Learning Japanese in Japanese: The Hawk Question

learning-japanese-in-japaneseSwitching from looking up Japanese words in a Japanese-English dictionary to looking them up in a Japanese-Japanese dictionary is an important step. When and how one takes it, and whether one takes it all at once, is something I plan to write about very soon.

In fact, I planned to write about it today, but I got rather carried away on the Hawk Question.

But the reason I did is that I think it is very important. It is a kind of thought experiment, and one I first began thinking through a long time ago. To be honest I thought at first that it was an argument against early-ish J-J definitions. But as I thought it right through I realized that it was an argument for them.

Let me take you along the road I followed:

Suppose I wanted to look up the word タカ without using any English sources (it means “hawk”. I actually learned it from watching the Japanese Heidi anime).

Assuming the English word was never thrown in (which it might well be at some point) I could get through a ton of ornithological information, if I were determined enough, and end up either:

A) Still not knowing what bird it was

or

B) Saying “oh, it’s a Hawk” – in other words ending up with the result I would have gotten right off with a J-E dictionary.

Now even if my moment of revelation had come in Japanese. I would still have thought あら、それはhawkなのね!Because I have no other way of pinpointing the bird.

This is especially so because my relation to hawks is largely verbal and symbolic. I have no very clear idea what distinguishes a hawk from some other bird of prey. But the word hawk has all kinds of associations of a verbal and symbolic nature. Hawkeye, hawkish, “a hawk making lazy circles in the sky”. I don’t really know what a hawk looks like. But the word is rich in associations.

I know what 犬 is without reverting to the word “dog” because I am familiar with 犬 nature. But if, in researching タカ, I never encounter the word “hawk”, all I will know is that it is some bird of prey.

Now this could sound like an argument against strictly J-J definitions. But the more I think about it, the more I see that it is an argument for them.

It is actually better, provided I get enough cultural immersion, not to know the word “hawk” in relation to タカ. Whether it can be avoided in the long term I don’t know, but this is really a thought experiment.

If I never know that タカ means what English means when it says “hawk” (a bird I know very little about except on a verbal level), what will happen?

At first I will know very little more than that it is a bird of prey. The one I saw in Heidi that made quite an impression on her. So I will know that it is somehow a significant and impressive bird. A name to conjure with, rather than, say, a “lesser spotted marsh tern” (yes I did make it up, but you get the point). I might read some extra ornithological information, but I won’t take it in, any more than I would in English.

But, I already have one cultural association with the word タカ. It comes from Heidi. I also know it isn’t a カラス. I met a カラス very early on in my Japanese journey when it flew into the window in Karigurashi no Arietty, the first Japanese anime I watched with Japanese subtitles. Later I met them in the flesh in Japan and marveled at how the Japanese ones really are as big as the ones in Arietty, and really do haunt Shinto shrines, as they do Rei’s shrine in Sailor Moon. If I hadn’t known the English word for a カラス I would now have a standard of comparison for both birds.

But let’s stick with タカ. I don’t know the English name, so I can’t bring in all the English language associations of “hawk”. I do know vaguely how it looked in Heidi (my visual memory isn’t great); more importantly, I know its emotional impact on Heidi. I know it is a bird of prey from both Heidi and the J-J dictionary. I know it isn’t a カラス. And at this stage that is about the limit of my possible knowledge. Just as it would be if I were a Japanese child.

What is going to happen as I get more cultural immersion exposure is that I will add to this other encounters with タカ. I will read about them in books, see them in anime, note (often subconsciously) the “tone” in which people use the word. I will also encounter expressions that use タカ.

Instead of importing all the English associations of “hawk” and grafting them onto タカ, I will be gradually building my relation to the Japanese word and learning to see, hear and feel it the way a Japanese person does.

And this, in miniature, is why J-J definitions are important. No two words in different languages mean the same thing. People argue that “water” means the same as 水. In a way that is right but in another way it isn’t. 水 refers to the substance we all drink and swim in, certainly. But the word also has literary/linguistic/cultural associations and colorings that differ from those of “water”, and vice versa.

