Sunday, October 25, 2009

Secret #2 for Speaking Fluent Japanese - Explanatory Phrases

How to Communicate Despite Not Knowing the Right Word

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

If there is one tip to take away from the book 13 Secrets to Speaking Fluent Japanese, it is knowing how to use a substitute phrase for the word you want but don't know. The one thing I come back to time and time again with my students is that an exhaustive vocabulary doesn't necessarily make a good communicator, the ability to talk around sticking points and repair conversation does.

Lost in Translation Too ? Shibuya Crossing Tokyo
Lost in Translation Too ? Shibuya Crossing Tokyo by hitthatswitch, on Flickr

The technical term is circumlocution, but all you need to know is that you can't always have the words you need at every given stage of learning. I've seen students with highly specialised vocabulary in their field of interest, start reaching for their dictionaries as soon as they are taken out of their comfort zone into novel topics. The trick is to sacrifice a little eloquence for a rough and ready description.

The technique is simple, describe something completely, without hesitation, with words you already know. Say for example you don't know the word for 'ambulance' in Japanese, but you do know that it is a car that takes people to hospital. Choose a descriptive phrase like 'びょういん まで ひと を はこぶ くるま (byouin made hito wo hakobu kuruma | a car that transports people to hospital) and leverage words you already know to describe something new.

There is a certain redundancy to this technique, which allows the listener to guess at a word even when mistakes are made. If you mistakenly utter 'hold' (もっつ) instead of 'transport' (はこぶ) it doesn't make much difference in conveying meaning because of the other words in support. This technique works best with a forgiving listener, but even in the most difficult situations with strangers it can get you out of a bind.

The best way to practice is with a partner in a game like Jeopardy. If I describe either a thing (もの), an action (こと), a state (じょうたい), a place (ところ), a person (ひと) or other noun (くるま、どうぐ、どうぶつ、ほん、しょるい). My partner attempts to guess what I mean by phrasing their answer as a question. My description doesn't need to be perfect, it just needs to contain enough clues for them to guess what I am thinking of.

Let's try it together! Read the explanatory phrase and then select the text in the square brackets [like this] to discover the word I'm trying to describe.

Things | もの

とり は たまご を おく ため に 
つくる もの

Q: tori ha tamago wo oku tame ni tsukuru mono
Q: Something a bird makes to place eggs upon.

とり の す」 は なん でしょう?

A: [tori no su] ha nan deshou?
A: What is a 'bird's nest'?

Photo: Wunderkammen!! by peppergrasss, on Flickr

Actions | こと

Japanese Tea Garden
おちゃ を のむ ため に 
みず を あたためる こと

Q: ocha wo nomu tame ni mizu wo atatameru koto.
Q: The act of heating water to drink tea.

わく」 って なん でしょう?

A: [waku] tte nan deshou?
A: What is 'boiling'?

Photo: Japanese Tea Garden by heather, on Flickr

States | じょうたい

[Shibuya] Sad Rain
め から なみだ が でて 
とまらない じょうたい

Q: me kara namida ga dete tomaranai joutai
Q: The state when tears don't stop flowing from someones eyes.

かなしい」 は なん でしょう?

A: kanashii ha nan deshou?
A: What is "sadness"?

Photo: [Shibuya] Sad Rain by scion_cho, on Flickr

Places | ところ・ばしょ

りょうり を する ところ

Q: ryouri wo suru tokoro
Q: A place where you cook

だいどころ」 は どこ でしょう?

A: [daidokoro] ha doko deshou?
A: Where is the 'kitchen'?

Photo: Untitled by Andrew McLucas [tokyogoat], on Flickr

Others | なんでも

1950s ambulance used on a film location; Tsu, Japan
びょういん まで ひと を 
はこぶ くるま

Q: byouin made hito wo hakobu kuruma
Q: A car that takes people to hospital

きゅうきゅうしゃ」 は なん でしょう?

A: [kyuukyuusha] ha nan deshou?
A: What is an 'ambluance'?

Photo: 1950s ambulance used on a film location; Tsu, Japan by jsteph, on Flickr


The exercises in this second chapter of 13 Secrets to Speaking Fluent Japanese are arranged according to word types introduced above. They each include illustrations, a word in English, and a substitute phrase in English, Japanese and romaji. The answers to the explanatory phrases are included in the English - Japanese glossary at the back of the book. There is no suggestion of using this technique with a partner as I have demonstrated above.

In his introduction Giles Murray makes clear that his book is aimed squarely at independent and motivated self-studiers, but perhaps he doesn't go far enough to encourage working with others to improve language acquisition. Personally, I can't learn a language in a vacuum and I've always need others around me to bounce ideas off. After all, learning a language is all about communication and if you aren't doing that with someone else then you aren't communicating.

