Monthly Archives: May 2014

Manga review: 駅弁ひとり旅 [Ekiben Hitori Tabi] by はやせ淳 (Hayase Jun)

One thing that always amazes me about Japanese manga and anime culture is how they can take a hobby and build a story around it, getting really deep into details about that specific field of interest. One such example is Hikaru no Go which focuses on the complex board game Go, and another is basketball-themed manga Slam Dunk. There are also others which focus on a certain profession, like Yakitate Japan that involve a chef trying to make great-tasting bread. While it’s true that western works of entertainment also have many theme-based stories, I feel the Japanese ones generally have more diverse topics, and get more into the subject matter (to the extent that I would call ‘hardcore’).

This manga is a great example of such specialist works, and revolves around Daisuke, a middle-aged man, and his travels around Japan via various trains. At each mealtime, he indulges in a ‘ekiben’ (a word that derives from ‘station lunch box’) packed with delicacies of that region. As you can guess from the title, these ekibens are really the true main characters of this story. Much of this first installment involves these lunch boxes being appreciated and described in detail by Daisuke, who happens to be the owner of a Ekiben shop himself.  The other focus of this story is the landscape of each region he passes through – mountains, lakes, bridges, along with sprinkling of local history for each area. There’s also a good serving of ‘train history’, where you get to learn about different train models including details of when they were introduced, decommissioned, and the type of engine they utilize.

The downside of this emphasis on food, geography, and history is that there is little plot and very simple, one-dimensional characters. Daisuke himself is not just a simple man who seems to love ekiben above all else (and has a million phrases to express how tasty they are), he is also a married man who happens to spend a great deal of time on this journey with a younger reporter girl. Lack of respect for the main character is always a big drawback for me in enjoying a story.

Linguistically, the Japanese used is a mix of everyday conversation, detailed food descriptions, and historical footnotes. The latter two can be somewhat difficult because of the number of unfamiliar names of food and places. But if you are planning to live in Japan someday it would probably benefit you to learn these sorts of things.

In sum, if you are yearning for a deep (or even average) story, look elsewhere, but if you’re looking to learn a bit about Japanese culture, especially food and geography, then this series might be perfect for you. You also get a good feeling for great diversity of each Japanese region. Train otakus (fanatics) will surely love the detailed train trivia (which an average person would skim through if not skip completely). Finally, those into well-drawn comic art might also want to peruse Ekiben Hitori Tabi, since the countryside vistas are rendered in great detail, far above the quality of an average manga book.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

References

http://ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E9%A7%85%E5%BC%81%E3%81%B2%E3%81%A8%E3%82%8A%E6%97%85

http://www.animenewsnetwork.com/encyclopedia/manga.php?id=8700

Watching culture from the outside in and the uniqueness factor

Many of us are into cultures from a certain foreign country, and feel that many things produced from that country are funny, interesting, or thought-provoking. Or maybe you’re a general culture nut and feel all the world’s cultures have something unique to offer.

In my case I’m still very enamored with Japan and Japanese culture, but there are other countries I’d like to turn my attention to someday. When I first saw Japan’s anime over 15 years ago I said “Wow, this stuff is so amazing  – how did they think of this?” and I marveled at how different it was from the American cartoons I had seen up to that point. Based on my limited experience, I felt Japanese animation was more serious, had better art, and was somehow unspeakably unique and creative. I could start watching practically any series out there and enjoy myself for hours on end.

Jump forward to the present, and things have changed quite a bit for me. While I still do watch anime now and then, it’s harder for me to stay interested and there are many shows that just don’t catch my eye from the first few minutes. So what happened?

Surely, I’ve aged quite a bit and some might have said matured, so that “cartoons” are no longer appropriate for my age group. But I don’t feel that is the real issue here.

Instead, you could say I’ve simply gotten tired of Japanese anime, or more accurately gotten used to it. How could one ever get used to a form of entertainment and expression which is so “unique” and “creative”?

Herein lies the connection to this article’s main theme, which is that when observing a culture from the outside in – meaning when you aren’t a part of that culture – you have a certain bias towards many of the products of that culture. With a country like Japan that has been culturally separate from most of the world until relatively recently (~200 years ago), there is a large base of history, practices, ideas, and ways of expression that are naturally different from other countries.

