが・う】(u-verb) – to be different
  11. かわいい (i-adj) – cute
  12. 女の子 【おんな・の・こ】 – girl
  13. 囲む 【かこ・む】(u-verb) – to surround, to enclose
  14. やっぱり – as expected (casual)
  15. 夢 【ゆめ】(n) – dream
  16. ある (u-verb) – to exist (inanimate)
A: 三角関係って、なんかいいですよね。
A: さんかく かんけいって、なんかいいですよね。

A: Something about love-triangle, isn’t (it) nice?

B: うん、多分、今想像してるのは、全然違うから。
B: うん、たぶんいま そうぞうしてるのは、ぜんぜん ちがうから。

B: Yeah, (what you’re) probably imagining right now is totally wrong so…

A: かわいい女の子二人に囲まれてですね。
A: かわいいおんな ふたりかこまれてですね。

A: (You’re) surrounded by two cute girls and then, right?

A: やっぱり。まっ、夢があっていいんじゃない?
A: やっぱり。まっ、ゆめがあっていいんじゃない?

B: I knew it. Well, (I guess it’s) good to have dreams.

Next Suggestions

  1. 二(に)
  2. 四(よん)
  3. 口(くち)
  4. 八(はち)

Debunking the Japanese sentence order myth

Originally Published: 2005/2/16

I’ve mentioned this before, but I’d like to repeat myself here to hopefully help the debunking of the age-old Japanese sentence order myth.

Many of you have probably heard this before but to review, here’s how the myth goes.

An English sentence must consist of at least a subject, verb, and object in that order. However, in Japanese, the order must be subject, object, then verb.

Myth
English sentence order = [Subject] [Verb] [Object]
Japanese sentence order = [Subject] [Object] [Verb]

I can debunk this myth is 2 seconds. Let’s see, is this sentence correct?

1)林檎食べた。
-Apple I ate.

Why, yes it is. And look, the object appears to come before the subject. Boy, that was easy.

There are several misleading things about this myth besides the fact that it’s just plain incorrect. First of all, as I’ve partially explained in a previous post, Japanese doesn’t require or even have anything equivalent to the English subject. In addition, you only need a verb to make a complete thought in Japanese.

1)食べた
-Ate.

What gets tricky is that the state-of-being verb (the English verb “to be”) can be implicitly implied by a noun or adjective. That’s because Japanese doesn’t have an actual verb for the state-of-being.

1)それ残念
-That [is] unfortunate.

Why Japanese doesn’t have strict sentence order

In Japanese, we have things called particles that come after almost every word in the sentence to identify exactly what role that word is playing. That means that no matter where the word is in the sentence, we’ll know whether it’s an object, topic, identifier, target, context, etc.. The only reason sentence order is so strict in English is because without clear rules of ordering, we won’t have any idea which word is supposed to play which role.

In English, sentence order changes the meaning of the sentence.
1) Dog saw Tree.
2)Tree saw Dog.

In Japanese, because of particles, no matter how you move things around, the dog is still the topic and the tree is still the object.
1) Dog[topic particle] tree[object particle] saw. = Dog saw tree.
2) Tree[object particle] dog[topic particle] saw. = Dog saw tree.

The relative clause

In order to really understand Japanese sentence structure, you need to break things down into relative clauses. A relative clause is the smallest type of sentence that expresses a complete thought. As mentioned previously, in order to express a complete thought, you must have a verb or a noun/adjective that is a state-of-being. Now, the only thing you have to remember is that everything that applies to that verb must come before it. And that each relative clause can have only one such verb.

The verb (or state-of-being) must come at the very end of the relative clause

1)見た。 – The dog saw tree.
2)見た。 – The dog saw tree.

1)学生です。 – I am student.
2)学生です。 – The student is me.

That’s it!

Surprisingly, that’s really the only thing you have to worry about in terms of Japanese sentence ordering. It’s one of the great benefits of particles actually because sentence order no longer defines a word’s function.

