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Archive for the ' Beginner' Category

2/27/2008

What, you forgot it? Good!

When I wrote that current spaced repetition software all suck, I wasn’t saying that you shouldn’t use them or that the idea of spaced repetition itself sucks. To make an analogy, Linus Torvalds said subversion sucks in a talk about git and while I found his talk interesting I still continue to use subversion. It’s because his philosophy and needs for source control are different from mine. Just like Linus, I think that the current SRS can be so much better based on my needs and philosophy (the difference being he actually built the software while I’m just all talk).

I have a basic and simple philosophy that learning languages should be simple and enjoyable. Current SRS are all based on the idea of study and review. I don’t like “studying” because it sounds like work and flipping through cards is work to me (and boring work at that), especially when I have to make them myself. I’ve learned enough about myself to know that I could never stick with it. But hey, I’m just talking about me personally, so don’t let me discourage you from finding the techniques that work for you. In fact, I encourage you to try out various different methods of study to find what works best for you. I went through the same experience to learn enough about myself to know what works for me.

Personally, I think spaced repetition works naturally if you have reading material with words that are spaced out. I’m talking about graded readers that naturally introduce new words while reusing old ones. You can even throw all the vocab in an SRS as a bonus but the most important part that’s missing in current SRS is the material; you have to find it yourself. The simple reason is because software is made by programmers not writers. That’s why my idea of a great spaced repetition program is not one that flips through words but one that allows use to share and find material that interests us in the language and at the right level of difficulty. Flipping through words based on the material is simply a nice bonus.

I love the concept of spaced repetition and enjoy the effects every time I learn a new word without even realizing it. This may sound counterintuitive but forgetting a word really is the best way to learn it. If you forget a word it means that you’ve already learned it and spaced enough time to forget it again. It’s hard to explain without experiencing it yourself but the more times you think, “Oh I can’t believe I forgot this word again!” the faster you end up memorizing it. So you shouldn’t feel discouraged when you forget a word, you should be thinking, “Yes! I forgot it! This is really helping me to remember it for good.”


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1/31/2008

Final thoughts on remembering the kanji

In my first post about Heisig’s Remembering the Kanji (RTK), I invited people to convince me that the book can teach you to “write kanji like a native” as claimed in the book’s introduction. As it turns out, it all depends on how you define, “write kanji like a native” and the introduction needed some reading between the lines. (Only being able to write the kanji without knowing the reading or any words that use the kanji doesn’t count as “writing like a native” to me.) But in the end, my challenge was a bit unfair because no single book can really teach you how to write kanji like a native without turning into a dictionary, and in this age of computers, it’s debatable whether even many natives can write kanji like natives.

Though it’s obvious that the book alone is not enough to truly master kanji, many of you gave excellent comments on how it helped you retain the kanji that you’ve learned and at least got you on the path to mastery. Reading through the comments I think I have a better idea of who the book is for and I’d like to share my thoughts in this last post about RTK.

I stress that my opinion is only one of many and if you are considering buying this book, I recommend reading through the comments to form your own impressions of whether this method will work for you. You can find them here and here and maybe even on this post later on. Thanks to everybody’s comments, I think those posts have become a great source of discussion and information for those considering the Heisig method. Also, there’s no harm in trying out the first half of the book which is available for free.

How I learned Kanji

Before I talk about the book, I think it’s worthwhile to discuss how I learned kanji in order to have an alternative method to compare against. I may have mentioned this before but I never studied kanji; I studied the words that are made from kanji. For instance, I learned 「力」 as 「ちから」 but never as 「リョク」 or 「リキ」. I only learned the other on-yomi when I learned words like 「努力」 and 「怪力」. The key to learning these words is, of course, reading. Therefore, it’s very important to find reading material that is interesting and appropriate for your level, something that is a lot harder than it should be.

The advantage of this method is that you end up creating many associations with real words without having to waste time on individual kanji. The first association is, of course, the context of the text from which the word came from. The second comes gradually as you build up a library of words that share the same kanji. Once you get the hang of kun vs on reading and how the voicing changes based on the sounds preceding it, the readings become really easy to memorize as they are shared across different words.

For example, when I see 「試」, I think of words like 「試験」、「試作品」、「試す」 and even other similar kanji like 「式」 and 「武」. As I learn new kanji, I also reflect back and review not only words that share the same kanji but also other kanji that look similar. In this manner, I noticed that 「剣」、「険」、「験」、and 「検」 all have the same reading. It took a while but I finally remembered that the one with “horse” means “testing” based on words like 「試験」 and 「経験」 while the one with “tree” means to “examine” based on words like 「検査」 or 「検索」. Learning radicals, which are simpler kanji such as 「馬」 and 「木」 is also very important because they form parts of many other kanji. By learning radicals you can start to see little mnemonic patterns such as realizing that 「忘」 consists of a dying heart (心 and 亡).

There are mainly two ways to strengthen your memory, either by strengthening the path to a memory with repetition or by creating many paths with different associations to the same memory. With the method above, you can create associations with words that share the same kanji or radicals that form the kanji. You can also reinforce the memory with repetition by reviewing them every time you run into a new word that share the same kanji. Also, the benefit of reading is that by seeing the same words used in different contexts, you get both repetition and new associations. Basically, reading does make you smarter just like they always said! (Or at least teach you more vocabulary.)

Why you might need RTK

Now let’s get into problems with my method and how RTK might help.

The first problem I’ve learned from reading your comments is that the method completely fails if your brain isn’t wired to see these connections as you go. For instance, if you learned 「試験」 and later ran into 「経験」 in your studies, the assumption is that you’ll be able to recall 「試験」 and make the connection that they both use 「験」. If this does not happen, you don’t get the association which means you’ll have a really difficult time learning the kanji or the words that use them.

Now, I’ve had times when I couldn’t remember exactly which word I learned used the same kanji, I just knew that it looked awfully familiar. One trick I would do is look up just the kanji in WWWJDIC and scroll through all the words that use the kanji until I recognize the old word I learned before. Even with this trick, if all or most of these associations don’t come naturally to you, RTK might be just the thing to help you.

