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How Japanese People Learn English…And Why it Isn’t Working

The golden rule of English teaching pedagogy in Japan: The more blond your hair and pointy your nose, the better you are at teaching English. Also, and saying "OH" in English is hilarious.

As the Asia Times has previously reported, Japanese people aren’t so hot at learning English compared to their East Asian peers:

Indeed, the average score of Japanese candidates sitting for the Test of English as a Foreign language (TOEFL) ranks lowest among all Asian nations except North Korea. In fact, Japan ranks just below Myanmar.

Now that’s pretty bad, but perhaps just using the TOEFL isn’t a good measure of English ability? What about using the results form another test by Education First where Japan scores fairly high (ranked 14 out of 44) rather than bottom of the pack? But at the same time, the Education First test apparently does little to test speaking and listening skills.

Obviously, then, what the people of Japan need to work on is English communication. Talking with Westerners. Speaking both with and like other native English speakers. Learning about western culture. Making that Western culture a real part of their lives. You get the picture. If they want to speak like us, they need to be like us.

Clearly.

So I decided to do some research of English learning resources targeted at Japanese speakers. And while I had originally planned on doing some real, serious research that would uncover the dark conspiracy that is keeping Japanese people from learning English, that quickly ended when I found a certain DVD on “Dangerous English” by American-born gaijin talent Dave Spector:

DVD cover to "Dave Spector's Dangerous English" 「デーブ・スペクターの使うとヤバ~イ英会話」

You might be wondering what in the world the Japanese would consider “Dangerous English.” Luckily, there’s a wonderful trailer available on Youtube. Enjoy.

If you don’t know Japanese, the premise of the entire DVD is pretty simple: it’s nothing but a bunch of puns from either Japanese words that sound like dirty English words (or occasionally, from terrible mispronunciations of English words that the Japanese speaker can’t say correctly). For example, all the men in the restaurant in the video around 3:30 start dropping their pants after the girl makes a certain, unfortunate pronunciation error on the word “cook.”

And putting aside the issue of a large number of men dropping their pants in a public restaurant around a Japanese girl, the over-the-top stereotypes of American are also pretty hilarious. Suffice to say, I wanted to find the whole video—I couldn’t let my research on English learning material for Japanese people end with a infomercial! Since Amazon doesn’t ship the DVD outside of Japan, I managed to find a great solution—online video rentals.

Enter, Videx.

Unlike some other video rental sites online, Videx doesn’t seem to be super-restrictive on what country you’re from—at the very least, non-Japanese IPs are able to access and purchase content—which is better that most Japanese-targeted sites. So making one of the strangest rental purchases of my life, I downloaded and watched the full “Dangerous English” video.

It was… interesting. Basically, the same stuff as on the trailer, but more of it. I didn’t feel totally satisfied in my purchase until the end of the video, though, when we the viewers are treated to “Top 5” lists of curse words in English for both men and women. Here’s the list for women:

Top 5 curse words for women. The bubble reads, "Say it out loud!"

Gotta love that flawless proofreading that only those suns of bitches down in Japan can so consistently provide.

And, the list for men:

Top 5 for men. Which one of these words is not like the other...?

I can’t say I use “cock titty balls sucker” as much as the other words on the list, but perhaps I’ll have to make an effort lest I be labeled as un-American.

The takeaway from the video was a dual message, one about American culture, and one about the English language in America. First, that all Americans carry guns, and therefore talking with an American is dangerous, as you’ll be at a high risk for murder should you choose to do so. The gun stereotype sounds pretty over-the-top, but you’d be surprised. I once had a conversation with a Japanese girl:

GIRL: So do you have a gun?

ME: Uh, no?

GIRL: Really?? I thought everyone in America had one…

ME: Um, I think you’re mistaken.

GIRL: Is your gun locked up somewhere?

ME: I don’t own one at all.

GIRL: But your parents own guns, right?

ME: No! In fact, I don’t know anyone who owns a gun at all.

GIRL: Wow, no way! *Insert stereotypical Japanese-sounding OOOOooh sound here*

In the end, she seemed pretty disappointed. I’m pretty sure she didn’t believe I was actually American after that. I didn’t have an American flag hanging up in my room either after all!

The second message in the vide about language was that adding the word “fuck” every 2-3 words is a proper, American tradition. Depending on what part of the country you’re in, I can’t exactly disagree with that, though.

Although I have gotten offtrack after writing this post, one possible conclusion is: I would hesitate to recommend Dave Spector’s DVD for the serious learning of English.

Hope that helps!