As soon as we get beyond the simplest words the differences deepen. Oishii does not mean “delicious”, for example. There is no English word that exactly expresses what oishii does mean.

Hawk and タカ refer to the same bird, but unless you happen to be an ornithologist, that is not what is really important about the two words. What really matters are their linguistic/emotional/cultural reverberations.

If you want to learn Japanese in a polyglot “fluent in three months” way, none of this matters. If you want to learn “business Japanese” (only), none of this matters.

But if you want to learn Japanese from the inside, to feel it in its true “weight” and “coloring” – in other words, to know what Japanese words mean, not what their nearest English equivalents are – then this is very important indeed.

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Tadoku Read More or Die Contest

Tadoku-read-more-or-die-contest
Read (more) or Die

This doll is entering the Tadoku Read More or Die contest for June 2015.

The idea is to read more Japanese in the course of the month than the other contestants. This doll will lose. She is a very slow reader even in English. But of course it is really more of a self-challenge.

The contest takes place via Twitter so it would be fun to follow the other contestants, though as they all seem to tweet in English, I can’t. My Eigo circuits take a long time to recharge so I have to take them out and leave them on the charger except when they are absolutely necessary. Since my Japanese is poor, that might be considered taihen. But I reflect that most dolls can’t talk at all (or have those silly circuits that repeat the same few phrases). So I know that I am very lucky.

Fortunately the contest allows anime subtitles (Japanese of course) and visual novel style games. I am not sure if one could use a text-heavy RPG on the same basis. This is good as my access to books is currently a bit limited.

My reading isn’t as wide as it should be. One problem is that once one gets to high school stories the emotional level is a bit above me. I don’t mean the language, and I don’t mean the intellectual level. I mean that the material starts to deal with feelings and reactions/motivations that I can’t really process in any language.

It is probably an unusual problem among humans, but it is actually worth bearing in mind that if you can’t process something in English you won’t be able to process it in Japanese even if you can handle the language. Also you may have the semi-illusion of processing it in English just because the words are familiar, even though you don’t really know what they are talking about. In Japanese you very likely won’t have that illusion.

If you have a similar problem (possibly in other areas) I think the best advice is to look for exceptions. For example, I can process most of Aria even though it is at a grown-up level. And – this is probably the only time you’ll ever hear me even half-recommending English subtitles – if you can understand the words but really can’t process the meaning, it might be worth using them just to find out. If you can’t process a story in English, you really are muri wo shite iru attempting it in Japanese. I don’t use English subtitles for this myself, but I have a fair idea of my own limitations, perhaps because they are rather glaring.

But I digress monsterly. I was talking about the Tadoku Read More or Die Contest (if I recall rightly). The rules are pretty complex (英語は難しいね)though they start making a bit more sense when you realize that they are codes to tweet on Twitter and the machine will then handle everything. Really very clever!

If you want to join in, take a look here.

You will need a Twitter account. If you don’t already have one (or want a different one for this), why not make it Japanese-only. If you do that I will follow you. Just tweet me (@CureDolly).

I also started a thread on the Forums where we can chat about the contest in Japanese.

So when you put down your Japanese book, you don’t need to tweet about it in “normal language”. You can make Japanese your Normal Language.

You know it makes sense.

If you have questions about the Tadoku Read More or Die Contest you can use the comment form here. I don’t promise to know the answer but I’ll try to find out for you!

japanese‐forums

How to Change Anki’s Language

Anki Language
Changing Anki’s Language. There is a way to get this, but it’s hidden!

Anki’s language can seem pretty much fixed. There is nowhere in the settings to change it.

So if you started with it in English as a newbie and now have a set of massive decks, it looks like you’re stuck with an English interface.

That can be pretty annoying once you have your computer’s system in Japanese, your browser in Japanese, your Kindle in Japanese, your smartphone and iPod interface in Japanese. This doll even worked out how to get the back end of this site into Japanese.

So it’s kind of ironic to have Anki, your biggest single Japanese learning tool (after VLC for anime, of course – that’s easy to put into Japanese), staring at you in English every day.

Fortunately, even though there is no obvious way to do it, and you have to use a slightly scary hack, it can be done.

