Monthly Archives: September 2014

Using a summaries in your foreign language study to increase retention and understanding

In a previous blog post I discussed how the element of necessity makes the brain more active in the learning process, increasing retention and understanding of foreign language.

One little trick I discovered is that if you are planning on giving a summary to someone about some media you are consuming (article, podcast, movie, etc.) then  suddenly you have some necessity and the above effect kicks in.

For example, if you are listening to a podcast in a foreign language, promise to yourself you’ll give a summary of that podcast to someone in the same foreign language. If nobody is available you can just write a blog entry about it, and even if you don’t publish the entry publicly it will have some effect.

Without some sort of external goal, you mind has less reason to really focus on each and every word, and less motivation to remember specific words later. It’s like having a class where you are assigned reading but there are no tests or quizzes – even if you try to force yourself to concentrate it’s hard.

The effect of making summaries of this is twofold – the heightened focus when you first consume the material, and then the act of actually using (recalling, thinking, and speaking) the words or phrases yourself.

Furthermore there is a feedback effect: If you try this once and have difficulty summarizing the material in any detail, next time you do the exercise you’ll try even harder to listen to, understand, and retain the words you come across.

Try it, I’m sure you find it a great tool to add to your foreign language studies!



Japanese Anime Movie Review: Wolf Children (おおかみこどもの雨と雪)

Although Japanese anime was the first thing that got me really interested in Japanese culture, the more I studied Japanese the more I learned to appreciate other media such as Japanese novels, dramas, and (live action) movies.

Having said that, once in awhile I still get in the mood to enjoy some high-quality anime from Japan, and “Wolf Children” was a great way to satisfy my craving.

Like most of my reviews I won’t go deep into any of the story or be too nitpicky about little things. My main goal is to tell you whether something is worth watching (or reading) and the basic reasons why.

This movie was quite certainly very worth watching, with it’s beautiful backgrounds, creative music, and universal themes. Above all, there was a sense of what I would call naked innocence persistent throughout the movie – a style of storytelling that isn’t showy but instead gets to the heart of things.

If the above paragraph sounds a bit vague, it was supposed to, but let me put it another way. Some of the more touching scenes in this movie (and there are several) remind me of “Grave of the Fireflies”, and others of a connection with nature present in some of the Ghibli films.

This movie is also useful for those studying Japanese, since there is much dialog involving children which is easier to figure out than average adult-dialog. If you don’t know Japanese don’t fret, since the subtitle translations were pretty well done (I only saw a handful of lines that were not to my liking).

I could go into detail about some of the good reviews this movie has received, or the box office numbers, but really that would just waste your time. Go out and rent this, or even better, buy the Blu-Ray so you can see it again and again. If you have kids even better – my son really enjoyed watching this.

The director, Mamoru Hosada, also worked on the anime titles “The Girl Who Leapt Through Time” and “Summer Wars” which are both great films, be sure to see them if you haven’t already.



Guessing a difficult Japanese word from it’s Kanji: 表面張力

I recently heard the word 表面張力 (pronounced “hyoumen chouryoku”) on a science-related podcast and at first I was completely clueless but after hearing an example usage or two I managed to guess the meaning.

I’ve mentioned this in another post or two, but one of the great things about Japanese is that you can guess word meanings just from looking at the Kanji, or by guessing which kanji are used from their sounds when listening. For those of you who don’t know the meaning of this term let’s try to guess it’s meaning from the Kanji. Here is a list of the individual characters and their general meanings (using this site):

表 – surface, table, diagram

面 – face, features, mask, surface

張 – spread, stretch, lengthen

力 – power, strain, exert

Any guesses? If you still aren’t sure, check out this page which shows a kid’s experiment about 表面張力. The picture near the bottom will likely tell you the answer even if you don’t understand much of the Japanese. Another hint – the word 表面 by itself means “surface”, though from the kanji meanings you probably already guessed that.

The answer is “surface tension”, which is a pretty advanced scientific term so some of you may not be familiar with it, or know exactly what it means. Here is the basic definition taken from wikipedia:

Surface tension is a contractive tendency of the surface of a liquid that allows it to resist an external force.

A example of this, shown in the childrens experiment page I referred to above (here) ‘s when you have a glass filled with water and a tiny layer of water develops on the top above the cup which normally you would think is impossible since the water should overflow. Surface tension is what is causing this effect.



Japanese culture highlight: 挨拶 (aisatsu)

Having spent no more than a few weeks in Japan in my lifetime, I usually hesitate to speak too much about Japanese culture because I have so much to learn and so little to teach. However, the topic I have selected this time – 挨拶 – is something I feel I have enough experience with to make writing a worthwhile post possible.

挨拶 (aisatsu) is roughly translated as “greetings” or “salutations”, but if you just look at the English translation you miss the depth of this concept and it’s tight connection to Japanese society.

So what really is ant aisatsu? Dictionary Goo lists eight different meanings for this word, but lets focus on the main one which I’ll excerpt here along with my rough translation into English:



A phrase or mannerism which is exchanged as term of respect at various times such as meeting or parting with someone.


This meaning seems to line up with our English concept of “greeting”, such as “hello” or “goodbye”, and it’s true that to a certain extent there are similarities between Japanese and western greetings.

