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1/5/2008

日本語のブログ

みなさん、日本語で書かれている面白いブログ、ご存知ないですか?英語のブログをたくさん読んでますけど、日本語のブログは全然です。

人気ブログランキングがあるんですが、範囲が広すぎて、面白いブログを探すのがめんどくさいです。有名人のブログも人気あるようですが、個人的にはあまり好きじゃないし、私みたいな凡人よりもっと面白い人生を送っているようで、なんかムカつきます。

ちにまに、私が読んでいるブログは、この日本語教師のブログぐらいです。日本語に興味なくても、なかなか面白いですよ。

コメントで面白いブログをシェアーしましょう!

最後に...(もう遅いけど)

あけましておめでとうございます!

今年もよろしくお願いします。これからも、コメントをじゃんじゃん書いてね!


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12/22/2007

Where’s the research for Japanese language education?

I was taking a look at last year’s admissions test for the Japanese Applied Linguistics Graduate program at Waseda and there are some very interesting and intriguing questions.

Here’s a small sample:
G JSLの子どもを対象にした日本語学習教材について述べなさい。

B CLL (Community Language Learning) について説明しなさい。

H 「総合型教科書」 について述べなさい。

You can download the whole file at:
http://www.waseda.jp/gsjal/dat/nyusi_master/07.4-07.9m_kakomon.pdf.

It seems like there’s a lot of research and things going on for teaching Japanese. But I have no idea where I can get information about this stuff. For instance, how do I get these teaching materials for JSL kids? (I’m guessing JSL is Japanese as a Second Language like ESL?) I’m also curious about what a 「総合型教科書」 is and how it could help people learning Japanese. It certainly can’t be worse than the mainstream textbooks here. Or maybe Community Language Learning is the way to go for learning Japanese? I have no idea because unfortunately, real research studies and papers are nowhere to be found on the net. I guess I can try looking in University libraries nearby.

The thing I’m wondering is how does all this research help people learning languages? Biomedical research cure illnesses and technology research (eventually) creates new and innovative products but how does research in applied linguistics help improve the language classes that you and I take? Why are we still stuck with workbooks, flash cards, drills, cheesy dialogues, and crappy textbooks? When is this Applied Linguistics research going to “apply” to us?

I’m curious to hear from anybody studying Applied Linguistics particularly for Japanese or Chinese. What’s the best way for me to catch up on current research and introduce the good stuff to the rest of the world?


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12/19/2007

How many of you have a stack of index cards collecting dust?

Following up from yesterday’s post about index card programs, I stumbled upon Jonathan’s blog and his post about spaced repetition software by following his comment link.

I won’t talk about them here because as we all know, I think they all suck. Why is it that these programs never think about sharing index cards, community ranking by difficulty level, and incorporating richer content than just text? Jonathan, if you want my opinion, you’re wasting your time. Please do let us know how it goes, though.

But it’s only been a few days that I’ve been using this method, so I can’t gauge yet just how effective it is. For now, however, I’m pretty pleased. It certainly beats the pit of near-inactivity that I have been falling in recently.

I certainly can’t argue with that.

Personally, I’ve tried them all and could never stick with it. I ignored the desktop or homepage widget, deleted my kanji email after they piled up, stop going to the websites, and my index cards were collecting dust long before I finally threw them away. I eventually realized it wasn’t a problem of motivation (I had that in spades) but rather a problem stemming from a flawed method. The index cards themselves were as interesting as reading a dictionary because well… that’s essentially what it is.

Have any of you successfully used these programs or index cards to study for a significant period of time? (I know my readership is dismally too small to make a statistical difference but I’m curious anyway.)


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12/18/2007

Read this before you build yet another index card program/website

Japanese is probably one of the most popular languages to learn for English speakers. As a result, you can find more online and offline resources compared to other languages such as Korean. I’ve seen great online resources pop up on the internet over the years and some that are… not so good. I was ecstatic when I first discovered the WWWJDIC and it has continued to improve; adding example sentences and expanding the edict dictionary. (Some entries, I’m proud to say were submitted by yours truly such as 「夢うつつ」). Then, I discovered 英辞郎, which has an E->J dictionary that is actually useful and Yahoo!辞書, which has TWO awesome J->J dictionaries: 大辞泉 and 大辞林 for free. I’m surprised if people even buy paper dictionaries anymore.