How to Change Anki’s Language: Step by Step

1. Sync and quit Anki. If you don’t have an account to sync to, you are best advised to get one (they’re free).

2. OK. Here’s the scary bit. Read this carefully before you do anything.

What you have to do is get rid of Anki’s preferences file.

On a Windows system you will find this at:

C:\Users\…\Documents\Anki\prefs.db

On a Mac you will find it at:

~/Documents/Anki/prefs.db

But don’t delete the file. Rename it to, say, prefsold.db. That way if something goes horribly wrong you can go back to your original prefs file. You really are best advised to make copy the of entire Anki folder in a folder other than Documents. This is probably not necessary in most cases but it makes sure you are absolutely safe.

3. Restart Anki. It will start by asking you your language. Annoyingly, you don’t get the chance to change it at any other time, which is why you had to do this.

Anki will insist on syncing. Depending how big your decks are and how much audio you use (I use a ton with my Dolly Sentences Method), it can take a while.

4. Don’t panic. Once this is complete, everything may be all right but it may also not be. When I got to this point, my Anki interface language was in Japanese but my Japanese-named decks were suddenly in English. Anki had reverted to a very old state with very old versions of my decks. I still don’t know why (I’m just a doll), but it just about scared the paint off me. I have a ton of self-made audio cards and I’d rather not lose them.

Don’t worry. I just synced again and everything was back to normal except in Japanese. Be sure to sync down, not up if you have to do a second sync. Anki won’t delete anything from your computer. But make sure you have the old prefs file to return to in case things do somehow get messed up.

This is how your Anki should now look:

Anki Language

I won’t talk you through the interface as you already know it. But if there’s anything in the screenshot you think might cause you a problem, make sure you make a note of it in your English version before you make the change. Going back is possible but probably not something you will be over-anxious to do!

Interestingly, if you are dabbling in J-J definitions this will give you a little push along the way. English definitions will feel decidedly out of place in your new all-Japanese Anki!

Learn Japanese Free

Learn Japanese Free
Don’t have a penny? You can learn Japanese free.

Can you learn Japanese free? Absolutely. We can show you how to get to native-level fluency without spending a single penny.

Let’s assume you have no resources at all other than a computer or a tablet (you are reading this after all). You can’t travel. You can’t buy anything. Can you learn Japanese to complete fluency?

Absolutely you can. We’ll explain how.

It will be hard work, but any method by which you really learn Japanese, free or otherwise, is hard work, even if you spend fortunes on it. The methods we recommend have the advantage of being fun as well.

The best way to learn Japanese, or any language, is immersion. This is how children learn. But can you have Japanese immersion without living in Japan?

The answer to that is yes. The internet has made it possible. Ironically enough many learners who do live in Japan find it difficult or impossible to have Japanese immersion. This is because they are often teaching English and living in a heavily English-language environment in Japan. You could well find that your chances of Japanese immersion are better outside Japan than living there.

So if you want to learn Japanese free, how do you go about this?

Using the power of the internet it is absolutely possible to immerse yourself. YouTube is full of Japanese material. You really don’t need to watch any English media at all if you don’t want to. I don’t.

You can fill your iPod with Japanese songs and stories and anime soundtracks. Hukumusume is a really good source of Japanese stories both written and downloadable audio.

You can and should fill your ears with Japanese all the time. If you need to concentrate on something, turn it down, not off. Only when you really need to concentrate very hard do you have to stop the flow of Japanese completely.

Learn Japanese Free: how to get started

Maybe you don’t know any Japanese, or only a very small amount. Is it going to help filling your head with sounds you don’t understand?

There are different views on this but my view is “probably not”. You need to find a way to get a foothold in Japanese before you start. But don’t worry. You can still learn Japanese free. This doesn’t have to cost anything.

• First you should learn some Japanese grammar. Enough to get you started. We explain to how to do this here, with all-free resources.

• Next you should start working on Japanese anime with Japanese subtitles. Again we show how to do it with all-free resources.

• You also need to build a core vocabulary. Again, here is everything you need using free resources.

These techniques will guide so that you will be able to immerse yourself in Japanese and build your understanding step by step.