By systematically going through each kanji and assigning a story (basically a mnemonic), RTK can provide you with the glue to jumpstart your associations. For example, let’s say you’ve gone through the whole book and memorized every story for each kanji. Now suppose you see the word 「省略」. Now you’ll recognize 「省」 as “focus” from story 124 (page 61) as, “…picking up a few things and holding them before one’s eye in order to focus on them better”. So when you learn another word such as 「省電力」, even if you couldn’t make the association with 「省略」, you have the story to serve as the glue to link the kanji together.

Now I would argue that it’s better to think of 「省」 as a combination of 「少ない」 and 「目」 instead. In addition, I think memorizing 「省く」, which means “omit” is a better use of your time than memorizing “focus”. However, all that assumes that you can make those connection on the fly as you are learning these words. RTK creates the associations systematically for you and provides the glue to help you link kanji together by having the single story to link them.

Of course, no one could claim that this “bootstraping” could magically teach you how to write all the vocabulary that contains kanji, which is why I was so critical of the book and it’s claim to teach you to “write kanji like a native”. Nevertheless, my personal dislike for the wording in the introduction has no bearing on the value of this resource. If you need it, RTK can help you start creating associations and get you started in seeing the patterns that are not obvious when you’re just starting out.

Finally, based on your comments, there seems to be a great deal of psychological benefit to tackling a text full of kanji that you at least recognize instead of a page full of crazy Chinese symbols. But that issue stems from a larger problem of the difficulty in finding adequate reading materials.

The root problem

The main problem with my method is that you can’t just start reading a novel to learn kanji without becoming frustrated at every other word containing a completely new kanji. A big part of my method is actually enjoy yourself while comprehending what you’re reading, something you can’t do if you need to look up every kanji for every word. Plus, there’s no way you’re going to be able to create associations when every kanji you see is completely new. It’s like telling a beginner skier to start on an expert slope. The slope will look really scary, you’ll fall every second, you won’t have any fun, and you might even hurt yourself in the process.

Fortunately, one of the first books that I got my hands on was one of those anime/manga based books geared for younger readers. But it was still insanely hard, painful, and frustrating to go through all the unfamiliar kanji. It took about a week to read a single page. Not an enjoyable experience.

The problem with today’s Japanese language education is that most classes never go beyond the textbook and textbook reading material is both boring and laughable in terms of depth and scope. What we need is a guided reading curriculum that can gently get us started in learning vocabulary and kanji without killing ourselves. Remember reading “Hardy Boys”, “Nancy Drew”, “The Chronicles of Narnia”, “Where the red fern grows”, etc. for English class or for fun as a kid? We need the Japanese equivalents to be part of our Japanese language education. You’d think some Association or Committee of Japanese teachers would draw up a recommended reading list of books of different levels adapted for adults. If there is such a list, please send it to me. But in the meantime, RTK might be just the book to help ease you into the exciting world of kanji.

Conclusion

I don’t think RTK is for everybody but I’ve learned that it can be really helpful for certain types of learners. I think it depends greatly on your learning style and personality. For those of us who are comfortable taking shortcuts by jumping straight into the Japanese and creating associations as we go, I would suggest continue what you’re doing. Why take the time to memorize key words and stories in English when you are learning the kanji with real Japanese words? Though I wouldn’t suggest it for beginners, some people on my forum even switched to a Japanese-only dictionary to immerse themselves even further.

However, if you are the type who prefers a more systematic method or if you find yourself having difficulty remembering the kanji and coming up with your own patterns and mnemonics, certainly give RTK a try. It could be the “glue” you need to piece together the kanji to make sense of all this craziness.

Or you could even try a mixture of both: jumping into Japanese and using the stories to help you remember how to write the more difficult kanji. Whatever method you choose, I hope this post and the various comments gave you a good idea on how you want to learn kanji and what approach to take.


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11/27/2007

Do I need to take a class to learn Japanese?

When I started learning Chinese, I never once considered taking a class. The simple reason is that I didn’t have the time and didn’t want to pay the money. But it might be more accurate to say I didn’t think that classes were worth the time and money. And although I’m currently not too thrilled with my rate of progress (mostly because I study for only 2 hours a week and also because I’m a perfectionist), I know that I’m a lot better off meeting with my language partners twice a week instead of attending a class for the same amount of time. Instead of having one teacher who I’d not only have to pay for but also share with all my other classmates, I have two private teachers all to myself who can cater to my wants and needs. That sounds like they’re my servants or something but it just means I get to decide what I want to learn and how fast for the fair price of returning the favor with the languages I’m familiar with.

My language partner once told me he was surprised by how much Chinese I’ve learned considering the fact that I never took a single class. I might have said the same thing many years ago but after learning Japanese, I knew that the bulk of the learning happened in the real world with real people. It’s telling that everybody I know who can speak Japanese has gone through tons of real-world exposure and practice. You can’t spend every day using Japanese for 2 years without getting really good. However, you can certainly spend years taking Japanese classes and still not be able to speak or read one whit of Japanese. This applies to about 80% of the students in my Japanese class in college even though we went through the same 2 years of classes. How many times have you heard the phrase, “You’ll never really learn Japanese until you live in Japan.” The first question to that should be, “Well then, why should I bother taking a class?”

What good is a class, then?

Well, you certainly can’t beat a class if you have no idea where to start. In other words, if you have no idea what particles are, how to use a dictionary, or how to even begin learning Japanese, a class can certainly help you get started. Also, the classroom is simply the most efficient medium of teaching when there is limited teaching resources. If there is only one teacher available for a large number of students, a class can be very effective in distributing the teachings of one person onto many. And if you have a particularly skilled teacher, many can reap the benefits at the same time.

As you can imagine, finding a good Japanese teacher can mean the difference between night and day in terms of getting a good grasp of the language and having a good foundation to build upon in the real world. Unfortunately, finding a good teacher can be difficult because you can’t really tell how good she is until you’ve already learned the language! That’s where I’m here to help with a list of some important things to check for in a Japanese class. Check your course syllabus or textbook and if you find that your class is failing every one of my criteria, you might want to consider finding some language partners or a private tutor and going it on your own. My guide and forum can certainly help you get started on your own.

