Monthly Archives: August 2014

Of the many ways to enjoy studying a foreign language

One of the great things about studying a foreign language is there are so many different ways to study it apart from boring textbook work. Whether it’s striking up a conversation with your waiter in a foreign language, making a penpal from a country of interest, or attempting to read a magazine in a foreign language, you’ll never run out of ways to increase your knowledge and, if you have the right attitude, enjoy yourself immensely.

That’s one of the reasons I created Language On Track – so I could make a list of different ways of learning a new language and share this information with others. The site’s database has around ~100 activities, or as I call them goals, which are suggested based on the your level, which is in turn calculated based on the information entered in your profile.  There are several different categories including Culture, Grammar, Reading, and Writing, so you choose your activity depending on what skill you want to improve.

The entire system is free to anyone who creates a account. There is an email address which is asked during the account creation process, but I’ve disabled email address verification so if you are concerned about giving away your address feel free to put in a fake address. The only drawback is that if you’ve forgot your password there is no way to get it back.

Here is the URL: 

Japanese movie review: 「そして、父になる」 (Like Father, Like Son)

Since I speak to my son in Japanese most of the time, I’m always looking for more ways to increase my vocabulary in the area of natural phrases that I can use when playing or interacting with him. This is one of the reasons I was eager to watch this film, which my wife found at a Japanese market in Orlando.

This movie is about two families whose  sons were swapped at birth at the hospital. I’m not sure about Japanese movies, but in American movies this type of story goes back until at least 1991 (like this movie) and as such it seemed like a pretty generic premise, so I didn’t expect too much from the beginning.

One of the two fathers is played by Fukuyama Masaharu,  who is a singer-songwriter, musician, and actor who has appeared in many Japanese movies and TV dramas. I had seen him in the TV series Galileo and liked his acting there, so was looking forward to see how he would play this role. (As a side point, I’ve heard a few songs from one of Fukuyama’s albums and it wasn’t something I’d recommend to anyone)

His acting in this movie wasn’t that different from the other roles I had seen, except for a few emotional scenes which he did a reasonable job at. And the movie’s story lived up to my (lack of expectations), in the sense that there wasn’t any major surprises, though parts of the movie made me think about what it is to be a father, which was probably the point of the movie to begin with.

The place the movie excelled was in the area of exposing me to some Japanese I hadn’t heard before, especially some phrases I might be able to use with my son. Like many movies, due to background noises and lack of clear enunciation the dialog was a bit hard to hear so I turned on the Japanese subtitles. In addition to the language itself, I got to see some slices of what Japanese everyday life is like. Sure it’s fiction but I’m sure much of the elements portrayed parallel those in real life.  This sense of everyday-ness (what I like to think of as 生活感) is characterized by a slower paced story with little to no background music. It’s hard to find in dramas but you pretty frequent in movies, at least from those I’ve seen.

In conclusion, if you’re studying Japanese or interested in Japanese culture this is a highly recommended movie, but otherwise I wouldn’t rush out to go buy it.


Japanese podcast highlight: 夢夢 (Yume yume) Engine

With a busy schedule and very limited time, listening to a Japanese podcast in the car on the way to and from work is one of the few things I can do consistently to keep up my Japanese ability and learn new words.

Ecclemon was nice enough to recommend the podcast 夢夢 engine ( and I’ve been addicted to it ever since.

In Japan, the academic world is divided into 理系 (rikei) and 文系 (bunkei). 理系 focuses on studying the natural world and 文系 studying people and the works created by them. In English, these terms map fairly nicely to “the sciences” and “the arts”.

Yume yume Engine is a podcast designed to showcase interesting and appealing parts of science (理系) to students of both disciplines. Each segment lasts around ~30 minutes, and contains an interview with a prominent researcher in some field of science. There is a wide range of fields: robotics, statistics, math, archaeology, plants, medicine, etc.

This show is perfect for adding more intellectual or academic words to your lexicon, as those interviewed usually don’t hold back with using difficult or rare scientific terms (bet you didn’t know the word 病原微生物). Also, if your Japanese is good enough to understand much of the content, you’ll be impressed with how they manage to find everyday, accessible ways to explain different scientific concepts and to really make you want to learn more about this stuff.

Besides the difficulty level, the only other drawback to this show is the multiple advertisements you are forced to hear each time (by Tokyo Electron, the show’s sponsor).

The website contains log of all episodes for easy download (check here) with brief descriptions of each, so try finding one that suits your interest and taking a listen.



Language goals help foreign language study

One thing that is certain about foreign language study is you have to learn about many different types of things: reading, writing, grammar, conversation, culture, etc. If you are taking a formal language class at a college or similar place, the teacher will guide you to to a proper balance between all these topics through lectures, choice of study materials, and homework assignments.

But if you are like many of us and don’t have an opportunity to take a class, it can be tricky to juggle these things, and even if you find a great textbook to study on your own it can be difficult to remember when to study and stay motivated.

If you are diligent you can maintain a document or spreadsheet of things you want to study, but wouldn’t it be great if there was a tool that helped you track the different components of language study?

