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!

Manga Recommendation: Orange

Today’s recommendation is Orange by Ichigo Takano. I have been meaning to read this for a while and I am so glad that I finally got round to reading it!

The story centres around a girl called Naho who receives a letter from herself 10 years in the future, warning her to make changes to her actions at high school to prevent a tragedy linked to her friendship group from happening in the future. The letter comes with a diary giving certain key dates and events that all help to change the future for the better. By heeding these warnings, Naho not only impacts the future of those around her but also learns a great deal about herself in the process. The manga switches back and forth between the present day Naho and the future version of herself, which is particularly engaging as you get increasingly curious about what has happened in the intervening years.

Orange grabbed me immediately and I couldn’t stop myself from reading it until I got to the end. I think the idea of wanting to go back in time and change things is something that everyone can relate to, especially when looking back to your school days. In addition, the relationships amongst Naho’s friendship group is particularly pleasant to read and this only makes the dramatic aspects of this manga more powerful. Part high school drama, part sci-fi, the blend between the two genres make the manga accessible but a little bit different from other slice of life manga you may have come across previously.

I recommend this manga to Japanese learners because the language used is everyday – no specialist vocabulary required. If you’re familiar with common slang, particularly within the high school setting, then following the characters’ dialogues is pretty straightforward. In terms of language level, I would recommend this for N4-N3 learners.

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.

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.

‘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.

 

Podcast recommendation: Bilingual News Podcast

I love podcasts, as I find them a great way of brushing up on my Japanese when I’m on the go. Fortunately I have found a new podcast which is great for my work commute: Bilingual News Podcast.

This weekly bilingual news podcast is hosted by Michael and Mami. Each episode is usually at least an hour in duration but the nature of the podcast makes it easy to listen for 15 minutes or so at a time.

Why do I recommend it?

Each podcast covers a number of current news stories from around the world which are usually read out by Mami in Japanese, then Michael follows up with the story in English. There is then a bilingual discussion around the topic.

I really like the podcast as you get to hear the article in Japanese first, then the English translation which allows you to check your comprehension before they delve into the given topic. Whilst the article summary uses the type of vocabulary and grammar constructions you woild find in a written article, the discussion that follows is always in more everyday Japanese. Mami normally sticks to speaking Japanese and Michael English, although they do both switch between the two languages.

There is an accompanying app which has transcripts for each podcast along with other useful functions such as the ability to make notes, vocab lists, use the dictionary functions and access essays. Whilst the transcripts for the first 3 episodes are free, This has a subscription fee of 240 yen a month. I have not tried it myself but as a relatively cheap subscription it sounds like good value for money.

Newspapers can be especially tricky but I think listening to this podcast, especially while reading the transcripts will really help you get used to the nature of the type of language that gets used in newspapers and how it differs to standard spoken language. I think if you already enjoy news digest podcasts and are looking to listen to something similar but in Japanese this is a good start. I would also recommend this if you are preparing for the JLPT, or if reading a newspaper in Japanese is something you would like to work towards.

Check out the podcast from the official website, and if you do enjoy the podcast make sure to show the team some love on Twitter or other social media 🙂

On Reaching Your Language Goals

So we have reached July, and hopefully I am not the only one wondering where the first 6 months have gone. Now is as good time as any to look back on the first half of the year and review any targets you have set for the year.

Do you remember what your new year’s resolutions were?

Have you not got round to setting them yet?

The problem with new year’s resolutions is that they are often too big and too vague to actually achieve. I suggest that if you are reviewing your resolutions or setting goals for the first time this year to do two things:

1) Break them down into smaller, more concrete goals

2) Work out what steps you need to take to achieve them

For example, if your goal this year was to learn Japanese, I want you to think about what it is about Japanese you want to master. Do you want to be able to understand an anime, travel to Japan, read a Murakami novel in the original language or something completely different? It is important to think about this because the nature of your goal will ultimately determine your approach to learning Japanese. All of the previous examples would require would require a different emphasis on listening, speaking and reading respectively and reflect varying levels of proficiency in Japanese.

Now that you have thought about what it is you want to achieve, think about the timescale you want to set to achieve these goals. Some goals will have a more clear cut end date – If your trip to Japan is to see the cherry blossoms in Kyoto then you probably have until next March to study, and if you’re sitting the JLPT then you would be looking towards the next sitting of the test in your country.

If an end date for your goals is not clear cut, then I suggest looking at a monthly check in. If your goals are language related, keeping a journal of what you have learnt will make it easy to review what you have learnt at the end of the month and to set targets for the next month. This is especially good where your target is a longer term goal (like learning to read Murakami).

With your smaller goals in mind, you next need to think about how you are actually going to achieve it. This is often the trickiest part, but is also the step that will ensure you keep on track. In regards to learning Japanese, this would relate to which resources are you going to use to learn basic phrases, kana, kanji and grammar.

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Fortunately even lazing around on Netflix can count as language learning 😉

The great thing about language learning in general is that there is a great range of activites that double up as language study. However the type of language learning activities you focus on need to be targeted towards your goal – learning kanji isn’t going to be necessary for a short trip to Japan but is essential for understanding Murakami! Do you have a Japanese friend that you can practise with? Is there a Japanese class in your area you can attend? Are there beginners textbooks you can lend from a local library? This may feel like an expensive endeavour but there are lots of free resources out there – most of the resources I recommend on this blog are free.

Finally consider when in your day you will realistically be able to fit in language learning activities and work around this. Make it your aim to fit in at least one activity a day, because consistency reaps the most rewards with language learning. I find that bullet journals or to do list apps such as Bright Todo are useful for keeping yourself accountable for maintaining, although setting daily reminders in your preferred calendar app works just as well.

If you can set yourself small goals and put together a realistic plan of how to go about achieving them, the world really is your oyster when it comes to learning Japanese, or any language for that matter. I’ll leave you with one last quote which I think ties in really well with today’s topic:

“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”