Monthly Archives: December 2014

ある (aru) and いる (iru) in Japanese: two ways to express “existence”

When learning a foreign language, sometimes you run across words or expressions that, compared to your native language, can actually be more logical or simpler in some way.

ある and いる are a pair of verbs in Japanese that are very fundamental and should be taught early in any language acquisition course. These verbs express “existence” of something, often in the physical sense rather than the abstract.

Let’s start with a very simple example:

  • 車がある。
  • There is a car.

The Japanese sentence very cleanly expresses the concept that a car physically exists. The funny thing is that in order to say this in English you have to use some awkward grammar, using “there” when there isn’t a place specified, and the copula “is” is used even though there is no concept of equality or having some attribute (i.e. “The car is red”.)

Of course, I don’t have any problem expressing the existence of an object in English, being that it is my native language, but I can appreciate the conceptual simplicity and directness of the Japanese grammar here.

As for the difference between ある and いる: the former usually expresses a non-living object while the latter typically expresses a living object. When I asked a native speaker exactly how they make the distinction between a ‘living’ object, they said that whether the object breathes is a good way to draw the line. For example:

  • ある: book, car, plant, candy, money, hope   (ex: 車がある)
  • いる: dog, elephant, human, child  (ex: 犬がいる)

As you may have noticed in the above list I included the abstract concept of ‘hope’ for ある. The reason for that is that ある can also be used to express existence of non-physical things (though いる cannot). Two other words that could be used with ある are “power” and “time’.

Both of these verbs can also express something or someone is possessed or related to something else. For example:

  • 僕には弟がいる。
  • I have a younger brother.
  • 僕はお金がある。
  • I have money.

ある can be written in Kanji several ways (有る、或る, etc.) with each reading having it’s own nuance, but it’s most common to write it in Hiragana. Writing いる in Kanji (as 居る) is seen a bit more frequently, but you can still safely use Hiragana.

For verb conjugation, いる conjugates like a normal “iru/eru” verb (いない、います, etc.), whereas ある has a special conjugation for the negative: “ない”. So “お金がない” would mean “There is no money”.

One thing to be careful with is there are several other verbs which can be written as いる, especially 要る which means “to need”. This verb is actually pretty common in casual conversation but usually it’s easy to distinguish because you typically use it to refer to non-living objects. Also this verb is not an “iru/eru” verb so it is conjugated as 要らない, 要ります, etc.” which further helps to disambiguate.

  • ドリンク要らない?
  • Do you need a drink?

Useful Japanese slang word: 微妙 (bimyou)

Japanese is filled with many slang terms and there are entire dictionaries documenting these, so if you search you can quickly fill up on hundreds of slang words. So I typically don’t focus an entire post on a slang term unless I hear/use it frequently enough to warrant such a treatment. The word 微妙 is one such word.

Though I very rarely see this word used in Japanese novels or TV dramas, I find it extremely useful in daily life. Furthermore, it doesn’t really have a simple direct translation into English which makes it just neat to learn and fun to use.

The word originally means “delicate, subtle, or fine”, and it is still used to mean this dictionary definition as in the following sentence.

  • この車の色は微妙に違う。
  • This car’s color is subtly different.

Here the word is used together with “に” as an adverb, and indicates there is only a small difference.

But the main reason I am writing about this word is for it’s slang definition. As I said above it’s a little difficult to translate directly, but I find the English word “mediocre” to be an OK fit. For this usage it acts like an Na-adjective.

  • きょう見た映画は微妙だった
  • The movie (I) saw today was mediocre.
  • 微妙な味の飲み物
  • A drink whose taste wasn’t so great.
  • 微妙なプレゼントをもらってがっかりした
  • I was disappointed to get a present that was only so-so.

Based on my experience hearing about this word as well as asking about it specifically to natives, it can be used when you don’t love something but don’t hate it either. It’s a way to express mild dissatisfaction about something without being too overt about it.  You can try using this word even when you really don’t like something but don’t want to risk being impolite.