If you think about it, a dictionary is a perfect fit for the internet. It’s accessible from any computer with internet access, searches are instantaneous, and you can copy/paste words without having to know the reading. Any type of instructional written and audio material such as ebooks and podcasts can also benefit from worldwide access and fast search capabilities. I also applaud sites that brings people together to talk, discuss, and ask questions such as forums and social networking sites such as Mixxer.

While these online resources are helping people from all over learn Japanese, it seems that there’s some sort of carnal instinct to create not so helpful index card programs. I’m talking about the numerous kanji/vocabulary sites or applications that you can store kanji/vocab into. Some of them make index cards for you, some might send you emails daily, others even have algorithms to determine how often you should review a word based on how many times you tell the program you’ve learned the word.

All of these sites and programs share the same critical flaw of being based on the index card learning routine. They might have some nice features to dress it up but underneath it’s the same process of writing words down with definitions and testing yourself by going through them one by one.

The reason why these sites never seem to help me is because the index card method has the following problems:
1. It’s boring
2. Lack of meaningful context
3. It requires too much work for little benefit

I mean, sure it might work if you expended enough time and energy but guess what? With enough time and effort, I can memorize the entire dictionary. Sure it’s theoretically possible but is it realistic? I’ve said before that index cards are only good for preparing for tests in the short-term and the tests themselves are only useful for teachers in grading. They don’t actually help you learn or retain the language very well.

My vision

There’s a lot of obvious or meaningless stuff in the whole web 2.0 hype like rounded-corners and larger fonts but the idea of users sharing data online, while obvious in hindsight, is really quite innovative. And yet there is still no site that I know of where we can share our vocabulary and kanji learning beyond the level of stuff you can find in dictionaries anyway. There’s a lot more to a word than: reading, stroke order, and definition. What we need is a site where people can share interesting content on the web like digg but with enhancements for studying Japanese. The key to that idea is an index card truly made for the web: wwwindex cards.

Wwwindex cards

A wwwindex card is kind of like a digg submission but instead of a description of the link, you have an excerpt that pertains to your study. You mark the part that interests you and decide what you want to test yourself on. The submission will include information like the following:

1. Level (beginner to advanced)
2. Type (grammar/kanji/vocabulary)
3. Source (link or title/author or maybe even link to the book)
4. Excerpt to test with specific portions highlighted.
5. Answer

Here’s an example of a card I could make.
1. Intermediate
2. Grammar
3. http://www.alc.co.jp/nj/2007_01/section4_manga_jpn.swf
4. 母親が受験勉強中の子どもに軽食を運んでくると、子どもは勉強をしないでテレビゲームをやっています。
5. Doing one action without doing another.

I can make a vocab version of the same card by highlighting a word like 「勉強」 instead and putting 「べんきょう – study」 in the answer. Or I can test my kanji writing ability by replacing the kanji with hiragana and putting the kanji in the answer. The point is that it’s more than just information you can find in a dictionary because it comes with context and potentially interesting material.

You can even copy short paragraphs from a book or textbook. All the site would have to do is restrict the size of the text to abide with copyright laws. Pretty soon, with enough users, the site should be rich with contextual study materials and links that can be shared for further study. If you add voting and ranking, you can have a site that is fresh with interesting materials to explore everyday. You can find links to interesting websites, video, images, audio, or excerpts from books and textbooks. The excerpts might even help you find and decide on what books to buy. I know I have trouble finding books that are easy enough for beginner to intermediate learners. You can even test yourself with other peoples’ wwwindex cards based on level and type. It solves all the problems of traditional index card sites by making the content interesting, adding context to what you’re studying, and removing the tedium of having to make the cards all by yourself.

Notice also, that there’s nothing in the index card that is specific to Japanese. You can simply add a language field to the wwwindex card to have the site work for any language.

Does this sound interesting to you?

Unfortunately, while I have the skill necessary to make a site like this, I don’t have the time to drive such a large project. So if you’re interested in making this project come to life, feel free to email me at taekim.japanese AT gmail.com and I will setup a new project on http://code.google.com/hosting/. Ibiblio gives me unlimited space for php websites as long as it’s not for profit. Or if you’d rather start your own project, feel free to send me a link to your work.

