Category Archives: Vocabulary

Hot Summer Kanji!

This two-minute video is based on some Japanese wordplay.

Just to clarify the words in advance:

蒸し暑い – mushi-atsui is a word that gets used a lot in the Japanese summer. It means humid-hot – and that’s what the Japanese summer is like!

It actually has nothing to do with 虫 mushi – bugs, but the association of the two things is so close that it makes a very good mnemonic.

As for 無視 mushi meaning to ignore or disregard, well, that’s just another word altogether.

So now you’re clear on the real meanings of the words, sit back and enjoy this two-minute episode of Kinoko Channel where our heroine is menaced by flying kanji!

It should fix the words in your mind forever!

Japanese Pronunciation Challenge: Top Ten Difficult Words!

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

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

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

Japanese pronunciation challenge transcript

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


Minasan konnichiwa. Kinoko desu!


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


My Japanese is shamefully poor.


But I will try hard and give it a go.


Deep breath!


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


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


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


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


Is tsuittaa correct?


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


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


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


(Announcer) No. 3.


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


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


(Announcer) No. 4.


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


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


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


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


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


Yes, ma’am. Roger that.


How did I do? Please comment.


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


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


Bye bye!

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


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

Japanese-only version




























How to Add Sample Sentences to Anki Automatically

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

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

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

Important: Rikaisama is no longer functional, but the same direct -to Anki and sentence-capturing functionality can now be found in Yomichan (actually more easily). Since the functionality is essentially the same the rest of this article (after the screenshot below) is still relevant.

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

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

Click to enlarge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

click to enlarge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

湿る vs 濡れる Shimeru vs Nureru – the wet kanji

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So let’s get started!

Transitive and intransitive verbs – what they are

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

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

自動詞 jidoushi – self-move word (intransitive)

他動詞 tadoushi – other-move word (transitive)

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

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

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

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

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

But there are various pairs like

負けるmakeru – “lose”


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

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

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

The Three Laws of Japanese transitive/intransitive verbs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are other patterns such as

落ちるochiru – “fall” 落とすotosu – “drop”

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

Here is the Second Law:

Verbs ending in aru are intransitive

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

The most regular pattern here is arueru

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Third Law of Japanese Transitivity is:

-u→-eru flips transitivity

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

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

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

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

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

However, there are some tricks that can help us.

Untangling the other Japanese transitivity pairs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

く、ぐ ku, gu → ける、げる keru, geru

u → えるeru

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

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

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

The Basic Concept “rule” for Japanese Transitivity pairs

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

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

Let’s take some examples:

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

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

Conversely, with:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to learn transitive and intransitive verbs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Key to Increasing Your Japanese Vocabulary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

新車 shin-sha – new car

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From there we find natural compounds like

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

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

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

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

人魚 nin-gyo – mermaid (person-fish)

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

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

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

入学 nyuu-gaku – entering a new school or university

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further reading:

How to Build a Core Japanese Vocabulary the Organic Way

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

The Dolly Dialogues: Do Japanese learning methods stand the test of time?

sound-sisters-timeRecently Cure Dolly has been very much immersed in finishing and preparing for the official launch of her new book Unlocking Japanese, but she found time to give an interview to Cure Tadashiku.

Looking back on some of the Japanese-learning innovations introduced by this site, Cure Tadashiku asks “Have they stood the test of time?”

Cure Tadashiku: So are you really a nine-inch plastic doll?

Cure Dolly: You can see for yourself, can’t you?

Cure Tadashiku: Yes, but the readers can’t.

Cure Dolly: Let’s leave some things to their imaginations.

Cure Tadashiku: Ryoukai. Let’s look at a couple of the innovations you have brought to Japanese learning and see how they have stood the test of time. First, your Dolly Sentences Method.

Cure Dolly: I wouldn’t really call that an innovation. It is a little thing I did for myself and I don’t know how many other people ever picked it up. As much as anything, I hope it gave people their own ideas on the creative ways you can use sound in learning.