Signs of a Bad Class

1. Uses Romanji
Ahhh, the famous romanji that forces every experienced Japanese learner to cringe. And yes, I misspelled it on purpose. In any case, if your class/textbook doesn’t teach you at least hiragana from the beginning, quietly excuse yourself from the class and never come back. Also feel free to set fire to the book, and wave it around while laughing at your former classmates like a madman through the window.

2. Doesn’t use Kanji
This is my second biggest pet peeve. Even if your class is smart enough to save you from the monstrosities of romaji, most classes won’t teach you a single kanji until it’s far too late. Your teacher should introduce them very early and also stress how important they are in reading things like… oh I don’t know… everything?? Start with 一、二、三. See? They’re not so bad.

3. No Dictionary Form
I understand that politeness is very important in Japanese society but do we really have to start learning masu and desu before the dictionary form? First of all, casual Japanese involves a lot more than just using the plain dictionary form. In addition, to nobody’s surprise, all the verbs in the dictionary are in the dictionary form. So if your very first list of verbs consists of 「します、見ます、食べます」, you’re not even learning words you can look up. First, you have to learn to reverse-conjugate them to the dictionary form and then you can conjugate them into something else. Seriously, I saw one textbook with masu-form to dictionary form conjugation rules. It’s crazy! All of Japanese grammar is built on the dictionary form and the conjugation rules for the polite form are one of the easiest in the language. I can hardly see Japanese students saying 「うぜえよ、このくそばば」 to their teacher just because they learned the dictionary form first and learned to conjugate from there.

Dictionary forms first, it just makes sense.

4. No rational understanding of the language
If your teacher says, “は is the topic particle, and が is the subject particle”, and you ask, “So what’s the difference?”, and he answers, “は describes the topic, while が describes the subject of a sentence”, you can assume he has no idea how to answer your question. Native speakers are great because nothing is worse than having a 外人… excuse me, 外国人 Japanese teacher who… can’t speak Japanese! However, the drawback of native speakers is that sometimes the basic aspects of the language such as particles are so second-nature to them, they really don’t know how to explain or even really understand how they work. Having a feel for the language is great for the speaker but doesn’t really serve as an explanation when teaching somebody else. I can’t tell you how confused I was when I was learning 「んです」 for the first time. Saying that it adds emphasis doesn’t really explain things at all.

The best teachers really study their own language and are experienced in explaining them to clueless students. Also, there are the rare non-native teachers who are really freakin’ good at Japanese and know how to explain things in a way that made sense to themselves and will probably make sense to you.

Signs of a Great Class

1. Teach casual Japanese at least somewhere down the road
It’s amazing to me that most Japanese classes never teach you everyday slang and casual speech. NEVER. I guess the idea is that you’ll somehow figure it out on your own (aah, the classic “throw them into the pool and watch them swim/drown method”). Or maybe they think there is no value in teaching a style of speaking that is used among close friends. Sorry, John-san, NO FRIENDS FOR YOU. I’m not even talking about the stupid stuff like 「ぶっちゃけ」 or 「私的には」. I’m just talking about everyday stuff like 「てしまう=ちゃう」 or using 「の」 to ask questions. Is it so bad to teach, 「何してんの?」? OH MY GOD, WHAT DID I JUST WRITE??

2. Use a good Japanese-only textbook
Following up from #1, I was amazed when I saw one textbook that actually had a polite and casual version of the dialogue side-by-side. This was a Japanese-only textbook and upon further investigation, there appears to be a lot of excellent Japanese-only textbooks that you will never see in a store like Barnes & Nobles. (I went to the Kinokuniya in Seattle.) This is the kind of textbook they use to teach Japanese in Japan for people who don’t necessarily speak English.

Needless to say, I have yet to see a single English-based Japanese textbook that passes my simple criteria of a good textbook. Most of them have little to no kanji, some even use the dreaded romanji, they never teach casual speech, and they never explain things like particles very well. Japanese-only textbooks have some drawbacks as well such as very few explanations of how things work (it’s a Catch-22 because even if it did have a good explanation, it would be in Japanese and if you could read and understand it, you probably don’t need the explanation). However, they often do give you authentic, no-nonsense material and the rest can be taken care of by the teacher.

3. Teach the man how to fish, man!
No language class could ever go over every vocabulary or kanji needed to attain mastery of the language, so it’s inevitable that you’ll have to teach yourself at least some if not most of the language. I see this in advanced romance language classes all the time. They give you a novel and if there are words you don’t know, you’ll have to look them up in the dictionary and figure it out yourself. Big whoop. Ok, while it’s not as easy in Japanese, it’s by no means impossible. Your class should ideally teach you the skills to teach yourself.

Personally, I would explain how to study from example sentences from online resources such as alc.co.jp and the easiest way to look up kanji. I would also recommend some good electronic dictionaries with instructions on how to use them. There’s really no point in wading through a traditional Kanji dictionary and trying to identify the correct radical in our day and age. Also it doesn’t hurt to explain when to use 訓読み vs 音読み and yet, I don’t remember ever learning this in class.

4. Make the man fish even if he doesn’t feel like it
There’s really no way to become good at Japanese without practice and if a teacher’s job is to teach Japanese, he should make sure that his students get the practice they need whether they want it or not. At the very least, he could facilitate some kind of language tutor or partner setup. You can even match up classes from Japan via Mixxer. Ideally, practice should factor into the grading process like the Chinese classes at my college where meeting with language tutors was required. (Tutors were not required for the Japanese students which combined with the difference in how much kanji they learned, enforced the image that the Chinese students were just more serious than we were).

Personally, I would probably reserve one day of class to meet individually with the students if the class was small enough or make them find a partner/tutor somehow and reserve a day of class to present and grade on things they learned from their last session.

