Organic Immersion Japanese vs Hunt-and-Peck

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

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

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

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

Cure Yasashiku said:

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

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

Why?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I hope you will.

Japanese Typing: How your keyboard can help you learn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will I need a new keyboard for Japanese typing?

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

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

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

However….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is kana keyboard necessary for your Japanese typing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Learning Japanese – the Real Question

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why we need to mind-switch from romaji to hiragana

What is wrong with romaji in the first place?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Didn’t we?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Best Way to Learn Japanese

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

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

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

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

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

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

How the brain learns language

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is the second-best way?

The answer to that should be obvious.

Getting as near to the best way as possible!

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

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

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

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

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

Eliminating the “best way to learn Japanese” worry

I think what we have said above is convincing.

And I think it is convincing because it is true.

But…

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

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

Why? What do I mean by that?

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

But true immersion does away with all that.

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

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

It is an act of faith.

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

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

You can’t know.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our approach is to do the same thing with Japanese.

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

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

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

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

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

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

You are using Japanese right now.

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

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

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

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

And neither will you.

They call it “living”.

And so will you.

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

I don’t really care.

And neither will you.

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

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

Would I do it?

No.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to Learn Japanese Online – a basic introduction

Japanese Immersion: How to Get Started

Yatta vs Yokatta: What do they mean?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A very common expression in anime is

無事でよかった
buji de yokatta

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

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

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

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

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

Yurusanai! What it really means.

yurusanai-meaningYurusanai or yurusenai is often used in manga and anime. Often said with a similarly angry tone, it can be confused with urusai, but it is a completely different word with a very different meaning.

Yurusanai is often translated as “I won’t forgive you”. This is a reasonable translation in some cases, but often falls rather short of the full meaning.

The term is often heard when a hero makes a stand against a villain who is doing something unforgivable. However, the sense of the phrase in this case is often closer to:

I won’t let you do this.

The reason for the difficulty is that word 許す yurusu means both “to forgive” and “to allow” and also has an implication of “to give up”. So that shouted yurusanai (the negative form of yurusu) means at once “I won’t forgive you” and “I won’t let you do this” with overtones of “I won’t give up”.

This makes it a very powerful expression in these circumstances, and one that has no brief and direct English translation.

Note: this word is sometimes confused with Urusai, which also tends to be angry but is quite different.

When a word combines several meanings, those meanings are often closely entwined in the mind of the speaker. You may have noticed that Germans speaking English sometimes say “happy” when they mean “lucky”. That is because the German word Gluck means both happiness and luck, so that the two concepts are more closely bound up in the German mind than in the English.

The same is true of the concepts of allowing and forgiving in the word yurusanai. The resulting mixture gives a powerful expression in the negative, which is why it is so often used.

Sometimes you will hear yurusenai in place of yurusanai. The only difference here is that yurusenai means “I can’t allow/forgive” rather than “I won’t”.

Because it tends to be spoken in anger, the word is usually used in the plain form. However, there are occasions when it is used in the polite form, sometimes to great effect.

Cure Beauty’s first appearance in Smile Precure is prefaced by her ojousama civilian persona facing down an evil witch who has downed all the current Precures.

Immediately before her debut transformation, she makes a defiant but dignified speech ending with the words:

わたくし、青木らいかが ゆるしません。
watakushi, Aoki Reika ga yurushimasen.
I, Reika Aoki, will not forgive you/allow this.

This unusual (for anime) use of yurushimasen, the polite negative of yurusu, gives a powerful and dignified effect.

Cure Beauty YurushimasenNot to be confused with: Urusai!

Upside-Down Japanese: how the textbooks are teaching you wrong

Japanese is so much harder when it's explained like this! Here's how to flip it right-side-up!
Japanese is so much harder when it’s explained like this! Here’s how to flip it right-side-up!

In learning Basic Japanese Grammar, you will use standard texts like Genki or Tae Kim. And you should. They are very useful and thorough.

However, there are a number of things they don’t explain. They tend to treat Japanese grammar as if it were West European grammar. With the same categories: nouns, verbs, adjectives. This is helpful for grasping the concepts. I do recommend reading the “classic” explanations (if you haven’t already) along with our articles.

But…

The “classic” Western-grammar-based explanations do falsify Japanese to some extent and this makes it much harder to get an intuitive grasp of the language.

What I want to look at today is the concept of “doing” and “being” and how it can get turned upside-down in textbook translations.

English, which is a very “ego-based” language, draws a strong distinction between doing and being. Japanese does so much less and very differently.

Let’s take an example. In my article on the “modularity” of Japanese language, I pointed out how the -tai (“want to”) form of a verb essentially turns it into an i-adjective, and how it can in many cases now be used either like a verb or like an adjective. I wrote:

アンパン食べたい
Anpan ga tabetai (I want to eat anpan)

and

アンパン食べたい
Anpan wo tabetai (I want to eat anpan)

are both grammatically correct and frequently used.

