Category Archives: Language/culture

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


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.

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:

(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→

I and Na Adjectives: What the textbooks don’t tell you

Enpitsu ga akai. The pencil is red and it writes its own “is”

Like most of Japanese grammar, i and na-adjectives are simple, logical and beautiful. As far as I have seen (and I don’t claim to have seen everything) introductions to grammar do not explain them very clearly.

In a way I can see why. Their aim is to “cut to the chase” and tell you how to use them in practice. The trouble is, to my way of thinking, that this cutting-to-the-chase leaves the impression of a bundle of random quirky “facts” that you have to learn, rather than a complete, clear and beautiful system.

This in turn makes it harder to learn to use them correctly by instinct.

So let me tell you what I think everyone should know from day one of using i and na adjectives (but please use this in conjunction with a conventional explanation of their actual use if you aren’t familiar with it).

1. Na adjectives are essentially nouns. They work like nouns. That is why they need “na” (I’ll explain that bit in a moment).

2. I adjectives are close cousins of verbs. They conjugate like verbs. Na adjectives don’t because nouns don’t conjugate.

3. The “is” function is built into i adjectives. Kirei (na adjective) means “pretty” (or “prettiness”). But utsukushii (i adjective) does not mean “beautiful”, it means “is beautiful”. I put this in red because it is so important.

Now something happens from lesson one that tends to throw this important point into confusion. We learn:

Hana ga kirei desu (“the flower is pretty”: na-adj)

Hana ga akai desu (“the flower is red”: i-adj)

So don’t the two kinds of adjective work identically? Don’t they both require desu?

No, they don’t. The desu on kirei is grammatically necessary. The desu on akai is only used to make the sentence desu/masu polite level. It serves no grammatical function.

That is why, in plain form, we say:

Hana ga kirei da

Hana ga akai

Hana ga akai is the grammatically complete and proper way to say it. Hana ga kirei needs da.

And now that you know this, you are ready for the next important fact.

4. Na is a form of da. “So that is why na adjectives need na! Why didn’t anyone mention that?” You exclaim. So did I.

Connecting two i or na-adjectives

So, when you connect two verb-like i-adjectives, what do you do? You do just what you do when you connect verbs to something. You put them into te-form.

chiisakute kawaii = “is small and cute” (note that converting the final い i to く ku is the “glue” that holds conjugations onto i-adjectives).

And what do you do with na adjectives? Exactly the same thing.

But you can’t conjugate nouns or noun-like adjectives. No. And that is why na adjectives need na/da/desu. And that does conjugate to te-form.

The te-form of da/desu is de. So:

Kirei de yuumei “pretty and famous”.

I think I spent about a month wondering why the de particle was used in such an unpredictable way here. Of course, this de is not the de particle. It is the te-form of that same na/da/desu that always has to appear after a na-adjective.

As you see, the process is identical. chiisai means “is small” to make kirei mean “is pretty” (rather than just “pretty”, or really something closer to “prettiness”) you have to add na/da. Both are then put into te-form: chiisaichiisakute and kirei nakirei de.

Naturally you can join an i-adjective to a na-adjective, or a naadjective to an i-adjective, just so long as you use the appropriate te-form as the connector for the first one.

These are the things I wish I had known right from the start, so I am giving them to you. I hope they make this aspect of Japanese feel clearer, easier and more kirei for you just as they did for me.

One last point that can cause a little confusion. You will sometimes see the words ookii (big) and chiisai (small) used with the final i replaced by na. These are the only two adjectives that I have seen used as both i and na adjectives. The effect of the na-form is to make them feel a little more childlike and story-bookish. As in the children’s song Ookina kuri no ki no shita de “Under the big chestnut tree”.

Language Acquisition Theories: How they can help you learn

Make Universal Grammar work for you

In the previous article on modern language acquisition theories, we learned how Universal Grammar forms the basis for a child’s initial acquisition of language and generally how that acquisition actually works. Now we can turn to the practical application of the science.

What do these language acquisition theories mean for the language learner?

First, they mean that age is not any kind of a barrier to language learning. After the age of around ten you can learn language equally well at any age. The deciding factors are motivation, amount of study, degree of immersion etc., but not age.

The current language acquisition theories also mean that you will probably not become fully “native” though you may get very near it. They also tell us what the key to this is:

The more you can map your target language onto Universal Grammar rather than onto your first language, the nearer you can become to native.

Now there is a balance here. Especially in the early stages, learning via a known language is a very important short-cut. Remember that contrary to popular belief, small children do not learn language quickly. The number of “study hours” it takes a small child to be able to express herself even rudimentarily is very large indeed. By mapping onto your already-acquired native language at first you can and do cut down this time radically.

