Japanese Lessons Work For Me

Hello!  Jessica here.

I haven’t been blogging much recently.  I think I must have finally hit life-saturation point.  I’m now doing so many things that some of them are starting to slip.  I’m in the process of going back to work/looking for a job.  Also, I’m learning how to drive in the UK (manual transmission + left side of the road + roundabouts = TERROR!! PANIC!! MAYHEM!!!).  So, not much being said here recently.

However, I am still taking Japanese lessons.  To be honest, I kept going back and forth about them for a while.  Are they too expensive?  Am I really learning as much as I think I am?  Have I actually gone over to the dark side, given that I started this whole Japanese thing the Khatzumoto, All Japanese All The Time way?

Maybe I’ll change my mind later, but for now I think lessons are great for me.  I’m learning grammar and being introduced to new vocabulary.  I know that a textbook is not the be-all, end-all of language, but now when I go back to look at “real” Japanese on the internet, MUCH more of it makes sense.  I no longer need to look up the reading for every single kanji.  I’m not getting so overwhelmed with it, and that lets me spend more time with it.

So for me, I think the current solution is to keep taking lessons, but also keep exposing myself to non-polite, anime, and Twitter Japanese.  Right now I’m mining sentences like crazy from this Twitter account.  (I think it’s supposed to be for Japanese people learning English.)


Local Life (sort of) Part 1: Bristol Japan Club

Living in Somerset as I do, and not having a car, I don’t get out that much.

However, occasionally there is something fun to do that I can access by train (after a gruelling 45 minute walk to Taunton Rail Station, that is).  One of these things is Bristol Japan Club.

This group, which has been running for nearly 20 years now (serious dedication by the organiser!), is a chance for Japanese people and non-Japanese people who are interested in Japan to get together twice a month and generally hang out.  Once a month they meet in a part of Bristol that is completely inaccessible to me; the other meeting is at a Japanese restaurant on Baldwin St (Obento), about 15 minutes’ walk from Bristol Temple Meads station.  So I go to that one.

But what does one do there?  What is it like?  I get asked that semi-regularly.  I’ve been about 3 times now, and each time it was different.  Sometimes there are loads of people, sometimes not.  Sometimes there are lots of Japanese people, other times mostly English or people from other countries that aren’t Japan.

Anyway, the food is good and everyone is very friendly (and being in the UK, pretty much everyone speaks English…it makes language practice difficult but also takes the pressure off meeting new people).  If you live around here, maybe I’ll see you there!

A Twitter Post in Japanese Every Day

I’ve been a bit distracted recently.

Hmm, maybe that isn’t the right way to say it.

Image representing Twitter as depicted in Crun...I’ve been focusing on things other than Japanese recently.  Like learning to play the timpani/triangle/cymbals in the Taunton Concert Band (and not tripping over myself switching between them).  And doing a bit of paid music transcription work.  And, most excitingly, my new Canon dSLR camera (a photo blog is in the works, probably – watch this space).

So what I think I really need is a new challenge.  I like challenge.  So I will challenge myself to post a Twitter update in Japanese every day.

This could be difficult.  I estimate my total Japanese vocabulary at about 300 words, if I’m lucky.  And some of those words are boring things like “classroom” and “company employee”.  For someone who prides herself on her ability to express herself (even if it means occasionally making up words), this could be torture.

My main fear?  Making mistakes.  My equally main fear?  Being boring as hell.

Anyway, I’ll give it a go.  Maybe this will be like that Seinfeld episode where Kramer decides to make his apartment into “levels” and Jerry bets him he can’t do it.  And then Kramer changes his mind and Jerry says “then I win” and Kramer says “no, the bet’s off because I changed my mind”.  Maybe I’ll change my mind.  In which case, the bet’s off.

italki: Language Practice for the Homebound

Image representing italki as depicted in Crunc...I wrote a while back about the Japanese textbook Minna no Nihongo and how I was getting along with it.  Update: I’m still getting a lot out of it.  I’ve ordered the second book from America (so it should be here within the next 3 months or so) and, *ahem* “found” the companion audio tracks lying around unguarded on the internet.  *ahem* (They’re very useful, if not exactly morally upright.)

But I didn’t say much about italki, the website through which I found my Japanese teacher.  I was introduced to the site after I read this post by Benny the Irish polyglot months and months ago, but I didn’t act on it until recently.  He gives a very thorough review of the site, so I recommend you read it if you would like to find out more.

