Monthly Archives: January 2014

The diversity and “domainness” of language

When studying any foreign language, there are many things one has to learn and grow accustomed to: pronunciation, grammar, and characters, to name a few.  In my study of Japanese I feel that I have a fairly good grasp of many of these things, not necessarily to the degree of what I would call ‘fluent’, but with a level of ability that I have some satisfaction with, at least for the short term.

The one thing that catches me off guard again and again, no matter how many years I’ve been learning, is the diversity of language, particularly in vocabulary. Now, if this was merely a case of a large number of words I had to learn and I could expect to come across these new words at a certain frequency in my studies, I could live with that and follow the trend of new words as they gradually lessen.

The problem is more with what I call the ‘domainness’ of Japanese, which while not a proper linguistic term, is the easiest I way I can express it in a single word. To explain via example, imagine I read the Asahi Shimbun (a popular Japanese newspaper) each day for several years, and have a good grasp of the types of words and expressions used. Then I live in Japan and in people’s speech I hear so many unfamiliar phrases. Or I could read a technical manual for my car and again be surprised by the tone and vocabulary of the language used.  Another good example is how I started reading children’s picture books in Japanese to my son, and came across several words I had never seen, after reading several dozen adult-targeted novels.

In my mind I imagine a giant venn chart, with certain words grouped in a certain “domain”, and other shared across other domains.

For a final example, just the other day I was listening to a podcast where several comedians discussed how they make jokes and other related topics. There was a few expressions which I had never heard before, that seemed to be primarily used just for describing jokes.

For someone like me who can appreciate a challenge, and likes epic, lengthy stories rather than short ones, in a way this is a good thing, since it means I won’t get tired of Japanese study anytime soon. But on the other hand, it’s also a source of frustration since I’ll feel great after understanding 80% of a podcast, but then my comprehension of the next one in my playlist drops to 30%.

How can you use this knowledge to inform and improve the efficiency of your language studying? First, accept the fact that words and expressions can clump together like this, and there are a whole universe of words you haven’t seen just hiding around the corner somewhere. (See my post on the depth of meanings in a single word here).

Second, choose your study activities based on your end goal. I can imagine someone saying “I’m planning on living in Japan someday, so I’ll just watch a lot of Naruto and learn Japanese.” Sure, some of the vocab you learn that way can be used in the real world, but if you choose study materials that more closely match what you are targeting, you will learn more useful words. Conversely, picking a certain domain and sticking with that for some time will give more satisfaction in the short term, since you’ll learn the common expressions used quickly and your comprehension rate will gradually rise.

Notes

Diagram used for featured image taken from here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Venn_diagram_gr_la_ru.svg

Oblivion Island: Haruka and the magic mirror

I stumbled upon this Japanese CG movie by chance, having picked it up from a store credit received due to faulty headphones.

The title sounded interesting, and the screenshots on the back of the box, while small, looked pretty good quality. It was produced for Fuji TV’s (a major Japanese broadcast company) 50th anniversary, and had also won an award, so my expectations on quality were pretty high from the start.

I’ll give some relevant background about myself before I go into details – I’ve been interested in computer graphics (CG) ever since I was a kid. I’ve followed many of the techniques developed over time and have even considered becoming a CG artist as a profession, with some experience with 3D modeling tools (such as Blender).  I’ve also seen several full-CG films, with my two favorites being Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, and Advent Children. Though both of these are a bit outdated, they excel in using amazing detail in character design and telling a action-filled story targeted at an older audience. There are some more recent films that are also quite good, with Tangled being one of my favorites, but most CG movies made (except those from Japan) tend to target a young audience.

Now onto the review itself. You may have already seen this coming, but this quality of the CG was not quite what I was hoping for. Not only were the character models simplified with awkward movements, but many of the scenes used large textures to replace more complex geometry. You know there is a problem when the best looking character is the stuffed animal. In many ways the CG looked like that from a game, albeit one that didn’t elect to spend a massive budget on graphics. Thats not a big surprise since a large portion of visual graphics technology is created for in-game graphics or cut scenes. (The budget spent on visuals doesn’t seem to be published but if anyone knows this information please let me know.)

Though the CG quality was lacking, they used the available budget to good use and told an emotional story superbly. The 3D graphics didn’t particularly stand out, but they didn’t hold back the storytelling either.

