Avoid Kanji Overload! And write Japanese like a native

kanji-overloadOne thing that immediately marks a Japanese language novice may surprise you.

In many cases they use too many kanji.

Yes, I know. Learning kanji is a big challenge in Japanese. Surely it is good to know as many as possible? Yes it is. And it is good to know when to use them and when not to as well.

Writing 有難う for ありがとう, 晩御飯 for 晩ご飯, 居る for いる etc. tends to look strange, stiff or over-formal, or in the case of someone who is clearly a learner, just as if she doesn’t know how Japanese is normally written.

This isn’t to say that no Japanese person ever uses these kanji, but they do so at particular times and for particular reasons and usually wouldn’t use all these in one sentence.

For example I knew a sensei who wrote 有難う. This was because her correspondence was extra-formal and polite. Sometimes people will write, say, 居る to distinguish it from 要る, though in most cases they write いる for both.

They may also write a more-often-kana word in kanji when a sentence seems a bit too over-kana-ized. Most Japanese people find a long sentence that is nearly all kana and one that is a wall of kanji about equally awkward and prefer a balance.

You may have heard of 中二病 chuunibyou, literally “second year of junior-high disease”. Symptoms are: being overly self-conscious, believing that one has special powers, and, among other things, using far too many kanji. That last symptom is not surprising, as in junior high school Japanese children learn the second thousand joyo kanji. In other words they learn as many kanji in three years as they learned in the previous six years.

They are being crammed with kanji and they kind of want to show them off. Interestingly they are in a somewhat similar position to Western learners who started with Heisig. If you follow the Heisig method rigorously, you know nearly all regular-use kanji before you know any Japanese at all. And of course you want to use them.

In the case of chuunibyou, kanji over-use is deliberate. But of course Heisig users have less choice in the matter since they know the kanji but have very little experience of how Japanese is normally written. As you probably know, I favor learning kanji more organically along with the language itself. However, Heisig works well for some people and I would never decry it. But if one uses that approach one should be sure to use one’s shiny new kanji with caution.

There are no words that are absolutely never written in kanji (assuming they have kanji) but there are many that are almost always written in kana unless there is a very particular reason for using the kanji. There are others that are written in kana most of the time but the kanji is used between, say, 5% and 40% of the time depending on the word.

“Oh no, more to learn!”, you may say. Well fortunately it isn’t that difficult. The real solution is massive input. Lots of reading. You will soon get the feel for when and when not to use a kanji. Massive input is necessary anyway if you are ever going to pick up real Japanese, and fortunately for us all, it makes a lot of the dry study unnecessary. So solving the kanji problem is just icing on the cake.

The super-simple solution to the kanji-overload problem

However there is a quick-and-cheap answer to this question too, which is invaluable while you are still inexperienced..

Whenever you are in doubt, use Denshi Jisho or Rikaisama (or Rikaichan -kun -tan). All of them flag some words with “uk” or “usually written in kana alone”. If you aren’t sure where to use kanji, simply make sure to write these words in kana.

It isn’t a perfect solution, but it will make your writing look 90% more natural than just using every kanji you know.

The perfect solution comes from immersion, and you will have it in time. Immersion cures everything! Except possibly the common cold.

I will end with a few notes that you may find helpful. Please feel free to add to these in the comments below.

こと/事 is written as kanji in compounds like 出来事, but when used as a nominalizer is almost always written in kana.

Similarly, while 言う as a word is more often written in kanji, という in nominalizing and similar uses is usually written in kana.

These uses are probably somewhat related to the fact that common verbs attached to other verbs are very often written in kana. So 来る is common but it is nearly always やってくる, not やって来る;持っていくrather than 持って行く.

It is worth remembering that small, basic words when concrete, like 日, 人, 小さい, 大きい etc. are usually written with kanji. But when abstract and grammatical, like また, など, ある etc. they are usually written in kana. Again the Rikai and dictionaries flag the latter group with “uk”, so you are safer if you follow that.

Few of these rules are absolute. Japanese is quite free about when and when not to use kanji. However Japanese people make the decision on a number of grounds and on the basis of what effect they want to produce at a given time. At an early stage this is not possible to a learner and simply using kanji everywhere possible produces very unnatural-looking Japanese.

So the best advice is to begin by following the “uk” guidelines in Rikai or whatever you use and grow into a fuller understanding of kanji usage with massive input.

You are growing up in Japanese. Like a child you learn day by day, and like a child there is no short-cut to full knowledge. But luckily these little tricks can help you to write Japanese in a much more natural-looking way.

Subconscious Learning. Learn Japanese without trying

subconscious-japaneseSubconscious Japanese learning gets a bad press. And why wouldn’t it?

After all, anyone who says you can learn Japanese without trying is either dreaming or selling something, right?

Well, half-right.

Of course you can’t just absorb the language by playing audio in your sleep or something. Of course you need to learn basic grammar and many other things. You can’t learn the whole of Japanese without trying.

But there are some things that you not only can learn without trying, but you must learn them subconsciously, without effort.

There is an old saying: “War is too important to be left to the generals”. Well language is too important, too complex and too organic to be left to the conscious mind and to conscious learning processes.

In fact I would go so far as to say that you don’t learn language through study. You only prepare to learn language through study. Study can do no more than lay the groundwork for the true learning process.

As one piece of evidence, take the following sentence:

Arinocdcg to rencet rseaerch, the hmuan brian is plrectfey albe to raed colmpex pasasges of txet caiinontng wdors in whcih the lrettes hvae been jmblued, pvioedrd the frsit and lsat leetrts rmeian in teihr crcerot piiotsons.

Can you read that? If your native language is English I am sure you can. But you don’t read it with your conscious mind. If you had to think “that t goes there and that e goes two places back…” etc. It would be hard if not impossible to read.

“Solving” the sentence as a conscious-study-mind puzzle would take ages. But just allowing the natural unconscious reflexes to do their work you can see what each word is with very little conscious attempt to “rearrange” it.

And that is how language works. To really understand it fully and quickly enough to be natural, it has to pass from the conscious study-mind to the unconscious “just see/hear it” mind.

When I touch-type, the easiest way to stop me in my tracks is to ask “where is the ‘v’ key on that keyboard? I don’t know. At least my conscious mind doesn’t know. My fingers (that is, my unconscious mind) can find it instantly but if I bring my conscious mind into play, suddenly I can’t find it easily without looking. In other words, the exercise of conscious thought actually inhibits second-nature instinctive use.