Cure Tadashiku: Do you still use the method yourself?

Cure Dolly: No.

Cure Tadashiku: Are you glad you did use it for a while?

Cure Dolly: Absolutely. It was invaluable to me at the time. Some things you graduate from once you no longer need them. Hearing all those sentences really helped me to understand how words are actually used. I rely even more heavily on massive input now, but I still use a variant of the Sentences method.

Cure Tadashiku: What kind of variant?

Cure Dolly: I only have one Anki deck now, which is basically vocabulary. When I enter a word that needs it, I also pop in an audio sentence, sometimes even two, to clarify how the word is used. I always include the word’s own audio too of course. My Anki is very audio-oriented. Occasionally I even pull the audio sentences out of my old Dolly Sentences deck. There are better TTS services now, but Kyoko still holds up pretty well.

I intend to write something soon about integrating sound sentences with Japanese-Japanese definitions and creating an audio-based immersion-support deck.

Cure Tadashiku: Do you still recommend the method to learners?

Cure Dolly: It is maybe a slightly odd method. Cure Yasashiku and you have never actually used it, I know. I would say to our readers that if it feels like a good fit for the way you learn, please give it a try. It was absolutely invaluable to me. I don’t use it any more, but I am extremely glad I did use it for about a year.

Maybe when one gets to the stage of doing Japanese-to-Japanese definitions, if one chooses to use audio-based immersion-support Anki methods, that is the point when the DSM becomes redundant. In any case, audio-based J-J will probably be used by a wider range of learners.

Cure Tadashiku: Out of interest, when did you drop it and why?

Cure Dolly: Last time I was in Japan, I was doing all kinds of things and found it hard to keep up with Anki. (I did do some every day to keep them down, but in the last few weeks that got more difficult.)  When I got back I had a backlog on both decks and I decided that one deck was enough. The sentences method had served its purpose and the time would now be better spent on real immersion.

I hope to be saying the same about the vocabulary deck eventually! Study aids aren’t supposed to be life partners. They are there to get you to the point where you don’t need them any more.

The Sound Sisters

Cure Tadashiku: How about the Sound Sisters? You introduced them nearly two years ago and recently created a free deck to help people learn them. But do you still use them yourself, or have you graduated from them too?

Cure Dolly: The Sound Sisters never grow old! Well, maybe they will one day, but actually I would say I use them more now than ever. Rather than growing out of them, one grows into them.

Cure Tadashiku: Would you care to explain that?

Cure Dolly: Yes. They are useful right from the start for all the reasons I have explained elsewhere. They do take a while to get to know really intimately, so your knowledge of them keeps on deepening and becoming more useful.

But more than that, they help to unlock the sound-aspect not only of kanji but of the Japanese language as a whole in one’s mind. I am continually discovering new “half-sisters” – sound elements that aren’t regular enough or widespread enough to include in the Complete Sound Sisters Deck. They are incalculably  useful, but even they aren’t the whole story. By using the Sound Sisters (and thereby becoming more aware of half-sisters), you become increasingly alive to the way sound works in Japanese. It is incredibly subtle and wonderful. I can often guess what a word means from the way it sounds now.

I’d love to write something about this some time, but right now it seems too subtle to formulate. Maybe it is something you “just have to get a feel for”. But then people have said that sort of thing about more apparently rarefied aspects of Japanese grammar and we have managed to pin them down to easily understandable concepts. So maybe we will end up with some similar breakthroughs in Japanese sound-association.

In any case, you do develop a sense of the “sound and feel” of Japanese, and I am certainly not saying that this won’t happen without using the Sound Sisters. Immerse in Japanese for long enough and it will.

But the Sound Sisters can give you a turbo-charged head-start in the process. And yes, I certainly still use them every day.

