The podcast about learning Japanese.

Free Talk – New Year’s Resolutions

January 13th, 2012 Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments »

It’s a new year which means a fresh start, and I find this strengthens my resolve to improve. It’s positive energy that, harnessed correctly, I can take advantage of. There are many things I’d like to do this year. So this week, I thought I’d share some of what I’d like to do with this site and with my study of Japanese this year.

  • A second season of the podcast. It has been almost 4 years since the last episode of the podcast. We’ve attracted a lot of fans with our 今日の一言 posts on Facebook and Google+ and our blog posts, but The Japanese Learner was originally a podcast. My vision for it was to do something completely different from many Japanese language learning podcasts out there by stepping outside of lessons and listening exercises and hosting discussions with people who are learning Japanese, just like you. The Japanese Learner is all about our journey to Japanese mastery. If you haven’t already, I highly recommend you listen to our earlier episodes.
  • A broader range of content. We’ve attracted quite a following with our vocabulary notes on Facebook and Google+ and our blog posts. We’ve written about vocabulary, kanji, grammar, and ways of getting more conversation and listening practice. But there’s so much more to learning Japanese than burying your nose in books and flashcards or attending language exchange meetups (though we certainly encourage those things). Learning another language is a door to learning about a whole new culture. I think we can do more to aid that process of discovery and help you feel more of that sense of wonder.
  • Write and pass N2 of the JLPT. As you may have read, I wrote the N3 level of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test. The results of that won’t be mailed out for another month or two yet, but in any case I’d like to set my sights higher. A few years ago, before the N-levels were introduced, I passed level 2. Passing level N2 of the new test would essentially bring me back to where I was before a whole wave of Real Life got in the way of my studies.
  • More practical and comprehensive proficiency. I’ve been studying Japanese on and off for a long time, but I’ve never achieved what I could consider real fluency in the language. It’ll take a lot more studying and a broader range of materials to get there but I will never reach the level I’m aiming for if I don’t seriously commit to it. Admittedly, I could stand to practice a bit more of what I preach.  =)

Perhaps I’m biting off more than I can chew, but I’m going to try my best this year. If you haven’t already, I hope that this inspired you to think about your New Year’s resolutions for studying Japanese. Whatever those resolutions may be, I hope we can help you with them in 2012 and beyond.

Yojijukugo: Japanese Idioms in 4 Characters

January 6th, 2012 Posted in Learning Japanese | 1 Comment »

You may think learning the thousands of kanji you need to learn to read Japanese smoothly is more trouble than it is worth. You might be right. But they can sometimes be fascinating, too!

One of the most fascinating features of Japanese writing is 四字熟語 (yojijukugo). These are Japanese words and idioms consisting of 4 kanji characters. The first thing you might have noticed is that 四字熟語 is itself a 四字熟語. Okay, that might be less exciting for you than it is for me, but learning some of these can add rich flavor to your written and spoken Japanese. It’s also pretty fun to try and work out what a 四字熟語 means by looking at its parts.

The Wikipedia article linked above splits 四字熟語 into these categories:

  • Non-Idiomatic: these compounds are basically the sum of their parts. 四字熟語 is one of these — 四字 is “four characters” and 熟語 is “compound word”. For the most part, these compounds are really just two two-character compound words mashed together. Let’s look at some more examples:
    • 大学教育 (だいがくきょういく) a university education. 大学 is “university” and 教育 is “education”. Pretty simple, right?
    • 異字同訓 (いじどうくん) different characters that have the same reading. 異字 is “different characters” and 同訓 is “same reading”. 訓 is the same “kun” as in 訓読み, or “kun-reading”, which you may have heard of if you’ve taken up the study of kanji.
    • 屋内禁煙 (おくないきんえん) smoking prohibited indoors. 屋内 is “indoors” and 禁煙 is “smoking prohibited”. If you’ve ever booked a seat on a bullet train in Japan, you’re probably familiar with the second part because you were asked whether you want a smoking or non-smoking seat; that is, do you want a seat in a car that allows smoking or one that prohibits it?
  • Idiomatic: these are the most fascinating 四字熟語 and are, in my opinion, the most fun to learn and can greatly enrich your Japanese if used correctly. I would advise against using these a lot for fear of sounding really bookish at best and condescending at worst, but sometimes they are just the right tool for the job. Let’s look at some examples:
    • 十人十色 (じゅうにんといろ) looking at the characters, this literally means “ten people, ten colors”. Note the use of different readings for the same character, 十. This is translated as “to each their own” or “different strokes for different folks”.
    • 異口同音 (いくどうおん) by the characters, this literally means “different mouths, same sound”. This expresses the idea of many different people echoing the same sentiment. The English translation I’ve seen for this is “unanimous(ly)”.
    • 一期一会 (いちごいちえ) I’ve seen this one a couple of times in anime. It is often written with a calligraphy brush and ink for display in a traditional Japanese room. My cursory research on this one indicates that it comes from Buddhist scripture, or at least partially from it. The first part of it refers to one’s whole life, and the second part refers to one encounter. This compound tells us to treasure each encounter with others in our lives because they’ll only happen once.

