Category Archives: Power Tools

Creating an Immersion Environment Using HabitRPG

habit-rpg3As my studies have progressed, I have found that immersion has been a very effective tool.  Using Japanese is a very important supplement to active study.  It can be difficult though.  In many ways, it is so much easier to take the path of least resistance and do things in one’s native language, rather than struggle through with the language one is learning.

In addition to having Dailies of listening to Japanese and watching Anime in Japanese, I have found that Habits and Rewards are also effective tools.  My own HabitRPG is set up such that my entire day is governed by it.  If something is not an activity that is a Daily, a Todo, or a positive Habit, it is something that I have to pay for as a Reward.  While in some ways, this might seem a bit kibishii, it really is quite effective in tipping the scales away from English in favor of Japanese.

https://i2.wp.com/38.media.tumblr.com/1f293e3d9522d4110a8e023aba1cf4fd/tumblr_n7spq1JLh81sb4cpyo2_1280.jpg?resize=231%2C173&ssl=1The basic theory is that using Japanese gives me bonuses via positive Habits, and I have to pay to use English using Rewards.  I started this with video games, but I have extended this to other areas as well.  I can play a game for a half of an hour in Japanese for 5 Gold pieces, and I can get one to three “pluses” under my positive Habit of “extra Japanese,” depending on how much Japanese I had to use in the game.  In a role-playing game, such as Dragonquest IX, I can get 3 “pluses” if I have to get through a long plot line or a talk to a lot of people in a town to find out what to do next.  I only get one if I spend the entire time fighting monsters in a dungeon, and I get two “pluses” for anything in between.  To play a game in English, it costs me 30 Gold pieces to play for the same half of an hour, and there are no available rewards for doing so.  So, I can play a game in English if I really want to, but…

I have extended this to many other areas.  I now have to pay to watch any television or videos in English or with English subtitles (even if it is with my spouse, who is not studying Japanese), while at the same time having a Daily requiring a minimum amount of Japanese Anime watching, with positive Habit of extra Anime.  I also have to pay to listen music in English or to talk or chat in English with my Nihongo senpai (who are also dear friends).  I actually recently had to raise the price of talking in English with my Nihongo senpai because I got into some rather bad habits surrounding that.

In order for this to work well, I think it is important to keep the Habits and Rewards very specific, and decide what they really entail.  For example, I first started with a negative Habit of unnecessary English, but that did not work at all.  What is “unnecessary”?  Creating costs for specific defined uses of English was far more effective, at least for me.  The ability to create a combination of bonuses for Japanese and costs for English has really helped me to ganbaru in Japanese, much more than I would do otherwise.

Japanese Deep Cave Adventurers’ Guild: Beginner’s Immersion Challenge – Level Up

During the month of August, the Japanese Deep Cave Adventurers’ Guild sponsored its first challenge, the Beginner’s Immersion Challenge.  About a dozen people signed up for the challenge, and everyone did very well.*  We will be hosting that challenge again during the month of September.   The prize for the winner of the Beginner’s Challenge will again be 1 Gem.

Additionally, in September, the Guild will host an additional, level up challenge.  This challenge will be similar to the Beginner’s Challenge, but will take it to the next level.  The details of this challenge are as follows:

vlcsnap-2014-06-16-16h50m21s87Todo:

Watch 3 episodes of Anime during the month, slowly, using Japanese subtitles.  Cure Dolly wrote a very good article about using Anime to study Japanese which can be found here.

Daily:

The Daily for this challenge will be the same as for the Beginner’s Immersion Challenge, listening to a story or anime episode in Japanese.

Habits:

In addition to the daily of listening to Japanese, there will be a Habit of extra listening.  For this level up challenge, one can listen to as many stories or episodes in a day as one likes, and they will all count towards the challenge.

As with the Beginner’s Immersion Challenge, writing tasks on HabitRPG in Japanese will also be a positive habit for bonuses, and which will count toward the challenge.  Changing a task from English to Japanese will count towards this Habit.  It will also count if one edits a previously written task from incorrect Japanese to correct Japanese.

Reward (not exactly a “reward”):

As this is a level-up challenge, we will be taking another step towards making HabitRPG an immersion environment.  In the level up challenge, participants will still be allowed to write their tasks in English if they wish; however, for this challenge there will be a cost to it.  This challenge will include a “reward” of 5 GP to write a new task in English.  Of course, this only applies to tasks that are written by the participant, and not to tasks that come from other HabitRPG Challenges.

Here is what the challenge will look like on HabitRPG:

初心者の集中訓練の挑戦 -レベルアップ

ToDo

日本語の字幕でアニメを1話見る (“Watch one episode of Anime, using Japanese subtitles”) (x3)

Daily

日本語を聞く (“Listen to Japanese”)

Habits

+   余分な日本語の聞いている (Extra Japanese listening)

+  日本語で新しいHabitRPGの用事を書く (“Write new HabitRPG task using Japanese”)

Reward

5GP  英語で新しいHabitRPGの用事を書く (“Write new HabitRPG task using English”)

The winner of the Level Up Challenge will receive 2 Gems.