Cure Tadashiku: ありがとうございました。

Cure Dolly: どういたしまして。ところで、9インチなんかじゃなくて、12インチなのよ。

Cure Tadashiku: ごめんね。

The Magic of Sound – Harness audio power to turbo-charge your Japanese!

Anki audio-immersion
Deepening your audio immersion

We learn language with our ears.

We all do.

Long before children learn their first あ、い、う、え、お, or A, B, C, they are already fluent in their native language. They understand the grammatical structure and have relatively large vocabularies.

Indeed, the very concept of written language and all that is involved in using it is explained to them in spoken language.

Our ears are made for learning language, and we need to harness them at every stage in the process.

When learning vocabulary we should be hearing it, preferably spoken by a native Japanese speaker, every time we review it. This not only tightens our grasp on the pronunciation, but activates those audial areas of the brain that are designed for language-learning.

How easy is it to arrange this?

Fortunately, it is now very easy.

Rikaisama has a huge database of readings recorded by Japanese speakers for most of the words in its dictionary (you can hear them by pressing the F-key while the Rikaisama definition-box is active).

You can make use of this wonderful free resource to enhance your learning every day.

If we use Anki to review and consolidate the vocabulary we learn by immersion, we can easily add sound with the same one-click real-time import process we use to make our cards (learn about real-time import here).

That is the good news.

The bad news is that it isn’t completely obvious how to set it up in the first place.

However, it isn’t difficult once you know how, and once it is set up, it works automatically.

So, here’s how to set it up.

How to add audio to Rikaisama-Anki Real-time Import

Stage 1

The first (and perhaps least obvious) stage is to make sure your audio is stored in Anki’s media folder (it won’t be by default):

1 Open Rikaisama preferences

2. Open the Clipboard and Save tab
How to add audio to Rikaisama-Anki Real-time ImportClick to enlarge

3. Click the button beside the Saved Audio field and navigate to the media collection in  your user-name folder inside the Anki folder. If you have more than one Anki user name make sure you use the folder for the right one!

Note: This will be called and the Anki folder will usually be in the Documents folder on your computer. If you have trouble locating it, do a search for

Stage 2

The next part is to place the saved audio in your card. For this we click the Anki tab and we will see the following:

How to add audio to Rikaisama-Anki Real-time Import2Click to enlarge

The Save Format field tells Rikaisama what to put in your card and where to put it. If you have the simplest format, it will read $d$t$r$t$n. This means “put the word in the first field (the front of the card), put the reading in the second and the meaning in the third (both on the back). The $t code tabs to the next field.

So all you have to do in theory is add $a for audio wherever you want it.

Unfortunately, that won’t work. You have to add [sound:$a] in order to get the audio to play.

So, if you have the basic set-up just edit $d$t$r$t$n to read $d$t$r[sound:$a]$t$n. This will place the audio in the Reading field on the back of the card. I put it there because it means the audio for the word will play before any other audio I add to the card.

And that’s it. You’re done. You now have automatic audio added to every card.

Of course if you prefer you can put the audio anywhere you like, including creating a special Audio field. But the method above is simple and it works.

Now every time you make a card, it will have the audio placed on the back and you will hear the word or expression read aloud by a Japanese speaker when you turn the card over.

This helps greatly in activating the automaticity of language in your mind (what you have in your native language that makes you understand words without thinking about them).

Every time you see a word you also hear it, not only in subtitled anime, but also in your Anki reviews. Your mind is able to merge the visual and audial aspects of the word into a single, natural whole just as it does with words in your first language.

We can go a lot further with unlocking the Magic of Sound in our Japanese learning, and I will be talking in depth about that in the next article in this series.

The next steps involve a little more work and start to introduce the concept of Japanese definitions. However, even if you are not ready to make the Big Shift to Japanese definitions, having sample sentences spoken aloud in Japanese  can make a huge difference to your understanding and appreciation of the words you are learning.

In our next article I will show you how to auto-add sample sentences to your Anki cards, how to hear them spoken aloud during reviews, and how to use spoken-aloud Japanese definitions.

