Monthly Archives: February 2014

Conversing with native speakers and the human element

As a self-studier of a foreign language with limited exposure to native speakers of that language, I try my best to take advantage of every opportunity that comes my way.

Recently, I briefly met several Japanese businessmen at a conference on the west coast, and after speaking of business matters for a few minutes I always tried to say something in Japanese, hoping to get a few minutes of conversation practice with a native.

At first, things didn’t go to well. With the first person, I threw in a Japanese sentence in the middle of a discussion and was basically ignored. Nothing about “So, you know Japanese?” or any acknowledgement that I just said something. I’ve had conversations with enough natives to know my pronunciation isn’t bad enough to be incomprehensible, so there had to be some other factors at play.

With another group of guys I mentioned I spoke Japanese, and had a brief conversation (in English) about that. I did’t sense much interest in the other party’s part on my Japanese studies, but at least they politely discussed it with me for a few moments. During that conversation I did say a few things in Japanese, but was answered back in English. I’m not sure if its more frustrating to be responded to in English, or to be ignored completely.

Later that day I met with another group on a business matter and mentioned that I knew Japanese. I didn’t speak Japanese much until the end of the discussion, at which point I said お疲れ様さまでした, and they at least smiled to acknowledge I had said something, and responded as if they understood.

I’m sure all these businessmen were very nice people, and had only good intentions with talking to me. But the fact is that my goal of wanting to practice Japanese conversation was at odds with their goal of making effective business communication. We were in the US, after all, and they likely judged it would be best way to communicate by using English, and they were probably right. And suddenly changing languages in the middle of a conversation is a good way to confuse things.

Studying alone in your room with books, websites, and TV dramas, it’s easy to forget about the human element which takes priority in any real conversation. Everyone has their own agenda and it’s hard for me to politely communicate ‘I really want to speak in Japanese with you, just for five minutes!’, especially at a business-related event where that isn’t the purpose of our meeting.

In the end, it turned out that my efforts to communicate in Japanese were rewarded, since the next day one of the same businessmen walked up to me and started speaking in Japanese. We had a brief conversation for 2-3 minutes, and ended up exchanging business cards. I learned very little about Japanese itself in such a short time, but learned a great deal about social interaction. I think one of the reasons he decided to come up and see me was that he was alone, so that there would be less chance I would be embarrassed, and also because we were at a social event whose purpose was to just have fun. There was no serious agenda and therefore our interaction in Japanese made sense.

[Image credit: Free clip art taken from]

Kinokuniya and Mitsuwa Marketplace in San Jose, California

In a previous post, I reviewed two of the few Japanese bookstore chains in the US: Book Off and Kinokuniya. On a recent business trip to San Jose, California, I found out there was a Kinokuniya nearby so I decided to stop by for a little while.

The first thing that caught me off guard was that the bookstore was no longer where it used to be, a place which was now an empty building. I asked at Daiso, a cool little store that sells inexpensive Japanese products of all sorts, and I was told the bookstore moved inside the Mitsuwa Marketplace building on the other side of the parking lot.

I entered into Mitsuwa’s doors and on the far left was the bookstore, tucked into a space that used to be used by some other store. At first I was a little disappointed at the small floor area, but after a good 30-45 minutes browsing I realized they still managed to pack in nearly everything anyone could want: Manga (both english and Japanese), popular novels, a large magazine section, children’s books, business books, art books, and much more.

After a lot of consideration, I ended up with buying about $70 worth in 6 books, including some children’s books that I’m sure my son will enjoy.

I’m not going to go into too much more detail about Kinokuniya. If you’ve been there before, you know how awesome it is for any lover of Japanese language or culture. If you haven’t been to one and are one of these people, it really is a must see.

In between deciding what to purchase I ended up stepping out of the bookstore and having a delicious curry plate at one of the small restaurants inside the marketplace. Everything smacks of authentic Japanese cuisine, from the very real looking food replicas on display to the flavor. The prices are also amazing – I paid under $7 for a massive curry with breaded-pork plate that I couldn’t finish. And to top it off, I wolfed it down by watching Japanese TV on a large plasma attached to the wall in the food court area.