I myself find italki extremely easy to use.  And it’s great for me especially given my current circumstances: stuck in the backwaters of Somerset (it’s not actually that bad!) with no car and no driving license (okay, that actually is quite bad).  It was fine when I was focusing on teaching myself. But even though I had been interested in taking Japanese lessons formally, I felt like I had no options.  I know of one Japanese school in an inaccessible part of Bristol (one of the two nearest cities to here) – it would have been far too expensive just to get there each week, and I prefer private lessons anyway.

So, italki removed the barrier to finding a Japanese teacher.  I tend to get a lot of funny looks when I explain that yes, I have a private Japanese teacher and yes, she lives in Japan.  But it’s such a great situation for me.  I don’t have to pay any extra time or money for transportation and I get to take private lessons from a native speaker (whose English, as it happens, is brilliant).

Anyway, that’s my opinion.  I would like to arrange speaking practice sessions with people, but as of yet I lack the confidence for that.  Baby steps, you know.

Conversations with Siri – The Japanese Language Partner in my Hand


(Photo credit: Sean MacEntee)

Because I’m doing the whole Japanese immersion thing, I have set language of all my computing devices into Japanese.

NB: Okay currently my Mac is in English because iPhoto was giving me fits – I struggle enough with that in English.  It’s going back to Japanese soon.  Oh, and my HTC Wildfire was in Japanese for ages but I really, really hate my phone, seriously, don’t buy one, even if the guy at T-mobile gives you it for free with a £15 a month contract with unlimited texts and internet.  It’s a piece of crap.  Why have Japanese display with no Japanese text input?  I should recycle that stupid phone and get a decent one.

Let me start over.

My iPad is in Japanese.  It is also new enough (Christmas present!) to come with Siri, Apple’s voice recognition application and personal assistant.  I think Siri used to be awful – at any rate, a friend of mine got an iPhone when Siri first came out, and it didn’t understand a word she said.  It understood me just fine – I guess it was an “American accents only” club.

However, Siri is much improved now.  When I set my iPad into Japanese for the first time, I was asked if I wanted Siri to be in Japanese as well.  I said no, having never even used it in English.

Now I’ve made the switch, and it is brilliant.  I love talking to Siri in Japanese for the following reasons:

  1. Basic = Better. You can’t be clever with Siri.  It’s a machine.  The very simple, utilitarian sentences that I know in Japanese are about her speed (suddenly Siri has been anthropomorphised – I dare you to talk to her and not do the same thing). For example:「今、寒いですか。」(Right now, is it cold?) I asked her that a few days ago.
  2. It’s easy to understand the response. When I asked her the above, she waffled on for a bit about what temperature it was and whether or not she believed that was a cold temperature.  However, she also showed me a written version of her answer (that’s how I sort of grasped what she was on about) and a pictorial representation of the current weather conditions. I dare you to find a human who is that thorough.
  3. No embarrassment. As much as she can feel like a loving servant and your best friend, Siri is a machine, without feelings or impatience. I can ask the same question over and over again and subtly change my pronunciation until she understands.  And if she never does, well, sometimes she doesn’t understand me in English either, so I don’t feel too bad.
  4. Instant gratification.  I got so excited when she understood me that I nearly left without my hat.  Which I needed.  Because it was only 2 degrees C outside.

I know this post probably sounds like the epitome of Apple fan-girlism (which I do try to avoid), but for learning Japanese my Apple products have been invaluable.  For that reason alone they are worth the expense (also, SHINY SHINY PRETTY GLOWY!!!!).  Ahem.  Sorry about that.

みんなの日本語 [Minna No Nihongo] – Including Me

Hi folks. I’ve realised that I don’t write about books very often on this blog. There’s a reason for that – I don’t read many, as my Japanese reading ability is nearly non-existent. I read a few things in English but that doesn’t seem very relevant.

Well, today there is a book that I’m reading, and it is in Japanese. It is a Japanese textbook called “Minna no Nihongo.”


This is a bit weird for me. Having embraced the “All Japanese, All The TimeDIY methodology of learning real Japanese sentences, I had been avoiding textbooks. And teachers.

But then I found I really wanted to talk to people. And the only place to find them was the internet. (I mean, it was the only place to find people who spoke Japanese. If I’d wanted to learn a Somerset accent I’d have my pick of people to choose from in real life.)