All of the following sentences are correct.
1)いつも図書館勉強する
2)いつも図書館勉強する
3)図書館いつも勉強する

It is also important to realize that the farther away you get from the main verb, the more extraneous the information becomes. In sentence 1, the sentence is mostly centered on the fact that the studying is done at the library while in sentence 3, the focus is on the fact that he always studies.

In order to make more complicated sentences, you can take separate relative clauses and combine them with either with conjunctions or by direct noun modifications. But as long as the sentence structure in each separate relative clause is correct, there should be no problems with sentence ordering no matter how complicated and long the sentence is.

Addendum

(added 2017/10/19)

I’m sure linguistic experts will claim I’m totally wrong and SOV is a classification, word order preference, or whatever you want to call it and doesn’t technically require an “S” or “O”. My original point in the article (though admittedly I was younger and more dramatic) is that this classification doesn’t help SLA and in fact creates a lot of confusion and common mistakes for beginners learning Japanese as a second language.

It’s a BIG stretch to say there’s some equivalence to English as an SVO language. In English, saying “Ball boy hits” is grammatically incorrect. On the other hand, in Japanese, not only are both “Ball boy hits” and “Boy ball hits” grammatically correct, they have the same meaning if the particles remain unchanged regardless of order. There’s a fundamental difference in the two languages that is not accurately portrayed by this misleading classification.

Furthermore, I believe the whole viewpoint of SOV vs SVO linguistically is very western-centric and not a good way to describe Japanese. If you want to prove me wrong with a mathematical proof in the style of formal language theory, that’s one thing but this is far more subjective and to say one is “wrong” because it doesn’t adhere to an established curriculum is short-sighted. I highly doubt linguistics created in a vacuum purely for Japanese would have taken the same approach here.

的: A very useful ally

Originally Published: 2005/2/6

While the word 「てき」 usually means “enemy”, that’s not the word we’re talking about today. The word I’m going to talk about uses a completely different Kanji from 「敵」 meaning “enemy” and is in fact a very useful and helpful ally.

If you’ve studied Japanese for a while, you’re bound to have encountered the 「的」 kanji. While this kanji by itself is read as 「まと」 and means a “target”, its usefulness really shines as a noun suffix. This kanji can be attached to countless nouns to easily change them to a na-adjective. In this case, you read the kanji as 「てき」 and you’ll see it all over the place: 一般的、圧倒的、感動的、習慣的、技術的、基本的、and on and on.

Let’s take the word 「感動」 meaning “deep emotion” and say we want to say the following sentence.

That movie was very moving.

Unfortunately, since 「感動」 is a noun, we can’t just say, 「あの映画はとても感動」 because the movie is not a deep emotion. So you’re going to have to say something complicated like the following:

あの映画を見て、感動した。
I saw that movie and I was moved.

But wait! We can just use 「的」 to make 「感動」 into an adjective!

あの映画は感動的だった。
That movie was very moving.

あれは感動的な映画だった。
That was a very moving movie.

What could be argued as even more useful is if you use the 「に」 target particle with 「的」, you can make the noun into an adverb! (Actually, this applies to all na-adjectives)

それは技術的無理です。
That’s technically impossible.

朝ご飯は習慣的毎朝食べます。
I customarily eat breakfast every morning.

In fact, without 「的」 there are just so many things that can’t be expressed. I would definitely put this kanji on my top 100 list.

アメリカでは、車で通勤するのが一般的だ。
In America, people generally commute by car.

客観的な視点から考えたほうがいい。
It’s better to think of it from a objective viewpoint.

二(に)

Definition: two
Kun-yomi: ふた・つ
On-yomi: ニ

Overview

Just two horizontal lines to mean “two”. Awesome, Kanji is so logical. You got this!

This Kanji also happens to look exactly like the Katakana 「ニ」, which is also how it’s read! I don’t know if that’s helpful or confusing.

If we’re talking about 「に」, how could I forget the Knights who say Ni! I assume not the same word but at least it sounds the same!

