Saturday, May 30, 2015

Learning new words and building a strong Japanese lexicon

Do you find yourself forgetting a lot of Japanese words? Do you think learning new words is hard and takes too much practice? Do you just want to be better at building your vocabulary so you can talk about a wide variety of things?

It's time to shift your focus from just 'learning words' to building a lexicon. Luckily, this is something you can work on from the very first Japanese word you ever learn, and you can start at any time.

These techniques will help you not only learn new works easily, but retain them forever, just like you do with words in your native language.

A main point here is that you're going to be learning words quite similarly to the way you learn new words in your native language. That means you're not going to be learning them through translation. For more details on what I mean by 'learning through translation' and why it severely hurts your Japanese (and how to stop doing it to improve your Japanese!), read this article about the biggest mistake you can make in learning Japanese.

Whenever you discover a new word in Japanese that you want to commit to memory, follow these steps. (In fact, you can and should do this with new English words, too, to help you have a good native vocabulary!)

Note that this doesn't involve any instructions for learning to write words. It's normal to know how to say more than you can write, and it's normal to learn how to write something after learning how to say and hear it. This is even true for your native language. You don't have to learn how to write a word to learn it. You can always learn to write it later when you're more comfortable. In fact, I find learning how to write words I already know is easier than trying to learn to write a word when I'm still learning it verbally.

1. Find a basic definition

The first thing you should do when you see a Japanese word you don't know is find a definition. Usually you can do this through a dictionary. If you're using a textbook you probably already have this. If you're speaking Japanese with someone, just ask them what it means. If you both are speaking Japanese, try to have them explain it to you in Japanese, not just give you a translation.

Or if you're wondering how to say a certain thing in Japanese, you can look it up through English-Japanese dictionaries or ask someone who speaks Japanese. Once you get your Japanese, word, I suggest looking it up again using Japanese-English, or in a normal Japanese native dictionary if you know enough to use one.

If you are near a computer, by far the best resource you have is Jim Breen's WWWJDIC. WWWJDIC is an open online Japanese-English dictionary with a ton of extra functionality. Be sure to save a list of the mirrors or bookmark all the mirrors in case the main page is down.

Or if you know enough Japanese to understand a Japanese dictionary, I usually use because it is the easiest for me to find.

Online dictionaries are great because you can copy/paste text, so it's easy to look up words you find online.

Anyway, now that you have a general idea of the English words associated with your Japanese word, you can go ahead and stop thinking about the English word associated with this. You're now researching a new word -- pretend it has nothing to do with any English word you've ever heard of, even if it's a simple translation.

Make sure you take note of what kind of word (part of speech) the word is. WWWJDIC will tell you this. Often, there will be examples, as well, so you can click on the examples button (labeled [Ex]) or read any that might pop up that can easily show you how it's used.

2. Say the word. Like a lot.

Before you even say the word the first time, look up the pitch accent pattern for it. This is important. If you have a Japanese dictionary or textbook that tells you the pitch accent, great. An easy way to look this up online is through OJAD, the Online Japanese Accent Dictionary. It seems to be down a lot, but it will often be back up in like 5 minutes so keep trying if you can't access it.

Make sure you get the proper accent down. Take note if the word is unaccented or if it's not, what mora the accent ends on. If you don't understand pitch accent or don't even know what I'm talking about, learn it now, at least at a basic level, before you try to learn any more Japanese.

Try to find native Japanese speakers saying the word. OJAD can help a lot hear, but they don't have all the words. Sometimes WWWJDIC will have audio, too. It's good to hear it by itself, but also in context, so if you can, listen to people using it in sentences, too.

If you can, record yourself saying it and play it back to yourself and compare it to a recording of a native speaker.

Keep saying the word over and over. If you can find some easy examples of it used in sentences, say those, too. Use it in your own sentences. You can continue doing this step forever, including for the rest of these exercises. Any words you stumble over saying you should practice saying regularly. Get your facial muscles used to the motions of the word, both on its own and with other words surrounding it.

3. Gather illustration of the word.

Now it's time to develop the idea of this word. At this point, you should not even remember the English word or any English you used to get to this point. You should be thinking of it as a purely new Japanese word that doesn't relate to English at all.

If you are learning this word because you heard it somewhere, think about the context you originally heard it in. Think about whatever that was and what image it puts in your head now that you have a better idea of what the word means. Think of that image, and repeat the word to yourself, making sure you're associating it with these ideas.

If you're around a native speaker, ask them to describe the word to you again (no translations!) and pay attention to the ideas that form in your head while hearing their description. Repeat the word to yourself and associate it with these ideas.