Besides a small store that sells asian dramas on DVD, the rest of the Mitsuwa Marketplace is taken up by the supermarket itself, which is real treat in its own right. From Japanese beer and sake to sweets to baby food, this place has a large selection of authentic Japanese food products.

Near the entrance there is some displays where high quality candy and other gift-packages are sold, exactly like what you would find in the home country. There was also very tasty looking ice mochi counter, but with a stomach full of Curry I had to pass, after a heavy internal struggle.

Though I wasn’t at the Mitsuwa Marketplace for longer than two hours, it was a refreshing to be reminded that in some places there really is a thriving Japanese culture, and enough need to keep these businesses running.

Note: I researched Mitsuwa Marketplace, and it turns out it is the largest Japanese grocery store in the US.

Don’t be afraid to joke around in a foreign language

Foreign language study, which can take many hundreds of hours of study and practice, is anything but a joke. But keeping things light and not being afraid to attempt a joke here or an out-of-context line there is one of the keys to increased fluency.

As I mentioned in this post, language is filled with amazing diversity where each specialized domain contains a set of unique words and phrases. If you’re living and working in a country whose native language is that which you are studying, with some effort you can probably find time to practice many of the words you’ve picked up to make sure they get cemented in your long-term lexicon. But for those of us who are stuck learning in a non-ideal environment where native speakers are few and far between, then the more opportunities you can make to try out different expressions the better.

To get a bit more specific, let’s say I’m watching a Japanese TV series which involves a lot of business meetings and the requisite talk that goes with them. Since I’m not working in a company where many people speak Japanese I’ll won’t find a proper place to practice any of the phrases I’ve learned, many of which could possibly be used if I ever move to Japan.

But there is nothing stopping me from using these with my Japanese-speaking family, friends, or teachers, as long as there is no insulting or disrespect involved. Of course you should never practice lines picked up from a Yakuza character with your Japanese teacher, no matter how well you think you know them. For the more extreme phrases, you can always just practice in front of a mirror to refine your pronounciation and get it firmly stuck in your memory.

This type of practice can be extended to anything you wouldn’t normally use in everyday conversation, from regional dialects to baby speech to scientist-talk. Of course you can memorize entire jokes too and see if you can get any laughs out of a crowd, but the number of actual jokes I’ve heard in dramas, novels, and movies is almost zero.

If you’re lucky, your conversation partner will play along and you can get to roll-play some situations you wouldn’t normally be able to experience otherwise. And besides the inherent language learning benefits, you’ll have great fun which leads to more overall satisfaction and better odds to persist in your learning.

Just be prepared for an occasional awkward moment where you leave out a critical word, or even worse when the meaning of the line you repeated turns out to be much more serious than your imagined. I’ve had my share of these slip-ups and I can tell you I’ve learned better how to apologize as a result (:

More uses and notes on ‘そう’ (Sou) and usage of ‘だ’ (da)

I recently wrote a post on usages of ‘そう’ coupled with a few particles, and I decided to write a second article with a few other things I thought of on this subject.

In that post I mentioned the phrases そうだね and そうだよ, but what if you remove the だ from these?

Well, the word だ has slight aggressive or “tough” feeling, which can be felt in the comparison between answering a question like “Who did this?” as ”僕だ” versus “僕”. Accordingly, there are many cases where removing だ makes the phrase softer, even feminine.

These two phrases are a perfect example of this:

  1. そうだね => そうね     [Same meaning, but softer/lighter, less ‘manly’ feeling]
  2. そうだよ => そうよ     [Same meaning, but softer/lighter, even feminine feeling]

I’ve そうね used by typical older men, but have only heard そうよ said by ladies or gay men.

This same pattern also applies to other words where  だ would normally be used but omitted. For example:

  • 僕はあるくんよ (僕はあるくのよ) => 僕はあるくのよ

Again, omitting だ gives a very feminine feel.