What does this mean for learning Japanese? One thing it means is that the internet is filled with frustrated people who wonder why they can’t listen to a simple anime and understand it even though they have done x-amount of conscious study.

All language skills, but especially listening, depend on one’s knowledge passing to the unconscious “just hear it” level. The conscious mind is just too slow to hear speech at natural speed. By the time one has consciously thought “what does that word mean?” the sentence has gone by. Very likely two or three sentences have gone by.

So what can we do? How can we get Japanese from our conscious to our unconscious mind?

The answer in principle is simple. Immerse in Japanese. Use it, use it, use it. Make it your language (at least for designated zones of your life) rather than “a foreign language that you learn”.

Massive input is the essential secret here. Read widely and watch anything you want to watch in Japanese.

For me watching Japanese shows and listening to Japanese audio drama and narrated stories on my iPod have been vital.

Subconscious Japanese: the art of fuzzy listening

There is also something some of us (myself very much included) find difficult, but which is of fundamental importance. And that is “fuzzy-matching”. Once we have learned Japanese grammar in a very precise way many of us (this varies according to one’s outlook) want to go on being very precise and learning conscious and exact Japanese.

This is good. We need this. But we also need fuzzy Japanese. Without it we will never gain the subconscious automaticity of language that we need to have if Japanese is ever to become instinctive.

People say that they have learned languages (including Japanese) by watching shows that they don’t understand at all. I have never recommended this. I also notice that most people who reliably make this claim (and I have no doubt that it has worked for some people) were living long-term in the country where the target language was spoken. Their breakthrough may have come through television shows, but those shows were only a part of near-total 24/7 immersion.

I recommend watching shows that you have built up to by the Japanese-subtitled anime method. But once you are ready to watch without subtitles the important thing is to watch at full speed like a small child. You will catch some parts and you won’t catch others. It is important not to worry over individual words. In fact it is important not to worry about the language at all.

Your whole focus should be on the show itself. You should try to follow it and enjoy it as best you can like a small child. It doesn’t matter how much you are getting from the visual cues and how much from the words. The less you even think about that the better.

Why? Because you are letting your mind do what it does best. You are letting it do what it was essentially built to do over the first few years of life: absorb and acquire language at a deep level.

People who say that language learning ability deteriorates as we age are wrong. You can absolutely repeat the infancy process. As someone once said. “Small children are not better at learning language. It is just that they have no escape routes”.

Only by total 24-7 immersion can you block off most (even then not all) of your own mental escape routes and regain something close to the absorption ability of a small child. And this is why we recommend some short-cutting by learning grammar and the Japanese subtitled anime method.

But, you also need “fuzzy watching” in order to get the ability to process sentences at speed, develop the fundamental instinct for Japanese, and recognize, as small children do, the countless blocks of language that belong together.

People sometimes complain about the many homophones in Japanese and I have explained how you can use these to your advantage. But also, the reason Japanese people recognize them easily and instantly in real speech is because they hear blocks of speech rather than individual words. Just as you do in your native language.

You will also gain experience of those blocks of speech by massive reading input. As you read a lot of Japanese you will often find that when you read two words and are turning the page, you know what the next word or two will be, because you are becoming used to the constantly-occuring word-groups that every language is full of.

This is not just an interesting little trick. It is vital to the real-time, instinctive and subconscious processing of language.

But remember that reading alone will not teach you to hear Japanese. The only thing that will teach you listening is listening.

Output is also vital. Especially spoken output. If you can, you should speak Japanese for at least an hour every day (I can help with this if you want). It doesn’t matter whether it is with a native speaker or a fellow-learner. It doesn’t matter if you make mistakes (as all small children do). Your massive input will iron out those mistakes over time. What matters is that you are learning to put together words instinctively at spoken speed.

You do need explicit conscious study. But you only need it because you don’t have 100% 24/7 immersion. It is a shortcut to help the real learning process go faster. But never forget that it is only a shortcut, only an artificial aid to the real thing.

The real learning process — the one that will pass Japanese to the subconscious level where language really operates — is massive usage, both input and output. That is how you learned your native language, and that is how you will learn Japanese.

I am sorry to say that most Japanese learners never make it. The internet is littered with people who got part of the way there. Lower-intermediate level seems to be a barrier that only a small percentage of Western learners cross.

And that is because, up to that level you can get by with study.

After that level (but it is better to start earlier) self-immersion is necessary. Because study alone will never pass language from the conscious “academic subject” part of the brain to the real engine-room of language: the subconscious mind.

More on full-speed anime watching as a path to instinctive Japanese→

Japanese Vocabulary the Intelligent Way: Acquire a large vocabulary even with poor word-memory

acquire-japanese-vocabularyJapanese vocabulary is one of the major hurdles in learning the language.

And if you have a poor memory, it can seem like and insurmountable one.

But there are techniques that make it possible for anyone to acquire a large Japanese vocabulary.

A professional translator friend of mine said that after she had learned a language there were always “a million words” still left to learn.

Not surprising, since language must be equipped to express everything we might ever want to express.

So what happens if you have a worse-than-average word-memory? Are you locked out of the language?

No memory? No problem

No you aren’t. You already have a very large vocabulary in your native language. You did it once without even trying. You can do it again.

But you need to know how.

My memory is very poor. I live in a non-English-speaking country and often eat some dish whose name I haven’t heard before. Although I am interested in food and may love the dish, its foreign name just doesn’t stick in my mind. Most people I know pick it up after hearing it (and eating it) a few times. For me it just doesn’t work that way.

So if you have a poor vocabulary memory, I absolutely understand what it is like.

But, I have an exceptionally large vocabulary in English and I am rapidly building a large vocabulary in Japanese.

How?

Well let us consider for a moment how memory actually works. Chess masters have been found to have an extraordinary memory for the positions of pieces on a board. They can see a game in play for a minute or two and accurately reproduce the positions of the pieces on another board. They can accurately re-play games they played years ago.

But here is the interesting part. If pieces are placed randomly on a board, in formations that could not occur in a real game, their memory for the positions is not very good. It is only slightly better than those of people who can’t play chess at all.

What does this mean? It means that they can remember the positions not because they have super-memories, but because the positions make sense to them. They form a structure. They tell a story. A senseless set of random positions is hardly more memorable to them than to anyone else.

How do we use this fact in acquiring Japanese vocabulary?

