Choices in learning Japanese

Japanese is a Japonic language associated with ridiculously unique people, interesting shows, and world-renowned video games. The language has two alphabets (hiragana and katakana, collectively called kana) and one expansive set of characters (kanji). It can sound a bit intimidating, but don’t be daunted by this; you have a choice of just how fluent you want to be. For my personal learning, I wish to be able to associate any set of characters with any other set of characters I want, so in Japanese, I work on nearly all of the combinations, both ways:

  • Associate the kanji with the kana
  • Associate the kanji with the romaji
  • Associate the kanji with the meaning
  • Associate the kana with the kanji
  • Associate the kana with the romaji
  • Associate the kana with the meaning (not actively worked on)
  • Associate the romaji with the kanji
  • Associate the romaji with the kana
  • Associate the romaji with the meaning
  • Associate the meaning with the kanji
  • Associate the meaning with the kana (not actively worked on)
  • Associate the meaning with the romaji

For example, associating the kanji with the meaning involves things like tying what the kanji looks like to the idea it represents, like the kanji for cat (猫) and a picture or story of a cat. Associating the kana with the romaji would be a simple task of learning which hiragana or katakana corresponds to which romaji letters. By now, I know the kana well enough to be able to skip the kana vs. romaji combinations and treat them as if they were one, which cuts down on the separate matching that kana or romaji would make with kanji individually.

This form of learning gives me a solid foundation to understanding Japanese no matter its form or how it’s written to me, whereas – and there’s no harm in doing this if this is your preference – some people may choose to do this condensed version instead:

  • Associate the kanji with the meaning
  • Associate the meaning with the kanji

“But romaji is bad!”

Some people advise new learners to skip romaji. I absolutely do not recommend this. Being able to write Japanese in a form easily pronouncable and clear to non-Asians is a hugely useful skill.

I think the take-home idea of what people are trying to communicate when they say “don’t learn romaji” is this: don’t rely on only romaji to learn Japanese by, as kana and kanji are ridiculously important and 100% cannot be avoided if you truly wish for spoken as well as written fluency in the language. I do advise saving learning how to -write- kanji for really advanced learning, if even then, as even many Japanese can’t remember from scratch how to write many kanji, as shown in this video.

If you’re going to be reading a lot of Japanese material, the important focus is of course to learn how to recognize characters, not write them from scratch! Besides, unless you’re writing a job application in Japanese with no computer or outside help whatsoever, if you don’t know how to write a kanji, you can always just represent it with hiragana. While the Japanese can read their language in romaji, kana is of course preferred.

Don’t be afraid of the writing system. Besides, with so many resources available as well as so much interesting media, Japanese is a great language to learn, and learning the kanji gives you a fantastically solid head start if you want to learn Chinese later!

My Japanese resources

Here’s the Japanese equivalent for my Korean resources, my Swedish resources, and my Norwegian resources, in order from most to least used and helpful:

