Thursday, December 31, 2009

A Rainbowhill Retrospective for 2009

Almost to the end of another year, and what a big year it has been. I have a lot to be thankful for, good health, family and friends, and the support of you my readers and students. Thanks for following. If you've read more than a few posts then you hopefully you'll have noticed that blogging for you is also a learning process for me.

If you have been here for a while and haven't commented, the invitation is always open. There are also many other ways to connect, become a fan on Facebook, follow me on Twitter. If this is your first time here this post will thread a path for you through the archive, and is probably a good way to get to know me better. If you like what you read, please pick up the feed.

Teacher/Pupil: Twitter 19/365
Teacher/Pupil: Twitter 19/365

Got to know where you've come from to know where you're going.

I started January with Japan Blog Matsuri post about keeping yourself open to possibilities when travelling to Japan or preparing to live there. The inspiration for getting back into blogging was provided by Chris from Nihongo Notes who blogged about getting over your perfectionist streak. Thanks Chris, your insights helped unblock my inner blogger and helped get this blog back on track.

The message I have is still pretty much the same, maintaining an open mind and understanding your motivation is most important if you want to make the most of the Japanese experience. Any experience you have is yours alone to have, so I asked you what's your flavour of Japanese? A post by Jon on the Kurosawa classic Rashomon had me thinking how inseparable culture and language are. Your perception invariably influences your version of reality.

Get your blog on.

One of the most commented on posts of the year asked if learning Japanese loanwords make you lazy. The post actually lay dormant for quite sometime until I submitted it to JapanSoc and it got picked up on Twitter. I was responding to a mothballed review written in 2001 of Giles Murray's entertaining book of techniques for learning Japanese reviewed elsewhere on this blog. It showed me how a little controversy can go a long way to getting some posts noticed.

In February I posted three ways to enjoy Japanese curry rice, another Japan Blog Matsuri organised by Deas from Rocking in Hakata. Mid month I spent two weeks in Japan before coming back for more eduFire where I learnt that teaching in more than one time zone can be tough. With the exception of Field Mice and Japanese Mnemonics most of my lessons since have been at times that make it hard for those in Australia and Japan to take part. So hello North America and Europe, the Middle East and South Asia!

In March I investigated how reading Manga can be good for your Japanese and how there is always room for humour with some bad Japanese puns. I followed up in April with a guide to learning Japanese through manga with the help of my Twitter friend @natuskigirl.

One thing that I must learn how to do well is some kind of weekly link post. I toyed with the idea of sharing links that my students share in the eduFire classroom and did a photographic retrospective of Spring Sumo tournament. These kinds of posts probably should happen more often, but they also need to contribute a more to the blog than just an automated dump of delicious links or a Flickr feed. April was also the where I tapped into 6 ex-pat perspectives on Japan, a theme I continued with 7 J-bloggers far from Japan in June.

The rise and demise of Superpass.

Superpass was launched in June, and discontinued in December. In that short time it provided me with enough momentum to attract over 300 students to my classes on eduFire, so I'm grateful for it. I'll be exploring new ways to maintain that momentum in the new year, and will continue to produce top content and articles relevant to studying the Japanese language. I'll be looking for ways to offer exclusive discounts to existing students and readers of my blog. Get in early for a subscription to my email newsletter, launching in the new year where you can learn about these discounts first.

Moving forward.

Part of the formula for attracting and supporting new students has been the goals I create on I blogged about the introduction of colloborative goals in July, and not much else. I got back in to the swing of things with a guest post on Caught*Red-handed about the history of written Japanese and organised a forum for students of Japanese students on eduFire. There was also a bit of fun with bottom grabbing on Twitter.

In September it was all about the JLPT and test preparation with a five step series to ace the JLPT. The five posts outlining the five steps were also completed in 5 days, which was a bit of an experiment in speed blogging. I was also lucky enough to be able to give away a free month of SuperPass to @aggettzz who was overjoyed. I found posting a series of blogs to complement my classes on eduFire helped maintain my motivation. In October I began a book review of 13 Secrets for Speaking Fluent Japanese, a text I've been using in my Fast Track to Fluency classes.

My network on Twitter has been a fabulous source of inspiration for blogging, and even a source of answers where I am unable to provide them to my students. I find every time I'm asked a question that people really want to know, like "what are the best apps for learning Japanese on iPhone?" I get the best answers from my Twitter friends.

Again in November I asked if my friends were using a monolingual Japanese dictionary and came up with 3 good reasons to use a Japanese only dictionary. I had previously written an article for eduFire How to Choose the Best Japanese Dictionary, but I wanted to go into more detail about discovering new vocabulary using a Japanese monolingual dictionary.

By the end of November most people studying Japanese were preparing for the Japanese Language Proficiency Test. I could probably do a lot better at rounding up resources for the JLPT, but it's a long way off now and there is plenty of time. At least I have a game plan for how I'd like to approach the JLPT in 2010.

Thank you for reading.

It has been a big year, and I have lots of people to thank. I'm planning to have an even bigger year in 2010 and I want to get things of to a good start. Why don't you become a fan of the Rainbowhill Language Lab on Facebook or follow @rainbowhill on Twitter. If you have done a lesson with me on eduFire, please tell me what you think, I want to get to know you better. If you haven't already, Get in early for a subscription to my email newsletter. In it you'll find discounts on lessons with me, specific tips for preparing for the JLPT and of course all the best content on Japanese language and culture.

All the best for 2010!