Even if you aren’t ready for full Japanese definitions yet, there are still ways to make pragmatic partial use of them that can boost your Japanese enormously.

What we have learned today is simple and automatic. Once you have done the set-up process above, all your new auto-made cards will have audio on the back without your doing another thing.

Kind of amazing, isn’t it? But it’s just the beginning!

This article is part of the Anki Master-Class Series

Also in this series:
Add example sentences with the same single keypress used to make your Anki cards

Anki for Self-Immersionists: the Master-Class

anki-japanese-immersionUpdated Dec. 2017 due to death of Rikaisama

Anki, the free intelligent flashcard system, is the primary tool for those learning Japanese by self-immersion.

For many of us, once we get past the stage of learning basic grammar, Anki is about the only actual “study” we do on a regular basis. We are learning Japanese essentially by massive input .

And for many of us, Anki is the glue that holds the method together. With Anki we make sure that what we are learning naturally, by exposure, sticks in our minds between exposures to a given word or form of expression. The two work seamlessly hand-in-hand.

However, the use of Anki in real self-immersion is a little different from the way many learners use Anki. Here are some of the key aspects of our method:

Learn from real, passionate encounters. Then use Anki to hold the experience until the knowledge becomes permanent. This means using Anki as a secondary adjunct to immersion. We don’t use pre-made decks because our first encounter with words should be real, “live” ones not abstract lists.

Making your own decks too much work? Fortunately the process can now be pretty much fully automated with Yomichan.

Unlock the Magic of Sound. Learn with your ears. Sound can revolutionize the way you learn. Use Anki’s sound capacities to the full. And learn the secrets of brevity and efficiency that allow a word and its (Japanese) definition to “ring together” in your mind’s ear. This is how children learn. You can use it too.

The gentle way to J-to-J. Scared of Japanese-to Japanese definitions? Don’t worry. A pragmatic approach can ease you in without getting caught in endless dictionary dives. It will make your Japanese immersion work seamlessly and make your learning far more effective. But we will show you how to ease it in at your own pace so that struggling with J-J never monopolizes time that should belong to happy, natural immersion.

Anki on steroids, but not for geeks. If you want a lot of technical stuff about Anki or how to understand the statistics, I can’t help you. I never even look at the stats myself. Anki-for-Anki’s-sake doesn’t interest me. But if you want to know how to turn Anki into a far more powerful assistant to your Japanese self-immersion, that works with a minimum of time and effort (because we want to give our time and effort to immersion itself), we have some power-techniques that will blow your socks off!

The basics – your personal immersion Anki deck

Live encounters are the best way to learn words. With Immersion-driven learning, one picks up one’s vocabulary from Japanese-subtitled anime, books, manga and other sources and enters it into Anki. In many cases, I remember the context in which I first learned a word whenever I encounter it in Anki (until it becomes a true part of my vocabulary).

This is a very good sign. It means that the word is not a “list word” but an “experience word”. It will stick better if it is tied to a real experience, and you will also have the first step toward knowing how it is actually used (including what kind of people say it under what circumstances) rather than just how a dictionary defines it.

Of course you need many more real encounters before you truly know the word. No amount of Anki will make you know a word. Because knowing a word means getting used to it as a real living part of actual communication. Anki’s job is not to “teach us words”. It is to hold the words we learn in place so that they don’t slip through the gaps between real experiences.

If you don’t ever encounter a word outside Anki, don’t expect to “learn” it from Anki. Eventually it will be pushed back two or three years and when you finally see it again you very likely won’t remember it.

But guess what? If you haven’t actually used the word, passively or actively, in two or three years, you didn’t need it, did you? For the very rare times you encounter it there is always a dictionary!

To a real immersionist, Anki isn’t some game of acquiring words. It is the tacking-stitch that holds the experience in place while real life (immersion-life) grafts them into our actual living vocabulary. It is like a crutch that helps us walk until we get stronger. It isn’t a substitute for our legs!