Thinking in Japanese

Japanese immersion isn’t just about reading and hearing Japanese. It is also about communicating in Japanese and thinking in Japanese. There is only one way to learn Japanese. You only learn a language by using it. Everything else is just learning about the language.

This means doing the things you used to do in English in Japanese. Watching movies, reading books/manga, playing games etc. It also means communicating with others in Japanese, and thinking to yourself in Japanese. And outer communication is the key to to inner thoughts.

This is the aspect of learning Japanese that most online, lone-learner techniques ignore. And it is very important. Language is a means of communication. The mind does not process input-only language as “real language”. You need to be using language to communicate thoughts and develop relationships before your “linguistic mind” can start firing on all cylinders.

Fortunately we have you covered there too. The Kawaii Japanese Forums are there for people to talk about Japanese or anything else, play RPGs or word games, or do anything else they want in Japanese. It is an easy stress-free, friendly way to ease yourself into the waters of Japanese communication. And (as you probably guessed) they’re free.

The Forums are the perfect bridge to get you across the psychological barrier between feeling Japanese as a “foreign language” and feeling it as something you actually live.

Learn Japanese Free – or very cheap

You probably have an iPod, phone or some kind of MP3 player already. But what if you don’t? Can you still learn Japanese free?

We can’t recommend a way of getting a free MP3 player, but you can get a cheap Chinese player on eBay or a local fleamarket for well under $5. It may lack some bells and whistles but if you want to keep the flow of Japanese into your ears and listen to stories and songs, even the cheapest player will do the job.

If you have a little more money to spare you could (if you don’t already have one) get a Nintendo DS. This game machine is “obsolete” so you can buy it very cheaply. It has a ton of excellent Japanese games with a lot of text, often with furigana. Unlike its more recent sister the 3DS it is not region-locked, so you can buy second-hand Japanese games cheaply on eBay or elsewhere.

But assuming you can’t even afford this, you absolutely can learn Japanese free.

Any questions? Use the comment form below.

japanese‐forums

Basic Japanese Grammar: How to learn it

basic Japanese Grammar
You learned basic Japanese Grammar without a teacher?

Basic Japanese Grammar is the key to learning Japanese online or anywhere else.

If you are learning Japanese online, we recommend immersion tactics like the Japanese-Subtitled Anime Method. Learning basic Japanese grammar and vocabulary won’t teach you the language. It will only teach you about the language.

To learn Japanese online (or anywhere) you need to use it, both passively and actively. Children don’t learn grammar in their own language. They learn naturally and organically.

Can you do this? Yes. But you shouldn’t.

Why? Isn’t it the best way? Yes it is. But you still shouldn’t.

Why not? Because it takes thousands of hours and true immersion. That is why pseudo-immersion methods like Rosetta Stone don’t work.

People imagine that small children learn language quickly. They don’t. Think of how long they are “studying”. Almost every waking hour for years before they become “fluent”.

Also, small children have the massive advantage of not already knowing another language. You need something to make up for this. And since you have the disadvantage of knowing another language, you should leverage its (lesser) compensating advantages. The main, and only significant, one of those is your ability to learn grammar.

Grammar is a quick and dirty shortcut. But you should use it. It is going to help you enormously when you start to actually learn Japanese online by immersion methods.

How to Learn Basic Japanese Grammar Online

Assuming you are not in a class, how do you learn basic Japanese grammar, and what do you need to learn? Let’s walk you through how we did it:

1. Get a guide to basic Japanese grammar. This can be one of the standard textbooks like Genki 1 and 2 (I used them). If you don’t have money to spend, you can use Tae Kim’s Japanese Grammar Guide; it’s free and very good.

2. Get the Cheat Sheet! Download the Nihonshock basic Japanese grammar cheat sheet. It’s free (unlike the other Nihonshock products) and it is a work of genius. Get it, print it, laminate it and keep it with you at all times. It gives you the whole of basic Japanese grammar in one two-sided sheet (plus kana and basic kanji). At first it won’t all make sense, but as you learn grammar you can use it as a quick-check reference and brush-up learning tool all the time.