But the more you engage with that country, whether it means living physically within it’s boundaries or consuming a great many of it’s products from afar, you become more attuned to how they do things. Patterns start to emerge, such as certain art styles and certain commonly-used character personalities. Just like your own culture, at some point you say for the first time “This is cheesy!”, and that realization is an important step on the way to truly understanding that country’s culture.

This is generally a good thing since it gets you viewing other countries closer to the way you view your home country. It also may spur you to branch out into other areas of interest, like Japanese dramas or even something like classical Noh theater (using Japan as an example).

Of course, some of us will stubbornly stay fanboys (or fangirls) towards a certain product or type of media, and thats OK too (:

 

 

 

 

 

Manga review: 聖おにいさん (Saint Young Men) Volume 1

When I first saw this Manga in Book Off in New York I was a little hesitant to check it out. Not only was the cover drawn in an unappealing color scheme, but the story seemed to revolve around Buddha and Jesus – and it was clear this wasn’t a particularly serious work. But I had heard it was quite popular in Japan, and it was written by the same author as the hilarious series “Arakawa under the bridge” (Hikaru Nakamura), so I decided to pick up the first volume.

As I started reading into it, the story was pretty much what I expected: through some set of circumstances Jesus and Buddha (that’s right, the world-famous holy figures) were living together in the same house on Earth. In spite of their great age, for some reason they appear like 20 year old men and have the corresponding speech patterns of that age group. As a result, there was a good bit of slang used which helped me strengthen some of my Japanese vocabulary for conversational Japanese.

In the first half of the book, I found myself laughing at the situations the characters were put in. I don’t want to give away too many spoilers but just imagine Jesus parting the water of a swimming pool in half, much like Moses did in the Bible.

The more I read, the more these “sacrilegious” elements began to bother me. I won’t say I am a particularly conservative person, but for some reason the act of making fun of things that was supposed to be holy got less funny as time went on. I think one reason for this was the author’s arguably one-joke style. There’re always some crazy contrast between something of the holy world and the secular.

I read it to the end, but I was left with a sour feeling in my mouth about whether this type of stuff should actually be funny or not. And the fact there didn’t seem to be much of a long running plot-arc (at least in the first volume) didn’t help. Nakamura’s “Arakawa under the bridge” began with a strange series of events which quickly caught my interest, but “Saint Young Men” these’s no such sparkle to catch my eye.

Regardless of your religious affiliation, if you are *not* the type to be offended at sacrilegious humor you might enjoy this series, and in the process learn some religious terms you aren’t likely to pick up in other manga, like 聖痕(せいこん)which means ‘stigmata’. There’s also a good dose of modern culture references that will tet your knowledge of modern Japanese culture, and provide some interesting topics to research.

But if the premise of this series turns you off, it’s probably best to stay away and avoid getting offended.

References

http://ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E8%81%96%E2%98%86%E3%81%8A%E3%81%AB%E3%81%84%E3%81%95%E3%82%93

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Young_Men

ちょっと (chotto): a little word with a big set of meanings

If I had to make a list of the top ten most useful words in Japanese, I might very well pick ちょっと as one of them. Not only is it short and easy to say, but it’s meanings are easy to learn and use in everyday conversation.

ちょっと’s basic, most fundamental meaning is “a little”, and it’s other usages and set phrases are all based on that. Let’s look at an example:

  • ちょっとわかります。
  • I understand a little.

This next phrase is one I’ve heard often in Japanese dramas (especially ones from a around 10 years ago). I can still remember キムタク(Kimura Takuya) saying it.

  • ちょっと待って!
  • Wait a minute!

The meaning “a little” is still present, but in English saying “Wait a little” would sound unnatural. It’s best to translate this as “Wait a minute”, “Wait a moment”, or some other natural phrase.

I made a funny mistake the other day by saying ”一分待って”, which is the literal translation of the expression “Wait a minute” in English. “ちょっと待って” is much more natural.

Here’s another expression with ちょっとthat is quite useful.

  • ちょっといいですか?
  • Do you have a moment?

The interpretation of this usage is a bit confusing, because literally it means ‘Is a little good?”, and you may be thinking “A little of what?”. The answer this case in time, since the speaker is asking for a bit of the listeners time, probably to ask a question.

This word can also be used to express a little of a physical quantity.

  • ちょっとビールが欲しいです。
  • I want a little beer.