The key is that vocabulary has to make sense. It has to form meaningful patterns in the mind. It has to be part of an understandable structure. For me the names of foreign dishes are out-of-context. I have no idea why that sound means that dish (or if I do, I am much more likely to remember it). I am a very poor brute-force word-learner. But when I learn Japanese vocabulary I don’t try to learn by brute force.

Japanese Vocabulary the Intelligent Way

We need to learn vocabulary in such a way that we are building meaningful links in our minds.

How do we do this?

The first important point is to:

Learn Japanese vocabulary organically

That means, learn from actually encountering words, not from lists. If you don’t understand how to do this, here is a major article about building a core vocabulary organically.

By encountering Japanese words in action, rather than out of context from dry lists, you have a far better chance of remembering them.

The second important point is to have:

Massive input

Instead of learning lists, you should be reading books, watching anime (with Japanese subtitles) and if possible having conversations in Japanese. This way you keep encountering words in real contexts where they make sense and form links: learning them the way you learned your own language.

I wrote an article on massive input vs Anki, in which I discussed the balance between learning words by spaced repetition and learning them by encountering them over and over again in wide reading and watching.

I am a big advocate of massive input. But I also use Anki, and find it a really good way of cementing in words I don’t encounter all the time. I recommend using both (though some people do well with massive input only, and if you do, that’s fine).

But what if you use Anki and keep getting “leeches” (words you just can’t remember)?

Not everyone works the same, but as I’ve said, I am a very poor brute-force learner. But I use Anki and I almost never get leeches.

Why?

The main reason is that I use mnemonics very extensively.

I wrote an article on Japanese Vocabulary mnemonics, and it is one of the less viewed pages on this site. It shouldn’t be. Mnemonics can change your vocabulary-learning life.

Mnemonics are an ancient, tried-and-tested means by which people can perform astonishing memory feats. I won’t go into that here, but let me summarize how and why I use them:

Instead of trying to pin a random sound to a concept, I always make a mnemonic to tie together the sound, the kanji and the meaning of a word. I enter this mnemonic on the back of the word’s Anki card.

So in a sense I am learning the mnemonic along with the sound, kanji and meaning. An extra thing to learn? No, this is the thing that ties the other three together. Like the “pattern” that allows a chess master to remember the board.

Very soon I find that the mnemonic becomes unnecessary I know the word: and the sound, meaning and kanji stick together by themselves. If you wish, you can write the mnemonic in white text on a white background, so you can only see it by highlighting it. But it is there if and when it is needed.


Pro-tip: Targeted Mnemonics

Mnemonics don’t have to be static. You can change them, delete them, add them as you develop. Specifically, you should target your mnemonics to the problems you discover. If you are constantly forgetting the pronunciation of one kanji in a two-kanji word, make a specific mnemonic for that. If you are always confusing two similar kanji, write a little explanation of the difference between the two on one (or several) of the cards where either appears, with a story to fix it in your mind.

You can use targeted mnemonics, explanations and notes-to-self to troubleshoot the specific memory problems you are having.


Natural Japanese Vocabulary Mnemonics

The best mnemonics of all are the natural ones. As you make friends with more and more kanji you can more and more often “see” what a word is likely to mean just by looking at it.

You also become more and more adept at guessing how it will be pronounced. Especially if you make friends with the Sound Sisters.

You also need to learn how to make Japanese homophones work for you rather than against you. Homophones can become a powerful aid in acquiring a large Japanese vocabulary. I often learn a word’s main homophones along with it on the same Anki card, killing several birds with one stone. They stick in my mind because I remember the different kanji that make up the sounds. I also, if necessary, make a little mnemonic story to tie the homophonic words together.

Organic Japanese Vocabulary

Note that all these techniques are essentially doing the same thing. They are de-randomizing vocabulary. They are incorporating it into meaningful patterns like the chess-master’s chess boards.

Mnemonics are important as tacking-stitches in the early stages. They help vocabulary to hold together and have pattern.

But in the end, the real “mnemonics” are the organic ones. Japanese is an exceptionally good language in this respect. You can nearly always see why a word is what it is by looking at its kanji.

At first that is hard, but it becomes easier and easier all the time. Nowadays I tend to use mnemonics only for words where the pronunciation is unclear or the kanji is new. That is a minority of cases now.

However, I got to that point by using mnemonics extensively in the early stages.

At every stage I made sure that words fitted into a pattern and made sense in a way my memory could latch onto. As time goes on, the real, organic patterns replace the artificial “training wheel” patterns of mnemonics.

But the true key to all of this is immersion and massive input. You only really acquire vocabulary properly when it is a part of your life. You encounter the words often. You don’t just know what some dictionary says they “mean”. You start to know their feel in real use. You start to understand their subtle nuances. You start to see them the way you see your own language, rather than as something “foreign”.

Your precise balance of learning, mnemonics, Anki (or other SRS) and massive input is something you will discover for yourself. Some people are a lot better at ingesting words “raw” than I am. They may have less need for mnemonics and Anki. That’s fine. I am writing here for people who don’t have a natural talent for learning, just as I don’t.

But whatever your abilities, two things remain the same.

  1. You remember best when what you are remembering makes sense and forms a pattern.
  2. To really acquire language and vocabulary you must have massive input. Without that you will always be learning the language “from the outside”, and acquiring mere “dictionary words”.

But with these tools in hand, you can acquire a large Japanese vocabulary just as you acquired your native vocabulary. And in essentially the same way.

Help! Rikaisama Not Responding! A simple fix.

Sometimes Rikaisama just stops functioning. It is still there but hovering over a Japanese word doesn’t invoke the usual pop-up box.

Turning Rikaisama off and on again doesn’t help. When it restarts you get the Rikai startup message, but when you hover over a word, still nothing happens. The only way to fix it seems to be quit and re-start Firefox, which is pretty annoying.

Fortunately I have found that in almost all cases the cause is quite simple and can be solved easily without re-starting Firefox. There may be other cases but nearly all the time this works for me.

What has happened is that Rikaisama has gone into Super Sticky mode (probably because one inadvertently pressed the shortcut key while hovering). In this mode boxes don’t go away after you move the cursor, but they also don’t appear on normal hover. You have to ctrl-click or alt-click in order to get the pop-up.

So the answer is simple. Ctrl-click or alt-click to get the normal box, and while the box is displayed, press the Super-sticky shortcut key (U by default) to toggle back to normal mode.