The story itself was quite entertaining and involves a girl named Haruka who travels to a mysterious world in search of a precious item, a mirror given to her by her mom. In this world, various forms of animal creatures collect things left behind by humans. The Japanese title,  “Hottarake no shima”, means something like “Neglected island” and is a better description of the world than the English title “Oblivion island”.

Other aspects of the film, including music, voice acting, and pacing, were excellent, and the ending was quite satisfying. The world design was also colorful and impressive, though very reminiscent of a game setting.

The Japanese used wasn’t too advanced and would serve for good listening practice – just make sure to shut the subtitles off. For those that want to focus more on understanding the story than Japanese practice, the English subtitles are translated quite good and adopt a literal approach, rather than the conceptual approach I’ve seen in some other recent anime translations, where translations can be quite far off from what was actually said.

All in all a great viewing experience, appropriate for children as well as adults. Just make sure to put your expectations regarding CG aside when watching.

For those interested in another review of this movie you can check this review out, which agrees with my complaints about the CG. There is also a more detailed discussion of the story.

Side Note

The text on the posture used for the feature image said: “あなたの忘れてしまったモノがこの島にあります”。This translates to “Your lost object(s) are on this island”.

References

http://www.amazon.com/Oblivion-Island-Haruka-Mirror-Blu-ray/dp/B0080K2E92

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Final_Fantasy:_The_Spirits_Within

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Final_Fantasy_VII:_Advent_Children

http://www.dvdtalk.com/reviews/56005/oblivion-island-haruka-and-the-magic-mirror-anime-movie-blu-ray-dvd-combo/

Three confusing Japanese words

Japanese has several words which contain opposing meanings and these can be tricky to understand at first. As always, the key to unlocking their meaning is context. I’ll discuss these with examples of both opposing meanings.

やっぱり (Yappari, also written as やはり or abbreviated as やっぱ)

This word is more frequently written using hiragana, but learning the kanji (矢っ張り) can help you remember the meanings, because 矢 means “arrow”. The first meaning of this word is “I thought so”, or you can remember as “the arrow hit”.

  •  村上春樹ってやっぱりすごいな〜
  •     I knew it, Murakami Haruki (the author) is awesome!

You could say this phrase if you were thinking Mr. Murakami was a great author, but after reading another of his books your admiration was renewed.

As it turns out, this word can also have the exact opposite meaning, “On second thought…” or “Actually…”. Using the “arrow” memory aid you can think of this as “the arrow missed”.

  • やっぱりやめとこう
  • On second thought, I think I’ll pass.

You could say this phrase after someone invites you to a party, but after thinking for a moment you decide to not go.

(I want to thank my old friend “K” for first teaching me this word’s meanings way back in the day)

こんど  (Kondo)

This word’s kanji is 今度 which matches up with the first of its meanings – “this time”.

Let’s say you just started playing a game of chess with your friend. You could say:

  • 今度勝ってみせる!
  • This time I’ll show you (and win) !

This word can also loose the sense of “recurring time” and just turn into a general feeling of “later” in cases like “今度また遊ぼうね”, which can be translated as “Let’s play again later”.

Can you guess this word’s other meaning? Thats right, its “next time” (:

Continuing with the same example, assume you lost that game of chess but plan to play the same opponent again next week. In that case you could say:

  • 今度こそ、絶対に勝ってみせるよ!!
  • Next time, I’ll definitely show you (and win) !!

Seem confusing? It is! But if you think about it, in both of these examples it’s clear which meaning is being used.

適当 (Tekitou)

This word’s first meaning is “appropriate” or “suitable”. For example,

  • その仕事には彼が最も適当
  • He is the most appropriate person for this job.

(Example inspired by the one found here)

I hear this word used for a different meaning more often. That’s right, you guessed it – “not suitable”, “random”, “inappropriate”, etc.

  • 適当なことを言わないでください。
  • Please don’t say things arbitrarily (i.e. things that are random or untrue).

Another example you’ll see often in school settings:

  • 適当に座ってください
  • Please sit down anywhere you want.

A synonym for this second meaning is いいかげん。

That’s all for this time. I hope you learned something and can add these words to your lexicon (if they weren’t there already).