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Language Learning Tip: Finding Japanese in Odd Places

I haven’t been updating daily because of a certain absolutely awesome distraction, but today while wandering my home I came across a certain nostalgic item:

Ah, the playstation. So many childhood hours spent on classics like Spyro and Crash Bandicoot. And despite all the days spent collecting gems in Spyro—which seemed like months and months to me when I was younger—I fired up the game again about two summers ago, only to find myself easily completing it 100% in no more than two days. Man did I suck at video games.

But putting aside my Spyro skills, on the inside of the lid of the playstation I found the following warning:

Ah ha, Japanese! It reads:

レンズには絶対に触れないでください。

Despite being barely a sentence, it’s the perfect way to practice Japanese without input overload. That is, because the sentence is short, contains no more than three kanji, and has been found in a relatively odd place, remembering comes much more easily.

Breaking down the sentence, I could study:

  • レンズ — The beginner just learning Katakana will be happy to have a common word to practice with, in this case, lens.
  • レンズ [には] — the use of the double particle「には」gives beginners practice with this trickier grammar construction.
  • 絶対(に) — the rather common zettai (not at all) is one of those words I picked up from anime watching, but knowing how to write it never hurts!
  • 触る — the sentence contains the conjugated form of 「触る」(to touch) into its negative command form; practice reading the sentence a few times to practice telling others not to touch things—always a useful thing to know!

Sure, I could pick up an entire in novel in Japanese and start looking up characters one-by-one to get through it, but that’s incredibly time consuming. I like to think I have a lot of self-disciple, but that’s just too much. Rather, single sentences like the one found on my Playstation are sure to be more easily memorized. Blogging about it doesn’t hurt either.

This is the same idea that is used when one does shadowing—find real, but manageable Japanese sentences, understand them completely, and practice the heck out of them. When it comes to language learning, I find being a master-of-one rather than jack-of-all trades is much more useful. That is, instead of trying to study too much at once, really get down and study small chunks of language one-by-one.

One need not be in Japan to come across nuggets of Japanese in their daily interactions; you may just need to dig a little deeper, or look under the lid.

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Language Learning Tip: Keep a Notebook

I’ve seen it repeated over and over that keeping a language journal is helpful to language learners. You’ll obviously get practice, and you’ll be able to track your progress as you get better by looking through your older entries. Plus, you can do it for just a few minutes a night before you sleep, so it’s not a huge commitment either.

That’s all well and good. I’m pro-journal, and if you can stick to it, more power to you. But I’ve never been one to keep a journal, not even in English. So I’d like to suggest something even easier, but just as useful: a notebook. So don’t keep a journal; keep a notebook.

Why keep a notebook at all? I remember the things I look-up and hear, so this is pointless.

No it isn’t.

Marketing Japan writes about how successful people often use notebooks to never forget things—and as a language learner, that is your goal. In order to learn a language effectively, you need to actually remember what you encounter, which is easier said than done.

When I watch anime there are lots of words I don’t know, and grammar constructions that I can understand, but have yet to have really practiced myself. I might make a mental note of a specific word I want to remember for later, but unless I write it down, I’m going to forget. There’s too much in a single episode of an anime for anyone to remember, and trying to make mental notes of everything while passively watching isn’t going to translate into efficient language learning.

Keeping a notebook makes your language learning active.

So the next time you hear an interesting word, or see something in Japanese you don’t understand, don’t just look up the word and then expect that you’ll remember it for next time—you’ll probably forget within a minute if you don’t focus on actually remembering it.

So how is this language notebook thing supposed to work anyway?

First, you need a notebook. A smartphone might also work, but I think the physicality of writing a notebook may work better—but to each his own. If you’re feeling especially pretentious, head down to your local Barnes & Noble and pick up one of those Moleskine numbers. But anything small and portable should do.

It’s then a matter of finding things to write inside of it. From an interview with David Ury (AKA: Ken Tanaka):

Where/how/from whom did you learn Japanese and what drove you to do it?

I went to Japan as a college student because I wanted to get the hell out of the U.S. While there, I became absolutely obsessed with becoming the most fluent white guy in Tokyo. I learned Japanese from everyone and everything around me. I used to walk home from the train station to my home stay house looking up every kanji on every sign I passed. It took me 11 hours just to walk 3 blocks.

Not all of us have the opportunity to be in Japan, but the importance of writing down and looking up any Japanese you encounter cannot be understated. Jumping into reading a high-level novel may be too much, but finding tid-bits of Japanese to note and review is what will make the difference.

The next time you’re watching an anime, wait for an unknown, but interesting, word and look it up. Then, write down that word in your notebook. Or if you come across a Japanese website, you might look up the meaning of a sentence or two on one of its pages. Again, note down these sentences in your notebook.

