Studying Japanese with Songs

Early on in my Japanese learning, listening to Japanese songs accidentally became part of my study plan. I do not really listen to new Japanese songs much nowadays but every so often I will go back to artists I know I like and study the vocabulary from their latest songs. Language learning is all about fun, so if you love music I recommend trying this out at least once.

Whilst I would recommend studying songs as part of your language journey, there are some pros and cons to consider.

The good: Of course studying something you enjoy helps vocabulary to stick.

The bad: This is true in any language but not all songs reflect how language is actually spoken as lyrics tend to be more poetic. Similarly, song lyrics do not always make sense, so take unusual grammar structures and vocabulary with a pinch of salt.

Here are the steps I follow when I use songs as study materials:

Step 0 – Find a song you like.

I would have a Japanese friend recommend some songs or artists to listen to. I generally find ballad style songs to be a good choice because these are more likely to tell a cohesive story than a dance track for example. This is Step 0 because I’m assuming when you read this post you already have a song in mind to study with!

Step 1 – Find the song lyrics.

Google is your friend here: simply search for the artist name and/or song title, then add ‘歌詞’ (かし‘kashi’ meaning lyrics). The website I often use is called Uta-Net (all in Japanese). Just type the artist or song name into the search box and click on the red button to search.

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Step 2 – Listen to the song with lyrics.

How much can you understand just by having the lyrics in front of you whilst you listen? You might surprise yourself with what you can pick up at this stage – I often find that seeing the words written down helps you to pick out the words you already know.

Step 3 – Arm yourself with a dictionary/ Japanese friend and get meanings for the vocabulary and grammar structures you are unfamiliar with.

Use this exercise to get a feel for the overall meaning of the song. I wouldn’t worry too much about finding an exact translation into English as this is not always possible.

However translating can be a fun exercise to check if you have grasped the general meaning of the song. Again Google is really useful for finding a fan page of your favourite artist which may have English translations that you can compare your version to. Can’t find a translation? It may be worth posting your own and making translations a new hobby!

As previously mentioned, there may be kanji usage or grammar that doesn’t necessarily appear in everyday Japanese so make a note of it here. If you have a language notebook make sure you only jot down the most commonly used kanji or correct grammar structures. If you are a fan of flashcards, I would make new flashcards of the most common kanji/ vocabulary that crops up at this stage.

Step 4 – Listen again when you have looked up unfamiliar words and phrases.

How much do you understand now? It should be much more now that you have a better grasp on the song meaning.

 

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Don’t be afraid to pick up a microphone (or hairbrush) in the name of language learning!

 

Step 5 – Karaoke!

Japan is the home of karaoke and I couldn’t possibly write an article about Japanese songs without mentioning it. If you live in Japan I recommend you take the opportunity to go for an hour and try singing a couple of songs, no matter what your singing ability. Having to follow the Japanese lyrics onscreen is not easy but if you go regularly you will really build up your reading speed, especially when it comes to kanji.

Not in Japan? Try searching for a song you like on Youtube and see if you can find a karaoke version/ lyric video to practice with.

Bonus: if you play an instrument you may finding actually playing and singing along to songs helpful too. If you play guitar (or sometimes attempt to play the ukulele like me) you can find chord tabs for popular songs by Googling the song title together with コード (chords). I tend to use a website called Gakki.me.

How do you use songs as part of your language learning? Let me know in the comments!

Journalling in a Foreign Language

I came across a video by Hyunwoo of ‘Talk to Me in Korean’ which encouraged writing in a journal on a daily basis to aid language learning, especially if you are unable to immerse yourself in other ways (i.e. you have no native speakers nearby to talk to).

 

I’ve become acutely aware recently that my speaking and writing skills in Japanese have suffered a lot and so I am keen to build these skills back up again. As it happens, I ended up with two 2017 diaries so journalling in Japanese is a great way of putting the spare diary to use.

I have been doing this for a couple of weeks and I am really enjoying it so far. One thing I immediately discovered is that I absolutely have to write out the diary entries. Writing in my diary seems to engage my brain in a different way to typing something out on my phone, although I have always found that writing things out helps me to remember things more easily.

I think this is even more important where the writing system of your target language differs to your native language(s) – in the age of predictive text, you can end up solely relying on your ability to recognise words rather than producing them. For Japanese, I have found it much easier to pinpoint which kanji I need to review if I cannot immediately recall how to write it.