Learning grammar rules, as I have often said, is a quick-and-dirty shortcut to learning language. But it is a shortcut and it does work.

Pseudo-immersion methods, like Rosetta Stone, which try to replicate the small-child-learning process fail for a number of reasons: there is no human interaction, it is not done for every waking hour, but primarily they fail and must fail because the user already knows Language. Whatever happens, she will be mapping what she learns onto her native language—just doing it very inefficiently. At the end of many, many hours she knows a lot of nouns, some verbs, and almost no grammar. If she doesn’t give up at that point, she will, very wisely, invest in a grammar textbook.

So do our language acquisition theories deny the possibility of immersion-learning for adults and older children?

Absolutely not. But these, I believe are the conditions:

1. If you can find a genuine 100% immersion environment—all Japanese all the time with complete isolation from your own language—then absolutely go for it. I envy you. You will learn even with no theoretical teaching—though it will take a long time and will actually be much faster if you have mastered basic textbook grammar first. But having said that, it is probably the best way to learn.

2. Failing that, what can and should you do by way of immersion, and how will it work in accordance with our language acquisition theories?

Remember that our aim is, as far as possible, to map Japanese onto Universal Grammar and not onto English. You should start by learning the grammar through the medium of English (or your native language) because that quick-and-dirty shortcut will give you a big head-start once you begin the real thing.

What is the real thing? It will vary from case to case, but our aim is to think in Japanese, not to think in English and “translate” Japanese back to ourselves. To this end, we should:

a. Imbibe native materials (not for-gaijin Japanese) as soon and as much as possible. I have talked about how to do this via anime. Personally, I do not have any recreational activities in English. Japanese to me, outside of necessary English communications (like this one), is not “a language” but Language per se. If I can’t watch an anime in Japanese (with Japanese subtitles), I can’t watch it. If I can’t play a game in Japanese, I can’t play it. If I can’t read a book in Japanese, I can’t read it. I don’t allow myself any recreational English activity.

b. Talk in Japanese every day if you possibly can. Whether it is with Japanese friends or other learners. Some people worry about talking Japanese with non-Japanese people, feeling they may “learn wrong” or pick up mistakes. If you are doing a. you should be getting exposed to a lot of correct Japanese through that. But I also believe that even if you are picking up or cementing in some incorrect language that is not nearly as important as the fact that you are using Japanese regularly. Small children don’t always speak correctly, and often their conversation is with other children who don’t speak correctly. But they do use the language because it is, for them, Language per se—the only means of communication. So it should be when you speak Japanese: even if you both know English, if you can’t say it in Japanese, you can’t say it.

Ideally, it is good to have practice partners  with whom you only ever communicate in Japanese. This is important not merely because it extends the amount of time you spend speaking it. The most important element is a subtler, but vitally important, psychological one. You are building a human relationship in which Japanese is the only language—Language per se. Language is the basis of our human relationships, and human relationships are the basis of our initial acquisition and continued use of language.

You see the pattern here. What you are doing is carving out areas of your life where Japanese is not a language but Language per se. You are not practising Japanese, you are using it. If you want to say something to your Japanese-partner friend you have to say it in Japanese because there isn’t another language. If you want to see a movie or play a game, you have to use Japanese because there isn’t another language. Your limitations in Japanese are your limitations, period—at least for the areas of your life that have become Designated J-Zones.

c. Think in Japanese. This is probably the hardest part but also the one that will most effectively map Japanese onto Universal Grammar rather than onto English in your mind. You need to begin putting your internal monologue into Japanese. If not permanently, then at least for designated periods. While this is difficult, it is very possible. You can “dethrone” English from its place as your thinking-language though it takes a lot of ganabaru and a spirit of taihen da kedo zettai ni akiramenai (I definitely won’t give up however tough it gets).

And it will get tough. English will try to hang on to its position as your representative of Language per se—or Universal Grammar—like grim death. Inch by inch you will have to force it out. The more you do this, the more your “first thought” is in Japanese, the more you are mapping Japanese to Universal Language directly rather than to Universal-Grammar-via-English.

By these methods you are forcing your mind, at least to some degree, to map Japanese to Universal Grammar (its root language model) directly rather than via English. Thus you will be using language acquisition theories to your advantage and absorbing and using the language in the most natural manner.

NOTE: Since writing this I have discovered that learning to think in Japanese is much less difficult than I made it sound here if you use the method I recommend. I don’t know if this will work for everyone but it has certainly done wonders for me.