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

New Japanese Language Proficiency Test for 2010

No Test Content Specifications for New JLPT 2010

Earlier in December the Japan Foundation and Japan Educational Exchanges and Services (JEES) released further detail about the New Japanese Language Language Proficiency Test. As has been reported elsewhere this marks the first time the test has been offered with five levels, with a extra level intended to bridge the large gap between the previous 3rd and 2nd levels.

Other bloggers were quick to point out other major departures from the the previous test format, including the intention not to publish test specifications or past tests, and the requirement to pass each section of the test for an overall pass. It seems that the Japan Foundation have moved to modernise the test to measure both “Japanese language knowledge, including vocabulary and grammar,” and “the competence required to perform communicative tasks using language knowledge.”

There are also other small changes to the presentation of test sections, and the types of questions within them. Under development is a 'can-do' list of proficiencies which will be provided to help examinees and other better understand the test in practical terms.


What does this mean for you if you want to take the test in 2010?

Some things never change, like the need to do hour upon hour of mind numbing study, but if you want to know if the test is right for you here are some answers to questions I get asked all the time.

Who is it for? The JLPT was devised in 1984 to respond to a growing demand among students of Japanese to evaluate and certify Japanese language ability. It has grown in to a internationally recognised test the results of which have been used for employment screening and evaluation for pay rises and promotions. In 2008 well over half a million people took the test in centres all over the world.

Why should I do it? You should do it if you want to certify that you have passed a standardised test which measures Japanese language proficiency. The Japan Foundation have expanded the aims to inlcude measuring “the competence required to perform communicative tasks using language knowledge”. I don't think a paper based test will never come close to testing your communicative ability without a spoken section. Having said that though, it's always good to have something to aim for and if you need some reason to break open your text books this is as good as it will ever get.

What does it test? Test levels N5 (beginner) through to N3 (lower intermediate) are broken in to three sections; vocabulary, grammar/reading and listening. Test levels N2 (intermediate) and N1 (advanced) include vocabulary and reading/grammar in the first section, and lsitening in the second. Speaking and writing are not measured directly. Answers are machine scored multi-choice as in the current test. More details are provided in the New Japanese-Language Proficiency Test Guidebook - Executive Summary (pdf).

When is it held? In 2009 the JLPT was held on the first Sunday in July, but the level 1 and level 2 tests were held only in Japan, South Korea, China and Taiwan. The first Sunday in December is known to most who have taken the test as a day of dread all over the world. If you plan on taking the test this year, nothing less than your full comittment from day one is needed to pass at the level appropriate to your perceived ability now. There is a handy table in the executive summary (pdf) of linguistic competencies required to pass each level.

Where is it held? The test is held in over 150 locations outside of Japan, however in 2009 the July test was only held in China, Korea, Mongolia and Taiwan. Locations for the test are not normally confirmed until test vouchers are received but you can get a good idea if one is close to you by looking at the list of local host institutions. Application forms are not normally published until a few months before the test date either, and outside of Japan they can be a bit hard to come by. Host institutions are the first place you should ask, their phone numbers are published on the same list. For those of you wanting to take the test in Japan here is the list of test sites, and a link to bookstores where you may purchase the application form.

How should I prepare? The Japan Foundation have determined that it is inappropriate to publish "Test Content Specifications", a major departure from previous years. Their reasoning is that rote memorisation of vocabulary, kanji and grammar does not guarantee you are capable of using Japanese for communication. It does go a long way however. I have written about the best way to prepare for the JLPT, and have run some online training on how Ace the JLPT at any level. I plan to run similar training in 2010 and tailor content for the select group of people that sign up for my newsletter that launches in the new year.

How will I know what is on the test? The executive summary (pdf) contains a “Composition of Test Items” at each level of the test, which is something you can use to structure your study. Other things that could prove useful include the “A Summary of the Linguistic Competence Required for Each Level” found in the executive summary (pdf) and the "New Japanese-Language Proficiency Test Sample Questions" found on the official website of the Japanese-Language Proficiency test.

Which level should I take? Since the new test levels correspond to the past test levels past tests are always going to be the best way of establishing your current level. The only grey area is with N3 where the number of kanji and vocabulary required fall somewhere between the old level 3 and 2. Jonathon Waller has created an excellent comparison of the old versus the new JLPT with descriptions drawn from the JEES to help you decide which test to take.

After all that, if you still want to take it, please read on.

Let there be no illusions.

This test takes a fair commitment of time and energy, you must make sacrifices. There are few excuses on test day if you rock up unprepared, and the pit in your stomach is bottomless when you realise all that time has gone to waste in March when results are released. If you want to know how others who have just taken the test are spending their time right now see my light hearted attempt to infuse some joy in to the long wait for results.

It is also clear from reading the executive summary that you must come to the test a well rounded student with no obvious weaknesses.

"examinees must now exceed the minimum acceptable score for both the total as well as each scoring section. Failure to exceed the minimum acceptable score in any scoring sections will result in a fail for the entire test."

I'll be going into much greater detail about how to prepare for the test for those that sign up for the newsletter. In the meantime check out past posts on preparing for the JLPT, including an hour of exam preparation training on eduFire, and the series 'Ace The Japanese Language Proficiency Test At Any Level'.

5 Steps To  Ace The Japanese Language Proficiency Test At Any Level 5 Steps To Ace The Japanese Language Proficiency Test At Any Level is a Free Online Seminar at eduFire

How will this change your approach in 2010?

Are you taking the test this year? Do you plan to do things differently this time around?