Hopefully this has whet your appetite to start learning more 四字熟語. Some common ones may be found in your electronic dictionary or on WWWJDIC, but you can also find whole 四字熟語 dictionaries (like this) in print from your favorite source of Japanese books. There are also some good resources on the web, in case you don’t have a convenient source of Japanese import books:

  • A list of about 3,400 四字熟語. Last updated in 2009 so some of the entries might be stale, but still a possibly useful resource.
  • 四字熟語データバンク, a Japanese site with thousands of 四字熟語 with reading, Japanese definition, and translation into English. Also has some book recommendations.

Turn the Web into Reading Practice

December 23rd, 2011 Posted in Learning Japanese | 1 Comment »

So in our previous post, we expounded the importance of reading to building vocabulary and leveling up your Japanese ability. But you may have read that and wondered how to find things to read, particularly since not knowing a lot of kanji can make reading just about anything (except perhaps children’s books) a tedious ordeal. But if you’ve got an up-to-date web browser that supports extensions you can turn the entire web into reading practice, complete with the aid you need to read those complicated kanji! This article will cover extensions for Firefox and Chrome, but please send us feedback if you’ve heard of other great browser extensions that we haven’t covered here.

Rikaichan (Firefox/Chrome)

Rikaichan is one of the most popular Japanese pop-up dictionary browser extensions for Firefox. When the extension is turned on, you can hover over Japanese words and the reading and definition will appear. Rikaichan automatically de-inflects verbs and adjectives, meaning you can hover over a conjugated verb or adjective and it will know how to undo that conjugation back to the dictionary form to give you the definition.

To install, you need to install the core extension, as well as one or more extensions that provide the dictionaries. If your native language isn’t English, try installing one of the other dictionaries, like Japanese-French, Japanese-German, and Japanese-Russian. And if you need help with reading people’s names written in kanji, the Japanese Names dictionary might be able to help.

Need a Japanese dictionary you can call right from your browser? Rikaichan can expose a search bar for manually looking up words and can also show detailed entries for individual kanji. It is truly a one-stop shop for Japanese reading aid. The major downside to Rikaichan is that it will operate on every single Japanese word you hover over, which can make it almost too good of a crutch.

A port of the extension for Chrome is available here.

Furigana Injector (Chrome/Firefox)

Rikaichan is a pretty excellent tool and it probably wouldn’t be amiss to simply end this post without discussing any other extensions, but I want to highlight a Chrome extension that I’ve started using instead of Rikaichan, because it offers a very interesting feature that I think makes it an even better reading aid.

Furigana Injector is a Chrome extension that will insert furigana into a Japanese web site after it has rendered. There are a couple of benefits to this approach over Rikaichan’s approach:

  • Definitions aren’t shown by default. You can tell Furigana Injector to show the definition on hover, but you might find it beneficial to challenge your own vocabulary knowledge by not having the definition immediately accessible.
  • Furigana display means less hovering and more fluid reading, particularly if you’re familiar with many words but not how they are written in kanji. You can hover over a word just when you need its definition, if you turn the setting on.
  • Furigana Injector has a difficulty slider. You can tell the extension not to inject furigana for a certain number of the common-use (常用) kanji, or if you’re so inclined you can even edit the list yourself. This again allows you to challenge your own knowledge without having the answer immediately available.

So as you can see, Furigana Injector is a Japanese reading aid that can adjust itself to your level, something that Rikaichan simply doesn’t do. The major downside is that Furigana Injector doesn’t provide a manual lookup bar or detailed kanji entries. I’m also not sure how it performs on names, so if you start using this extension and run into trouble with names, please let us know!

