My Japanese Journey (so far)

It’s been quite some time since I started learning Japanese, and as time goes on it gets harder and harder to remember the specific details. It definitely hasn’t been easy and I want to make a record of some of the things that went wrong along the way. This will be a “living document” of sorts, and I’ll be adding to it as I continue learning.

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Google’s deliberate dishonesty about Translate

So, Google’s Fall lineup for their Pixel phones just dropped.

I use a Pixel 3 myself and I quite like it. I’m not in the market for a new phone right now but I will probably stick with the brand in the future. But for some reason every new update comes with a segment on how Google Translate will improve your phone experience, and it’s always quite frustrating. Google translate is bad, and it’s difficult to explain just how bad it is to someone who only speaks one language, or who only has experience with one language of a source/target pair — for example, if I see an English or Japanese sentence that was produced with Translate, I can identify it immediately, but I’d have no clue whatsoever when looking at a Thai or French sentence.

Sometimes I hear people say “Google Translate is a bad fit for Japanese, but it’s great at other languages”. I can’t personally refute this, so fortunately at times like this I can refer to this excellent article that shows how Translate isn’t necessarily better at dealing with other languages, it’s just that the problems it has are different problems.

The thing that constantly baffles me is that surely Google themselves would know that Translate isn’t a product that deserves first billing, right? They’re a global company that offers support in many many languages, and I can tell you for a fact that they don’t use Translate themselves when localizing their services for their target regions. It’s inconceivable that none of the higher-ups at Google have ever bothered to check to make sure that it actually works before pushing it so hard.

Well, today (thanks to the video above), it became abundantly obvious that they do know it’s broken, and it’s all thanks to Marie Kondo.

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は・が・も: The Focus Particles

“Quick question; what is the difference between は and が?”

It’s a quick question, to be sure, but it doesn’t have a quick answer. Canned lines like “は is the topic particle” or “が is the subject marker” are rarely of any help; the English and Japanese notions of “subject” don’t map 1:1 to each other, and the concept of grammatical topic is unlikely to strike home intuitively for a native English speaker. These one-line explanations are perhaps useful to people who have studied linguistics formally, but as a fan of more naturalistic language learning processes I (personally) never find them to be helpful, and I have no interest in diving into theory in order to make sense of them.

My chosen strategy was to tolerate the ambiguity and just read until I had had enough exposure to the Japanese language that I was able to form a somewhat intuitive understanding of these two particles (plus one more which I feel is often overlooked despite serving a similar function). You can absolutely do this too, and in fact I would strongly recommend that rather than approaching the problem by trying to learn “when to use は vs が”, you instead pump the brakes on output and focus on getting exposure to a LOT of the language so you too can build up this intuition.

However, since I fully recognize that I’m probably a little weird for being comfortable with this kind of delayed gratification (and since the question above is just so, so common), I thought I’d try to put into words the simple one-line rules that I personally use to conceptualize these two (or three) tricky particles.

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Getting out of the output rut

I still have a long way to go before I can call myself “fluent” in Japanese, by any definition. While there are many areas in which I can smoothly follow along with no issue, every time I crack a book that deals with an unfamiliar domain or subject, it hits me all over again just how extensive my English vocabulary actually is, and how lacking my Japanese vocabulary is in comparison. But my “input fluency” is far and away better than my “output fluency”, and this is a point that I’ve been struggling with for some time now.

The underlying idea of extensive reading is that after enough exposure to native material, you’ll not only become able to intuitively understand your target language, but you will also reach a point where you can suddenly start to produce it as well. It’s taken a long time, but I do feel like I’ve started to see the fruits of my labor in this respect. I’m able to communicate effectively with people online (albeit still with some difficulty and a lot of uncertainty). However, I’m keenly aware of the fact that if I were to have a face-to-face conversation, in real time and without the benefit of a sentence bank, I would be floundering. I’d like to fix that.

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The polite/casual matrix

“The formal version of this would use します instead of する”
“Since you’re speaking casually, you don’t have to use です”

I see statements like this all the time, and it always makes me twitch a little bit. It’s a bit of an “all squares are rectangles” problem; certainly much casual speech is informal, and certainly much polite speech is also formal, but there’s more to the story than just these two cases. In fact, there are two pairs of opposite modes, which together produce four noteworthy combinations:

  • Polite vs Non-polite
  • Formal vs Colloquial

Let’s define each one of these modes before we move on to mixing them together.