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Get Your LangFreq On Twitter

New Tool LangFreq Helps to Uncover the Most Common Words on Twitter

Everybody loves Twitter for the people, but not many people know how useful the bots can be. When Evan Williams talked about the impact of persistant communication on being social at LeWeb03 in December 2007, it was in the context of Twitter as a command line interface.

The idea had been around for quite some time and came about as Twitter began to open up the API, heralding the rise of Twitter as a mobile applications platform. A whole ecosystem of apps and bots sprung up around the api, now inhabiting the Twitter fan wiki in various states of (dis)repair.

One of the points Ev liked to make was that too often we ask "What can we add to a product to make it better?" He thought rather we should be asking "What can we take away to create something new?"

The new austerity.

Many of the bots that have sprung relate to productivity or novelty, but there is also a small handful devoted to languages. One of the most recent additions to this burgeoning hive of activity is LangFreq by Zyaga. LangFreq is set of language tools including word frequency, phrase rank and comparison, language translation and identification.

Zyaga and I first talked about his ideas in my Japanese classes on eduFire as he was developing these web tools to compare word frequency across a few languages. During an exchange of emails I suggested that Twitter would not only be a good source of data, but a good platform for a command line interface to his web work.

A Twitter bot is born.

The LangFreq suite of language learning tools is in beta so there is still plenty of work to be done, already it's showing lots of promise. LangFreq is built on the simple premise that someone studying the 100 most frequent words in any language would be much further ahead than someone studying 100 words at random.

Linguists have long been aware that there might be some advantage to learners in identifying a core vocabulary[1]. There are a certain number of high frequency words in each language that cover a large proportion of words in common use[2]. The notion of a core vocabulary has also become a central principle of some language learning systems, notably Pimsleur.

LangFreq addresses the need to know these most frequent words simply and cleanly on the website for English and Spanish. For Japanese however, the situation is a little more difficult. The trouble with Japanese is that it is difficult to define where one word ends and another begins[3]. Although it is possible that breaking words down into smaller units makes it easier to work with, doing so limts the applicability of the tool.

Japanese is a language largely built on compunds of two or more kanji and the okurigana that helps identify the nature of the verb conjugation or adjectival inflection. It will be interesting to see how Zyaga solves this computational problem. It might be worthwhile taking another look at Jim Breen's classic Japanese dictionary WWWJDIC, or looking at the work of Rick Noelle and his Japanese Sentence Parser which uses the MeCab morphological analyzer.

Taking a closer look at the bot.

Please go and take a closer look at the bot @langfreq, I'll be doing an indepth comparison with some other similar bots in the next week or so.

It's pretty easy to get started. There are only four commands including help, rank, translate and identify. The bot is an elegant way to get this kind of information about core words when you are out and about.

Have a play around with it and tell me what you think. Do you use bots like these?

1. Carter, Ronald. “Is there a Core Vocabulary? Some Implications for Language Teaching*.” Applied Linguistics 8, no. 2 (February 1, 1987): 178-193.

2. Nation, I. S. P. Learning vocabulary in another language. Cambridge Univ Pr, 2001. [pdf]

3. Douglas, M. O. “Japanese Cloze Tests: Toward Their: Construction.” [pdf]

Friday, December 18, 2009

Blogger Disclosure and Food for Thought

Recently the FTC said that it would revise rules about endorsements, testimonials and advertising to include blogging and social media. Although this blog falls well outside the FTC's jurisdiction the NYT article has provided me with food for thought about the kinds of endorsements I make on this blog and how my relationship with advertisers may affect my relationship with you the reader.

Although I've been blogging for years, I first started taking this Japanese language and culture blog seriously about the same time I started teaching Japanese on eduFire. I initially saw this blog as both a vehicle for promoting my lessons and establishing some credibility as a language instructor.

If you have taken lessons with me before, please tell me what you think, I want to get to know you better.

In the past year this blog has become much more than that. It has become part of a conversation I am having with you, and the broad community of people with an interest in the culture and language of Japan. I've made so many interesting friends and been exposed to many new ways of thinking. I have lots to be thankful for, well beyond any financial reward I could ever hope to gain from blogging.

So what's the occasion?

My motivation for blogging has always been about communication and personal growth, and it will continue to be. As 2010 the year of the Tiger comes around it provides me with the opportunity to renew my commitment to you, to continue to provide top quality content and opportunities to learn about Japan and the Japanese language. I'm also making a renewed commitment to blogging for fun and for profit.

I want to be upfront about my motivations for blogging with you. I have seen friends do this kind of personal disclosure well, and others with a sense of good humour, so I thought I too would take this opportunity to connect with you.

My blog and how I make money

Just so there are no secrets, I make money from teaching people Japanese. But you knew that already right?

I had one affiliate link for SuperPass which has generated a modest number of clicks but no conversions. Now with SuperPass gone I'll be looking for ways to offer exclusive discounts and subscriptions to readers of my blog. Get in early for a subscription to my email newsletter, launching in the new year where you can learn about these discounts first.

I also make money, not a lot, in fact a very small amount of money through an the Amazon Associates program. In future I may experiment with advertising, but at the moment I'm happy with the way things are on this blog without it.

Sometimes I am offered freebies to evaluate and blog about. In these cases, I'll let you know because I think it's important you understand the relationship I have with the people behind the product. Product reviews of this type are difficult to do, but I won't shy away from telling you if a product has faults. I have a responsibility to you my reader to tell it like it is. If a product is poor quality, or if the people behind it aren't behaving ethically I simply won't blog about it.

My ethical standards.