I realize I’m getting off track from “そう” but there is one more important thing I’d like to mention here related to the use of だ.

You need to be careful not to omit だ sometimes, however there are some cases when you should omit it, otherwise you end up sounding strange.

You’ve probably learned about the two types of adjectives in Japanese. I’ll summarize briefly here:

  1. i-adjectives: 青い、赤い、怖い , etc.        [can be used immediately before the word they modify]
  2. na-adjectives: すてき、おしゃれ、好き  [require a ‘な’ whenever used before something they modify]

It’s very important to differentiate these two categories, since the necessity or だ depends on the category. Look at these four sentences which all end with よ.

  • 怖いよ
  • 赤いよ
  • すてきだよ
  • 好きだよ
  • お父さんだよ

Note that the first two are i-adjectives and have no だ needed, but the 3rd and 4th are na-adjectives which require a だ when ‘よ’ is used (unless you want to sound feminine). The last is a noun which also requires だ.

Conversely, it would be strange to say this:

  • 赤いだよ

This sounds funny and isn’t a typical way of speaking. The interesting thing about this is that when you use the polite form, you ~do~ use です in all of these cases!

  • 怖いですよ
  • 赤いですよ
  • すてきですよ
  • 好きですよ
  • お父さんですよ

Anyway, back to a few uses of そう。

There are two other uses of そう which I’d like to finish with, both are commonly used and easy to mix up.

  1. Dictionary form of verb + そう => Used when you’ve heard of something (similar to らしい) [ex. 今日、先生がくるそう]
  2. Pre-masu form of verb + そう      => Used when something ‘seems’ like it will happen, based on appearance or your feelings [ex. 雨が降りそう]

Here are the translations of the two above example sentences:

  • 今日、先生がくるそう
  • I hear the teacher is coming today.
  • 雨が降りそう
  • It seems like it will rain (because the sky is cloudy, etc.)

I’ve mixed these up before and got a confused look (or rather a confused tone of voice since it was over voice chat), so practice making a few sentences for each to keep them straight in your head.

You can also use these with na-adjectives and some nouns by adding そう immediately after the word.

  • 君が好きそうなドラマを見つけたよ
  • I found a drama you might like. (I found a drama that seems like you would like it)

Notice here that そう is actually being used like a Na-adjective since it has な before ドラマ which it is modifying.

Simple expressions with そう and a few particles

「そう」 is a very simple word in Japanese that is used extremely often for a variety of situations.

It’s meaning is similar to the English “so”, as in the sentence “I told you so”. It’s a mix of the concepts “that” and “true”.

This word is commonly used as a light acknowledgement to a question. For example,

  • 今日、仕事お休み?
  • そう。
  • Today, you have off work?
  • Yeah.

This word can also been seen used in writing for dramatic effect by implying the reader’s guess is correct about something.

  • あの恐ろしい化け物がきました。そう、ゴジラ!!
  • That terrible monster has arrived. Thats right, its Godzilla!

そう can also be used to lightly doubt something was said.

  • この自転車、$3000もした
  • そう?
  • This bicycle cost $3000 dollars
  • Really?

Let’s build upon そう and see how it’s meaning changes.

「そうだ」is made by adding だ、which means ‘is’ and is called the copula. です is the polite form of this.

The phrase そうだ is typically used when saying to yourself that you remembered or realized something.

  • そうだ! 今日はパーティーの日だ!
  • Oh yeah! (I just remembered that) today is the day of the party!

Now let’s try adding some particles you are probably familiar with: よ and then ね.


よ’s primary meaning is to reveal new information or to exaggerate something. It’s commonly used when you want to communicate something special that you think the listener doesn’t know.

However the そう here refers to something they said, so this phrase is like you are taking what they said and re-emphasizing it back to them.