Examples

Example 1

  1. 二 【に】 – two
  2. 漢字 【かん・じ】(n) – Kanji
  3. 簡単 【かん・たん】 (na-adj) – easy
  1. の漢字も簡単!
    かんじかんたん

    (The) Kanji for “two” is also easy!

Example 2

  1. 一石 【いっ・せき】 (counter) – 1 stone
  2. 二鳥 【に・ちょう】 (counter) – 2 birds
  3. それ – that
  4. 動物 【どう・ぶつ】(n) – animal
  5. 虐待 【ぎゃく・たい】(n) – abuse, cruelty
  6. ことわざ (n) – proverb
A: 二鳥だ。
A: いっせき にちょうだ。

A: One stone, two birds. (Kill two birds with one stone.)

B: それ、動物虐待だよ。
B: それ、どうぶつ ぎゃくたいだよ。

B: That’s animal abuse.

A: ことわざだよ!
A: (It’s) a proverb!

Example 3

  1. 二日酔い 【ふつか・よい】(n) – hangover
  2. 頭 【あたま】(n) – head
  3. ガンガン – pounding (headache); large sound
  4. する (exception) – to do
  5. 二次会 【に・じ・かい】(n) – second party (afterparty)
  6. 行く 【い・く】 (u-verb) – to go
  7. そう – (things are) that way
  8. なる (u-verb) – to become
  9. ある (u-verb) – to exist (inanimate)
  10. 駄目 【だ・め】 (na-adj) – no good
  11. こりゃ – this is (slang of これは)
A: 二日酔いで頭がガンガンするよ。
A: ふつか あたまがガンガンするよ。

A: (My) head is pounding from (a) hangover.

B: 二次会に行くからそうなるのよ。
B: にじかいくからそうなるのよ。

B: (It) ends up that way because (you) went to the after-party.

B: 二次会、あったっけ?
B: にじかい、あったっけ?

B: Was there (an) after-party?

A: だめだこりゃ
A: This is no good.

In case you’re not familiar with the expression 「だめだこりゃ」, check out the video below.
Sorry, has nothing to do with Kanji!

Next Suggestions

  1. 一(いち)
  2. 三(さん)
  3. 口(くち)

Is there a subject in Japanese grammar?

Originally published: 2007/9/3

One of my biggest pet peeves in the field of Japanese as a second language is the 「が」 particle being called the “subject particle”. This misleading terminology comes from my second biggest pet peeve, which is educators trying to artificially tie Japanese into English language concepts. I think one of the problems is that Japanese teachers, especially native speakers, really don’t understand their own language from a conceptual point-of-view and more importantly how it logically differs from English.

I can illustrate how stupid it is to call 「が」 the subject particle in the following simple dialogue.

Aさん: 原宿に行こうよ。
Bさん: なんで?
Aさん: クレープが食べたいから。

Looking at the last sentence, if 「クレープが」 is indeed marking crepe as the subject, we can only assume that Aさん wants to go to Harajuku because the crepe wants to eat. But that doesn’t make any sense! In reality, 「クレープ」 here is supposed to be the object of the sentence, the subject being Aさん, who wants to eat crepe.

The most simple conclusion, if you insist on thinking in English, is that the 「が」 particle can either represent the subject or the object of the sentence. But why would you use the same particle to represent something completely so different as the subject and the object? And to make things even worse, consider the following dialogue.

Aさん:何か食べようよ。
Bさん:クレープはどう?
Aさん:クレープはあまり食べたくないな。

If you throw in the fact that the 「は」 can also be the subject OR the object, it’s no wonder that Japanese particles seem so confusing! It’s natural that students can never figure out the difference between 「は」 and 「が」 because it seems that either can be used to indicate the same things in English. This is where Japanese teachers should really beat into their heads that the concepts they’re looking for such as the subject does not exist in Japanese.

The subject traditionally indicates who or what is doing the verb in the sentence but 「は」 only indicates the topic. For example, 「今日は忙しい」 doesn’t mean that “Today is busy”, it means “As for today, [I, he, she, we, they] is/are busy.” Only when we translate into English are we forced to create the subject by context. In this case, the translation might be “I’m busy today.”