5. Teach what things really mean
When I ask my language partner how to say, “Can I go to the bathroom,” he knew the answer right away. But when I asked him how to say something like, “Even if I went now, I won’t make it in time”, he was stuck. This was very interesting to me because in Japanese, 「トイレに行ってもいいですか?」 and 「今行っても間に合わない」 uses the exact same grammar. As you can see from the literal translation, “Toilet go also is good?” and “Now go also won’t make it on time” is virtually the same sentence structure-wise. You can also probably guess that the negative such as 「今日行かなくてもいい」, which translates to “Today not go also is good” means “You don’t have to go today”. It really pays off to know what each part of the grammar is actually saying instead of just the English translation and your teacher should break it down from time to time.

6. Help students find what interest them
Mastering a language takes a lot of work and often times it can be a real drain to be constantly studying boring things like ordering at a restaurant or talking about the weather. I see people all the time having difficulty sticking with the language because of what seems to be an insurmountable goal, feeling of a lack of progress, or just a loss of interest. I think it would really be helpful if your teacher helped you explore what uniquely interests you about the language (hopefully it’s something a bit more inspiring than finding a Japanese girlfriend).

A good teacher should take interest in your interests and have a large library of movies, books, and other media of various genres that the students can freely explore. I would even put my PS2 in the student lounge if I was in charge. The really cool part is that it can only play Japanese games and DVDs. Another great idea is to have a budget for requests of stuff that the students are interested in (all in Japanese, of course).

Conclusion

So to answer the original question, “Should you take a class to learn Japanese?”, I think a good class can certainly be very helpful. Certainly better than no class especially if you’re a complete beginner and don’t really know where to start. However, there is nothing worse than having a bad class/teacher screw you up and create some very hard to break habits down the road. I think the field of Japanese-language education has been steadily improving overall but you still need to be careful. And with this post, I think you’ll have a good idea of some of the things to watch out for.

If you have any outrageous experiences in your Japanese class, please share them in the comments!


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11/9/2007

Begin the journey to mastering your 気

「気」 is a kind of energy embodied by your mind and spirit… or so they say. Personally, I really don’t believe in all that mumbo-jumbo but we still have to deal with it because it’s often used in everyday Japanese to describe your mind-set or feelings. In fact, the characters for your emotional feelings 「気持ち」 means 「気」 that is held” and your physical feelings 「気分」 also contains the same 「気」 character.

I’m going to go over some of the most useful and basic ways to use your 「気」 and I don’t mean fireballs and kung-fu skills here. Rather, I’ve compiled a list of common expressions that you can use to describe your 「気」. Though making a list of expressions is not usually not my kind of thing, they are so useful and simple (and for some reason often neglected in the classroom) that I feel it’s worth the time to list and describe them. Also, these kinds of expressions are very hard to find in the dictionary unless you almost already know what you’re looking for.

「気」 with verbs so basic, your grandma can use it

Putting aside the image of your grandma firing off hadokens, here is a list of 「気」 expressions with the most simple and basic verbs. I’ve tried to interpret some of the literal meanings as a aid in memorizing what all these kinds of 「気」 means.

  1. 気にする – Means to worry about something. It is almost always used in the negative to say, “Don’t worry about it”. The meaning is similar to 「心配しないで」 except 「心配」 involves actual worry and anxiety. 「気にしない」 means don’t even bother paying attention to it or wasting your 「気」.

    1) 気にしないで – Don’t worry about it.

  2. 気になる – Similar to 「気にする」 except instead of bothering about something, it’s becoming a bother. In other words, it’s something that is niggling your subconscious and making you wonder about something.

    1) 彼女の歳が気になる。 – I wonder what her age is. (lit: Her age has been bothering me.)

  3. 気がする – Your 「気」 is acting up and alerting your senses. As a result, you have a feeling of whatever you attach 「気がする」 to.

    1) もう終わった気がする。- I have a feeling that [it] already ended.

  4. 気がつく (気づく) – Your 「気」 attaches to you making you regain consciousness in the literal sense or in a figurative sense of just waking up and smelling the coffee.

    1) 気がついたら、もう9時になっていた。 – When I came to my senses, it had become 9:00 already.
    2) 彼は全然気づいていない。 – He doesn’t realize (or hasn’t noticed) it at all.

  5. 気をつける – Attach your 「気」 and always keep your wits about you. In other words, be careful.

    1) 気をつけて! – Be careful!/Take care!

  6. 気をつかう – Use your 「気」 to pay attention to or attend somebody. A good host always uses her 「気」 for her guests and their needs.

    1) 気をつかってくれて、ありがとう! – Thanks for caring about me!

Conclusion

I’ve tried to keep my list short and simple to prevent this becoming a monster list with too much information. However, if you’re in the mood, you can scroll through a huge list by going to WWWJDIC, search for 「気」 and set the checkmark for “Starting Kanji”. You’ll get all sorts of useful expressions like 「気が強い」、「気が向く」、「気が散る」、etc., etc. Someday, you can become a master of at least talking about your 「気」 without even having to work out!


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9/3/2007

Repeat after me, there is NO such thing as a subject!

One of my biggest pet peeves in the field of Japanese as a second language is the 「が」 particle being called the “subject particle”. This misleading terminology comes from my second biggest pet peeve, which is educators trying to artificially tie Japanese into English language concepts. I think one of the problems is that Japanese teachers, especially native speakers, really don’t understand their own language from a conceptual point-of-view and more importantly how it logically differs from English.

I can illustrate how stupid it is to call 「が」 the subject particle in the following simple dialogue.

Aさん: 原宿に行こうよ。
Bさん: なんで?
Aさん: クレープが食べたいから。

Looking at the last sentence, if 「グレープが」 is indeed marking crepe as the subject, we can only assume that Aさん wants to go to Harajuku because the crepe wants to eat. But that doesn’t make any sense! In reality, 「グレープ」 here is supposed to be the object of the sentence, the subject being Aさん, who wants to eat crepe.

The most simple conclusion, if you insist on thinking in English, is that the 「が」 particle can either represent the subject or the object of the sentence. But why would you use the same particle to represent something completely so different as the subject and the object? And to make things even worse, consider the following dialogue.

