Japanese Pronunciation Challenge: Top Ten Difficult Words!


Today, Kinoko-chan talks about the top ten most difficult words for foreigners to pronounce and more importantly why they are difficult, so you can know what to work on.

She is speaking Japanese as usual, but for the first time we are including a full transcript in Japanese and English. So you can practice your Japanese listening by following the transcript, or if your Japanese isn’t ready for that yet, you can use the English translation.

Enjoy the fun as Kinoko-chan challenges the first half of what are reputed to be Japan’s top ten tough words!

Japanese pronunciation challenge transcript

(The Japanese-only version is beneath this one. If you want to try your Japanese, we suggest you open the video in a different window and follow along with the script)

皆さんこんにちは。木の子で〜す。

Minasan konnichiwa. Kinoko desu!

今日は外国人にとっての一番難しい言葉のトップ10のチャレンジを挑戦したいと思います。

Today I want to take on the challenge of the top ten most difficult words for foreigners to pronounce.

木の子の日本語はね、恥ずかしいほど下手ですね。

My Japanese is shamefully poor.

でも、頑張ってやってまます。

But I will try hard and give it a go.

深呼吸!

Deep breath!

【アナウンサー】木の子チャレンジ、スタート。その1

(Announcer) Kinoko challenge, start! Number 1.
(literally “that one” = “number one of (this list)”

それはツイッターどすね。なぜあんなに難しいよく分からない。ローマ字で書いたからかもしれません。

That is tsuittaa, isn’t it? I’m not sure why that’s so difficult. Perhaps because it’s written in Romaji.

英語を話す人は「(英語っぽい)twitter」と話すと思います。

English-speaking people say “twitter [English pronunciation]”, I think.

カタカナで書いたらもっと簡単になるかもしれないんですけど、英語を話す人は英語の言葉を見ると半分英語の発音がするかもしれません。

If it were written in katakana it might be easier, but when English-speaking people see an English word, perhaps their pronunciation becomes half-English.

ツイッターは正しいですか。

Is tsuittaa correct?

【アナウンサー】視聴者さまコメントをください。その2。

(Announcer) Viewer-sama, please comment. No. 2.

それは「伝えられなかった」ですね。実は早口言葉のような言葉ですね。

This is tsutaerarenakatta (couldn’t convey), isn’t it? Actually it’s a bit of a tongue-twister, isn’t it?

そして「ら、り、る、れ、ろ」という発音は外国人にとって難しそうですね。

Besides that, the pronunciation of RA, RE, RU, RE, RO seems to be difficult for foreigners.

【アナウンサー】その3。

(Announcer) No. 3.

それは侵略ですね。実は木の子にもそれはちょっと難しいと思います。「ら、り、る、れ、ろ」より「りゃ、りゅ、りょ」という発音は難しいと思います。

This is shinryaku (invasion), isn’t it? Actually this is a little hard for me too. The pronunciation of RYA, RYU, RYO is harder than RA, RI, RU, RE, RO, I think.

それは大丈夫ですけど、「んりゃ」、「んりゃ」はね、ちょっと難しい。

That’s all right, but NRYA – NRYA, that’s a bit difficult.

【アナウンサー】その4。

(Announcer) No. 4.

それは便利ですね。ほとんど同じ問題ですね。「んり」、「んり」と[いう]問題。

This is benri (convenient), isn’t it? It’s almost the same problem. The NRI problem.

でも、もっと簡単だと思います。「べんり」は大丈夫ですか。

But this is easier I think. “Benri”. Is that all right?

【アナウンサー】視聴者さまコメントをください。その5。

(Announcer) Viewer-sama, please comment. No 5.

それは出力ですね。出力は簡単だと思います。♪出力、出力♪、正しいですか。

This is shutsuryoku (output power), isn’t it? Shutsuryoku is easy, I think. ♪Shutsuryoku, shutsuryoku♪. Is that right?

【アナウンサー】今日はこれまでです。来週も来られますか。

(Announcer) That’s all for today. Can you come back next week?

はい。了解。

Yes, ma’am. Roger that.

木の子はどう出来ましたか。コメントをください。

How did I do? Please comment.

皆さまも来週来てください。チャレンジが続きますからね。

Minasama, please come back next week too because the challenge will continue.

これからもよろしくお願いします。

From now on, as always, please be good to me.

バイバイ!

Bye bye!

The blooper reel at the end has Kinoko-chan tripping over

それは「伝えられなかった」ですね。実は早口言葉のような

She is trying to say that tsutaerarenakatta is a bit of a tongue-twister and blooping the rest of the sentence!


Japanese-only version

皆さんこんにちは。木の子で〜す。

今日は外国人にとっての一番難しい言葉のトップ10のチャレンジを挑戦したいと思います。

木の子の日本語はね、恥ずかしいほど下手ですね。

でも、頑張ってやってまます。

深呼吸!

【アナウンサー】木の子チャレンジ、スタート。その1

それはツイッターどすね。なぜあんなに難しいよく分からない。ローマ字で書いたからかもしれません。

英語を話す人は「(英語っぽい)twitter」と話すと思います。

カタカナで書いたらもっと簡単になるかもしれないんですけど、英語を話す人は英語の言葉を見ると半分英語の発音がするかもしれません。

ツイッターは正しいですか。

【アナウンサー】視聴者さまコメントをください。その2。

それは「伝えられなかった」ですね。実は早口言葉のような言葉ですね。

そして「ら、り、る、れ、ろ」という発音は外国人にとって難しそうですね。

【アナウンサー】その3。

それは侵略ですね。実は木の子にもそれはちょっと難しいと思います。「ら、り、る、れ、ろ」より「りゃ、りゅ、りょ」という発音は難しいと思います。

それは大丈夫ですけど、「んりゃ」、「んりゃ」はね、ちょっと難しい。

【アナウンサー】その4。

それは便利ですね。ほとんど同じ問題ですね。「んり」、「んり」と[いう]問題。

でも、もっと簡単だと思います。「べんり」は大丈夫ですか。

【アナウンサー】視聴者さまコメントをください。その5。

それは出力ですね。出力は簡単だと思います。♪出力、出力♪、正しいですか。

【アナウンサー】今日はこれまでです。来週も来られますか。

はい。了解。

木の子はどう出来ましたか。コメントをください。

皆さまも来週来てください。チャレンジが続きますからね。

これからもよろしくお願いします。

バイバイ!

