The Key to Kanji Learning

People say that there is no Golden Key to the kanji. You just have to learn them. Preferably as words, bit by bit, organically.

But while there is no Golden Key, there is a Silver Key that can help enormously.

You can get it right here. The cost is – free, ’cause Dolly loves you!

It can help you to recognize kanji you only half-know. It can help you to guess the pronunciation of kanji you don’t know at all. It can help you with words where you know the sound but are very vague on the appearance of the kanji, and conversely it can help you with words where you know the kanji but don’t remember the pronunciation.

number-one-kanji-hackYou can get it right here. The cost is – free, ’cause Dolly loves you!

It can help you learn the kanji in the first place, and it can help tie together the triplicity of sound, meaning and appearance. It even talks to you (audio on every card).

The secret of this kanji hack is that there are a number – something under 100 – of kanji elements that pretty regularly indicate the on-reading of a kanji (the one usually used in two-or-more-kanji words, which make up the majority of Japanese words). I introduced an important selection of them in my Sound-Sisters article. I have now made a Complete Sound Sisters Anki deck with all the main Sound Sisters (including many not in the article).

I am not a fan of learning kanji in the abstract. I am especially not a fan of trying to learn kanji readings in the abstract. However, the leverage involved in learning the full Sound Sister set is so huge that (pragmatist as I am) I make an exception in this case.

For the investment of mastering a very small set of kanji elements and their sounds (the main part of it will take a week or so at a few minutes a day), one has in one’s hand a key that will make kanji much, much easier. It affects many thousands of words and a substantial proportion of all the Joyo kanji.

key-to-learning-kanjiYou can get it right here. The cost is – free, ’cause Dolly loves you!

This deck includes the fundamental 90 most common and regular Sound-Sisters elements, main examples of the kanji they appear in, audio and mnemonics for each of them, and other notes where appropriate.

Using the Deck

The deck is designed to be used in conjunction with the Sound Sisters article, which groups together similar sounds with mnemonic narrative. It helps you to learn the elements there and a large number of others.

Download the deck, unzip it (your computer will likely do that for you automatically) and add it to your Anki.

Pro tips:

Use the deck in conjunction with the Sound Sisters page. Remember that you will only need the mnemonics for a short time.

Remember that sounds may sometimes appear as their voiced variants – ひょう as びょう, さい as ざい etc.

You will “finish” the deck quite shortly as it is a small deck by Anki standards. After that, either keep it in your deck-list and run through it when reviews appear, or merge it with your main deck (but don’t do that until the reviews have dropped off to zero or very few most days).

Apply what you’ve learned. Use it to help you learn kanji as words. Also do some Sister-spotting while reviewing words, even with kanji you already know. This gets you used to the Sisters and helps to cement the whole process. You will also be using it to firm up still-learning words where you are a bit shaky on the appearance and/or pronunciation.

You can get it right here. The cost is – free, ’cause Dolly loves you!


Another importance of knowing the Sound Sisters is that working with them helps one to be more aware of the many other sound-connections in kanji.

There are a lot of Sound Half-Sisters: that is, sound relationships that are not regular enough to be included in the deck, but certainly very useful. Rather than learning them in the abstract it is best to become aware of them in an organic manner. But the use of the regular Sound Sisters is excellent training for spotting and using the Half-Sisters.

For example, the hyou/byou of 平等 byoudou is found in 評価 hyouka and 評判 hyouban and we will find it in other places too. 忍 and 認 are nin most of the time (the nin of 忍者 ninja).

Such examples are either not regular enough or do not govern enough kanji to be full Sound Sisters, but once we become attuned to these links by using the main Sound Sisters we will find this sort of thing quite often and it is very useful.

斉, sei on her own, is sai/zai often enough (剤, 済, 斎) that I almost included her as a full Sound Sister*. I may do so in a future edition of the deck (of course subscribers will receive any updates as they come along).

This really shows how fluid the situation is, and how getting a feel for the sound-associations of kanji elements can help so enormously.

Some of this really has to work organically, by reading, making friends with kanji, and getting used to Japanese.

But with a set of nearly 100 reasonably regular Sound Sisters that are easily assimilated, we can give the organic process a huge kick-start.