Aさん:何か食べようよ。
Bさん:クレープはどう?
Aさん:クレープはあまり食べたくないな。

If you throw in the fact that the 「は」 can also be the subject OR the object, it’s no wonder that Japanese particles seem so confusing! It’s natural that students can never figure out the difference between 「は」 and 「が」 because it seems that either can be used to indicate the same things in English. This is where Japanese teachers should really beat into their heads that the concepts they’re looking for such as the subject does not exist in Japanese.

The subject traditionally indicates who or what is doing the verb in the sentence but 「は」 only indicates the topic. For example, 「今日は忙しい」 doesn’t mean that “Today is busy”, it means “As for today, [I, he, she, we, they] is/are busy.” Only when we translate into English are we forced to create the subject by context. In this case, the translation might be “I’m busy today.”

The 「が」 particle also does not indicate the subject, it only identifies the unknown. For example, 「クレープが食べたいから。」 is identifying that it’s because crepe is the thing that he/she/we/they wants to eat. In English, the subject would be “it” as in, “It’s because I want to eat crepe”. But because Japanese doesn’t even have a subject, there is no need for such a construction.

This is why I’ve been calling the 「が」 particle the “identifier particle” for the longest time, and you should too because that’s what it does. There is no such thing as a subject in Japanese so it makes no sense to have a “subject” particle. (Please feel free to do the double quote sign while saying “subject” in “subject particle”.)

For further reading, I highly suggest this article: 「日本語に主語はあるのか?」.

Posted by Tae Kim in Beginner, Grammar | 17 Comments »

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2/22/2007

Part 2 on the non-existent 「たい」 form rule

In the previous post, not only did I to get away with being too lazy to finish what I was writing but I managed to make it an excuse for more comments. I’m a genius! The only downside is the increased pressure to actually come back and finish what I started. (As you can see, I easily managed to withstand the pressure for almost a full week.)

Rule? What Rule?

Getting down to business, I noticed that a couple people commented that they did not know there was a rule saying that you can’t use 「を」 with the 「たい」 form. You’re right, there is no rule! Forget I said anything! (Waves hand) These are not the rules you’re looking for… this is not a real post.

Gah! They’re all the bloody same!

There were some people that said they couldn’t tell the difference between 「を」, 「が」, and 「は」, so let’s take a look each example sentence from the last post.

1) 続き読みたい。
2) 続き読みたい。
3) 続き読みたい。
4) どうでもいい。

The way I see it, 2) and 3) are nothing special. They just go back to the original question of what the difference is between 「は」 and 「が」. In my very first post, I mentioned that the 「が」 particle is used to identify something unknown to the speaker or listener. So 2) is simply identifying what somebody wants to read. It’s like saying, “Oh you want to know what it is that I want to read? Well, it’s 「続き」”. A more literal translation would be, “「続き」 is what I want to read.” When people say that 「が」 places emphasis on 「続き」, that’s just another way of saying the same thing. The problem with the word “emphasis” is that you can emphasize anything by saying it with a heavy accent. With 「が」, it may seem like emphasis is being added to the thing you’re identifying but that is just a side-effect of the true meaning of 「が」.

As for 3), the 「は」 particle indicates that we are talking about 「続き」 as a topic. 「は」 works well for situations where you want to discuss, describe, or talk about a specific topic. For example, 「続きは読みたいけど、まだ読めない」 talks about 「続き」 as a topic; saying that you want to read it and that you can’t yet (because I’m writing it right now).

Finally, we get to real question, “When or why would we want to use 「を」?” The answer is so simple, you’ll want to ask for your money back. (I’ll do that as soon as I get some money to begin with.)

Use 「を」 when you don’t want to use 「が」 or 「は」.

「を」 is very neutral and simply says, “this is the object” without all the extra nuances of 「が」 or 「は」. If I say, 「りんごを食べたい」, all I’m saying is “I want to eat an apple.” There’s nothing else to infer. The apple is the object of my desire and that’s it. With 「は」, you are inferring, “Well, on the topic of apples, yeah, I want to eat it. Maybe not other stuff but apples, sure. As long as we’re talking about apples, I feel like it’s something I want to eat.” With 「が」, you are inferring, “You know what it is that I want to eat? Apples. Yeah. I thought about all the other stuff but no, an apple is what I want to eat.”

Thinking about these distinctions can make you feel confused and make Japanese seem complicated. Often times, one or more particles will make sense but can’t be used in other situations. Context will sometimes clear up which particles you should really be using. However, when the context is vague enough to allow multiple choices, it’s really important to get a sense of what each particle is really saying in order to decide how you want to come across to other people.

As for 4), c’mon, let’s be nice. You wouldn’t be reading this if you really thought that, right?

Conclusion

In reading the comments, it was obvious that some of you knew what each particle meant. Some of the answers are not exactly how I phrased things but describing these particles perfectly in English is impossible because the words don’t exist. So as long as you have a feel for how each particles work, that’s all that matters in the end.

And finally, yes Laura, I do have a girlfriend. What a strange question. Why do you ask?

Posted by Tae Kim in Beginner, Grammar | 11 Comments »

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2/16/2007

Ssh, don’t tell anyone but… you can use 「を」 with the 「たい」 form

I remember reading or hearing a long time ago that you can’t use the object particle 「を」 with the 「たい」 form of the verb. (If you are unfamiliar with the 「たい」 form, click here.) Now that’s complete rubbish but I can see where the logic came from. When a verb is converted to the 「たい」 form, it becomes an adjective describing that somebody or something wants to do the verb. Grammatically, it conjugates and works just like any other adjective. Subsequently, because the object particle describes the object of an action, it doesn’t make any sense to have an adjective have a direct object, ie “Bob big apple”. So in conclusion, using the object particle with the 「たい」 form is grammatically incorrect because the 「たい」 form is an adjective. You should use 「が」 or sometimes 「は」. So all was well, and we could flog students for making that mistake in peace.

But reality tells a different story. Maybe it was modern Western influence on the language or maybe some crazy grammar-fanatic educators forgot to check reality when creating the rule. I’m not an expert on the history of Japanese linguistics so I don’t really know. But whatever the case, all I know is that people today use the 「を」 particle with the 「たい」 form all the time.

