New Year, New Japanese Goals

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I’ve always wanted to take the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT), although it does nothing for me professionally, just to prove that I can. At the beginning of 2016, I thought I would take it by the end of the year, but I didn’t stick to any kind of schedule and in the end I never took it.

This year? I’m not confident that I will be able to take it this year either. But I would like to study as though I were planning to take it at the end of 2017. If for nothing else other than as personal growth in my Japanese ability. So, I have made Japanese study one of my New Year’s resolutions!

What went wrong last year? Last year I did not set any kind of schedule or routine for study, and therefore there was no motivation for me to study. I am good at setting long-term goals, but if there’s no plan it’s hard for me to keep on track. So this year I am going to make a plan from the beginning!

Japanese Study Texts

I am starting off with the Matome まとめ series for JLPT N3 (the middle level), and Kanji Step 6 to strengthen my basic ability. Then I plan to continue to N2 and N1, and to continue with the kanji series. I prefer a structured lesson set so I like the day-by-day worksheets in the まとめ series, but that’s a personal preference.

I’ve also started using an app called HelloTalk. This is a social language learning app, where you can find people who speak the language you want to learn, and who want to learn the language you speak. Then you can exchange messages in either language, and correct each other’s messages. I won’t be able to do all the worksheets every day, and so if I’m busy I can still practice reading and writing in Japanese with this app.

I also practice speaking daily with my husband (although usually only slang ^^), and listening daily with the Japanese news on the NHK cable TV channel that is offered through my cable provider.

So, will I end up taking the JLPT this year? I think I need to consider it a bit more carefully before I decide, but at least I hope to improve my Japanese ability!

Are you going to start learning Japanese this year? Or improve your Japanese ability? How do you plan to study? Let me know in the comments!

一期一会 Ichigo Ichie

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The Japanese idiom 一期一会 ichigo ichie literally translates to “one opportunity, one encounter.” The meaning of this idiom is to treasure every encounter, for it will never recur.

The idiom is derived from Zen Buddhism, and is particularly associated with the Japanese tea ceremony or sadou 茶道. In the context of sadou, ichigo ichie reminds participants that each tea ceremony is unique that will never recur in one’s lifetime, and thus each moment should be treated with the utmost sincerity.

In the context of daily life, think of each encounter as a once-in-a-lifetime chance. So, why not seize the day?

How I Learned Japanese

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People often ask me how I learned Japanese, so I thought I would make a post about it. I’ve been studying Japanese through a combination of self study and formal classes for about half my life – that’s a long time!

If you are interested in learning or improving your Japanese, you should be aware that there is no magic trick to learn Japanese quickly and easily. If you have studied Japanese (or any foreign language), you know this is true. If you’re new to Japanese, it’s going to take some effort and dedication on your part to get anywhere near fluent.

But that moment when you can finally have conversations in Japanese without having to use a dictionary or wave your arms emphatically, it’s a pretty cool feeling. So even if it seems daunting, trust me, it’s worth it! For a little inspiration, here is my story of lifelong Japanese learning

Asakusa Continue reading

Learning Japanese: Katakana

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When you begin learning Japanese, in a classroom or with self-study, usually the first writing systems you learn are hiragana and katakana, often simultaneously. During classroom study, you begin to use nothing but hiragana, often at the end of the first term. Thus you begin to quickly internalize the characters.

However, even when writing out homework in Japanese, katakana is used much less frequently, since it is the syllabary or alphabet for foreign loan words. So I notice that students have a more difficult time with learning and retaining katakana, and they often complain that katakana is harder than hiragana.

Despite the fact that the characters are different, both syllabaries have the exact same number of characters and the exact same pronunciation for each character. I don’t think that katakana is technically more difficult than hiragana, but that students often don’t get to use them as much and don’t internalize them as well.

I’ve come up with some other reasons why katakana is difficult for foreigners, from my experience studying and tutoring Japanese.

Katakana symbols can be very similar.

The characters for shi シ and tsu ツ are only subtly different. As are the characters for so ソ and n ン. Remembering the correct character can be difficult without a lot of practice, and can be frustrating in an exam. Reading is a little more forgiving, because you can usually tell by the other characters in the word or the other words in the sentence which one it is – although this is more difficult if it’s a word you don’t know or recognize.

For example, determining the difference between tool ツール and sticker (seal) シール in a sentence. Context really helps when you aren’t sure about the reading, but for writing you just have to memorize.