You can get it right here. The cost is – free, ’cause Dolly loves you!

* We did eventually includein the deck.

Fixing “Improved” Japanese input in Mac OSX

This is just a quick tip that you may find useful.

Recent versions of Apple’s  OSX have changed the way the Mac handles Japanese input by default. It is supposed to be an improvement, because it guesses what you want to type and changes your input to kanji on the fly rather than waiting for you to push the spacebar at the end.

The problem with this is that I find that it guesses wrong as often as not and it actually takes longer to undo its frequent well-meant guesses than to do it the old-fashioned way, which gives you a list of guesses as you type (so you still don’t have to type the whole word in many cases) rather than jumping to one of its own conclusions.

It also messes up some other functions. For example, Rikaisama’s native-audio saving only started working properly again after I reverted to the older input style.

So if like me you find this live-changing more trouble than it is worth, what can you do about it? Fortunately the fix is easy. Go to System Settings > Keyboard > Input Source (入力ソース) and you will see this:

If your Mac is in Japanese, the setting you want is ライブ変換 (live conversion, ringed above). It will be in the same place in English. It is checked by default. Uncheck it and your Mac will go back to behaving like a useful tool rather than a mama-knows-best robot!

PS – Seeing the above screenshot, someone noted that I have Japanese as my only input language. The reason for this is not that I never type in English, but that I use the romaji character set from the Japanese IME rather than an English IME. And the reason for that is that I can then assign it to caps-lock within the Japanese IME, so that when I want to switch to typing English I only have to hit the caps-lock key.

If English is your default language you may want to do it the other way around, but I can confirm, should you want to try it, that not using a “real” English IME has no adverse effects that I have noticed on English input.

How Japanese Is Just Like English

japanese-is-like-englishOne thing that intimidates people about Japanese is how different it is from English.

Yet many of the supposedly “complex rules” of Japanese work just like English.

A lot of things that are presented by the textbooks as if they were strange and complex rules in fact work very similarly to English and are much more easily understood once one realizes that.

Of course Japanese is not related to English, but since both are essentially dialects of Universal Grammar, there are many fundamental similarities.

Non-past? No tension

Take the so-called non-past tense. That can seem very puzzling. Why not have a present and a future like other languages? How do we use this strange non-past tense?

Well, as a matter of fact we use it in the same way that we use the English non-past tense. It works very similarly. In English it gets called the present tense, but it is actually non-past.

Let me explain.

What is the English present tense? Phrases like I eat, I walk etc are called “present tense”, but in fact they are rarely used that way.

Only a foreigner* ever says “I eat potatoes” meaning “I am eating potatoes right now”.

“I eat potatoes” usually means “I am in the general habit of eating potatoes”. Or we might say “I eat potatoes every Friday”.

The “present tense” is also regularly used to indicate the future.

“Tomorrow we fly to New York”.

“I have an exam tomorrow”,

“I am meeting my sister next week”

Admittedly English has a specific future tense (tomorrow I will have an exam). However, the present tense is so often used to represent future events that it would be more accurate to call it non-past just as the Japanese “present tense” is so called.

Remembering this, we can see that the Japanese non past is used in much the same way as English.

Jagaimo wo taberu

is usually translated as “I eat potatoes”, but it is more likely to mean “I eat potatoes (in general)” or “I will eat potatoes (tomorrow)” than to mean “I am eating them right now”.

That is most likely to be expressed as

Jagaimo wo tabeteiru

Which means not “I eat potatoes” but “I am eating potatoes”. As you see, it is just the same as English. We don’t say in English “I eat potatoes” to mean “I am eating potatoes” either.

Think about it this way and you realize that the mysterious Japanese “non-past tense” isn’t actually mysterious at all. In fact it is pretty similar to English.

If you can use the English non-past tense it is a very simple step to understanding the Japanese equivalent.

To に or not to に

Another point that sometimes puzzles people – because it is explained so unintuitively in the standard textbooks – is Japanese absolute and relative time expressions.

We are told (correctly) that Japanese generally uses the particle に when speaking of an event taking place at an absolute time (say, 3pm or Friday the 22nd) but omits it when speaking of an event taking place at a time relative to the present (say, this morning or last week or tomorrow).