The 「が」 particle also does not indicate the subject, it only identifies the unknown. For example, 「クレープが食べたいから。」 is identifying that it’s because crepe is the thing that he/she/we/they wants to eat. In English, the subject would be “it” as in, “It’s because I want to eat crepe”. But because Japanese doesn’t even have a subject, there is no need for such a construction.

This is why I’ve been calling the 「が」 particle the “identifier particle” for the longest time, and you should too because that’s what it does. There is no such thing as a subject in Japanese so it makes no sense to have a “subject” particle. (Please feel free to do the double quote sign while saying “subject” in “subject particle”.)

For further reading, I highly suggest this blog post: 「日本語に主語はあるのか?」.

What’s the difference between 「は」 and 「が」?

Originally published: 2005/2/5

Since this is my first post, I figured I would start from the very basics. While the word “basic” has a connotation of meaning “easy” (eg Visual Basic), this is not the case for Japanese. The most basic ideas in Japanese are the hardest to grasp because the fundamental differences between English and Japanese leaves out any way to actually express the idea in English. Unless you speak a similar language like Korean *eh hem*, you’re going to have to wrestle with a concept that doesn’t even exist in your native language. One such example is the idea of particles and especially the particles 「は」 and 「が」.

What’s the difference between 「は」 and 「が」?

I wish I had a nickel for every time I heard the question, “What is the difference between the 「は」 and 「が」 particle?” This question has successfully managed to baffle countless generations of people learning Japanese. This has been followed by countless number of equally confusing (and sometimes wrong) explanations involving a great deal of mumbo-jumbo such as contrast, emphasis, subordinate clauses, and voodoo magic. However, with my genius, I was able to provide a complete explanation in one small sentence.

「は」 and 「が」 have different meanings.

I think the more appropriate question would be, “What isn’t different about 「は」 and 「が」?” You may be thinking, “But in English, they both identify the subject of the sentence.” Ahh, English. Isn’t English that language that can’t even express the very concept of 「は」 and 「が」? Well, no wonder it looks the same in that language. That’s like a red-green color-blind person holding a red and green sheet of paper and saying, “Hey, isn’t this the same color?”

Japanese: A language of context

Since 「は」 and 「が」 mean totally different things, the only thing we need to do in order to identify their differences is to fully understand what they actually mean and why they exist. The first thing we need to realize is that a Japanese sentence is not required to have a subject. You can just say, “Hit ball” and you’re good to go. So how do you know what the heck everybody is talking about?

Well, there are several ways and they all involve making assumptions from context. For example, if I suddenly asked you, “Ate lunch?” you assume I’m asking if you ate lunch because I’m surely not talking about anyone else. Therefore, you answer, “Ate lunch.” Then I assume you are talking about yourself since I just asked you the question and so I now know that you ate lunch. However, if we happened to be talking about Alice when I asked you the question, you will likely assume that I’m asking if Alice ate lunch because that’s who we were talking about.

Ok, so what does 「は」 mean?

If we take a language like Japanese where the subject is so heavily based on context, we need to be able to identify a couple things. While making assumptions from context will work for simple question and answer sessions, anything more complicated will soon become a mess as everybody starts to lose track of who or what they’re talking about. Therefore, we need to be able to tell the listener when we want to change the current topic to say, “Hey, I’m going to talk about this now. So don’t assume I’m still talking about the old thing.” This is especially important when you strike up a new conversation and you need to tell the listener what you’re talking about. This is what the 「は」 particle does; it introduces a different topic from the current one. For that reason, it is also referred to as the ‘topic particle’.

Lets take the previous example where I wanted to ask you if you ate. The conversation might look like the following:

Me) 食べた? – Did you eat?
You) 食べた。 – I ate.

Now, what if I wanted to ask you if Alice ate? Then I need to use the 「は」 particle to indicate that I’m talking about Alice. Otherwise, you would just assume I’m talking about you.

Me) アリス食べた? – Did Alice eat?
You) 食べた。 – She ate.