Unresponsive rikaisama

A simple fix for a rather annoying Rikaisama problem!

Not sure what Rikaisama is? Find out here!

Organic Immersion Japanese vs Hunt-and-Peck

Learning Japanese organically is like touch-typing as opposed to hunt-and-peck
Learning Japanese organically is like touch-typing as opposed to hunt-and-peck

Disclaimer. This article is not about typing Japanese, although I have discussed that earlier.

It is about the organic way of learning Japanese and what we can discover about it by noticing how we touch-type.

I actually started out by replying to a comment on my typing article. But I found there was so much to say, and I think it is so important, that I made an article about it.

Cure Yasashiku said:

As an interesting aside, with just one finger disabled, I was not able to touch type at all…even with the OTHER hand…it was really strange.

Now I do not find this strange at all. In fact I would have been very surprised if it hadn’t happened.

Why?

Because touch-typing, like language but on a much smaller scale, is an organic skill. That is why it can teach us so much about language.

The reason Cure Yasashiku could not touch-type with one finger disabled is that touch-typing is a complete, organic whole. You can’t half-touch-type. You are either touch-typing or you aren’t. And for that you need all your fingers (if one finger was permanently disabled you might find a workaround, but that just means adopting a different style of touch-typing).

When you are touch-typing the process is automatic, like speaking your native language or a language you have really learned. You aren’t thinking “what key is where?” In learning language, we are aiming for the same automaticity, rather than merely theoretical knowledge of grammar, kanji and vocabulary.

Using Japanese immersively is like touch-typing. Treating Japanese as a “subject of study”, with the occasional “practice” conversation or reading, is hunt-and-peck.

With hunt-and-peck we never get away from using our eyes to fully trusting finger-memory. With “study-Japanese” we never get away from using English as our base-language and continually relating Japanese to it.

Once we are fully touch-typing we forget what key is where. Our fingers go straight to it automatically, but if you ask “where is the ‘m’ key?” I don’t even know.

Once we are fully immersed in Japanese we are no longer “peeking” by thinking “what is this word in English?” We are treating the Japanese word as its own reality: an organic part of the entire Japanese “keyboard”. Sometimes we will not even remember how to put a Japanese word into English (some are very hard to express in English anyway).

Many Japanese learners never get away from hunt-and-peck Japanese. They may pass exams, just as hunt-and-peck typists can become pretty fast. But they never really internalize Japanese to the point where it lives in their hearts as a whole system unrelated to English.

These people populate “Japanese learning” forums, avidly discussing Japanese day after day – in English. And the interesting thing is that a very significant minority of these people are not native English speakers.

What does this mean? I have talked about English speakers regarding English as “Real Language” and Japanese as just “a language”. But in fact non-English speakers often do the same.

Why?

Because they need English. If they want to participate in large Internet forums, if they want to immerse themselves in the dominant popular culture of this world (can’t think why anyone would, but people do), If they want to discuss Japanese (or many other things) with any significant number of enthusiasts, they have to use English.

Thus English is not just a “subject of study” to them. English becomes real language in which an actual part of their life and real communication takes place.

To use our typing analogy, with English they have switched from hunt-and-peck to touch-typing. But, unless they are living in Japan (and not always then) Japanese does not apply the same pressure. They don’t need it. It can remain a “subject of study”. It can continue to be hunt-and-peck Japanese.

When I was in Japan, I spent a very short time (less than a week before I fled back to the Mie-prefecture countryside) in a shared house for foreigners in Tokyo.

One of the first people I met there was a French student, who was studying at a Japanese university. Before he even saw me (I was on the other side of a half-open door) he greeted me in English.

I do not speak English in Japan, so I replied with a hesitant “Sumimasen…”

The door was open by now and the Frenchman stared at me.

Nihonjin desu ka? Iie…” (Are you Japanese? No, you’re not…)

He was clearly shocked and surprised. He seemed to look over my shoulder in case four horsemen were about. Here was a European-ish looking foreigner in Japan speaking Japanese. Why on earth would that happen? Even if I was a Finn or a Russian, surely I could summon up some English.

However, when it became clear that I didn’t speak English, we continued quite happily in Japanese. We spoke on several occasions afterward and always in Japanese. But under “normal circumstances” every word we said to each other would have been English, even though we were in Japan and both perfectly capable of communicating in Japanese.

We communicated in Japanese because we had to. There wasn’t another language that both of us were able/willing to talk.

All my discretionary activities are in Japanese. If I can’t read a novel in Japanese, I can’t read it. If I can’t play a game in Japanese, I can’t play it. Some people have said “that’s real dedication”. Now if by dedication they mean “exceptional self-sacrifice” or something like that, I wouldn’t agree at all.

But if they mean that part of my mind is a “dedicated device” that only uses Japanese then yes. That is exactly the point. I do not regard English as the language of default. I regard Japanese as the language of default.

I am not living in English and peeking at the Japanese keys through English-language eyes. I am living in Japanese and touch-typing.

When we first learn to touch-type it is slow and laborious. We do it in class and go back to hunt-and-peck the minute we have to type a real essay or email. But at some point we have to make the switch and use touch-typing as our real input method. Otherwise there is no point learning at all.

It is the same with Japanese, at least if we are serious enough about it to want to make it our own language. At some point we have to stop hunting-and-pecking through the eyes of English and start touch-typing in pure Japanese.

And the earlier we start doing that, the better. It doesn’t matter if it is slow at first. What matters is that we are really living Japanese if only in a tiny way.

A lot of Japanese learners – even quite advanced ones – never make this transition. But it is possible to start doing it as soon as you have learned basic grammar.

I hope you will.

Japanese Typing: How your keyboard can help you learn

When learning Japanese, typing itself can help you.
When learning Japanese, typing itself can help you.

Can the simple act of Japanese typing can help your Japanese pronunciation and understanding?

I believe it can. Typing in kana can really help re-program the mind to thinking of Japanese the way Japanese people do.

I talked recently about the importance of thinking in hiragana and not romaji for both Japanese pronunciation and understanding.

I suggested that one of the things that keeps our minds tied to romaji is the fact that when we do Japanese typing we do it in romaji even though it is converted to kana and kanji. This maintains the deceptive mental link between Japanese sounds and structure and the roman alphabet.

So I have recently tried the experiment of typing in kana rather than in Romaji. It is a fascinating experience because one has to learn a new keyboard layout that bears no relation to the regular QWERTY one. If you touch-type (I do), in a way it is like starting all over again. But fortunately not as much like as you might expect.