This word is not only slang but based on my experience used much more often with younger people, though that may be changing since this usage has been around for some time now.

If you wan’t to take a more neutral stance about something without really making a statement, you can just say “普通”.


Using Japanese family terms to refer to non-family

Japanese, like many other languages, has a large set of terms to refer to different family members (お姉さん, お兄さん, etc.). One special thing about these words is that many of them can even be used to refer to a non family member, including someone you just met on the street and are meeting for the first time.

The term to use depends on the persons sex and age. For example, you would use お姉さん to refer to a young woman. Here are a few of the usages I’ve heard most commonly, with their standard (family) meaning in parenthesis.

  • お姉さん – young woman (older sister)
  • お兄さん – young man (older brother)
  • おじさん – middle aged man (uncle)
  • おばさん – middle aged woman (aunt)
  • おじいさん – elderly man (grandfather)
  • おばあさん – elderly woman (grandmother)

I’d recommend using these when speaking about the person when they are some distance away and not listening to the conversation. For example, if you saw a lady down the street you could say ”そのおばさん、何をしてるのかな?” (I wonder what that lady is doing?)

While you can sometimes use these when talking to the person themselves, I’d be very careful since each of these terms has a connotation about the subject’s age. For example, if you called a young woman (say, 18 years old) a おばさん they would likely get offended. Also, the distinction between the middle aged and elderly women and men is just a lengthening of a sound (i.e. “おさん” vs “おじいさん”), so even if you aren’t talking to the person make sure you keep your vowels to the right length. (Note: there are some variations of these words which arguably carry negative connotations: “ばばー”, “おばん”, etc.)

While I have seen in some Japanese textbooks that it’s typical to use “あなた” when speaking to a person you don’t know in a foreign setting, I’ve been told by a native Japanese person that あなた has connotations of it’s own so it’s not the best term to use.

So what should you use? Interestingly, I’ve been told that often the safest thing is to just avoid the subject altogether, for example the phrase “お仕事は何をしてるんですか?” (What is your occupation?) as opposed to something that has the subject explicitly stated (i.e. “あなたの仕事は。。。”). Generally when you ask a question in Japanese the listener is the implied subject and adding the subject explicitly could sound awkward.

If you can manage to get their name easily then you can just use that (plus さん) whenever you really need to specify a subject. Of course if they are actually your family member the above terms are safe (and probably best) to use.

One thing that can be confusing is when using the above terms to refer to one’s family member, often the “my” part of “my grandmother” (or “my grandfather”, etc.) is omitted. For example you would say “今日はおばあさんの誕生日だ” (Today is my grandmother’s birthday). However, If you want to prevent confusion you can say “僕のおばあさん” (or use some other first person pronoun like 俺 or あたし), or say “うちのおばあさん”.

Another interesting fact is that お姉さん and お兄さん can be used to refer to a child (in the context of a family) even if they have no brothers and sisters. The connotation here would be that they are a “big girl” or “big boy”. I’ve used this many times with my wife when talking to our son. For example, “もうお兄さんでしょう?” (You’re a big boy now, right?).

Japanese grammar focus: これ/それ/あれ/どれ vs. こう/そう/ああ/どう

In any basic Japanese textbook you likely be taught about the ’こそあど’ words, which refer to something that is ‘close’ (either emotionally or physically), ‘far’, ‘very far’, or ‘uncertain’ (respectively). For example, the below set of four are probably the easiest to grasp as a beginner:

  • これ – this
  • それ – that
  • あれ – that over there
  • どれ – which 

These are pronouns (代名詞) and are treated pretty much like english pronouns, for example:

  • それが欲しい 
  • I want that.

The following four words also have similar meanings:

  • こう
  • そう
  • ああ
  • どう

The major difference with these, however, is that they are adverbs (副詞).

I don’t think there is a single word in English to express these, but you can get a feel for them by thinking in terms of ‘in this way’, ‘in that way’, etc.