If you haven't tried this kind of thing before the quiz at the end of the chapter is a real confidence booster. Almost every time I'm stumped for a word I come back to the principle of thinking like a dictionary. This 'secret' frees you from having to know the exact word for the concept you want to explain, and it's something that can leverage your existing language ability immediately, and for a long time after learning it.

The technique is a valuable one, but by Murray's own admission many of the techniques in his book are things that you might "encounter at random" after several years in Japan. It's a good thing he has done us the favour of compiling all of them in to one handy paperback volume!

Monday, October 19, 2009

Twitter Round-up of iPhone Apps for Japanese

A List of Japanese Study Apps for the iPhone from my Twitter Friends

One of the things I really love about Twitter is that the reward of cultivating positive working relationships with people on the network means that I can gather information that would otherwise have taken weeks. All I needed to do is ask.

I'm not an iPhone user, but when a student of mine on eduFire asked for a recommendation for an iPhone app to help them learn Japanese I remembered that some of my friends on Twitter were iPhone users and developers. Being eager to please, I sourced recommendations from my Personal Learning Network.

Harvey is an iPhone user and developer of an app for learning Hiragana (his self-endorsement below is strictly toungue-in-cheek). He recently featured a selection of iPhone apps for learning Japanese on his site I'm particularly interested in the Giongo-Gitaigo and Kotowaza apps. Both Harvey and I share a love for Kansai-ben, the dialect spoken in Osaka, and his site has plenty of lessons on arguably the most colourful dialect of Japanese.

Sami, another student on eduFire, suggested Kotoba, a free Japanese dictionary based on the work of Jim Breen on the EDICT project. Kana Flip is available for $1.99 and is currently featured in the app store. It's big brother Kanji Flip is $5.99, also featured, and both remember the characters you have trouble with, learning with you as you go.

Joseph is a pioneer in extreme iPhone sports, live streaming the Tokyo Marathon with one strapped to his hat. When he speaks iPhone people listen. The Japanese app (denshi jisho) he mentions is by a bunch of people called Code From Tokyo.

Andrew is a guy I respect for his uwavering commitment to teaching Japanese and his ability to bring technology into the classroom. Kotoba gets another mention here, and one I hadn't heard of before, ShinKanji, a kanji dictionary with stroke order.

Jyuichi recommended KanjiBox and Kotoba, thanks for the recent follow!

Will is so crazy about Japan he is TurningOtaku! He recently posted a review of the iKnow app on his blog. He also shelled out for the Japanese dictionary that Joseph mentioned earlier.

As I was putting this post together I noticed this update from NihongoUp surface in my Twitter stream. It was a good thing I didn't miss it, because I really like what Philip has done with NihongoUp, now an educational tool for learning Japanese on the iPhone. I reviewed the Adobe Air Version of this game for learning Japanese in May, and was fortunate enough to be able to give a copy of it away. Thanks Philip!

So there you have it, the power of a well developed Personal Learning Network. Thank you to everyone that contributed. If you have any other apps that you think people should check out please drop them into the comments below. Follow me on Twitter now to join in the conversation.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Secret #1 for Speaking Fluent Japanese - Abbreviations

How to Speak with Maximum Efficiency

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

The first chapter of the Giles Murray book 13 Secrets to Speaking Fluent Japanese sets out "to increase vocabulary by learning abbreviated spoken forms". Like it or hate it, modern Japanese is littered with absurd abbreviations; of Japanese words, loan words, and hybrid words. Recognising that these words are part of everyday speech, and becoming familiar with them may help you in a limited range of situations.

Paul (in the center) speaks Korean fluently by Invisible Hour.
Paul (in the center) speaks Korean fluently by Invisible Hour on Flickr.

Just as you wouldn't pepper your speech with TLA's (Three Letter Acronyms) in everyday English, there isn't much point alienating people by using these abbreviations too often. Even so, this chapter gives you a good idea of the structure of the rest of the chapters in the book.

There is a little bit of culture and history to start the chapter, a rationalisation for the choice of strategy, a few examples and then a quiz in the form of a short story. The answers to the quiz form a small vocabulary list at the end of the chapter. The vocabulary is starting to look a little dated, and the story of the research scientist is perhaps one not many people can relate to, so I've updated them in the list How to Speak with Maximum Efficiency.

Let's take a closer look at some of the different types of abbreviations that are characteristic of modern Japanese. The first type to consider are Japanese words that you may already know, for example Nikkei, which is an abbreviation of Nihon Keizai Shimbun (日本経済新聞|にほんけいざいしんぶん) The Japanese Economic Newspaper, or lesser know examples such as yougaku, which is an abbreviation of seiyou ongaku (西洋音楽 | せいようおんがく) Western music. This isn't much help though unless you are familiar with the Japanese in the first place.