Both Challenges will start on September 6, 2014 and end on October 6, 2014.

Good luck!

頑張ってください。

_______________________________________________________

*If you signed up for the challenge in August, there should be a broken megaphone on the tag for the challenge.  When you click the megaphone, it should allow you to remove the tasks from the August challenge, if you would like.  If you are participating in either one of the September challenges, it is probably a good idea to remove the tasks from the August challenge, so as not to have the tasks doubled on your lists.

HabitRPG: The Adventure Continues

Several of us here on Kawaii Japanese have begun to use HabitRPG as a time management tool, as Cure Dolly has discussed here.  Time management can be a big stumbling block to being able to continue one’s studies, i.e., “I would love to learn Japanese, but I really do not have the time.”

Really all of us have the same amount of time….there are 24 hours in the day for all of us!  It is really a matter of what we decide to do with our time.  I am not sure about anyone else, but left to my own devices, I will wander around all day feeling like I have been busy, without any sense of accomplishment, and having no idea what it is I was actually busy doing.  I absolutely *need* some sort of time management tool.

I have been looking for the perfect time management tool for decades.  I still miss my old Palm Pilot, which was very nicely laid out for how I like to work.  I have spent these same decades learning and practicing about every procrastination avoidance/time management system under Ohisama.  HabitRPG is not quite perfect, but it is pretty close, I think!  Cure Dolly has given a very good description of the basics of the game/tool in her previous article, so I will concentrate on the things that I have learned that are relevant to us here on Kawaii Japanese.

Approach to the “game”

One of the things that I have noticed as a difficulty for my party members is a reluctance to give themselves “credit” for their tasks and habits.  I think that here on Kawaii Japanese, many of us are studying Japanese because we feel much more at home in the cultural assumptions of the East.  One of these assumptions is that modesty is proper, and self-aggrandizement is not.  I think that one of the ways to get past this is to really understand what the purpose of the “game” is.

The purpose of the “game” is to help us all manage our time better, and to get things done.  For us, this is important so we can manage our study time and manage our other tasks and chores, so that we DO have study time.  The game itself is very well designed, so that actually the “tricks” to playing the “game” are mostly good time-management and task-management habits.

For example, dailies, todos, and habits change colors depending on how well we are doing with them.  They all start off as yellow, and turn green, then blue, and then bright blue, if we are doing well with them.  If we are doing poorly with them or letting them sit in our “todo” list, they turn orange, then red, and then deep red.  The redder the task or habit is the more damage it can do to us, but by the same token, we get more rewards for actually doing it!

Generally, tasks that turn red are tasks we REALLY don’t want to do and are putting off.  Getting more points for them helps to turn these tasks into our friends!  Heee…and doesn’t that seem like a very Japanese way to look at things!

HabitRPG current

Social aspects

The social aspects of HabitRPG are really wonderful.  I am now working with a party, and that has been really nice.   My party consists of close friends (who are also study partners).  We are all geographically far apart, but HabitRPG is helping to give us the sense that we are all working together.  We can actually see avatars of each other on our personal pages, so for me, it gives the feeling of my party being with me while doing my daily chores and tasks.

We already done about 3 “Quests” together.  The quests we have done are Boss quests, which means that we are battling a Monster.  When we do tasks and dailies, they do damage to the Boss, and missed Dailies of any one of us mean that the Boss does damage to the party.

Because we are all close friends, no one wants to do damage to the party, so we all work extra hard to do our Dailies.  Yet, also because we are all friends, we can support and comfort each other when we don’t do as well as we would like.  Below is a typical exchange in our Party chat.

ごめんなさい。(Gomen nasai. “I am very sorry”…for causing the party damage)

大丈夫ですよ。今日はがんばりましょうね!(Daijoubu desu yo. Kyou wa ganbarimashou ne!
“It is ok.  Today, let’s do our best together!”)

I think that it has very much helped our group’s bond to grow and develop!

It is also nice, that so far, all of the Quests are written in a way that is very much in line with our philosophy.  The “Bosses” are often tamed, rather than “killed”, and it is quite easy to see in these stories the traditional story themes we know and love from our favorite Anime.  We can imagine the Bosses as being taken over by Evil Spirits to be cleansed, or that they are our own False Selves.

There is also a Tavern, where just like any role playing game, one can go to hear rumors and get information!  The Tavern chat is very well moderated and is polite and pleasant, for the most part.  For many of us, part of the reason we are studying Japanese is that we are attracted to the more gentle and polite culture of Japan, so many English speaking social places on the Internet can be jarring and poisonous.  On HabitRPG, I have found the Tavern quite pleasant.  One of the really nice things is that swearing is not allowed at all, and posts with swear words are promptly removed!