So, how do we build our deck without spending excessive time on it? Yomichan makes the job very easy. If you don’t know it or haven’t installed it you should do that now!

You will also need to add the AnkiConnect plugin to Anki. I won’t go over the basic process as it is explained fully in the Yomichan documentation.

Once you have the basic set-up, all you need to do to is look up a new word on your computer. Usually I type it into a dictionary, but having done so, I don’t necessarily even hit “Enter”. I just run Yomichan over it. If I am happy with the definition I press the import to Anki button, and that’s it. A new card has appeared in Anki.

Of course if you are reading something online, the process is even easier, since you just have to hover over the word as you read and hit the R button to create a card.

So making your own deck really isn’t any kind of a drain on your time. We can also set things up so that that same single keypress enters audio of  a native Japanese speaker saying the word into your Anki. Typically I have it set up to put the audio on the back of the card along with the reading and definition. Only the kanji is on the front.

It isn’t immediately obvious how to get automatic audio, but I explain this in the next article in this series along with a lot more information about the Magic of Audio and how it can greatly enhance your Japanese learning. There are a few steps in setting it up, but once they are done the process is automatic and you never have to think about it again. Don’t worry the doll will take you through it.

If the word is one that is usually written in kana alone (for example ありがとう is rarely written 有難う).

If you are using the basic J-E dictionary, Yomichan marks words that are usually written in kana alone with (uk), (if you aren’t you can get this information from Rikaichamp or Jisho) so you know which ones they are. You may want to make your own decision based on your experience, but the (uk) marking is a useful extra guide.

Japanese-Japanese definitions are not as easy as they used to be in Rikaisama. You can paste them in from an online J-J dictionary (Sanseido dictionary is good for concise definitions). You can actually get Yomichan working in J-J but I can’t give advice on that. You may want to start your own research here.

This is all you need for making basic cards. You really don’t need to rely on pre-made decks. In the following articles I am going to discuss some extra things you can do such as automatically adding sample sentences and adding extra audio – having the definition and/or the sample sentence spoken aloud.

These techniques make the card-making process take a little longer (though it is still simple once the basic setup is complete) but they can do a lot to help your understanding and memory of the word and its natural usage. I dedicate a full article to the Magic of Sound in Anki.

However even if you decide to adopt these techniques you can always make a single-keypress card (including audio of the defined word or expression) any time you want to.

If your “study” method is fundamentally immersion, then this is the way to go. You learn words not from Anki but from your immersion material. Your deck is your deck, based on your living day-to-day Japanese experience. Like a child learning language, you learn from life – in this case your immersion-Japanese life – not from lists (including pre-made decks).

One final tip that belongs in this first overview article: you can sync Anki on your different devices. In my case while I look up words and ping them into the deck on the computer (you need to do this) nearly all of my reviewing is on a mobile device.

With this method you can review at odd moments throughout the day, which can help to overcome the potential time-consuming aspect of Anki. You don’t need to be sitting at a desk concentrating in order to review your deck. You can do it on a bus or while brushing your teeth or walking – especially if your interaction is 80% audio-based as mine is. In fact getting used to recognizing words while your mind is subject to other stimuli isn’t a bad idea.

If you have problems or questions or want to share your own experience, please feel free to pop a comment below.

Next in this Master Class:

Unlock Anki’s hidden Automatic Audio function to turbo-charge your Japanese learning.

Add Example Sentences with the same single keypress used to make your Anki cards

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

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

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

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

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

Watch the Particles

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

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

Ki ga suru

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

Ki ni naru

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

Ki ni suru

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

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

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

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

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

Japanese does make sense!

Do you want to learn more about how Japanese is logical, beautiful and far easier than the textbooks ever tell you? Read Cure Dolly’s groundbreaking book Unlocking Japanese. You can read it in an evening and Japanese will make sense for the rest of your life!