Loan words can be difficult to write in Japanese phonetics

The way that English, French, German, or other foreign words are pronounced in the native language, and the way that they are pronounced as Japanese loan words, can be very different. For example, in English we say virus, but in Japanese it’s uirusu ウイルス – which can be difficult to sound out for a native English speaker.

One in ten Japanese people will spell a loan word the exact same way in katakana, but for many foreigners without a native perception of how Japanese syllables connect together it can be difficult to correctly guess the correct spelling. When you write a loan word in Japanese, the spelling is not the important point, but rather the pronunciation of the word. So my name, Kay, would not be spelled kai カイ (based on the English spelling) but rather kei ケイ, because the sounds match.

Many words you can sound out relatively well with practice, and can get by in writing even if the spelling is not 100% accurate (unless it’s an exam, of course). If I run across a difficult word, I will usually look it up when I am writing an e-mail. When reading, slowly sounding out a new word you can usually discern the meaning.

Loan words may have different meanings from the original

Katakana words may mean something different than what you associate with the original word. For example, the word mansion マンション means an apartment building in Japanese, but in English it conjures up a large, rolling estate.

Words can also come from a variety of foreign languages, and if you don’t know the word in the original language, the meaning may be mysterious to you. The word for part-time job is arubaito アルバイト, which comes from the German Arbeit. I do not speak German, so when I learned this word I had no idea why it was in katakana. When I found out that it was German, I was quite surprised.

Japanese loan words are constantly evolving

I was reading a Japanese fashion magazine, and I found the word tronche coat トロンチコートー spelled in both English letters (romaji) and katakana. I had no idea what that was, and as I searched for it in both English and Japanese, I was quite confused. I could tell by the photo in the magazine that it was like a trench coat, but searching in English didn’t bring up any results that made sense. Searching in Japanese, however, I was able to find that it was a softer version of a trench coat. Essentially, it’s a trench coat made of soft fabric, specially for spring. This word was made up by the Japanese fashion writers, designers, etc. to describe something in particular, although foreigners in the fashion industry have not picked up the term.

Fashion magazines make up quite a few new words for fashion trends, as well as other media. Language is a constantly evolving entity, and different combinations of Japanese and foreign languages, combinations of katakana and hiragana, and even combinations of katakana and kanji lead to the creation of a lot of new words.

So, the challenge posed to foreigners is to learn how the Japanese people use and incorporate loan words to create a unique language. I think that this is one of the most interesting parts of learning Japanese, and why I enjoy learning this language.

What are some of the challenges you have faced in studying katakana? What about challenges in using katakana in your writing or reading it in books? Let me know in the comments!

Fashion in Japanese English / ファッションの和製英語

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Japanese has something called wasei eigo (和製英語, literally “Japanese-made English”), which means words that seem to be English (eigo), but are not. These words came from English originally, but the meaning has been changed to a distinctly Japanese meaning.

Today’s wasei eigo theme is fashion (a topic near and dear to my heart)!

Free Size / furii saizu / フリーサイズ

Free size means one-size-fits-all. Sizes are different in Japan than in the US, and one size fits all is also slightly different. Japanese sizes run small, so Japanese free size is smaller than one size fits all in the US.

「よく、フリーサイズはフリーじゃないと聞きますがフリーサイズってどれくらいのサイズからどれくらいのサイズまでなのですか?」

“You often hear, ‘Free size is not free‘ But from what size to what size actually is free size?” or “You often hear, ‘One-size-fits-all does not fit all.’ But what size range is one size fits all?”

*American sizes are about 5 times bigger than Japanese sizes. So, although free size may not quite be an American L, the American one-size-fits-all is probably at least bigger than a Japanese LL (equivalent of an XL).

Order Made / oodaa meido / オーダーメイド

It’s order made and not “order maid” (these can sound the same in Japanese pronunciation), and it refers to custom made or made-to-order items. This can refer to things outside the fashion world, such as furniture, but also clothing and accessories (gloves, socks, etc.)

「結婚式のためにオーダーメイドのスーツを注文しました。」

“For my wedding, I ordered an order made suit.” or “For my wedding, I ordered a tailor made suit.” Continue reading

Education & Work in Japanese English / 教育や仕事の和製英語

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Japanese has something called wasei eigo (和製英語, literally “Japanese-made English”), which means words that seem to be English (eigo), but are not. These words came from English originally, but the meaning has been changed to a distinctly Japanese meaning.