The tricky part now is learning which to use which set of words. For example, let’s take this simple English sentence:

  • I said that. 

The best answer is to use そう, like this:

  • 僕はそう言った

So why is this the correct answer? I wouldn’t go as far as saying that “僕はそれを言った” is, strictly speaking, grammatically incorrect, but using そう here is the most natural and you’ll hear it most if not all of the time. Let’s look at a few more examples before we draw a conclusion about why そう is best here.

  • He also thinks so.
  • 彼もそう思ってる(でしょう)。

The above one is easy to remember because of the coincidence between the english ‘so’ and Japanese ‘そう’.

  • Yeah, let’s do that.
  • うん、そうしよう。

This could be the response of someone saying 買い物に行かない? (do you want to go shopping?), where you just want to agree with what they are proposing. The phrase “それにしよう” is actually natural Japanese as well, but is typically used to refer to something more specific, like “Let’s choose that one” when looking at a few types of deserts in a display case.

What if you wanted to say the following:

  • *That’s* a good idea  

How would you say it in Japanese?

  • それがいい(ね) (you could use a word like 考え to explicitly say ‘idea’ but I think that’s less natural)

It’s important to note that ”そうがいい” would be incorrect grammar and sound very unnatural, since you can’t make an adverb a subject of a sentence.

One more example:

  • My dad bought that.
  • お父さんはそれを買った. 

Using “そう買った” would be very unnatural here.

After looking at these examples I’ll agree it’s a bit tricky to give a formula for exactly which set of words to use. However I think these guidelines will be a good start:


  • Often used when referring to something specific, like a physical object.
  • Used for the subject of the sentence


  • Used when you want to describe something abstract (like something being thought)
  • Used when describing ‘in this way’, ‘in that way’, etc., basically how something is done.
  • Commonly used with verbs 言う、思う、考える and similar verbs (語る, 仰る, etc.)

Guidelines like this are always nice, but eventually you’ll learn a bunch of phrases that contain these words and pick from your personal lexicon during much of your speech and writing.


There are a few set phrases using して and the こそあど words that are good to remember.

  • こうして  “like this”, “in this way”
  • そうして  “and then”  (Can be used at the beginning of a sentence without a subject, like “そして、。。。”)
  • どうして  “why”          (The explanation for this one is quite tricky and I may attempt it in a another post, but for now just remember it as is)

One final expression that is a bit tricky. You might think that “What do you think?” in Japanese is ”なに思う?”, but that would be a bit off the mark. The natural phrase for this is “どう思う” and you can remember this as “in what way do you think?” or “how do you think?”.


Japanese culture focus: Understanding what a “Torii” gate is and what it isn’t

When learning about a foreign culture, sometimes you experience a shift of perspective where what you thought you knew was wrong, or at least incomplete. One place this is common is where your only knowledge about a foreign culture is through the biased lens of another country (probably where you were brought up). One important case of this recently came to mind to me so I thought I would dedicate a post to it.

When westerners think of Japan there is a few things that typically come up, whether it’s ‘Geisha girls’, ‘Ninja’, ‘Sumo’, ‘Sushi’, ‘Samurai’, ‘Karate’, or maybe even brands like ‘Toyota’ or ‘Honda’. I won’t claim this is a statistically accurate list (that would be an interesting survey in itself), but it gives you a general idea.

In my experience one of the strongest visual icons of Japan is that of the “Torii” gate (written in Japanese as 鳥居). You’ll see this in places like travel guide books, animated movies or shows, and especially in computer games.

This is all well and good, and is in some way communicating an important aspect of Japanese culture. However, the problem is that in many places the Torii is misused or not used in proper context, which creates a miscommunication about what it is.

Generally speaking, in present times a Torii is commonly used at the entrance or within a Shinto shrine, and is also frequently used at Buddhist temples as well. This traditional gate marks transition from the profane/worldly to the sacred. There are several different types of Torii (with varying complexity of design) and the full historical origin of these is not clear. In some cases a Torii can be seen apart from a religious area because that place was modified (moved, shrunk) after it was built.