3. What about exercises? Textbooks have a lot of drill exercises. If they suit you you can use them. I didn’t (I never went to school and don’t understand exercises). Also you don’t have anyone to correct them. But you might need to drill some grammar points, notably verb and adjective conjugations. The Japan Times has a barebones but really excellent system of random quizzes on everything that really needs drilling. We don’t recommend a lot of time on drills. You should plunge into Japanese subtitled anime from pretty early. But you do need to get those conjugations firm and the Japan Times quizzes will cover that.

Note that on some browsers you may need to change the character encoding to Shift-JIS in order to see the quiz text. If you don’t like the technical stuff just use Firefox which handles it automatically and is the best Browser for serious Japanese learners anyway, because of Rikaisama.

Also, read how adjectives really work. It will make it much easier than the parrot-fashion instruction of most textbooks.

3. At what stage can I start learning Japanese, not just learning about it?

How dedicated are you? I started the anime method around the end of Genki 1. Did I have enough grammar by then? No. Not to understand everything, but enough to just barely manage. I watched Karigraushi no Arietty and it took hours. But really loved. I was moved to tears by Japanese words for the first time.

Let’s be frank. The anime method is not easy in the early days and you have to be pretty dedicated to use it, even if you leave it a bit longer. Any method of learning Japanese is tough unless you are prepared to learn at a snail’s pace and only know about Japanese at the end of it. If you want to do immersion you have to be ready to ganbaru.

Look, I’m a Precure/Ninja. Just tell me the mission. How much do I need to know?

OK, hero (and I mean hero). You need to know:

Kana
(Preferably some basic kanji)

The basic particles: wa, ga, wo, ni, he, to, de, mo, ka, no
Plain present
Plain past (-ta form)
Plain negative
Plain past negative
-te form
Masu form
Adjectives present, past, negative, past negative

All this is on your cheat sheet (you do have it printed and laminated, hero?) You won’t learn it from there but it will be your friend and companion once you have learned it.

With this and some vocabulary and a huge machete (in the form of Jisho and a willingness to research phrases you don’t understand) you can start slogging through some simple subtitled anime. You will have to let some things go.

You can also wait till you know everything on the cheat sheet. I didn’t. Whether you do or not you should be continuing to learn basic grammar. You need the other conjugations (you can probably manage without causative-passive. By the time it becomes an issue it will be logically obvious anyway) and the other things in the basic Japanese grammar texts.

You may be starting to learn a lot of this ad hoc by watching and looking things up. I found that by the time I got to Genki 2, as I came to each lesson I already knew more of it than I didn’t. I was mostly using it as a grammar checklist.

Are you having problems? Need help? Any questions? Did I miss anything? Use the comment form below.

More on Japanese Grammar→

How to Build a Core Japanese Vocabulary: the Organic Way

Core Japanese vocabulary
What do you mean, goofing off? I’m building my core Japanese vocabulary — organically!

Building a core Japanese vocabulary, and then building out from it, is the biggest single task in learning Japanese. Bigger than kanji.

It’s the same in any language. The vocabulary of a language is vast. And if you go about learning it in the wrong way the results can be devastatingly disappointing.

What are the wrong ways to build a core Japanese vocabulary? More importantly, what is the right way?

The wrong way in my view is to use a vocabulary list. Any vocabulary list. And this includes things like the Anki Core 2000, core 6000 and core 10,000 decks. In the very beginning you might find a very basic word-list useful. But lists of any size are a mistake.

Let me explain why by example.

I have seen people on Forums ask questions like “How many words do I need to know before I can read simple manga?” These people diligently work through Core Japanese Vocabulary Anki decks, often building up to the “magic” 10,000 words over many months.

And then what happens? They pick up a manga or a light novel. And they have to look up every other word. It isn’t a lot better than before they did the “core Japanese Vocabulary” deck. At this stage (and I have seen this happen pretty often) they become seriously disillusioned and wonder if they haven’t wasted their time. And who can blame them?

What went wrong? Why didn’t it work? What should they have done?

The Myth of “Learning Japanese”

The big problem here is part of a bigger problem. The myth of “learning Japanese”. The idea that you prepare and prepare by “study” and then one day you know enough to actually use Japanese and do something fun.