Kanji as Character and Adventure!

Kanji as character and adventure.

A phrase you probably haven’t heard before. But you’ll be hearing it again, as it is a theme of a major new project we have in the works.

Kanji may seem like abstract, difficult old things but actually they really are characters.

ABCD and friends are called characters but they aren’t. They don’t have personalities. They don’t do anything. They just sit on a page and make noises. In fact they don’t even make noises. They just silently indicate what noises they want you to make. Lazy things.

Kanji are entirely different. They are  a whole world of living things – cute, funny, scary, majestic, silly, just the way living things are. They have adventures all the time. Once you get to know some of them, they make sense and become much easier.

As I say, expect more on this fairly soon, and in English. For now, we have a little video to introduce the idea. It is in Japanese, but the main part is a story-picture so it’s easy to follow what is happening even if your Japanese is still little.

It is called “Foreign Doll’s Kanji Adventure”.

Please enjoy it.

How to Add Sample Sentences to Anki Automatically

Having a sample Japanese sentence to back up Anki’s definition of a word is often invaluable.

But if you are making your own immersion-experience-based deck rather than using pre-made decks (and you should be), you have to add them yourself. Isn’t this a bit mendokusai (Japanese for pain in the pinky)?

Luckily there is a way to automate this part of the card-making process too. It’s a bit obscure, but once you set it up, it looks after itself.

This article assumes that you are already using Rikaisama’s Real-time Anki function to make your cards with a single keypress. If you aren’t, this article will tell you how.

When I first noticed that there  is a token for adding sentences in Rikaisama’s Real-time (direct-to-Anki) setup I was a little puzzled. Does Rikaisama contain a database of sentences as well as a dictionary and audio database? How does this work?

Click to enlarge

So I shrugged and  set it up to put the sentences into my Audio folder as shown above, (the last $t moves the focus to my last field, which is Audio – I do audio for my sentences, but that’s for a future article).

Then I typed a word and Rikai’d it (my usual way of adding a word to Anki), hit R (the one-button card-maker) and – nothing.

I had my card made in a single keypress, of course. But there was no sample sentence.

I wasn’t entirely surprised – where were these sample sentences supposed to come from anyway? I didn’t really believe there was a database of sentences, even though there is one of  native-spoken audio for nearly every word which can be added with that same keypress (and which you should be using).

So this is one of the more obscure features of Rikaisama. Actually it isn’t so obscure if you are using Rikai the way Rikai thinks you are. That is, reading something online and using Rikai to give instant furigana plus definitions if you want them.

But that isn’t how I mostly use Rikaisama, and I suspect that is true of most people using it as part of a self-immersion deck-building process. I type in the word, which may have come from a novel or an anime, (usually into an online dictionary, though I don’t actually press Enter to get the dictionary’s definition unless I need some elaboration on Rikaisama’s answer). I hover over it to get the Rikai box, hit the R key and pring! I have a new card.

What the sentence function actually does (and it really is very clever) is import the sentence you were reading into Anki and drop it into whatever field you told it to in the save format (see picture above).

So obviously this kind of breaks down if you weren’t reading a sentence online.

The answer is simple. If you want a sample sentence for your word, you need to

  1. Find the sentence you want
  2. Hover over your target word inside the sentence you just found
  3. Hit R

And that’s it. You will have a new Anki card with all the usual features plus your sample sentence wherever you specified in the format.

Here is an example of the back of an Anki card with an automatically added sentence. Of course you can have your own format (mine are a bit ugly and functional, I’m afraid), and you can have the definition in English (and an English translation of the sentence) if you want to:

click to enlarge

As you see, my setup (which is the one on the first screenshot on this page) has the kanji from the front plus the reading in hiragana, the definition and the sample sentence.

If you are getting your sentences from online reading the process is fully automatic: one keypress for everything. If you are using Rikaisama as an Anki-helper to add words you found elsewhere, you need to go find your own sample sentence. There are plenty of ways to do this. You can use DenshiJisho’s sentence function or the very extensive Weblio sentence database (both of which have English translations) or you can just Google for a sentence. And of course you can always type in the sentence from your book or anime (or copy from the subs file) if you want to use the sentence in which you originally found the word.

The advantage of this is that you can choose a sentence that you think exemplifies how the word is used or perhaps clarifies something not made clear by the definition.

You don’t need a sentence for every word. You can use your own judgment to decide which words would benefit from having an example sentence.

For most of us using Anki as an immersion assistant, this is more like semi-automation than the full automation of the rest of the Rikaisama-to-Anki card-making process, but it still streamlines the procedure and makes adding sample sentences a lot quicker  and easier – and therefore makes one rather likelier to do it!

And it is worth doing because when a sample sentence is needed, it can be a huge help in understanding the word.

Part of the Anki for self-immersionists Master-Class series

PPAP and Kanji Learning!

PPAP kanjiAs you may know, PPAP is sweeping Japan like a forest fire right now. You can hardly see a CM (TV commercial) without the ubiquitous Piko Taro sticking pens into non-existent apples and pineapples.