At the end of the day, perhaps half an hour before you plan to go to sleep (since material looked at right before sleeping is generally not easily memorized, but material half an hour before is), review what you’ve jotted down. Whenever I do this, I usually end up noticing said word or sentence in other materials whereas I wouldn’t have noticed it before (since I wouldn’t have understood it!)

Today, for example, I came across and looked up the word 身長, reviewed it a few times, and low and behold, while watching Legend of the Galactic Heroes today—an awesome, if occasionally slow-paced space drama that I recommend everyone to watch—it showed up. I plan to review the word again before I go to sleep.

Setting aside time to formally study—such as doing shadowing as I’ve recommended—is important, but keeping a notebook will help you remember the little things you often think you will remember, but then conveniently forget. It’s the same reason you (should) take notes in lectures: you may understand everything that is being said, but not writing it down or reviewing means you’ll simply forget later. As language learners, forgetting is not an option.

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Japanese Learning Badassery Part II: Watch Anime But Actually Learn Japanese

This post is the second in a series about real Japanese practice out of fun Japanese things. Be sure to check out the first part, about using video games to study Japanese as well.

Anime is fun to watch, but surely it's a cornucopia of Japanese to be learned too, right?

If you’ve read anything on the internet about teenagers and young adults trying to learn Japanese, you’ve probably come across the story of the sad little anime fan—the weeaboo as he is also known—who attempts to learn Japanese, only to fail horribly. His excitement over anime leads him to believe he’d be good at learning Japanese; after all, when he finished watching all 500 episodes of One Piece he feels he has acquired a rather extensive vocabulary, such as the words 仲間 (nakama), 大丈夫 (daijobu), and 海賊 (kaizoku).

This reason this happens is simple: watching (english subtitled) anime will not help you improve your Japanese beyond getting used to hearing Japanese being spoken. Watching subtitled anime requires no effort on the learners part; in other words, there’s no resistance.

As I’ve said before, self-studying requires that you incorporate resistance into your reviews. In other words, you need to challenge yourself.

Watching anime in hard mode (AKA: resistance ON; subtitles OFF)

The first thing I should mention is that complete beginners should not try to learn a lot of Japanese from anime. It’s fun to pick up common words, and useful to learn various 相づち (aizuchi / filler words), but beyond that, I’m going to require the same prerequisites that I stated in my shadowing post:

  • Knowledge of Kana and basic Kanji
  • Decent Japanese grammar skills
  • At least a month or two listening to and understanding beginner-level Japanese. For example, after having gone through a level or two of Pimsleur Japanese.

To learn from anime, you need to set up a consistent study system where in which you’re not just watching anime—you’re learning from it. That means simply watching un-subtitled anime straight through is not particularly helpful: it’s too easy and quick. There’s no way to avoid actually spending the necessary study time.

Watch your anime with Japanese subtitles

Japanese subtitles are great things. You get to read and hear Japanese at the same time without any English interference. As a someone who (supposedly) isn’t completely fluent in Japanese, having the words written down will help with comprehension greatly. There’s a large collection of Japanese subtitles that can be found here. I’ll go with a personal favorite: Death Note.

Now let’s go over how I would go about studying:

1. Write down the Japanese sentence (from the subtitles). It’s important to write the sentence yourself even if you can just copy-paste it from your subtitle file: you’ll end up remembering more.

そんなことしたら、性格悪いのはお前だけになるぞ。

2. If you want to study vocabulary, follow the same five-side flashcard procedure I’ve detailed before. To refresh your memory, here’s a sample card for 「性格」:

Side 1: 性格

Side 2: せいかく

Side 3: character; personality

Side 4: そんなことしたら、[性格]悪いのはお前だけになるぞ。

Side 5: そんなことしたら、[せ…]悪いのはお前だけになるぞ。

3. However, since this is an anime, you can also rip the audio using any recording program of your choice and use it in conjunction with your Japanese text. I used WireTap Anywhere to choose my video player as my input audio source, and recorded the audio to Audacity:

[audio https://sites.google.com/site/coldfrost/files/ryuk.mp3]

The test of your listening and speaking ability comes when you can repeat the sentence after you hear it without looking at the Japanese text—but you should look in order to see if you get the reading correct. Remember, there is no penalty for being unoriginal when learning Japanese. Even if you’re unoriginal, and are merely repeating, you’re correct. The point is to get yourself speaking in real Japanese rather than a strange mess of incorrect grammar and Japanese-sounding English words that beginners often find themselves using.