So let me talk a little about the experience, its pros and cons, to help you decide whether it might be right for you.

First of all some basic questions I asked and you will too:

But don’t most Japanese people use romaji for Japanese typing?

Yes they do. But they are thinking in hiragana from the start. They do not have any built-in associations of English sound and structure with the Roman alphabet. If anything typing Japanese in romaji has the opposite effect for them. It is likely to make them perceive romaji in terms of kana rather than in terms of English/European sounds and structures.

Our reason for typing in kana is not that it is more efficient (in some ways it is, in some not. There probably isn’t much in it) but in order to help re-program our minds into thinking in kana structures. This is explained more fully here.

Will I need a new keyboard for Japanese typing?

No. You can get a set of vinyl keyboard stickers from Ebay for a few dollars. You can see a keyboard using them in the picture at the top of this page. This is all you need to get you started. If you touch type you won’t need the stickers forever anyway.

Will I be re-learning touch-typing from scratch?

This is an interesting question. I assumed that I would be. After all it is a completely different keyboard layout. I remember spending weeks of touch-type drill with the redoubtable Mavis Beacon-sensei. My friend Cure Yasashiku looked for online Japanese touch type drills, only to find they are no use because a real Japanese keyboard differs to some extent from a stickered Western one.

However….

What I found was that none of this was necessary. Somehow in learning to touch type in the first place it seems that one has mastered a number of skills that make the second time around a lot easier. I am not even entirely certain what they are.

Part of it is confidence and familiarity, I suspect. When you are coming fresh from hunt-and-peck you really don’t feel comfortable with hitting keys without looking. But when you have been touch-typing for some time you expect to. So as soon as you have an idea where the new keys are, you naturally want to hit them blind. The whole process is quicker and easier than it was the first time around.

Learning to touch type in the first place there comes a point where you make the decision to use touch-typing for your real-life typing (knowing that it will be slower for some time). With kana Japanese typing, I was using it for everyday work almost from the beginning. Instead of hunt-and-peck I was doing touch-and-peek, with the peeking diminishing quite rapidly.

Having said that it does slow one down for quite a while. However, do you actually buzz along as fast in Japanese anyway? I am thinking there may be a good case for starting kana typing very early, when Japanese typing is very slow whatever method you use. By the time your Japanese has warmed up, you also know the keyboard intimately.

The whole exercise also raises some interesting considerations about the whole learning process. Touch-typing has this in common with language-learning: that you are aiming at automaticity – the point where you don’t need to think what key is where in one case, and what word means what in the other.

I found from very early on that automaticity in the sense of “finger-memory” was developing quickly. Often I would not know where a key was but my fingers would go to the right one. This is closely analogous to what you want to do (on a much larger scale) in the language itself. It is also an indication of why too much conscious and explicit study is not necessarily as helpful as we tend to think. Massive exposure is what gets our mental “fingers” hitting the right words and expressions without quite knowing why, and understanding sentences even when we didn’t consciously remember all the words as individuals.

One thing I find is that even though I am by no means a full-speed kana typist yet, the kana keyboard exists in my mind as something separate from the roman keyboard. If I accidentally try to type kana with the keyboard in romaji, I am usually surprised by the letter that appears. While my finger-mind knows where the “c” key is in romaji, it doesn’t associate that with the “そ” key in kana, even though they are the same key.

This is interestingly analogous to how language works and again an indication of how conscious memorization only takes us so far. To speak Japanese you have to be able to throw the “Japanese switch” in your mind. You really don’t want to be translating everything from Japanese to English and back in your head. And this is how the mind wants to work. We can see that from the microcosm of the keyboard. It naturally throws the “kana switch” and deactivates the other paradigm that it has for the same keyboard.

Is kana keyboard necessary for your Japanese typing?

Returning to the practicalities of the question, should you be switching your Japanese typing to kana input?

There are several questions to ask yourself. Do you touch-type? Because if you hunt-and-peck anyway you might as well do it in kana. It won’t take long to get familiar with the keyboard on a hunt-and-peck level.

If you touch-type, how much will this slow you down? My finding (somewhat to my surprise) is that you really don’t need to do keyboard drills (and they aren’t available anyway). You will be typing slowly from very early on – the first day – if you are anything like me.

But it is slower and it will take at least some weeks to get up to full speed. So practical questions are: How much do you type Japanese? How fast do you type Japanese now? Are you doing Japanese typing enough for the slow-down to matter?

Also, do you actually hand-write Japanese a lot (perhaps for school)? If so, the keyboard problem is probably less important for you.

How important is it? I think it is definitely helping me make the final break from romaji-based thinking and this is important not only for pronunciation but for thinking about the way Japanese fits together in the way Japanese people do.

If you’re thinking of making the change, read this article to get an idea of how important it all feels to you.

And don’t worry if you don’t want to do it. It isn’t a life-or-death thing. Just something you may want to try.

If you have questions about kana Japanese typing, please ask me in the comments section below.

Learning Japanese – the Real Question

Whenever I talk about my Japanese studies with others, invariably I will get the question, “Why Japanese?” or “What are you going to do with Japanese?” These questions often put me on edge a little, and often bring out a bit of defensiveness in me, I have to admit.

On the other hand, as frustrating as these questions from others may be, I think that they are good questions to ask oneself. These questions are actually sub-questions to what I have come to think of as the real question. The real question in my eyes is: what relationship do you want with Japanese?

vlcsnap-2015-11-16-00h05m29s711If a language is to be more than a school subject, one is going to develop a relationship with the language. I took two years of French in high school, because I had heard that most colleges required two years of a foreign language for admission. French was a school subject for me.  I was a good student in high school, and I did well in most of my school subjects, including French. I did nothing with French beyond what was required in school, though, and I remember very little of French beyond “bon jour.” I never developed any relationship with French.

For those of us learning Japanese in the present day, we are blessed and cursed with a huge amount of random information and advice. There are treasures to be sure, but sorting through what is useful and what is not a job in and of itself. With Japanese, in particular, it can be even more overwhelming because one must start from scratch. While Japanese is not an inherently difficult language, it is nothing like English, or any other language for that matter. While linguists are in disagreement as to whether or not Japanese is a language isolate, the only language that one might know that is even remotely like it is perhaps Korean, which is still not very close. This means that unlike European languages, one must begin with Japanese from ground zero, which can be a huge task. Much of the advice and information out there concerns shortcuts to make this task smaller.