ちょっとis also used in a case when you feel negatively but don’t want to state your feelings directly. Imagine you were asked about something you were strongly against. In that case, you might reply:

  • それはちょっとね。
  • I’d rather not say.

I took this translation from the page here, and while I feel it does capture the literal meaning It seems a bit harsher than the Japanese text. Personally I’d prefer something like “Yeah that’s kinda…” or “Well….”, but in any case Japanese to English translation isn’t the main focus of this post so let’s move on.

Another way to use ちょっと is in the form ちょっとした〜, which is placed before a noun to modify it in the sense of ‘a little’, ‘trifling’, or ‘minor’.  It carries the sense of that thing not being ‘a big deal’. Here’s as example phrase

  • ちょっとしたヒントがあれば大丈夫。
  • I’ll be fine with a little hint.

If you want to see some more example sentences, check out ちょっと’s dictionary entry here.

 

 References

http://dictionary.goo.ne.jp/leaf/je2/49298/m0u/ちょっと/

http://eikaiwa-phrase.com/1654.html

 

 

Connecting ideas in Japanese: a high-level guide

When learning a foreign language, one first studies basic sentence order and practices building simple sentences with subject/verb. Once there is some comfortability with that, the next step is learning how to connect ideas either within or between sentences. This allows expression of more complex ideas and one step closer to fluency. Those who speak in single, unconnected simple subject/verb sentences will seem childish, or at the very least different, like the character Fukaeri in Murakami’s 1Q84.

There are tens if not hundreds of ways to connect sentences, but I’d like to group them into categories to make learning of them simple. Once you learn how each category works you can quickly add more words to your repertoire that fall in that category.

  • Connecting using verb forms
  • Conditionals using verb forms
  • Connecting with verb-following words
  • Connecting with sentence-beginning words

Let’s look at each of these in turn. I’ll keep the descriptions and examples simple to not overload you with too many details. Some of these forms I may go into greater detail in a future post. I will focus mostly on non-polite tense, but these grammar patterns can be equally applied to polite language. For example “だけど” => “ですけど”

Connecting using verb forms

This category involves connecting ideas by using a verb form other than the dictionary form (食べる). There are two verb forms which can be used for this, the te-form (i.e. 食べて) and the pre-masu form (i.e. 食べ). Both of these express the concept of doing a chain of actions in order, though they may be done at nearly the same time.

Te-form:

  • 学校から帰って食べて寝た。
  • I came home from school, ate, and went to sleep.
  • 負けたって言われてがっかりした。
  • I was told that I lost and I was disappointed.    (More natural but less literal: “I was disappointed to hear I lost”)

Though the te-form can be used to express a chain of events, it also can be used when describing things statically, such that the order of the verbs is not relevant. In this next example, the verbs do not specify an action, but rather the existence of an object.

  • 部屋にはベッドがあって、冷蔵庫があって、テーブルもあった。
  • In the room there was a bed, a refrigerator, and a table.

Because of this ambiguity, if you want to emphasize something happened “and then”, you can add から after the te-form. That way there is no doubt that the events happened at different times.

  • 学校から帰って食べてから寝た。
  • I came home from work, ate, and then went to sleep.

This form, and the one discussed next, are very useful for describing chains of events, but long sentences with many te-form verbs (without any other connecting words like そして or conditional words) can become awkward.

Pre-masu form:

The pre-masu form (made from the masu form of the verb minus the masu, i.e. 食べます=>食べ) is used much in the same way, though it is generally more polite and more often used in written Japanese.

  • たくさん食べ、元気になりました。
  • I ate a lot and felt better.
  • ペット屋さんで猫を買い、すぐ帰りました。
  • I bought a cat at the pet store and went right home.

Here you can see すぐ used after the pre-masu form indicate right after that verb something happened, and this can be used equally after the te-form.

There are other cases where the pre-masu form have similar meaning and usage to the te-form, for example this sentence.

  • 教えていただきありがとうございます。
  • Thank you very much for helping me.

In this sentence you could replace いただき with いただいて with roughly the same meaning.

Conditions using verb forms

In Japanese there are three basic verb forms used to express a conditional “if action then” or the result of some action “when action then”. They are the eba-form (ex. すれば), the ra-form(ex.したら), and the ‘verb + to’ form (ex. すると). The last is technically not a verb form since it uses the dictionary verb form, but it functions in much the same way.