4. After you feel you’ve reviewed enough, such as making flashcards for all of the words you didn’t know, and after having gone through a good number of listen-and-repeat sentences as well, test yourself! Go back to the episode after a few days and watch it without subtitles. Hopefully you’ll be surprised at how much you’ll understand.

There’s no secret trick to any of this.

By using anime as your study material, you essentially turn your favorite episodes into your Japanese textbook. You have to create the study material yourself, but you’ll be better served in your learning process by doing so. While the Japanese in a good textbook will be no less valid than the Japanese in an episode of Death Note, hopefully you find anime more interesting so you feel actually interested in studying it.

I know that when I go through textbook sentences, while they’re not bad, they don’t exactly make me super-excited about Japanese either. However, as an anime fan, I’m able to vest more energy into studying because I enjoy it. And frankly, when I study something I enjoy, I’m much more efficient and I enjoy it much more.

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Using Video Games to Study Japanese: A Grandia Case Example

Alternate Title: How to be badass: get better at Japanese by playing video games while your friends are stuck in class using Genki I.

I’ll admit that the alternate title here is a little misleading: you might be able to become better than your friends, but simply playing your video game of choice isn’t going to do anything for you. You need to have a plan, and you need to follow it carefully and methodically. You might be playing a game, but you’re not playing around.

My Experiences Using Grandia to learn Japanese

Title screen from grandia—but you're not allowed to begin until you look up all the kanji!

The great thing about using video games to learn Japanese is that the video games that are going to contain the most text are RPGs, and many of these originate in Japan. So if you have a favorite RPG—think Final Fantasy, Chrono Trigger, Dragon Age, Pokémon, etc—then a Japanese version is bound to exist. One that contains lots of text to read will obviously be better.

I personally love Grandia, so going through the Japanese version and trying to figure out what is being said is fun. There’s lots of text to read and the characters travel to a variety of places so the vocab will be varied. Plus, having gone through the original English version, I’m not completely lost on what to do. Here’s what you’ll need in order to effectively study from your video game of choice:

  1. The game.
  2. Your flashcard program of choice that supports multi-sided flashcards. A popular choice is Anki, although I’m personally partial to iFlash—it’s your choice in the end.
  3. If possible, a separate English translation of the Japanese text—one for Grandia can be found on GameFAQs, although they probably exist for many other games as well.
  4. Patience—you’re not playing the game normally this time around.

The search for the Sulfer Weed medicine begins!

Your task while playing is to essentially mine the game for all that it’s worth—jot down every sentence you think is useful and not overly convoluted with difficult or rarely-used words. Using the above screenshot as an example, let’s see how I would go about creating my flashcards:

1. Write down the sentence in Japanese.

苦しそう。。。

いま薬草を見つけてきてあげるからがんばってね。。。

If you’re not sure how to read a kanji so that you can enter it into your computer, you can search by kanji by handwriting or by kanji radical.

2. Know what the sentence means in English.

If you’re having trouble, the sentence may be too difficult for you at this point—you can save it for later after you’ve improved your grammar—or you can check your English translation for an idea.

3. Now you’re ready to build your flashcard. Here’s what I would use for the new unknown word 薬草:

Side 1薬草

Side 2: やくそう

Side 3: medicinal plants

Side 4: 苦しそう。。いま[薬草]を見つけてきてあげるからがんばってね。

Side 5: 苦しそう。。いま[や…]を見つけてきてあげるからがんばってね。

Multiple-sided flashcards gives me a wide variety of ways to go about studying. I could start by studying the sentence, doing Side 4 first by reading it out loud. If I don’t understand the key word I’m trying to study (I put it in brackets in case there’s more than one word in the sentence I might be studying), I’ll look at Side 3, the English meaning, to remind me. If I don’t remember the reading as well, I can also look at Side 2.

And when I want a bit more intensive practice after I get the meaning down, I could do a Side 5-2-1 review. That is, look at Side 5 first and try to recall the reading (Side 2), and after that, recall the writing of the kanji itself (Side 1).

There are many different ways you can choose to study your cards, but I believe combining these two methods—meaning you go over each card at least twice before you can count it as memorized—is very effective.

Words of warning

When playing through games with authentic Japanese text, you’re bound to run into a lot of words you don’t know—this is a good thing! However, don’t try and rush through studying by quickly creating cards and moving on; slowly work your way through the cards and the game so you’re actually learning.

There may be thousands of words you don’t know, so this isn’t going to be a fast process if you actually want to get something out of it. Going to fast leads to input overload, as I’ve discussed before. So take your time and enjoy learning Japanese! These techniques can be applied to anime and manga as well—so choose whatever medium you like best when studying.

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