But I don’t know what to write/ I have just begun studying a new language!

Don’t worry about the content of your entries – even writing out a new word you have learned a few times will help to consolidate your knowledge. This is the time to experiment with new words and phrases you may have learnt but try to put these into sentences where possible. Some people find writing out sentences that they already know to be correct is helpful for revising new grammar points and vocabulary.

How do I check whether my writing is correct?

For short sentences and phrases, Hi Native is a wonderful app for getting quick feedback – check out my previous post on this to learn more.

For longer pieces of writing, I highly recommend a website called Lang-8. Aimed at language learners, you can publish posts and ask native speakers to read and correct your work. Japanese friends, of course, may be happy to do this for you but sometimes getting input from complete strangers can provide a fresh perspective. Being fellow language learners, I have always found the community on there to be extremely helpful with anything I need help with. Make sure that you return the favour and review other people’s writing.

Finally, don’t forget to periodically look back what you have written. I hope to compare my entries at the end of the year to the day I started and see that I have made some progress!

Do you journal in Japanese/ another language? Have you found it useful so far? Let me know in the comments.

Are electronic dictionaries worth it?

If you’ve been in a Japanese electronics store like Yamada Denki, you’ve probably come across rows of 電子辞書 (でんしじしょ), or electronic dictionaries often aimed at students and businessmen learning English and other languages.

As educational gadgets go, these little things can be pretty expensive, with top models costing hundreds of pounds. Obviously there is some benefit to having lots of dictionaries all wrapped up into one gadget, but in the age of smartphones is an electronic dictionary worth the investment for Japanese learners?

My Casio EX-Word XD-D4700 has served me well for a few years now

I can personally say that I have found my dictionary extremely useful and do prefer it over using apps. However I think the usefulness of an electronic dictionary does depend on how you study the language. I suggest considering the following questions before committing to any purchases:

 

How intensively do you study?

Whether I reach for my electronic dictionary or my or my phone depends on what I am looking up. I find the specialised functions of a dictionary the most useful when I am looking up more than one word (eg. Perhaps when I am starting to read a new book). The backlit screen and easy zoom buttons make reading definitions really simple, and if a word uses a kanji i have not come across before I am able to click on it and find out the stroke order much more easily. In addition, because I can choose from a number of different dictionaries it is easy to cross reference meanings and get more example sentences, whereas on my phone I would have to bring up each dictionary website individually. A crucial benefit of the model I have is that it has a touch screen where I can write kanji using the stylus and is much more accurate than the equivalent apps I have on other devices, especially if I am having to look up a lot of unfamiliar kanji. Even basic models will allow you to jump between different dictionaries easily, so if this is a function you think you would make use of then an electronic dictionary may be for you.

 

What are your language goals?

Your value for money for an electronic dictionary is going to depend on what level of proficiency you are aiming for in Japanese. It is worth noting here that the dictionaries you have on these gadgets will not have more casual or recent buzzwords; for this type of vocabulary the internet is definitely your best friend. If having a high level of literacy is part of your language goal – for example studying in a Japanese university, or pursuing a specialist profession in Japan – then an electronic dictionary is more likely to be a wise long term investment.

 

What level are you at currently?


Buying a Japanese dictionary in Japan of course means that you have a whole new gadget to get used to without a manual in English. A lot of features on the model I have are intuitive and fortunately with a bit of playing around it is quite easy to work out how to look things up. As a gadget aimed at Japanese natives, there are more dictionaries and resources solely in Japanese rather than Japanese-English/ other languages. Therefore if you are, for example, at a stage where you are looking at moving towards using a Japanese-Japanese dictionary, you will find much better value in purchasing an electronic dictionary.

Based on the above considerations, the types of people who I think would make the most out of electronic Japanese dictionaries would be those that are already at an intermediate level, who are perhaps in a situation where they are studying towards becoming proficient in Japanese for professional purposes.

This isn’t to say that you should not buy a Japanese dictionary if you do not fit the previous description, but given the expense I think you may want to consider borrowing a model from a Japanese friend if possible and see how useful you find it. I personally found my model on eBay, so looking online for a cheap electronic dictionary is another good option for keeping the costs down.

However if your budget cannot stretch to buying one just yet, do not worry as there are some great Japanese dictionary apps and websites out there which cost very little or are free. I will be writing a follow up post on my favourites so watch this space!