  • 箱を開けたら空っぽだった。
  • 箱を開ければ空っぽだった。
  • 箱を開ける空っぽだった。
  • When I opened the box it was empty.

There are some difference in nuance with these forms, but I won’t go into them now except to say the eba-form has a more sense of ‘potential’ or ‘if’ (i.e. something that could happen) where as the other forms have more a ‘when I did…’ feel, meaning something that actually happened.

These forms can also also be used in the present continuous tense (i.e. してると). Roughly you can think of them “if I was ….ing, then…” or “when I was …ing, then …”.

  • テレビをみてたら急に消えた。
  • テレビをみていれば急に消えた。
  • テレビをみてる急に消えた。
  • When I was watching TV, suddenly it shut off.

Connecting with verb-following words

This category consists of words which are added immediately after a verb and can be used to connect phrases together.

Let’s look at an example sentence for “けど”, which is a pretty common word that can be used to mean “but”, “however”, or “although”.

  • 今から買い物に行くけど、一緒に行く?
  • I’m going to shopping now, so you want to come? [Lit: “… but do you want to come?”]

Here I added ‘so’ to make it sound natural in English, but that word isn’t explicitly in the Japanese sentence.

Here is an even simpler example:

  • このラーメン熱いけどおいしい!
  • This ramen (soup) is hot but tasty!

In the above examples, the verb-following word けど was used after する which is in the present tense. In the next example we’ll see how けど can also be used after a past-tense verb.

  • 今日、試験を受けたけど答えられない質問ばっかりだった。
  • Today I took a test, but it was only questions I couldn’t answer.

Here is a list of similar words:

  • けど 「sometimes prefaced by なの or なん」
  • けれど  「sometimes prefaced by なの or なん」
  • けれども  「sometimes prefaced by なの or なん」
  • が  (has a more formal tone and used more by older men)

Whereas the above words are used to connect words in a neutral way, のに is used to contrast two phrases and can often be translated as “even though”.

  • お金があるのにどうして買わないの?
  • Even though you have money, why don’t you buy it?
  • 勉強しなかったのに受かったの?
  • You passed (the test) even though you didn’t study?

Another verb-following word is し, which I discussed in this post.

Connecting with sentence-beginning words

These words function similar to the previous category, except they start at the beginning of a sentence. Since they aren’t at a the end of verb their form may change slightly.

  • だけど僕は諦めない!
  • But I won’t give up!
  • しかし僕はやってみる。
  • But I’ll try it (anyway).

Here are few words which can all be put at the beginning of a sentence and all can be used to mean “but”, “however”, or “although”.

  • でも
  • だけど
  • だけれど
  • だけれども
  • が/だが
  • しかし (more formal)

These phrases can be used in the beginning of sentences to contrast in the same way のに was used above.

  • なのに
  • それにしても/にしても

Let’s compare sentences of a verb following-word and a sentence-beginning word.

  • 僕は疲れた。だけど海に行こうと思ってるよ。
  • 僕は疲れたけど海に行こうと思ってるよ。
  • I’m tired but I’m thinking of going to the beach.

To me the second seconds (verb-ending connecting word) example is more natural and has better flow. But the first (sentence-beginning connecting word) has more of a dramatic feel because of the pause between sentences. It also makes the second phrase more of an afterthought.

Here is another list of words used at the beginning of the sentence to help connect sentences together.

  • そして [then, and then]
  • それから [then, and then]
  • それに   [in addition, moreover]
  • しかも [in addition, moreover]

Here is an example of それから which sounds dramatic like something from literature.

  • 雨がやんだ。そして男が現れた。
  • It stopped raining. Then a man appeared.

This group of words can also be used after the te-form.

  • 僕は仕事を終えてそして帰ってきた。
  • I finished work, and then came home.

(Image taken from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Broad_chain_closeup.jpg)

Foreign language fluency – what is it to you?

The other day I read a fellow blogger’s review of the book “Fluent in 3 months” (which you can see here), and that got me thinking about what foreign language fluency really is. If I did an online search I’m sure I could find hundreds of explanations, but I decided to take a different angle and think about what fluency really meant to me.

In my mind there are (at least) two types of fluency: native-language equivalent fluency and working fluency.