Notice how once I establish Alice as the new topic, we can continue to assume that we are talking about her until someone changes the topic.

So what does 「が」 mean then?

Ok, so we can introduce a new topic using the 「は」 particle. But what if we don’t know what the topic is? What if I wanted to ask, “Who ate the chicken?” What I need is some kind of identifier because I don’t know who ate the chicken. If I used the 「は」 particle, the question would become, “Did who eat the chicken?” and that doesn’t make any sense because “who” is not an actual person.

This is where the 「が」 particle comes into play. It is also referred to as the subject particle but I hate that name since it means something completely different in English grammar. Instead, I move to call it the identifier particle because it identifies something unknown.

The conversation about the chicken-eater culprit might go something like this:

Me) チキン食べた? – Who ate the chicken?
You) アリス食べた。 – Alice [is the one who] ate it.

Notice that the 「が」 particle is used twice because you need to identify who ate the chicken in the answer. You can’t say 「アリス食べた。」 because we’re not talking about Alice. We’re trying to identify the unknown person that ate the chicken.

Conclusion

Now, that I’ve clearly explained what 「は」 and 「が」 means, I hope this will finally clear up that question that has been haunting your mind. Remember, if you are talking about something new, use 「は」. If you are trying to identify something unknown, use 「が」. Simple, huh?

Learning new words

Learning Japanese words

Learning the definitions of Japanese words is pretty straight-forward if you know how to find the Kanji and know how to use an online or electronic Japanese-English vocabulary as we saw in a previous tutorial. But can you really say you learned what the word means? Well, you can probably safely say you’ve learned what the word means in the context that you’re learning it in.

For example, if you look up the word 「乗る」 using let’s say jisho.org, you get this.

1: to get on; to ride in; to board; to mount; to get up on; (Godan verb with ru ending)
2: to spread (paints); to be taken in; (Godan verb with ru ending)
3: to share in; to join; to feel like doing; to be mentioned in; to be in harmony with

This verb is pretty straight-forward if you were looking it up in a context like the sentence below.

Example
バスに乗る. – Ride bus.

It’s pretty obvious that the verb means “to ride” here. But it’s a bit tougher to figure out a sentence like the one below without more context.

Example
話に乗る。 – Ride story.

This is just a simple example of how it’s important to learn new words in context. If you were reading the sentence in context, you could probably figure out that 「話に乗る」 means to get on board with an idea or plan.

A great resource for finding phrases is http://www.alc.co.jp/. In this example, it has a direct translation of the whole phrase 「話に乗る」 along with example sentences.

* 話に乗る
bite
* 君がこれに加わるなら(この話に乗るなら)、すぐに話をしなければならない。
If you’re coming in on this, we’ve gotta start talking right now.
* (~する)話に乗る
jump at the chance [opportunity] (to)
* ~の話に乗る
go along with

Obviously, 「話に乗る」 doesn’t mean “bite” in the literal sense of the word, so you should always read example sentences to see the full context.

Translating English words

When you start practicing your Japanese, you will often think of a word or concept that you don’t know how to express in Japanese. Unfortunately, it’s a lot trickier to find the correct Japanese for an English phrase than it is to learn the definition of a given Japanese word.

Before you try anything, do NOT try to translate very abstract or grammatical words such as “like”, “as”, and “for”. You should probably be asking a Japanese speaker how to express complete sentences and thoughts, not abstract words that likely won’t translate very well or not at all. However, if you need to find a translation for concrete, simple words like “car” or “biology”, you could try an English-Japanese dictionary.

First of all, do NOT use any dictionaries that only have Japanese-English (和英) dictionaries such as the WWWJDIC or jisho.org to look up English words. These dictionaries merely give you the illusion of an English-Japanese dictionary by searching within the English definitions of Japanese words often with disastrous results. It simply does NOT work.

Instead, use sites that have English-Japanese (英和) dictionaries like alc (http://www.alc.co.jp) or Yahoo! (http://dic.yahoo.co.jp/). If you search for “eat”, both dictionaries return 「食べる」 as you would expect. Japanese-English dictionaries return entries that I won’t even bother to reproduce here.