My golden rule for endorsements is "does what I promote have real value for readers of my blog". I am also less likely to promote something I haven't used myself unless there is a compelling case for doing so. If there is anything you think doesn't quite sit right with you, please bring it up with me, because chances are others might feel the same way too.

What's in it for you?

Thanks for making it this far through this rather dry post, I will return you to your normal programming soon. There has to be something it for you for sticking with me this far:
  • Expect more workbooks, this time focussing on grammar and verb conjugations, because you asked for it. 
  • Keep an eye out for greater integration between smartfm goals, eduFire lessons and the workbooks, because the combination has worked well in the past.
  • Look out for free themed lessons on eduFire that coordinate with the exclusive content found in the newsletter.
  • Anticipate courses and course-ware that use the very latest technology and have very clear outcomes for learning.
I'm looking more ways to connect with you, to understand your needs and tailor content to help you achieve your goals. So let me know about it! What would you like to see on this blog? What lessons would you like to take? I want to hear about it in the comments, or take the survey.

Become a fan on Facebook, follow me on Twitter, grab the blog feed and sign up for the newsletter. There are plenty of ways to join in the conversation!

Monday, December 07, 2009

How to put the fun back in to Japanese now the JLPT is over

5 ways to enjoy learning Japanese beyond JLPT

Congratulations! You've just come through the grinder that is the Japanese Language Proficiency Test. It probably doesn't feel so bad now, but in the next few days you're probably going to have some withdrawal symptoms. Cramming for tests takes up a lot of your time and energy, and no matter how you look at it, it's not much fun. In this post we'll look at some ways to fill the time between now and test results, and hopefully put some joy back into learning Japanese.

Some of you may feel quietly confident at first but then the nagging doubt will creep in. Some of you will know that you botched parts of it, and now you're only waiting to find out by how much. I put the following question out there on Twitter yesterday because I know what some of you must be going through right now.

I'm looking for suggestions about what to do when the JLPT is over. Any ideas? Trying to bring the joy back into learning Japanese.

Thank you to everyone that responded on Twitter, I'm glad to have found a such an interesting bunch of people to follow!

1. Remember the reason you started studying.

When you started studying Japanese did you have a clear idea why? For some people its because they want to learn enough Japanese to read manga or understand anime, for others because they have work or travel plans that involve extended periods of time in Japan. For some, its just for fun and to keep their minds nimble.

@rainbowhill I suppose that depends on why you started learning it in the first place. Remember that reason, do it.

Studying for a test usually has the unwanted side effect of destroying your internal motivation. The constant repetition may be good for boosting your vocabulary, or aiding your kanji recall, but how well does it prepare you for interactions with people? My guess is not very well.

If you rely on an external motivator to achieve your goals, when that external motivator changes or disappears, you  risk losing focus on why it is you started studying in the first place. Kevin's advice is simple, rediscover your motivation for learning Japanese. What is your version of Japanese?

2. Read stuff.

Preparing for a test is different to using Japanese naturally to engage in culture. Reading is one of the most direct ways to experience culture, and even more important if you can't immerse yourself in it physically.

@rainbowhill Read stuff from aozora bunko!

In the lead up to the test you may have wanted to read manga, but you probably focussed on reading lots of very boring textbooks with short disconnected passages and obscure grammar. This is good in the short term, but practice tests fall well short of what I call exciting reading.

Get back to basics, find something you really enjoy reading. You'll probably find that reading something for the second time you're able to get through it much more smoothly. There are lots of good reasons why reading can be good for your Japanese. Harvey came up with a fabulous link to an almost limitless supply of reading in Japanese with the 青空文庫 (Aozora Bunko). I'm a big fan of blue sky learning too!

3. Find something fun to study.

Chill out, relax, spend the evening on YouTube Japan or ニコニコ動画 (nico nico douga). Have a good laugh, so it brings you back to earth. Play games, learn like a child, do a bit of bottom grabbing on twitter.

@rainbowhill After cramming for the JLPT, take the time to study something a bit more fun and enjoyable. Expand on what you crammed for.

Do something a little different, it will help you find new ways to explore your new found confidence with Japanese. Be creative with your time and remember, learning is meant to be fun. Thanks Katie!

4. Concentrate on a weakness.

Having now done the test you will have an acute sense of where your weaknesses are. Use this to refocus your attention on improving these weak areas when you turn back to the books. Doing so will not only provide you with fertile ground for improvement it will help you weed out bad habits in your study technique.

@rainbowhill I will be concentrating on kanji kanji kanji after jlpt ... Without kanji will never really know Japanese

Outline a plan to improve in this area, remember that hard won gains in an area of weakness unlock large gains in other areas. Tone has identified clearly her weakness, and isn't afraid to share it. Where do your weaknesses lie? What are you going to do to correct them?

5. Start studying for the next level.

Have you heard the best way never to fear falling off a horse is to get right back on after you fall off? It might be painful initially, but now that you have the momentum why waste it?

@rainbowhill Studying for the next level ... that's what I'll be doing :)

Make sure you have some measurable goals, but never lose sight of why you started studying in the first place. Matigo may seem the masochist here, but I bet he makes good ground on the next JLPT level while the rest of the world is sleeping.

Update: Go on! Get away from that computer and get out of the house already!

I noticed this response from Philip a day after the original post went up. It is worth mentioning because of its sense of urgency. My sentiments precisely, get out there and use it! Its not Latin you know!

@rainbowhill Try to actually use the language! Stop cramming kanji, go out and talk, read & write using what you already know...

How will you spend the next few months before results are released?