The way it is expressed in standard descriptions it sounds as if we have a rather abstract rule to memorize, but in fact all we have to remember is that it works the same way as English. In English we use a preposition for absolute time expressions but not relative ones.

Let’s look at some examples:

nigatsu itsuka ni jagaimo wo tabeta
I ate potatoes on the fifth of February

Sanji ni jagaimo wo tabeta
I ate potatoes at three o’clock


Kesa jagaimo wo tabeta
I ate potatoes this morning

Ashita jagaimo wo taberu
I will eat potatoes tomorrow

You see, English leaves out the preposition (in, on or at) for all relative time expressions, just as Japanese leaves out に for all relative time expressions. It is just the same, except that Japanese is simpler because it always uses に, while English uses in, on or at depending on the particular time expression.

Now that really is an abstract rule that you just have to learn. If you speak Japanese and want to use English time expressions correctly it is a little complicated.

But if you speak English and want to use Japanese time expressions correctly, all you have to do is just what you do in English. Where you use a preposition in English use に in Japanese. Where you leave the preposition out in English, leave the に out in Japanese.

It is as simple as that. I wonder why it is often made to seem more complicated.

*The fact that foreign learners of English often do say “I walk” to mean that they are walking now, when native English speakers never in fact say that, is another example of the inadequacy of textbook grammar. They say it not because they are foolish, but because they have been told in classes and textbooks that “I walk” is the English present tense, when in fact it is more like the Japanese non-past tense. Lacking sufficient immersion experience they follow what the term “present tense” would seem to imply, and so use unnatural English.

What native mistakes teach us about language

native-japanese-mistakesNative speakers are often the worst guide to their own language. But understanding why can help us enormously.

In a recent comment, one of our readers told us what a native Japanese speaker said about the word いぬ, meaning “dog”:

as I was told by a Japanese person, 犬 is usually used for a wild dog, イヌ to refer to a dog in a more biological context and いぬ for a pet dog.

While one feels hesitant to disagree with a native speaker, I am 95% sure this is not correct. I have seen pet dogs called 犬 so many more times than I have seen it written any other way. But not relying on my own memory and limited experience I tried an experiment:

I tried searching “うちのいぬ” and “うちの犬” (“our dog”, therefore definitely a pet) on Google (using quotes to specify the exact form) and got around 70,000 entries for うちのいぬ and over half a million for うちの犬.

How surprising is this kind of misinformation coming from native speakers? Actually not very surprising at all. One of the reasons I shy away from sites like Lang8 (where native speakers correct one’s writing) is that I saw a large amount of pure misinformation coming from native English speakers about English usage.

It is a commonplace in linguistics research that if you want to know how someone pronounces a word, you must never ask them how they pronounce it. You must steer the conversation so that they say it naturally.

Why? Because how people think they pronounce a word and how they actually pronounce it are often two different things. If you ask them they will think about it and tell you what they think they say. If you maneuver them into saying it they will simply pronounce it as they always do.

Similarly with rules and usages. An ordinary untrained speaker gets natural usage of her native language right most of the time. But when she stops to think about what that usage actually is, and what the “rules” are, she gets it wrong as often as not. Just as when you start thinking too hard about the spelling of a word you often become unsure of it, even though you know it well.

Using my old analogy of touch-typing, it is just the same as the fact that when I am typing I hit all the keys accurately and at speed, but if you ask me where the V-key is, suddenly I can’t even find it.

The part of the brain that processes immediate, automatic actions is different from the part that processes conscious, thought-out actions: and it seems that those parts often can’t even communicate with each other very well.

I am not saying that native input and correction is not useful, though it is more useful when the native speaker is actually present and says “Oh, that isn’t how we say it”, because her first reaction is usually correct, and the more she thinks about it and refines it the more likely it is that misinformation will creep in.

However, my point isn’t really about native correction at all. It is about the automaticity of language and how it works both for us and against us. It works for us when we speak a language natively or pick it up by immersion.

Language is an automatic process. The more we reduce it to rules and conscious processes, the further we get from natural language. This is not to say that we shouldn’t learn basic grammar. And I do spend time explaining how Japanese actually does work in a way that most textbooks never do.