The symbol of the Torii can also be seen on maps to indicate the presence of a Shinto shrine, can be used to signify no illegal dumping in a certain area, and is seen used at certain graves of past Japanese emperors. There are a few cases where it is used a non-religious meaning, for example as the symbol for the Marine Corps Security Force Regiment.

Probably the first place I remember the Torii used was in the classic 1984 game Karateka, where the main character passes through several of these gates within the enemy’s “fortress”. Based on what I have read about this game’s backstory (and the fact it was not created by a Japanese person), the use of random Torii gates seems inconsistent with their usage in real life. Sure, at the time I thought they were neat and they surely conveyed a sense of “orientalness”, but looking back at it now I see things with a fresh perspective.

I’ve also played more recent games where there happens to be a Torii-like structure that you pass through in the middle of a city modelled after Tokyo. While there are definitely many Torii in Tokyo, having one in the middle of nowhere with a road passing through it just isn’t realistic.

If you keep a watchout for the Torii in Western culture you’ll surely find it eventually, and very possibly out of its proper context. To give another example, In a recent trip I found a sign for a school that appeared to be closely modeled after a Torii, and I am fairly sure there was no Japanese temples or shrines nearby.

To get a good feel for this, try and imagine that you’re playing a game with a level called ‘America’, and there is random crosses all over the place, with no churchs or other religious building nearby. Regardless of your faith you’ll surely see this is a bit weird.

But after all is said and done, is this really a bad thing? I can’t speak for anyone but I would guess that a Japanese person’s response would range from mild appreciation (“well, at least they made some attempt to incorporate our culture”), to ambivalence, to outright anger.

I’m not trying to fault anyone, but just think it is best that a foreign country’s culture is portrayed in some reasonably accurate way. Regardless of what you believe, this gate is used to signify entry to a holy area, which commands a certain amount of respect.

And to be honest, I wasn’t aware of this issue until it was pointed out to me. I knew Torii were “somehow religious”, but when I happened to see them misused in several places I didn’t realize it on my own.

For those wanting to learn more about Torii, please check out the Wikipedia site for more information. For this article I used that as well as the Japanese version which has more details.


Solving the mystery of a Japanese phrase on a coffee can (大容量!ビジネスシーンのながら飲みにぴったり!)

As part of the process of immersing myself in Japanese without actually leaving in Japan, I take advantage of pretty much any media I can get my hands on and usually to try to decipher at least a phrase or so (or longer if I have the time).

Today I happened to be drinking a can of 冴える (saeru) Black Pokka coffee I bought at a Japanese store, and I glanced at some of the marketing text on the side of the can. It read as follows:


When I read this I must admit I was totally confused at first. The first word clearly indicated a great volume of coffee (in fact the can was quite big), but I couldn’t even figure out the basic grammar of the following sentence because the usage of ながら (nagara) was different than I had seen before.

Typically ながら is used in a fashion like “飲みながら…” which would mean “while drinking…”, where some other verb follows to indicate what is being done at the same time (飲みながら歩く => walk while drinking).

However in this case the word before ながら was a の which just seemed out of place.

Furthermore, the word ビジネスシーン made me think of a scene in a movie related to business, which didn’t really seem to fit with the concept of “great volume”.

After some time I finally found this page, which alluded to the concept of ”ながら飲み”. It seemed to signify that this meant to sort of take a little drink here than there while doing something else, though technically I would of expected this to read 飲みながら. However the difference is that ”ながら飲み” was a noun whereas “飲みながら” is not. In any case I think the phrase came from an expression like “仕事しながら飲む”, where the ”仕事し” part was removed and the “飲む” verb changed to a noun as  “飲み”.

I then looked up ビジネスシーン and found out it was a general term to refer to a place where work is done, and had nothing to do with a movie “scene” per-say.