References

http://dictionary.goo.ne.jp/leaf/je2/51336/m0u/適当/

Festival at Ichimura Japanese Gardens (South Florida)

Yesterday me and my family stopped by the Ichimura Japanese Gardens in Miami, Florida, where we heard they were holding a Japanese festival.

These gardens are located right next to Miami’s “Jungle Island” Zoo, the latter of which has been around for 75 years. I was first surprised when I discovered the Ichimura gardens because I had lived most of my life in South Florida without hearing anything of them.

I turns out there was a good reason for that, the garden is a very small place tucked into between two roads and contains little more than a few rock gardens, ponds, and a handful of areas that can be used as stages. My disappointment was compounded by the fact I had grown up near the massive grounds of the Morikami Gardens.

We arrived just after 9am since the website said the park opened then and we wanted to beat the rush. When we saw a completely empty parking garage, we knew something strange was going on. Inside the main gate we were told by someone preparing that the festival started at 10am (it would have been nice to list that on the website), so we walked to Jungle Island, watched some colorful, noisy parrots, and came back right around 10am.

The festival preparations didn’t seem to be moving at too fast a pace, as there was still several empty tables and employees attending to various tasks to get ready. Nevertheless we strolled around the park, and let our son run around and enjoy himself. Around 10:30 we noticed there was a gathering in the center of the park, and we approached to see a mat laid out and people in various martial arts uniforms warming up. We were given a schedule which had some interesting demonstrations scheduled, including an Aikido show and magic show, but one of the Karate senseis told us that the employees were behind so things weren’t ready to begin yet.

We walked around some more and spoke with the nice lady at the gift shop table near the entrance, and bought a set of wooden coasters for a very reasonable price of $15. There was also some children’s toys there, a mini koto (which I probably should have bought for only $30) and some older used books in Japanese on various topics including music theory and the biography of some actress.

The other tables, including a kids corner we were looking forward to, weren’t setup yet and there was little sign of any progress.

We did speak with a very nice man who was working as a financial adviser, and apparently advertising his business there. He told us about a few Japanese restaurants which we went searching for since there was no food scheduled for the event until around noon and we were getting very hungry. The restaurant we searched for, “Matsuri” was unfortunately closed until 5:30pm on Sundays, so we ended up eating somewhere else.

After we ate we didn’t return to the festival, but instead stopped by a great Japanese market which had a very large selection of used books (most were from 2003 or earlier) and various forms of Japanese food. We stocked up on a few things, and I got a “Silky” Japanese coffee drink which tasted quite bitter, but good.

Though the festival was disappointing in several areas, including the grounds, lack of preparation, and small crowd (at least while we were there), it was still worth going. Unlike some other Japanese gardens, entrance was completely free, with only a small $5 charge for parking. The small scope and lack of aggressive focus on business and money-making was refreshing.

Most of all, I was able to use my Japanese to talk to a few strangers, which is something I very rarely get to do. It was satisfying to be able to communicate, albeit with a little verbal stumbling. I was asked if I had lived in Japan which is one of my favorite forms of flattery – even if it was nothing more than polite “oseji”.

Regardless of its small size, the Ichimura Japanese Gardens is still a nice place to stop by on a weekend for those who live in or near Miami.

References

http://friendsofjapanesegarden.com

http://selftaughtjapanese.com/2013/12/16/enjoy-a-piece-of-japan-at-the-morikami-japanese-museum-gardens(森上博物館・日本庭園)/

http://www.yelp.com/biz/japanese-market-north-bay-village

The right way to use subtitles when studying Japanese

In a recent post I commented how bad of an idea it is to use English subtitles when watching Japanese TV shows. When doing so, your brain gets lazy and stops trying to process the stream of Japanese, or at least reduces focus on it.

Having said that, there is a way to use subtitles productively in your Japanese learning. The secret is to use subtitles in Japanese.

Japanese subtitles will also deemphasize the listening aspect, but in return they train your reading ability. In particular, the subtitles go by so fast that you are forced to learn to speed read, a skill you may not have practiced much before. Also, you will get to learn vocabulary words you otherwise might not pick up, and it will be easier to use those in your own conversation (either speaking or writing) since you know how to properly spell and pronounce them. Your reading of book dialog will also improve, as you match up written passages to those you heard on TV.