If you don’t know what I am talking about just Google it and you’ll get more information than you probably wanted.

Curiously enough, the basic concept of PPAP is ideallly suited to showing how kanji fit together. While this tiny video (under a minute) may only be useful to beginners in seeing how kanji are constructed, I think it’s fun for everyone! In fact if you’re anything like me you’ll probably end up watching it over and over!

Don’t worry – like PPAP itself, this video is mostly English (or something like it).

Rikai for Android! Substitutes for Rikaisama / Rikaichan / Rikaikun

The biggest problem of doing anything Japanese related on Android is the lack of Rikaisama.

Not only can’t you instantly look up words as you browse the Web the way you can with Rikaichan, but you can’t turn new words into Anki cards with a single keypress the way you can with Rikaisama. Ok, we’re spoiled by the Rikai family, but we’d like to stay spoiled, even on Android.

Enter the Popup Japanese Dictionary  by Nifty Gnomes which was kindly introduced to me by Sadolit-san (see comments below).

This little-known free app amazingly brings Rikai-like functionality to your Android device – and not only in your browser. Wherever you can use the copy function you can use the Popup Dictionary for on-the-fly kanji-readings and word definitions.

Like Rikai it deconjugates words for you, though apparently this function is a bit hit-or-miss.

The biggest problem for me is that there are no Japanese-Japanese definitions and neither can you turn off definitions. As I like to stay in all-Japanese as much as possible this is a drawback, but for a lot of users it should be ideal

What it doesn’t have, however, is the  the Rikaisama direct-to-Anki function.

But it is possible to get something close to it with a free app named simply Jisho. For those wanting a J-E dictionary this is just about perfect. It has everything you might need including kanji lookup.

And for Anki you just need to press and hold a definition and it gives you the option to export it to Ankidroid (so long as that is on your device too). Select that option and you’re done. You have an Anki card ready-made.

So why do I say it is only “close to” the Rikaisama function? Well, for one thing there are no sound files, and more importantly, this is only a Japanese-to-English dictionary.

If your Anki set-up does not extensively use sound (mine does) and if your definitions aren’t primarily Japanese to Japanese (mine are) this Android dictionary app probably covers all your Japanese dictionary needs – at no cost! However J-J Dolly is still pining for her pasokon!

The app just goes by the generic name of “Jisho” so I am reproducing the logo here, to make sure  that you can find the right one.

For Japanese-to-Japanese dictionaries, the best free one I have so far found is the Weblio app. Not as good as Jisho and of course does not have the direct-to-Anki function or the on-page pop-up function, but is a usable and free J-J dictionary.

Android Text-to-Speech in Japanese

Since typing on Android and other mobile devices is a pain in the petunia, I have also been experimenting with Google Speech-to-Text. I am finding that it works fairly well.

Actually it is very clever. Most of the time it knows when I am speaking English and when I am speaking Japanese and transliterates my speech accordingly. However, in both languages it does make quite a few mistakes. It probably is fairly good for training one to speak clear Japanese (and clear English, come to that!)

An interesting note for those who still pronounce katakana-ized from-English words half-way as if they were still English words and think that is ok. On Android’s Google Search function I tried the experiment of saying:

“Smile Precure”

It correctly transcribed the words and then popped up a page of English-language results about Glitter Force (the unfortunate English language version of Smile Precure), introduced by an English-speaking synthesized voice.

I then tried saying.

スマイル・プリキュア
(Sumairu Purikyua)

Google search correctly transcribed the words in katakana and popped up a page of Japanese results about the real Smile Precure introduced by a synthesized Japanese voice.

So yes. Speaking katakana correctly does matter. Even an Android can tell the difference.

分かる vs 解る vs 判る – the Three Wakarus

As part of our ongoing series of “what’s the difference” kanji close-ups we look at the three ways of writing wakaru, which is usually – but very misleadingly – translated as “understand”.

Please don’t panic. Even at upper beginner level you don’t need to “learn” these. But you can get a lot from reading about them and gaining  a deeper understanding of the word wakaru – which is actually one of those “trap words” that makes Japanese less understandable overall if you – ahem – misunderstand it – that is, if you believe the textbooks that tell you it means “understand”.

So what does it mean? It has several shades of meaning, but let’s start off with the root-meaning, which is to “become clear”. The fundamental  wakaru kanji – 分 – shows a sword dividing something in half. Literally wakaru means that something becomes clearly distinguished from other things* – i.e., understood.

Sanseido dictionary’s first and most basic definition of the word is:

明白になる
Meihaku ni naru
Become clear

Not “understand”. Become clear – which includes “be clear” or “be understood”. In other words (most of the time) the thing being understood is the real subject of the sentence  (not the person doing the understanding as English prefers and the textbooks imply). Therefore the thing being understood is what takes the subject-marker ga-particle

(私は)日本語が分かる
(watashi wa) nihongo ga wakaru
“(in relation to me) Japanese is understandable”

Of course in English we say “I understand Japanese” and that is a valid “loose translation”. But it matters that we know what is really being said because if we don’t we will become very confused about what the ga and wa particles are really doing in this sentence and about the structure of Japanese as a whole.

This is explained more fully in Unlocking Japanese, which shows you how clear and regular the language really is, as opposed to the rather complicated and confusing way the standard Western grammar texts teach it.

All right. So what about the three ways of writing it? They are all pronounced the same and all get the same dictionary definition, regardless of which kanji is used. So does it matter which kanji is used?

Japanese texts that try to give English equivalents say

「分かる」=know.「解る」=understand.「判る」=prove or judge.

However, they are following the Western translations and giving rise to the same misunderstandings. So let’s go a little deeper and see what Japanese texts independent of English tell us.