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The 内・外 dichotomy

Over the last couple of years, as I’ve spent a lot of time reading Japanese literature and immersing myself in the language, I’ve become increasingly aware of a particular phenomenon which is endemic to the language at large; which can easily and precisely explain many seemingly unrelated mechanics; and which is so rarely mentioned that I didn’t even realize it had a name until I stumbled across it one day. The 内・外 dichotomy (“uchi/soto”; essentially translated as “inner/outer”) is, with only slight exaggeration, what I might consider in many ways to be a “unified theory of Japanese”. It forms a key component of both the language and the societal practices that define the culture at large, and by understanding it I believe it’s possible to form a deeper, more intuitive grasp of Japanese as a whole.

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Abstract meanings of かける

According to JMDict, かける is a word with around 37 definitions. The idea of memorizing all of these definitions is enough to make anyone think twice about learning Japanese at all, but even taking them one by one can be daunting if it’s not clear which one applies to the given moment.

It’s my belief that all of these “definitions” share a common abstract idea, in the same way that the English words “run” or “get” can be used in a multitude of ways that all make intuitive sense to a native speaker, even when encountering a new collocation for the first time.

Personally I find it especially helpful to split this overarching abstract into three more specific (though still widely applicable) glosses.

かける meaning 1: “set upon

 ・メガネを掛ける set some glasses upon your face
 ・腰をかける set your body down on a chair
 ・負担をかける put a burden on somebody
 ・心配を掛ける lay your worries on someone
 ・金を賭ける set money upon the gambler’s table ★
 ・水をかける to sprinkle water onto something ★
 ・10かける10 ten times ten; ten set upon itself ten times

かける meaning 2: “expend into

 ・スパイスをかける to add spices into a dish
 ・金を賭ける to bet money ★
 ・腕によりをかける to put effort into work
 ・水をかける to sprinkle water onto something ★
 ・時間を掛ける to spend time doing something

かける meaning 3: “engage or activate

 ・かける (standalone): the standard “use” action in video games (“open” the door, “pull” the lever)
 ・アイロンを掛ける to iron clothes
 ・電話をかける to make a phone call; to use the phone
 ・鍵をかける to engage a lock

Each of these three broad meanings fall under one single overarching meaning, which I think of as “raise up“, because to me it evokes the idea of a movement upwards, whether abstract or concrete, towards some end. In the first case, you must “raise up” that which you wish to “set upon” something else. In the second, you figuratively “raise up” that which you wish to spend (a parallel may exist with あげる, where you “raise up” what you wish to give). In the third case, the thing that is being “raised up” is your own hand, to manipulate objects.

(Examples marked with a star are those which I feel work nearly as well in either of the first two groups)

Book review: 夜市 (Night Market)

I’ve recently finished reading Night Market as part of the WaniKani book club and wanted to write up some thoughts. This was my second-ever completed Japanese novel (the first being Hyouka, which I didn’t care for too much despite having very much enjoyed the anime adaptation) and we read through it at a pretty leisurely pace; just about exactly three months for a short 200-page book.

In retrospect, Night Market would have been the perfect introduction to the world of Japanese prose. Compared to Hyouka, which seemed to revel in its vagueness and non-committal narration style, the writing here is snappy and straightforward. Some of the sentences feel even a bit too easy, like they were plucked from the pages of a textbook. While I think it’s still broadly true that novels are more difficult to read than manga, comparing Night Market to Hyouka is enough to show that the difficulty is still a spectrum.

There are two short stories in this book, of which only one actually focuses on the titular market — a setting which, counter to my expectations, has nothing to do with bright lights and street food vendors. When the Night Market opens, those who visit will find themselves unable to leave without making a purchase — and anything, from weapons, to talents, to years of life, can be bought and sold here.

The second story, “The Old Wind Road”, was where the book really took off for me. It follows a nameless boy who is separated from his parents in the park and ends up stumbling into another world for an afternoon. This “old road” has entrances and exits here and there across our own world, but they open and close according to their own rules — and when the boy decides to revisit it years later, he discovers that the exit he had planned to use is only open while the cherry blossoms are in bloom.