Native-language equivalent fluency is the highest level of fluency, and the most difficult to attain. It means being able to say or write anything as well as you can in your native language, and comprehend when listening or reading to the same extent.  To reach this level of fluency you have to be able to say “I’m fluent in English [or your native language] and also fluent in Japanese [or your foreign language or choice]”, and there shouldn’t be a major gap between the two. At this level one also wants to speak with grammar and pronunciation as close as possible to a native speaker.

This is the type of fluency I am aiming for, and by any standard I am very far off. I’m the most advanced in reading, but even there my reading speed is a small fraction of my English reading speed. When speaking in English I typically speak quickly and can easily go off into tangents on a variety of sub topics, whereas in Japanese I’m more focused on expressing one (usually simple) topic at a time, and often struggling with different expressions until I find one I am happy with. But most of all it takes a huge investment of time and effort when doing of any of the above, and is by no means as smooth as a process as in my native English.

Working fluency is probably closer to what the average person things of foreign language fluency as – the ability to express yourself sufficiently in that language as well as comprehend sufficiently whatever comes your way. For example if I want to express that I had a hard day at work, I can put together a few sentences (either written or spoken) and generally convey that to the listener or reader. Whether I’m saying 100% of what I could say in my native language is immaterial, rather what is important is the act of communication itself. Similarly, pronunciation and grammar mistakes are less important here, as long as my general meaning gets along and can be interpreted from other’s language.

Another way of looking at working fluency is that even for native language speakers, there are many different ways of expressing yourself. Some people speak slow, others fast. Some speak with formal or advanced language where others keep it simple. And others talk in a fluid stream while others stutter and trip over themselves. But all of these native speakers have something in common – they can communicate and understand well enough that it serves their interests and doesn’t impact their life in a negative way (except for those with disabilities). If you can hone your skills in a foreign language to be as good as any of those myriad of native speakers, you’ve easily reached working fluently.

Of course, any level of fluency must (implicitly or otherwise) apply to a certain domain. Oftentimes the measure of whether one could live only using that foreign language is used, and it’s a good measure for basic working fluency. But then if someone asks you whether you understand and can speak skillfully about economics, science, or child bringing, and you realize you’d have quite a bit of trouble in those areas. Thats why that even if you are actually living in a country where you speak manly your chosen foreign language, it’s a good idea to set goals for which domain(s) of fluency you are aiming for.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

References

http://hopefullanguagelearner.wordpress.com/2014/04/24/fluent-in-3-months-review/

ちゃんと (chanto): doings things properly in Japanese

ちゃんと is a word I use fairly often and I thought it would be a good choice to write a focused blog post about it.

Although I have a fairly strong image of this word in my head, I decided on checking both the Japanese and English dictionary entries to see what the official definitions were.

Let’s first take a look at these. (If you are in a hurry, feel free to skim them)

===

Japanese-English dictionary entries: [words in brackets on the right are from the English translations of the example sentences]

1 〔きちんと〕regularly, neatly; 〔ゆがまずに〕straight  [“properly”, “punctually”]

2 〔間違いなく〕 [ “perfectly”, “exactly”]

3 〔身元などが確かな様子〕[“respectable”, “sound”, “decent”, “reputable”]
 少しも乱れがなく、よく整っているさま。
 確実で間違いのないさま。
 結果が十分であるさま。
 すばやく動作をするさま。さっと。
===

This is a good example of where dictionaries can give information overload that can overwhelm beginning students of a foreign language. If you are a perfectionist and have the time on your hands, you can read all the example sentences provided (links at the bottom of this post) and try to memorize all the different ways the word can be translated.

But if you just want a rough approximation to understand most of the situations where this word is used, you can just remember the concept of “properly”.  This works with many of the example sentences provided in the above dictionary entries.

Here are two simple sample sentences:

  • 野菜をちゃんと食べなさい。
  • Eat your vegetables.
  • ちゃんと喋って!
  • Speak properly!  (can be said when somebody is stuttering or making mistakes in their speech)

In the English translation for the first example I haven’t used the word ‘properly’ since it’s implied. The important thing is that you understand the feeling of ‘properly’ when you hear ちゃんと used in Japanese.

You can use the word ちゃんと also with itself and する or やる in the following fashion.

  • ちゃんとしなさい!
  • Do it properly! / Do it right!

Keep in mind that this sort of phrase would be typically used when speaking to a child, and could be considered rude when said to an adult.

ちゃんと is typically used as an adverb, but it can also be used as an adjective in the form ちゃんとした.