The first thing wrong with the above definitions is what I have already told you. It is important to realize that they should have said “be known”, “be understood”, “be judged or proved (to be)”.

The second problem is that it is misleading to suggest that 分かる has a separate meaning. You will see 分かる used in all three senses a lot of the time. That is why I don’t advise people who are not intermediate to try learning them. You probably won’t encounter the other two in simpler texts.

What happens – as with the different kanji for kiku (hear) and many others – is that the less common kanji are used in writing to hone the word down to a more exact meaning. Also, if you see either or both of the others used in a text, you can assume that when 分かる is chosen, it is chosen advisedly to give its particular implications. Otherwise, it very often isn’t.

So let’s look at them from the Japanese perspective.

The implication of 判る

判る easy to remember because it is really just 分かる with the sword and the halving arranged horizontally rather than vertically.

This is the kanji used in 判明 hanmei “(with suru) establish or prove”, 判断 handan “judgment” etc.

In a phrase like

犯人がわかる
han’nin ga wakaru
“It has become known (to us) who the criminal is” (in English this might be “We now know who the criminal is”).

Clearly the “judgment” element is present. The “correct” – or better, the precise – form is 判る.

Equally with

身元がわかる
mimoto ga wakaru
“His background has become known (to me/us/them)” (in English probably “I/we/they now know his background”).

The implication is of having been able to form a judgment on something previously unknown – or to put it closer to the Japanese, if somewhat more awkwardly in English – something having become the subject of an accurate judgment or investigation.

Note that the “understander” is not the grammatical subject and is not even visibly present in these statements as she is in English equivalents. We will know who the understander is from an explicit or implicit wa-statement drawn from context. This may sound complicated but it really isn’t at all once you understand it. Japanese six-year-olds use it with ease. Find out how you can too in Unlocking Japanese.

 

The implication of 解る

If you are intermediate you certainly know this kanji from words like 解く which all have to do with unraveling or untangling. If not, you can remember it as a 牛cow in the 角corner having her matted hair untangled with a 刀sword. Note that the sword-element is common to all three wakarus.

解 appears in words like 解釈 kaishaku “explanation” and 理解 rikai “understand” (this is the word you want when you really want to say “understand”, not wakaru).

So when you say

日本語がわかる
Nihongo ga wakaru
“Japanese is understandable (to me)”

解 is the most exact kanji, though more often than not it will in fact be written 分かる.

 

Implication of 分かる

As you see, you can’t really judge the special implications of 分かる much of the time, but it does have the implication of “be(come) known” which is not appropriate to either of the others.

To give a simple example of how these kanji can sometimes be useful: if someone asks “what is the oldest a turtle has ever lived?” in Japanese and you answer “わからない wakaranai” there could be a confusion over whether you mean “I don’t know how long a turtle has lived” or “I don’t understand the question”. If you could specifically say 解らない wakaranai it would be clear that you meant the latter.

If you said 判らない the implication would be “that is not something on which (I am) able to form a judgment” and if 分からない were taken in its exclusive sense it would mean “I do not have that information” – which is probably the most likely interpretation of the spoken phrase unless there were reasons to suppose one of the others (such as being a foreigner, which might lead the questioner to be unsure that you had understood).

To sum up – you can always use 分かる in any of the senses on this page. You will never be wrong. If you use one of the others, be careful to use it correctly


* It isn’t a coincidence that the two words wakareru both mean separating.


https://www.amazon.com/Unlocking-Japanese-Making-simple-really/dp/1539485501/

湿る vs 濡れる Shimeru vs Nureru – the wet kanji

What is the difference between 湿る shimeru and  濡れる nureru?

The answer here is very simple. (Become) damp vs wet.

湿る shimeru shows ⺡– “water” falling on the ground and being sucked up by the 日– “sun”. The kanji is often used for atmospheric moisture, but it can refer to anything damp or somewhat wet, as opposed to really soaked.

The main on-reading of 湿る shimeru  is shitsu. You want to know this as it appears in a lot of compounds like 湿度 shitsudo – “humidity level” and 湿気 shikke – “humidity, dampness”.

Note that in 湿気 shikke  the つtsu of しつshitsu is replaced by っsmall-tsu to become しっけ shikke. This is absolutely regular and happens almost all the time when a つtsu is followed by an unvoiced consonant in making a compound word.

So remember that damp things shimmer. And you can think of damp sheets shimmering on the washing line for both kun and on readings.

濡れる means wet. Like soaking. You see there is both ⺡– “water” and 雨 – “rain” and also a 而 – “rake”. Why a rake? Well, it is that kind of wet that if you just raked the ground the grooves turn into little rivers.

If you need a mnemonic, just remember to keep new rare things out of the rain, or they will get soaked and ruined.

What about the on reading(s)? Well, unlike 湿, 濡 does not have many on-compounds that are much used. Most compound words use the kun-reading. So I really wouldn’t bother about the on-readings at the learning-the-word stage*. This is one of the reasons why blindly learning on-readings from lists is inefficient and wastes a lot of time.

Note that both 湿るshimeru and 濡れるnureru have transitive すsu-versions: 湿すshimesu and 濡らすnurasu. If you know the First Law of Japanese Transitivity, you will find this entirely predictable and know exactly what they mean!


*Note: It isn’t necessary or recommended to learn on-readings when learning kanji organically as words, but these articles are primarily intended for tying together and clarifying the main points of words/kanji you already know. Of course if you learn them for the first time here – ♪bing-bong-BONUS

Mastering Transitivity Pairs – Remembering Japanese transitive and intransitive verbs the easy way

transitive-intransitive-verbs“There are no hard-and-fast rules to Japanese transitive and intransitive verbs. You just have to learn them on a case-by-case basis”. This is the conventional wisdom on the subject. Another huge bunch of random facts that you “just have to learn”.