I believe that there is a Firefox version and it is available here.

Now Go Read!

Once you’ve got the tools you need to make sense of difficult Japanese text on the web, all you need is to find things to read. We’ll be covering this gradually in future posts, either on the blog or on Facebook and Google+. What are your favourite Japanese sites on the web? Let us know!

The Importance of Reading

December 9th, 2011 Posted in Learning Japanese | 1 Comment »

It’s difficult to overstate the importance of reading to the intermediate-to-advanced language learner. We’ve already discussed the benefits of reading aloud, but in this post we’re going to expand more on reading and how it can rapidly improve your Japanese proficiency.

You’re past the little everyday set phrases like こんにちは, ありがとう, さよなら. You read those bits without it even registering. You can mentally substitute the (rarely used) kanji for some of them. You even know that ありがとう is really a polite conjugation of the adjective ありがたい. You just substituted the kanji for that, too. You don’t think about verb conjugation anymore. You can ask questions, get answers, follow a conversation. Japanese doesn’t sound or look foreign to you anymore; you’re just missing bits here and there.

But if you’ve been reading the blog or following along on Facebook and Google+, you’re probably thinking “how do I take it to the next level? How do I master Japanese?” Let me answer your question with a question: how did you learn English?

You may remember reading many pieces of literature when you were in school. Some of them were enjoyable, some of them were as boring as watching paint dry, but you read every single word and maybe even some CliffsNotes on top of that, and then you were asked questions too. “What did he mean when he said that? What theme is the author trying to convey here? Why do you think she decided to do that?” So why did your teachers put you through all this? What does reading novels that were written decades ago have to do with learning English?

Reading is, in and of itself, a core language skill. But reading also serves a very important purpose that truly justifies the hours and hours you spent studying stories and novels and plays and essays in school: it introduces you to new vocabulary in context and facilitates the study of complex ideas and themes.

Think about this: how many times has somebody asked you what a word means and you can describe it in context, but can’t come up with a precise definition? That’s because you didn’t learn it from the dictionary — it was perhaps explained to you once, in one context, and then you saw that word again and again in different contexts and you worked out its meanings and the nuances of using it.

Mastering Japanese requires knowledge of at least 2000 characters, possibly many more, and tens of thousands of words. After all, your English vocabulary is probably roughly that large or larger. How are you going to learn all that stuff? You could make up or download or buy a whole bunch of flash cards, but without context, it’ll probably leak out just as fast as it seeps in, and in any case it’ll be so boring you’ll probably burn out and quit. You might as well be trying to learn new English words by leafing through the Oxford on your shelf. Read something you enjoy, however, and picking up 10 or 20 new words hardly feels like work.

For the stuff that you really enjoy, try to fully digest and understand it. You don’t necessarily have to ask yourself all of the kinds of questions you used to get asked when you were studying Shakespeare in high school. In my personal experience I’ve found that the best way to do this is to think about how you would translate the text into English as you’re reading it. You don’t need to write out the translation — that’ll probably take too long and diminish your enjoyment — but you can certainly try if you’d like to. By trying to think of the best translation, you can nudge yourself to understand the material more deeply, because you can’t translate what you don’t understand.

Reading also helps you to become a better writer. You can observe the way that effective writers craft their sentences and apply those techniques to your own writing. Along the way, you also bump into idioms and turns of phase that will help you to express more complex ideas in fluid ways. Some of these can also be used in conversation, which will greatly improve your speaking skills.

So read. Read everything you can find that is even remotely interesting to you. Dig out those manga that you bought when you started learning Japanese but stashed in your closet because you couldn’t read them yet (and marvel at how much better you can understand them now). Read the news in Japanese. Find Japanese bloggers who write about stuff you love. As you do all of this, stop to look up the words that you don’t know and find a good way to record those words in context so that you can review them later (I recommend an Anki deck). Combine this with focused vocabulary studies (for example, political terms, or computing terms) and some conversation practice with language partners, and you’ve got a winning recipe to level up in Japanese.

And if you’re planning to take the JLPT N2 or N1 next year, start now. When you’re cruising through the 言語知識 and 読解 questions, you’ll be thankful for all of that reading you did.

The JLPT Exam Is Finally Here!

December 4th, 2011 Posted in Learning Japanese | 2 Comments »

Hey there folks! It’s that time we have all been waiting for!