Personally, I prefer alc, as you can search whole phrases and idioms such as “eat my hat” and often get good results.

alc example

Different Kanji for the same word

You will often come upon a Kanji that has the exact same reading and an almost identical meaning to other similar words. Examples of this include the various ways you can write the verb “to see” which is 「みる」. This word can be written in 5 different Kanji each with a slight difference in meaning.

  1. 見る 【み・る】 – to see
  2. 看る 【み・る】 – to see (as in to nurse)
  3. 観る 【み・る】 – to watch
  4. 視る 【み・る】 – to see (to investigate)
  5. 診る 【み・る】 – to see (to diagnose)

For words that can be written with multiple Kanji, you can use the various dictionaries and example sentences to learn when to use which. Your Japanese input method editor can also be an excellent tool as the ones for OS X and Windows explain the differences between the different version when you select the Kanji.

os x ime screenshot

windows ime screensho

Effective writing practice

Why write?

The main advantage of writing things out is you have a lot more time and resources to compose your thoughts as opposed to the rapid exchange of interactive conversations. In addition, writing things by hand gives you muscle memory as an additional memory aid.

The most important thing to remember with your own writing as well as all other aspects of language acquisition is to quickly get corrections in order to avoid falling into bad habits. In addition, it’s vitally important that you actually implement the corrections yourself and not just throw aside a piece of paper with corrections on it.

In the past, it’s been fairly difficult to find Japanese speakers to correct your writing. Fortunately, there is now a social networking site built exclusively for this purpose with an excellent community: Lang-8.

I won’t go into much detail of how to use the site since they have their own video for the purpose right on the front page.

Writing topics

In general, I would consider writing to be the last portion of the four parts of language acquisition: listening, speaking, reading, writing. That’s because writing itself can be considered to be an art that goes much beyond the practical necessities of communicating in a foreign language. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t jump in to writing fairly early in the learning process. The important thing is to set realistic goals and distinguish between simple writing and composition.

Therefore, I would suggest writing about topics that are conversation-like. For example, contacting a friend in order to ask how he/she is doing is not only great writing practice but also becomes an opportunity to perfect your speaking skills as well. As a general guideline, at least in the beginning, I would write about things that could likely come up in a conversation. Combine that with actually talking about it with your conversation partner for a powerful learning combination.

Below are just a sample of possible writing topics. The Complete Guide to Japanese also has writing suggestions at the end of each chapter.

  1. What I did last summer.
  2. What I do on most days.
  3. Why I want to learn Japanese.
  4. What I want to do if/when I go to Japan.
  5. Interesting people I know and why they’re interesting.

Developing conversation skills

It may seem obvious that one of the best ways to improve conversation skill is by practicing conversation and yet it’s the one activity that usually gets the least amount of attention. There are many reasons why people neglect to learn to speak Japanese by actually speaking Japanese including shyness, embarrassment, and the practical difficulty in creating opportunities for practicing Japanese.

Here, we will look at strategies and techniques for creating such opportunities and having productive conversation sessions.

Finding Conversation Partners

Taking a Japanese class alone is woefully inadequate for providing the many hours of practice you need in order to become proficient in speaking Japanese. Most of the already short time in class is taken up by lecturing and listening to other classmates answer simple questions without any real interactive conversation or discussion.

On the other hand, most of us are not in Japan and do not know many or even any Japanese speakers, especially ones with the patience to help others learn and practice conversation skills.

The most important skill you need for finding conversation partners is being proactive. If you are taking a Japanese class, engage your teacher in conversation before or after class or during office hours. Explore any clubs or activities that may involve Japanese speakers. Check out meetup sites like www.meetup.com for Japanese meetups and find conversation partners there.

If you want to practice online without having to leave the house to meet people face-to-face, you should check out www.language-exchanges.org to find conversation partners on Skype.

Use your assets such as English skills to offer something in exchange for getting help with your Japanese conversation skills.