I think that pondering the relationship one is looking for with Japanese is really helpful in sorting through all of the information available, particularly with respect to any shortcuts one may wish to take.

This question has come to mind because I recently started studying two other languages, Swedish and Spanish.  My family is from Sweden, and I still have many relatives in Sweden. Some of the relatives came for my grandmother’s ninetieth birthday party, and I had a hard time explaining why I was immersed in studying Japanese when I could not even speak Swedish. I also saw how happy my grandmother was speaking Swedish…much happier than she ever was speaking English. About a month after the party, my grandmother passed. I want to maintain contact with my Swedish relatives, now that my connection through my grandmother is gone, and I want to read the books my grandmother left that were written about her home town, Billesholm.

With respect to Spanish, my goals are even more limited. I have a dear friend who lives in Mexico, who I plan on visiting in less than a month. I want to know enough Spanish in order to get back and forth to her house, to go to the store, and to order in restaurants. I also have a lovely book with beautiful pictures in Spanish about traditional textiles that was given to me by a friend a couple of years ago, which has commentary I might someday like to be able to read, but that is a very low priority.

With each of these languages, I have clear and limited goals about what I am looking to be able to do, which guides my studies. I am looking for a completely different relationship with Japanese. I want Japanese to be my default language, the language I use when I do not have to use a different language. I want Japanese to be my second mother tongue. Actually, more than this, if possible I would like it to replace English as the language that I think in. Why, when I live in the U.S., and I am likely to be living in the U.S. in the foreseeable future? Well, to put it simply, I like myself better in Japanese than I do in English. It is a spiritual journey for me. I am trying to raise myself in Japanese. I do not have a limited goal or objective; I want Japanese to be the central language of my life.

There is a rather famous website, “Fluent in 3 Months,” which raises the hackles of some Japanese learners and learners of other languages. Yet, when reading this site, the author rather clearly states his goals. He is a world traveler. He choose the time frame of 3 months because that was the average length of time of a travel visa. His aim is to learn a lot of languages so that he can enjoy his stay in many countries and be able to speak to the locals. There is nothing wrong with this goal, and it sounds like it could be a lot of fun. In order to achieve his goals, he takes many shortcuts, which are perfectly appropriate for his goals. For Swedish and Spanish, I might look at some of his advice (I recently looked there for advice on how to roll my r’s, for example, which one must do in both Swedish and Spanish); however, for Japanese, I probably would not, because my goals with Japanese are much, much different.

One area that this comes into play strongly is whether to and how one goes about learning kanji.  One of the most popular methods of learning kanji is the Heisig method, outlined in the book, Remembering the Kanji. It is a method designed to help one quickly learn the kanji, often before one learns any Japanese. It is designed as a shortcut to put the learner in the position of a Chinese native learning Japanese, who already knows the meaning of the kanji (and how to write them). Whether or not this is a good method, it does not fit with what I am trying to do with Japanese, which is to raise myself in it. I do not want to go into Japanese from the standpoint of a Chinese learner, but as much as I can from the standpoint of a Japanese child.

This being the case, I am going about learning kanji using the organic method as discussed on this site. In addition to that, I am learning how to write kanji. For me, learning to write feels like an important part of my Japanese upbringing. I am doing it slowly, though, using workbooks for Japanese children. I am now finishing up a 2nd grade kanji workbook, and I will be starting a 3rd grade workbook soon. Interestingly though, with the exception of one or two kanji, I already was able to recognize the meaning and some of the readings for all of the kanji at that level. I think that this is closer to the position of Japanese children who are likely exposed to the kanji in their lives before they learn them in school. Is this a better method than RTK? Well, for me it is, I think, because of the relationship I want with Japanese. It is much slower, to be sure, but I think it is building the foundation for a deeper relationship with Japanese than RTK could give me.

The question of the relationship one wants with Japanese is a personal one, and there is not a right or wrong answer. It is an important one, though, which has many practical implications.

Romaji to Hiragana: Why this mind-switch is so vital (even for more advanced learners)

Romaji to hiragana
Japanese romaji vs Western-style. No system can exactly represent actual Japanese.

Making the mental switch from romaji to hiragana is vitally important.

This may seem like advice directed at beginners, and it is important for them. However, what I have to say is important for serious immersion Japanese learners at all levels, so I would ask even more advanced learners to stay with me and read this article.

Some people have suggested that it would be all right to learn Japanese, at least at first, using only romaji. Most serious Japanese learners disparage the use of romaji but often without explaining exactly why. I am going to start by explaining why it is so important to make the mind-switch from romaji to hiragana and actually think in kana.

When thinking about the meanings of words we should, and as we advance inevitably will, start thinking in kanji. However, when we think of the sounds of words we need to think in kana, because kana are precisely adapted to expressing the Japanese sounds in the way Japanese people perceive them.

Many more advanced learners, even after they have become fluent readers of Japanese, do not fully break the mental link between Japanese sounds and romaji. They have not fully switched from romaji to hiragana in their minds. We are going to talk about why this happens and what can be done about it. But first of all, let’s look at why it matters.

Why we need to mind-switch from romaji to hiragana

What is wrong with romaji in the first place?

Very simply the fact that it does not accurately represent the sounds of Japanese. If we continue to think that あ=a, し=shi, ふ=fu (or hu, depending which system of romaji you use), we will have a fundamental misconception about Japanese sounds.

Thinking in kana will not automatically teach good Japanese pronunciation, but thinking in romaji will make it much harder.

There are different systems of romaji transliteration and all of them have faults. The reason there are several is that it is a trade-off between one set of faults or another. The Hepburn system (which is currently the most usual in the West) is not the one commonly used in Japan. In some ways it is a good system and in others it perpetuates some very wrong ideas about the kana structure.

When you think about it, it is actually not possible for romaji to represent Japanese sounds accurately because romaji itself does not have fixed sound-values.

If a North American speaker pronounces the word ほとんど as if it were a word spelled “hotondo”, what comes out is something more like はたあんど. In traditional standard British English, the Japanese あ sound is closer to the short “u” than to most of the various sounds that “a” makes in English. And so on.

So this is the first reason for switching from romaji to hiragana. We need as early as possible to start associating Japanese sounds with Japanese characters and cutting out the intermediary of Roman characters, which necessarily misrepresent the sounds as ones we are familiar with in English.

