Monthly Archives: November 2014

Happy 1st Birthday Self Taught Japanese!

It’s hard to believe, but I started this blog on WordPress exactly a year ago, on Dec 1, 2013.

Although there were some periods where I didn’t write very often, overall I managed 170 posts, which translates to almost one every two days. Given my busy schedule I’m still amazed I found the time to update this often, but it has been very rewarding to watch my followers and views gradually grow, and overall it’s been well worth the time.

To date I’ve gotten about 15,000 views, and given this is somewhat of a niche blog topic (apart from the fact that some of my articles talk about foreign languages in general, which has a somewhat broader audience) I think its a nice figure. I’ve also seen my monthly views gradually rise in most months, even when I only wrote a handful of posts. Not only have I gotten a good number of official “followers”, but I’ve gained a few people who frequently read my blog and seem to enjoy it (“followers” in the real sense), which I’m grateful for.

It’s also interesting to compare the view stats of various posts, for example the top most viewed post which was ちゃんと (chanto): doings things properly in Japanese with over 600 views. It’s unfortunate that Google stopped giving detailed search term information for most searches, but just from looking at the titles of the more popular posts I can get an idea of what people are interested in most.

I’ve also posted a few surveys and gotten some really good feedback from them, thanks again to everyone who participated.

In the last year I’ve read a few books in Japanese as well as kept up my daily conversations in Japanese with my wife, and even started a new blog in Japanese where I’ve written over 20 posts. Through all this I think I’ve improved in some areas, though I still have much to learn.

It’s a really unique, and strange experience to feel like I have enough experience to offer help to learners of Japanese, and yet I am still actively studying myself day-to-day. But I really enjoy both teaching and learning so maybe this is a good place to be at this moment in time.

Apart from language learning-specific topics, I’ve grown as a blogger as I learned some of the inns and outs of what it takes to make a good Wordpress blog. For any new blogs I start I’ll be carrying over much of this knowledge to help me hit the ground running, as they say.

As for the future, as usual there is a great many things I would like to try out, such as making a YouTube or audio version of this podcast, making a series of more proper lessons for Japanese learners, trying a hand at translating from Japanese to English, or even writing a novel or short story in Japanese. It’s hard to completely predict where my whims will take me, but because of the amount of interest in blog I plan to keep putting out new articles, at least for awhile.

I’m always open to new ideas about topics to write about, so if you have any please feel free to drop me a line anytime (you can just reply to this post).

If you enjoy this blog or just want to congratulate me for the occasion, feel free to become a follower of this blog.

My wish for the next year is that all of us make great progress in our Japanese (or other foreign language) learning. May the long, hard path to language fluency be equally fun and rewarding! And may those that want to travel to Japan (either again or for the first time) find the opportunity to do so.

ん and the disappearing Japanese Y(en)

Although this is a textual blog, I can’t help but talk about Japanese pronunciation now and then because it’s such an important element to being fluent.

This morning I was listening to a Japanese podcast and had an interesting mini-discovery about the japanese letter ‘ん’ (‘n’), so I thought I would share it with everyone.

For English speakers learning Japanese, there are many aspects of pronunciation one has to keep track of: different vowel sounds, consonants, as well as intonation patterns. Of course the really tricky part is when you put letters and words together and things just ‘flow’ naturally – and this is the part that takes years of practice (unless you are very young or a linguistic genius).

The Japanese “ん” is one of the more tricky letters because it seems to similar to the English ‘n’, and yet has some key differences.

To use a simple example, if you were to try and pronounce the word きん (‘kin’, a way to say ‘gold’) using the English ‘n’, it probably wouldn’t end up so bad. (If you’re new to Japanese, the tricker part here would be to make sure you got your ‘き’ vowel right, making a ‘kee’ sound not an ‘kii’ sound).

But when you run into a word where a ん is followed by certain letters the pronunciation gets a little hairy because things can change as a result of the word flow.

The most important thing to know is that when making a ん sound in Japanese, the tongue doesn’t always touch the top of the mouth or teeth like it does in English (like in the word ‘ran’). Instead the tongue sort of ‘floats’ and what you end up with is a light ‘ng’ sound (like in the English word ‘rang’). It’s interesting to note here in English the sound of ‘n’ changes as well because we don’t pronounce ‘rang’ like ‘ran’ + ‘g’ since the letters influence one another.