Tomorrow is the JLPT Exam! For everyone that is going to   be taking it tomorrow, we would like to say:


“Everyone, good luck taking the JLPT!”

And just as a friendly reminder before you leave to take your test, please remember to bring the following:

– Test Voucher

– Photo I.D

– No. 2 or HB pencils

– an eraser

We hope that we have helped you prepare for this moment with our tips, tricks and strategies over the past couple of years.

Now go out there and show the world your proficiency in Japanese!

After all, you have worked so hard to get to where you are!

Enrico and I will keep you posted on our personal experiences and how we did once we get the results.


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Some Important Vocabulary for the JLPT

December 3rd, 2011 Posted in Learning Japanese | No Comments »

So I’ll be taking the N3 JLPT tomorrow (if I don’t get too sick again) and based on the positive response to our articles about the various levels of the JLPT, it seems that many of our readers are about to take some level of the test as well. I’ve taken the test a couple of times before, including passing the 2-kyuu (2級) back before the N levels were introduced. One of the things that I found striking about the test the very first time I took it (when I wrote the 4級) is that it is entirely in Japanese, right down to the questions and instructions. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so surprised at that but it was the first time I’d ever taken a language proficiency test.

Just as important as being able to answer the questions is being able to read them. If you don’t understand what you’re being asked for, how will you provide the right answer? So here’s a very quick review to help you understand the questions on the JLPT. And this really should be review; if it isn’t, you might be in trouble. The phrasing of questions on the test is meant to be appropriate to your level. If you’re feeling a bit unsure, have a look at sample questions for your level.

First, let’s name the sections of the test:

言語知識 (げんごちしき) – knowledge of language
These sections are intended to test your knowledge of different aspects of the language. The knowledge sections that appear on the tests are:

  • 文字 (もじ) – characters. This knowledge section is meant to test your knowledge of kanji characters and their compounds.
  • 文法 (ぶんぽう) – grammar. This knowledge section tests your knowledge of Japanese grammar and sentence construction.
  • 語彙 (ごい) – vocabulary. This knowledge section tests your knowledge of vocabulary words and their proper usage.
  • 読解 (どっかい) – reading comprehension. This knowledge section tests your ability to read and understand Japanese text.

The last section is 聴解 (ちょうかい), listening comprehension, which tests your ability to listen to and understand spoken Japanese.

Now let’s go over some vocabulary that can help with understanding the questions:

  • 最もよい (もっともよい) – the best. This is used for phrasing questions of the form “select the best answer for this blank” and similar. It’s actually a combination of two words. For N4 and N5, this tends to be expressed in somewhat simpler terms: いちばんいいもの.
  • 読み方 (よみかた) – way of reading, or the reading of something. This is used for phrasing questions about how kanji compounds are read.
  • 意味 (いみ) – meaning. This one’s pretty easy but I thought I’d include it for completeness.
  • 言葉 (ことば) – word.
  • 文章 (ぶんしょう) – sentence, but can also refer to a short article or composition.
  • 質問 (しつもん) – question. Which you will see in reading comprehension, because you will be asked to read an article and answer questions about it.
Hopefully this helps some of you with your last-minute preparations for the JLPT. Now I will go and buy some review materials to make some of mine. Best of luck to everyone who is writing the test tomorrow!

What Card Games with Maids Can Teach You About Japanese

November 25th, 2011 Posted in Learning Japanese | 2 Comments »

Kimberly is taking some time off to focus on her career. As mentioned in her previous post, she’s currently consumed with looking for employment. I will be updating the blog in her place. She will be continuing to maintain the Facebook page and I will continue to mirror that content to Google+.

An additional disclaimer for this post: the Japanese Learner is not affiliated in any way with Arclight Games.

Tanto Cuore box cover

My main method of learning Japanese has always been immersion. I’ve tried to surround myself with as many things Japanese as possible. It’s not always easy (or possible), but when it works, it works really well. Just about anything you like doing can be turned into a language learning opportunity. We’ve talked about such opportunities in video games, anime, manga, and music. Today, I’m going to talk about card games.

About a year and a half ago, I started to get into European and modern designer board and card games. I’ve been building up a small collection and it grows week by week. In particular, I like deck-building games, like Dominion. While browsing around similar games on BoardGameGeek — as if there is a board/card gaming enthusiast who hasn’t heard of the site — I bumped into Tanto Cuore. It is a Japanese designed and published deck-building game, similar to but in significant ways different from Dominion. I wrote about the game in my personal blog, a sort of summary/review based on my experience with the first English printing of the game.