Language Accquisition Theories and What They Mean for Language Learning

language-acquisition-theoriesLanguage acquisition theories have changed a great deal over the last half century. The most popular notions—for example that language learning ability declines with age—are based on ideas half a century old and not supported by the last several decades of research.

The idea that language-learning ability deteriorates with age is largely a myth. What is true is that very small children have one very important advantage in language learning.

Actually they are not that fast. It takes about four years to become fluent, but by no means adept, in one’s native language—and remember that children are “studying” the language almost every waking hour for that time. But their enormous advantage is that they don’t know any other language.

In some ways this is a disadvantage. It cuts out many of the shortcuts second-language learners can (and should) use—definitions of words, grammar explanations, etc. This actually does slow them down in relation to older second-language learners.

But far, far outweighing that disadvantage is the advantage that they learn language organically. They learn to associate words directly with concepts, not through an external medium (another language).

Many current language acquisition theories now accept the concept of Universal Grammar (UG). This means essentially that basic grammar is part of the inborn human mental apparatus. This theory is necessitated by the fact that small children learning language actually know more than they do, or can, explicitly learn.

What small children are in fact doing is mapping the local dialect (the native language) onto universal grammar structure that already exists in the brain. This is why, despite their great differences, the fundamental similarities of human languages are even more striking. They all have something like nouns, something like verbs, and something like adjectives, for example, and they all link them together to form descriptions of objects, events, and concepts in patterns that, while widely various, essentially work in the same way.

In the sentence:

Mary threw the ball at Susan

Mary is the grammatical subject, the ball is the direct object, and Susan the indirect object. English marks these simply by word order. If we say

The ball threw Susan at Mary

the ball has become the grammatical subject, Susan the direct object, and Mary the indirect object, and while the sentence may be absurd, it is perfectly grammatical and understandable.

German and Latin mark these three cases (subject, direct object, and indirect object) by declining the verbs with case-endings, making word-order largely interchangeable. Japanese does the same thing by appending a particle to each noun (ga,* wo, and ni respectively). But all the languages are doing the same thing. They are taking Universal Grammar and expressing it through different local conventions.

So each child begins, not with the tabula rasa (blank slate) postulated by the early-modern language acquisition theories of Rousseau and his followers in the 18th century, but with the fundamental structure of grammar in place and ready to have actual words and local structures mapped onto it.

To this child, the local words and structures she learns become the “incarnation” of Universal Grammar. She does not feel that she is learning “a language” but that she is learning Language. And in a sense, she is. She is learning, or more exactly actualizing, Universal Language in the particular form in which her local culture embodies it.

This is why the “native language” is nearly always more fluent than later-learned languages. To the mind, the native language is Language per se, while any second language is learned through the medium of the native language and therefore is mapped not to Universal Grammar but to the native language. It is a second-level mapping that can never be as organic as the primary mapping.

Many non-specialists are still influenced by 1960s language acquisition theories based on the exploded theory of the brain’s plasticity being greater early in life (it isn’t) and therefore language acquisition being easier at that time. They may point to the fact that a child learning a second or third language very early in life can pick it up to near-native level quite naturally.

The truth here is that the mapping of the local (native) language onto Universal Grammar is still not complete and “hardened”. Small children, even when fluent, still make many mistakes that even the most uneducated adult or older child never makes. Thus with the mapping still in a fluid state, a second or third language is mapped partly onto the first and partly onto Universal Grammar. In the case of a child exposed to two languages from birth, both may be mapped onto Universal Grammar and thus both will be “native”.

Now that we have looked at the basis of language acquisition theories, let us see how we can apply them to learning language in general and Japanese in particular, and especially to the problem of how we can try to map a second language to the Universal Grammar structure in our brains rather than to our first language. Because this is the key to near-native proficiency.

Proceed to: Using Language Acquisition Theories to Learn Language

*Those who would argue that if wa is used the grammatical subject has not been marked should read my essay I Am Not an Eel.

Localization: Why Anime Translations are so Wrong (even when they don’t mean to be)

Most of us here at Kawaii Japanese prefer to play games and watch anime in the original Japanese if we can. Even if no changes have intentionally been made the English translations usually have a  very different atmosphere from the Japanese.

Some of this is connected with the practice of “localization”, but a lot simply stems from the fact that Japanese just isn’t directly translatable into English. It says things in different ways to the extent that in many cases it is actually saying different things. The English translation is not so much a translation as something like what the original was saying.

Extreme “localization” means essentially pretending the Japanese characters are American and making them talk and think as if they were. You have probably seen examples of this. However, the problem is that the line between localization and translation is much thinner than many people realize. To a large extent one has to localize while one translates because what the Japanese characters are actually saying either doesn’t exist in English or can only be said by using very wordy and unnatural English to translate a one-word Japanese concept.