A great example because it is very applicable to everyday Japanese is when you are counting money when 円, which is pronounced as ‘en’ by itself (note: it can also be pronounced as ‘maru’ depending on the context, but that is when you aren’t counting money).

For example:

  • 百円 (hyakuen) = 100 Yen
  • 千円 (sen’en) = 1 thousand Yen
  • 万円 (man’en) = 10 thousand Yen

Because 百円 has no ‘ん’ sound in the middle of it, the pronunciation is relatively straightforward.

But 千円 and 万円 both have an embedded ‘ん’, and as a result they usually sound more like ‘mangyen’ and ‘sengyen’ when said quickly (which is most of the time in natural Japanese).

The mini-discovery I alluded to in this post’s intro is that I heard someone reading a postcard message written in Japanese which had the word ”万円” in it, and the broadcaster read it very slowly and clearly enunciated. The surprising thing was that there was not even a trace of the ‘y’ sound. I heard him then say that same word a moment later at normal speed and it the subtle ‘y’ sound seemed to come back. I then re-listenened to that portion several times and confirmed what I had heard.

I think the important lesson here is that Japanese speakers are not going out of their way to pronounce this ‘Y’ sound, but it just happens naturally when the sounds flow together well, and it just happens to sound like a ‘Y’ sound to English ears.

Initially you can just try saying ‘mangyen’ but just be aware you’ll likely over pronounce the ‘ng’ and ‘y’ parts at first – remember that Japanese sounds really can’t be accurately represented using English letters, they are just approximations. Just pay careful attention to when you hear native or fluent speakers pronounce this type of word and you can gradually refine your pronunciation.

If you looking for a real challenge you can try to pronounce 恋愛 (ren’ai) and 管理 (kan’ri). These are really tricky to get perfect and I’ve spent a great deal of time practicing them on my own. I won’t talk about them in detail here, but may address that in a future post.

On a side note, if you curious why we call Japanese money ‘Yen’ not ‘en’, see this post. I thought it was for the same reason but there appears to be more historical background involved.

References

http://japanese.stackexchange.com/questions/5915/why-is-the-japanese-currency-pronounced-yen-in-english

Japanese drama review: 素敵な選Taxi (suteki na sen-Taxi)

(I’ve made a single question survey regarding Japanese ability – if you are interested please check it out here. Thanks!)

As things have been the last few years, I haven’t spent much time watching Japanese dramas, and finding one that is good enough to keep my attention past the first episode is even rarer.

“素敵な選Taxi” is one of the few great ones that kept me looking forward to the next episode. Firstly, it stars longtime actor Yukata Takenouchi (see detail here) who helped make classic 90s dramas like Beach Boys and Long Vacation classic. I’ve seen him in many serious roles, but this time his deadpan delivery just perfectly fits the comedic role. When I hear his lines I tend to laugh out loud, which is surely a combination of good scriptwriting, delivery, and the funny premise of the drama.

As for the premise itself, it involves the “sen-Taxi” which is a magical vehicle that can take you back in time as far as you’d like to go. Of course, the farther back you go the higher the price is. For example, 30 minutes into the past costs something along the lines of 30000 Yen (roughly $300 USD).

In all honesty, the drama is quite formulaic after the first episode and things fall a pretty predictable pattern, though the twist at the end isn’t always that predictable. But seeing how people would go back in time to “make things right” (thats a reference to Quantum Leap, one of my favorite American series, which has a vaguely similar concept) is at times funny and poignant, whether they return for love, vengeance, or some other reason.

Now that you have a rough idea of the plot I can explain the show’s title which is essentially a cheesy wordplay. The word 選択 (sentaku) means ‘choice’ in Japanese, and so ‘sen-Taxi’ is a shortening of 選択+タクシー(taxi). It’s pretty much impossible to translate directly to English and keep the pun, but the literal meaning would be something like “Wonderful choice Taxi”. If I had to make a slightly better non literal translation I’d try something like “The Amazing Taxi of Choices”.

Part of the shows formula is a short scene at the beginning and end set in a bar, capping the ~45 min show. It’s usually quite funny it it’s own right, as the bartender and Takenouchi interact with the various customers and employees. Here is a bit of sen-Taxi trivia: the bartender is played by Bakarhythm (a crazy name that translates to “stupid-rhythm”, surely not his real one) who happens to be the show’s creator.

