Monday, June 07, 2010

Top 10 Technical Mistakes Every Japanese Learner Makes

Getting off on the right foot when you start to learn Japanese.

To err is human. I've had a lot of people ask me recently about how to get started learning Japanese. And when you're a self paced learner getting the right kind of feedback about the mistakes you're making can be kind of difficult. There's no need to cut yourself if you're making any of these errors, even the most seasoned Japanese learner can lapse sometimes.

Chopping off my little finger
Chopping off my little finger

It's hard sometimes to see things with the beginner's mind, so I took the opportunity to ask some of my friends on Facebook and Twitter what they thought the ten biggest errors every beginner makes. I got such a good response, that pretty soon the list of 10 mistakes I had ballooned to over 30. Today I'll cover the top ten technical errors everyone makes, before moving on to the more cultural or conceptual in the next post and finishing off with something more motivational.

Top Ten Technical Mistakes Every Japanese Learner Makes:

The following 10 mistakes fall into the technical category because they are mostly concerned with what you say and how you say it when you speak Japanese. They are the type of mistakes that if captured early present no real difficulty to overcome, but it left alone they persist and make things much more difficult later on.

  1. Particles: The most common type of error you're likely to make when just starting out revolve around the correct use of particles. It's important to remember that there are no equivalents in English. Take the difference between は and が for instance, which are sometimes referred to topic and subject markers respectively. If you try to define 'subject', and compare that with 'topic' you've just hit the edge of a very slippery semantic slope. You're better off learning how they are used in the context of a Japanese sentence than applying rules from your first language that don't fit. Grab a good book, like Sue A. Kawashima's A Dictionary of Japanese Particles, or Koichi's Japanese Particles Cheatsheet.
  2. Word Order: Contrary to popular belief this does make a difference, if not to the meaning of your message, then the impact it has on the listener. It also goes hand in hand with particle use, you can't expect to manipulate word order with any skill if your particle use is inaccurate. Take the stock standard これは美味しいです (this is tasty!) compared with 美味しい!これは。。, forget the は which dangles tantalisingly on the end of the sentence and you risk sounding abrupt. Use any other particle and you end up confusing your dinner partner. Would you believe there are only 3 Japanese sentence types? Naoko Chino explains how to use them and their variations in A Dictionary of Basic Japanese Sentence Patterns. Tae Kim's Japanese Grammar Guide is another awesome free resource.
  3. Pronunciation: There aren't many sounds in Japanese that pose a problem to English speakers. The Japanese "R" is one, and つ (tsu) is another. The best way around these is to use appropriate model of a native speakers voice and to sound out each character as you learn hiragana and katakana. Other problems with pronunciation stem from the lengthening of certain vowel sounds and the sing-song rythm that results. Japanese conversationalists refer to 相槌 (あいづち) as the sound of a good conversation. We call them listener responses, but they are literally the sound of hammers meeting the anvil. Use's Hiragana and Katakana goals to hone your pronunciation, and then move on to sentence length models in the NHK Japanese Podcast.
  4. Intonation: English is characterised by a wide range of intonation which changes the meaning of certain utterances, even when they contain the same words. Japanese however is a pitch accented language where different words with the same morae (sound units) are identified by shifts in pitch. Take はし (bridge) and はし (chopsticks), for example. The mistake most beginners make is to vary pitch unnecessarily. Practice makes perfect, and in much the same way as pronunciation must be modelled on authentic sources, preferably longer than sentence length.
  5. Vocabulary: It's not just a matter of learning enough words, real word power comes from learning how to use words in the right way.You may have heard of core vocabulary, essentially in any language there are about 1500 words that make up 80% of the most commonly spoken words. Learn these words first, but also learn them in context. may give you a strong foundation, but it largely lacks context. Contextualise your vocabulary by delving into your interests.
  6. Politeness: Japanese is a highly contextual language, so how you speak and the words you choose depends very much on who you are speaking to. Good speakers are able to quickly make an assessment of their position in respect to the listener and choose the most appropriate level of politeness required.You can make yourself understood by selecting dictionary forms out a phrase book, but you won't endear yourself to people without an understanding of social heirachy and a good choice of words. Err on the side of caution and learn polite forms from the beginning.
  7. Talking too much: Japan is a society with values the harmony of the group over the needs of the individual. It is also a society with high power distance between individuals in any interaction based on heirachy. A westerner sensing silence in a meeting takes it as a bad sign and attempts to fill it with sweetners and small talk. The Japanese sees this as arrogance and an attempt to rush negotiation before a business relationship is established. The Japanese are much more comfortable with silence than you might expect. Silence can express more than words sometimes.
  8. Starting every sentence with 私は(watashi wa): Western culture is individualistic so we are always leading with what 'I believe' and responding to others with 'self' expression. Japanese culture seeks the harmony of of the group and talking about yourself too much is discouraged. Once you have opened conversation it is best to keep this to a minmum. Listening for what others are talking about, and add only when you have something valuable to add to the group topic.
  9. Hesitation devices: In Japanese hesitation devices are used both to prepare the listener for the next utterance and allow the speaker time to compose their thoughts. Without knowledge of these hesitation devices beginners often lengthen the sounds of the last word spoken unnaturally. Hesitation when used well can provide you with the time to get your sentences straight, while maintaning the interest of the listener. Watch some comedy (お笑い) where timing is everything.
  10. Using romaji: Romaji is not a logical stepping stone to reading hiragana and katakana. Romaji fell out of favour with educators about 20 years ago and it's rare to find book published recently that still uses it. Cut straight to authentic input with hiragana and katakana. Use mnemonics if you have to, whatever you do, commit the kana to memory now.
Now I can't even pretend to have all the answers here, and I'm sure that some of you might disagree with my choices here. If I'm leaving anything out please tell me. There'll be someone reading this for the first time and you just might be able to point them in the right direction. In the next post in this series we'll look at the conceptual errors every beginner makes, so don't go too far.

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Now for a little light relief. Pakkun Makkun demonstrate how important it is to be able to laugh at yourself as a beginner.

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