Using online searching to uncover natural expressions in a foreign language

By | October 28, 2015

Learning the basics of a foreign language, while a time-consuming activity, is generally relatively straightforward: memorize the alphabet(s), pronunciations, grammar rules, and of course loads and loads of vocabulary words. With these fundamentals under your belt, you’ll surely be able to express a great many things in that language.

The challenge comes when you want to say something for which you have insufficient grammar or vocabulary knowledge. Especially when speaking, you have no choice but to try and use what you know to get your point across, even if that takes a extra time and some stumbling.

I go through this myself somewhat often in Japanese, since not living in Japan makes it hard to fill in all the gaps and express anything that comes to mind in Japanese without difficulty.

Even if I am able to get my point across, sometimes I am left with a feeling of doubt that what I said may not have been natural. After all, if the listener understands what you said they will probably not point out mistakes you’ve made, unless they are a good friend or a teacher.

In the remainder of this post I’d like talk about how I use internet searching to uncover natural phrases in Japanese. I’ll be using a specific example of something that happened to me a few days ago.

I was trying to tell my wife how I discovered that the Apple Watch would give navigational information when using the iPhone’s Maps application. To keep this discussion simple, I’m going to focus on the concept “Apple Watch displays navigational information”.

First, I’ll wanted to check if the product name for Apple Watch was more commonly written using English characters (“Apple Watch”) or with Katakana script (“アップルウオッチ”). Doing a search for the latter on Google (using double quotes) gives around 200,000 entries. Make sure you advance a few pages since sometimes the first number given by Google is not accurate otherwise. Doing the same for the English name (plus a “は” character to try and separate to Japanese pages only), I get around 97 million. This is what I expected but it’s always good to verify.

Next, I know that car navigation systems are called “navi” (ナビ), and also the phrase “dete kuru” (でてくる) which is an informal way to say something appears. Putting all this together, I end up with the following phrase:

  • apple watchにナビ情報がでてくる

Generally, you’ll find that the longer sentence you try to search for, the less likely to find an exact match, even if the grammar is correct. In this case I got 0 hits which is also somewhat expected.

Next, I wanted to verify if “ナビ情報” was a natural expression. A search for that revealed over 300k hits, so no problems there. I checked “ナビの情報” as a possible candidate, but ended up with only a few hits after I advanced a few pages in the results. This is always a good test to run since sometimes whether or not the particle の is used can be unclear.

It may be that my “dete kuru” verb combination isn’t that appropriate in this case, or that there is a more natural turn of phrase. To figure that out, I tried doing the following search: (make sure you include the double quotes, they are important)

  • “apple watch”  “ナビ情報”

The very first hit is this:, which has the following sentence:


If you look at this sentence in context on the page, it is actually referring to a Garmen product, not an Apple Watch. The only hit for “Apple Watch” is actually on the right banner for a separate page. However, this gives us the very useful 表示 (hyouji), which means “to display”, and along with “sareru” this means “to be displayed”. I had known this word but didn’t think of employing it here.

So now we can refine our phrase to the following:

  • Apple Watch にナビ情報が表示される。

However this didn’t satisfy me as I really wanted to see some real Japanese talking about the navigational-helping capabilities of the apple watch. After a few random searches I tried this one:

  • “apple watch” マップ

Which gave me this page, which is a goldmine of information:

Rather than fixate only on how to say exactly what you were searching for, you can learn many words and phrases related to the topic through pages you find during searches like this. This is invaluable for next time you want to talk about something similar in the future.

For example, I saw the words 経路 (keiro) and ルート, both of which were used to be mean ‘route’. Although this isn’t the first time I saw these either, it was a good reminder. Near the bottom part of the page there is a set of two screenshots, with the navigational screen on the right (where to turn next), and the nearby map on the right. Below that is this text:


Here we can see the word ナビ (bolded by me) to describe exactly what I was trying to say in the original conversation with my wife. So this confirms the word ナビ is appropriate for the navigation screen of an Apple Watch. From this sentence we can learn a few other useful words, such as 切り替える (kirikaeru), which means “to switch”, and is used in the potential form here.

The most important thing when doing this kind of research is just to have fun and learn as much as you can about the subject at hand. You even can take notes on some words you think might be useful in the future. When you are writing in Japanese yourself, you can leverage these kinds of searches to improve the chances of ending up with a natural result.

Keep in mind that this process will never replace listening to live Japanese (or any other foreign language) in real time, since you will have extra context, plus a sense of urgency, which will help you learn and retain things better.

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2 thoughts on “Using online searching to uncover natural expressions in a foreign language

  1. Liza

    Thank you for the post. I recently came across a video on Youtube on Japanese collocations ( and I found the concept to be quite interesting and useful. In order to learn any language it is important to understand how some things are said in that particular language and literal translations from English to Japanese might not always be correct.

    I think what you tried here was something along those lines. It’s a time consuming process no doubt, but a rewarding one.

    1. locksleyu Post author

      Thanks much for the comment and link. Yes, I agree collocation is similar what I was trying to say, tough in this post I sort of just did some experimental research.


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