Where you are going to get the most leverage is with the words you already know in English that have been abbreviated for Japanese consumption. There are many plenty of good examples from the world of manga, Fruits Basket (フルーツバスケット) known colloquially as furuba (フルバ) is just one. Anime (アニメ) is another of these abbreviations that has become so much a part of modern lexicon that we have reappropriated the word in English.

Slightly less familiar but also highly valuable are the hybrid abbreviations, combinations of Japanese and English in one contracted form. One such example is shāshin (シャー芯) which is short for shāpupen no shin, or the lead of a mechanical pencil. Many acronyms represented in romaji also appear in written Japanese, particularly in advertising and print media. For example GW stands for Golden Week (ゴールデンウィーク), a holiday period in early May. More examples of these types of Japanese abbreviations and contracted words can be found at Wikipedia.

Now that you have a good idea of the kinds of abbreviations to expect, read the short story below and see how many you can recognise. Once you have read the story practice the vocabulary on the list. We'll be taking a much closer look at using these abbreviations in the live video lesson on eduFire - Fast Track to Fluency.

A brief account of the life of an Eikaiwa dreamer.

When John left his マスコミ job in ロス for the bright lights of Tokyo he knew he'd have to teach English for a while before he could live his dream of being がいタレ on Japanese テレビ.

Living in Tokyo wasn't too bad, his アパート was small but it was an lively neighbourhood with plenty of characters at the local パブ to share a laugh with over a beer or two.

John didn't have a girlfriend, but there was a cute デパガ who worked in the エーブイ section of the nearby デパート. He never had a lot of money so the thought of asking her on a date when all he could afford was a ファミレス was sometimes too much to bear.

Most weekends he sat at home and tapped out a drum master rhythm on a second hand playstation. When the タタコン broke John was devastated so he decided to catch the train into Akihabara find a ゲーセン.

Akihabara wasn't his favourite place in Tokyo, with a high concentration of ロリコン guys chasing コスプレ and teenagers dressed as ポケモン. But it did have a couple of good book stores and デジカメ shops.

When John got tired of walking he found a ネットカフェー and decided to strike up chat session with someone on twitter. He always felt a little uncomfortable because he could never be sure if they were ネカマ or not. This Japanese life might take a little longer to get used to than he first thought.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Book Review: 13 Secrets for Speaking Fluent Japanese - Introduction

13 Secret Techniques to Put You on the Fast Track to Fluency in Japanese

Back in January of 2009 I explored how Japanese Loanwords were an integral part of the Japanese language and then again in May after reading this Amazon review criticising an excessive reliance on them in Giles Murray's book of techniques for improving fluency in Japanese. I'm not about to revisit that debate, but I do think it is worthwhile exploring some of the concepts that are presented in the book 13 Secrets to Speaking Fluent Japanese. Why? Everyone needs some good advice about how to learn a language and I've found this particular book very helpful. It has some very good ideas that may just help you breakthrough to greater fluency in Japanese.

THE GEISHA GUYS (Or So They Thought) OF OLD JAPAN -- or, How the Boys from Podunk "Went Native"
How the Boys from Podunk "Went Native" by Okinawa Soba, on Flickr

When I first showed "13 Secrets" to a Japanese colleague she quipped, "it's in English!" implying that you can't learn Japanese by reading books in English. In a sense she's right, no amount of talking about Japanese in English is going to help you speak Japanese. However, there are many things you can pick up about learning a second language from those that have gone there before you. Like how to describe things without knowing the names for them, thinking like a reverse dictionary. Or by expanding your vocabulary through the use of a mental "synonym generator". There are plenty of worthwhile language hacks here to put into practice.

The techniques described encourage you to think outside the box, and although they can be put into practice at any stage of learning, the book is probably best suited to students that have reached a few sticking points in their language learning. Putting a few of these "mental filters" in place, and learning to see language learning as more of a game can help you break through those plateaus.

The secrets are less secrets and more tactics that any experienced language learner might employ during their learning effort. I know, I've done the road testing! Giles Murray has taken hints from his observations of successful non-native learners and Japanese kids, two groups who use their creativity to overcome hurdles in their language acquisition. Are you the kind of learner who "judges everything by one criterion, 'will this improve my Japanese or not?'". If so then this book might have something to offer.

Over the next 12 weeks or so we are going to explore each chapter in detail and hopefully uncover some language learning techniques you hadn't thought of before. If you want more practice of some of these techniques, join us on the Fast Track to Fluency, a live online video class on eduFire. Wether you are a beginner or an advanced student of Japanese, there'll be something you can use right away.