Posted by Tae Kim in Learning & Resources | 4 Comments »

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12/18/2007

プチポストをはじめました!

I created a new category that I’d like to call プチポスト (tiny-post).
I have all sorts of random thoughts and ideas that are too short for a マジポスト (real-post) so hopefully this new category will allow me to post more often.
(Yes, as a matter of fact, I am making these words up as I go.)

Personally, I hate meaningless posts with just a couple sentences or a random image/video/link so I’ll try to post something that’s at least mildly interesting but feel free to ignore this category if you just care about the meatier articles that I pump out about once every month (or two).

【日本語版】

プチポストとは?
え~と、自分で勝手に作った単語なので、ここで簡単な説明をさせていただきま~す!既に予想はついていると思いますが、「プチポスト」は「小さい投稿」という意味であります。

あれこれを考慮して、だらだらと長い文章を書くのが大分時間かかるので、こうやってプチポストのカテゴリーを設けて、ちょっとした思いや感想をどんどんお送りしたいと思います。是非楽しみにしてください!


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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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8/11/2007

Comparing to Chinese (Part 2): Tones

I was glancing through a thread about low and high tones on my forum and it made me realize that we don’t treat tones with as much care as we should in Japanese (ie, virtually none). For example, if I were to describe it in Chinese tones, you really do need to pronounce 日本 with something similar to a second and fourth tone. In contrast, 二本 is more like a fourth and neutral tone. And this really could potentially be an issue. What if you said 日本ください instead of 二本ください? Now you’re asking for Japan instead of two bottles! What a わがまま!

Personally, I’ve had times when I would ask somebody about a new word I just learned and the person would have no idea what I was talking about. Then I’d write the word and he/she would say, “Oh you mean [X]!” and pronounce the word exactly the same way but with different pitches. See, without context you really do need to get the tones right.

And sure, context will cover your ass and prevent any mishaps most of the time but is Chinese any different? You know in Rush Hour 2 when Chris Tucker attempts to speak Chinese? It was hilarious but in real life, if you messed up all the tones, it just becomes gibberish. There are a few insidious homophones like eyeglasses vs eyes: 眼睛(yǎnjīng) / 眼鏡(yǎnjìng), but overall context should take care of one or two mistakes. I’ll have to watch that movie again now that I know some Chinese to see if they were really clever enough to teach Chris the wrong tones correctly to actually say the unintentional but hilarious lines.

Chinese has always had a notorious reputation of being insanely difficult due to the tones but I actually think Japanese is more difficult. With Chinese, at least all the tones are laid out and stay (mostly) the same. In contrast, Japanese really has no rules for pronouncing words with the correct pitch and it would probably change anyway depending on how you’re using it. Unlike Chinese, you’ll probably be understandable even with all the wrong tones, but you will still sound foreign and may even be difficult to understand.

We really should start thinking about patterns in Japanese tones and how we could effectively teach students how to pronounce things correctly not just phonetically but on the tonal level. For example, I’ve noticed that long vowels are often a high and flat tone (first tone in Chinese). Just listen to how train announcers pronounce 東京. (Tones are more clearly enunciated in formal settings like announcements and news broadcasts.) I’m sure by just practicing the long vowel sounds in this manner, you can significantly improve your pronunciation and sound more “Japanese”.

Can you think of any other neat tips for getting the right tones?


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7/15/2007

Skeptic calling out to all Heisig fans

Just a quick post since I’ve been very lazy lately. I just wanted to ask: Is there anybody in the world that learned how to write Japanese with James W. Heisig’s Remembering the Kanji? And notice I didn’t say Kanji because I’m sick and tired of hearing people say, “Yeah, I learned like 2,000 kanji in like three weeks!” Wow, that’s awesome. Now you can start actually learning Japanese!

You see, thinking “logic” and being able to write 理 doesn’t mean anything. First of all, 理 isn’t even a word. 論理、理論、理解、料理、管理、修理、義理、心理学 are words and until you can write real words in real Japanese, I’m not impressed. So I’d like to know: Is there anybody that learned to write a reasonable amount of vocabulary using this approach? And by a reasonable amount, let’s say about 10,000 words which is the amount JLPT Level 1 claims to cover. (You see, once you change Kanji into actual words, you’re in a whole different ball game.)

*Not that I’m promoting it but you can download a portion of the first book to try out here.


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