How I fixed my listening comprehension

I used to have a really hard time understanding spoken Japanese, despite being (at the time) fairly comfortable with reading. I remember thinking I could improve by watching anime with Japanese subtitles, but if there was any benefit it must have been pretty minimal, and I realized eventually that I was just giving myself more practice reading, but when I tried watching without any subtitles at all, I just got frustrated and confused.

Fortunately I happened to hear about Subs2SRS around that time, which is a really cool tool that turns videos into flashcards by reading subtitle files. I didn’t exactly want to add a whole new SRS routine into my study routine, so I came up with a low-impact method that helped me out a lot in just a short amount of time.

The video above shows the method in action, but I’ll summarize it here as well.

#1: Pick the show you’re going to watch

You’re going to want to pick something that’s around your reading level. The goal is to bring your listening up to parity with your reading level, and you don’t want to be spending too much time puzzling out the text on each card when you check your results.

It’s also worth mentioning that anything that helps ease the process is good. For example: you could watch a show you’ve seen before with English subtitles, so you have an idea of what’s going on and don’t get totally lost, or you could watch an anime that was based on a manga you’ve already read.

The most important thing is that the show you watch should be interesting. You’re going to have a hard time staying engaged with something you’re watching just because you heard it was easy. Pick something you actually want to watch and don’t worry too much about it.

#2: Find (or make) a flashcard deck for it

This can be a bit tricky but it’s not that bad. In many cases the hardest part is just sourcing Japanese subtitles. Once you have all the necessary files, you can download Subs2SRS here. The manual should have everything you need in order to make your decks. Alternately, you can download a bunch of premade anime decks from here.

Whether you download or make your own, I really recommend you keep your card format as simple as possible. On the front, an image with an auto-play audio clip; on the back, the Japanese text line. You don’t need any special formatting or processing to make this work. It’s a pretty simple process, so don’t waste time trying to make the perfect card template.

#3: Watch an episode of your show

Nothing too special here. Watch an episode start to end without pausing to look up words or grammar. It’s okay if you feel overwhelmed at first; we’ll be reviewing this material later. Just try to pay attention for stuff you do understand.

When you watch anime with English subtitles, your brain has no reason to try and understand the spoken Japanese in the background, and as a result you’ll never develop that skill no matter how many hours you put in. The simple act of moving outside your comfort zone can shift you into almost a kind of survival mode, where you’re forced to start understanding the material just because you’re suddenly out of your depth.

#4: Study the material

The next step is to go through all the cards that correspond to the episode you just watched. Repeat the following steps for each line:

  • Listen to the audio clip, using the image on the front to remind you of context
  • If you understand it, suspend it immediately, otherwise flip the card
  • Compare the sentence on the back to the audio clip you just heard
  • Replay the audio as you read the sentence. Try to identify areas that are difficult for you, such as slurred sounds or fast speech. At this point, feel free to look up words or grammar that you didn’t understand on your first watch.
  • Pass the card

Repeat this process for each card until you reach the end of the episode. It’s a good idea to set your new card limit to something very high (or use the custom study option) so you can get through them all in one go. Don’t worry about overloading yourself with reviews; more on this in the next section.

It’s fine to watch a few episodes back to back and then go through all the cards afterwards, but I do recommend that you do the watching and reviewing on the same day. Without the context in your short-term memory, you might have trouble understanding certain lines that wouldn’t normally give you trouble.

#5: Review

For typical anki flashcards, I’m a firm proponent of “always review every card you have due”, but if you’re blazing through hundreds of cards per episode, you’ll probably have a hard time sticking to a regimen like that.

Here’s what I suggest instead:

  • In your deck options under “Lapses”, set your “New Interval” to 40%, so pressing “Again” won’t reset your card all the way to zero
  • Do as many reviews per day as you want to, but never zero
  • Press “again” if you feel like seeing the card soon would be helpful, otherwise press “good”
  • If you ever feel like you’ve got a good grasp on a card, suspend it
  • Use a card retirement addon to set your cards to automatically suspend themselves when they reach a certain interval (I used three months)

If you’re the kind of person that like keeping anki decks around forever, resist that urge in this case. The point of this method is to give you a way to smoothly and easily quiz yourself on audio cues. It’s not to serve as a brain backup or keep you fresh on rare vocab. The end goal for a deck using this method is for you to complete it and never touch it again. By suspending cards that you’ve mastered, you essentially give the deck itself an expiration date.

#6: Be free

Don’t feel like you have to do this for every show you ever watch. This method is ultimately just a way to give yourself a little kick into gear. If you ever catch yourself thinking “I could probably learn more by watching another show instead of revisiting this one”, follow that instinct! The ultimate goal is to leave flashcards and tools behind and make the language your own.

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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Translating Moyase with Deepl

I recently added localization support to Moyase and wrote a Japanese locale file to test it with. Just for fun, I thought I would take the translation strings and run them through a machine translation service to see how it fared. The results are not dramatically bad, but they definitely aren’t good.

Moyase’s localization files are available on Github. The Deepl translation I made for this video is available in my recycle bin.

Translation Work – Kiss Day

May 23rd is Kiss Day in Japan, commemorating the 1946 release date of はたちの青春 (Hatachi no Seishun), the first Japanese movie to feature a kissing scene. Komugi, an artist I follow (whose work I’ve translated in the past), posted two short manga pages to mark the occasion, and I reached out about translating this one as well. Since there was so little to do I finished pretty quickly and was able to get it out in time for the 23rd in the US (as Japan is one day ahead).

I don’t have a ton to say about the translation this time, since obviously there isn’t a lot of text. One thing I do want to mention is the use of “pretty” instead of the more typical “cute” for かわいい. Ryuji isn’t trying to pay Ann a compliment here, he’s just stating an obvious fact without really thinking about how it comes across. I felt like “pretty” did a better job of carrying this nuance.

As always, matching fonts between the original and translated versions is something that I have a lot of fun with, and I was happy to see that Komugi appreciated the effort:

Also, I didn’t notice until I had uploaded it, but he even went to the trouble of matching my handwriting when translating the title! Please take a look at both versions to see how they compare!

Many thanks to Komugi for letting me translate for her again!

Six Tanuki and Transparency

Last year I started playing Animal Crossing: New Horizons in Japanese as part of my daily practice routine. It was my first experience with the series so all the characters were new to me, though I did know ahead of time that, just like in Pokemon, Ace Attorney, and other many titles with a long history of western localization, all the characters would have completely different names between regions.

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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)