Until recently it was difficult to find places to see Japanese subtitles since most DVDs targeting US and related regions only have English and a handful of romance languages. I remember one rare exception was Akira Kurosawa’s “Dreams” DVD which also had Japanese subtitles for the copy I bought in Barnes & Noble.

One option is to buy a region-free DVD player and then buy imports, though this can be quite expensive. Fortunately, thanks to some diligent fan subbing groups there are some places online where you can get files of Japanese dramas with Japanese subtitles. One such place is d-addicts, but there is more out there.

I think its best to support the actors, producers, and other staff involved by purchasing DVDs of movies and TV shows when they are available for a reasonable price domestically, and work on a local-region DVD player. However the market penetration of Japanese movies in places like the US is pretty weak, so for some items you may have to look online, and for new dramas that are still in production, or just finished, online will be the only place you can find these.

With a 2 year old boy running around the house, I’m finding Japanese subtitles more and more useful to help me follow the story, while helping me improve some of my Japanese proficiencies.

Popular Japanese series: Heartbroken chocolatier (失恋チョコラティエ)

It’s been a while since I’ve sat down and watched a Japanese drama, but I decided to watch the first episode of a drama that is pretty popular in Japan now. Not only does it star some actors that I like, but it involves a theme very dear to my heart – sweets.

This drama is about a guy (Jun Matsumoto) who has fallen in love with a girl (Satomi Ishihara) who he’s watched date a series of guys throughout high school. But just when he thinks things are going well, and they even kiss, she reveals that she doesn’t consider them as “dating”. As it turns out, sweet making runs in his family (his father runs a cake store), and he decides to devote himself to making perfect sweets that his love interest will completely adore, and fall in love with him. In the first episode, he runs off to Paris to train as a professional chocolatier.

One great part about this drama is that I get to see many professional made sweets, which look amazingly tasty and are on a completely different level than many american-made sweets. There’s also a lot of food-specific Japanese vocabulary used (some comes from French), like the word for chocolatier (チョコラティエ). Seeing the inside of elaborately decorated chocolate shops is another plus.

It’s clear there is huge amount of money put into making this series, with an all-star cast (both the lead actors and side role actors have been in several other hit TV shows), and high quality cinematography. The techno intro song is also quite good and really pulls you into the story. The ending song is sung by “Arashi”, a boy-band group headed by the male lead actor. His singing ability isn’t too great though, and this song isn’t one of Heartbroken Chocolatier’s strong points.

I’ve only seen one episode so far, but the story is… Well, let’s just say it starts out great, and by the end of the first episode it has started getting a bit cheesy ,with a series of plot twists that aren’t exactly unique. If you haven’t seen hundreds of Japanese TV shows this probably won’t bother you too much. Even if it does, you’ll probably want to watch a bit more and see how things evolve. I’m definitely planning on watching the next installment.

References

http://asianwiki.com/Heartbroken_Chocolatier_(Shitsuren_Chocolatier)

http://www.fujitv.co.jp/chocolatier/index.html

http://jdorama.com/artiste.1816.htm

http://jdorama.com/artiste.291.htm

Tricky Japanese loanwords

Loanwords, or those borrowed from another language (外来語), are used very frequently in Japanese. Those originating from English words are especially common, and this is a boon for all us studying this very challenging language. A majority of these can be understood with a glance, and are easy to remember as well. However there is a class of loanwords which are tricky, either because the certain sounds are pronounced differently or because syllables are dropped. Others sound close to their English counterparts, but their meaning can differ greatly or be used for only a subset of the English meanings.

Here are a few of those that I’ve heard or seen personally.

  • ガラス (garasu)
  • グルメ (gurume)
  • ホイール  (hoiiru)
  • スマホ  (sumaho)
  • ファイト  (faito)
  • セーター  (seetaa)
  • ネック  (nekku)
  • ドンマイ (donmai)
  • キャリア  (kyaria)
  • アバウト  (abauto)
  • シール  (shiiru)
  • プッシュ (pusshu)
  • アップ (appu)
  • ダウン (daun)
  • フォロー (foroo)
  • スマート (sumaato)

Explanations

  • ガラス (garasu)

This one derives from English “glass”, but it refers to the material. “グラス” is used to describe the container.

  • グルメ (gurume)

グルメ comes from “gourmet”, but isn’t usually used as an adjective to describe food. Rather it’s used to describe a person who is picky about food or is well-versed in various types of food or restaurants.