Aesthetics

This is Kawaii Japanese, so, of course, aesthetics are quite important to us.  The basic game itself is quite kirei.  On the other hand, at the Tavern, I learned a way to make the game even prettier!  There is an add-on which works for Firefox, known as Stylish.  It also works on other browsers, I think, but of course we recommend Firefox here because of the availability of the Rikaichan and Procon Latte addons.

With the Stylish add-on, one can customize the interface of the program.  A link to this add-on is here.  The default theme is quite nice, and is the one that I use.  You can see it in the image above.  This add-on also has an option to hide the game aspects, which might be important if one is using HabitRPG at work.  There is also the option to create your own custom theme, but really the default one itself is quite nice, ne.

Oh dear, I had a lot more to say, but this article has already gotten quite long.  Maybe I will need to write a sequel later!

行かなければ行きません。

またね。

頑張りましょうね!

P.S.  I just received 76 experience, about 9 Gold pieces, and replenished 2.6 Mana Points by writing this post!  (this was a very red Todo)

Habit RPG for Japanese Learners – and the Kawaii Japanese Adventurers’ Guild

Habit RPG literally makes a game out of time management. This can be important for Japanese learners who have a problem managing their time and getting Japanese-related tasks done, as well as co-ordinating them with other tasks.

I have tried various ways to manage my time with very little success, but Habit RPG has really revolutionized the way I use my time and its effectiveness in working on Japanese. Partly that is because I understand games better than I understand practicalities. But also it is because with Habit RPG I am can be part of a group with Japanese Adventurer friends.

Kawaii Japanese has its own Guild (Japanese Deep Cave Adventurers) on Habit RPG. Everyone is welcome to join it and (optionally) take part in our Guild Challenges and talk about Japanese learning in Japanese. Don’t worry if your level is low. If you just want to pop in and say こんにちは you are more than welcome.

A thing one notices about the Internet is that it is full of Japanese learners blathering endlessly about Japanese in English. Now some things do need to be explained in English, but actually using Japanese, even at a low level, is crucial. Studying Japanese textbooks and even watching anime/playing games is of limited value if the minute you stop doing that you go straight back to “the real language” – English – for actually communicating and receiving communication. Japanese has to become the real language, at least for part of your life.

It is important to begin using – not just learning or practicing – Japanese as early as possible in your Japanese adventure.

This is the key to how we at Kawaii Japanese (and our guild on the game itself) use Habit RPG. The guild communicates only in Japanese (it is mostly quite simple and you can and should use Rikaichan as much as you need) and we encourage using the time management system to increase Japanese activity. Some of us actually have 不要な英語 – unnecessary English – as a bad habit that loses hit points.

So, let’s look at Habit RPG itself:

Habit RPG - making a game out of life
Habit RPG – making a game out of life

I am told by a friend who has considerable experience of task-managers that Habit RPG is one of the better ones even aside from the game aspect. It divides “tasks” into three kinds:

・Dailies (things you should do every day and lose hit-points if you don’t).

・Habits – things you should be trying to do, or not do, or do one way rather than another.

・To dos – a simple to do list.

You can also filter these – for example I have filters (tags) for articles and posts, mails and letters I should be writing etc. I am not well-organized and my system is pretty rudimentary as yet, but it does help even me to find things.

At the top you see your own avatar and those of your party. You earn gold and experience for completing tasks and lose hit points for not completing or for doing bad “habits” (unnecessary English, for example, or flipping peas across the dinner table).

There is much more to the game than this, and more and more gets unlocked as you level up. You can use your gold to buy equipment, pets and mounts become available, eggs hatch. There is a real sense of playing a game, especially with a party or Guild or both.

Here is a look at the Kawaii Japanese guild:

Habit-RPG-kawaii-Japanese-guild
We are an open guild, so please join the fun!

The Guild issues challenges and is a place for chat, interaction, discussion and recommendations. Among other things it is a good place to practice using a little Japanese and a source of support and encouragement on your Japanese adventure.

If you sign up for Habit RPG you should then go to Social > Guilds and type in “kawaii” (or 日本語)and find us. Please don’t be shy or worried about your Japanese. We are all learning, and making mistakes is how one progresses. Using Japanese from an early stage is of great importance. It is a very different thing from just practicing Japanese. Actually communicating things (however small) that you actually want to communicate and learning things you want to learn. And it is good to have a friendly environment to try it in – as well as one that uses reasonably simple Japanese and is friendly and gentle.

It is also a place to discuss recommendations for Japanese games, books, anime and other “immersion materials” – i.e. the culture of our Japanese life.

There are only  a few things I would say have actually changed my life and Habit RPG is one of those few – largely because I am very poor at managing my time and have never gotten on at all well with “serious” time management software. I am definitely more productive both in Japanese and other areas as a result of Habit RPG. This is a lot to do with its game aspect and also its social aspect. It has allowed me to make my work into a game I share with Japanese-using, like-minded friends.

Cons: The two main cons about Habit RPG are:

• It does not handle monthly tasks well (it is fine with weeklies). That doesn’t affect me but is a drawback for some folks.