The trouble is, that day keeps receding into an ever more distant future.

You learn usable Japanese by using Japanese, not by studying or practicing Japanese.

Let’s get back to vocabulary and see how it works:

“Maybe if I’d done 15,000 Core Japanese Vocabulary words instead of 10,000 I would be able to read that book”.

I hate to be the party pooper here, but no, you wouldn’t.

Why not?

Because everything you encounter in Japanese has a different vocabulary. The core Japanese vocabulary decks are actually crafted around newspaper frequency. They may help you if you want to read newspapers. I don’t know. I don’t read newspapers in English. I personally think that trying to read newspapers while you are still trying to acquire a core Japanese vocabulary is trying to run before you can walk.

You are much better with a reasonably simple manga, a children’s book or anime with Japanese subtitles.

So let’s take a book as an example. A simple novel series (something at a level you can reasonably hope to tackle). You look at it. You are appalled (if you have been slogging at some core Japanese vocabulary list). You need to look up every other word.

Don’t be appalled (especially if you came here first and haven’t poured months into core Japanese vocab lists!) because:

This is your “core list”.

Don’t worry about abstract core Japanese vocabulary lists. Start right where you mean to go. Pick a book appropriate to your level and start reading it. It works with Japanese subtitled anime too. That is where I got most of my vocabulary.

“But I need to look up every other word.”

Yep. And so you would (to your horror) if you’d done a huge “core Japanese vocabulary list”.

Start reading. Look up all the words you need. Enter them into your Anki.

“Isn’t that a major pain?”

Not more than slogging through an abstract “core Japanese vocabulary list”. Well, a little more because you have to make your own deck. Fortunately for you (unlike we ol’ timers who went before you) the process is now completely automated. Rikaisama will allow you to add words to Anki with a single keypress. Don’t neglect this wonderful gift.

Now you can save yourself the trouble of setting up your Anki with Rikai and making all those single keypresses when you look up a word

You can use a pre-made core Japanese vocabulary deck. But when you’ve worked through that, however many months it takes, as soon as you start on a book, you’ll still have to look up a large number of the words anyway. Lazy people take the most trouble!

Because here’s the thing. Every new thing you encounter in Japanese has its own vocabulary. There is such a thing as “core Japanese vocabulary” of course. But it is big and a lot of it does vary with what area you are dealing with.

So if you start with something you actually want to do: an anime series, a children’s novel or manga (preferably part of a long series) you will start learning the vocabulary that belongs to that area. Of course, a lot of this will be “pure core Japanese vocabulary” and useful anywhere. But just learning “abstract core” doesn’t prepare you to read any particular thing. At the end of any abstract “core Japanese vocabulary list”, as soon as you try to take your knowledge into any real area, you are barely literate. And this is so disillusioning.

But learning organically you grow into what you are reading. As you read on, you find you are looking up less and less (in the first book or first dozen or so anime episodes). When you read more in the same series you find you are looking up still less. When you have finished the series, if you pick something close in genre and type you will still be on pretty firm ground. And all the time your Japanese vocabulary is growing.

And, with the possible exception of the very early “look up every other word” stage (but I enjoyed that, and you might too, especially if you aren’t already burnt out with “core Japanese vocabulary lists”). You are having fun. And you aren’t “studying Japanese” or “practising” Japanese. You are using Japanese, even if rather slowly at first.

And here’s the most important thing:

The fact that every area of Japanese, every genre, every writer even, has a particular vocabulary, that is so devastating to “core Japanese vocabulary deck” users who spent so long “preparing” to read Japanese…

That is your best friend.

Why? Because as you read your book, or watch your Japanese subtitled anime, and then the series, and then more of the genre, you keep encountering the same vocabulary. And that cements it far, far better than Anki alone or any abstract list.

I do still recommend Anki, but you will get through it much faster this way because the words will be cemented in by real regular use, not just artificial flash-cards. You will learn the “pure core” words because you encounter them anywhere.

