Musings on Japanese learning

I’ve been in Japan for about a month now. So what’s been happening with my Japanese language ability since I got here? I could of course say it’s slowly improving, and though that wouldn’t be a lie, it wouldn’t be an interesting read either, so allow me to go into a little more detail.

Language acquisition isn’t a uniform process. People with different backgrounds and study methods will have different levels for various language skills. Since coming to Japan I have noticed a remarkable boost in my receptive language skills: listening and reading. I can understand much more actual conversations, and the speed at which I can process input has risen dramatically. I noticed this most clearly while reading electronic billboards. These have text moving at the speed native readers would need for processing the message, but when I push myself a little, I end up reading much faster without a noticeable loss in comprehension. When talking to Japanese people I have noticed the same thing. Though I still have to ask them to repeat something at times, this happens much less frequently. Since there’s always input to process, whether it be listening or reading, I’ve been able to practice this nonstop since coming to Japan, and I’m starting to sense improvement in these domains.


The same cannot be said for my productive skills, however. I’d been warned by professor Niehaus and Klaus Pinte (both of whom taught me Japanese at Ghent University), that one of the most difficult things about being in Japan, is getting people to speak Japanese to you. It just doesn’t happen. This has less to do with my Japanese than with the way Japan relates to the English language. It is taught in schools, but this is done by Japanese teachers, who for the most part can’t speak a word of English themselves. Their pronunciation is horrible, and this is transferred onto a new generation of Japanese. That’s why many Japanese go to English cram schools (juku), or take extra English conversation classes (eikaiwa). Since the traditional Japanese education creates people that aren’t very good at English, they react to this in one of two extremes: they either want to take every chance they can get to speak it, or will do anything to avoid speaking English. The weirdest instance of the first scenario happened last week, when I was walking in Shinjuku Station and was suddenly surrounded by a horde of old Japanese women. A wrinkled sample steps forward: “How’s your pronunciation?”. No hello’s, not even a “Where are you from?”. We’re retired and don’t have a lot of time, let’s get down to business please. “Well, how’s your pronunciation?” Upon explaining them I was Belgian but spoke English pretty well, they proceeded with the next item on the list. Did I have an hour or two? Jeez, these crows know how to ask for the entire arm up front. No messing around with fingers or hands for them, no sir. Well, you get the picture. Luckily, I had a train to catch, and bowed my way out of that situation. I was actually quite flattered, and shall return to these lovely ladies in about a sentence or two.

A similar scenario occurs at a lot of the places where I stay. If you ask Japanese people why they act as CouchSurfing hosts, I think the majority will answer they do it to practice their English. As these wonderful people take me into their home, I don’t want to be a bad guest and will gladly speak English with them. But as that’s the majority of the conversation I participate in during the day, I think my productive language skill has risen more for English than it has for Japanese. The old ladies were right: you have to aggressively force your way into situations where you can practice speaking, or you won’t get enough chances to. For me, that means always opening conversations in Japanese, as well as sending e-mails to new hosts or people I’ve met only in Japanese.

This brings me to the second way people deal with their insufficient English around here: avoidance. I’ve come across multiple people that flatout refused to acknowledge I was even there, when I asked them for directions. These were mostly middle-aged or old people, and while I was certain my Japanese was correct, they just pretended not to understand me. I couldn’t understand why this happened, until KentarĊ offered a very plausible explanation: apparently they feel they have to answer in English, and as they don’t feel capable to, they’ll just pretend the situation to speak English never presented itself.


But there are plenty of times when I do manage to converse in Japanese. These moments have been very instructive. Most of my conversation partners are young Japanese people, often hosts and therefore we talk like friends do: using the more informal short forms. This has become a lot more natural to some degree, and I have to be very careful when speaking to older people not to use the same informal grammar, because they will politely smile and correct my mistake. A heart-chilling experience every time it happens. But to answer the initial question: yes, my Japanese is improving. Improvement is slow, but it’s there nonetheless.

Resources for studying Japanese

Online resources

manythingsA Select List of Japanese Language Study Sites: I don’t plan on doing what has already been done better, so here is a comprehensive list of websites and software for studying Japanese. As with all lists this long, there’s bound to be some dead links or content of lesser quality, but overall this is a treasure trove of study material, including the writing system (kana and kanji), reading material, video’s and a lot of tests. An almost inexhaustible resource. Well worth some of your time.

jtiJapanese Text Initiative: A great online collection of classical Japanese literature. The University of Virginia Library Electronic Text Center and the University of Pittsburgh East Asian Library have uploaded the larger portion of the classical canon in the original classical Japanese. They have outlined their goal in doing so in the following way: “Generally, the electronic texts at the E-Text Center site are not intended to be substitutes for authoritative printed editions. We do not put on the Web copyrighted texts, unless we have permission from the copyright holders. With some exceptions, the texts of current scholarly editions of literature in English, French, German, Japanese, and other languages are not freely available for sites such as ours. As a result, we use texts without copyright constraints, such as editions for which copyright has expired. These e-texts are therefore useful as supplements to current scholarly editions. What the e-texts add to those editions is the capability of rapid searching for words and characters, which would take considerably longer in printed texts.

jimbreensJim Breen’s Japanese dictionary: No matter what your level of Japanese, you can’t get by without a good dictionary. This online version of the Edict and Kanjidic dictionaries will ensure you’ll always have one handy. You can look up words through kana, kanji and romaji input, look up kanji through its different radicals or even look up words through English translation. If you’re completely new to Japanese, you’re advised to study the kana before using this dictionary: “Please note that this server is intended for people who have studied some Japanese and who can read at least kana. Also a browser capable of displaying Japanese text will be needed.

kanjiboxKanjibox: What is better than an integrated study tool that will let you drill kana, kanji and Japanese vocabulary while keeping elaborate statistics of how you’re doing? One that lets you do all that and see how well you are doing when compared to your friends, or the entire user base of the program. Enter Kanjibox, a Japanese learning tool that integrates with your Facebook account and introduces a certain element of competition in your learning (though only if you want it to). I’ve learned the kana and elementary level kanji with this program and I had a ton of fun while doing so. Highly recommended.