• It is not available in Japanese. There are several languages available and at the time of writing a Japanese translation is said to be 65% complete. We encourage people to enter tasks, tags etc in Japanese only, though of course that is up to you. If you do that and join the Guild you will be working in a largely-Japanese environment.

Neither of these is a major drawback (unless monthlies are super-important to you), and Habit RPG is well worth a try.

Denshi Jisho Review: the Next Generation

We review the next generation of Denshi Jisho, currently in beta.

One of our major online resources, Denshi Jisho, is changing. The new version, currently in beta, is a radical overhaul. It looks nothing like the green and friendly Jisho that we are all familiar with. Is this update a big improvement or a disappointment?

Let’s see what it looks like (click for enlarged view if you wish):

Denshi Jisho: New beta version

At first it looks comparatively stripped-down and one may wonder if it has all the functionality of the old version.  In fact it does, though it takes a short time to work out where things are now. It also has various functions it lacked in the past.

New features of 2nd Generation Denshi Jisho

Collocations: This feature is definitely the top of my list. It is slightly tucked-away and many users may not be aware of it. You will be, and you should be.

Just above the “Links” button in the left column is a button saying how many collocations are found using the word. Click the link and a pop-up appears with the collocations – and, yes, you can use Rikaichan in the pop-up.

denshi-jisho-review

Collocations are a somewhat-neglected fundamental of language-learning, as I was recently trying to explain. A great deal of the time, a word is going to be found in a frequently-recurring collocation or (word-pairing or word-group). Don’t be afraid of collocations. They aren’t clichés, they are building blocks of language. Children often learn and use collocations before they become aware of the word-boundaries within them*.

Learn a word’s main collocations along with the word itself – it will give you a wonderful head-start in knowing how to use your vocabulary.

Collocations aren’t always that easy to track down (since they are still a rather neglected aspect of language) so having them built right into Jisho is a truly important development.

Kanji details: limited kanji details are now right there on the page. You can still click for greater detail and you will still need the Rikaichan toolbar (or at least its search box integrated into your regular toolbar) to get a quick breakdown of the kanji’s radicals. But it does inform you, with no further searching, about the component kanji of a multi-kanji words.

Sentence links: The link to the sentence database is not so immediately obvious (you have to click the “links” link to open the sub-menu). However there is one very useful change. You can now search for the word in either kanji or kana. This is convenient because Jisho always gives the kanji, so when a word is usually written in kana (you rarely see 有難う for ありがとう, for example) the sentence-finder comes up with no results until you retype it in kana. This little annoyance has now been resolved.

Wikipedia definitions: There are now Wikipedia definitions of words (in English) on the page – in case you didn’t know what the word meant even in English. There are definitely cases where this can be useful, though it is perhaps a little doubtful whether the extra on-page clutter all the time is really worthwhile for saving one the extra click to Wikipedia on the few occasions one actually needs it.

Inflections: There is now an on-page pop-up giving the inflections/conjugations of verbs and adjectives.

Denshi Jisho Update

 

At one time I used to search words on conjugation sites all the time. Japanese is so regular that this shouldn’t really be necessary, but I used to get confused and want to make sure. These days I almost never need to do this (if I’m at all nervous I type what I think it is and Rikaichan it), but for those at an earlier stage of learning this is likely to be very, very useful.

Single search-box: There are no longer separate search-boxes for English and Japanese – Jisho auto-detects language and even though it still allows mixed-language entries. This is more efficient as the cursor is always in the right box. Less clicking and no typing in the wrong box by mistake and wondering why you don’t find anything (or is that just me?)

Note: Multi-language searches are useful, for example, when you want “That word for contacting someone that has 連 in it”. Type “contact 連” into the box and you get 連絡 which is what you were looking for. It works if you only know the pronunciation – so “contact れん” will get you the same result. Unfortunately, in both old and new Jisho, it only seems to work with the first element of the word. “Contact 絡” (or らく)gives no result. Though, oddly enough, it still searches the kanji and in this case the first example sentence using the kanji uses it as part of 連絡. Okashii ne!

Audio: Many entries now have an audio button so you can hear the word spoken.

Furigana: Rather than have the kana in a separate column from the kanji, the new Denshi Jisho shows it as furigana over the kanji, while the kanji themselves are bigger without having to mouse over them. This is a better use of space, makes the kanji easier to recognize. Perhaps more importantly, the sentences section also features furigana now which makes the sentences much easier to read if there are a few unknown kanji

Other information: The new Denshi Jisho is an ongoing project currently in beta, so new things are still being added. The “more reading” section is a very welcome addition. Where words have special grammatical uses, for example, links are sometimes provided to Tae Kim’s excellent grammar resource:

second-generation-denshi-jisho-review

The stated aim of Denshi Jisho is to become an all-in-one learning and research resource and it certainly seems to be on the way to achieving that. There are a few areas in which the old Denshi Jisho is better. Currently, while one can filter searches in many more ways than before (click the down-arrow next to the magnifying glass in the search box) one can no longer search the names dictionary specifically (useful when trying to find names for characters in stories or RPGs).