The first treats tabetai like an “adjective”, as in

えんぴつ赤い
Enpitsu ga akai (the pencil is red)

The second treats it more like a “verb” as in:

ミルク飲む
miruku wo nomu (I drink milk)

Now, thinking in English, some people may say: “That’s nonsense. Anpan ga tabetai means ‘I want to eat anpan’. Clearly it is a verb, not an adjective.”

But note that the ga particle marks the doer. So if tabetai is a verb, the anpan is the one that is doing it!

Does that seem very odd? It shouldn’t. You have already seen many similar things.

For example, in your very early lessons you came across sentences like:

私はケーキが好きです。
Watashi wa keeki ga suki desu (I like cake)

Now note that suki is a na-adjective. And its target is not watashi, it is keeki. Grammatically speaking, it is the cake that does the “being-liked”.

So, when I said that

アンパンが食べたい
Anpan ga tabetai (I want to eat anpan)

is treating tabetai like an adjective, I meant precisely that. It works in exactly the same way here as the adjective suki in the cake example.

This may be hard to grasp at first, but understanding it will make many more complex Japanese sentences that seem impenetrable suddenly fall into place.

The thing to realize is that while this may seem strange to the English mind, it is quite simple and natural. In fact, it is not even specifically “Japanese”.

In the Spanish sentence:

Me gusto tequila (usually translated as “I like tequila”)

the target of the verb gusto (like) is not me (to me) it is tequila. English speakers have trouble with this one too. It is the tequila that does the being-liked!

I mention the Spanish only to show that there is nothing oriental and strange about these Japanese expressions. They are a very natural human form of communication. We just need to adjust our minds to them.

The key to the apparent oddness of these forms of speech really lies in the Western and particularly Anglo-Saxon idea that only the human ego can actually “do” things. The Japanese (and even vestigially the Spanish) usage reflect a more “animist” notion that “doing” is something that takes place on many levels, often with “things” as the “doer”.

This mergence of what we think of as “adjective” and “verb” works the other way too. Verbs in Japanese can do the work that adjectives normally do in English. Again, Japanese tends to reflect the idea that it isn’t only the human ego that “does” things.

For example, in English we say “That is too big”. “Too big” is an adjectival phrase, similar to saying “That is red”.

But in Japanese we say:

それは大きすぎる。
sore wa ookisugiru (that is too big)

Ookisugiru is not an adjective. It is a verb. The thing (whatever it is) is doing the act of being too big.

Similarly, in Japanese we are rather more prone than in English to say that a thing “became lost” rather than that we lost it. We are attributing the action of becoming lost to the thing itself.

This last point is interesting because it is an expression that does exist in English. We can say “it got lost”, but it is considered childish and discouraged.

In this case there is a quasi-“moral” reason, about “taking responsibility”, but in fact it goes much deeper than that. The passive voice exists in English grammar, but it is strongly discouraged. This is a cultural prejudice, and the prejudice is: that there should always be a human agent, a human ego, at the forefront of every action.

This cultural prejudice has shaped the English language for centuries and helped to make it what it is. It continues to shape the language today. The passive voice may eventually disappear altogether, or be deemed “ungrammatical”.

Of course I am not saying that Japanese people really think that cake does the being-liked or a hat actively does the being-too-big. But they are perfectly happy with that way of putting things. If we can loosen our English prejudice and become happy with this form of expression too, Japanese will become much easier. We are not constantly trying to turn sentences inside-out to make them fit what they would be in English.

Let us take another very common example. Let’s look at the word 分かる wakaru, which in English is usually translated as “understand” or “know”.

Again, this translation requires turning Japanese sentences inside-out in our heads.

私の言う意味が分かりますか
Watashi no iuimi ga wakarimasu ka?

gets translated as “do you understand what I mean?” However, the ga-marked target of wakarimasu is not “you” (which isn’t even explicitly there as a word), it is iuimi (meaning).

Now this is honestly not difficult. The sentence actually means:

Is my meaning clear (to you)?

Why isn’t it translated that way? Because English has such a strong prejudice for bringing the human “doer” (in this case the understander) to the forefront. Therefore the literal translation above sounds a bit odd, and rather more forceful than the original Japanese. In English people nearly always opt for “do you understand?” when asking such questions.

So the “do you understand” translation is most natural. But when we are thinking in Japanese we need to get rid of that translation and think “Japanesely”. Otherwise we are inverting things in our heads and making things harder to understand, especially when we get to more complex sentences using the same concepts.

A famous older Japanese textbook was called Japanese Is Possible. While that seems rather a modest claim, I think the title is in fact a subtle joke:

(私は)日本語ができる
(Watashi wa) nihongo ga dekiru

would normally be translated as “I can (speak) Japanese”.