There’s quite a bit of free software for studying Japanese available for different operating systems.


onomasticonGoGoD Onomasticon: For anyone interested in reading publications on go in Japanese or Chinese, this program is an invaluable resource to help with the often irregular readings of names.

John Fairbairn’s Go Names Dictionary, or Onomasticon, was first published in hard copy form in December 1999 after 30 years work in compiling it. It is currently out of print and will stay that way, because the GoGoD CD now contains a bigger and better version.

The names section alone has over 3,000 entries. Potted biographies are provided in English for all entries, usually brief (birth/death dates, origins, affiliations, promotions, teachers, family relationships, variant spellings) but often much longer. Both modern and historical players are extensively covered, male and female. There are over 1300 Japanese players, over 400 Chinese and about 200 Korean. Other entries cover about go patrons, reporters or other personalities, and there are about 600 cross references (nicknames, etc).”

You can find my full review of the Onomasticon here.

kanjigoldKanji Gold: Kanji Gold is a kanji drill program that contains the first levels of the kanji kentei, and the kanji are sorted according to the different levels of this test. As a beginner, it’s possible to first learn the 80 kanji of level 10, than the 160 new kanji of level 9, all the way to level pre-1. The entire program contains 3841 kanji. For each kanji, the onyomi, kunyomi en meaning is shown, as well as up to 20 compounds (you can adjust the number of example compounds given in the preferences dialogue). The program remembers which kanji give you more trouble than others, and will quiz you on these more frequently.

rikaichanRikaichan: Rikaichan is a pop-up Japanese dictionary tool for Firefox, Thunderbird and Seamonkey. To use it, you simply activate the plugin, and hover over a Japanese word. A pop-up window will show a detailed kanji view, on and kun readings and the meaning of the phrase. Apart from translation into English, you can also configure it for translating into French, German and Russian. I added Rikaichan under Windows software, but as it’s a Firefox add-on, so this runs natively under Linux as well. You can download it from Mozilla’s add-on repository.

wakanWakan: Wakan is an extensive learning tool for students of Chinese and Japanese. It features a character and word dictionary, as well as a Japanese and Chinese word processor (which can be really helpful for people on the Windows platform who don’t have a version of their OS that supports input in these languages) among other things. A nice feature of the dictionary part is that you can expand its functionality by adding extra dictionaries, for instance for Japanese Buddhist terminology, or place names. You cna download these extra dictionary files from the Wakan homepage.


anthyAnthy: If you’re typing both English and Japanese, you need an efficient way of input switching, as well as a flexible, efficient way of inputting Japanese. Though the input switching is mostly an OS implementation (and higher efficiency over Windows systems is thus a result of Linux infrastructure, not Anthy itself), this program really delivers on the second part. Anthy remembers what characters you picked previously for many of the homonymic sounds in Japanese, so it gets even easier to use after you’ve spent some time with it. Just use both the Windows Japanese input system and Anthy on Linux for five minutes, and you’ll be convinced as well. Anthy comes pre-installed in Japanese version of Ubuntu (see below).

Don’t be fooled by the website layout, Gjiten is a first-class dictionary tool for Linux. It allows you to search vocabulary by English translation, kana and kanji. You’re also able to restrict results to compounds starting or ending in the chosen kanji, or just show every piece of vocabulary containing the kanji entered. It supports multi-radical kanji lookup. If you’re running Ubuntu, you don’t have to download it through the Gjiten website, you can easily download and install it through Ubuntu’s Synaptic package manager. This dictionary is one of the main reasons why I still use Linux. Its efficiency in listing results (and memory of previous searches) have made this an indispensable tool in my study (and teaching) of Japanese.

kanjipadKanjipad: Sometimes looking up kanji through multi-radical search can be quite a slow procedure. Luckily there’s a shortcut: if you know the correct stroke count and order, you can draw the kanji on this small image pad, and Kanjipad will recognize the kanji (and let you choose from a number of options with similar shape and the same stroke count). This is a very handy tool, and works particularly well when integrated with the Gjiten dictionary. This program can easily be downloaded through Ubuntu’s Synaptic package manager, making the installation a breeze.

ubuntuUbuntu: Ubuntu is one of the most user-friendly Linux distributions, and as such a perfect entry point into the world of Linux computing for windows users. The relative difficulty of Japanese text input and input switching in Windows when compared to Linux, as well as the quality of the Gjiten-Kanjipad combo make installing a Japanese version of Ubuntu on your PC a recommended experience for learners of the Japanese language. This will immerse you in the language, force you to learn to read some basic terminology quickly and allow you to use the aforementioned dictionary suite. Well worth a try.