  • Memrise: Vocabulary building via flashcards. Used all the time during any stage of learning Japanese, or any other language, for that matter. Using Memrise is like using flashcards, but a lot more beneficial since it utilizes not just repetition, but spaced repetition. That means it checks how long ago you learned a word and reminds you to revisit the word at a time when you’re most likely to be about to forget it. It often has (user-created!) mnemonic devices to help aid the recall process even further. I wholeheartedly recommend Memrise to anyone who’s learning any language. You can even create your own deck to help other users practice! Here’s a detailed deck I made myself for Japanese that splits words into categories like godan verbs, na-adjectives, and more. 😀
  • Guide to Japanese: The Japanese Guide at Guide to Japanese is extremely helpful, and is the number one source I use to build my grammar.
  • Tanoshii Japanese: Tanoshii Japanese, while it’s a fantastic Japanese to English (and vice-versa) dictionary, also has hiragana, katakana, kanji, and vocabulary lessons, and will teach you kanji immediately before showing you some words containing the kanji you just learned! It also has extremely helpful games you can play, and you can tie your progress to your account. I absolutely recommend this site, as it’s basically somewhat of a Japanese-specific Memrise, catering specifically to ways that would help one test their hiragana, katakana, kanji, and vocabulary knowledge.
  • Lingua Junkie: Lingua Junkie gives a fantastic breakdown of many different ways to say the same thing, which means it’s a fantastic way to build your vocabulary and stop saying things the same way every time. For example, there’s an article about 22 awesome ways to say how are you in Japanese, and one for 22 ways to say I agree in Japanese. I definitely recommend these, and there are plenty more on the site!
  • JREF’s Japanese Slang article: Great for learning Japanese slang, the value of which cannot be understated if you want to learn real-world Japanese!
  • Tangorin: Like Tanoshii Japanese, Tangorin also serves as a great Japanese to English (and vice-versa) dictionary, and is incredibly helpful with the meanings of different kanji. Because of the extra features (and the more attractive interface), however, I like to use Tanoshii Japanese more often.
  • Hotarun: Like a hybrid of Tanoshii Japanese and Verbix, Hotarun will explain what a kanji means or conjugate verbs for you, among many other things!
  • The vocabulary and grammar lessons here are very simple and to the point!
  • The Japanese Page: Over at The Japanese Page, there’s a great section called Fast Track: 100 Grammar Points that is just glorious in jump-starting your Japanese grammar knowledge. It teaches you 100 short grammar snippets on how to use words like “about”, “for example”, “this”, “that”, “that over there”, and more.
  • PuniPuniJapan: PuniPuniJapan definitely wins points for being adorable. It’s a fabulously colorful website that really makes Japanese learning cute and fun, and it teaches vocabulary, phrases, and grammar for free.
  • Japanese Professor: Japanese Professor has great lessons in order to learn Japanese!
  • Daiu International: Daiu International has a bunch of vocabulary lists to suit your fancy, whether you want to specifically learn more adjectives, pronouns, or even some Japanese proverbs.
  • Nihongo Ichiban: There are some grammar lessons here, and also some survival Japanese lessons if you just want to get your feet wet and no more. If you’re serious enough about Japanese to take the JLPT (general Japanese proficiency test) or BJT (business Japanese proficiency test), though, it also helpfully contains lists for vocabulary you’ll need to know for J5, J4, and so on.
  • Like Daiu International, Jonsay has great vocabulary lists like this one for different categories such as computers, directions, and even the Japanese words for dinosaurs! They have vocabulary lists for other languages, too, not just Japanese.
  • Japanese websites about interests: For example, if you’re interested in anime, why not trying to read some words off of once you have some kanji and vocabulary under your belt? Or maybe read some articles in English about some cool stuff Japan has going on and practice reading the Japanese around it.
  • Verbix: I use this verb conjugator for pretty much any language I’m learning!
  • Japanese Verb Conjugator: With a slightly easier to understand format than Verbix, this “Ultra Handy Japanese Verb Conjugator” is a great way to find out how to conjugate a Japanese verb if you’re at a loss! However, even though it has a prettier format than Verbix, the conjugations are automatically generated.

Continue reading My Japanese resources

Asian adventures

Whew. The past year has been a whirlwind of travel craziness, even moreso if you stretch it a bit further and count summer 2014. I’ve headed from the US to Norway, to England, Poland, and the Czech Republic, and back to Norway before flying back to the US, whereupon I took a detour to Puerto Rico over the winter, returned to Miami for spring break, and went to New York for the first time. Then, after moving three times since returning from Europe to the US and finishing my Bachelor’s in Computer Science in spring 2015 – along with meeting a whole lot of fun and interesting new people along the way – I sold or gave away most of my possessions, said “Bye” to the country I’ve lived in for ~22 years, and purchased a one-way ticket to Norway, but not before popping over to Colombia to see South America at least once before leaving the western hemisphere.

After spending only a week in Norway, I hopped over to the Netherlands where I had an absolute blast with old and new friends for about a month before going for my first time to Belgium. From Belgium, I bought a ticket to South Korea and commenced my teaching job here, learning a lot of Korean and about the country’s culture from one of its very own, small cities.