Rather than the definition of what a “greeting” is, what’s more important it’s emphasis and consistency within Japanese society, where respect and politeness is  very highly regarded. For example, children are taught over and over again how important aisatsu is, and if you skim a bunch of children’s books you’ll likely find proof of that. Also, if you’ve visited Japan you may been surprised by how eager employees are to great you with the typical “irasshaimase” greeting, oftentimes simultaneously and with a loud, clear voice. Personally that was one thing that caught me off guard during my trips there.

For me, Japanese greetings are more than just an arbitrary custom, but are rather an important gesture which signals to another person you are acknowledging, even respecting, their presence, and are open to communicating with them now and in the future. In some ways it reminds me of aizuchi in the sense that it helps maintain human relations  and interaction (see my post here on that).

Common aisatsu include こんにちは (“konnichiwa” => “hello”), and さようなら (“sayounara” => “goodbye”), as well as  the workplace phrase お疲れさま (“otsukaresama”). The formal bow (お辞儀) is also considered a Japanese greeting. And let’s not forget the extremely important いただきます (“itadakimasu”) and ごちそうさまでした (“gochisousama deshita”) phrases which are used when starting and completing a meal.

Though many Japanese people will give allowances towards foreigners learning Japanese, it’s a good idea to learn correct aistasu and use them at their proper place and time, especially if you are living in Japan. It will help you interact more naturally with the Japanese people.




More foreign language tracking: vocabulary words

When creating my language learning website Language on Track, I wanted to add some other features in addition to goal tracking to really make it a nice set of tools to help study foreign languages.

The one part of LOT that I likely spent the most time on and am the most proud of is the Journal function, which allows word analysis of Japanese text, inputted either directly, via cut-and-paste, or via referring URL.

Once you input the text and kick off the analysis process, it will first figure out what words are present in the text. For Japanese, since there are no spaces this is quite a challenging task and involves alot of trial-and-error behind the scenes. After the words are found they are counted, and the results are displayed in a large table with the number of occurrences of each word in this journal entry, the number of occurrences in previous journal entries, as well as the top 10 vocabulary words with their counts.

At first this may seem like a exercise in textual analysis and statistics, but the results of the process can be very valuable to someone studying Japanese.

For example, imagine you have started a blog in Japanese where you write a few paragraphs a day. You can cut in paste this into the Journal module  and keep track of how many new words you’ve used and which words you are using the most frequently. You can set a goal like “I want to learn 5 new words a day and use them in a blog entry” and this tool will help you achieve that goal.

Another neat use is to enter in a URL of a Japanese-language article you plan to read, and then use the vocabulary list generated as a reference to look up words either before, or after, you read the article.

To help with this second scenario, I even added the ability to automatically look up the definitions for each vocab word and create a study list from them, and then create an online quiz using those words. For cases where there is more than one definition for a word you are asked to help differentiate which use was intended.

The process to do the analysis can take some time, so be prepared to wait a little while until it completes. Try to avoid analyzing huge pages as the server may time out if things take too long.

For all those of you who are interested, please check out the site which is still completely free and has no ads or other advertisements of any sort.

“otagai” and “otagaisama” in Japanese

お互い (“otagai”) is a Japanese word which is a little tricky to translate into English directly, but roughly means something along the lines of “each other’s”, “one other’s” or “mutual”. A common expression which uses this phrase is the following:

  • お互い頑張りましょう
  • Let’s each try our best

Notice that this is a little different than “一緒に (issho ni) 頑張りましょう” which has the connotation of working or trying together whereas お互い can mean trying separately in our own ways.

お互い is also commonly used in the following form:

  • お互い + pre-masu form of verb + 合う (au)

The “pre-masu + 合う” part means to do a verb together and the お互い emphasizes this condition.

  • お互い助け合う家族がいいね    (助ける, tasukeru => to help)
  •  (I feel that) A family that helps one another is really nice.

Another way you see お互い used is in the expression “お互い様” (otagaisama) which is used to express two people are in the same position or situation.

  • Person A: 意地悪! (ijiwaru)
  • Person A: (you’re) mean!
  • Person B: お互い様だろう
  • Person B: That makes two of us!

While the “sama” word here is spelled with the same Kanji as in the polite “sama” (like in 王様, ousama), I believe here さま instead carries the meaning of “state” or “condition” (said in Japanese as ありさま or 様子). Other similar phrases with a similar usage of さま are お疲れさま, ご苦労さま, and ごちそうさま.

As a final note, the first expression I mentioned (お互い頑張りましょう)would be appropriate for a superior to say to someone in his or her team, but the reverse (saying it to someone of a higher social ‘level’) is considered rude by some since it has the connotation that both people are on the same level. See this post for details on that (in Japanese).



バトンタッチ (“Baton Touch”) in Japanese

This expression is an interesting one, which I’ve seen used in a unique way in both real life and in a Japanese movie.

The original meaning is pretty easy to guess – it’s the term for when passing a baton on in a relay race from one runner to the next. However the meaning has been extended to mean the act of passing off a job or some type of responsibility to an other person.

I saw this expression exchanged (no pun intended) between two Japanese parents, when one parent passes off the responsibility of watching the child to the other parent.

It’s interesting how so many loan words in Japanese have taken their original meaning and went off in a slightly different direction over time. It’s as if the words and phrases themselves are evolving along with the cultures that use them.