So am I contradicting myself? Not really. As I have always said, learning rules and grammar is a shortcut. Native speakers usually can’t articulate these things very well themselves, but they use them mostly unerringly.

If we want to speak and understand Japanese naturally we have to get to the point where these academic abstractions are mostly forgotten. If I want to know a conjugation or whether a ru-ending verb is ichidan or godan, I almost always have to reverse-engineer it by first remembering how I would say a particular thing and then seeing what that tells me about the verb or conjugation.

I am not working from the rule to the language, I am working from the language to the rule, which is how we work in our native language. This is not to say that my Japanese is anywhere near perfect. But what I do know tends to work the natural way around.

How did that happen? By immersion and massive input.

I have done some study, but I would say that for every hour of actual “study” I have done, I have done at least 20 hours of reading novels, watching anime and other shows, listening to stories, playing text-heavy games and daily conversation.

I would say that a 10 : 1 immersion-to-study ratio is the very minimum one should have (except in the very early stages). Learning Japanese primarily by study keeps it in the area of the brain dedicated to conscious, deliberate knowledge, and that is not the area in which real, natural language lives.

In language, conscious study is a good servant, but a very bad master.

Kanadajin3 (Mira): What you should know

kanadajin3This post is very different from the usual content of this site, and I apologize for that. I am putting it here because I think it is important.

If you don’t know the name Kanadajin3 (Mira), please feel free to skip this article, but if you are aware of her I should be obliged if you would hear what I have to say.

I do not now watch English language videos, though I had seen some of Mira-san’s work before I started immersing in Japanese. I recently saw a video on her Japanese language channel and was disturbed by what she had to say.

So disturbed that I looked into the matter a little and felt moved to write something about it here. I thought of making a video, but I don’t make English language videos, and since most of this oosawagi has been in English, a Japanese video probably wouldn’t have much effect.

So, if you have gotten this far, you may know that Mira-san is a Canadian who lives in Japan and intends to become a Japanese citizen. She is a popular video blogger. And she has been accused of various misdeeds, including making fake accounts to defame and attack other J-vloggers.

Of the various accusations, this is the only one that has much credibility, and the main evidence for it (there are some others but they are far from conclusive) is that various accounts targeting certain persons with attacks and defamation all made exactly the same rather unusual spelling errors that Mira-san habitually makes.

Now let us look at this logically. Logically there are four possible reasons for this, and as far as I can see, only four:

1: Several ill-intentioned people just happen to have the same spelling quirks as Mira-san.

I think we can dismiss that as completely improbable.

2: One ill-intentioned person other than Mira-san has made several accounts for malicious purposes and just happens to have the same spelling quirks.

Less unlikely than 1, but still too improbable to consider seriously.

3. The accounts were made and used by Mira-san.

Entirely possible. If there were only these three possibilities we would have to go with this one.

BUT there is a fourth possibility.

4: Someone who dislikes (or just wants to bully) both the victims of these attacks and  Mira-san made the accounts and deliberately employed Mira-san’s mannerisms.

How likely is this? Well, there is no point saying “conspiracy theory” because we have a conspiracy theory either way. Either Mira-san has been doing black ops or someone else has.

Now, long before this incident, Mira-san already had a lot of haters. There were whole hate-sites set up against her. She has said and done various controversial things and a number of people seem to consider themselves her enemies.

Before this incident, one of those hate-sites published a “dictionary” of Mira-san’s mispellings. This would provide the perfect tool for anyone wanting to leave false clues against her. So we have the means, the motive (we know there are dedicated haters willing to go to the trouble of building sites) and the opportunity.

Now I ask myself, who is most likely to spend all the time and effort involved in setting up multiple false accounts for malicious purposes – a busy, popular vlogger, or an angry person who frequents hate-sites?

Is that question a definitive proof one way or the other? No, it isn’t. People do irrational things and Mira-san could have. But there seems to be no compelling reason to think that she did.

I am not saying that Mira-san must be innocent in all respects. I am saying something more important than that. I am saying that everyone is innocent until proven guilty.

The trouble with “internet justice” is that it is lynch law. There is no due process. Accusations are cast and people are persecuted because of them. Mira-san has been hounded. Her family’s telephone numbers and other personal information have been hacked and they have been harrassed too. She has received death-threats and massive amounts of hate-mail.