As an aside, if you prefer physical dictionaries and reference books, Tofugu recently had a highly informative guest post by Kim Ahlstrom about dictionaries that serious learners may find useful.

Have you got an electronic dictionary? Do you find it useful or prefer using an app or physical dictionary? Let me know your thoughts in the comments!

Boosting your Japanese skills with super short stories

When practising reading skills in Japanese, having to tackle a long article with a dictionary can be daunting. Literature in particular can be tricky to understand depending on the author’s writing style. With this in mind, I started looking for really short stories for Japanese practice.

I was concerned that when reading shorter stories you are having to rely much more on inferring certain things from the text which would make them a lot trickier than longer passages which have the space to explain the story in greater depth. However I needn’t have worried too much because the majority of short stories do a great job of setting the scene quickly whilst using language that is too complicated. Having said that, the stories on the websites I mention below may not be the easiest to follow as a complete newbie to Japanese. These stories should be a good place to start for intermediate learners – beginners may be interested in starting with my posts on beginner reading resources instead.

The shortest of short stories are the so called ‘one minute stories’. For us language learners it is unlikely we can read it in one minute but the brevity of the stories still makes it accessible in only a few minutes, making it much easier to fit in a quick study session whilst you having a coffee break or waiting for the bus.

I’ve looked online for some resources with really short stories in Japanese that are much easier to tackle and found a couple of sites that are full of these super short stories:

The first website I can recommend is called Kakuyomu, which has a whole host of 1 minute stories written by amateur Japanese writers. My favourite one of the ones I’ve read so far is called 「赤ん坊の思惑」- it is the definition of a short but sweet story in my opinion.

The second website I want to introduce has lots of 300 character stories which is supposed to be the equivalent of 1 minute’s reading time, all written by an author known as 海見みみみ. I’ve read quite a few of these and really enjoyed them – my recommendations include「留学前夜」,「思い出コレクター」and「魔法女子になりませんか」. I think the stories on this website are on the whole more accessible than Kakuyomu.jp, so don’t be too disheartened if you find the stories on there too difficult – you may have better luck with these stories.

I’ve certainly found it really rewarding reading some of these quick stories and love how easy they are to fit into my day. It’s definitely a good way of boosting your tadoku count!

Are there any stories you’ve particularly enjoyed? Let me know in the comments 🙂

Reading Resources for Japanese Beginners: Part 2

As promised, here are three more reading resources for Japanese beginners that are not news article focused.

JP-Lang

This website has a variety of resources for Japanese language learners, but I specifically recommend that beginners take a look at some of the beginner level dialogues (there are also a few essays about Japanese culture in the reading section as well). Whether you are looking at the essays or the dialogues, both are good for reading practice as each allows you to set the kanji on or off as well as the English translation. As a beginner you do not always want to jump into reading a longer article, and dialogues in particular are a good way of ensuring you are picking up the correct situational words and phrases across various topics.

Wasabi’s Fairy Tales and Short Stories with Easy Japanese 

Wasabi has five stories (a mixture of Japanese classics and traditional Western stories like Jack and the Beanstalk) broken down into a number of lessons that split the story up into shorter sections. Each lesson has audio (at both slow speed and normal speed), furigana, English translations and a vocabulary list. Wasabi recommends these story lessons at N4 level learners and I think this series offers a good entry point for upper beginners to start studying famous Japanese stories.

You may also want to check out Wasabi’s series on learning Japanese expressions through manga.

Hukumusume

This is a Japanese language website full of children’s stories. Do not be put off by the fact that this is aimed at Japanese children because it still remains a good resource for Japanese learners, because each story is accompanied by audio.

Finding easy Japanese fiction can be difficult, but the children’s stories are written in a simple enough way for Japanese learners to try reading. There is no furigana or English translations here, so having a plugin like Rikaichan here is recommended for looking up unknown words quickly. There are children’s stories from around the world on this website, so you may prefer to start with a story from the 世界の昔話 section where you can select stories from a country of your choice and focus on stories you are alresdy familiar with.

Manga Recommendation : 甘党ペンギン by けんじそにし

Today’s recommendation is 甘党ペンギン(あまとうペンギン/ amatou pengin/ ‘Sweets Penguin’) by Kenji Sonishi. This is a manga series about Penta (ペン太) the penguin who is a rather well known attraction living at the local zoo. He begins to frequent a coffee shop run by a young man called Inoguchi. Naturally, Inoguchi is not only shocked by a penguin visiting his cafe but also by Penta’s dedication to trying out various desserts and sweet treats with his coffee.