However, notice that the ga (doer) particle is actually attaching dekiru to nihongo, not to watashi. What the sentence literally means is:

(In relation to me) Japanese is possible.

Hence, I think, the somewhat curious title of the book.

Again we can see why the usual translation is “I can speak Japanese”. The literal meaning, while – uh – possible in English sounds very strange and unnatural.

The thing to understand here is that while we have talked about how anime translations can never be accurate, the phenomenon in fact goes much deeper than this. Even the simple textbook explanations of what basic things mean are not accurate.

In many cases, they do not tell us what the Japanese words actually say. They tell us how we would say a similar thing in English.

I am sure many people go through life thinking wakaru means “understand” and suki means “like” and wondering why Japanese sentences are constructed so mysteriously.

This is one reason, for example, why many people find Japanese particles so difficult. If the adjective suki were really somehow functioning as a verb meaning “like”, then surely

ケーキ好きです
keeki ga suki desu

should be

ケーキ好きです
keeki wo suki desu

because ga marks the doer (including the manifester of an adjectival quality) and wo marks the thing being done-to.

Many people, I am sure just decide that Japanese particles are “inscrutable” and there are a lot of “exceptions” to learn.

Actually there is nothing inscrutable about them at all, and there are very few exceptions in Japanese.

But we do have to start thinking in Japanese. Just as we need to wean ourselves off Romaji early on, and start thinking in kana/kanji, so we also need to wean ourselves off “translation Japanese” like “I like coffee” and “Do you understand my meaning?”

In order to immerse ourselves in Japanese we need to think in Japanese.

I hope this article makes it easier for you to do that.

Japanese Reading: The Fox Children

Japanese-reading-little-foxesIf you were looking for something cute and interesting to read in Japanese, here is today’s recommendation, picked from one of the many free sources in The Dollygram Resource List.

This is a story about the real life of a wild fox family in Japan. The writer is an excellent photographer, and the story is illustrated with lots of photographs of the real fox family in the wild and on the margins of human habitation.

It is suitable for intermediate Japanese acquirers. You can use Rikaisama for “furiganizing” where necessary. As usual I recommend turning off definitions or putting Rikai into Sanseido mode. Sanseido mode gives simple Japanese definitions, and you may be surprised how often, even when you don’t know a word, you can manage with the Japanese definition on the fly.

If you need to make the text bigger – and you do need larger text in Japanese for the same reason small children need large-print books – remember that in Firefox you can set the zoom to adjust the size of the text only – without messing up the pictures.

Go to the 表示 menu (“View” if you still have your Firefox in English), scroll to the ズーム (Zoom) popout and check the last item, 文字サイズのみ変更 (のみ is written-instruction-speak for だけ), which will be “Change character size only”, or something like that, in English.

You can then zoom the text size up and down without affecting anything else on the page and making everything look like a mess!

Here is the story:

The Fox Children (子ぎつね、こんこん、ロリこんこん)

Note: this is a longish story, so if you aren’t used to reading a lot of Japanese at a sitting, don’t be afraid to take it in smaller  chunks and make it a daily treat!

Happy reading!

 

Japanese Grammar: The Golden Key – Mighty Morphin’ Modularity

Japanese Grammar is like morphing lego-blocks. Once you know how they fit together you can build anything!
Japanese Grammar is like lego blocks. Once you know how they fit together you can build anything!

We sometimes liken Japanese to an RPG game. A great open world where there are many things to see and discover, treasures to be found and monsters to overcome.

In some RPGs (like the  Dragon Quest series), at a certain stage you can get a master-key that will unlock lots of doors and treasure chests without having the particular key for that item.

There is a key like that to Japanese grammar. It won’t unlock every door, but it will unlock a lot of them.

If you already have a reasonable grasp of basic Japanese Grammar you half-know it already, but, like the real nature of adjectives, it is one of those things the textbooks don’t really spell out. And that is a pity, because once you grasp it fully, it makes so many “puzzling” things just fall naturally into place.

So what is the Golden Key to Japanese Grammar?

The key is the understanding that Japanese is a Modular Language*. It works rather like Lego. It is continually fitting new parts onto words and transforming them into new words. By doing this, it does a lot of the work that in English is done by adding separate words.

We have already explained how そう sou is used to turn a verb or adjective into a new na-adjective. Let’s look here at some other examples.

The potential, causative and passive “conjugations” take a verb and turn it into a new verb. The new verb is always an Ichidan (ru-) verb.

So:

話す (hanasu) “talk”: a godan verb ending in す.

When “conjugated” into the potential form becomes

話せる (hanaseru) “can talk”: an ichidan verb ending (of course) in る.

I put “conjugated” in quotes because, while the word is useful, it is not fully accurate. It is a word borrowed from Western grammar and really only applies to Western grammar. We have not really “conjugated” 話す in the Western-language sense. We have morphed it into a new ichidan verb that now works exactly like any other ichidan verb and can be re-morphed in the same way all ichidan verbs can.