We got rid of most of the “random facts” in grammar by showing how logically the whole language fits together in Unlocking Japanese. An evening with that little book gives you a shortcut through the thickets that take most learners years to master, just by showing how Japanese really works.

Can we do the same with transitivity pairs? To a large extent we can. There are a lot of Google searches for “Japanese transitive and intransitive verb worksheets”. Worksheets! You don’t need worksheets, for heaven’s sake! You need some good information!

So let’s get started!

Transitive and intransitive verbs – what they are

We’ll start off by looking very quickly at what transitive and intransitive verbs are, because some people get confused and mix up intransitive with the so-called “passive” (it isn’t really passive. See Unlocking Japanese, Chapter 7).

As is often the case, the Japanese terms for transitive and intransitive are much clearer than the English ones. The word for “verb” is 動詞 doushi, which means literally “move word”. A word for an action. And the words for transitive and intransitive verbs are

自動詞 jidoushi – self-move word (intransitive)

他動詞 tadoushi – other-move word (transitive)

In English “dance” is an intransitive verb because it is a self-move word. We say “I danced”. We can’t say “I danced Jane”. It describes self-movement, not a movement done to someone or something else.

“Throw” is a transitive verb. We can say “I threw a ball”, but we can’t just say “I threw”. It is an other-move verb and has to have an object.

“Eat” and “sing” can be transitive or intransitive. I can “eat bread” or I can just “eat”. I can “sing a song” or I can just “sing”.

In Japanese we sometimes use a different form of the verb for the transitive and the intransitive (the other-move and the self-move) version of the action.

But by no means always. The examples given above, “eat” and “sing”, work just the same in Japanese as in English. The transitive and intransitive forms are the same.

But there are various pairs like

負けるmakeru – “lose”

and

負かすmakasu – “defeat” (lit. “cause-to-lose”)

where the transitive and intransitive forms are different. And as you can see, rather than being an unnecessary bother they are often a gift. English learners have to learn “lose” and “defeat” as two quite separate words. In Japanese, if you understand makeru, you can understand makasu. Especially when you understand the simple rule that makes one clearly transitive. The rule that I call “the First Law of Japanese transitivity”.

So let’s go right ahead and meet the Three Laws.

The Three Laws of Japanese transitive/intransitive verbs

Aru and suru are the two most basic verbs in Japanese. As you know, they mean “be” and “do” respectively.

Their sounds are used in many ways to indicate that a verb is closer to the “being” or the “doing” end of the scale.

For example, the so-called “passive conjugation” ends in areru/rareru, which has its roots in aru, while the causative ends in aseru/saseru, which has its roots in suru.

Can you guess which side of the scale transitive and intransitive (other-move and self-move) verbs respectively fall on?

Yep. You guessed right. So you shouldn’t be too surprised to learn that the First Law of Japanese Transitivity is:

All verbs ending in すsu are transitive verbs. Whether they have an intransitive “pair” or not.

Su-ending verbs are based in suru. They are transitive.

The eru→asu transformation seen above in makeru→makasu is a very common pattern which you already know from

出るderu – “come out”→ 出すdasu – “take out”

There are other patterns such as

落ちるochiru – “fall” 落とすotosu – “drop”

Some are a bit irregular, but that doesn’t matter because all you need to know is that if it ends in it’s transitive.

Here is the Second Law:

Verbs ending in aru are intransitive

As you would expect! Aru-ending verbs are based in aru – “be”. This means not just ある-ending words, but words ending with any kana in the あ-row + る.

The most regular pattern here is arueru

上がるagaru – “rise” → 上げるageru – “raise”

下がるsagaru – “descend” → 下げるsageru – “cause to descend”

重なるkasanaru – “lie stacked or piled” → 重ねるkasaneru – “(to) stack or pile”

There are many, many pairs that conform to this pattern. A few have a different pattern, such as

包むkurumu – “wrap” → 包まるkurumaru – “be wrapped”

Again, it doesn’t matter because all you need to know is that if a version ends in aru, it is intransitive.

The Third Law of Japanese Transitivity is:

-u→-eru flips transitivity

As we know, so-called “conjugations” that end in る change a word from whatever it was before into an ichidan verb (sometimes called a ru-verb) – the most basic type of verb – with a different meaning.

This also happens when we flip transitive and intransitive verbs with u→eru. Whatever ending the verb originally had, its final character becomes the え-row equivalent and る is added.

Or in Romaji terms, the final u is removed and replaced by eru.

It is now an ichidan (ru) verb meaning the opposite (in transitivity terms) of what the original verb meant.

The problem here is that (unlike the arueru pattern of the Second Law) this ueru ending can flip transitivity either way. So we don’t immediately know which half of a transitivity pair the –eru version is.

However, there are some tricks that can help us.

Untangling the other Japanese transitivity pairs

There are a few sub-rules that make the “others” much easier.

〜む-mu → 〜める-meru flipped pairs – The honorary 4th Law
The 〜める-meru version is always the transitive verb

There are a lot of these mu→meru pairs. So many that we can almost regard this as an honorary Fourth Law.

I recommend having one example in your mind as a reference-point, such as

痛むitamu – “hurt” (be in pain) 痛めるitameru – “hurt” (cause pain)

The same is true for bu→beru and tsu→teru. The –eru (flipped) version is always transitive. Remember that b is sometimes interchangeable with m in Japanese (as in sabishii/samishii) so they often work in the same way. Unlike mu→meru, there aren’t a large number of these two.