The worldbuilding in this second story is fantastic. The Old Road is home to all kinds of strange creatures and spirits, and most of it is unmapped and shrouded in mystery. Even so, there are other humans here too; some simply passing through, others eking out a living by providing services to those brave or foolish enough to venture in. You get a real feeling of the scope of this world, its denizens, and the possibilities for what else might be out there, but the details are left intriguingly vague.

The conflict in both stories is simple yet compelling — you’ve found yourself in a dangerous world that plays by rules you don’t understand, and you can’t leave. In each case, there’s a great tension between wanting to leave as quickly as possible, and the knowledge that the only way to get out is to push deeper and learn more about what you’ve gotten yourself into. It works really well and kept me engaged throughout the entire book.

When I realized that Night Market was published by Kadokawa’s horror imprint, I was expecting something…a bit more grotesque than what I actually got. I’m actually happy about the reversal though. It reminded me of the kind of lingering existential dread you get by watching the Twilight Zone…rather than trying to shock or horrify, it aims for a sense of unease that sticks with you after you finish the story.

Night Market has no English translation, and considering it was published in 2005, I wouldn’t hold my breath. As I always say, the best time to start learning Japanese is three years ago — the second best time is right now.

Read fast and skip things

This post originally appeared as a comment on the WaniKani forums

Reading broadly, rather than reading deeply, is what helped me the most when I was first starting out.

Let’s say in your reading, you come to a page that has 10 sentences:

  • Four sentences are completely comprehensible. They contain vocab and grammar you’ve studied, or they’re just common phrases that you’ve seen many times in the wild.
  • Three sentences are i+1. You know almost all the words and can infer the last one by context, or there’s some new grammar that you’ve brushed with before, and it’s just about to click into place.
  • Three sentences are incomprehensible. There’s some unfamiliar slang, a weird pronunciation, or a bothersome 和製英語 that’s going to send you off on a wild goose chase.

That’s a decent mix of difficulty and if you sat down and dug into everything, you’d certainly come away with more knowledge. But let’s simulate what might actually happen:

  • You open up your manga and the first sentence you read is easy. Things are going well.
  • The very next line is incomprehensible. You pull out your dictionary, search around on the internet to see if there’s some new grammar point that would help…but it takes a while because honestly, you’re not even confident in what you need to be looking up. If you’re determined to understand everything you come across, maybe your reading session actually ends here because you run out of time or get frustrated.
  • But what a shame! The third sentence is i+1 and you would have understood it with just a fraction of the effort you just spent on the last one. To make matters worse, this sentence actually provides valuable context that immediately clears up any confusion you would have had – a character “pronounces” (in kana) an unknown word that had been written in kanji, and now you suddenly recognize it; or an ambiguous construction is suddenly clear because of context that wasn’t available yet.

Obviously this is a contrived example and it won’t always be the case that every difficult sentence will be followed by one that holds the key to unlocking its meaning. But here’s the thing: in each of these scenarios, it’s the third, the i+1 sentence, that provides the greatest learning boost. For my money, reading should be all about seeking out those moments. If you get bogged down by difficult sentences, you’ll be encountering i+1 material less often simply by virtue of the fact that you’ll have less overall coverage.

I’m a firm proponent of skipping stuff you don’t understand. Pick your battles of course; some words will be easy to look up, and if you run into multiple incomprehensible sentences in a row it’s probably a good idea to slow down so you don’t get lost. Overall though, I find that the more reading you do (not merely the more time you spend reading), the better.

No overnight success

Last night I broke my own record for how quickly I could read one volume of manga in Japanese (the delightful とつくにの少女), finishing in about an hour. As exciting as this was, it quickly dawned on me that I was only able to reach this level (and of course, I have much further to go) due to dedicated daily study for almost four years. One hour of reading is propped up by thousands of hours of practice.

How did the Beatles manage to find such immediate success when they burst onto the scene in 1962?
By toiling for years ahead of time without ever being noticed.

How many strokes does it take to fell a tree?
One. But also a hundred.