I can already see the next question about to come out of your mouth. You want to know what the difference is between using 「を」 and something else right? Well, I’m going to see if anybody is still reading this blog by letting you peeps try to figure it out in the comments. I’ll write the answer in an another post.

Here are some example sentences for you to chew on.

1) 続き読みたい。
2) 続き読みたい。
3) 続き読みたい。
4) どうでもいい。

Posted by Tae Kim in Beginner, Grammar | 15 Comments »

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10/27/2006

Tae Kim’s Language Studying Tips

Now that I’m studying Chinese from scratch, I’m back to where I was when I started learning Japanese six years ago. (My god, has it been that long already?) It’s great because it really reminds me of what it was like to be completely lost in a new language. In fact, I think foreign language teachers should study a new language every now and then to really see what it’s like to be the student.

Anyway, since this is a blog about Japanese, I thought I’d share with you some common ideas and strategies I found to be effective in learning a new language whether it’s Japanese, Chinese, or any other language. While some of these ideas might seem obvious to those who have studied foreign languages, I mention them here because it is very easy to forget and to fall back into bad habits (including myself).

Language is drawing a line in the sand near the tide (TM)

Ok, I didn’t actually trademark anything but that’s how clever I thought the title was. We should spread the phrase by saying it was first said by a wise Chinese monk or something. The conversation would look something like this.

Some Dude: Hey, can you teach me Japanese?

You: I would but “Language is drawing a line in the sand near the tide”.

D: Huh?

Y: It means that you must constantly be studying a language in order to learn it. If you stop, it’ll all just fade away.

D: Isn’t that like, “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink”?

Y: Not exactly. What I said was first said by a wise Chinese monk.

D: Whoa… that’s deep.

Don’t fall for the “Master Japanese in just XX days/weeks” gimmick. Learning a new language is a long-term commitment. It’s different from learning how to ride a bike or how to whistle. No matter what your goal is, whether it’s native level or just some travel phrases, if you don’t keep practicing, you will forget.

You only truly learn a language with continual practice. It’s like biking up a series of hills and plateaus. As soon as you stop learning or practicing, you’ll start to slowly roll back down. Once you’ve reached a plateau (long-term memory), the knowledge will fade less quickly but if you ignore it long enough, you will eventually slide back down, eventually going back all the way to the beginning, leaving all your efforts in vain.

Even native speakers often complain of how they’re forgetting their native language once they stop using it. What chance do you have of retaining a foreign language then? Of course, by now, your native language is deeply rooted in your long-term memory so it’ll soon come back as long as you don’t neglect it for too long. However, new, short-term memory of a foreign language doesn’t stand a chance.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying you have to study every minute of every day. It doesn’t have to be a big commitment just a consistent long-term one. In fact, I would advise going your own pace rather than trying to study too much at once and burning yourself out. It’s a marathon rather than a sprint… a very long marathon that never ends.

In my case, while I had the opportunity and luxury to study and practice Japanese virtually every day with native speakers during college, I’m taking a more conservative pace with Chinese due to the constraints of my full-time job. I usually only study during my commute once every couple of days, probably no more than 2 to 4 hours a week. I also spend about 3 hours every Sunday with a native Chinese speaker practicing for about an hour and a half in exchange for teaching English. Even though I only spend a total of about 3 to 5 hours a week studying Chinese, I am fairly satisfied with my rate of progress. The most important thing is to keep at it with consistent study and practice.

You have to grab language by its horns

During my college days, I spent my first trimester of Japanese doing what every college student is supposed to do: go to classes, do the homework, and study for tests (all at the last minute of course). If you do just that, you might do ok in class (I got a B+), but that doesn’t mean you’re learning the language! No matter how great the teacher might be, the classroom format is simply not enough.

The biggest problem with the classroom format is that you never use the language for your own purposes. You are always being told which grammar to use, what vocabulary to memorize, how to say something, etc., because after all, that’s what teaching is. With homework and tests, you have to come up with the “correct” answers as well. The only difference is that it’s done at home instead. Unfortunately, while there are a whole lot of wrong answers or things that make little to no sense, there are no right answers to good communication. But with classroom material, you never learn how to express your own thoughts and feelings in the way you want to express them. If you never get the chance to make the language your own, it always feels like a language that is… well foreign.

At my school, the Chinese students were required to meet with a language tutor every week, which I think is a great idea. Unfortunately, meeting with a language tutor was optional for us Japanese kids. I did it anyway though. It was great. I got to meet and talk with fellow students who also happened to be Japanese. They got paid, I got practice, learning how to say what I wanted to say, and we had a great time overall (or at least I did). As a bonus, all of my tutors happened to be female and some were even cute! I can’t believe most of my fellow classmates didn’t even sign up. If you would turn down a great opportunity like that, it probably means you’re doomed to fail for reasons I will describe at the end.

Now that I’m out of college, I no longer have such a wonderful opportunity to practice Chinese but I did manage to secure a tutoring session once a week by hanging out at local international events. Although it’s free, I have to teach English in exchange and she is at least over 15 years older than me but she’s a nice lady so I can’t complain. The moral of this story is that you should take advantage of the resources available to you to make opportunities for speaking the language.

Practicing [A] doesn’t improve [B]

The fundamental reason why it’s absolutely necessary to go out and actually use the language for your own means is because practicing one thing doesn’t automatically improve something else. This may sound obvious but many Japanese students are under the illusion that taking tests, answering questions in class, and filling in worksheets will somehow magically enable them to learn how to read, write, speak, and hear Japanese. This is not the case!

If you’re wondering why you can hardly speak Japanese after taking Japanese classes for so many years, ask yourself this, “How many hours did I spend speaking Japanese? How many books have I read? How much Japanese have I written?” You need to ask yourself the same type of question for each aspect of the language because practicing one thing doesn’t automatically improve something else. It might help but each aspect of the language is only improved by actually practicing and refining it in the real world.