Then, thanks to a friend at my new company, I started to collect the Japanese prints. And after that, I started to look at other games by the same publisher. Now I have several deck-building games, among other kinds, with Japanese card text and rules, which I have spent small bits of time reading and translating to make quick reference notes for when I play the games with my friends (though there is a lot of community support on BoardGameGeek as well, if you’d rather get right to the fun). I have managed to turn yet another one of my hobbies into a Japanese learning opportunity. But what am I learning, precisely?

  1. Grammar and terms for explaining the rules of a (card) game.
  2. Differences in card text that signify mandatory vs. optional actions (e.g. メイドカードを一度捨ててもよい, “you may discard one maid card”).
  3. How to ask questions about a game’s rules.
  4. Theme-specific vocabulary (Dynamite Nurse Returns has some medical vocabulary, for example).

So the quick take-aways from this post are these: if you like board and card games, you can find that in Japanese (Arclight also publishes versions of Power Grid and Thunderstone fully translated to Japanese, among many other great games) and, once again, just about anything you like can and should be turned into a Japanese learning opportunity.

Next week: a little bit of vocabulary in preparation for the Japanese Language Proficiency Test.

Status Update For The Japanese Learner

November 17th, 2011 Posted in Podcast News | 1 Comment »

Hey there everyone. This is Kimberly.

As you may have noticed the blog has not been updated last week nor will it be updated this week. (Unless you count this as a blog entry.)

I wanted to tell everyone what has been going on so you have a better understanding of the situation.

Last month, I was laid-off from my full time job and now I am using all my free time searching for a new source of income. This is why I have had no time to update the blog with tips for studying Japanese.

Do not worry, once everything gets settled and I can get back on my feet, I will be able to regularly update the blog once again.

I will keep you all posted on when the blog will be updated again. I hope to have a blog entry in time for next week.

Again, I am sorry for the inconvenience but I thank you for your support and understanding.

In the meantime, you can still check out our facebook page for daily word-of-the-day plus example sentences. Check us out today at:

See you soon! And keep studying!

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We’re on Google+!

November 7th, 2011 Posted in Uncategorized | No Comments »

You like us on Facebook, now you can circle us on Google+! Google has announced the launch of Google+ Pages and I’ve created one for The Japanese Learner.

I will be taking responsibility for administering the Google+ page while Kimberly continues her excellent work maintaining the Facebook page. And I will continue to interact on both networks when I can, of course.  =)

If you’re an avid Google+ user, join in!

How Reading Japanese Aloud Can Help with Speaking Skills

November 6th, 2011 Posted in Learning Japanese | 1 Comment »

One of the most important keys to really knowing a language is to be able to communicate in it.

It’s very important to be able to express your thoughts and emotions, while also being able to understand the thoughts and emotions of others.

One way of improving your speaking skills is to be able to read Japanese at your current level with ease and comfort.

It would be best to collect materials that pertain to your level of Japanese.

Our goal at this point is for you to read the material aloud in a natural native speed.

First, get a short story that is comfortable for your level and read it in your head. This will help you get a better understanding where the particles are, the spaces to pause and where intonations will rise or fall.

Second, read it out loud ensuring you are reading every syllable without any mistakes.  Then, read the story over again aloud trying not to make the same mistakes.

Just keep repeating the process until you are able to understand every word and grammar structure presented in the material.

It will take some getting used to but the more you practice the faster it will be for your brain to recall the words you are trying to speak. Because your brain will already know how to process what the word should sound like and how it sounds when you speak it aloud.

This also works best for those that have an accompanying audio file to also follow the native speaker while reading the story aloud. You want to try and mimic the way a native speaker would read the story.

If you have no audio with it, try your best to mimic intonation from watching the way they speak in Japanese dramas or movies from everyday situations.

Most of you will want to stick with the reading practice sections of your textbooks if you are studying from one or just simply do search on the internet.

There are countless websites available that provide reading material based on the JLPT levels.

We learn languages like how we learn our own native language by listening, mimicking, reading and writing the same material over and over again.

One more technique that helps with your speaking ability is to simply speak in Japanese aloud as much as you can without using your native language. You need to develop your speaking skills and what better way is there then speaking aloud while also trying to think in Japanese?

Try it out; I hope it helps you feel more comfortable hearing yourself speak in another language.


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