Conversation skills and techniques

With the large number of Japanese speakers on the internet, you should be able to find one or more conversation partners relatively quickly. But how should you proceed from there? You don’t know what you should talk about and more importantly, you think you have no idea how to say anything in Japanese!

Relax and remember the whole point of practicing is to make mistakes and learn from them. There would be no point in conversation practice if you already spoke Japanese perfectly. Let’s look at a couple of strategies you can employ to make sure you have a smooth and informative conversation session.

Make sure there’s a way to communicate

This means that if you just started learning Japanese, find a conversation partner that can speak your language fairly well. The better you get at Japanese, the worse your partner can be at your language. This ensures that there’s at least some method of communication so that you can actually learn from each other.

Make a list of potential topics

One of the most common situations that occur is when neither party knows what to talk about. You can easily solve this problem by thinking about and preparing potential topics before you start the conversation session. In the beginning, you should start with the usual get-to-know-each-other questions such as “What is it like where you live?” and “What do you do?”

Here’s a short list of topics for you to get started.

  1. Movies or music
  2. School or job
  3. Places you’ve been or lived in
  4. Reasons for interest in the language
  5. Local customs and food
  6. Interest and hobbies
  7. Personal philosophy about lifestyle and people

Take Notes

Bring a notebook or save your online chat log. Having a record of the things you learned will greatly increase the value of each conversation session and help decrease the amount of things you forget. In addition, writing new words and phrases encountered in your conversations by hand can also aid memorization.

Ask questions

If you don’t know how to say something, don’t just say nothing! Ask your conversation partner how he/she would say it. The best way to learn is by asking, “How would you say this in Japanese?” Sure, we all want to be clever and original but when you’re learning a language, you’ll first need to get familiar with how most everybody else would say it. Also, it’s important to follow up with questions so that you understand why it’s said that way. In this manner, you can also learn new grammar and expand on what you’ve just learned.

Japanese people are also often too polite to point out your mistakes without being asked for corrections. If you’re not sure what you’re saying is correct, make sure to ask. Also, make it clear from the beginning that you would like as much corrections as possible. For your part, don’t be afraid or embarrassed to make mistakes nor should you feel frustrated or resentful at being constantly corrected. Mistakes (especially the embarrassing ones) are the best ways to learn and being corrected early will help you avoid bad habits before they form.

In other to stay in your target language, you should eventually learn how to ask commons questions like the following in Japanese:

Vocabulary

  1. 意味 【い・み】 – meaning
  2. 何 【なに/なん】 – what
  3. 日本語 【に・ほん・ご】 – Japanese (language)
  4. どう – how
  5. 言う 【い・う】 (u-verb) – to say
  6. もう一度 【もう・いち・ど】 – one more time
  7. ゆっくり – slowly
  8. 正しい 【ただ・しい】 (i-adj) – correct
  1. [X]の意味はなんですか?
    What is the meaning of [X]?
  2. [X]は日本語でどういいますか?
    How do you say [X] in Japanese?
  3. もう一度ゆっくりいってください。
    Please say it one more time slowly.
  4. [X]と言うのは正しいですか。
    Is saying [X] correct?

Take your fair share

Sure you want to help the other person learn your language but that doesn’t mean you should spend most of the time helping them learn instead of you. Make sure you spend at least 50% of the conversation time learning what you need to learn. If your conversation partner always answers in your language and not in Japanese, point out that fair’s fair and you’re not doing this just for him or her. Personally, I’ve found it easier to switch each session between learning Japanese and English so that it makes the boundaries easier and completely fair.

This should be fairly rare but if you happen to have a conversation partner that doesn’t seem willing to actually help you learn Japanese, you should politely move on to another conversation partner.

Finding Kanji the smart way

In the old days when we walked to school uphill both ways, we used to have to use actual books to look up words written in Kanji. The process involved guessing what the radical was for each Kanji, flipping through a huge tome, finding the readings, and flipping through another huge tome guessing which combinations of the readings applied to the word you were looking for. Luckily for you, we don’t need to do that anymore.