If you have examples of the word being used, read or listen to them again and think about the pictures in your head.  Repeat the word to yourself and associate it with these ideas.

Go to a search engine with image search (use a Japanese one or one that can return Japanese web results) and search for the word. What kind of images come up? This of course works better for certain types of words, but it's always worth a shot.

Think of all the things you associate with all these ideas, and keep repeating the word to yourself, making sure you're telling yourself that this word means ALL of this, that this little universe of ideas is contained in this one little word. When you think of this word, it should bring back those images, just like when you hear words in your native language, you think of ideas and images.

4. Find ways to use the word

Up to now, you've probably only spent a minute or two studying your word (or a little more if you made a recording and compared and really worked hard at pronunciation).

Now it's all about practice. You have to practice the word to get your mind used to accessing this part of your lexicon.

If you speak to others in Japanese a lot, try to find ways to bring up the word, or if it's a common enough one, just be sure to use it when you can.

I'm going to assume, though, that you don't know anyone who speaks Japanese and you're living in a place where everyone speaks English so you have no opportunity to speak Japanese with others.

I find the easiest way to practice words is to just talk to yourself in Japanese. Try not to just parrot the same sentences over and over. Just have a little discussion with yourself so that you will be saying it in a lot of different ways.

If you're expressing the word in a written way (like using it on your blog or in tweets or just writing letters or something) make sure you're reading your own writing aloud.

Don't just say it in your head -- you have to actually say it aloud. You need to associate the muscle movements (including moving your vocal chords!) with the lexical entry. So don't whisper or mumble to yourself -- make sure you're talking in a normal way.

5. Describe the word to someone else.

If you know someone who is also learning Japanese or just likes listening to you talk, describe the word to them. If you don't know anyone or they're just not around right now, pretend there is someone there.

Here's the challenge though: you can't use any English translations for the word. Completely avoid using those words that you saw in the Japanese-English dictionary earlier (you should have put them out of your mind by now anyway!) and describe the word as a concept.

If you and the person you're talking to (even if you're talking to yourself) understand Japanese well enough, just go ahead and describe it in Japanese. If not, describe it in English while avoiding any "direct" translations.

If you're describing the word to someone else and they ask you "Oh, so does it mean (translation)?" try to avoid saying yes. You can say "Pretty much" or something, but I don't ever like to say that any Japanese word "means" any English word. Because honestly, it never does. Bonus points if you can think of ways in which the concept differs from the one you associate with the given English "translation!"

If you're able to describe a word to someone else without using translations and they get it, you've successfully learned the word. As long as you keep running into it regularly enough for a while, you'll never forget it.

And the more words you learn this way, you'll be able to pick up new words faster and more easily. Eventually you'll be able to pick them up just like you do with English or your native language.

Speaking Japanese with a Japanese accent: Pitch accent pattern

Why study accent from the beginning?

Once you understand how to make all the sounds in Japanese, you might think it's easy to learn new words by seeing the romanization or kana for the word and sounding it out. I mean, you're saying all the right sounds, so you're saying the word correctly, right?

Sadly, this is a big mistake that a lot of people make learning Japanese -- even in the classroom, I find it rare that pitch-accent pattern is stressed as an important part of learning Japanese. Even classrooms that use textbooks that explain pitch-accent before the first vocabulary lesson seem to ignore this in the beginning.

The problem here is that language is learned through practice. Have you ever found that your whole life you've been pronouncing a word in your native language wrong, or even calling something by the wrong word? Think of how hard it was to change that habit. In fact, some people never change the habit because it's just too hard to undo something that now comes so naturally.

If you ignore Japanese accent, you're going to be essentially locking in a thick foreign accent for a long time to come, and the longer you go ignoring it, the harder it's going to be to correct it, to the point where you just may never be able to.

For example, I didn't learn the proper accent for many words when I first started studying. I've been speaking Japanese for over 10 years now, and I still say 出来る wrong almost every time. Because classroom focuses on things like word choice, no one ever corrected me, and I didn't realize I was saying it wrong until much later. Even now, the habit is very hard to break.

Luckily, Japanese accept pattern is not that difficult. It's quite different from English, but you can master it with just a little practice. Once you get the basic idea, you'll pick up the accent of new words the same way you do picking up new words in your native language -- without even really thinking about the accent, because it comes naturally.

The importance of accent in language

In English, we use a stress accent. That means in each word, one or more syllables gets "stressed." These stressed syllables are the loudest, clearest, and longest syllables in the word.

Think of the English word autobiography. Say it aloud, or listen to a native speaker say it aloud if you're not a native speaker.