  • ホイール  (hoiiru)

This means ‘wheel’.

  • スマホ  (sumaho)

This one is a shortening of スマートフォン and means “smart phone”.

  • ファイト  (faito)

This one derives from the similar-sounding word “fight”, but is used to mean something like “good luck” (頑張って) rather than “fight” in a general sense.

  • セーター  (seetaa)

Sweater (clothing item).

  • ネック  (nekku)

This one derives from “neck”, but I’ve only heard it used as an abbreviation to mean “bottleneck”, as in the sense of something that obstructs.

  • ドンマイ (donmai)

Shortening of “don’t mind”, means “don’t worry about it” (心配するな)

  • キャリア  (kyaria)

When I first heard this I thought it was referring to “carrier”, but was later told it meant “career”.

  • アバウト  (abauto)

This derives from “about”, but I’ve heard it used for the specific meaning of “roughly” or “approximately”. I’ve also heard it used to mean “mediocre” or “half assed”.

  • シール  (shiiru)

This derives from “seal” (like a watertight seal), but I’ve only heard it used to mean “sticker”, like a children’s sticker that comes with a book.

  • プッシュ (pusshu)

This derives from “push” but I’ve only heard this used for “marketing push” or something that being given focus to.

  • アップ (appu)

As you guessed this one comes from “up” and can be seen in expressions like “level up”. However it can also mean “upload”, like to upload a file on the web. (Ex:  ファイルをアップした). By the way, “app” (as in application for a mobile device) is ”アプリ”

  • ダウン (daun)

Not surprisingly this derives from English “down”. I haven’t seen it used much to describe direction, instead it’s used for when a computer server is down (サーバーがダウンしてる), or when someone is unable to do much because they are sick (病気でダウンしてる).

  • フォロー (foroo)

Comes from “follow”. I’ve never seen this used in the sense of physically following (which would be ついていく or 追いかける), but I’ve heard it in the expression “フォローになってない” which is used when an expectation for support or help is not properly met. For example, imagine when you tell someone you are fat with the expectation they will say “no way!”, but they instead say “yeah, you have put on a few pounds”. フォローになってない would be a perfect phrase to use here. (I got this example from this post)

  • スマート (sumaato)

Though this sounds like “smart” it actually has a very different meaning to “intelligent”: a slender, stylish, and attractive body.

“Becoming” in Japanese: the many uses of なる (naru)

なる is one of those super useful Japanese verbs that has many common uses, even for beginners to the language.

This verb generally means “to become” and is used in the following pattern:

  • [object] が [condition] に なる

where the [object] here will become (turn into, change into, progress into) the [condition].

Let’s start with a simple example that you can use with your study buddies.

  • 日本語が上手になったね!
  • You’ve gotten better at Japanese!

This statement literally means “Japanese has improved”, but in this case from the context it’s clear you are talking about the listeners ability, and the “ね” ending particle makes this even more clear (with a mild sense of “right?”).

If you want to talk about a desire you can use the “-たい” form with なる, which becomes (no pun intended) なりたい。

  • 僕、もっと日本語が上手になりたい
  • I want to become better at Japanese.

I have also seen the form  ” [skill or language]上手になりたい”  used before, but it’s much less common.

なる can also be used to express wanting to “become” something in the sense of a job or position.

  • 僕は将来、消防士になりたいです
  • When I grow up I want to be a firefighter.   (said by a child)

Now lets look at an expression using なる that is used to express growth of an ability.

  • [potential form of verb、ex: できる ] ようになる

This means something along the lines of  “become/learn such that I can do so-and-so”.

Let’s use it in an example sentence.

  • 日本語がもっと上手に話せるようになりたいです
  • I want to learn to speak Japanese better. (lit: I want to become such that I am able to speak better in Japanese)

You can also use ようになった with the normal form of a verb (する, etc.) to express something has changed.

  • 最近、日本に行きたいと思うようになりました。
  • Recently I’ve become interested in going to Japan (lit: Recently it’s become such that I though I wanted to go to Japan)

なる means something just “becomes” without you necessarily having direct control. There can be a sense of things “occurring”, as in this example.

  • どうしていつもこうなるんだろう
  • I wonder why this always happens.

Another important expression is ~ことになる(なった) which can express some thing has been officially decided.