To find the kanji-by-radical search tool, by the way, click 部 next to the search box. Why 部? I really have no idea!

Where the new Denshi Jisho could do better

There are a few minor minor problems. The inability to search specific dictionaries like the names one, as mentioned above is one. Another is the fact that where a word is written in different ways or with different kanji these are included as an addendum to the main entry rather than separate entries. While this is more efficient, it also means that there is now no separate indication of which kanji usages are common and which aren’t.

However this is an ongoing project still in beta and I expect these problems to be fixed over time.

The link to my favorite sentence database, Space Alc, is still there, though you now usually have to scroll to find it, under the kanji details and (somewhat unnecessary) first sample sentence. This is a minor inconvenience to those of us who like to move on from the definition to the large database to get the feel of how a new word actually works.

There is also now an indication of a word’s JLPT level. This is only a little useful for most of us, though I can see how it might be helpful for people actually planning to take the JLPT. However, the one missing piece of information I would really like to see is a ranking of the word’s frequency of usage. When learning vocabulary it is very useful to have an idea how commonly a word is used. The “Common word” marker is still there and I am grateful for it. There are about 6,000 common words and some of them are not all that common. I would really like to know which words are, say, in the top 2,000 – not because I only plan to learn 2000 words (I know rather more than that already) but because I really want to be sure I have the core vocabulary fully covered.

This may be more of a concern for autodidacts like this doll, but there are quite a lot of us and proportionately we are probably more likely to be reliant on online resources like Denshi Jisho.

The occasional foul language is still there. This is not good translation since equivalent taboo-words are not found in the same way in Japanese and taboo English is used to translate non-taboo Japanese, thus giving a completely false impression of the import of the words.

Besides this, even for people who think that only children should be allowed protection from mental pollution, this is an educational resource that will be used by children. This is not actually Denshi Jisho’s fault as the problem lies with the open-source databases it uses. We recommend the use of a profanity filter.

These matters aside, the next-generation Denshi Jisho is really an excellent upgrade. For my money, the addition of collocations is by far the most important addition and comes close to doubling the value of this dictionary all by itself. The inflections feature is also likely to be important to newer learners.

The other new features all add up to a better, more efficient, and more usable dictionary.

Our advice: switch to the new beta now. The link is in red at the top of regular Denshi Jisho.
___
* For example, a friend knew a toddler who used gubbadee (cup of tea) to mean “tea” and even referred to a “cup of gubbadee”.

How to Write Correct, Natural Japanese

Correct natural JapaneseAhem. Sorry for the rather audacious title, but it there really is a way to write correct, natural Japanese.

I know people spend years learning to do just this, and I know there is no such thing as a get-fluent-quick scheme that actually works. But I am going to introduce you  to a power tool that, if you have a workable level of Japanese (upper beginner/lower intermediate), will make your Japanese writing far more correct and natural.

I am talking about Sentences. You probably already know that Denshi Jisho has a sentences section and you may be using it. But lot of people don’t realize how powerful this tool actually is or how to use it to best effect. There is also a much bigger database of sentences at Space Alc. I use both of them all the time (Edit: since this was written the new beta Denshi Jisho has a sentences function that produces more results than the old one).

Suppose you are writing a story or a post in Japanese. You have some idea of how to say what you want. But is that really how a Japanese speaker would put it? Or are you writing Eihongo (the counterpart of Japlish).

Can those words actually be used in that way in Japanese? What one should do now is try to find a precedent for the way you are saying it.

So if you think you know how to express what you want but aren’t sure that it is natural or correct Japanese, enter the key phrase into the sentence search box of one or more of the engines recommended above (or use a regular search engine if your Japanese is good enough) and see how it is actually used.

Cut it down to the basic turn of phrase you are worried about (these are databases of human-made sentences, not translation engines [thankfully], so you won’t find your exact sentence). See if that combination of words is in fact used with that meaning and nuance.

You can do this with very limited units such as てばかり – essentially asking “show me the way ばかり is used with a verb in て-form”. As you see, you can use this for elucidation of grammar points in a more general way, but what we are doing here is trying to find out if the way we are using it in our particular sentence is going to be natural, correct Japanese.

We can also expand it a little. If the word we are coupling with ばかり is very common, we can try putting in that exact combination and see whether it is used and how.

Of course if the phrase is not in the database it does not mean that it isn’t usable (though if you are using Google raw, it probably does), but it is a large database, so if the phrase is a common collocation, it is likely to be there. If it isn’t there it may be worth considering re-phrasing with something you can be more confident about.

You can also work the other way and put in the general idea you want to convey in English and see what Japanese examples you get. Expect to sift through various non-relevant examples. Be prepared to expand and contract your input (whether in English or Japanese) since if it is too long and explicit you may not find it and if it is too short it may not be explicit enough.