But the truth I believe is that there is no such thing as a core 10,000. The language’s true core isn’t that big, but its peripheral-core or penumbra-core is much bigger, and is dependent on exactly what area you are in.

Is this worrying? Not really. You will pick up the true core. You will be able to handle most regular conversation (provided you work on output as well as input) and you will gradually grow your peripheral-core vocabulary by using Japanese and enjoying it.

Not by doing some artificial “preparation stage” and continually looking at your watch wondering “how much of this do I need before I can…”

Because the answer to that question tends to be very disappointing.

How to Build a Core Japanese Vocabulary: Ninja Tips

So let’s get down to practicalities.

What are the best practices for learning Japanese vocabulary organically?

1. Choose something at your level. It can be anime. The Dolly Anime Method is ideal for this. It can be manga or books. But don’t try to run (at least not too fast!) before you can walk. Choose something reasonably appropriate to your current Japanese “age”.

2. Preferably choose a long series. That way you can get used to its vocabulary and learn a lot of words by encountering them often. This supplements your Anki with valuable organic exposure. The old Heidi anime, for example, has around 50 episodes and subtitles with furigana. I wish I’d found it earlier!

3. Pop new words into Anki using the automated method built into Rikaisama. Some people manage without Anki by pure repeated exposure. It depends how your mind works, but I think Anki is good for most people. However, repeated exposure will make things go much smoother, quicker and deeper than “raw” Anki.

4. Use mnemonics if you need them. More about this in the linked article. Don’t be afraid of mnemonics in learning vocabulary. They have a long history in classical Western scholarship. They “pin” words into place in your mind and fall away when you no longer need them. But they can really help with new words.

5. Learn Kanji with words. This is really an article in itself but I mention it here. Don’t try to “learn kanji” in the abstract, but do learn them along with the words you encounter. Break them down into their components and make little stories for them (unless you don’t need to. Some folks I know are visual-kanji wizards. Lucky them!) Either way, kanji are vital to Japanese vocabulary. They may look scary but they are really little darlings and will soon become your friends. Believe it or not, they make Japanese vocabulary much easier in the long run.

6. Don’t go overboard with Anki. You don’t need to enter every unknown word even though you will be entering a lot at first. But don’t choke yourself. Use judgement and avoid words that are not likely to recur much. Remember that Rikaisama also conveniently includes word frequency information. You shouldn’t get number-bound but it is a guideline to bear in mind (as is the likelihood of a word to reappear in the material you are reading). You will pick up some words without Anki.

All right. You’re good to go. If you have comments or questions, pop them below. I’ve probably forgotten something! Also if you’re hitting problems with this method, don’t be afraid to ask. I have done (and continue to do) it myself and helped others with it. I am happy to help you too.

With this method you can build a core Japanese vocabulary smoothly, organically and enjoyably.

がんばってね!

Three Reasons People don’t Make Japanese their Default Language

English, English, English. Enough already!
English, English, English. Enough already!

We have talked on this site about making Japanese one’s default language. Learning to think in Japanese, which is closely bound up with actually using Japanese rather than just practising it.

Most learners don’t do this. Let’s look at why:

1. They don’t want to. In my view this is the best reason not to. In fact, it is the only good reason not to.

I “know some French”, as people (wrongly in my view) say. But it is not my default language or one of my default languages. Why? Because I am not in love with French. To me it is a foreign language. It is not my language. Japanese is my language. English is just the language I happen to know well.

I can read books in French, slowly, if I have to, but I can’t hold much of a conversation. I wouldn’t say I “know French” at all. I only know about French. And that is where I am happy to be with French. If that is where you are happy to be with Japanese, that’s fine. You don’t need the rest of this article.

2. They feel uncomfortable in Japanese and want to return to “real language” as soon as they have stopped practising it. Mostly they don’t say, or even explicitly think this, but actually it is what is happening.

This is the second biggest reason after 1, and I strongly suspect that all the other reasons are largely rationalizations of this.

English (if you are a native English speaker) feels like “real language”. Anything else feels like a sort of game. That is why the internet is full of sites talking about Japanese in English.

There seem to be endless people who are genuinely fascinated by Japanese and sometimes quite advanced in it who still return, as a matter of course, to “real language” (English) in order to talk about their enthusiasm for Japanese.