Even the textbooks and dictionaries are full of “localization”. The world oishii, for example, is routinely translated as “delicious” however, as we show elsewhere, that is only a rough and sometimes misleading approximation of its real meaning. I am not blaming the sources in question. A real explanation of oishii takes a small essay (which I wrote), but that is hardly practicable for a vocabulary list or a dictionary.

Generally speaking, where the source material is quite gentle, the English translation has to come over as “rougher” and more casual, because modern English just works that way. In fact once one tries to translate these things one begins to realize how far modern English forces one into certain attitudes and cultural “boxes”.

Which in my case, at least, is one reason for learning Japanese.

Just for fun, let’s take a very brief humorous caption to a picture (I love Japanese caption contests but please note that this is strictly for academic purposes and not just because Cure Dolly wants to post a kawaii picture of a tanuki holding a kitten).

I tried to translate the caption, and although it is only a few words long I found that I ran into various small problems. None of them were really serious, but multiply this by several thousand words and you can imagine how, with no conscious attempt of localization at all (which is rare in fan translations and pretty much non-existent in professional translations), the whole tone of a work is completely changed.

Tiny as this caption is, there are several nuances that are just about impossible to render in English. The English version is still fun and cute, I think, but it loses quite a bit.

Here is my English translation:

“Hey, Mama, can we keep her?”

ねぇ ne is endered in my translation as “hey” because I don’t know a closer English equivalent. It is an attention-calling word, like “hey” but its shading is a little different. Both are a bit insistent, but “hey” assumes a kind of egalitarian attention-calling, while ねぇ has a more from-below flavor to it, like a little sister pulling on one’s sleeve. It is decidedly cuter.

Actually even the first question mark (after ママ mama) represents a particular tone of ねぇ-sentence  which some of you will be familiar with. It  calls attention quite strongly before proceeding to the point. If I tried to get that across in English it would feel kind of bratty, which isn’t how it sounds in Japanese (it can, when, say, Dokin-chan does it, but mostly it doesn’t, and even with Dokin-chan it is still cute).

このこ(この子) kono ko means literally “this child” but it is not restricted in meaning to the extent that English “child” is. Maybe “this little one” would be better, but that starts to get much wordier than the original, thus losing its brevity and immediateness, and is also not a regular expression in current English as この子 is in Japanese.

飼って katte is rendered as “keep” in English and I don’t think that loses much, but 飼って very specifically means “keep and look after as a pet”. There isn’t an equivalent English word.

Taken together the English translation necessarily loses something of the flavor of the original. More interestingly though, this shows how even a very small and very simple sentence can only be rather roughly translated, even with extreme good will on the part of the translator and no desire to “localize” in the sense of virtually turning the speakers into Americans (as many Anime translations do).

This caption was not selected to demonstrate translation problems. Rather the reverse. It is a very straightforwardly translatable sentence compared to many. What it shows is how even a non-problematic sentence can’t really be exactly rendered. When you multiply this by hundreds and add in some real cultural/linguistic problems (which leave the translator with the choice of long footnotes or just re-writing the sentiments into American ones), you can imagine how far from the original even a conscientious translation will fall.

Which is one reason it is important to watch anime in the original if one can.

HabitRPG Japanese Deep Cave Adventurers’ Guild: Beginner’s Immersion Challenge

*This Challenge will be held again in September, from September 6, 2014 through October 6, 2014.

始めまして。優しくです。Pink Dragon


In August, the HabitRPG Japanese Deep Cave Adventurers’ Guild will be sponsoring its first Challenge, which will be a Beginner’s Immersion Challenge.   This Challenge is designed to assist Beginning Japanese students (and more advanced students) to start to use Japanese, rather than merely to practice Japanese.  One of the steps towards going beyond practicing Japanese to communicating in Japanese is to encounter it in the wild…in its natural habitat, as it were, rather than safely in textbooks, vocabulary lists, and learning sites.

As Japanese learners, we are very fortunate to have a wide range of media readily available in the form of Anime and manga in order to assist us encountering the language in its natural habitat.  Cure Dolly has written a wonderful article describing how to learn Japanese through Anime, which you can find here.  I use this method myself, with a few tweaks for my own learning style and temperament.  When I first started working with Anime, it took me about 6 to 10 hours to work my way through a 24 minute episode (I started VERY early in my studies).  Now I can manage most 24 minute episodes in an hour or two, depending on the complexity.