Looking up electronic words

If the word you’re looking for is on the computer whether it’s a website or email, you’re in luck. You don’t need to look up any Kanji at all.

If you’re using Firefox, go to the following url to install rikaichan: http://www.polarcloud.com/rikaichan/

Install the main extension and a dictionary (Japanese-English is probably the most complete) and restart Firefox.

If you use Chrome, you can find a similar extension called rikaikun.

Now, if you run into a gnarly Kanji like the one below, you just have to turn on rikaichan and mouse over it.

憂鬱

Incidentally, you can use rikaichan on all the vocabulary on this site. I never would have spent those countless hours adding the popups manually if rikaichan existed at the time.

If you want to learn more about the Kanji such as the stroke order (very important!), you can simply copy+paste the word into jisho.org. You may also want to do this if rikaichan returns multiple readings and you are unsure which one to use. The dictionary labels more common readings as “Common word”.

Assuming you searched for a real word, you should see an “Kanji details” button that will automatically look up all the Kanji in the selected word.

Make sure to check the stroke order image. The red dot shows where each stroke starts.

Looking up printed words

If you need to look up a word that’s written on (god-forbid) paper or some other non-electronic medium where you can’t copy+paste, you need to go through a couple more steps.

First of all, most of the newer electronic dictionary models from brands such as Casio, Sanyo, and Canon now have a stylus that allows you to write the Kanji directly. It may be a bit expensive especially outside of Japan, but I think it’s a worthy investment for the serious Japanese learner who doesn’t want to have to read books sitting next to a computer. However, if you’re already paying for an iPhone or other smart phone with internet access, that’s another option.

Or you can keep reading to see how you can do it for FREE!

New word, same Kanji

If you happen to already know other words that use the same Kanji, all you need is a bit of creative mixing and matching. For example, if you don’t know 「決定」 but you know 「決める」 and 「定期」, you can just type the words you do know and delete the unwanted characters. This technique is particularly useful for those tricky readings like 「仲人」. Just type 「仲間」(なかま) and [人」(ひと), delete 「間」, and hit search.

No freakin’ clue

Now if you’re trying to find a word with Kanji you’ve never seen before, you need to find each one and stitch the word together using copy+paste.

The multi-radical Kanji search is one of the easiest ways to find Kanji. No more do you have to remember which arbitrary radical the powers that be chose to be THE radical for the Kanji. You can search on any of them. You may also want to try http://jisho.org/kanji/radicals/. It has a nicer interface and offers real-time search results.

In order to narrow down your search, you’ll probably want to add in the stroke number. You can be lazy and just do a rough guess by providing a range but you might have to sort through a larger list.

Here, I searched for 「決」 by selecting the water radical with a range of 6-7 strokes.

I do get a fairly sizable list but it’s not to hard to go through the list to find the Kanji I want. If you’re confident that it’s a Jouyou or Jinmeiyou Kanji (a list of common characters compiled by the Japanese government), you can also check the “Limit to Jouyou/Jinmeiyou kanji” box. This cut my search result to only 17 candidates.

Now all you need to do is copy+paste it somewhere either in another tab or text editor and find 「定」 using any technique. Once you have all the Kanji you need, you can copy+paste them together to form 「決定」 and search as before.

If you really can’t find the Kanji because you can’t identify any radicals and there are way too many characters with the same stroke order, the last ditch effort is to use the IME pad (or other equivalent depending on your OS).

You need to be in an area where you can type text such as the search box in Japanese input mode. Click the pad icon on your IME toolbar and select the first option. Mine says 「手書き」 but yours may be in another language.

Clear the drawing by pressing the 「消去」 button and draw the character using your mouse. Click the character you want in the box to the right of your drawing. It will type that character in the area you were at when you opened the pad.

WWWJDIC Mirrors

If you find the main WWWJDIC website a bit slow at times, you might want to try a mirror closer to your location. I found that the USA mirror was a LOT faster for me compared to the main site.

A list of mirrors can be found here:
http://www.csse.monash.edu.au/~jwb/wwwjdicmirrors.html