Remember also, when faced with pages of examples, most of which are not relevant, that a good way to sift through them is to use your search-engine’s on-page search function. Search in the language you didn’t input into the database in order to narrow down the results to your target meaning. For example, if you are wondering whether – and how – you can use 代わりに in the sense of “substitute”, you can search 代わりに which on Space Alc gives you six pages of results. You can then enter “substitute” in your browser’s page-search to look for examples of the usage you want.

Language works a lot by collocations – words that are continually found together. You make a fuss, but you throw a tantrum and you get into a bad mood. The phrase-elements are not interchangeable. Much as (Western) people may want to think that their own speech takes the form of personally unique combinations of words, in fact it is built up of countless collocations, or word-groupings that belong together and sound odd and “foreign” if different groupings are used.

Japanese is the same so what you are doing here is searching not only for correct grammar but natural collocations – the words that actually habitually go together in the language, and not only broadly mean what we are trying to say but convey the correct tone and nuance.

I confess I am a little “obsessive” (to use the pathology-based argot of current English) about looking up collocations and phrases. If I don’t remember a turn of speech from somewhere I try to find a sentence-example. If I can’t do that I usually consider re-phrasing.

This is not really “obsessive”, however. It is how you use English. In English you are continually guided by precedent. You know which words go together and which don’t.

Even sub-standard, ill-educated English goes by precedent. Very few native speakers over the age of six actually make their own grammatical mistakes. They use the bad grammar of their group. Large numbers of English speakers say “it don’t make no difference” but only infants and foreigners say “it not make difference”, or indeed any other variation on the phrase. Real, natural language is ruled by precedent at every turn.

Japanese speakers, of course, generally believe in precedent and conformity in speech. English speakers are prone to believe they hate conformity, but they are in fact just as precedent-bound as any other linguistic group.

So what I am saying is that you want a precedent for what you say. It is how natural speakers speak. Native speakers have an internal bank of precedents. We are using an artificial bank to simulate the same process and use correct, natural Japanese.

Fortunately, using this helps us to build our own internal bank too. The effort of researching the right way to say a thing helps it to stick (put it in your Anki too if it seems appropriate)

One caveat though. As far as possible, try to construct the phrase first. Putting what you want into the database in English can be useful but should be your last resort. As far as possible use words you already know even if it means simplifying your meaning a little. If you have to search in English, try to select from the results a Japanese phrase that you understand well. Don’t dump a chunk of blind-faith grammar into your writing.

There are a lot of reasons for this. Your writing should stay yours. It should be constructed of elements you understand and have control over. Otherwise you may be building a Frankenstein out of half-understood parts.

That being said, the use of sentence-searching to enhance your writing will help you to use natural, correct Japanese better than any other single tool. Precedent is how language is built up in the child mind. Using it is the most organic way of expanding your use of language.

Of course you will be using native materials to build a true bank of precedent. More and more you will know how to say something because you recall this character in that anime saying something along the same lines. Online sentence-databases are a substitute for the one we will eventually, like all fluent speakers, be carrying in our hearts (I don’t say “heads” because I believe our hearts is where we truly carry them).

Just use the database method in as pure and organic a way as possible, and you will be writing natural and organic Japanese to a far greater extent than would otherwise be remotely possible.

The Best Firefox Profanity Filter

Firefox profanity filter
Kawaikunai ne!

What does a profanity filter have to do with kawaii Japanese?

Well, coarse language is not  kawaii. Some people think the two things can go together, and if you are the kind of person who likes to put detergent powder in your cake mix I guess they can. Whether anyone sane would want to eat the cake is another matter.

If you are serious about learning Japanese, you are using Firefox. Rikaichan is absolutely indispensable. There is a Chrome version called Rikaikun, but it is very much an inferior port. This means we have no real choice of browser.

Actually I don’t have that much trouble with foul language on the Web, but then I lead a very sheltered life, even virtually. Unfortunately though, even Denshi Jisho uses it – sometimes translating neutral Japanese words (Japanese does not have curse words in the Western sense, whatever foul-language disciples try to tell you) with taboo Western ones, which, apart from anything else, is clearly just bad translation.

So for this and a few other reasons, we do need a profanity filter, and I have had difficulty finding one on Firefox. There is a strange one that does not run natively (it requires something called Greasemonkey) and is made by extreme Christians who have blacklisted just about every word that can ever be used in an indecent sense. That includes a fair bit of the English language.

Fortunately a friend introduced me to Procon Latte which incorporates a profanity filter. It is very effective and user friendly, even if you have your interface in Japanese.

Procon Latte is not just a Firefox profanity filter though, it is a family tool that blocks websites, and can be a bit painful with false positives, apparently. So unless you have children or have a problem with accidentally ending up at bad sites (I use Ghostery to block redirects), it is probably best to turn off everything but the profanity filter.

Procon-latte-firefox-profanity-filterIf you have your interface in Japanese (if not, why not?) and you have difficulty with the options panel, the general options pane should end up looking like the picture here (click for larger image).