  • 会社の都合で引っ越すことになったよ
  • I have to move for my company. (lit: It’s been decided that I will move for the convenience of my company)

You can see the omission of “僕の” here to describe the speakers company. Saying just “company” implies “my company”. (See this article for more on omission in Japanese)

Finally, here are some other common expressions that use なる:

  • なるほど      indeed, I see
  • なるべく   as much as possible
  • そうなると   when that happens
  • なりきる       to completely become something (said for an actor about a certain part)

なる used for the meaning “to become” is sometimes written in kanji as 成る, but I’ve seen in more frequently written in hiragana. Another meaning for なる is to ring (like a phone), and this can be written as 鳴る to differentiate the two.

I’ll end with a question for you to think about. What could this phrase mean?  (Imagine seeing it on a billboard in Japan)

英語の先生になってみませんか?

The wonders of Japanese particle も(mo): different ways to say “also” [intermediate]

も is one of the first particles that is typically taught, and with good reason. Not only does it have a variety of common uses, but they tend to be pretty easy to understand and use, unlike は/が which take considerably more time to master. Just make sure you don’t confuse も with もう (already), which have completely different meanings.

Here is a quick summary of some common usages:

  • して + も +  negative result    => “Even if…”    Ex: ”勉強しても無駄” (Even if you study, it’s useless  /  It’s useless to study)
  • 何 + counter + も =>   many of something   Ex:  “何回も” (many times)
  • して + も + いい ? => ask permission to do something     Ex: 帰ってもいいですか?   (Can I go home?)
  • Noun + も =>  “also/too”     Ex: 僕も行きたい  (I want to go too)

In this article I’d like to focus on the last of these, which I feel is the simplest to understand and use.

The simplest case is when も is used in front of a subject (noun), taking the place of が or は if you would normally use it.

Ex:   僕も好きだ  (I also like (it)  /   I like it too)

It can also be similarly used in front of object of a verb, replacing を. (In rare cases, I have seen ”をも” used as well)

Ex: 本も買ったよ (I also bought a book).

If you want to use も with the particles に or で, you can typically just add it after them.

Ex: KFCは日本にもある  (KFC is also in Japan)

Ex: バスでも行けるよ (You can also go by bus)

Don’t forget that you can use も multiple times in a sentence with two or more subjects or objects.

Ex: リンゴもバナナも好きです.    (I like both apples and bananas)

But the uses of も to mean “also” don’t stop there. For example, you can use it with ながら(while) in the following expression:

Ex: いやと言いながらも。。。   (While saying I don’t like it….  / Even though I’ll say I don’t like it…. )

You can even put it in the middle of a している to mean “also doing”. In my experience this is not used that often in conversation, but if you do a Google search you’ll find it’s very common in written language.

Ex: 毎日手伝ってもいる  (I’m also helping every day)

The final two I’ll discuss are a little tricky, but once you learn them I’m sure you’ll make good use of them.

First, a question. How do you say “The car is also red”?  (you use the words 車 and 高い)

The answer may be a bit surprising:  車は赤くもある。

For the negative, “赤くもない” can be used to mean “It’s not even red” or “It’s not red either”.

Finally, you can use the ”でもある” with “から” to express another reason for something.

Ex: 事故は疲れたからでもある。  (The accident was also because I was tired).

Though I like this usage, honestly I haven’t seen it used that frequently. What I have seen more often is the following, which has a similar connotation.

Ex: 事故は疲れたというのもあった ( [literally] As for the accident, there was also the fact that I was tired).

==

There is a related meaning where you use も with a negative sentence to mean “not even” or “not either”.

Ex: 一秒も寝てない   (I haven’t slept even a second)

Ex: 日本語もロクに話せない  (I can’t speak Japanese well either   [in addition to another language I can’t speak well])

For a final tricky question, how would you say “He’s not even a college student” or “He’s not a college student either”?   (you can use the word 大学生)

Ex: 彼は大学生でもない

At first you might wonder what is going on here. But if you think in terms of adding “も” to ”じゃない”, it starts to make more sense. ”じゃない” is actually an abbreviation for “ではない”, and replacing the は with も gives “でもない”。

この記事もお役に立てれば幸いです。

Shimajiro and Benesse’s distance learning program for kids

For those of us raising a child bilingual Japanese/English child, it can be difficult to find appropriate teaching materials, especially if you live outside of an area with a large Japanese population like California and New York. Fortunately, these are a few excellent distance learning (通信教育)programs designed for young learners in mind. Benesse’s “Child Challenge” (こどもちゃれんじ) program is one which I highly recommend, not only because it can be shipped to the US, but also because of the comprehensive materials included. (You can see my previous post on raising bilingual child here.)

