Breaking into reading Japanese

At the very beginning, reading can seem like an impossible challenge. No matter how many words you memorize up front, you’re essentially guaranteed to see something unfamiliar within moments of trying to read your first book. Looking up every new word and grammar point will grind you to a halt, but trying to maintain momentum can leave you feeling totally lost.

How do you strike a balance? How early can you realistically start reading without it feeling like a complete struggle?

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Thoughts about Wanikani

Wanikani has been with me since the very first month of my Japanese-learning journey, and I was a big fan for a long time. Over the years my opinion of it has gradually changed, and at this point I feel like I can’t recommend it in good conscience without some heavy disclaimers. I don’t think it’s a bad platform by any means, and there’s a lot to like — I finished the whole course and I’m quite certain it helped me avoid some common pain points — I just feel like if I’m going to say “wanikani worked for me, it’s pretty good”, it’s only right that I be able to point to a list of criticisms to temper that recommendation.

I’ll also be laying out the strategy and schedule I used to get through the second half of the course quickly and efficiently while also working full time.

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My best-guess approach to learning Japanese

I’ve been learning Japanese for a while now, but whenever someone asks me “how long has it been?” I always feel the need to say something like “between five and three years”. While I fully embrace the fact that language learning takes a long time, I also feel like I could have reached my current level of proficiency in much less time than it actually took me, just due to a years-long false start and lots of wasted effort before I had any idea what I was doing.

This is the guide I wish I could have followed from the beginning, compiled with the benefit of hindsight after much trial and error. It’s likely imperfect, and likely won’t work for everyone, but it’s essentially everything that worked for me without all of the stuff that wasted my time. I hope you find it helpful.

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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.

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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 not worry about it 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!