The second reason is that romaji, and especially the usually-used Hepburn system, misrepresents how Japanese people think about kana and even gives a false idea of certain points of grammar.

For example, on the Wikipedia article on Japanese verb conjugation we are told that:

The eba provisional conditional form is characterized by the final -u becoming -eba for all verbs (with the semi-exception of -tsu verbs becoming -teba).

But つ-verbs becoming てば is not any kind of exception. It is 100% regular, and the apparent “semi-exception” only exists in Hepburn Romaji.

In a variety of ways, thinking in romaji causes us to see Japanese in ways that are a) different from how Japanese people see it, and b) an impediment to understanding how the language actually works.

In the Wikipedia example above, instead of thinking in terms of “the final u becoming -eba” (a purely romaji-based concept) we should be saying that the final う-row kana becomes the equivalent え-row kana plus ば. And then there are no exceptions, semi or otherwise, and we are seeing the language the way it actually is, instead of through romaji glasses.

Romaji to hiragana: still a problem for more advanced learners?

“But I know hiragana inside out. I read Japanese books all the time,” the more advanced learner may say.

Yes, I do too. But I have caught myself, and other more advanced learners, making little errors that indicate that we are still thinking somewhat in romaji. I have puzzled over why this may be. After all, we left romaji behind a long time ago.

Didn’t we?

Well, in a way we might not have. First we learned the sounds of Japanese as romaji equivalents. But perhaps more importantly, we type Japanese in romaji every day.

Now this may be less important if you hand-write Japanese a lot (perhaps in school). But many of us hardly hand-write at all in this electronic age, and we have argued that it may not be necessary.

However, if we mostly type Japanese on a keyboard via romaji, without even being aware of it, we are continually maintaining and strengthening the romaji to hiragana link.

Especially if we touch-type, this is largely subconscious. But we may actually have a much stronger mental connection to how the kana are made up from romaji than how they are made up in themselves.

When you try inputting kana directly (say putting your name in a DS game) you can find yourself wondering momentarily where the “cha” character is before remembering that you want ち plus ゃ. Of course you know ちゃ instantly when you see it written, but it isn’t the way you are used to inputting it.

This does have an effect on how you think about Japanese. I suspect the author of the Wikipedia article cited above was advanced in Japanese, but she was still thinking in romaji-linked patterns.

As full-immersion learners, we want to complete the romaji to hiragana mind-switch and break the mental romaji link.

Because of the strong subliminal influence of the keyboard in this process, I have been experimenting with typing directly in kana on my computer. This is possible with a Western keyboard (I will show you how to make it easy), and I have found it much easier than I imagined to re-learn touch-typing with a completely different keyboard layout.

Whether you want to do it or not is another matter. Most Japanese people type kana via romaji, but they are thinking in kana to begin with, so it doesn’t pose a problem for their Japanese! (It might adversely affect their relation to kana for English, but then they primarily use romaji as a minor part of Japanese).

In my next article I share my experience of typing on a kana keyboard and how it meshes with the Japanese learning process. Plus a tips on how to go about it if you want to try.

The Best Way to Learn Japanese

best way to learn japanesePeople often ask what is the best way to learn Japanese. It is an important question, because learning Japanese is not a quick process whatever method one uses.

One is sinking many, many hours into it, so it is natural to want to be sure that one is using those hours effectively.

This leads some people to spend more time reading up on methods than actually learning the language, or in some cases it leads people to keep changing methods in case the current one isn’t the best way to learn Japanese.

I really understand this. I went through the same kind of doubts and worries early in my Japanese journey, but I discovered something that can eliminate the whole anxiety of not knowing which is the best method.

I am going to explain why the method I chose works so well, but also, and perhaps more importantly, why, whether it is the best or not, it can remove the whole anxiety surrounding the question of the best way to learn Japanese.

In a nutshell, the best way to learn Japanese is to use and enjoy it. Studying only takes you so far, which is why people can study the language for years and pass exams without becoming proficient in practical terms.

How the brain learns language

There are reasons for this. At one time scientists thought that there was a particular part of the brain that handles language. More recently, though, it appears that the language function is distributed over many parts of the brain. This is because language (not a particular language, but the language-function) is hard wired into the brain.

What this means in turn is that words and experience are intimately bound together. To the brain, saying “It’s been a rough day” and touching sandpaper are somewhat similar sensations.

In other words, language and experience are intimately bound together. Which is why learning words from abstract “vocabulary lists” is one of the least efficient ways we can learn. The brain is not forming sensory or emotional connections with the words.

The best way to learn Japanese is to be in Japan, interacting and using the language for everything all the time. That way the brain builds up all the natural associations of words and grammar with things and experiences that make up true knowledge of any language.

Of course, many of us don’t have the option of being in Japan (and if we are there in an English-teaching environment we still may not have the option of true immersion).

In that case the second-best way is the best way to go.

What is the second-best way?

The answer to that should be obvious.

Getting as near to the best way as possible!

Even if you can’t have every experience in Japanese, you can create a “Japanese zone” in your life where you experience in Japanese.

As you know, when you become involved in a book or an anime, it is an experience. You are seeing and doing things, even though at second hand. You are experiencing emotions, hopes, fears from fantasy adventures to everyday life. Japanese acquired this way works in the brain very similarly to the way “real” language-experience does.

If you communicate and interact in Japanese: not just “practising” but actually discussing things that really interest you in themselves and forming relationships in Japanese, then language is working in your mind like real language and not just “play-language” or “study-language”.

The brain treats real language very differently from the way it treats “game-systems” like algebra or chess or language-study. Real language operates all over the brain, becoming part of its way of processing everything else.

How to go about creating real immersion for your brain is essentially the theme of this site and we have a lot of information on it. You can start from here if you decide to.

Eliminating the “best way to learn Japanese” worry

I think what we have said above is convincing.

And I think it is convincing because it is true.

But…

There are a lot of other ways of learning Japanese online and many of them claim to be the best. Most of them can work (there are a few notable exceptions). You may be drawn to some of them at some time and wonder if they aren’t the best way to learn Japanese.

Of course, I believe immersion is the best way to learn Japanese. At least for some people. But whether it is or isn’t, it is the way to stop worrying about what is the best way of learning Japanese.

Why? What do I mean by that?

I mean that the whole worry about “the best way to learn Japanese” comes from the fact that you are sinking hours into studying the language, and naturally you want to be sure that you aren’t wasting time by using a less effective method.

But true immersion does away with all that.