This just happens to be one of the main features of the website I created, Language on Track, where you can create your own custom personal language goals. When you create a language goal you can assign it to a general category (like ‘Grammar’, ‘Conversation’, ‘Culture’, etc.) and organize related information like how long the activity will take and how often you want to achieve it.

For example, let’s say you wanted to read Japanese children’s books twice a week, for one hour. You can create this language goal with a few simple clicks and then it will be displayed on your home page. If desired, you can also get email notifications for your goals scheduled for each day.

Once you complete each instance of a goal (say you said 1 hour of a certain children’s book on Wednesday), you input that information into the site along with related information, like how difficult the goal was and what you learned from it. You can even put in vocabulary words that you learned and add them to your personal dictionary for later review. And the goals that you create can be shared with other users so they can be inspired to try new ways of studying.

I gave Japanese as an example, but you can use this site for *any* foreign language: Chinese, Russian, Italian, even English!

So please check out the site if you are interested. Since it’s still relatively new I’ve decided to make everything free for the short term, and of course there are no ads or spam.

If you have any questions about the site feel free to post responses to this thread.

(Credit: featured image of arrow and target taken from:


Japanese book review:「テレビゲームのひみつ」 (The secret of video games)

The Japanese are known for their video games, with a long line of classics like Street Fighter, Mario Bros., Final Fantasy, Devil May Cry, or even Dance Dance Revolution. While in the last decade or so the number of non-Japanese game companies has increased, the Japanese have continued to put out great quality games at a great pace, and if you manage to browse a video game store or game center in Japan you’ll probably be surprised by the different types of games being produced that may have not made it to America yet.

With this little bit of background history, it’s less of a surprise that a book like “テレビゲームのひみつ” would exist, which is basically an attempt to educate about the art of computer games and persuade the reader to join the game industry. If you look closely into the featured image, you’ll see ‘Capcom Game World’ written inside of the the TV shown, and they are one of the main sponsors behind this book.

This book is part of the “学研まんがでよくわかるシリーズ” series which is focused on teaching concepts using Manga (comic book) form and text. Since these books are targeted at a younger audience, pretty much all Kanji has Furigana (descriptions of the readings) which is great for those still learning these difficult characters.

“The secret of video games” is made up of comic book sections (part B&W and part color) where the dialogue is pretty simplistic, and full page textual sections where the Japanese is a bit more advanced. Besides showing how cool it is to be make video games, there are many topics like the Japanese game rating system,  different jobs in game creation, game history, and even suggestions to parents how to avoid any potential negative effects of gaming (pick appropriate games, play together with your child, foster other hobbies like physical activity, and pick a day of the week where no games are played, among other things).

To give you an idea of the content, here is a short excerpt from page 91, a section about the game industry. The Japanese is a bit more difficult in this section compared to much of the remainder of the book.


This is quite a long sentence but I’ll do my best for a rough translation:

“The game industry aims to foster cultural development by helping to improve our children’s imagination through games, and also by helping to support field trips to game companies for elementary- and middle-school children”

Reading through the book it’s clear there is a heavy bias towards games and how they can help children’s growth (and society’s), but if you’re a gamer yourself you’ll quickly forgive this.

Regardless of your stance towards games and game-making, this book is a interesting read and is a unique window into Japanese culture. It’s only ~100 pages long, and serves as good reading practice to anyone studying Japanese. The only minor drawback is it’s a bit aged, having come out in 2007.

I picked it up used at Book Off in New York for only $3.00, but I think this book is worth buying online (hopefully used) if you are into the subject matter like I am.




Author: 外山準一

Illustrator: 大岩ピュン

Foreign language accents and levels of thought

I think it’s commonly accepted that the younger you start learning a new language, the easier it is to become fluent. The human brain just seems to have more plasticity at an early age, and many studies seem to give credence to that idea. But it’s not to say that taking on a new foreign language in your 40s, 50s, or even later is too late – depending on how focused you are and the time spent (plus your linguistic abilities), you can still make great progress and learn to communicate in that language to some degree.

One area that is particularly difficult to master completely is pronunciation. Depending on where you live and work, there’s a good chance that around you are some people who are quite fluent in English but have an accent because they started learning English a little later in life. For that reason I don’t expect to ever be able to polish my Japanese to the level that I am indistinguishable from a foreigner. Honestly if I can master grammar completely and be able to fluently speak about almost anything on my mind, I’ll consider my foreign language study a success.

In my own life experiences I look for events that relate to learning (and sometimes unlearning) of foreign language accents, and sometimes these can point to interesting things about how the mind learns languages.

One such anecdote is when I was drinking alcohol with some friends that spoke Japanese, and later I was told that my Japanese pronunciation got significantly worse (had more of an ‘accent’) when I was inebriated. Of course my English was likely slurred to some extend, but the interesting thing is that my Japanese pronunciation was not only slurred, but it seemed to devolve to sounding more like English.

Another story that stands out in my memory is when a workmate told me how a relative had gotten Alzheimer’s, and around that time a thick accent returned to his English speech which had long disappeared several decades back.