  • フランス語はすごく難しいと聞いた。
  • そうだよ!フランス語って日本語よりも難しいよ。
  • I heard french is difficult.
  • That’s right! French is even more difficult than Japanese。


ね is a tricky particle that its tough to translate into English. It has the feeling that you are talking to someone about a topic understood by them, or that you are making sure they are listening to something you said. This is a pretty rough explanation though, and I may write a separate post on ね to discuss it in more detail.

Fortunately, the meaning of そうだね phrase is pretty straightforward. It a light acknowledgement of what someone said as being true, or at least an acknowledgement that you are listening (as an ‘aizuchi’).

I use this phrase very frequently, especially when I am not sure how to add constructively to the conversation but I generally agree on what was said.

  • 最近の映画って中途半端なストーリーが多いね
  • そうだね
  • There’s a lot of movies lately with half-assed stories.
  • Yeah, thats true.


The particle combination よね is generally used when eliciting a confirmation or agreement by the other party. For example,

  • ジョンさんはベジタリアンだよね?
  • You (John) are a vegetarian, right?

However there is a second way to use よね which is when you aren’t really asking for verification. Rather, you’re saying something is obvious or an established fact. In this usage you typically lengthen the ね as ねー.

  • 日本って楽しいものがいっぱいあっていいね
  • そうだよね〜
  • Japan has so many fun things and is great.
  • Of course      (or  “true, true”)

そうだよね can occasionally be used when verifying something as well (“そうだよね?”), but that isn’t as common because it would be easier to just tag on ”。。よね?” to the statement you are trying to verify.

  • 先生は来ないって言ってた。そうだよね?
  • 先生は来ないって言ってたよね。                       (more concise)

Expressing strong feelings in Japanese, a language with less curse words

Once someone who was informally teaching me Japanese mentioned that in Japanese there are not that many strong curse words in everyday language. If you watch certain anime or dramas you might occasionally catch overdramatic words like “ちくしょ!” (negative expletive, literally ‘beast’) or “きさま!” (second person pronoun used as an insult)  but those are very rarely used in the real world and you shouldn’t use them yourself either.  Sure, there are a handful that do get some usage, such as “くそ” (shit [literally]) and ”ちぇ” (darn), but they are few and far between.

The purpose of this post is not to teach cursewords to you (though I just mentioned a handful), but rather to emphasize how certain other seemingly innocent-sounding words can be put together to carry a strong feeling, given the proper tone of voice is used.

Here is one of those:

  • 何なんだよ!
  • What the heck !

This is an abbreviation of 何なのだよ which uses the の particle (which I discussed here).

You can add a subject to this such as in this example:

  • これは一体何なんだよ?!
  • What the heck is with this?!    or   What in the world is with this?!

(Feel free to substitute ‘heck’ with a stronger English curseword in your head if you like)

一体 is a strange word that literally means “one body”, but is used in expressions like this for emphasis, and can be translated as “… in the world …”.

Here is another interesting expression used to express anger.

  • マジかよ!?
  • You friggin serious!?

Here the particles か and よ are used in combination to express asking a rhetorical question with anger or annoyance. You can imagine someone saying this when they were told they failed a test. Another common use of this pattern is this expression:

  • またかよ!?
  • Not again!

Another emotion-packed particle combination is のか, and can be used in the following way:

  • また負けたのか?
  • You lost again, huh?

This has a rough, masculine feeling to it and I’ve heard it more often used by men. It isn’t a direct insult but I wouldn’t use it with your superiors.

なんか is a word you can use after a noun to emphasize a strong feeling about something. Though literally it means “something”, it can be used in the following way:

  • 雪なんか大っ嫌い!
  • I totally hate snow!

Note that “dislike” is normally pronounced as だいきらい, but here the extra pause in the middle is added for emphasis. Another word with similar usage is なんて, which can also be put after a verb.

I’ll give one more example of two words used to express strong emotion.

  • そいつ、また俺の邪魔をしやがった!
  • That guy interfered with me again!