  • ちゃんとした大学に入りたいな
  • I want to get into a good/proper/reputable college.

Two words that are bit more formal and have a similar meaning are しっかり and きちんと, and they are used in a similar way to ちゃんと as adverbs. This reminds me of the time when I used the word ちゃんと to describe something an adult was doing and I was corrected by a Japanese person to use きちんと since it was more appropriate.

 

「ちゃんと」の意味がちゃんとわかりましたか?

 

References

http://dictionary.goo.ne.jp/leaf/jn2/142904/m0u/ちゃんと/

http://dictionary.goo.ne.jp/leaf/je2/48201/m0u/ちゃんと/

Language is always evolving

One frustrating thing about learning foreign languages is that many aspects of language (grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation, etc.) can appear to be random or arbitrary. I remember when learning Spanish my teacher used to respond to such comments by saying “One day, a long long time ago, there was a man who sat on a hill and decided on Spanish grammar”.

However, while parts of language, including your own native language, can seem mysterious and arbitrary, thats far from the truth.

Languages, just like the culture they are a part of, evolved over many hundreds of years through many small (and sometimes large) changes. Like with other types of evolution (such as that of biological organisms, if you happen to believe in that), most linguistic changes over time happen for a reason, namely because they serve some purpose that benefits the speakers of that language in some way.

For a moment let’s imagine a time when prehistoric humans didn’t have any established spoken language, only hand signals. Now if a certain tribe happened to discover (by accident or otherwise) a way of communicating with a system of grunts, they would have the advantage of being able to communicate better than other tribes who had no spoken language, allowing for more efficient hunting, foraging, and general cooperation amongst themselves.

Step forward to modern day, where world languages have much more advanced grammar, allowing the expression of a variety of ideas with relatively few words. Another interesting example is countries which have many dialects or regional languages, such as India or Japan. In environments like there were often reasons each tribe was separated from others, either a physical boundary (like rivers or mountains), or a cultural one. Dialects also serve the important function of associating you with a certain culture or group of people, and that helps with cohesion within the group.

For those of you like myself who are  studying Japanese, you may have wondered why the Japanese system of polite language is so extensive, and as a result so difficult to master. I haven’t studied Japanese history as much as I’d like to, but I’d bet it has something to do with the extensive caste system which was present until the society was westernized. I’ve seen some indications that there may be a gradual decline in the (proper) use of Japanese polite language, and I wouldn’t be surprised if in 50-100 years it’s importance had greatly decreased if not disappeared completely.

Another thing I’ve realized while studying the Japanese language is that words that are used commonly and express some simple concept are relatively short, which can be seen as an example of efficiency as a result of linguistic evolution. Take for example words that express body parts in Japanese. The following everyday words are all one or two syllables:  ‘me’ (eye), ‘i’ (stomach), ‘chi’ (blood), ‘ha’ (tooth), ‘yubi’ (finger), ‘ashi’ (foot), ‘kata’ (shoulder), ‘hana’ (nose),  ‘kubi’ (neck). Conversely, this set of words which are used less frequently are much longer: ‘fukurahagi’ (calf), ‘futomomo’ (thigh), and ‘kakato’ (heel). I’ve noticed this pattern with verbs too, where simple, common verbs tend to be short: ‘miru’ (see), ‘kiku’ (listen), ‘iu’ (say), ‘kaku’ (write), whereas verbs expressing more complex ideas are typically longer (‘kokoromiru’ (try), ‘furikaeru’ (reflect back), ‘hikkurikaesu’ (overthrow)).  I haven’t done an unbiased study on this and there is a certain amount of cherry picking here, but on the whole I feel these trends are too strong to be coincidence.

A final example of the evolution of language is the number of new expressions which have become popular in any major language, or the number of words which have retreated from popularity. If you pay attention to the language used by your grandparents, you’ll probably see they use many different words than you do. Of course, if the language you are speaking in is not their native language that is a different story.

So how can you use this information to improve your foreign language learning? First, it can help reduce your frustration, since most things related to language that appear arbitrary in actuality have a good (historical) reason for being the way they are. Second, if you so choose you can investigate word origins and evolution, and besides satisfying your curiosity it may help you memorize words better or have a deeper understanding of how that language works. And finally, it’s always good to keep in mind that language is tightly connect to the culture it originated from, and to really understand a language well you need to learn a great deal about it’s culture.