〜せる-seru versions are always transitive
Some pairs have a 〜せる-seru-ending version, such as

乗るnoru – “get onto, ride on” → 乗せるnoseru – “put onto”

This せるseru is a close relation of するsuru and always marks the transitive verb.

This actually covers most of the possible endings. What we are left with is

く、ぐ ku, gu → ける、げる keru, geru

u → えるeru

and る-ru-ending verbs that don’t fit either of the first two Laws.

For these, unfortunately, there are no general rules. They can flip either way. And there are quite a few of them. So the “gotta learn ’em all” school might seem to be around 20% right.

But wait. There is more we can do. We can apply the Basic Concept “rule”.

The Basic Concept “rule” for Japanese Transitivity pairs

For those transitivity pairs that don’t fit any of the above rules, we can use the Basic Concept “rule”, which is less hard-and-fast but actually quite intuitive as you become more familiar with Japanese by immersion.

Remember that –eru flips a verb from intransitive to transitive or vice versa. In other words, one of the two is the “base verb” and the other is the “flipped version” (actually the Japanese themselves tend to look at the extended eru-ending as an auxiliary verb, which I think makes things clearer).

Let’s take some examples:

売るuru – “sell” → 売れるureru – “be sold” (sell as in “sell like hot cakes”)

It is pretty clear here that the base concept is the act of selling (transitive) and that being-sold (intransitive) is the extended or “eru-flipped” version.

Conversely, with:

従うshitagau – “obey, follow, accompany” → 従えるshitagaeru – “subdue, be accompanied by”

It is pretty clear that the act of obeying or accompanying (intransitive) is the fundamental idea and that compelling obedience or being accompanied is the extended or “eru-flipped” version.

This method is more “feeling-based” and less hard-and-fast than the other rules, but it works easily and intuitively a lot of the time once you have some immersion experience.

And that is precisely why am a little dubious of things like transitive/intransitive worksheets. What will really give you the feel for how words work is meeting them and making friends with them in real contexts, not learning them from lists or worksheets.

The rules I have given here are essentially “force multipliers”. They make it far easier to grasp quickly what the words are doing. That is why I use and recommend them. But they don’t substitute for making real friends with the real words in the real world (whether that “real world” be an office in Tokyo or a fantasy anime).

Also, learning from lists and worksheets that this or that word is “transitive” or “intransitive” may in fact give a false idea of what the words actually do.

Let’s go back to our last example to explain that:

従うshitagau – “obey, follow, accompany” → 従えるshitagaeru – “subdue, be accompanied by”

Shitagau is the “intransitive version” of the verb. The (J-E) dictionaries mark it as intransitive. The grammar books call it intransitive…

But wait! In English it would be mostly transitive, wouldn’t it? You obey someone, follow someone, accompany someone, don’t you?

But on the other hand shitagaeru is thought of as “more transitive” than shitagau because you are causing someone to shitagau. Surely this is closer to “causative” than “transitive”.

And there are a lot of so-called “transitivity pairs” like this, that actually have no real relation to the Western concept of grammatical transitivity.

The moral of this is, don’t take these Western-imposed grammar terms too literally. Sometimes they fit perfectly, other times they don’t really fit at all when you examine them closely.

If you think in Japanese terms and call them self-move verbs and other-move verbs the whole thing is much clearer. In obeying, following or accompanying someone, you are moving yourself, not that other person. In subduing or being accompanied, you are moving (or causing the action of) the other person.

In truth what Western textbooks call the “transitive verb” of a pair really means “the more suru-like version” and what they call the “intransitive verb” is the more aru-like version. Sometimes this corresponds exactly to Western notions of grammatical transitivity and other times it doesn’t at all.

Understanding this and developing the feeling of real Japanese by immersion makes the Basic Concept “rule” much more effective and intuitive, and puts the whole concept of Japanese “transitive” and “intransitive” verbs into the correct Japanese perspective rather than an artificial Western-textbook one.

How to learn transitive and intransitive verbs

If you want to learn by the immersion-based approach advocated by this site, how should you approach learning “transitive” and “intransitive” verbs?

Don’t try to learn lists of transitivity pairs. That doesn’t serve any very useful purpose. Build your core vocabulary organically, but you will encounter transitivity pairs naturally in the course of this.

Do bear in mind the Three Laws and other rules. Especially, you will soon start noticing: “Ah yes, this word is the transitive すsu-version of that word”. “広がるhirogaru? Yes, that must be the intransitive aru-version of 広げるhirogeru.” You will begin to notice eru-flipped versions and start to get the instinct that meru-versions just feel like other-move verbs.

I recommend keeping one simple “Exhibit A” example of each Law in your mind (such as 出る / 出す for the First Law). This is much easier than remembering it purely as an abstract rule.

By all means leverage the two-for-one advantage of putting both versions on an Anki-card when the opportunity arises, (you may even want to check for a “partner” if a word sounds like, say, the –aru,su or -meru  half of a pair) but bear in mind that if a word is one of those eru-flips not covered by the Laws, your head may be clearer for knowing one of them before you get to the other.

I have used the terms “transitive and intransitive verbs” in this article because they are the usual ones that you find in the textbooks, but also bear in mind that they can’t be taken literally about half the time.

If you are starting to think in Japanese, or even if you aren’t, there is a lot to be said for using the correct words, jidoushi and tadoushi – self-move and other-move words. Because that is what they actually are, and the less you clog up your Japanese with cast-offs from foreign grammar the more easily you will understand it.

A Key to Increasing Your Japanese Vocabulary

increase japanese vocabularyVocabulary is a major task in any language. There are just so many words! But Japanese – viewed through Western eyes – has more words than most languages. Between twice and three times as many as English.