I can’t guarantee you have the same sense of humor as me, but this one is definitely worth watching at least the first episode of to see if it catches your fancy. I think it is still being aired so you’ll have to wait a while until it is released, though if you search around you might find it online somewhere.

References

http://www.ktv.jp/sentaxi/index.html

http://wiki.d-addicts.com/Suteki_na_Sen_TAXI

http://www.jdorama.com/artiste.231.htm

http://asianwiki.com/Bakarhythm

Counters in Japanese

One thing that can be a bit challenging about learning Japanese is its system for counting items. In this post I’ll go over that and give some related resources.

The basic formula for using counters is pretty simple. If you have something you want to count you use a combination of the numeral (いち、に、さん, etc.) plus the type-specific counter. This rule itself is pretty simple but in order to fluently use counters you must master two things: the exceptions in pronunciation and the large number of counters for different objects.

First, let’s take a simple example: counting times (occurrences of an event).

The counter for this is 回 (pronounced ‘kai’) and if you think of going around and around repeating something the Kanji is easy to remember as well. Let’s count from ‘1 time’ to ’10 times’:

1回 (ikkai)

2回 (nikai)

3回 (sankai)

4回 (yonkai)

5回 (gokai)

6回 (rokkai)

7回 (nanakai)

8回 (hakkai)

9回 (kyuukai)

10回 (jukkai)

You may have noticed the items in bold (1,6,8,10) are pronounced a bit differently that you might expect. For example 1回 is not “ichi” + “kai” => “ichikai” but instead “ikkai”. A similar pattern occurs for may other counters (1個=いっこ, 1本=いっぽん, etc.). Noticed that I am writing these using the easy-to-read 1,2,3,… numerals but they can also be written with Kanji numbers, like 一回、二回、三回.

There are other exceptions when using other counters such as 匹, which is normally read as ‘hiki’ but when used as a counter turns into ‘ippiki’, ‘nihiki’, ‘sanbiki’, etc.

Since there are many of these counters you need to spend some time to learn them along with their corresponding objects they describe.  In any good Japanese textbook you should find a table of these which his a good place to start. Here are a few to whet your appetite.

  • 回 (kai) = times/occurrence
  • 階 (kai) = floors
  • 枚 (mai) = flat things
  • 本 (hon) = long things (includes movies)
  • 冊 (satsu) = books, novels, etc.
  • 頭 (tou) = big animals like horses
  • 軒(ken) = houses, buildings
  • 匹 (hiki) = small animals, like frogs or rabbits
  • 羽 (wa) = birds
  • 個 (ko) = somewhat generic counter

The list of counters goes on and on, easily over a hundred.

The wikipedia page on Japanese counters has both a good basic list and an extended one: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Japanese_counter_word.

However if you want to be really hardcore, you can try looking through a counter dictionary in Japanese. Here is one such that has many which I’ve never heard of: http://www.nihonjiten.com/nihongo/kazoekata/

As you might have guessed from the last link, counting is Japanese is kazoeru (written as 数える), and ‘kazoekata’ is “the way to count” or how something is counted.

Remember that when you use counters like this, you often put the counter after the object you are describing, and after the particle if present. For example:

  • うさぎが2匹います。
  • There are two rabbits

Sometimes you will see the counter before, that is when you want to give the impression that the items are a group:

  • 2匹のうさぎがいます。
  • There is a group of two rabbits.

Fortunately, learning just a handful of common counters goes a long way. And if you are not sure what type-specific counter to use, you can always default to counting with 一つ (hitotsu)、二つ (futatsu)、三つ (mittsu)、四つ (yottsu), etc.

References

http://www.nihonjiten.com/nihongo/kazoekata/

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

Start a Japanese blog the right way – the way a Japanese person would

For those studying a foreign language, you should make it one of your top priorities to practice speaking as much as possible, whether that means making friends with native speakers, speaking to random people over Skype, or talking a conversation skills class.

But no matter how good your conversation is, there will a great deal of grammar and vocabulary words which you never will hear (at least in everyday conversation), so you have to budget a fraction of your time for reading practice. For a language like Japanese or Chinese with thousands of characters, you have to spend much more time in this area.