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Secret #6 for Speaking Fluent Japanese - Synonym Generator

How to be five times as fluent in Japanese.
The sixth post of the series -13 Secret Techniques to Put You on the Fast Track to Fluency in Japanese.

Giles Murray's idea of increasing your powers of expression by memorising vocabulary and conceiving ideas in clusters of five is an idea that just keeps on giving. This alone is good reason to read 13 Secrets to Speaking Fluent Japanese. I first encountered a similar strategy when working in eikaiwa, as a way to expand vocabulary by using a dictionary and thesaurus to go beyond the word you had just learned and memorise a family of associated words and expressions.

Through a process of association, the original word is supported by synonym, litotes, exaggeration, comparison and fantastic statement. Learning to sort memory in these groups allows you to adjust your delivery to become more expressive, and increases your descriptive power even when you are running short on vocabulary.

The men and the ghost ?
The men and the ghost ? by, on Flickr| CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

This strategy can be used on any type of word, but in this chapter of 13 Secrets it adapted for the description of an array of wild characters, the kind you would expect to meet in a b-grade schlock horror.

Rather than go down the familiar path of poking fun at people you'd probably get more use out the technique when you apply it to descriptive words you use everyday. All too often you can get stuck in the rut of using the same vernacular to describe completely unrelated events. I want to show you that with a little lateral thinking you can start expand your vocabulary.


Take a simple expression like かんたんだ (kantanda | easy) and you already have a synonym.
You could go a little further with:

Or, change direction with some thing not that difficult:
sonna ni muzukashikunai
not that difficult

If you're in the mood to exaggerate then you might add a something to make things seem easier than they were:

Or you could compare it to some thing ridiculously easy, like pie.
pai mitai ni
like pie
Fantastic statement

If you are willing to take things to extremes then I'm sure you could do the next one with your eyes closed
me tojitemo dekiru
you can do it even with your eyes closed
Putting it all into practice.

None of this is any good unless you prepare a little bit every day to stretch your boundaries. Spend a little time tonight going over a descriptive word you use often enough to the point of being over repetitive and try saying it a different way.

Remember it's not about having an English glossary running in parallel with your Japanese. With enough practice you should be freely making these word associations, leaping from synonym to litotes and exaggeration without ever crossing the line back to your English mind.

If you need a place to start with some descriptive words, try this list of 66 Colourful Japanese Adjectives on Let me know what fantastic statements you come up with in the comments.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Japanese Language Proficiency Test Preparation

Are you preparing for the JLPT this year?

Sometimes it's hard to know where to start when it comes to preparing for the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, how is your preparation going? There is a lot you can do to make sure you are well prepared for the test. It's also important to remember the test is not the ultimate goal, communication in Japanese is.

Testing by JanneM, on Flickr | CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The JLPT can be a real motivator to learn the language and get exposure to a wider vocabulary, even so it's a very one-sided way to develop your language skills. Having the 10,000 word vocabulary expected of you to pass level 1 is only a fraction of what the average high school graduate learns, and that is only a fraction of the total number of words in the language. This Japanese dictionary has over 500,000 entries (JP).

Get out there and have fun, there is life after exam hell. Here is a simple review of the JLPT topics I have covered on this blog.

Review your test preparation strategy.

A while ago I covered things I did to ensure success at the JLPT, an idea which developed further this year into an eduFire class and series of blog posts. September this year, in How To Ace The Japanese Language Proficiency Test At Any Level, I delivered five essential techniques for doing well on test day.

Use the right tools.

Choosing the best Japanese dictionary when you start out is very important, but as your Japanese improves you'll want to make sure you're using a monolingual dictionary. Here are 3 Good Reasons to Use a Monolingual Japanese Dictionary:
  1. Monolingual dictionaries contain authentic grammar and vocabulary.
  2. Monolingual dictionaries reinforce vocabulary and make it easy to discover more.
  3. Monolingual dictionaries give clearer clues to context.
Eventually you'll want to know how to use dictionary-like power of using explanatory phrases to describe something you don't know the name of. But first you'll need to know how to use a Japanese monolingual dictionary to discover meaning.

There is also plenty of software that can help you master Japanese. One of my favourite is Nihongoup, you'll find a full review of this game-like tool for learning the written Japanese language. I also encourage people to learn how to read japanese kanji with Read The Kanji a spaced repetition service.

You can really start to get the most out of a spaced repetition service when you can build your and collaborate on other people's lists. does this really well, they might be going through a few changes at the moment but I'm looking forward to what they come up with. I've invested a lot of time and energy into creating a bunch of lists to help you learn Japanese, so I really hope they sort things out soon.

Learn Japanese with the right people.

There is nothing like finding the right people to share your enthusiasm for learning Japanese with. I go into much greater detail about how to prepare for the test on my newsletter. In the meantime check out past posts on preparing for the JLPT, including an hour of exam preparation training on eduFire, and the series 'Ace The Japanese Language Proficiency Test At Any Level'.

5 Steps To  Ace The Japanese 
Language Proficiency Test At Any Level 5 Steps To Ace The Japanese Language Proficiency Test At Any Level is a Free Online Seminar at eduFire

How will approach your JLPT study in 2010?

Are you taking the test this year? If you've done it before, do you plan to do things differently this time around?

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Secret #5 for Speaking Fluent Japanese - Hypothesis

How to go beyond the merely factual

The fifth post of the series -13 Secret Techniques to Put You on the Fast Track to Fluency in Japanese.