Putting all of this together, I was finally able to grasp the overall meaning of this text – The can was big so that you can gradually take sips during a meeting or other work without running out quickly. If I were to try and do a loose (non literal) translation I’d say:

“Super sized! Your perfect companion for those long meetings at work!”

This little exercise really shows how unexpected phrases can come up in surprising places, so if you want to increase your fluency take every opportunity to read your foreign language of choice used in different situations.

And the coffee, by the way, was pretty good, though I would only suggest it to those who like black coffee since it was quite bitter. The word 冴える can mean “clear” as in “a clear color”, but it can also be used to express one thinking clearly or intelligently. I think the concept here is that the boost of caffein helps you think “clearly”, and there is some other text on the product that talks about the amount of caffein present to support this interpretation.


Foreign Language Immersion Trick: Satellite TV

Recently I had the opportunity to visit a relative in Arizona who had Dish Satellite TV (, and happened to contain a single channel of Japanese broadcast TV.

At first I thought that it was cool such a channel could be seen in America, but after all in the age of the internet nearly any type of content can be seen online, usually in higher quality. I had also heard about Japanese channels many years back so it was nothing new.

But after leaving this channel on for a few hours and watching it off and on I realized what a treasure it was for someone studying Japanese.

The first reason is that a great deal of the programming on this type of channel is linked to daily life, or at least to the daily culture of Japan. Some of the shows I came across include one about a upcoming election, where each candidate gave political speeches, one about old schools in the country that were becoming abandoned due to the lack of local students to attend, one about a teacher of debate classes in middle school, one about helping recover after the Fukushima disaster, and of course things like typical daily news and weather reports.

Though there are people like newscasters and talk show hosts that may talk a little more exaggerated or polite than the average person, if you are lucky you will find a station with shows that interview everyday people (as some newscasts do), and you get to hear what ‘real people’ sound like. The less scripted the better.

Either way, whether you goal is to improve your conversation skills, or up your comprehension to be able to live in Japan someday, watching random shows on a Japanese broadcast channel will be much more beneficial than watching a movie, series, or cartoon in Japanese.

Now, one might point out the fact that if you knew what to look for, you could download a large fraction of these shows on the station, especially if they were popular. But I’d argue that even if that were so, there is a another major advantage of watching a satellite TV broadcast.

When using a language to communicate in real life, you pretty much have to go with the flow and interact as things occur. In other words, you can’t really choose your situations exactly and have to be open to being able to both comprehend and express yourself in unexpected situations.

In that sense, I like using Satellite TV for foreign language learning (especially when there is only a single channel) because it forces you to engage with the content presented to you, whether that’s a topic you are familiar with or not. When downloading your own content piecemeal, there is a high level of bias as you are more likely to download and listen to shows about things you are already familiar with, further increasing your knowledge in those specialty areas. Put another way, limiting yourself to a single channel with programs based a country’s daily life and culture makes you more well rounded about that country. And if you are someone who are trying to be fluent in that language, or learn to appreciate that country’s culture, that is a very valuable thing indeed.

Keep in mind this doesn’t have to be Satellite TV, it can be any broadcast, even one you find online. But the trick is to make sure it has a wide range of shows, especially those related to daily living. It’s OK if there is a soap opera or dramatic series once in a while, but that should be ideally less than 20-30% of the overall content.

At first, it may be hard to watch a channel like this and keep concentration for long stretches of time, but it’s OK to just glance now and then and phase your attention in and out as you do other tasks. This type of context switching itself is good practice since you will train yourself to quickly grasp the gist of an unfamiliar situation.

困る (komaru) and 助かる (tasukaru), two useful Japanese verbs

困る and 助かる are two Japanese verbs which are used fairly commonly in everyday speech, and though their meaning is conceptually simple sometimes it can be a little tricky to translate into English.

困る (komaru), simply put, signifies being put into a bad situation. The dictionary says “Be in trouble”, “Be in a fix”, or “Have a hard time”, and although these do an OK job of capturing the basic meaning they fall short of the full depth of the word.