In the Japanese language video I saw she said that she was going to ignore all this, but the onslaught has been so relentless that it seems that that has not been possible for her.

I am not a personal friend of Mira-san. I have never met her either in person or online. I am writing this because I don’t think I should just stand by while someone is being seriously mistreated. I should do what little I can.

I don’t think anything I say or anyone says will affect the nastier people, because they are just bullies. They don’t really care whether their victim is “guilty” or “innocent” – they just want an excuse to bully someone.

But I do think it is important for everyone else – regular, kind people – not to listen to ill-founded rumors and gossip.

At the beginning people accused Mira-san of illegal activities and said they were going to the police. As one J-vlogger who initially joined the attack on her has now had the integrity to publicly state, all that came to precisely nothing. Of the remaining accusations, the making of sock-puppets – even if it were true – is not exactly a hanging offense and hardly justifies such hate and venom.

All this underlines for me why I am not interested in being part of the English-language J-internet community. Yes, I write for this site in English, but that is about as far as it goes. I get my own share of hate-mail (I guess we all do). It doesn’t bother me but if it got to the extent that Mira-san has had to suffer that would be a different matter

It isn’t that I am afraid of this kind of thing. It is more that to my mind this kind of extreme incident is the tip of a much bigger iceberg. I have never felt at home in the English-language internet, because it always seemed to me to harbor so much disharmony, hostility and cynicism. It just isn’t the kind of world I want to inhabit.

What can one do? Well, one thing is to make sure that when we see someone being mistreated we don’t join in, or turn the other way. I don’t generally participate in these things either actively or passively, but when something does come to my attention I try to do the right thing.

Let’s all be kind to each other.

Thank you for reading all this way. We’ll be back to our normal kind of article next time.

Ki ga suru vs Ki ni suru vs Ki ni naru : How Japanese actually makes sense

ki-ni-suruThe expressions ki ga suru, ki ni suru and ki ni naru are very frequently used. They sound similar but have different meanings, and many learners find them confusing.

One great problem of learning from textbooks and grammar sites is that they tend to treat many aspects of Japanese as if they were a list of arbitrary rules that just have to be learned.

In most cases, such as the rules governing i- and na-adjectives or the use of sou to mean “seems like” or “I heard”, there is nothing arbitrary about them at all. Once you understand what the textbooks don’t tell you, they make perfect sense.

The same is true of ki ga suru, ki ni suru and ki ni naru. So, what is the secret? How do we tell them apart?

Watch the Particles

In a magic show you keep your eye on the magician’s hands. In Japanese you keep your eye on the particles. They are often the primary clue as to what is going on.

In all cases the particle-marked noun is ki – one’s spirit, thoughts or feelings.

Ki ga suru

気がする uses the active ga-particle. In other words, your spirit is doing something. It is active. What your spirit is doing is having a feeling or a hunch. It may also be wanting to do something. In all cases your ki takes the initiative. It is your feeling, your impetus.

Ki ni naru

In 気になる ki is marked by the passive ni-particle and uses the passive naru rather than the active suru. Something is happening to your spirit. It may be worrying you, arousing your curiosity or your desire. But it is all more passive than ki ga suru.

Ki ni suru

With 気にする we are back to the active suru verb, but the marker is the passive ni. This means that something is being done to your spirit. It is almost the reverse of ki ga suru. The tone of this is much more negative. Something is worrying you, literally preying on your mind.

Ki ni suru is often used negatively, as in ki ni shinaide (don’t worry), ki ni shinai (I don’t care/it doesn’t bother me).

While these expressions ovelap to some extent, they are distinct in nuance.

Ki ga suru and ki ni suru are the furthest apart in meaning and barely overlap at all, whereas ki ni naru comes in between and, depending on usage, will be closer to one or the other.

But as you see, it is not a question of rote-learning. The expressions mean what they mean because of the way they are constructed. Once we understand them, we are much more likely to remember them and use them correctly.

Japanese does make sense!

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 an 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.


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.


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. (By “always” I mean in all cases where it feels random. In many cases the word makes sense to me without a mnemonic these days). 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!