Using 「マジ」 for real

Originally published: 2005/5/31

I’m back! Most of you probably don’t know this (or care) but I actually have a real full-time job. And this being Japan, full-time means more like 9 to 8 rather than 9 to 5. So those of you who think I sit at home in my boxers working on my computer, I’m actually stuffed in a crowded train disguised amongst hundreds of Japanese businessman. And since our project is running late on the release date, I’m working more like 9 to 10… and I don’t mean one hour. No really. マジで。 And I suppose that’s just as good as any lead-in to the topic at hand: “How to use マジ to talk about what’s real.”

What is マジ?

Once you start practicing Japanese with real people outside of the classroom, you’re bound to run into the word 「まじ」 probably sooner rather than later.

You probably already know 「本当」, the word you use when you want to say things like, “Really?” or “Yes, really.” But most of the time, you don’t want to sound like a wimp by saying things like, “Oh really? That’s nice.” What you really want to say is something like, “For real?” or “No way!” or maybe even, “You’re shitting me!”. That’s where 「まじ」 comes in. 「まじ」 is often said to be a shortened form of 「真面目」 which means “to be serious” (although there are other theories regarding its origin). 「まじ」 is also often written in katakana to show that great emphasis that 「マジ」 contains.

A: クリス、彼女ができたんだって。
– I hear Chris got a girlfriend.

B: へ~、マジ
– Heh, for real?

Using the 「で」 Particle for マジ

One thing to remember in terms of grammar is the use of particles. When you use 「本当」 as an adverb, you attach 「に」. However, for 「マジ」 you attach 「で」. There’s no logic that I can figure out to this but then we are talking about slang here.

A: 本当に忙しくて大変だったよ。
– I was really busy and it was tough

B: そうなの?
– Is that so?

A: あいつ、マジで退学しちゃったの?
– Did that guy really drop out of school?

B: うん、マジで
– Yeah, for real.

Differences between 「本当」 and 「マジ」

Besides the difference in the particles, 「本当」 and 「マジ」 are quite different in their tone and usage. For instance, 「本当」 sounds cuter, more polite, and more feminine than 「マジ」 which sounds very rough and crude. In fact, you should take care in using 「マジ」 with your superiors. Having said that, I think 「マジ」 is a really useful word to know that you’re going to hear over and over again in daily conversations.

You can’t “learn” Kanji!!

Originally published: 2014/06/23

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. Memorizing the meaning for 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 the basics and all the radicals, 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.

However, that is not to say you should never bother practicing writing in general. For beginners, it’s highly recommended to practice writing in general (especially kana!) in order to help develop muscle memory for stroke order as well as getting a sense of proper character balance.

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.

Addendum: Learning the radicals

Many of the simpler and common characters such as 口 are also radicals that are used as parts of more complicated characters. Obviously you want to learn those as words by themselves. However, there are some radicals that are not characters on their own, for example, 儿 or 辶.

Memorizing them if it helps is fine, especially those that are conceptually easy to visualize such as 儿 for “legs”. In particular, you should learn to recognize when they are derivatives of actual Kanji such as 亻 from 人 and 忄 from 心. A common example is to remember the person radical 亻 next to a temple 寺 as meaning “samurai” (侍). Learning the radical meaning will really help differentiate from other similar Kanji with different radicals eg 「時持詩待特」.

However, I personally can never remember some of the more abstract ones such as 攵 so while useful, I wouldn’t go full speed and memorize every single radical in existence. Again, learning in context and with actual words is your best bet.

What’s the best way to learn Japanese?

Originally published: 2015/12/4

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)
    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).

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.

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?