If you want to improve your reading skills, go read some books. If you want to improve your writing, find something to write about. Speaking and listening often go hand in hand so go find somebody to talk to if you want to improve those skills. It seems obvious but many students at my school couldn’t understand why they weren’t improving even though they haven’t spent a single minute outside of class speaking Japanese or even meeting anyone who can speak Japanese. They also haven’t read a single book, magazine, comic, short story, anything, much else write something on their own. All I can say is, “What do you expect, man?!” Of course it’s not completely their fault. After all, none of us were required to do any of those things for class. So, unless you are in an immersed environment such as living in Japan, you have to motivate yourself to go out and use Japanese.

Input before Output

Those who are new to learning languages might be under the mistaken impression that languages make sense. You might think that if you learn the vocabulary and grammar, you can string the vocabulary together with the correct grammar to make sentences. This might work to some degree for some languages, but with Japanese, it’s almost guaranteed to not work. Japanese is not a language you can figure out with logic, which is why finding somebody you can ask questions and learning vocabulary with context is so important. Take a look at what might happen if you try to figure things out for yourself.

Method 1: “Figuring it out”

You) I want to say, “I miss you,” to my girlfriend so let’s see… according to my dictionary, “miss” is 「欠ける」 so “missing” is 「欠けている」. Great, now I just need to make “you” the direct object with 「を」 particle and the verb goes last so “I’m missing you” should be 「私はあなたを欠けている。」 Great!

What a disaster! While the sentence is grammatically correct, it doesn’t make any sense and worse, it’s kind of insulting because 「欠ける」 means something is “lacking” with a very negative connotation. Now, let’s see what would have happened if you were smart enough to learn from example.

Method 2: Asking a native speaker

You) I want to say, “I miss you,” to my girlfriend. How do I say that?

Native Speaker) Well, we don’t really say “I miss you,” in Japanese. We usually just say we’re lonely or “I want to meet you”.

Y) Oh, how do you say that?

N) “Lonely” is 「さびしい」 or 「さみしい」. “Wanting to meet” is 「会いたい」.

Y) Great, can you write the kanji for me?

N) Sure.

Awesome, now that you are able to express your dire need and endless love to your girlfriend, hopefully, next time you meet, she’ll be all over you like hot butter and syrup on a pancake. Way to go!

Of course, in real life, things don’t always go so smoothly. You might not know enough of the grammar or vocabulary to understand the answer. You also need to go home, sit down and study the grammar and vocabulary using textbooks, workbooks, dictionaries, the grammar guide, whatever you prefer. But the important thing is to get input first before you try coming up with your own output. And even then, it’s a good idea to get somebody to look at your output to make sure it’s correct.

Learning old material with new material

Now that I talked about what you need to do, let’s look at some ideas on how to go about it.

Generally, you need a lot more input before you can generate output of similar quality. In my case, I usually have to see something about five or six times in completely different contexts before I can internalize it enough to use it myself. Of course, it all depends. Fundamental concepts and conjugations require a lot more exposure and practice than simple vocabulary.

So the best way to internalize material is by running into it here and there over a long time span. You can optimize this by overlapping new material with old material. This is called pipelining in computer chips and is used extensively to increase the performance of your computer. You can do this too by learning new material even if you haven’t completely memorized the old material. When old material shows up in new material, you will start the process of internalizing the new material while you’re reviewing the old material.

What you should never do is stop learning new things because you haven’t completely mastered something else. You might hear people say, “Oh no, I can’t learn the next chapter because I don’t completely understand the last one.” or “I’m not going to learn that because we haven’t gone over it in class yet.” or “Learning that now will just confuse me.” This is the wrong approach because looking at just one thing over and over doesn’t increase comprehension. You need to look at it in different contexts, used in different ways for different purposes. You need to look at all the angles before you can say you really understand the material. And if you can start learning new material at the same time, that’s another bird with the same stone.

You shouldn’t underestimate your brain’s ability to absorb new material. You might hear a word and think, “Oh, I’ll never learn that” but on the contrary, you’re already learning it! If you ever thought, “Hey, this word sounds familiar. Where have I heard it before?” you’re closer to memorizing it than words you’ve never heard before. If you do this often enough, you’ll be remembering words you don’t even remember learning! This is essentially how you learned your native language. Let’s take a look at the continuation of the previous dialog asking how to say, “I miss you”.

Y) Is 「会いたい」 an adjective?

N) It acts like an adjective but it’s the 「たい」 form of the verb 「会う」, which means “to meet”.

Y) Oh yeah, I remember! We learned that form in class last week. What was the conjugation rule again?

N) You change the 「う」 to 「い」 and add 「たい」.

Y) Ok, got it.

See? In that short exchange, you managed to review the 「たい」 form while at the same time learning 「会う」. The next time, you might learn, for instance, 「飲み会」 and you can use that opportunity to review and reinforce 「会う」. Keep repeating the cycle and you’ll start making all sorts of connections and memorizing things left and right in no time.

It’s the attitude that counts!

In the end, the thing that matters the most is your attitude. If studying or practicing Japanese feels like a dreadful chore, you are doomed to failure. I can attest to this because I hated learning Spanish in High School and the only Spanish I know now is, “Donde esta el bano”. But hey, you’re in luck because Japanese is much more interesting than Spanish!

Nevertheless, if you somehow find that learning Japanese is boring or a chore, you need to incorporate things into your study that will make it fun right away! In my case, I enjoy reading, playing games, drinking, and eating so I study by doing those things in a way that incorporates Japanese such as reading Japanese novels. (And all my games are strictly for “educational purposes”. Honest.) I also enjoy hanging out and chatting with friends so making Japanese friends and hanging out with them improved my speaking and listening skills. And if I can get drinks and food into the mix every so often, even better! (Fortunately, many Japanese people love to eat and drink.)

To give you another example, I don’t particularly like watching TV that much but a friend of mine does and that’s how she learned Japanese; by watching a lot of Japanese TV. It must have worked because her Japanese is quite excellent.

Whatever floats your boat, you should incorporate it into your studies to make learning more enjoyable. For example, lots of people on my forum are learning Japanese with anime because that’s what they enjoy. This is great because it often leads them to explore and become interested in other areas of Japanese lifestyle and culture, which in turn increases the incentive to learn more Japanese.