How can ichidan verbs be morphed? Let’s remind ourselves.

We can, for example, morph any verb (ichidan or godan)  into tai-form. This turns it from meaning “do-X” to “want-to-do-X”.

When we think about this, we can see that:

a) By transforming a word, Japanese is doing what English does by adding other words, in this case “want to”

b) It transforms the word into a different kind of word.

Just as 話す→話せるtransforms the godan verb hanasu into the ichidan verb hanaseru, the -tai conjugation makes an even more radical change. Let’s see:

食べる (taberu) “eat”, verb

When “conjugated” to -tai form becomes

食べたい (tabetai) “want to eat”, i-adjective

Verbs and Adjectives: What they never quite tell you

What? Wait! I-adjective? Isn’t it still a verb?

Well, this again is where Western grammar imposed on Japanese can make life harder. I am not suggesting we abandon terms like “verb” and “adjective”, but I am saying we need to understand that they only partially fit Japanese words – rather like four-fingered gloves on a five-fingered hand.

In the article on i-and na-adjectives, we explained how i-adjectives are practically verbs. They work like verbs in most respects. Conversely, verbs “conjugated” to -tai or even the simple negative, -nai, are practically i-adjectives. They work almost identically.

For example,

アンパン食べたい
Anpan ga tabetai (I want to eat anpan)

and

アンパン食べたい
Anpan wo tabetai (I want to eat anpan)

are both grammatically correct and frequently used.

The first treats tabetai like an “adjective”, as in

えんぴつ赤い
Enpitsu ga akai (the pencil is red)

The second treats it more like a “verb” as in:

ミルク飲む
miruku wo nomu (I drink milk)

The point is that the hard-and-fast distinction between Japanese “verbs” and “adjectives”, while useful up to a point, can become more confusing than helpful if taken too literally.

If we want, we can call the new word formed by a verb conjugated to -tai or -nai an “i-verb”. Actually it has the properties of both a verb and an adjective. But then so do “real” verbs. Every verb is also an adjective. We just have to put it before a noun.

女の子はご飯を食べている
onnanoko wa gohan wo tabete iru (the girl is eating rice). Tabete iru works as a verb

ご飯を食べている女の子
gohan wo tabete iru onnanoko The (rice-eating girl [girl who is eating rice]). Tabete iru works as an adjective.

When conjugated to -nai or -tai a verb (which was always also an adjective) becomes even more adjective-like. It conjugates in all respects just like any other i-adjective:

食べない (tabenai) “not eat” conjugates just like any i-adjective. So the past tense is 食べなかった (tabenakatta) “didn’t eat” (this is a real conjugation rather than a morph, by the way).

食べたい (tabetai) “want to eat” works exactly the same:

食べる (taberu) “eat”, verb 食べたい (tabetai) want to eat, i-adjective (or i-verb).

We can then “lego”-on -nai to the -tai-formed word to make the negative, using the regular i-adjective “glue” of replacing い with く:

食べたい (tabetai) want to eat 食べたくない (tabetakunai) don’t want to eat (both i-adjectives, or i-verbs)

and continue to conjugate if we want to:

食べたくない (tabetakunai) “don’t want to eat” → 食べたくなかった (tabetakunakatta) “didn’t want to eat”.

The important point here is to see exactly what is going on.

Textbooks tend to confuse the issue by hanging on to Western concepts like “conjugation”. What is actually happening is that while English adds words to express many concepts, Japanese turns one word into another word that carries the new meaning.

Often the new word is a different kind of word. Godan verbs can transform into ichidan verbs. Verbs can transform into adjectives. そう can transform i-adjectives and verbs into na-adjectives. If we let go of the concept of conjugation and realize that new concept-words are being formed, it all makes a lot more sense.

And the wonderful thing is that, unlike Western languages’ conjugations, which really are conjugations and which have pages and pages of “irregular verbs”, Japanese lego-morphing is almost 100% regular.

Once you get used to how it works you realize that you have a huge box of morphing-blocks that always work the same way. You can build meanings step-by-step simply by applying the same regular rules.

It is very different from how English works, but it is in fact simpler and a lot more regular.

When you adjust your mind to how it really works (which involves divorcing it somewhat from the Western grammatical terminology imposed on it) it all becomes almost startlingly clear. And rather beautiful.

Recommended:

Upside-down Japanese: How the Texbooks Teach You Wrongly
I and Na Adjectives: What the Textbooks Don’t Tell You
The Simple Secret of Sou: “Complex” Grammar Made Easy


*This is probably what linguists term “agglutinative” but I don’t want to get into complex linguistic discussions here, so I am using the term “modular” to express what we actually need to know to help us use and understand Japanese.