And then of course for those who really want to become truly fluent in a language, there’s writing. You can take a writing class but it will only last so long – the most important thing is to make writing a part of your daily schedule. The best way to do that is to start a public blog where you write in you foreign language of choice once a day, or at least a few times a week. The ‘public’ part is important because that will motivate you to write better and have pride in what you write. If you’re really lucky someone might even comment on it!

So where to create the blog? Let’s take Japanese as your language of study. At first you might think of using WordPress, having already been a reader if not a writer on here. But although WordPress does allow writing in many other languages, including Japanese, I have seen some cases where languages other than English don’t always work well with the site. For example, there used to be a bug where I couldn’t search for tags in Japanese, though that seems to be fixed now. More importantly, WordPress was designed originally in English (to my knowledge) and was definitely not designed by (many) Japanese people. There are some Japanese blogs on here written by Japanese people, but based on my research that is a very small portion of the population.

If your really want to make the best of your foreign language blog, pick a blog provider that is popular in that language’s native country. For Japanese, some of your top choices would be FC2, Ameba, Seesa, or maybe Hatena. You can see a good list of providers with brief summaries here: http://sonoyama.org/3283.html. Not only will you be forced to learn a bit of Japanese in order to create an account, but you’re more likely to interact with Japanese people, and more likely to experience aspects of Japanese culture. Many of these sites have a bunch of other features as well (like Hatena’s mini blogs which are a bit like Twitter) and you can gradually explore the site to see what they have to offer.

When you do create one of these blogs, promise yourself you’ll write most if not all of your posts in your language of study, though you can have notes at the end in English if desired. The amount you write in each post will be based largely on your level. For basic students you can write just a sentence or two, but someone with years of experience can aim for at least a paragraph or two.

Don’t be afraid to look up any word you aren’t sure about, and use Google to verify certain phrases to see if they are common or not (always remember to use double quotes and verify Google isn’t lying about the total hit count by jumping a few pages ahead).

And finally, when you make the blog promise yourself you’ll write at least 10 or 20 posts before you even consider quitting. The hardest part about creating a new blog is shifting aside your life schedule so you can squeeze in time to update your blog on a daily basis. If you don’t set a minimum post count you’re much more likely to just forget about it before you had the chance to integrate it into your life. But with a goal set, you’re likely to keep your promise and at least give the blog a chance at lasting for quite a while.

Even if you don’t particularly care the ability to learn to write in a foreign language I still suggest frequent practice. First, you’ll be able to practice grammar and look up words you won’t have time to when you’re actually speaking. Second, using words in your blog that you read (or heard) somewhere will force you to think about them more, which will increase your recognition of them in the future, as well as your understanding.

If you’ve decided to create a foreign language blog after reading this post (or just have happened to do so recently), please add a comment with your blog URL. Having an little extra traffic might give you that extra motivation to keep you writing for sometime.

References

http://sonoyama.org/3283.html

A few pitfalls when using Japanese

In this article I’d like to discuss a few things to watch out when learning Japanese, most of which were something I struggled with personally.

The first is when talking about meeting someone in Japanese. If you aren’t careful, you might first think “I want to see you tonight” and then translate this as “今晩、君を見たい” which would be very unnatural though possibly understood depending on the conversational context. In this case, you need to remember “see” can be used to mean “meet” in English, so a more proper Japanese transition would be “今晩、君に会いたい”. Whenever translating some colloquial expression from English to Japanese, first think about what the actual meaning of that expression is (for example “keep your eyes peeled” means “keep watching for something diligently”) and then convert that to Japanese.

Next, in English it is very common to say “Can I ask you a question?”, but if you translate this directly into Japanese you would probably end up with “あなたに質問を聞いていいですか?” which would be unnatural and confusing. The proper translation involves understanding that 質問 is typically used with する to mean “ask a question”, so the correct Japanese would be “質問をしていいですか?” (the ”あなたに” part can be easily understood from context so it should be omitted). I believe the reason for the first translation being wrong is that きく can be used for both “to listen” or “to ask”.

In Japanese there isn’t a clear way to distinguish when transition verbs (i.e. when there is a direct object) are forcibly doing something versus allowing or permitting it to happen. For example, 入れる is normally used when putting something inside something else, like a wallet inside of a drawer. But I’ve heard it used both to mean “let someone inside a room” or “let someone into your traffic lane”. You might think of using something like 入れさせる or 入らせる but 入れる is most natural.