そいつ, which I mentioned briefly in my last post, is a pronoun which means “he/she” with a negative or rough connotation.

〜やがる is a verb which you can add to the pre-masu form of another verb to express anger about an action.  This one is a bit extreme and I’ve only heard it a few times in real conversation.

These expressions are all good to learn and use on occasion, just be sure to not overuse them as it will make them lose their power. Also be careful about using these around those above you in social status (先輩,先生), it’s best to restrict their usage to with your peers.

Plurality in Japanese

It’s well known to anyone who has studied Japanese seriously that the language lacks a general concept of plurality, like English’s “-s”.

However, there are some cases where a plural modifier is used, as well as some other things to keep in mind about plurality which I’ll discuss in this post.

In many cases, a lack of a plural specifier isn’t too bad, as you simply use the word unchanged. For example,

  •  There are two dogs.
  • 犬が二匹「にひき」いる.

(Note: in this post I will start using  brackets「」to contain the reading of certain kanji)

When translating statements like this back into English it’s easy, since you know there is more than one dog from the 二匹 part. Remember that -匹「ひき」is the counter used for dogs and some other animals.

There is another way to express “two dogs”, which is “二匹の犬”, and has a slightly different connotation than “犬が二匹”, in that it refers to the dogs as a group. Another example of this is the movie title “Seven Samurai”, 「七人の侍」。(This is something I read along time ago in a book or website, but it’s been so long I don’t remember the source to quote).

There are some cases where you brain really wishes there was a plural specifier. I’ll cite one which caught me off guard. I was sitting in traffic and heard the following Japanese:

  • すごい車!

At first I went looking for a specific car that was すごい(a word has a meaning close to “wow”), but then I realized this statement was referring to the large line of packed cars heading into the far distance. I’ve also heard すごい人 to refer to a big crowd of people. You can see for yourself on this Google image search if you like.

There is one category of words in Japanese where plurality does require a modifier, and you’ve probably already heard them: pronouns referring to people.  These typically use  -ら or -たち(達)when they are plural. I’ll give some examples, with the plural version on the right.

First person (“I”):

  • 僕「ぼく」       ー> 僕たち、僕ら
  • 俺「おれ」   ー> 俺たち、俺ら
  • 私「わたし」  ー> 私たち

Second person (“You”):

  • あなた  ー> あなたたち
  • きみ   ー> きみたち

Third person (“He/She”):

  • 彼女  ー> 彼女たち
  • 彼   ー> 彼たち、彼ら
  • こいつ ー> こいつら

The words これ・それ・あれ also can be made plural with -ら.

  • これ ー> これら
  • それ ー> それら

I have seen this most in formal writing and only rarely in casual speech, so I think its safe to use the normal forms (with -ら) even when talking about a plural concept.

The modifier -たち can also be applied general to other living things:

  • 猫たち
  • 犬たち
  • 子供たち
  • 友達たち

You might try to say “犬たちが2匹いる”, but that would be a bit unnatural or at least uncommon usage. In a case like this you can just use the singular form as I did in my first example above.

I’ve also seen -たち used for nonliving objects, like “ものたち” but I would not recommend using this pattern yourself unless you are very comfortable with how it is used.

As an interesting historical aside, -たち used to be used as a term of respect to address nobility and others with a high social status, but the meaning of respect is greatly diluted in modern Japanese.

There are also some words where a plural can be made by writing a word’s kanji twice. These I have only seen in literature and probably aren’t appropriate for most speech.

  • 木々「きぎ」   – many trees
  • 家々「いえいえ」- many houses
  • 山々「やまやま」- many mountains

(In case you haven’t seen it before, the mark “々” means to duplicate the last character.)