(Image taken from Wikipedia Commons: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Palais_de_la_Decouverte_Tyrannosaurus_rex_p1050042.jpg)

laQ (ラキュウ)- Japanese building blocks

I’m a huge fan of Lego bricks, so when I came across Japanese-made bricks called ‘laQ’ in New York’s Kinokuniya, I couldn’t help buy a small box. There was a variety of different sets, but I choose one of the smaller ones so it would fit in my luggage without any problem – the mini Stegosaurus.

This set comes with 88 pieces, each one of seven types of geometrically shaped blocks. Two of the types are flat shapes (a square and triangle), and the rest are connectors of various types, with some for connecting blocks in a flat plane and some at a right angle. Blocks are connected in free space (3D) which is fundamentally different to most Lego which are stacked vertically. This way of building is quite refreshing and fun, especially once you get over the initial challenge of learning how the various shapes connect together.

The disadvantage of these geometrically shaped pieces is that the figures they can make are generally quite abstract and as a result it’s difficult to make something that looks lifelike. I came to this conclusion after looking at the catalog of their different sets they sell (listed on their website). Most of them weren’t very realistic and didn’t appeal to me artistically, including the mini Stegosaurs I bought (see the above picture).

But if you are trying to make something that is geometrically shaped odds are it will turn out pretty well. I quickly gave up on making this awkward-looking dinosaur (the difficult assembly diagrams didn’t help), and experimented making my own little models. A Japanese shuriken looked pretty neat, and I bet one could make some cool robots with enough parts.

Another difference between Lego is that the bricks snap together very tightly, such that even if you threw a model into the wall you can expect it to stay mostly intact. The manual even contains a small section of how to take apart special shapes that are especially sturdy, like a 3D sphere which supposedly requires a pin to dismantle. Having said this, my son still enjoyed playing with laQ for a few minutes before moving on to another toy. That’s actually a good sign since for toys he has no interest in he’ll spend only a few seconds if that.

Overall I don’t these blocks will overtake Lego anytime soon, but they unique and interesting enough for a diversion once in a while. 88 bricks isn’t enough to make much, so next time I stop by Kinokuniya I might pick up a larger set.

Generally I advocate buying Japanese products and reading their user manuals to widen your Japanese vocabulary, but this toy isn’t too great for that since there is only a few sentences of Japanese inside. The diagrams for how to build the stegosaurus are mostly just pictures with few words in any language.

I did, however, learn that there is alternate word used to describe the individual pieces, in addition to the word 部品(ぶひん) which I had seen on Lego packaging.

パーツ  (paatsu)

But like most loanwords from English it was a bit of letdown. I think I’l keep using 部品 instead (:

 

References

http://www.laq.co.jp/en/

http://www.laq.co.jp/en/product/detail/dinosaur_ministegosaurus.php

Japanese Grammar – What’s it all about?

In a recent poll of mine there was many responders who said they wanted to learn more about Japanese grammar from this blog. While there are many sites and books out there that have a great deal of useful information about Japanese grammar, I thought I would write a post that looks at grammar from a high-level to help guide others in studying this challenging language. What parts of Japanese grammar are most important to learn?

Without getting into long-winded linguistic explanations of grammar, I’d say that grammar is basically the set of rules or equations that are used to put together words into properly formed sentences. Another way used to describe these rules ‘syntax’, which you may have heard of if you’ve studied computer languages. You can memorize millions of words and the characters that represent them, but without the proper grammar you can never make natural sentences, and you’ll have a very hard time of understanding since you’ll have to guess from many possible meanings.

The amazing thing about grammar is once you learn the basics, you can then use those to bootstrap your studies and quickly learn more and more words, simply by using a dictionary. For example without knowing verb conjugations you can’t even look up verb meanings, but once you grasp those it’s trivial to look up any verb. (The exception is that you’ll need to learn Kanji to be able to look up many verbs)

I’ll give a list of fundamental categories of grammar that are required to reach any level of fluency in Japanese, not in any particular order.

1) Word order: Basic Japanese word order is [subject] [object] [verb] , which is a big shift from English where the object is usually at the end.

2) Word omission: It’s important to know that subjects can be frequently omitted in Japanese (see post here).

3) Adjectives: Both i-adjectives and na-adjectives are a fundamental part of the language, and their conjugations should be learned as soon as possible. (大きい、大きくない、大きくて, etc.)