One of things Giles Murray is able to achieve with his book, 13 Secrets to Speaking Fluent Japanese, is a blending of authentic Japanese texts with the idea that fluency comes by stripping back your inhibitions and crafting new mental filters.

This chapter includes the production If - The Adventures of a Gaijin in Tokyo, an original 16-page manga by Tadashi Nomura of Tezuka Productions which aims to give you mastery of the subjunctive "painlessly". The manga as been been produced as animation and posted for your viewing pleasure on YouTube. Sit back and enjoy the story before we look more closely at the grammar.

What if there were more detail?

There isn't much grammatical detail given to the hypothetical structures condensed in to the brief yet entertaining manga of a romance that could have been. Reading the story of a young man's misadventure in Tokyo is hardly going to give you fine control of the hypothetical, but it is a concise way to explore a variety of important conversational devices like speculation and regret.

The claim that you'll "develop a mastery of all hypothetical forms by intensive exposure to them in the form of a custom written manga" needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Giles even concedes this in the introduction to the chapter when he suggests that for a fuller explanation of grammatical forms you read Yoko M. McClain's Handbook of Modern Japanese Grammar.

I haven't read McClain's handbook but I do have A Dictionary of Basic Japanese Sentence Patterns by Naoko Chino. Using Chino's classification system for each of the 30 sentences, I am able to break them down into 2 basic patterns with a few variations. Let's take a closer look at the 2 basic patterns and their variations with examples from Nomura's manga. The first Basic Pattern 47 is a verb pattern, identify the verb in each example and see how it changes.

Basic Pattern 47 - The Subjunctive with V-tara

The first example is where the verb ending changes with 'tara'. As is often the case with Japanese sentences this one left open ended.
kare ga resutoran ni ikanakattara...
And if he hadn't gone to that restaurant, then...

Variation 1 on Basic Pattern 47 - The Subjunctive with 'V-ba'.

The second example use the verb ending 'ba' to express speculation as to what might have happened, this time closing with the second clause.
ano otoko ni deawanakereba, resutoran ni ikanakatta deshou...
If he hadn't met that man, he wouldn't have gone to that restaurant...

Variation 2 on Basic Pattern 47 - The subjunctive with 'to'.

This next example expresses one thing happening as a direct consequence of something else It can not be used in conjunction with a command and is used in a similar way to 'when', or in this case 'if'.
nihon ni ryuugaku wo shinai to, hontou no nihongo wo oboeraremasen.
If you don't go to Japan, you'll never learn real Japanese.

Basic Pattern 15 - Subjunctive adjective sentence with 'tara'/'dattara'.

The second Basic Pattern 15 is an adjective sentence, again identify the adjective in each example and see how it changes.
hima dattara, issho ni kouen wo sanpo shimasen ka?
If you're free, will you go for a walk in the park with?

Variation 2 on Basic Pattern 15 -Subjunctive adjective sentence with 'kereba'.

This time the adjective conjugates to form an ending much like the verb in the second example above. How do you know it's an adjective?
apa-to ga semakunakereba ii no ni.
If only the apartment wasn't so small.

Variation 3 on Basic Pattern 15 - Subjunctive adjective sentence with 'nara'.

The clause ending 'nara' may be used following a noun, adjective or verb and is often used in much the same was as 'only if'. In this case the condition is already believed to be true so the guy stepping out of the car reasonably expects that his desire for English conversation will be fulfilled.
kare ga amerika jin nara, eigoryoku wo migaku koto ga dekiru.
If he is an American, I can brush up my English skills.

Getting your head around the grammar.

Wow, that was quite a bit of grammar. Don't be overwhelmed though, it's all about recognising the recurring patterns. The next step to understanding how these patterns work when expressing regret, disappointment or the hypothetical is in identifying them as they appear in the text or video.

Review the video again, listen carefully and count each time you can her the patterns described above. Stop and rewind, play it again if you need to, this is an intensive listening exercise. In the comments below you're invited to share what you find, and create your own example sentences. In class this morning we speculated what would happen if he hadn't eaten that fugu...

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Secret #4 for Speaking Fluent Japanese - Statistics

How to Master Numbers over 10,000

The fourth post of the series -13 Secret Techniques to Put You on the Fast Track to Fluency in Japanese.

In my last post in this series I showed you how you could master the numbers from one to ten by associating them with easy to remember catch phrases found in phone numbers. The joy of numeracy doesn't end at 10 however, in fact real mastery of Japanese numbers starts at 10,000. Unlike English, where large numbers are counted in units of one thousand until one million, in Japanese large numbers are counted in units of 10,000 until 100 million. Giles Murray in his book 13 Secrets to Speaking Fluent Japanese outlines a technique to divide large numbers into 10 bands and choose a representative statistic as a reference you can call on at any time.

MARKETS-JAPAN-STOCKS/ by artemuestra, on Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

It's a good idea, but there are two problems I have with the way they are presented in 13 Secrets. Giles doesn't emphasise the natural way kanji can assist in breaking down large numbers in to readable chunks. The statistics are also well out of date and seem to centre around dry economic figures that I just can't relate to, but more about that later. Let's approach the first problem with just a little kanji under our belts.

Kanji from 1 to 10.

This is a really good extension from last week's telephone numbers game, because again it emphasises the natural way Japanese learn numbers. Sound out the following kanji from one to ten.

The four zeroes.

Sounds like a really good name for a Japanese punk band right? It could be, but it relates to the way numbers jump into the next range of magnitudes. Remember how I said Japanese count to 10,000 and start a new set of numbers to count by? The western world counts three zeroes, you can see it in how the comma is placed in the examples below. Look at the right hand column though.