Other vocabulary words related to singular/plural:

  • 複数 「ふくすう」 -  plural   (a word used when discussing grammar, not used commonly in everyday speech)
  • 単数 「たんすう」    –  singular (this also is not used commonly in everyday speech)
  • たくさん  – many (more formal)
  • いっぱい  – many (less formal)
  • いくつか  – a few
  • すう+counter   or     何+counter+か   –  a few (Ex: 数台、何台か for cars)
  • 多い  – many (adjective)
  • 少ない  – few (adjective)
  • 数「かず」 – number (a count of something, not a number written somewhere which is 数字 or 番号)


Discussion on correctness of the word 友達たち (in Japanese), which briefly talks about the history of “たち”:

Self Taught Japanese – 50th post!

When I started this blog, I promised myself I would first write 50 posts and then see how things went before I decided to continue or not. I managed this many posts in a little under two months, which translates to almost a post a day. This is actually my second WordPress blog (my first is Sweets Reporter). Being the analytical guy I am, I was curious to compare the stats of these two blogs.

For each item, I’ll give the figure for this blog followed by the stat for Sweets Reporter at the 50th post point.

Followers:    61                          33

Total Views: 467 (best 31)    565 (best 51)

Comments:  12                          1

Likes:            125                        ?? (147 after 69 posts)

First of all, I want to thank each and every one of you that liked, followed, commented, or simply read one of my posts.

In terms of the followers and comments, this blog has been much more successful than Sweets Reporter, which is very motivating. To be fair, I was more active this time with commenting, liking, and following other people’s blogs which is likely one factor in this blog’s relative popularity. Originally, I thought “If I like their blog they’ll just arbitrarily like mine, so whats the point?”, but now I understand that commenting and the like (pun intended) are one of the most natural ways to advertise one’s blog. It gives people a motivation to check out your blog and see if they like it or not. Sure, some people might just like or comment as a thanks, which has little to do with the content of your blog, but many people will not.

As for the lesser total views of this blog, I explain that by the fact that sweets are generally more popular than Japanese study, and also that many of the keywords in this blog were very general (“Japan”, “Japanese”), compared to more specific ones in my other blog (“Haagen Dazs”, etc.). One reason I think this is that even though I’ve mostly stopped writing posts for Sweets Reporter, I still get at least 20-30 views a day from various countries around the world, which is significantly less than for Self Taught Japanese.

Interestingly, my post with the most likes (12) was Japanese bookstores in America, whose popularity I attribute to, at least in part, by usage of the keyword “bookstore”.

Another thing I’ve learned in this blog is that there is an element of chance, or randomness, in blog feedback. Or maybe another way to say it is that it is impossible for me to predict how many likes or comments I’ll get for a given post. Sometimes posts I only spent a little time on get several likes, and those where I have spent much more effort and research don’t get a single like. As another example, last weekend I got 5 more followers even though I didn’t post a single article either day, and I got less followers the previous few days when I did publish a an article or two. But I’ve learned to, as they say in Japanese, 長い目で見る (“Watch with a long eye”), which means look at things in a wider sense, in the long term.

And after all, the main purpose of this blog is not to get likes or followers. Of course that is nice, and if I can gradually grow my fan base over weeks and months that is great, but as long as I am enjoying researching and writing articles for this blog I consider it a success. If, on the other hand, I had 1000 followers but didn’t enjoy the subject matter one bit, then it would be hard to continue.

I’ve tried hard to keep the content of this blog to Japanese study, and not let too much personal unrelated stuff creep in. For the near future I’ll continue on this track, though eventually I may change that since I have a lot of things to say on other topics as well.

Another reason this blog will likely outlast Sweets Reporter is because the content is more diverse and interesting, and I feel I have more to contribute from my experiences with the subject matter. Ice cream flavors and ingredient lists start to all taste and look alike after blogging about them for awhile, apart from marketing or dramatic turn of phrase. In addition, there is a great deal of subjectivity in food reviewing, in both the flavors and the healthiness of the ingredients within. Language study is much more satisfying because a majority of things I write about are closer to verifiable truths – though I will acknowledge a certain subjectivity regarding strict interpretations of certain words and expressions.

I have much more to say about learning Japanese, at least enough to get to 100th post, so I hope you’ll all continue to follow me on this journey!