I’ll give a few example sentences to show how this word is used in practice, along with my 意訳 (“iyaku”, interpretive or non-literal translation).

  • またテレビ壊れたの?困ったな
  • The TV broke again? This sucks.
  • 困ったことがあったら何でも相談してね
  • If you run into problems feel free to ask for my help.
  • そんな事いまさら言われても困るよ
  • I think it’s a bit late for you to be telling me that  [This one is particularly difficult to translate. Literally it means something like “If you tell me that sort of thing this late it will trouble me”. You could use this line if someone just told you there is a birthday party for a friend in 1 hour.]
  • 今日、腰痛で困ってる
  • Today my back is giving me trouble [Lit: “Today I am troubled from back pain”]

The causative form of this verb 困らせる is also used, which roughly means ‘to trouble someone’. This usage isn’t nearly as common but you see it now and then.

  • 親を困らせるな
  • Don’t give your parents a hard time

助かる (tasukaru) is used when someone was ‘saved’, either in the sense of avoiding physical harm or some other undesirable condition. Though it isn’t a perfect antonym for 困る, in some ways it expresses the opposite meaning.

For the first example, imagine your friend finds your lost car keys that you’ve been searching for.

  • ありがとう!助かった!
  • Thanks! You’re a real life safer!

You can also use the non-past tense when talking about something that hasn’t happened yet.

  • お父さんが映画館まで送ってくれる。助かるな〜。
  • My father is going to drop me off at the movie theater. He’s a great help.

You can also use 助ける after the ‘te’ form of a verb (often after くれて to give respect to the person who did the helping).

  • 先生が説明してくれて助かったね。
  • Your teacher explaining it to you was a great help.

Though the subject of 助かる in the first two examples is technically the speaker, the translation involves the helping party that did the ‘saving’.

In my experience 助かる isn’t used that often to express actual life saving, but more to express someone escaping or being removed from a bad situation, or getting out of some type of trouble.

Two modes of foreign language reading: content-focused and language-learning-focused

When reading in a foreign language we are not yet fluent in, our brain is struggling to do a great deal of things simultaneously. We’re desperately trying to grasp the overall meaning of the passage at hand, while looking up individual word meanings and pronunciations. We are also trying to think in terms of grammar and how words fit together to create higher-level concepts. On top of this, we are probably trying to remember some new phrases and definitions so we can leverage them in our own writings in the future.

After much Japanese reading practice I’ve discovered that it’s helpful to separate some of these items into two different ‘modes’, what I call content-focused and language-learning-focused (which I’ll abbreviate as learning-focused). The mode is something we should tentatively decide as we begin to read the passage, but if needed we can switch partway through.

Content-focused, as you can imagine is where we focus on content – basically what the text is about. This means there are some things like how to write a certain character, or pronounce a certain word, which we can completely ignore. Other things like grammar, while we can’t ignore it completely, we can try to glaze over certain complex constructions and just grasp the main point. In this mode you should also try and minimize your trips to the dictionary, unless it seems like a critical area. One rule I sometimes use is only stop to look up a word if it appears twice in the same passage.

In some ways the content-focused approach is similar to speed reading, and the advantage is not only that we can read faster, but we can actually have a better higher level grasp of what is being said as opposed to if we didn’t read in this ‘mode’.

Content-focused reading is best in several situations, including when you have a lot to read, less time, or are searching for something specific. Another reason would be if you are trying to read something in a foreign language that hasn’t been translated into your native language, like say you were trying to read about the history of a lesser-known Japanese game.

Learning-focused, on the other hand is when your primary goal is to enrich your knowledge of that language, in terms of words, grammar, pronunciation, you name it. The content itself is secondary, though you obviously need to aim for at least a basic understanding of things at the sentence level. After all, it doesn’t make sense to focus on each word to the extreme that you are clueless about what you read.

In this mode, feel free to stop at any time to look up word definitions, sounds, or even the proper stroke order to draw a certain character. When trying to get a deeper understanding of a certain term, you can continue on to read example sentences and even do a Google search or two to see other places the word is used by real people.