4) Adjectival/Relative clauses: How long phrases modify a word is a very common structure and Japanese is quite different from English in this respect (see post here).

5) Verbs: Verb conjugation and tenses are extremely important to learn, along with all the uses of each of the conjugations. (歩く、歩いて、歩け、etc)

6) Particles: Particles are one of the core parts of Japanese grammar, and learning each particle along with its various uses is essential (see posts herehere, here, and here).

7) The copula: The copula in Japanese is “だ/です/である” and represents the concept of “is”. There are various conjugations of this which must be learned (だ、で、だった、じゃない、じゃなくて、etc.)

8) Levels of politeness: This isn’t technically a separate category since “The copula” and “Verb” cover it, but in Japanese polite language (敬語) is very important to communicate naturally, so learning the ins and outs of that is a high priority.

9) Counters: Different types of objects in Japanese are counted with different counters. For example, flag objects are counted with ~枚(まい), such that three pieces of paper is 3枚 and the third piece is 3枚目。While these can be tedious to learn, from a grammar perspective all you need to understand is the  general patterns and the rest falls into place naturally with enough memorization.

10) Pronouns: The words これ、それ、あれ are used very commonly in Japanese, along with related words such as これ and ここ. A good grasp of their usage and meaning, especially the fact they can represent both physical and mental distance, is an important aspect of Japanese grammar.

11) Compound verbs: There are many cases in Japanese where a verb can be modified by another verb to change it’s meaning. You don’t need to memorize all these at once, only the general pattern which is [verb in pre-masu form] + [modifying verb]. For example, 歩き (pre-masu form of ‘to walk’) +はじめる(to start) => 歩きはじめる, which means “to start walking”. There are also a few cases where verbs can be modified by a adjective (see the post here).

12)  Abbreviations: I separate these from normal vocabulary since many of them are not in a dictionary. I wrote a post on these here.

Except for a few other minor things, thats it! Once you have a good handle on the above items, you can pretty much learn anything using a dictionary and an example sentence or two. It can be tedious and take years, but it’s mostly just memorization as opposed to understanding how grammar rules work which is a much more challenging endeavor.

The next important thing to learn (besides individual words themselves) is what I call grammar structures. A grammar structure is basically a pattern that is made up of multiple words and expresses a set meaning. For example the grammar structure “~したほうがいい” is one of the first which I learned and means something along the lines of “is better to do ~”.

While quite numerous, these grammar structures are much different than learning the grammar fundamentals that I enumerated above. The reason is that with knowledge of the fundamentals you can quickly understand almost any grammar structure and easily store it in your head for later access. For example, taking the expression “~したほうがいい” as an example: if one understands the past tense conjugation of verbs, the particle が, and the conjugation of i-adjectives, one can look up the words ほう(方)  and いい and figure out the overall meaning, as well as understand how to apply the pattern themselves with a different verb. Usually the meanings for these set phrases are not random and correlate strongly to the individual words, and if you think about this one I’m sure you’ll see what I mean.

Of course it’s not very polite to tell students of Japanese: “Now that you’ve learned grammar, just look up the rest in the dictionary”. With enough patience that can work with reading, and possibly writing, but when speaking or listening there is typically no time to pull out the dictionary. That’s why a Japanese teacher’s job (or website, textbook, etc.) is to present groups of words which are used frequently in daily life (like color words, or how to tell time), or are particularly hard to learn from a simple dictionary lookup (like this). But just listening or reading native Japanese is a great way to increase your vocabulary, especially if you keep track of the unfamiliar words and look them up later.

Recently I had read a blog post where someone quoted a book  stating that grammar should be given a focus later, once the person learns basic conversation skills. I completely disagree, since learning common expressions will be that much easier once you know the grammar fundamentals. For example, the expression “僕の名前は〜です” can be easily learned if someone knows the basics of の、は, and です, but without that they are forced to do blind memorization which is tedious and easier to forget.

I agree that learning all the fundamentals of grammar before moving onto anything else can be quite tedious. The best is a balance where learning a few expressions in parallel give satisfaction from actual usage and recognition of these phrases, and in turn motivates to continue learning. Just don’t wait – give grammar a fair share in your study time from the beginning, and you’ll be rewarded generously for it.

 

References

http://selftaughtjapanese.com/2014/04/17/poll-what-do-you-want-from-this-blog/