A final thing to keep in mind is that Japanese doesn’t have the wide range of verb forms that English has, for example “would have been”. This matters because if you hear “スープがよかった” it could mean “The soup was good” or “I would have preferred soup” depending on the context. Here’s another one that is tricky to translate: “I would have went if I knew” (for example if there was a concert that you found out too late about). The natural way to say this is “知ってたら行ってた”. Here the ”〜たら” verb ending is a bit tricky because it sometimes can have the nuance of “~when I did~”, as in “開けたらびっくりした” (“When I opened it I was surprised”). In the case of ”知ってたら行ってた”, there is an implied “if”, and though ”もし” could have been added to the beginning of the phrase for clarification, it is commonly omitted.

Japanese culture highlight: Natto (fermented bean curd)

One thing great about cultures of the world is that each has it’s own set of foods, and usually there are some that haven’t quite become popular outside that country.

For Japan, the wide variety of fish products and the many ways they can be used in cooking is very unique. When I first heard of eating raw fish (in Sushi) may years ago it was a crazy idea to me which I had doubts about, but since then I’ve eaten much Japanese Sushi (and never gotten food poisoning a single time). But if you go to a Japanese grocery store and head over to the seafood section I guarantee you’ll be surprised by the strange and mysterious items you see there. Fugu (blowfish) is another good example of a Japanese dish that is very unique and very ‘risky’ (in theory), due to the fact that the fish used contains deadly poison.

Japan has other unique foods apart from fish products, and one such interesting one is ‘Natto’ (written in Japanese as 納豆). Natto is fermented bean curd which is well, fermented, so it has the double punch of a rather stinky smell plus a characteristic “stringiness”, the latter which can be expressed in Japanese as “necho necho”. See the featured image to get a good idea for what this looks like. Fortunately once you get past the smell and the scary stringiness, the actual flavor is quite good.

From what I’ve heard, Natto is eaten pretty commonly in Japan, though I wouldn’t go as far to say everyone eats it. Before eating it, it is common to put the Natto in a bowl (possibly with some other ingredients like Soy sauce or some topping that comes with the Natto) and mix it vigorously with chopsticks. This ritual was a bit confusing to me at first, but having done it myself a few times I noticed it seems to change the consistency and make it easier to eat. One of the later episodes of the drama “Starman” had a scene where one of the main characters mixed a big bowl of Natto for his family.

Natto is also touted for it’s many health benefits to the heart and skin, and contains many vitamins including K1 and K2.

For those who are looking to really experience Japanese food culture, or just looking for something different, I highly recommend trying Natto out. It is commonly sold in Asian food stores in the refrigerated section, with one of the popular brands   called ‘umainen natto’.

Both my wife and son love these smelly beans, so I’ve managed to accustom myself to eat them on occasion. I try to eat them mixed in within rice which improves both the visual consistency and the odor.

References

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nattō

http://bodyecology.com/articles/natto-benefits-for-heart-and-skin.php

Japanese suffix ー作り (-zukuri)

One thing that makes learning a foreign language satisfying is when you learn something that can be applied to many different areas – effectively multiplying the productivity of your study efforts. One such area is prefixes and suffixes, where knowledge of a certain word helps you guess the meaning of new words.

When studying Japanese one runs into many such cases, especially when studying Kanji since oftentimes the meaning of a certain Kanji combination can be inferred by knowing the meaning of each of that word’s Kanji components. Sometimes, just from hearing a certain prefix or suffix you can guess the meaning which helps learning new words quickly.

“-作り” (“-zukuri”) is a suffix which comes from the verb 作る (tsukuru) which means “to make, to manufacture, to grow”. This suffix is used in several expressions to mean something which is created or made. I’ll introduce a few of these words, and once you grasp the general pattern you’ll have no problem understanding other words which use this suffix.

手作り (tezukuri) – hand made

庭作り (niwazukuri) – gardening

荷造り (nizukuri) – packing (luggage)

役作り (yazukuri) – practicing a part for a play or show

雰囲気作り (funikizukuri) – creating a certain atmosphere

町作り (machizukuri) – the process of building up a city or cultural within a city

The last two of these weren’t in the dictionary, but I had heard them in a Japanese podcast and was able to infer their meaning from context.

作り can also be used as a suffix, as in the following words:

作り話 (tsukuribanashi) – made up story

作り上げる (tsukuriageru) – complete, build up