To make best use of your ‘study’ time, consider making a list of new terms or phrases. If you want to be really hardcore you can even try to use new terms in sentences you create on the spot, though I’d recommend saving that until after you finish the passage.

With all the stopping and research interruptions, you may actually forget what the beginning of the passage was about when you get to the end, but you’re be a bit more certain about the nuts and bolts of the language words and constructs used, and have a better chance to utilize them in your own writing.

There’s no reason you can’t combine these approaches, for example you may want to try reading through a passage or chapter first in ‘content-focused’ mode, then come back for a re-read in ‘learning-focused’. I think the order here is important since eventually you will be training yourself to read for content without the preparation of learning-focused mode. As you progress in your language study, you’ll gradually be doing more content-focused, and the crutch of learning-focused will gradually fall away. But if read for learning first, then your read for content will be biased and not really simulate what a native would be doing.

For myself, I realized I’ve been doing the ‘learning-focused’ mode almost exclusively, and so have tried to take steps to fit in times where I try to ignore the details of the language and just go for content. It’s hard for me though because I tend towards the ‘language perfectionist’ mindset where I want to understand everything 100% before I proceed.

Try to think about your foreign language reading style and how you want to adjust it.

When listening to speech in a foreign language, for the most part you are forced into content mode since it’s difficult to stop midway, especially if it’s a live person. I do find myself sometimes going into mental tangents as I try to process speech, but this hurts my overall comprehension so I should stick to content-based for listening. I’ve tried listening to a drama and pausing whenever I don’t understand a word to look it up, but I find that not too enjoyable and usually not a good use of time.

Foreign language learning – use it or loose it (listening vs speaking)

I think I’ve touched on this point in another blog post some time back, but it’s such an important thing I decided to revisit it.

When studying a foreign language, it’s natural to have a bias towards listening/reading over speaking/writing. This is not only because the latter is generally much more difficult, but because if you aren’t living in an environment that uses that language it’s  hard to really make use of it. On the other hand, if one of your reasons for studying that language is to appreciate it’s media and culture (books, movies, etc.) then you can easily put to practice your listening/reading skills on a daily basis.

For some time, in my Japanese study I consciously put an emphasis on these passive language activities (listening and reading), but eventually I realized that it would be a bad use of time if I ended up being great and these but horrible at expressing myself. In Japanese terms it would be truly “mottainai”.

Some time has passed and I’m a bit better at the active (speaking/writing) side, though it’s still an uphill battle in some ways.

However I’ve come to the conclusion that these active linguistic activities actually feedback and reinforce the passive ones. For example, say you are listening to a podcast and you pick up a handful of new words, or happen to hear some terms you haven’t heard in some time which refreshes your memory. If you don’t actually make an attempt to use these words, there is a good chance they’ll either get purged from your memory or at least shoved to a far corner where it’s hard to recover them.

On the other hand, if you make an effort to import these words into your lexicon (even if your usage of them is somewhat forced at first), you’ll be forced to think about them more deeply and how they can be applied to the situation at hand. As a result this will create more connections in your brain to that word and these associations will help keep it around longer. It’s also fair to say that being exposed to a word multiple times, especially if there is a strong emotion associated with the situation, will have a similar effect.

Also, assuming you aren’t talking to yourself or writing a blog which never gets published, you’ll also get to see the reaction of people to your use of the word in question. On more than one occasion I’ve had someone say “what? can you repeat that again?” to something I’ve tried to say in Japanese because I was using a word the wrong way, or had a misunderstanding of the meaning(s) of that word. If the person is not on close terms with you, you’re unlikely to get such strong, direct feedback, but even if you are interacting with strangers you may notice their reply to your statement was quite what you expected. On the other hand, if your use of the word seems to further the conversation in a good way, and communicate your intended thought or feeling to the other party, then this is a form of positive reinforcement that you got a good handle on that term.