Also, I think it’s pretty much a given that we all enjoy making friends and socializing so that’s one activity we can all do. If there are very few or no Japanese people in your area, you might try finding a conversation partner online, study abroad, or just move! C’mon, get out of that rural backwater and go someplace more international!

If you’re socially inept, making friends while learning a foreign language is perfect for you. It levels the playing field because it’s hard to be suave when you can hardly speak the language. Hey, that’s a great strategy for getting a girl, I bet. Cleverly hide your lack of social skills with your inability to speak the language. I don’t know how wise this is for serious relationships though…


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7/12/2006

How come they never teach 「何で」?

I don’t know how far Japanese language education has progressed in recent years, but back when I was a student, we were taught to use 「どうして」 for “why”. This was great until I went out into the real world and found out that people used another word that I was never taught: 「なんで」. Huh? What the-? Why wasn’t I taught the real deal instead of being handed down a second-rate word that nobody uses? Why eat a California roll when you can have real sushi?

Now that I know some more stuff (you know… stuff… and things…), I can think of two reasons: 1) 「なんで」 is a bit informal and would not be appropriate in some written contexts, and 2) 「なんで」 has some “issues” and they didn’t want to confuse the poor students (we were confused enough as it was).

Only in Japanese, can you write paragraphs explaining the word for “why”

I can understand why you would rather teach 「どうして」 as a teacher. It’s perfectly normal Japanese and you can use it just about anywhere in any context and be “safe”. The only problem is that Japanese people don’t use it that much. Why? Probably because 「なんで」 is shorter and easier to say.

Unlike 「どうして」, you have to be a little more careful when using 「なんで」. First of all, it’s more for conversational Japanese so you don’t want it use it on, for example, official documents. In this sense, 「なんで」 is kind of similar to “how come” instead of just “why”.

Second, things can get kind of confusing because 「なんで」 in kanji is 「何で」 and 「何」 is the kanji for 「なに」. 「で」 is also the particle for describing means. You can see the problem this overlapping might cause.

スパゲッティは、何で食べるの?
-A: With what (by what means) do you eat spaghetti?
-B: Why do you eat spaghetti?

The sentence above can have two meaning and there is no way to tell without any context. The dictionary says that 「何で」(なんで) means “why”. But if you write it in kanji, it looks identical to 「なにで」. There’s even a Japanese page with a survery of 「なんで」 vs 「なにで」. In general, 「なんで」 means “why” and 「なにで」 means “by what means” so when you want to make things absolutely clear, you should write it in hiragana.

In terms of ambiguity, 「どうして」 also has the same type of issues because 「どう」 means “how” and 「して」 is the te-form of 「する」.

どうしていいか分からない。
-A: I don’t know what I should do (how to do so that it’s good).
-B: I don’t know why it’s good.

The first translation is more likely, but the second interpretation is possible as well. There’s no way to tell for sure without more context. (Aren’t you glad you didn’t pick an easy, sissy language to learn?)

Because two just isn’t enough

「何故」 is yet another word that means “why”, which we need because… I’m pretty sure there’s a good reason. 「何故」 is more formal than the other words for “why” and has, I feel, a sharper sting to it, if that makes any sense. It’s more suitable for when you want to ask hard-hitting questions such as, for example, a narrative for a documentary. As a result, you don’t hear this too often in regular, everyday conversations.

一体何故、こんなことになったのでしょうか?
-Just why, exactly, did this happen?

Conclusion

Now that you know all the ways of saying “why” in Japanese (minus local dialects I’m not aware of), you can ask questions like the following in a variety of ways.

Why, Lord, why, is Japanese so complicated?!!

There, aren’t you happy now?


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6/13/2006

Beginner Lesson #3: Adjectives and the 「の」 particle

Beginner Japanese Lesson #3: Adjectives and the 「の」 particle (length: 28:56) and original lesson details.

Here is the recording for the third beginner Skype lesson. You can subscribe to this podcast with iTunes from the following link:

Subscribe to this podcast with iTunes

This time, you can tell it’s spring because of the background noises from the birds. Sorry about that and the big delay but I’ve been too lazy for various reasons. Details of the next beginner lesson and lesson date will be posted afterwards in another post. (For those of you who asked, yes, I’m still planning on doing more lessons.)

Lesson Notes

To add to the previous lesson, the topic particle is not the subject like in English. There is no such thing as a subject in Japanese.

It is only the topic and doesn’t have to be directly related to the rest of the sentence.
For example, 「レイさんは、学校です。」 doesn’t have to mean that the Ray-san is a school.

Adjectives

So far, we have learned how to use 「元気」 to describe how you are doing. I managed to cleverly hide the fact that 「元気」 is an adjective. Actually, 「元気」 can also be a noun but so far we have been using as an adjective as a description of your well-being.

There are two types of adjectives: na-adjective and i-adjectives.

Na-adjectives arelmost the same as nouns as we have seen with 「元気」. The difference is that you can directly modify a noun by attaching it directly in front of the noun with a 「な」. (Hence the name)

Examples
1.有名な人 – famous person
2.便利なところ – convenient place

The other type of adjective are called i-adjectives. They are called that because they end in the hiragana 「い」. Unlike the na-adjectives, they do not need anything to directly modify nouns. Just attach them to the front of the noun.

Examples
1.広い部屋 – wide room
2.面白い人 – interesting person

You may have noticed, some na-adjectives end in 「い」 such as 「きれい」. You should pay careful attention to them. 「嫌い」 is another example of a na-adjective that ends in 「い」.

Negative Adjectives
As we have seen, the negative for na-adjectives is the same as nouns. Just add 「じゃない」.

The conjugation rules for i-adjectives are slightly different from na-adjectives and nouns.
For the negative tense, you first need to remove the last 「い」 and attach 「くない」.

For the polite form, add 「です」 at the end for both i-adjectives and na-adjectives.

※Important Exception: いい、かっこいい

The original version of いい was よい. As a result, all conjugations are based on よい and not いい.

The 「の」 particle

One of the main functions of the 「の」 particle (besides many others) is used to show ownership, same as the English word, “of”. However, the order is the possessor followed by 「の」 followed by the possession.

Examples
Xさんの部屋 = room of Xさん


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