So, this brings us to the first part of the challenge, which is a Todo of watching 1 episode of Anime with Japanese subtitles during the month, slowly, looking up new words and grammar points, and entering them into your Anki (or other learning tool).  For this Beginner’s Challenge, getting through one episode in the month is sufficient.  For true beginner’s, it might take a week or two (or more) to get through one episode.  That is fine.  You can do more if you wish, and count it in your own HabitRPG list; however, only one will count towards this particular challenge.

The second part of the challenge is a Daily of listening to spoken Japanese.  There is a lovely learning site, Effortless Japanese, in which Tomoe-sensei reads stories aloud in Japanese and asks questions about the stories in Japanese.  There is also another website which has stories that you can read along with while you listen.  An example of one of the stories can be found here.  Still another option for this Daily is listening to Anime.  To get the most out of this Daily, it is best to study the material that you will be listening to ahead of time, and put new vocabulary into your Anki.  Unlike the first leg of this challenge, it is perfectly acceptable to do this Daily while engaged in other tasks, such as housework or exercise.   The minimum requirement for this Daily is one story or episode, which range from 15 – 30 minutes long.

The third leg of this challenge is designed to start one actually using Japanese.  This leg is a positive habit of writing your habits, dailies, and todos on HabitRPG in Japanese.  This will help you to work out how to express what you actually do in Japanese.  It is also helpful in learning to use collocations, or words that go naturally together.

Here are some examples that I learned my own discipline of using Japanese for my own tasklists:

ベッドを直る (なおる)。Make the bed, in English, but is literally “fix the bed.”

アイロンを掛ける (かける)。 Do the ironing, in English, but is literally, “hang the iron.”

Now you have two tasks in Japanese for free!

For this habit, you can give yourself a + for each new Todo, Daily, or Habit that you write, so long as you write that habit in Japanese.  As this is a Beginner’s Challenge, this is a positive Habit only, so you will not get any penalty for writing in English.  While you should strive to write your task in correct Japanese, if you do your best, and write it in mistaken Japanese, that is ok too.  It is your own list that only you can see!  In my own experience, when I discover I have written a task incorrectly by later learning the correct way to say that task, I tend to really remember the correct phrase!  It is all part of the fun, I think!

In the Japanese Deep Cave Adventurers’ Guild chat area, English is strictly kinshi.  For this reason, the Challenge itself will be written in Japanese.  For beginner’s, this is what it will look like:



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


日本語を聞く (“Listen to Japanese”)


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

The winner(s) of this challenge shall receive one Gem.

Good luck!


Wa vs Ga Particles: Japanese Mysteries Explained

Don't be shut out by confusing particles / All you have to do is read our articles!
Don’t be shut out by confusing particles  All you have to do is read our articles!

Knowing the full difference between wa and ga particles is tricky. The basics you can grasp in one lesson, but the subtleties take longer. In some ways they are equivalent to English “a” and “the”.

Nothing complicated about “a” and “the” you may say. You’d be surprised.

Even very advanced Japanese speakers of English sometimes say “a” when they should say “the” and vice versa. I have spent time trying to explain to Japanese speakers why they should be using one rather than the other on particular occasions – and when you actually try to codify the usages rather than just doing them by instinct you realize how extremely subtle and intricate they are.

The wa and ga particles are in some respects very similar to “a” and “the” and perform parallel functions in many cases.

Let’s look at a very simple song (which happens to be one of my favorites) and see how the wa and ga particles are used:

The song begins with two simple statements.

Anpan ni wa anko wa haitte(i)ru
There is anko in anpan

Melonpan ni wa melon ga haitte(i)nai.
There is no melon in melonpan.

The first question that might be asked is, why do we begin designating the two breads with wa?  It is often said that wa, being like “the”, should only be used for something that has already been introduced. As in:

Mukashi mukashi, chiisai onnanoko ga imashita.
Once upon a time there was a little girl.
Onnanoko wa kokoro-yasashii deshita.
The little girl was kind hearted.

In the first sentence the ga particle is used because the little girl is being introduced (equivalent to a girl) and in the second the wa particle is used because we already know who she is (equivalent to the girl).

So why are anpan and melonpan introduced with the wa particle?

Aside from the fact that the subject is what is in the breads (and you can’t use ni ga), more importantly for our purposes anpan and melonpan are things we already know about. They are not particulars but generalities.

If I say “the pencil is on the desk”  (equivalent to enpitsu wa tsukue no ue ni arimasu) completely out of context you will rightly say “what pencil?” If you don’t know any pencil I should have said “a pencil is on the desk” (equivalent to enpitsu ga tsukue no ue ni arimasu) – or more idiomatically “there is a pencil on the desk”. After this we can refer to the pencil with wa as it is a known pencil: “the pencil”.