Each chapter showcases two or three of these desserts that do actually exist in Japan, particularly Hokkaido.

 

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I can personally vouch for LeTao’s desserts being absolutely amazing

The chapter then ends with ratings and comments on each of the desserts featured. Like Cooking Papa I do not advise reading on an empty stomach as you will get hungry!
Whilst Japanese learners outside of Japan may not be interested in how these desserts are rated, I still recommend this manga. The interactions between the various characters at the cafe are entertaining to read. More importantly, the language in this manga is much more accessible than others and so I think if you have covered all N5 grammar and vocabulary you would be able to get started with this fairly easily. Furigana is included with all kanji characters which allows you to look up unfamiliar words, and each chapter is fairly short which are both pluses for beginner learners.

Have you read this manga? Let me know what you think in the comments!

Podcast Recommendation : News in Slow Japanese

Are you interested in listening to news articles whilst learning Japanese but don’t have time to tackle a full length piece? Then News in Slow Japanese may be the podcast for you.

Every week or so Sakura produces a short podcast of 2-3 minutes long covering something that has been in the news recently. Each episode of the podcast has this news piece read at a slower pace to allow learners to pick up on words and grammar points they may not have caught at native speed. There is also a version of the same article being read at native speed to test your listening skills.

I had been alternating between the slower speed and native speed episodes to see what I could pick up, and then looking up the words I didn’t know to add to my language journal. Little did I know that the website for News In Slow Japanese is a wonderful resource in itself – here you can find printable pages for each episode with transcripts in kana and romaji as well as ready made vocabulary lists! It is also worth mentioning that the website allows you to sort by topic, so if there is a topic you would like to study in more depth you can choose to focus on that only, which is useful no matter your Japanese language level is.

These podcasts and accompanying website have clearly been decided with language learners in mind. I think this resource is a good way of dipping your toe into newspaper style articles and seeing how much you can pick up: at only a couple of minutes long it is easy to listen to an episode a day without feeling too overwhelming. Sakura herself recommends using the podcasts to shadow a native speaker’s pronounciation, rhythm and intonation, which is certainly a great way of making use of the podcast in addition to testing your listening skills. Some of the earlier episodes have YouTube videos with the transcript, which some learners may find helpful too.

Everything I have mentioned above is free, although Sakura offers a monthly subscription service that gives you access to additional study materials for reading comprehension, vocabulary tests and shadowing.

I think this resource is best more intermediate and above learners, but I think the short form of the episodes makes the podcast accessible to advanced beginners too.

Reading Resources for Japanese Beginners: Part 1

When starting out with Japanese, it can be really difficult to find appropriate language learning materials. I myself struggled with this – the usual recommendations of books aimed at children, but these are often full of unusual or nonsensical vocabulary.

Fortunately nowadays there are much better (and free!) resources out there for Japanese beginners. Here are a few of my favourites that are appropriate for JLPT level N5-N4 learners.

Watanoc

This is a free web news magazine with short and interesting articles aimed at Japanese beginners up to intermediate level. You can filter by JLPT level, or narrow down articles by topic if you prefer. If you click on certain pieces of vocabulary you can check the kanji reading and English meaning. Translations of each article are available in English, Vietnamese or Chinese. The articles have a lot of pictures , as well as the Japanese audio too which all in all makes it a great place to read interesting stories about Japan.

Hirogaru

Like Watanoc, this is a website with short articles on Japanese culture aimed at students of the language. It is an excellent site for practising your reading comprehension as you have to option to add furigana, hide the vocabulary lists and a mini quiz at the end of each article to test your understanding. All articles have pictures and short video clips as well as the Japanese audio which provides a fun multimedia experience. The articles are grouped by topic, so you can easily focus on a topic of your choice. There is no indication of the level of language used, but I believe that the articles are very accessible to N5 and N4 level learners.

Coscom

This website has been around for a fairly long time, but still remains a really good resource for Japanese learners. There are a lot of learning materials on the Coscom website, but I particularly recommend the Weather Forecast and the Headline News articles for upper beginners (in terms of vocabulary and grammar I’d estimate this to ne around N4 level) on the left hand side bar. Both pages are comprehensive in content as they have the option to view the articles in romaji, kana or kanji and also include Japanese audio, vocabulary and grammar points used. Unfortunately only the most recent articles are available for free but it is worth checking the website every week or so for new material to read.