The first four darker rows include numbers in the range of 4 zeroes to 7 zeroes and is signified by 万 (まん|man). The orders of magnitude in this band are denoted by 一、十、百、千 (1,10,100,1000). The next four grey rows are signified by 億 (おく|oku) with 8 zeroes and the count starts again from 一 to 千 with a new zero each time. The last 2 rows are signified by 兆 (ちょう) with 12 zeroes. By the time you get here the numbers are so large that it doesn't go much sense to go any further than 十兆 (じゅっちょう|jucchou) with a whopping 14 zeroes.

Roman Numerals
一万 (いちまん|ichiman)
十万 (じゅうまん|jyuuman)
百万 (ひゃくまん|hyakuman)
一千万 (いっせんまん|issennmann)
一億 (いちおく|ichioku)
十億 (じゅうおく|jyuuoku)
百億 (ひゃくおく|hyakuoku)
一千億 (いっせんおく|issenoku)
一兆 (いっちょう |icchou)
十兆 (じゅっちょう|jucchou)

So all you really need to know are the numbers from 一 to 十、百、千、万、億、and 兆 and to start counting again after four zeroes.

The problem of relevance.

If something is going to be memorable, it has to be interesting. I'm no good at pulling big numbers out of thin air so I spent a bit of time on Wolfram|Alpha the worlds first computational knowledge engine. I wanted to know more about Japan, the Japanese language and culture.

The first thing I did was find out about the Japanese language, because there are bound to be some interesting statistics about the number of speakers in certain places around the world. It's probably something I should really know about too.

Native speakers per country:

Japan | 126 million people (99%)\nUnited States | 805000 people (0.63%)\nBrazil | 400000 people (0.31%)\nCanada | 43000 people (0.034%)\nMexico | 35000 people (0.027%)\nUnited Kingdom | 12000 people \nAustralia | 12000 people \nTaiwan | 10000 people \n(1993 -- 2008 estimates)

Source: Wolfram|Alpha | Japanese language

These numbers cover 3 orders of magnitude, two that use 万 and one that uses 億. I can start to fill in my table with these statistics, and create example sentences.

Roman Numerals
English statement
Japanese translation
一万 (いちまん|ichiman)
In Australia there are 12,000 people that speak Japanese.
十万 (じゅうまん|jyuuman)
In the United States there are 805,000 people that speak Japanese.
百万 (ひゃくまん|hyakuman)

一千万 (いっせんまん|issennmann)

In Japan there are 126,000,000 people that speak Japanese.
十億 (じゅうおく|jyuuoku)

百億 (ひゃくおく|hyakuoku)

一千億 (いっせんおく|issenoku)

一兆 (いっちょう |icchou)

十兆 (じゅっちょう|jucchou)

I'm missing two numbers for the last two orders of magnitude in the first range. Perhaps I can continue in the same way with population figures.

Tokyo, Japan Populations:

city population | 8.483 million people\nmetro area population | 37.2 million people

Let's imagine for a moment that I'd like to live in Tokyo. I could determine how many people live in both the city of Tokyo and the greater metropolitan area. So now I have all orders of magnitude that use 万 covered and some example sentences I can relate to. This is where things start to get difficult.

Looking at statistics that use 億 I start to run out of figures that I can easily relate to, the last one that makes any sense to me is the population of China. The number of of people in Japan is dwarfed by its neighbour by an order of magnitude, there are by latest estimates 1.31 billion people living in China.

Roman Numerals
English statement
Japanese translation
一万 (いちまん|ichiman)
In Australia there are 12,000 people that speak Japanese.
十万 (じゅうまん|jyuuman)
In the United States there are 805,000 people that speak Japanese.
百万 (ひゃくまん|hyakuman)
8,337,000 People live in the city of Tokyo.

一千万 (いっせんまん|issennmann)
37,200,000 People live in the greater metropolitan area of Tokyo. 

一億 (いちおく|ichioku)
In Japan there are 126,000,000 people that speak Japanese.
十億 (じゅうおく|jyuuoku)
China has a population of 1,310,000,000 people.

百億 (ひゃくおく|hyakuoku)

一千億 (いっせんおく|issenoku)

一兆 (いっちょう |icchou)

十兆 (じゅっちょう|jucchou)

Astronomical figures.

To go beyond these figures you have to get astronomical, or perhaps economical. Much larger numbers come from the worlds of economics, mathematics and science, the problem now becomes "how I can I find a number that I can easily relate to?" I could tell you the number of years it takes light from the earth to reach the edge of the galaxy, or the value in dollars wiped off global stock markets in 3 months following the Lehmann Brothers collapse, but would you find that interesting?

So here is my challenge to you, find a large number, that fills one of the open spaces on the table above and make it really interesting. You may want to use Wolfram|Alpha (computational knowledge engine) as a source of these large numbers. For the four best answers I have another four google wave invites to give away.

Friday, November 13, 2009

How to Use a Japanese Monolingual Dictionary to Discover Meaning

Use a Monolingual Dictionary to Unlock your Hidden Potential in Japanese

In the previous post I showed you some good reasons to lose your bilingual dictionary and go native with a Japanese monolingual dictionary. In this post I'd like to show you how to throw away the crutch of English definitions for Japanese words with a practical guide to using a monolingual dictionary.

I've been through this process hundreds of times in practice, there may be other words for it, and it's probably a technique given enough experience in learning Japanese that most people would be able to discover for themselves. It's nothing new, it's something everyone can do, so you needn't be daunted by the prospect of opening a monolingual dictionary and not knowing anything. Remember, this is a learning process, so forget about what you don't know.