However, if I say “pencils are useful” I am not referring to a particular pencil that you don’t know anything about. I am referring to pencils in general, which you do know about. In English we do not use either “a” or “the” for such things. We drop the article completely (often a point of confusion for Japanese people who frequently try to use “the” here).

In Japanese, the general is treated the same as the familiar so long as the general is familiar. So we can use wa with something that wasn’t introduced if we can assume the hearer knows about it.

This is what is happening here. Melonpan and anpan are general, known things, like pencils. They can take wa without an introduction.

Now there is a second wa-ga particle usage in this couplet:

Anpan ni wa anko wa haite[i]ru
There is anko in anpan

Melonpan ni wa melon ga haitte[i]nai.
There is no melon in melonpan.

Why is the wa particle used here? The usual, neutral usage is the one used in the second line. Melon is in a state of not having entered. It normally takes ga, as it does here. So why the wa particle in the first line?

If you read the two lines in English you will notice a slight awkwardness. You would expect the second line to say something like: “But there is no melon in melonpan”.  In other words to make some indication of the distinction between the situation with anpan vs melonpan, not simply to treat them as two completely unrelated sentences.

Well, that is what the first wa particle is doing. It is the wa of distinction. Often it would imply “Anko (as opposed to other things) is in it”. Here it means “Anko is (as opposed to other cases) in it. This may be a slightly loose use of the grammar – the song is quite childlike – but the meaning is clear enough.

Having established what is (or isn’t) in what bread, the singer tells us:

watashi ga ichiban suki na no wa melonpan [da/desu]
My favorite (bread) [is] melonpan

Now we have all learned to say watashi wa ocha ga suki desu. Tea is in the state of being liked. It takes ga. I am the liker so I take wa. Literally “In relation to me, tea is likeable”. Saying Arisu-san wa suki desu (for I like Alice) is a mistake as it will lead the hearer to wonder “what does Alice like?”

So why is it the other way around here?

Let’s look at how the sentence is structured. The wa-marked topic of this sentence is actually の no. It is used in the sense of “one” as in this rather textbooky interchange:

Dono enpitsu ga hoshii desuka?
“Which pencil do you want?”

Akai no ga hoshii desu.
“I want the red one“.

In the song the girl is referring to “my favorite one”, in this case meaning “favorite bread” or “favorite thing to eat”. This is the wa-marked topic of the sentence and everything that goes  before it qualifies that pronoun.

So ichiban suki na qualifies no and watashi ga qualifies ichiban suki na no. Then the entire noun-phrase, watashi ga ichiban suki na no, takes the wa-particle to mark it as the topic.

The sentence is actually of the very simple type everyone learned in her first lesson: A wa B [da/desu] –  as in watashi wa Amerikajin (desu) etc.

no is A and everything before it simply qualifies の and is therefore part of A.

B is “melonpan” with the da/desu left off.

You can never use wa in a noun-qualifying phrase. This is natural, since what is essentially only part of a noun (or noun-phrase) cannot be the topic. So anything that would normally be marked with the wa particle will be marked with the ga particle when it is in a subordinate clause like this.

The whole clause (including suki, which is here used adjectivally) adds up to a noun-phrase which is the topic of the sentence, so we use the wa particle and then say what it is equivalent to (in this case, melonpan), just as we did right at the beginning of learning Japanese.

In fact, we will usually find that even the most complicated sentences in Japanese can be boiled down to the three or four basic sentence-patterns we learned right at the beginning.

Like “a” and “the” for Japnese people, the wa and ga particles take time fully to understand, but I hope this gives you a clearer idea on some of the ways they work.

More on the wa particle: I am not an eel

I Am Not an Eel! The Mysteries of Invisible Japanese Pronouns and the Real Meaing of the Wa-Particle

I-am-not-an-eelHere it is! Using the ancient koan of the eel and the diner, the mysteries of invisible Japanese pronouns and the wa-particle are about to be finally unveiled

Enlightenment commences in 3… 2…

Watashi wa unagi desu is a common joke among Japanese learners. It is a kind of expression Japanese people often use and the idea is that it literally means “I am an eel”.

After all, Watashi wa gakusei desu means “I am a student”, doesn’t it?

What Watashi wa unagi desu really means, of course, when said in context (probably in a restaurant) is “I will have eel”. The common Western impression is that the speaker has literally said “I am an eel” but by a sort of colloquial contraction, it is understood in context to mean “I will have eel”. Even the scholarly and usually excellent  Dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar says that “I am an eel” is the literal meaning.

But it isn’t. And the idea that it is shows a quite deep failure in the average Western learner (and even “expert”) to feel how Japanese really works.