Once you have it set up, it is very smooth and you can even customize what it replaces bad words with. The default is !*#@!# or something like that. I have it set to 汚い言葉.

You can edit this and the language-blacklist by clicking the fourth tab along the top (with the speech bubble – in Japanese 悪口リスト). The blacklist itself is far saner than the competition. It is perhaps a bit too short, leaving out some of the unequivocally nasty variations on a theme of foulness that get used by unequivocally nasty people.

You can edit the list yourself, or we have an expanded list which you can import if you wish.

To install the enhanced profanity filter blacklist:

1. First install Procon Latte itself. In Firefox go to Tools > Addons (ツール > アドオン)and search Procon Latte in the toolbar. Follow the directions to install it.

2. Download our profanity filter settings file, and unzip it.

3. Go to the very last Item at the bottom of the Procon Latte control panel (a drop-down button – you can see it on the screenshot above) select “Import settings” – in Japanese 設定をインポート – and select the file you just unzipped (it is called procon.txt).

It really is as simple as that. This will give you the settings we recommend (profanity filter only) plus the expanded blacklist which will catch more genuine foul language but does not censor everyday words. Of course if you wish you can change the settings and re-edit the blacklist yourself after you have done this to get it to your liking. Be warned: the blacklist isn’t very pleasant!

Since it is called Procon Latte we thought we should mention the cons as well as the pros (we’ll even serve some virtual latte – hai, douzo). There is really only one, other than the slightly inadequate blacklist. Like any profanity filter we know of, it cannot work in non-html environments like Twitter or Rikaichan’s pop-ups. Rikaichan actually has its own option to “Hide X-rated entries” but considering what this doesn’t hide, I’d hate to know what it does.

That isn’t really Procon Latte’s fault, and it is currently by far the best Firefox profanity filter available.

Japanese Learning Tools – the Timer

One of the tools in your Japanese toolbox – especially if you are a self-learner – should be a timer – or more than one. If you are taking classes you have the discipline of set tasks and homework. By yourself it is easy to lose track, waste time reading English sites about Japanese (gomen gomen) and generally not really know how you are doing. At least in time-terms timers can help with this.

You should set aside time for practicing things like reading and listening, and it is surprisingly difficult to accurately assess how much you are doing if you don’t time it. Right now I am having a campaign to improve my kikitori (hear-catching, or listening comprehension) which is decidedly my short suit in Japanese. I am putting in three hours every day, and I need to keep track of that time. The best tool I have found for the job is the online stopwatch.

Why do I recommend this one? There are occasions for a count-down timer (I’ll mention them in a moment), but if you are trying to track a daily target it is better to have a count-up timer. This one can be stopped and resumed as often as you want, so you can get to your target in increments. Even if you close the window it will remember your time when you go back to the site (if you haven’t stopped it it just keeps on ticking), and if you are by any chance actually dumb enough to reset the timer by accident (like – ahem – certain dolls) it still keeps a record of your recent times in the slots below the stopwatch.

Japanese learning timer

I’ll be frank and tell you that I am a terrible record-keeper. At the start of my campaign I set up detailed record-blanks for myself to record exactly what I did every day. Guess how long that lasted. Some folks can do things like that and some folks can’t. Dolls are notorious for not. However I found this timer keeps as much record as I absolutely need – an idiot-proof track of exactly how long I have spent on my campaign-listening each day.

Another good feature of this timer is that it displays the count-up in the tab, so if you are working in another window you can still see your time progress at a glance.

A count-down timer is useful when you, say decide on an hour’s reading or listening right now. You can set the timer and tell yourself you won’t stop till that ping goes. There are several good count-down timers online or you can get a physical one.

Here’s mine which I got in Japan and love to pieces:

100_3360

As you can probably guess I use it to time reading sessions – not because I regard reading as a chore, but because I have so little sense of time that it is useful to decide to read for an hour or a half-hour and actually know what is happening.

Being shaped like a bear or other cute animal is not absolutely necessary, but highly recommended.

Making Japanese Websites more Readable

Note: You can also increase text size in your browser without enlarging everything else on the page.

Comes a time when you will want to be perusing Japanese websites. It is excellent practice, of course. And you may well prefer the atmosphere of Japanese sites to the tone of the Western “internet” where even the most kawaii-oriented often seem to feel obliged to drop in some coarseness and cynicism just to show they are still part of the culture that brought us – whatever it did bring us (I am afraid my knowledge of Western pop-culture could be written on the back of a postage stamp with a stick of chalk. And I aim to keep it that way).

Well as you probably know, Japanese sites seem to have a liking for small pictures and small print. You can blow up the whole page with by using cmd-+ (ctrl-+ on Windows) several times, but that gives you a very clunky-looking page.