Notice how you say AutobiOgraphy, with the letters I capitalized getting a bit of extra 'oomph.' The rest of the syllables in the word seem to fall around it, either trailing away from the stressed syllables, or leading up to the stressed syllables.

If you were to mix up the stress syllables, you'd barely even be able to understand the word (if you could understand it at all).

And not just understanding, the meaning of a word can change based simply on how you accent the word. In English, we have many cases where two words have the same sounds and the same spelling, but the accent is the only difference between them.

For example, we call fruits and veggies like what you buy at the supermarket as produce. When you create something, like for example a film, you produce it. While we spell both words as 'produce' and they both have the same phonetic sounds, they are two different words and the difference between them is how we accent them.

If you're not pronouncing things with the right accent in English, you can make your speech incomprehensible or misleading. It severely hinders your ability to communicate.

How Japanese pitch accent works

Unlike English, Japanese doesn't have stress syllables. Japanese words are divided into mora, which are very similar to syllables, but all mora in generally are pronounced for the same length of time with the same amount of force.

Instead of stressing syllables, Japanese accent relies on pitch. It's not like Chinese in which individual syllables rise and fall as you say them -- instead, it's more like music, where each mora is like a note that you 'sing,' and the next mora can be lower or higher in pitch. Of course, you don't need to pronounce your words in tune, just make sure they rise and fall in the right places.

In English, we use pitch to change types of utterances.

For example, let's say your friend calls you on the phone and asks you what you're doing. You're at the barber shop, and you answer to your friend:

Getting a haircut.

Now, on the other hand, let's say you called your friend and you hear scissors and trimmers clipping and buzzing in the background, and you knew their hair was getting long, so you take a guess and ask them:

Getting a haircut?

Notice how despite the fact that these use all the same sounds, the way you say them is different. You let your sentence 'fall' in pitch to make a statement, but the final word rises in pitch instead when you want to ask a question.

This is just an example of how pitch can change meaning in English. Japanese pitch accent doesn't work this way, but the pitch and accent are still just as important to Japanese as pitch and stress are to English.

Three word-accent patterns

To put it simply, when you speak Japanese, you will rise and fall in pitch based on the words you are saying. Each word has an accent pattern, in which every mora of the word will either be low pitch, high pitch, or accented. When you get to a 'low' mora, you'll drop your pitch, and when you get to a 'high' mora, you'll raise your pitch. There are also 'accented' mora which will be particularly higher in pitch, then immediately drop down.

You don't have to worry about each mora individually -- if you have a bunch of high mora in a row, for example, you just say them all at the same pitch. You don't have to say each one higher than the last. The same thing with low mora. Pretty much you just look for changes in the pattern, then switch between high and low.

In practice, you don't want to sound like a robot with just two tones. Overall, entire sentences will fall from beginning to end, just like English statements, but the pitch changes are just relative to however your pitch is at the moment.

Words will either be completely unaccented, or they'll have an accent on the first mora, or they'll have an accent on one of the later mora.

When saying words alone:
  • Unaccented words start with a low pitch on the first mora and then the rest of the mora are high pitch.
  • Words with the first mora accented will start with a high pitch and then the rest of the mora are low pitch.
  • Words with the accented mora in the middle start with a low mora on the first pitch (though this "low" mora here is actually just unaccented), then all are high until the accented mora, which is the final high one, and then they all are low after that.
When putting words together, there are some general rules:
  • Because the first mora in a word with the accent in the middle is unaccented, it will "absorb" the high pitch of an unaccented word before it. Since an unaccented word just continues to be high with no ended, if the next word has a middle accent, the first mora will just stay high instead of dropping down.
  • When more than one unaccented word is strung together, you'll still drop down for the first mora, as it has an actual "low" accent instead of being unaccented like the previous example. This sounds confusing but once you start doing it, it will seem natural.
  • Certain words can alter the accent of the words around them. Like some words will demand that the words leading up to them all stay in high accent. Luckily these pertain to certain grammatical structures and you will easily learn them as you learn those structures.

Of course, it's a lot easier to understand when you can see and hear it in practice.

Example: How to put it all together

Let's look at an example. The graphics here are screenshots of OJAD (Online Japanese Accent Dictionary), an extremely useful tool for learning accent patterns of Japanese words and seeing how entire sentences form together. I highly suggest going to OJAD as you read this, copying each sentence into "Prosody Tutor Suzuki-kun" then having it generate an audio sample for you to listen to. Yup, you can paste any Japanese text into the box and it will give you the accent pattern and even allow you to create voice samples!

OJAD uses a simple symbolism to depict the accent pattern of mora:
  • Mora that will be pronounced low will have no markings
  • Mora that will be pronounced high will have a line over them
  • Accented mora (that are the highest and cause a drop afterward) will be red and the line above them will have a little hook.