What’s common between these two cases is that the way we learn and retain things is different between an adult an a child. The way I think of it is that our native language we’ve learned as a child is more ingrained at a lower level (In computer terms, this seems to parallel to the concept of ‘hardware’ or possibly ‘operating system’)  and things we learn later are done at a much higher level. Foreign language pronunciation learned on a high level can sound quite natural, but it takes more effort and processing time, both consciously and subconsciously. For that same reason, I can listen to English in the background while attending to some other task and understand the general gist of what is being said, but with Japanese I have to make a much greater effort and cannot effectively multitask listening.

If you have any interesting or educational stories about foreign language accents please let me know!

Shinmeikai Japanese Accent Dictionary

One topic I’ve written several posts on is how pronunciation is so important when learning Japanese, and I had given a link to an online accent dictionary that I see a few people had checked out. I also noted that I owned a physical accent dictionary, but had never really used it much.

I decided to pull it out, the Shinmeikei Japanese accent dictionary (新明解日本語アクセント辞典). In the age of the internet where nearly everything is available online, it feels strange to even use a paper reference book, but after looking up a few words I was glad I did.

For beginners, websites that show basic intonation are fine (like the one I referenced above), but if you are really serious about perfecting your pronunciation, this book is the perfect companion. Here are some of the reasons why:

Word count: The Shinmeikai has over 70,000 words which doesn’t compare to any websites I’ve seen.

No ads or distractions:When studying from a web page, you typically have to deal with ads, menus, and other things that usually detract from your focus.

Word combinations: This dictionary even goes so far as to group words into categories, and demonstrate the entire pitch flow (high/low) for different endings. For example you may know what 赤い (akai) sounds like on its own, but what about 赤ければ (akakereba)? Or what about if you follow a verb with a certain particle (like を)? In some cases this may be obvious but in others its definitely not.

Regional differences: The Shinmeikai has map which shows different regions and how they effect intonation. There is the well-known ones like Tokyo and Osaka dialect, but also others such as regions where there is ‘flat’ intonation. Pretty interesting if you are into this kind of stuff.

Other goodies: This book also contains some useful hints that took me years to figure out, like how the ki sound in  企画 (kikaku) is pronounced in a breathy way without fully enunciating it. Also there are sometimes several different pronunciations listed, both the classic and modern ones. There are also full-page diagrams of the major word categories showing an easily-understood graph of the pitch falls and raises.

One interesting side-effect of studying with a book like this is will show you quickly if you really learned hiragana alphabet order (あいうえお、かきくけこ, …) or if you just think you did. With this I quickly confirmed that although I can rattle off hiragana without too much trouble, I get stuck when trying to figure out if は is before な (answer: it isn’t). When looking up words in a physical dictionary like this you have to manually flip through the pages until you can zero in on the exact word. It’s pretty challenging and I still need alot more practice to perfect the skill.

I have an older edition which is great, but the latest edition looks like it even comes with a CD which will be a boon for those of you who still prefer computer-lookup of words.

A book like this is unique because it really only appeals to those somewhere in the middle of the spectrum of those studying the language. If you are a beginner and just learning random stuff here and there, it’s probably overkill. On the other hand, if you are (or planning on) living in Japan for a few years, you’ll likely pick up a great deal of the proper pich patterns just from listening and repeating words and phrases, though if you wanted to try and become a NHK announcer you might want to have one of these as a reference.

But for the sweet spot of those who are studying the language seriously without having the opportunity to live in the country for a long time, which is really the target audience of this blog, this book is near perfect for what it offers. There is no way you are going to just read it from cover-to-cover and memorize everything, but if you target certain commonly used words (like 日本語 and 英語) you can gradually make your intonation closer to that of a native speaker.



 Older version (the one I have):新明解日本語アクセント辞典-金田一-春彦/dp/438513670X/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1407152564&sr=1-2&keywords=新明解アクセント

Latest edition (with CD):新明解日本語アクセント辞典-第2版-CD付き-金田一-春彦/dp/4385136726/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1407152564&sr=1-1&keywords=新明解アクセント

Language on Track, a new tool to help language learning – open to the public

Not sure if anyone has noticed, but I’ve stopped posting for quite some time, having been busy with work and just life in general. I tend to get focus most of my free time and effort on one or two things at a time, and that energy has been sucked up by other tasks lately.

But there was a story I had began telling on my blog sometime back that I felt compelled to continue, so I’m back (:

I’m referring to a website I had began designing earlier in the year, Language on Track, which was a new type of site designed to be a useful companion to anyone studying any foreign language.

I had a few people informally alpha test the site and had fixed a few things based on their feedback (thanks to all that participated especially to those who gave feedback!).

I think its about time to open up the site up to the public for a full public beta test. The site is free and all features I’ve designed are available to anyone who creates an account.

In future posts I’m planning on talking about the features of the site (such as the ability to set custom linguistic goals), but for now I’ll just give the link for anyone who is interested in checking it out.

There is an automated system for providing feedback, so once you create an account you can use that if you have any comments, bugs, or feature requests.

I hope some of you can find the tools available not the site can help your linguistic progress.