This takes us back to the famous “vagueness” of Japanese. Cure Tadashiku and I have written about Japanese ambiguity here and here and it is a real phenomenon, but not in the way that Western learners often think.

First of all, let’s look at the way nouns and pronouns are dropped (this is important to our eel as you’ll see in a minute). It is sometimes considered very obscure and confusing. It isn’t. It is really only doing what all languages do but in a slightly different way. Consider this English sentence:

As Mary was going upstairs, Mary heard a noise. Mary turned and came back down. At the bottom of the stairs, Mary saw a tiny kitten.

Is that grammatically correct? Of course it is. Just as correct as saying “watashi wa” all the time when it isn’t necessary. Would any native speaker ever say it? Of course not.

Why not? Because having established Mary as the topic we don’t keep using her name. We refer to her as “she”. Japanese refers to her as ” ” – that is, nothing, or the no-pronoun.

The absence of a visible pronoun is slightly startling to the Anglophone mind, but actually it is scarcely more ambiguous than English. The words she, he and it could refer respectively to any female person, any male person and any thing in the world. They only have any useful meaning from context. Once the thing or person is established, we no longer name it, but replace it with a catch-all marker that actually catches what context tells it to catch.

Japanese works almost exactly the same but without the marker, which is actually not semantically necessary. If a small child says:

Mary was going upstairs. Heard noise. Came back down. At bottom of stairs saw tiny kitten.

We are still in no doubt as to what she means. That is how Japanese works. Putting the unnecessary “she” marker in every fresh clause is actually a slight linguistic inefficiency.

What is the sound of no-pronoun?

But – and here is the very important point – there is a pronoun in Japanese. It is a no-pronoun. The vital point to understand is that the invisible no-pronoun works in very much the same way that English visible pronouns work.

If we don’t realize this, we will continue to think that “watashi wa unagi desu” means literally “I am an eel”.

However, in order to reach complete enlightenment on the unagi koan, we need one more piece of understanding. The particle wa.

In beginners’ texts it is often said that the wa-particle means “as for” or “speaking of”. And it literally does. The best translation is probably “as for” (which accounts for the differentiating function of wa too – but that is another question).

So: Watashi wa gakusei desu literally means “As for Hanako-chan, she is a student”.

Note that there is both a noun and a pronoun in that English sentence. The proper noun “Hanako-chan” and the pronoun “she”. It is the same in Japanese. Except, of course, that the pronoun is ” “.

Understand this and you will be a long way toward feeling how Japanese really works.

Here is the golden rule. Always remember it:

The wa-particle never marks the grammatical subject of a sentence.

Taking the wa-marked noun as the grammatical subject is what leads to the belief that the diner is calling herself an eel. It turns Japanese inside-out in our minds and makes it feel strange.

The grammatical subject of “As for Hanako-chan, she is a student” is not “Hanako-chan” – it is “she”. “As for Hanako-chan” merely defines who “she” is.

Similarly the grammatical subject of Hanako-chan wa gakusei desu is not Hanako-chan, it is ” “. Hanako-chan wa merely defies who ” ” is.

Understand this in simple sentences, and much more complex Japanese will begin to form a correct pattern in your mind.

One may think this is splitting hairs, since in this case (and in a large number of cases) the no-pronoun grammatical subject and the wa-marked topic happen to refer to the same thing, and indeed one defines the other. But that is not always the case. And that is the cause of the unagi confusion.

So let us finally return to the eel that has been so patiently awaiting us.

Watashi wa unagi desu is often spoken by a member of a party of (or at least two) diners. It means “As for me, it (=the thing I will have) is eel (as opposed to Hanako-chan who is having omuraisu)”. When spoken by a single diner it still means literally (if you want the literal meaning – which is certainly not “I am an eel”) “As for me (as opposed to any other customer) it (= the thing I will have) is  eel.

You see the desu does not refer to watashi, which, being marked with wa, cannot be the grammatical subject of the sentence. It refers to the actual subject of the sentence which is the no-pronoun ” “. The no-pronoun – just like English pronouns – is determined by context.

Literally the sentence means: Watashi wa, (” ” ga) unagi desu.

What we are talking about here is “what I will eat”. Therefore that is the “it”, the ” ” or no-pronoun, of this statement.

There is no doubt whatever about what “it” is since either it is the subject of an actual conversation (Hanako-chan has just ordered omuraisu or the waitress has asked “what will you have?”) or it is obvious from the fact that the waitress is a waitress and has approached your table. She has not come to ask you for a stock-market tip. Or if she has, she will say so. If she doesn’t it can be safely assumed that the unspoken question is “what will you have?” which determines the it of the reply. The watashi wa (which can very well be omitted, especially when the diner is not one of a party) is merely distinguishing the person (as distinct from other persons) to whom the it pertains.