Matcha Magazine – やさしい日本語 version

The English language Matcha Magazine website is a Japanese travel magazine full of recommendations for places to visit and things to do in Japan. I recently discovered that if you click on the languages drop down menu, you can change the website language from English to やさしい日本語. This allows you to read the same types of travel articles but in simpler Japanese compared to the Japaneese version of the website.

Each article comes with furigana and English for some of the katakana words (this is pretty useful as some words can be incredibly difficult to work out!). As this does not have a lookup feature within the website and does not directly link to the English language versions of the same article, I’d say this website is better for upper beginner to intermediate learners (N4 and above).

I hope the above four websites are of some use to Japanese beginners. I am aware that all of the above are either news articles or non-fiction, so if you are looking for something a bit different to the above keep your eyes peeled for Part 2.

‘Appy Mondays: HiNative

Ever had a burning question for a speaker of your target language but no one around to ask? HiNative is the app for you! This app has been around for some time but before trying it out myself I was quite skeptical, but I am a definite convert.

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It helps that the app’s mascot is super adorable!

Why is the app recommended?

When you create an account you can specify what languages you are learning and which languages/ countries you are already familiar with. Based on these choices you can see questions and answers on your language pairs which you can then contribute to. You can also record audio and ask native speakers to critique your pronunciation!

It is particularly good for those who are learning languages where local native speakers are in short supply, which makes it a good choice for Japanese learners. There can be times whilst you are learning a language when friends who speak the target language are less likely to correct you on errors. Therefore getting a complete stranger’s input on whether something sounds natural or not is always a good idea. It is certainly true that when learning Japanese, the best thing is to ask a native about issues such as word usage; no matter how good your dictionary may be, it cannot always capture the unique nuances that certain words may have.

I thought that HiNative was solely about language questions, but it can be a great way of asking questions about the culture(s) you are interested in. I saw lots of questions about music and TV recommendations, food culture, sports, etiquette, travel which sparked some interesting discussions. Ultimately as a language learning app, it attracts people enthusiastic about other languages and cultures and so people do their best to be encouraging. This kind of supportive community is just the thing you need to keep yourself motivated during your language learning journey. Even if you only have 5 minutes while waiting for the bus or brewing a cup of tea, you can be doing something productive by using this app.

You can find the HiNative app on the App Store or Google Play store for free (though there is a premium version available) – find further details on the official website.

Manga Recommendation: 日本人の知らない日本語

Today’s recommendation is manga series called 日本人の知らない日本語 (nihonjin no shiranai nihongo) by Nagiko Umino. Despite the meaning of the title (something along the lines of ‘The Japanese langauge that Japanese people don’t know’), this is a highly recommended manga for students of Japanese.

The manga is written from the perspective of Nagiko, who works as a Japanese language teacher. The manga focuses on her experiences of teaching international students Japanese and what she learns about her native language in the process.

You are bound to find at least one story that you can relate to as a Japanese language learner. It is often funny, but manages to always be sympathetic to the plight of the international students whilst being incredibly informative.

Each chapter normally begins with one of the international students posing a question about an aspect of the language. Nagako often responds by explaining the history behind this aspect of the language as part of her answer. For example, there is a chapter about the origin of hiragana and katakana which I found particularly fascinating.

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It turns out that hentaigana like the above were in use until the 20th century!

Having this historical background really helps to flesh out how the language has developed into its current state and help you remember the Japanese correctly.

At the end of each story there is a mini essay about the topic covered, normally emphasising to the Japanese audience this is aimed at what struggles learners of Japanese often have and why. There are also mini quizzes testing you on an aspect of the language covered in the chapter (with answers). From a learners perspective this is a good way of checking that you’ve understood what was covered.

In terms of language level I think JLPT N3 level and above learners will get the most out of all of the content (including the mini essays at the end of each chapter). N4 level learners however may be able to follow a lot of the dialogue with help from a dictionary. Reading this manga may just help you avoid the pitfalls that a lot of us fall into on our language journeys!

If you find the manga a bit too tricky, there is a drama adaptation that aired in 2010 which is also worth a watch. If you do watch the drama, you might want to check out the drama’s official website which recaps the main grammar points and vocab from each episode.

Have you read this manga or watched the drama? Let me know your thoughts in the comments.