Now if you already fall into category 1, this is quite natural and proper. I don’t talk about French in French either. But if you are serious about making Japanese your language, if you are serious about learning Japanese and not just learning about Japanese, you must overcome this first and most serious barrier.

This means you have to:

Step outside your English comfort zone and

Create a new comfort zone in Japanese

And, of course, at first the Japanese zone won’t feel comfortable at all. Making it comfortable — making Japanese the (or a) default language that you actually use, and not a foreign language that you “practise” — is largely a matter of changing your perspective and getting used to Japanese as a (or the) primary means of communication.

3. They are afraid of making and/or hearing mistakes.

As I said, I believe this is to a large extent a rationalization of 2. If you fall into category 1, you don’t need excuses. Embrace it, as I do with French. But if you really want to make Japanese your language, you need to be aware of the problems caused by 2. So let’s break 3 down into some of its sub-departments:

A) I am embarrassed about my poor Japanese

This can be a good reason for using it among non-native speakers. We are all learning and happy to learn together. Embarrassment has to do with seeing Japanese as “a language”. One can retreat back into the “safe haven” of English. But if one is establishing zones where Japanese is the only language, then you just have to manage it, mistakes and all.

Small children make mistakes all the time. What do they do? Cheat back into a language they know better? They can’t. They don’t have one. They just have to ganbaru. And if we are serious about this, so do we.

B) But won’t this cement my mistakes and make them permanent?

In one word, no. In five words, only if you let it.

If you are continually imbibing Japanese material, you will keep learning. All of us can look back on what we wrote in Japanese six months ago and squirm a bit at how awkward and unnatural it was. Just the way you might squirm at baby videos of yourself. We are all growing children. And gosh we can be at that bashful age at times!

But we are growing. And let me add a very important thing:

You do learn by your mistakes. What? Even when no one is correcting them? Absolutely. You can hear a particular speech form a dozen times (in anime, manga, books etc) and still not get it right when you try to use it.

But when you have tried using it, you become aware of the problems surrounding it. Next time you encounter it, you will hear/read it much more clearly and be thinking “Ah, that’s how to say it properly”. In fact, you will be doing just what small children do.

Input alone will not teach you these things. You also need output experience, however flawed, to make you aware of the issues and teach you to listen for the right things. Now, every time you encounter this speech form it will be consolidating your knowledge and comfort with it in a way that would not have happened if you hadn’t tried to output it.

Input and output are inextricably intertwined in real language. One in isolation will not make language become natural. Textbooks and classes know this and try to compensate with book exercises and stilted “conversation practice” that is kept nice and sterile and mistake-free by following the book.

But if you want to make Japanese your language, you have to step outside these artificial arenas and start getting your hands dirty with real use.

Mistakes are not inherently bad. They are part of the learning process.

C) If I am interacting with non-Japanese people in Japanese won’t I be learning unnatural ways of speaking?

This is a small problem but nowhere near as big as the problem of not using your Japanese. If you have plenty of native input (whether people, anime, novels, games, television or what), you will learn. Having Japanese moving around in your head helps you to learn. Even incorrect things help you to learn. Learning loves to have something to “stick to”. That is how the mind works.

Part of the reason people can, and often do, study so much and never really become proficient in a language (even if they can pass exams) is that the language is locked away in the little “study” compartment of the mind rather than being a part of life.

This is far, far more dangerous to your Japanese than learning wrong things. A senpai who has passed JLPT1 and is fluent tells me that her breakthrough came largely because she talked only Japanese with her German roommate. Did she hear a lot of bad Japanese? Certainly. But her mind was working in Japanese a lot of the time.

Mistakes are not some fatal disease. They pass if you give them a chance to. They sound funny to you after a while, as you grow in Japanese.

But guess what? You don’t grow in Japanese unless you are in Japanese to start with.

Japanese is like swimming. You can read about it and take dry-land instruction and play in the shallow end with water wings till the cows come home; but you won’t really start to learn it till you dive right in and get wet.

If you are ready to take the plunge, a nice safe place to start is right here.

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