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.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

3 Good Reasons to Use a Monolingual Japanese Dictionary

Why Your Monolingual Japanese Dictionary is a Secret Weapon

A friend of mine recently told me that they had been learning Japanese vocabulary the wrong way. They had set up their profile on a popular kanji learning tool so it would display the English word alongside the kanji and an example Japanese sentence.

They found they were getting trained to know what the English word was and the translate that word into Japanese. When they turned off the English translation suddenly they had no idea what any of the readings were, even though they knew the meaning. Now they are using all items in Japanese all of the time and gaining a more natural understanding of the language. In this post I'd like to show you some good reasons to lose your bilingual dictionary and go native with a Japanese monolingual dictionary.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Secret #3 for Speaking Fluent Japanese - Readable Phone Numbers

How to Master Numbers from 1 to 10

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

One of the things I first learnt in Japan, is that as soon as you can read the kana, everything becomes something worth reading. It's the same with phone numbers. Numbers needn't be something you gloss over in your study of Japanese. Sure there might be hundreds of different counters, and many different ways to use ten digits, but that shouldn't stop you from learning how to read them. Once you've learnt a few different readings for each digit, deciphering phone numbers becomes a game.

No 携帯
No 携帯 by kirainet, on Flickr

When I first encountered this technique in 13 Secrets to Speaking Fluent Japanese I didn't realise how prevalent it really was. But once I started paying attention to it, I found it everywhere. You're probably familiar with the practice in your part of the world of advertisers using numbers on the keypad of your cell phone as a handy mnemonic device. (The key '1' can map to either A B or C), as in the following example.

One of the most recognisable and memorable numbers in my home town is 13ecab or 132222. However this mnemonic relies on a touch-pad mapping rather than a true phonetic match.

Alternative Readings for Japanese Numbers

Just like kanji, there are two or more readings for Japanese numerals, kun-yomi and on-yomi. These readings described in the table below allow numbers to be mapped phonetically to spell out pithy phrases aiding memory. The most common use is in advertising.

Phone Number Readings





An Exercise in Code-breaking

Part of what I really enjoy about 13 Secrets to Speaking Fluent Japanese is that it peels back the layers of culture in a way that unlocks hidden visual resources you can then tap in to to accelerate your learning. Now you know what the readings are, use the code to unlock the hidden meaning in these examples.

Example 1 - An Eikaiwa Corpse

The following is from a company I would rather forget, but their number is etched in my memory. The phrase みによくつく can be translated in much the same way, 'stuck well to my body'.

Example 2 - An Eikaiwa Contender

Their competitor in the English Conversation world borrowed from the bastardised English ゴートークトゥミー, 'Go talk to me'.

Example 3 - From the Financial Papers

If you often read the Nikkei (Japanese Financial Newspaper) then you would know what these numbers stand for.

Now it's your turn

For the last two examples I have left the kana hints out, use only the numbers after the dash and little bit of creative license.

Phone code quiz 1 - Get your teeth into it!

Phone code quiz 2 - This is it!

How did you go?

I'd like to see your answers in the comments section below. For the best answers I have two Google Wave invites!