This program has a series of programs, one for each year between age 1 and 6. The only one I have personal experience with is the first level (プチ, or “little”). My comments will be focused mainly that level, but I’m sure the quality of the program is same throughout.

This series features “Shimajiro”, a cute, lovable tiger boy, along with his friends and family. His name comes from the word for stripes (しま) plus “じろう”, a common (if not outdated) name for males which has the connotation of the second oldest boy.

The learning materials consist of the following:

  • A well-designed educational picture book (絵本), delivered once a month. These have more interactivity than an average picture book, since the are doors to open and flaps to pull out. The featured image for this article contains a photo of the front cover of the first book. Each time there is also a bonus educational booklet included which is targeted for adults and touches on various issues you child might be facing at his or her age.
  • A variety of educational toys (エデュトイ), many which work together interchangeably. For example, there is a set of duplo-type blocks, and a play cooking set. There is also the Matryoshka doll-inspired “Irocchi”, show in the picture at the bottom of this article. Their name means “color”, with the cutesy-sounding “cchi” ending. Remember tamagocchi? That is “egg” plus the same ending.
  • A CD containing a 20-30 minute educational program, delivered every two months. At least half of the content is songs that involve simple dances, and my son really likes these. The end also has a preview of the upcoming toys, which is a blatant marketing attempt to get you to stay in the program. Because many of the past videos are available on YouTube (like this), I feel the CD has the least value of the learning materials.
  • Though they are not included in the package, there are various educational apps on the apple app store (and possible others) which feature Shimajiro. Some of them are free.

There are a variety of themes, including shapes, food, colors, using the bathroom, and manners. For example, the first book in the “puchi” set is titled “かたちだいすき号” which translates to ” ‘I love shapes’ edition”. You can see here that words which would normally be written in kanji (like 大好き)are done with hiragana, which makes it easier for children to understand.

The price varies depending on what country you get it shipped to, but can easily reach $600 and above. This is the product’s weakest point, since one could argue that you could buy many more books and toys for the same price. Furthermore, the same program is available within Japan for under half the price. From what I have heard this cost is mostly shipping and the various fees (inspection, etc.) incurred. For this reason there are those who find someone in Japan to buy the books and hold them for some time, after which they send them in bulk to America (or wherever they are living). This can definitely save money but has the disadvantage that there is no new set of materials delivered each month.

Having said that, when you look at this as a comprehensive program I feel it is worth the money for those who do not have easy access to Japanese books. My 2 year old son has used all the materials over and over again so we’ve definitely got our moneys worth. A program like this also makes it easier for the parents since you don’t have to continually search for books and toys to buy every few weeks. For those who are on the fence about taking the plunge to sign up, you might want to know this program has been around for over 20 years, so you can really expect excellent quality in every aspect.

I highly recommend this program for those raising a child bilingually Japanese. Because the materials are targeted at a young audience and made very easy to understand, I think they could also be very useful to an adult learning Japanese as a second language. For those with severals years experience studying Japanese there won’t be too much to learn, but for the rest I’m sure these will be quite a learning experience. There is even some expressions related to daily life that aren’t likely to appear in manga or TV dramas, such as “手と手をぎゅっと!”. I’ll let you guess what that one means (:

Whenever I decide to study a new language, I’ll probably try and find a similar course since it gives a fresh point of view for new language learners. I think there is also a Chinese version of Shimajiro, and possibly one for other languages as well.

I’ll end this post with a brief excerpt from the intro song:

♪♪しま〜しましましま〜じろ〜。一緒に遊ぼうよ〜。こ〜んにちはこんにちは! ♪♪

References

http://selftaughtjapanese.com/2014/01/11/raising-a-bilingual-child-where-one-language-isnt-your-native-tongue/comment-page-1/

http://www.benesse.co.jp/zemi/kaigai/option/index.html

http://www.shimajiro.co.jp/

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MC-K5mQmaDw

irocchi