And now, in approximately one-and-a-half months, I’ll be on the move again. Where to this time? Well, first I will go around Korea to the places I haven’t seen yet but want to before I leave, such as Jeju Island, Daejeon, more of Seoul, the Demilitarized Zone (between North and South Korea), Gangwon province, Daegu, and more of Busan. After that, I will close out my apartment here in Gochang, say “See ya later!” to the friends I’ve made here, and head to…


And I can say I’m quite excited! The destination is not so much of a surprise if you’re somewhat familiar with Asia’s geography, but it will be the first time I’ve set foot in a place where so much of the media I’ve watched and played over the years originates from, and I have to say I’m pretty happy. Both to see Japan, and to leave Korea as Korea has been kind of a drag. More on that in another article, but to sum it up, the job and benefits are great, but the country, people, and largely the food do not suit me. But I’m satisfied: I’ve met plenty of great people here and learned a lot about myself. I’m just happy to be getting to the relative beauty and politeness of Japan, and see some friends that I’ve had there for awhile.

The rest of my plans thus far are pretty tentative, but the current plan goes somewhat like this: I’ll spend three or so months in Japan, going to at least Osaka, Kyoto, and Tokyo (if not more), then head to Taiwan, Hong Kong, maybe Vietnam (if I bother to get a visa for it, which is a somewhat annoying requirement), maybe Laos or Cambodia, but then definitely Thailand and down to Singapore.

After that, the current plan is to head back to the place where I’ve decided I want to get a residence permit and branch off from there in the future. I’ll espouse more on which country that is in another article! For now, I wonder: can you guess?

Japanese katakana

Here are some mnemonics to help with learning Japanese katakana – which is the second best place (after hiragana) to start learning written Japanese (Check out this katakana chart, this one, and this one, too!):

  • ア – a: Looks like an “A”xe. (pronounced “ah”)
  • イ – i: Looks like a lowercase “I” with a long dot. (pronounced “ee”)
  • ウ – u: Looks like the hiragana “U”!
  • エ – e: Looks like an “E”levator!
  • オ – o: Looks like a man tripping – “O” no!
  • カ – ka: Looks like the hiragana “KA”!
  • キ – ki: Looks like the top of the hiragana skeleton “KI”y!
  • ク – ku: Looks like the side of a “KU”p! (pronounced “koo”)
  • ケ – ke: Looks like a lopsided letter “KE”! (pronounced “keh”)
  • コ – ko: Has two “KO”rners!
  • サ – sa: Dancing the “SA”mba/”SA”lsa!
  • シ – shi: “SHI” always smiles at me.
  • Continue reading Japanese katakana

English agreement

In English, our way to agree with someone is very confusing.

If you’re asked a negative question such as “Don’t you like it?” and you say “No”, this most probably means you don’t like “it”. But because of how inherently confusing this structure is, we often go on to clarify our answer: instead of saying “No”, we often say “No, I don’t” just to make super sure the person understands which way we lean. If we were asked “Don’t you like it?” and we said “Yes”, that would most likely mean we did like whatever “it” is (but of course, to clarify, we’d probably instead say “Yes, I do”).

Most Asian languages are the complete opposite of this. In Korean, Japanese, and other Asian and even non-Asian languages, saying “Yes” means you agree with the sentiment of whatever was said, regardless of whether it was positively or negatively worded. If the person didn’t like “it”, then in response to “Don’t you like it?”, they would simply say “Yes.” The asker asked if she didn’t like it, and that’s what the answerer agrees with.

Let’s do one more example to make the difference even clearer. If I say “No class today?”, and there was no class, an English speaker’s response would probably be “No”, as in “No, there is no class today.” However, a non-English speaker would most likely respond to the question “No class today?” with “Yes.” In response to “No class today?”, saying “No” would mean “No, there actually is class today.”

Another point: when asking for confirmation, we take the negative tense of whatever our verb was. Let me show a few examples:
Continue reading English agreement