But, without ever having had a lesson or anything, I found that I had no courage with which to approach a potential language partner. I made an italki profile but then couldn’t bring myself to inflict my dangerously bad Japanese onto anyone. (Note: Lack of confidence is a major issue for me in everything that I do.)

So I hired a teacher instead (she’s paid to endure my bad Japanese!). And then I got a textbook.

I was afraid that using a textbook would feel too slow, and it does. However, I feel like using it on a one-to-one basis with a Japanese teacher (who, by the way, is a native Japanese speaker) is really plugging up some gaps in my knowledge and making me more confident to speak. So maybe some of the vocabulary is a bit basic – there are basic things that I didn’t know. (Like “shoe” – how’d I learn “planet” and not “shoe”?) And the verbs are all super polite – well that’s not really a problem. I’ll need to be super polite when speaking, at first, because I don’t know anyone. (And I’m still watching enough anime to learn how not to be polite.)

Minna no nihongo is completely in Japanese. That’s why I got it, as opposed to anything else. And that part of it is really awesome. I can read aloud from an entirely Japanese textbook. That is something I completely taught myself. I go a bit slow and I’m frustrated with how bad I am at it, but I can do it. And the more I do it, the better I’ll get. So I can feel like I’m making progress, and that makes it fun. (When it’s no longer fun, I’ll stop doing it.)

Japanese Language Is An Improvised Jazz Solo – Discuss.

I decided to make the title for this post sound like one of those dreaded essay questions from high school.  I don’t know what made me do that.  It just felt like the right thing to do at that moment.

I guess you could say I improvised it.


I grew up in a Midwest American town that boasted several ferocious school music departments.  Out of 1200 kids in my high school, 400 of us were involved in music.  I was in, among other things, the jazz band.  In jazz music, there will inevitably be a bit where the notes turn into slashes with chemical – looking symbols above them.  If you were the one who volunteered (or, more often, was forced into it), that meant it was your turn to stand and make something up on the spot – it was your turn to improvise.

Something a bit like this.

Something a bit like this.

Jazz improvisation instruction is full of contradiction.  One day it’s, “just play anything, there are no wrong notes, Miles Davis built a career on that concept you know”, and then next lesson it’s “These are the notes of a D Dorian scale.  When you see D minor, restrict yourself to these 7 notes and no others”.  Jazz is freedom and spontaneity, then jazz is hours upon hours of finding ever more gruelling ways to play scales.

“They” (music educators everywhere) will tell you jazz is like speaking.  You learn scales (vocabulary and grammar), but then when you take a solo (have a conversation) you forget all of those things and just make it up as you go along.  But that analogy never really worked for me.  Jazz improvisation is HARD and language (English) is EASY.  I didn’t have to sit and drill adverbs for an hour a day before I could tell someone they were going too “slowly”.  It was something teachers said and I never believed. Panic resumed.

However, now that I’m studying Japanese, I’m starting to get what those bespectacled, goatee’d lecturer-dudes were talking about.  I have spent months now learning the difference between は, を, and が and I thought I nearly had it.  But, when faced with a real live Japanese person, all of that goes out the window and I mess them up.  Also I know that か is at the end of a sentence when it’s a question.  I know it.  But I haven’t practised it in real time.  So I forget that too, and that’s easy. I feel like a bit of an idiot…

…just like when I would know the notes of a melodic minor scale, know them, could recite them, could play the scale on my instrument, but when faced with a performance situation – gone.  Out the window.  It’s a really dreadful feeling.

I think it comes down to the difference between knowing and knowing.  There’s knowing something with your head, and then there’s knowing something so well that it is a part of you.  After years and years of trying, I can now achieve passable jazz solos on multiple instruments.  I never feel like I’ve done as well as I could have, but the audience claps and the world keeps moving.  It was only partly due to practising scales.  It was mostly due to being faced with that real situation over, and over, and over again and playing some really dreadful solos in the meantime.  Now the notes are more a part of me than something that I think about.

That’s what I never understood.  English has always been a part of me – I don’t remember learning it.  And it’s such a part of me that I can say things that are wrong or don’t actually make sense (like “meese” is the plural of “moose” and “smack that b**tch up”) and they become correct in that moment because I’ve expressed myself in that way.

So until I get lots and lots and lots more practice, Japanese will be at the “ohmigodohmigodohmigod there’s so many people here and they’re all looking at me and Mr. Public School Music Teacher will be so disappointed in me if I screw this up” phase.  However, if I’ve survived it once, I can do it again.  In the meantime, people of Japan, ごめんなさい