Today’s wasei eigo theme is phrases related to school and work.

Over Doctor / obaa dokutaa / オバードクター

In English, this sounds like a doctor who is much to involved in health care. But in Japanese, this refers to someone who is over-educated, particularly someone who is unemployed and holds a PhD.

「最近、この国でオーバードクター問題が社会問題になりました。」

“Recently, the over doctor problem has become a social issue in this country.” or “Recently, the amount of underemployed, over-educated people has become a social issue in this country.”

Parasite Single / parasaito shinguru / パラサイトシングル

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5 Tips for Studying Japanese

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Now that I’m out of school and in the working world, I feel like I need to study again. Although that’s how I ended up back at grad school in the first place, no I’m not going back to school again. Instead, I’m going to brush up on my Japanese.

When you don’t have class to keep you in line, it can be difficult to keep up a good study schedule. So, how can you keep up with your study of Japanese? I’ve come up with 5 study tips to help you (and myself) get inspired.

1. Study every day!

Japanese classes are held every day, and there’s a reason for that. You learned your first language by using it every day, and that’s how you will master Japanese. Set aside time each day to practice speaking, listening, reading or writing. If you can only devote 20 minutes each day, that’s still 20 minutes you will immerse yourself in Japanese. Until there’s a chip that downloads information directly into your brain, there isn’t really a shortcut to learning Japanese other than time and effort!

2. Kanji is your friend

Learning to read and write kanji (or Chinese characters) is probably the most unattractive part of studying Japanese. When I was a TA for Japanese class, most complaints were about how hard it was to remember kanji. But learning kanji is essential for living in Japan or for reading anything in Japanese. I’ve been studying Japanese for half of my life, but I still haven’t mastered kanji. As daunting as that sounds, it’s important to remember that learning kanji will be tough but that it will improve your ability to communicate in Japanese.

3. Write in Japanese by hand

Technology has made international communication easier than ever, and that means communicating in Japanese is easier too. On your computer or on your phone, you can type in Japanese without having to remember kanji stroke order or whether that’s a こ ko or a こう kou in 最高 saikou. If you can recognize the kanji, you can select it from a list rather than remember how to write it. In short, you can get by without remembering how to write kanji perfectly, but you still have to have some knowledge in order to recognize the kanji you want to send.

If you want to become proficient in Japanese, you must learn to write kanji by hand. You need to learn how to write it so that you can read it. Recent studies suggest that technology doesn’t necessarily equal results in retention or academic performance (see Technology doesn’t make school pupils smarter: study), so that means that you won’t become proficient in Japanese without some analogue study (pen & paper!).

4. Practice Japanese with other people

I know, interacting with real people can be scary. Especially in a different language. But this is the best way to improve your listening and speaking skills. Finding someone to practice Japanese with is the first hurdle, but there are many ways to go about doing this (check out ideas for how to find language partners). Having a language partner can also keep you accountable for your daily Japanese practice – quiz each other on the latest kanji you’ve studied, or practice grammar patterns that give you trouble.

5. Try a different approach

Are you tired of staring at the same 10 kanji that you just can’t remember? Do vocabulary words leave your head every time you blink? Did your language partner abandon you for greener fields? If you feel like you are stuck in a Japanese rut, try something new to get out of it!

Find a website in Japanese about your favorite hobby and practice reading. Read the news in Japanese to get a new perspective. Even if you can’t read every character, try to see if you can get the general idea by reading headlines, or the first and last paragraphs for starters.

Watch Japanese movies, drama, or anime without the subtitles. Challenge yourself to see how much you can understand without the crutch of subtitles. Watch an episode twice: once in Japanese only, and add subtitles the second time through. How much did you understand? This will be more difficult if you are just starting out, but if you have a favorite show you could rewatch it without the subtitles and pay attention to the flow of the conversations and pick out any phrases you do know.

One more thing: make mistakes! You can’t improve unless you make mistakes. Most people will not think poorly of you if you use the wrong word or the wrong grammar construction – unless they are jerks. Even if you’re terrified of making mistakes (like I was when I first arrived in Japan to study abroad), put that fear aside and give it your best shot. You will realize that you know more than you think you do!

What study tips do you have for studying Japanese (or another foreign language)? How do you improve your language skills on a daily basis? Let me know in the comments!