It really is as simple as that.

Did you know what “it” was in the above sentence? Of course you did – even though it was quite abstract – “the gist of this article, the subject I am trying to explain”.

In Japanese I would have said

Hontou ni, anna ni kantan desu.

No written “it”, but just as clear.

Japanese Mysteries Explained: Wa vs Ga Pariticles➔

NOTE: Watashi wa unagi desu is not a particularly polite way for a lone diner to order a dish. The main use of this common pattern is precisely when there are several diners in a party, and it is used to specify what “it” (the food one will have, which is the subject under discussion, and therefore the understood content of the no-pronoun) is in relation to a particular member (hence the use of watashi wa).

Japanese Counters for Dummies: they’re easier when you know how!

Ippiki, nihiki, sanbiki…

Japanese counters can seem very difficult at first. You can’t just say “two pencils”, “seven cats” or “ten sheets of paper” the way you can in most languages. You need to know the counter for long round things, small animals and thin flat things respectively.

Not only that, but the pronunciation of the counter changes depending on what number it is used with. The counter for small animals is called hiki but in fact:

1 cat is ippiki
2 cats are nihiki
3 cats are sanbiki
4 cats are yonhiki
5 cats are gohiki
6 cats are roppiki
7 cats are shichihiki or nanahiki
8 cats are happiki
9 cats are kyuuhiki
10 cats are juppiki

And then different counters have different patterns of sound-change.

How Counters’ Sound Patterns Transform

It looks crazy, but in fact it is a lot simpler than it seems. Once you learn how it works you will be able to figure out how nearly any counter sounds for any number.

Look at the sub-heading above and commit it to memory. Here, I’ll give it to you again:

How Counters’ Sound Patterns Transform

You need to remember this phrase. Why? Because actually there are only five types of transforming counter (only?… no don’t panic, I’m going to help you). They are counters that start with the consonantal sounds H, K, S, P and T. That is why you should remember that phrase – How Kounters’ Sound Patterns Transform.

Or, if it is easier, you can remember this way: it is the “hard”-consonant counters that transform, not the “soft”-consonant ones like mai, rin, wa and bu. This makes even more sense when you see how they work, since (with a single maverick exception) they always transform by sharpening or doubling the hard sound – you actually can’t double soft consonants in Japanese. You never see a small tsu before m, b, or w.

Now, once you know that, you will be pleased to learn that the transformations are very regular. What throws people, I think, is that single maverick we spoke of before. H-row sounds turn to the B-equivalent when paired with san (as in sanbiki)*. But actually that is the only major irregularity.

Other than that all the HKSPT counters modify in the same way. In a few cases the modification is optional, but you can always use it without fearing to make a mistake.

So, leaving out the H row for a moment, all the other mutating counters  (K,S,P,T) follow the same pattern:

1. They all keep their base value for all numbers other than one, six, eight and ten (jump from one to six, then every alternate number).

2. As for those four numbers, they all do the same thing:

They simply drop the second syllable of the number and double the first consonant of the counter. So ni-ko and san-ko but ikko rather than ichi-ko and jukko rather than juu-ko.

The only regular exception to this is that the S and T counters don’t mutate for 6 (roku) – i.e. no ross- or rott-.

The H-row is really less puzzling than it seems too. It only changes to the sounds that are made with the H-row by adding diacritical marks so, in the case of ひき hiki, it becomes びき bikki (for that maverick san only) and っぴき ppiki for the regular doubled-consonant numbers, one, six, eight and ten. Since you couldn’t actually have hhiki, that isn’t very hard to remember.

Now I won’t pretend there aren’t a few other irregularities with counters (hun, the counter for minutes, for example doesn’t mutate on 3, so it is sanpun rather than sanbun). But this pattern will guide you through most of the ones you are going to use. Even Japanese people mostly don’t use the more obscure counters.

The important thing to realize is that it is a pattern that works nearly all the time, not just a set of confusing random sound-changes. And if the counter does not begin with H,K,S,P or T, it will not have sound-changes at all.

Remember that you don’t need counters if you use the native Japanese counting system – hitotsu, futatsu mittsu. However you should know and use the basic counters like hon, hiki, hai, mai, ko, etc

If you work through the explanation on this page (it sounds a bit more complicated in text than it really is), the pattern of the sound changes should fall into place for you and the whole thing will feel much more intuitive.

* There is a sound-logic to the san-b transformation too, but for our practical purpose here it is simpler just to think of it as a maverick.