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.

Getting Your Language 5-a-Day

I’ve been reading a lot about successful people and their habits recently and thinking about how I can implement this into my own daily life. I realised that these people are successful precisely because they have developed habits that directly contribute to their success.

This is, of course, true of language learning as well – attaining a level of fluency in a language requires regular and consistent practice.

However, in our busy lives, it is incredibly easy for that chapter in your textbook or vocabulary list you were planning to study to fall by the wayside. So how do you strike the right balance between language learning and the other aspects of your life?

When thinking about the above, I decided to try and improve my own language learning habits by aiming for five language related activities a day, just like the recommended minimum five portions of fruit and vegetables we should eat in a day. 

If possible, aim to spread these tasks over the course of the day and try to focus on the different skills of reading, writing, speaking and listening.

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For example, I thought about when I personally have time in the day I can make better use of and came up with the following 5-a-day plan for learning Japanese:

  1. Morning commute: use an app like Hello Talk to chat to someone in Japanese (due to the time difference between the UK and Japan it makes more sense for me to do this in the morning)
  2. Lunch break: read something in Japanese (normally a news article)
  3. After work commute: listen to a podcast (normally Bilingual News Podcast or News in Slow Japanese)
  4. Before dinner: watch a Youtube video or something on Netflix in Japanese
  5. Before bed: write in my language journal or review new vocabulary

Needless to say, getting in 5 language learning activities a day may be too intense depending on your language goals. Hopefully the above can help you to think about the times in your day that you could spend more wisely instead of browsing social media, for example. It is important to think about what you want to achieve and then think about how you can set about achieving them.

The truth is, aiming to do at least one activity a day and doing that consistently should also bring about positive results.

I’ve written a little bit about achieving your language goals before and a key part of this is keeping yourself accountable.You can do this by using a calendar, bullet journal or app to track your habits.

I happen to use Google quite a bit but only recently realised that Google Calendar has a nifty goal setting function where you can set up reminders to work towards your given goal. I now have a daily language learning goal set up with a reminder that coincides with the beginning of my morning commute to work (mainly because I am a morning person and I am more likely to remember to study at this time). It’s quite satisfying to swipe away that little reminder I get, knowing that I’ve kept up my language learning streak!

Similarly, 30-day challenges are all the rage when it comes to health and fitness, but can be applied to language learning too. Particularly when learning a new language, this is a good way of making sure that you begin to familiarise yourself with the language from day 1 and start positive language learning habits.

My aim at present is to get at least 2 of these activities into my day on a particularly busy day, and as close to 5 as possible on a good day.

Do you have some sort of daily/ weekly/ monthly language learning plan? How do you prefer to track your habits? 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!

JLPT exam prep: Nailing the Listening Test

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Unfortunately you don’t get these snazzy headphones in the real exam

So we are in the final days before the July sitting of the JLPT. The listening exam is of course a big part of this, which can be tricky but at the same time is an area you can score pretty highly with a bit of practice. Here are my tips for tackling this section of the exam:

  • Listening to anything and everything in Japanese just before the exam. Especially when preparing for a language exam outside of Japan, you want to go into the test room having set your brain to Japanese mode.
  • Practice timings by doing a mock test in exam conditions. The exam has different type of listening questions, and depending on the level you are taking the composition of questions will be slightly different. It is important to practice the test under timed conditions to give yourself an idea of how long you have for each of the question types when sitting the real thing. At the beginning of the test the questions are more straighforward, but at the same time the thinking time for each question is pretty short. You do not want to be caught out early on in the exam where it is realtively easier to pick up marks. You can find example question papers with answers and the transcript on the official website.
  • Maxmise use of the reading time by making notes – by preparing yourself for what you might hear you can use the actual exam time for listening insteaad of stressing about what is being asked of you in each section of the test. The questions are written out in Japanese on the question paper, so use the reading time to make notes (if you have practised the exam previously, you shouldn’t have to spend too much time working out what each question is asking of you). Highlight words on the question paper that give you an idea as to what type of information you are looking for, often indicated by question words like どこ, なに, どんな, いつ, どうして. Make a mental note of what the differences are between the potential answers in the multiple choice sections, and for questions accompanied by a picture you could jot down the appropriate Japanese vocab for key items in the picture.
  • For the longer conversation questions, keep track of key points in the dialogue signposting the flow of the conversation. Words like でも, しかし, それから and その後 may precede essential information for answering the question correctly. When I sat the N2 exam this was really helpful to bear in mind, as the conversations can lead you towards one answer and then indicate the correct answer mid-way or at the end of the dialogue.
  • Writing something is better than nothing! These exams do require concentration for a long period of time, and if like me its been a while since you last sat an exam the whole day can be pretty daunting. This may seem obvious, but if you find that you’ve missed a key bit of information on one question, put something down on the answer paper and move on to the next question.

If you are reading this and about to sit your exam, good luck! More importantly, don’t forget to give yourself a pat on the back once it is all over – whatever the outcome of the exam is, getting to the stage of sitting the exam at any level is an accomplishment.