Does that make for a completely overwhelming task? Not when you understand how it really works.

In Unlocking Japanese, you learn how Japanese is a modular language. It doesn’t work like Western languages, and when you try to explain it in Western terms (the way the textbooks do), it seems full of strange, arbitrary “rules” and “exceptions” that you “just have to learn”.

But actually Japanese is far simpler and more logical than Western languages and you can learn in an evening the basic principles that underlie and eliminate 90% of the “arbitrary rules” and “exceptions” and make Japanese crystal clear.

Of course, there is not a “magical solution” like Unlocking Japanese in the case of vocabulary. There is a lot to learn. Learning core vocabulary organically helps a lot. But another important step to increasing your Japanese vocabulary is to realize that the vast number of Japanese words found by comparing the main Japanese dictionaries to their English equivalents actually creates a degree of misunderstanding. Japanese vocabulary isn’t that excessive, and learning the basic principle can help bring order to some of the apparent chaos.

What is the “secret” principle here? Actually it is very similar to the secrets that unlock grammar. Japanese, unlike English, is a modular language, and its vocabulary is modular, rather like its grammar.

The huge profusion of Japanese words comes from the fact that the very concept “word” is different in Japanese and English. Japanese has “words” for things that in English are regarded as two or three words.

For example, “(the) dog I love”, “goods returned to the store”, “new goods”, “new car”, “(the) car I love”, “the 〜 I prefer to use” and many other elements that are phrases in English are called “words” in Japanese.

But they aren’t words in the sense that they are new sounds specially made for these compound concepts. They are in fact built from simple kanji that (if we are at the stage of learning this kind of vocabulary) we already know.

Almost always they use the on-readings of these kanji, and despite the bewildering variety of on-readings you will find in the dictionary for some words if you try to learn them raw (non-organically), those on-readings are usually in fact very consistent and predictable.

Making friends with the Sound Sisters will help a lot in handling and remembering on-readings, making it a lot easier to increase your Japanese vocabulary.

So let’s look at some of the examples I just gave:

愛犬 ai-ken – the dog (I) love, (his) beloved dog
Ai is love. Ken is the regular on-reading of inu – dog

愛車 ai-sha – the car (I) love, (her) beloved car
sha is the regular on-reading of kuruma – car

新品 shin-pin – new goods
Shin is the regular on-reading of atara(shii) – new
Hin is the regular on-reading of shina – goods. The hi always becomes pi when next to ん.

新車 shin-sha – new car

返品 hen-pin – returned goods (or the act of returning goods)

愛用(の)〜 ai-you (no)〜 – (the) one uses regularly / loves to use
you is the regular reading of 用 – usage, business

You see the pattern here. Part of the problem lies in regarding these words as separate pieces of vocabulary. Actually shinpin (new goods) or shinsha (new car) are no more single words than they are in English. They are sets of two very regular and understandable verbal elements that could just as easily be called words.

Japanese does not have word-breaks for a reason. The barriers between “words” are much less clear-cut than in English. If you read Japanese school grammar textbooks (as opposed to Japanese grammar textbooks intended for foreigners), you will be surprised to find that sentences are broken down into various elements with names like tango and bunsetsu, which cut right  through the barriers of what the textbooks and dictionaries teach as “Japanese words”. The concept of the “word” (kotoba) as the basic building block of a sentence – as in English – is largely absent.

There is no need to learn about this, however, in order to take a fresh approach to increasing Japanese vocabulary. Once you understand the modularity of words, you can start to hear and read many “new words” just as easily as you can read a new combination of English words when you know the words that make it up.

For example, I recently heard the word 店名 tenmei (name of a/the store). I couldn’t see the kanji, but it was still quite obvious what they were:  ten, the regular on-reading of mise (shop, establishment) and mei/myou, the regular on-reading of na(mae), name.

This extends to longer, multi-kanji words too. For example,

海水 kai-sui – seawater
Kai is the regular on-reading of umi – sea
Sui is the regular on-reading of mizu – water

From there we find natural compounds like

海水温 kai-sui-on – temperature of the seawater
On is the regular on-reading of the atatakai that means “warm (thing)”

海水魚 kai-sui-gyo – seawater (as opposed to freshwater) fish
gyo is the regular on-reading of sakana – fish

海水浴  kai-sui-yoku – seawater bathing
yoku is the regular on-reading of abi(ru) – bathe

and just from these last two we may be reminded of other regular words that use the same elements, such as

人魚 nin-gyo – mermaid (person-fish)

漁船 gyo-sen – fishing boat
Sen is the regular on-reading of fune – ship, boat

入浴 nyuu-yoku – taking a bath (lit. entering the bath)

Nyuu is of course the regular on-reading of hai(ru) (enter) and is used in countless words such as

入学 nyuu-gaku – entering a new school or university

You can see all these as “words” if you wish, or you can see them as a very efficient approach to building set-phrases or collocations. It doesn’t really matter, except that as in my tenmei example above, it can be psychologically useful to see the elements of a “word” as something closer to words in themselves.

The reason for this is that instead of thinking “a new word to learn” you handle it just the same way as you handle “the dog I love” in English. You know “dog” and you know “love” and you don’t have to worry about the combination as if it were a new and separate problem.

The trick of hearing (or seeing) word-elements in the way that you see English words comes with time and familiarity. But it comes more quickly when you grasp the modular nature of the vocabulary to begin with.

Whether you want to put these combination words in your Anki can be decided on a case-by-case basis according to whether it will help you to increase your Japanese vocabulary. I sometimes do, not because I need to “learn the word” in the ordinary sense, but because I want to familiarize myself with the existence of that particular combination. Other times I don’t because it doesn’t seem necessary.