It does away with the whole “studying Japanese” concept. It does away with the idea that you spend countless study-hours with 10,000 sentences or drill-books or Remembering the Kanji or  Memrise or anything else in the hope that one magical day you will know enough to really use and enjoy Japanese.

You can see why people worry about whether their current method is the best way to learn Japanese.

It is an act of faith.

If I do enough of this grueling study I will reap the Great Reward.

But what if I don’t? What if I am on the wrong path?

You can’t know.

You can be told that someone else became native-level fluent in X-months using Y-supermethod. But you don’t know if that person is being 100% honest with you (or himself). Nor do you know if he isn’t some kind of prodigy who just happens to be very good at languages (and whatever anyone says, such people do exist). Nor do you know if the method that worked for this person is the one that will work for you. People learn differently.

So how can you find out what really is the best way of learning Japanese?

I don’t know if you can. But what you can do is do away with this whole act-of-faith approach.

When you do that, the whole “best way of learning Japanese” approach suddenly becomes irrelevant.

When you were picking up your native language as a small child you weren’t worrying about the best method of learning it. You weren’t even particularly concerned with learning the language at all. You were concerned with getting on with life. You were concerned with expressing your thoughts, enjoying movies, understanding what people were saying.

That wasn’t called “language study”. That was called “living”.

Our approach is to do the same thing with Japanese.

You do need to learn some basic grammar. We show you how to do this. It doesn’t have to be a lot. The rest you will pick up as you go along.

At this stage you don’t need to worry about the best way of learning Japanese. Learning basic grammar is very straightforward and there is no mystery about the fact that you are learning it.

Once you have learned the basics you start using Japanese. Watching Japanese-subtitled anime, reading for-Japanese-children’s books, playing video games in Japanese, communicating in Japanese.

This isn’t an easy, no-work method. It is hard, especially at first. All methods are hard. But as you ease into it, it is fun. You enjoy the anime. You enjoy the games. You enjoy reading. You start to interact with people in Japanese. You start to carve out an area of your life where Japanese is Language. The only language.

I believe this is the best and most natural way of learning Japanese. But whether it is or whether it isn’t, can you see how it has made the whole worry over “the best way to learn Japanese” irrelevant?

This is not an act-of-faith method. You aren’t slogging away at flashcards, classes, Kanji books, SRS sites etc in the hope that one day you will be able to use Japanese.

You are using Japanese right now.

Slowly at first. Strenuously at first. But you are using it. And every day you use it, it gets easier and more fun.

There is no mystery here. There is no waiting for the “destination” and hoping you didn’t board the wrong train. The destination is here, now.  What you are doing is learning to get around that destination. First of all crawling like a small baby. Then standing up, holding onto the legs of chairs. Then being able to toddle.

It’s a long job. Any method is a long job. Get-fluent-quick schemes don’t work, or only work for a certain kind of person (and a certain very limited definition of “fluent”). Really learning a language takes time. It takes children time to learn their native language. Many, many, many “study hours”.

Except that they don’t call them “study hours”.

And neither will you.

They call it “living”.

And so will you.

Is this the best way to learn Japanese? I think so, but I can’t prove it and I could be wrong.

I don’t really care.

And neither will you.

The real point is: suppose doing 10,000 sentences and learning 2,000 kanji in the abstract were “the best way”.

Suppose spending every night working through drill-books were the best way.

Would I do it?

No.

First of all, no one really knows whether or not they are the best way for any given individual.

But more importantly, I don’t want to put off using and living Japanese into some future that may or may not arrive.

If I was doing that I probably would be feeling desperate about whether all this slog was the best way to learn Japanese. It is like walking blindfold and just praying you are headed in the right direction.

Right from the first few months I was starting to use Japanese. It wasn’t a thing that would happen one day if I was diligent enough. It was something that was happening right now if I was diligent enough.

(That’s right, I’m afraid we can’t skip the diligence part)

Other approaches make using and enjoying Japanese a future-thing. True immersion makes it a now-thing.

And you know that the more you do it, the better it gets. You learn more words. You learn more of the ways that words are put together (“grammar”). Every single thing that you watch or read or play puts you one step further forward than the last one.

But you don’t need to worry about “the best way to learn Japanese” any more than a growing child needs to worry about the best way to learn her language.

To get started with real immersion, take a look at these articles:

How to Learn Japanese Online – a basic introduction

Japanese Immersion: How to Get Started

Yatta vs Yokatta: What do they mean?

Yatta and yokatta: What's the difference?
Yatta and yokatta: What’s the difference?

Two words you often hear in anime are Yatta! and Yokatta. They both express positive feelings, but the words are in fact unrelated and have different meanings.

Yatta is the past tense of the word yaru, to do. So when you hear someone shout Yatta! its primary meaning is “We did it!” or “I did it!”

So whether you hit the jackpot on a fruit machine or your team defeats the universe-eating monster, you are entitled to shout Yatta!

However, the meaning has extended from the literal sense of the word. For example, when I was in Japan and my host mother announced that she was making hotcakes, my little host sisters shouted Yatta!

In this case it wasn’t because they had done anything or even because their mother had (the hotcakes weren’t made yet) but because the word can extend beyond its literal meaning to a general cry of triumph or delight.

Yokatta is the past tense of ii, which means good. Ii is one of the very few irregular words in Japanese. The older form of ii is yoi (which is still often used), and the only irregularity is that whenever ii is conjugated in any way it reverts to being yoi. So the past tense of ii isn’t ikatta but yokatta.

So the meaning of yokatta is clear enough. It means “it was good”. Like yatta, it is often used for things that we don’t necessarily consider to be “past” in English. But when you think about it, the Japanese is logical. Something has to have already happened before we can know whether it was good or not.

Yokatta can be used in many different situations to express relief or happiness at the way things have turned out.

A very common expression in anime is

無事でよかった
buji de yokatta

Buji means literally “without incident” but usually has the sense of having arrived somewhere or done something safely or unhurt.

So buji de yokatta means “it was good that you are unhurt”. That puts the past tense in a slightly different place from where English would put it but the sense is the same as “I’m glad you weren’t hurt”.

Yokatta can express happiness in getting a present, passing an exam, or just about anything, but always the root sense is the same: “The way things turned out is good”.

As you have probably already realized, the reason the words look somewhat similar is that they both use the plain past ending -atta.

So, to put it all in a nutshell, when you hand your perfect test result to your mother, you say Yatta! and she says Yokatta.