The trouble with not doing that is that you may well not be able to recognize the kanji at microscopic size – especially the more complex ones. When we are super-familiar with a language it is amazing how little information we need to interpret it. I can read English at much smaller sizes and with far less light than I can read French. That is because we recognize the general shapes of the words. We very rarely read all the letters of a word (even if we think we do). In a foreign language we need to see the whole word clearly. With a language like Japanese, with a different “alphabet” and those kanji, we need even more visual information. Japanese people can recognize kanji when they are blurred, when the individual strokes are scarcely distinguishable, when they are in poor handwriting or weird fonts. Or when they are tiny. We may need a little more help.

The best answer to this is a digital magnifier. I use one for the Mac called Zoom It ($2.99 on the App Store). There will be similar ones for Windows.

magnify-Japanese-text

You can change the size of the loupe to anything you want and also change the shape from round to a horizontal rectangle (good for reading a lot of text). You can also adjust the zoom from just a little to huge and anything in between.

It is a simple device, but when it comes to reading that tiny print the Japanese are so fond of, it is the best 300 yen I ever spent!

Note: You can also increase text size in your browser without enlarging everything else on the page.

The Best Japanese Dictionary Money Can’t Buy: Rikaichan overview

2018 UPDATE: Rikaichan is no longer available but you can get Rikaichamp for Firefox and Chrome. Since it is almost identical to Rikaichan, this article is still relevant.

People seem to think of Rikaichan as “that kanji-recognizing thing”. It is that of course. But it is far more. It is not only  a free Japanese dictionary, but it is what every Japanese Dictionary should be and isn’t. It is a reading-writing tool of unparalleled power and it is going to be the number one utility in your Japanese toolkit.

Why? Let me explain a little. In any foreign language you have probably tried looking up a word you find only to discover it isn’t in your dictionary. If you ask why, you are told “Oh, that’s in the passive plenipotentiary case. You have to look it up in dictionary form.”

To which you reply “but it’s a squeaking word isn’t it? People use it. I didn’t even recognize what case it was in. Why can’t I just look it up?”

Well, because your dictionary is a foot thick already. If it contained every possible case and inflection of every word it would be ten volumes. And that is what’s wrong with paper dictionaries.

Rikaichan will recognize a word whatever case it is in and tell you the case. Even if the kanji wasn’t used. Here is an example. We are worrying about the fate of a certain walking, talking mushroom:

rikaichanWhat is that word “ubawareta”? If we hover Rikaichan over it, we find out. The word in dictionary form is actually 奪う ubau, to snatch away or steal. However this is in the passive, past form, as Rikaichan also kindly informs us.

So the sentence means “Has she been snatched away by evil birds?” (I love the passive form for all the reasons Western critics hate it – but that is a whole ‘nother article).

Rikaichan also tells us that the word is transitive (vt), that it is a godan verb ending in u (v5u) and that it is a common, or popular word (P). All of these can be important pieces of information on some occasions. The P for example helps answer the question “Is this an obscure word or one I should be trying to learn?”

Now this is not just a reading tool but a writing tool. You can check your own attempts at conjugation on the fly. If you can’t remember if a ru-ending verb is ichidan or godan, just type it, hover Rikaichan, and you have the answer. Similarly it will tell you what kind of adjective a word is, whether a verb is transitive or intransitive and various other things. As you start incorporating it into your routine you will find that Rikaichan answers a good half of your grammatical questions instantly and on the fly. It will even recognize some common phrases and turns of speech.

But there is another important aspect to Rikaichan. The toolbar. The important point about this is the search box (on Mac you can add the Rikaichan search box to Firefox’s navigation bar so you don’t need the clutter of the whole toolbar – I am not sure if this works on Windows machines too). This is important because it analyzes kanji into their component parts for you. Here is an example. I entered the word 正解 seikai (correct answer or solution) into my Rikaichan search box:

rikaichan-kanji2018 UPDATE: Rikaichamp does not have the search box, but you can get this window by pressing return while the regular pop-up window is active.

You can click for a bigger view. As you see, you get the readings of the kanji plus a breakdown of their components. And as you see, I have the search-box alone installed beside the address bar of my browser, ready to analyze kanji at all times. The yellow box (I have it yellow as I find it less obtrusive) just pops up over whatever else is on screen. You just click to get rid of it.

I won’t comment too much on the importance of this right now because we talk about learning vocabulary/kanji in various other places. But as you take a logical, meaningful approach to Japanese vocabulary and how it fits together, I promise you, you are going to find this invaluable.

If you are serious about Japanese, Rikaichan is reason enough to choose Firefox browser. It is reason enough to use web-based word-processor so you can check your writing as you go. It is also a good reason to switch to the Thunderbird mail app if you use a mail app. Thunderbird also supports Rikaichan so you can use it to help you read and write your Japanese mail. You can also use the toolbar (or just the search box) to analyze kanji from within your mail app.

We will be talking more about the logic of learning Japanese and how beautifully it all fits together. You will find that Rikaichan makes all of this much easier and more immediately accessible.

Now read about Rikaichan’s big sister (still free, even more powerful)→