I also sometimes enter set phrases into Anki when it seems a useful idea. And the distinction between the two – the whole question of where “word” ends and “phrase” begins – is one that hardly needs to be asked and can in fact do more harm than good.

Just let it be fluid and allow your own sense of the language and its structure to develop. That way your Japanese vocabulary will increase naturally.


Further reading:

How to Build a Core Japanese Vocabulary the Organic Way

Meet the Sound Sisters (shortcut keys to on-reading pronunciation)

Learn Japanese Through Gameplay – Megami Meguri

Can you learn Japanese through playing games? Well, the right games can certainly help a great deal. And this week saw the launch of one of the best games for the purpose. And even better – it’s free!

The game is called めがみ めぐり Megami Meguri, which could perhaps be translated as Goddess Tour (though I don’t think any translation really captures the spirit of the title).

From the language-learning perspective, the most interesting things are that it is almost fully-voiced and it involves teaching human language (i.e. Japanese) from the ground up to a new-born Goddess who knows almost nothing.

The game uses artificial intelligence and the “Megami Speak Engine”, an artificial voice synthesis system developed by Capcom and Toshiba, using Toshiba’s voice synthesis engine, ToSpeak G3, as its base. The Megami Speak Engine is used in Megami Meguri by having the character make use of user-input words to converse in a near natural-sounding synthetic voice.

In fact, talking is a major part of the game. As the senior Goddess, Amaterasu Omikami, advises at one point:

話して、話して、話しまくることじゃ
Hanashite, hanashite, hanashimakuru koto ja (=da)

The makuru auxiliary verb has been explained as “to do with reckless abandon”. The meaning here could be rendered as “talk, talk, talk ’till you drop”. Because by talking, learning new words and learning all about you, your heroine grows and develops.

This means that you are spending a lot of the game interacting in Japanese and developing the character of your fledgling goddess. Her appearance and voice are your constant companions. And fortunately, since her language-learning process is not really naturalistic (this is entertainment after all) you can’t actually teach her wrong Japanese. She will develop correctly in the language. And in fact, despite not knowing the names of many simple things, she is really quite competent in Japanese from the start.

The game has essentially two overall aims, both concerned with developing the heroine as a person (or rather goddess). One is to develop the relationship between yourself and your heroine through conversations with her, the information you give her and the things you tell her about yourself. The other, as expressed by Amaterasu, is

人間に関する知識は重要だ
Ningen ni kansuru chishiki wa juuyou da
Human-related general knowledge/common sense is of great importance.

This is interesting for those who want to learn about Japanese culture as well as language. “Human-related knowledge” means in fact “Japan-related knowledge”, just as “human language” is Japanese.

You are in fact raising an intelligent and functional person who is nonetheless like a small child in relation to things Japanese – rather like you at the start of your Japanese self-immersion.

You will be traveling all over Japan. In fact, you can visit every one of the 9000+ railway stations in Japan!

Nearly everyone in Japan is a little bit of a 鉄 tetsu (railway enthusiast), and more than other countries, the railway system does still feel like the main arteries of the country. If you have spent time in Japan, just hearing the names of railway stations makes you feel natsukashii (nostalgic).

Traveling to different places you also learn about their special foods. Again, the Japanese are very interested in the 名物 meibutsu or special product of each area – usually food. You can barely mention Kobe to anyone without the subject of beef coming up, for example.

You will be learning about a lot of other things too. Things Japanese people mostly know already, but love to celebrate, presented in a way accessible to people who don’t know these things, because that is what the heroine of the game is.

And you will be learning about Japan, not only in Japanese but through Japanese eyes – learning the things that are salient to the Japanese soul, rather than the perspective of the foreign tourist (or even the foreign “otaku”).

I very much doubt if this game will ever come to the west. It is far too Japan-centric. And if it ever did, far more even than most things, it would be localized out of existence.

Pros and cons of Megami Meguri

I am not going to list pros and cons separately, as one person’s pro may be another person’s con and vice versa. But here are my thoughts.

The voice used by the heroine of Megami Meguri isn’t perfect. Actually it does sound pretty natural in intonation, and the limitations in sound production just make her seem a little nasal/muffly, which actually suits her naïve personality. Everything she says also appears as text onscreen, so understanding is not a problem. In fact she is quite understandable anyway.

There are no furigana in this game, so if you need them that could be a problem. Just about everything the heroine says is voiced, but the explanatory commentaries of Amaterasu are not. There is some good voice-acting for other characters, but not always, so if kanji are a sticking-point the game might not be ideal for you. On the other hand, there is a lot of voiced text.

3D seems to be unused. I don’t know if it will be employed for some effects, but so far I haven’t seen any. Some people don’t seem to like 3D and even turn it off, but I love it, so I found this a small disappointment.

Building a relationship with a virtual character is really the central point of this game. To me this is very important. I actually downloaded a demo of Konami’s LovePlus some time ago. I really liked the idea, though as a doll I wasn’t too interested in playing a boy or having a “waifu“.

This game seems to be doing what LovePlus does, only for a broader audience and with the huge enhancement of having your virtual partner actually talk to you.

The game is free-to-play. The business model relies on in-game purchases, but I don’t think you are ever forced to make any in order to continue. Of course, as you get more involved you may end up tempted into doing so!

It is easy to download if you have a Japanese 3DS. If you haven’t, I can only say that getting one is one of the best immersion investments you can make. People complain that 3DS is region-locked, and while I understand the complaint, from a self-immersion point of view, being locked into Japan is no bad thing, and fortunately it doesn’t lock you by the region you are in but by the region your 3DS comes from.

Obviously Megami Meguri isn’t a game for the absolute beginner, but as a supplementary immersion strategy it has some really important advantages.