Choosing the right monolingual dictionary.

I covered some of the choices you might need to make in the eduFire article, How to Choose the Best Japanese Dictionary, and I think it's worthwhile looking at them again. Everyone has their favourite type of dictionary, but I'm going to recommend you get a software dictionary.

I'm only going to mention two and only because they are what I use every day. Kanji Sono Mama Rakubiki Jiten for Nintendo DS would have to be one of my favourite Japanese dictionaries and goo jisho which is one of the fastest and most complete online dictionaries for Japanese. Both of them are written in Japanese for Japanese.

Here are some reasons you should get a software dictionary:
  1. You can find things faster. Typing words and using copy and paste is much faster and more accurate than turning pages in a book. If you want greater exposure to vocabulary then you can do this faster with software. You might think you'd miss out on the serendipity of coming across words that you didn't expect, but the same thing happens with these techniques and in a more useful way.

  2. You can save entries. Most software dictionaries have a save to flash card function where you can collect entries for later revision. Even your browser has a history, and if you are using the dictionary in conjunction with a spaced repetition service, then this makes a lot of sense. You would very quickly run out of bookmarks if you were to use a hard copy dictionary with the following technique.

  3. You can listen to recordings. I'm yet to find a dedicated monolingual Japanese dictionary with sound recordings, if you know of one please link it up in the comments. However, If you are using something like in the way you should, each time you find a word you're able to add it as an item to a list often with a sound and sometimes with an example sentence.

  4. You benefit from Hypertext. I imagine you're aware of this already, but the importance of the ability to jump from a section of blue underlined text to a another text entry with more information can not be understated. You're going to rely on this, and your minds propensity to wander to discover more knowledge.

  5. Software is more mobile. The ultimate mobility is the "everywhere" of the internet. I can leave my suburban sanctuary for the big city and log in to a completely different machine and still pick up my repetitions where I left off. On the bus I can flip through flash cards on my phone or my Nintendo DS and then put it away in my pocket. There is no way I'd bother lugging a weighty tome like a dictionary on the daily commute. I want to be able to master Japanese anywhere any time.
A technique of discovery.

The technique I'm about to discuss involves using the JP-JP dictionary in a way you probably wouldn't have thought of before by breaking down each definition into chunks that you can explore further. Let's use goo kokugo jisho, although you could use whatever JP-JP dictionary you like with much the same result.

The example I'll use is learnt in grade three of elementary school in Japan, and is tested in the JLPT 2kyu. It is ranked number 245 of the 2500 most used kanji in newspapers (source: It also appears commonly in place names and, once you know what it represents, it is easy to visualise. I'm not going to give away the answer yet, and if you know it bear with me as I outline the technique for those that don't.


Under the entry for shima しま 【島】 you will find the definition


  1. Concentrate only on what you know. If you have rikai chan enabled avoid the temptation to hover. You may only know hiragana, in which case you will know where the words begin and end. You may know one or two kanji, and possibly only the meaning, but not the pronunciation. That's OK, you're looking for an opening in the wall of kanji.

  2. Allow your mind to wander and create new associations in Japanese. You may recognise the first kanji as a number, 一二三。。。 Count to ten if you need to, cut and paste the kanji //四方 back into the search field and scan the the definitions for other kanji you might know. At the very least you will now have some alternate readings.

  3. Look for similarity and synonym. Come back to the original definition and look again for kanji you already know. Can any others work in the same postions? Can you use the ones you know in different ways? What kind of is it? Which do you think is meant ほう or かた?

  4. Build a mental image. You may be starting to see the bigger picture now, some kanji even has pictographic elements to it. Can you see a well surrounded by a larger enclosure? What kind of word is it? Can you put yourself in the picture?

  5. Infer meaning from context for unknown words. Some parts of the Japanese language were developed to help send the reader on their way with a greater understanding of the structure of each sentence and a sense the intended meaning of each word. Use the hiragana you know to determine what each part of the sentence each kanji is. Is it a verb? An adjective perhaps? What can you leave out without affecting the meaning too much.

  6. Forget what you don't know. It's not worth worrying too much over what you can't work out right away. Studying incrementally you'll have learnt that 四 and are grade 1 kanji, 方 and are grade 2. So reading only kanji that you should know before attempting the grade 3 kanji 島 you may have been able to find a solution.
The answer is of course an island, a relatively small land surrounded in every direction by water. A Japanese sentence parser like jdictionary may be helpful in checking your answer.

Definitions (via jdictionary)
四方 しほう every direction
みず water (cold, fresh)
囲む かこま to surround; to encircle
比較的 ひかくてき comparative; relative
狭い せまい narrow; confined; small
陸地 りくち land

Active learning.

There was really nothing new in this post, active learners do these things all the time. What I'm hoping is that you take these steps consciously. Challenge yourself to uncover meaning in the language around you, without resorting to a prepackaged concept you have words for in the language you already know.

I didn't cover any new grammar, and I didn't introduce a lot of new vocabulary. That would have had you scrambling for a textbook or a translation. It's not important to remember things like a word list, your spaced repetition software can do that for you. The secret lies in using what you know to discover new knowledge.

A challenge for you.

Find kanji that you are studying at the moment, but have trouble remembering the readings of or the meaning for. Make sure it is at the right level for what you'd like to achieve in Japanese, either from your last tested level or the one you are aiming for. Use the technique described above to discover a definition in Japanese for it. Outline the steps you took below in the comments.