Starting with a simple sentence...

Anyway, let's start with a simple sentence that is one word and build from that:

出来ない (dekinai - 'I can't do it.')

This sentence, which for the sake of example is also just one word, has four mora: de, ki, na, and i. Each mora in Japanese is represented by one kana in Japanese.

You can see here that the accent pattern for dekinai has an accent on the second mora. If you read the rules above, you'll notice that the first mora will be low (unless it's accented) and then we will hvae all 'high' mora until the accent. The accent is the second mora here, so it's also the one and only high mora in the word. The mora in the rest of the word are all low, because you drop down after an accent until you reach another high pattern.

So when saying dekinai, you will start by saying the first mora (de) low, then rise up to say the second mora (ki). Since ki is the accented mora, it goes up a bit more than normal and then immediately afterward, the next mora (na) is said low. The final mora (i) is of course also low because the pitch should not change. Overall we have a general decline, as well, as you can see by the gray curved line above the word. The dark black line above the word shows the general pitch and tone your voice will have while saying this sentence.

Try copying and pasting 出来ない into OJAD's Suzuki-kun, clicking "Anaylze" to show the accent pattern, then "Generate" to create a voice sample, then "Playback" to see what it sounds like. You can also go to the OJAD word search and search for it there, where you can hear pre-recorded audio of native Japanese speakers saying it (this only works with some words though). Notice how ki is higher in pitch than all the others, and is especially emphasizes through pitch, but it still pronounced with the same loudness and length as the other mora.

Adding on to fit words together...

Now let's try adding to our sentence. We're going to add this word:

全然 (zenzen - completely/wholly)

Before we put the two together, let's look at zenzen's accent pattern on its own:

As you can see, zenzen falls into the "unaccented" category I described earlier. There's no mora with an emphasized accent, so you just start with a low mora (the first ze), then the second mora (n) rises up, and the rest of the mora will be high from there on out.

We can put the two together to make this:

全然出来ない (zenzen dekinai - "I can't do it at all.")

Which, when we plug it into OJAD, shows us this accent pattern:

Notice that the de in dekinai is now high. This is because the de was technically "unaccented" before. When we said the word before on its own, we started low because we had just started speaking. But now that it's in the middle, this unaccented mora absorbed the high pitch from the running high pitch we already had going.

Adding one more type of accent...

Now we will add one more word to this sentence. We're going to use this:

まだ (mada - still &c.)

To form まだ全然出来ない (mada zenzen dekinai - "I still can't do it at all.")

The accent pattern of mada on its own looks like this:

Here, the accent is actually on the first mora (ma), so immediately following it, the rest of the mora in the word (here, just da) will be lower in pitch.

When we put them together, we get exactly what we expected:

As you can see, the accent pattern of zenzen dekinai from before did not change. Because the da at the end of mada was unaccented and we were saying it lower, when we got to the first mora of zenzen, it just stayed low like we expected.

However, let's use 本当に instead of まだ.

本当に (hontou ni - truthfully, really)

This also is an unaccented phrase:

Like zenzen, hontou ni has no accent, so we start the word with a low pitch and then the rest are high. Let's see how it interacts with the rest of our sentence:

Here, you can see something interesting. Notice that after the unaccented word zenzen, the first ('unaccented') mora of dekinai stays high, rather than dropping back to a low pitch. As explained previously, because dekinai is an accented word, everything before the accent will just absorb the pitch of what came before it. Because zenzen ends with a high pitch, the de becomes high as well.

But it's a little different in the case of the first mora of zenzen. Notice that even though hontou ni ended with a high pitch, we still drop back down in pitch to say the beginning of zenzen. Words that are unaccented (don't have any "red" characters) will generally always "drop" on the first mora like this before going back up. Notice how the black line steadily declines to the end of the sentence starting at the second mora of the sentence, but there's a sudden "dip" for the first mora of zenzen.

You can also see how accented words will absorb the pitch of what's before them with this example:

In this example, もしかして has an accent on the first mora, so the rest are low in pitch afterward. The first mora in dekinai here stays low, because what came before it was low.

In general, you can just remember these rules:
  • Switch to low pitch after an accented mora on an accented word.
  • Rise on the second mora of any word unless you're already at a high pitch.
  • Dip down for the first mora of unaccented words if you're at a high pitch. 
  • Pay attention to grammar patterns that alter general pitch rules.
If you stick to these rules, most of your sentences will come out flawlessly. There will be some exceptions now and then -- the best thing to do is to listen to native speakers talk and try to mimic them as best as you can, rather than just trying to string together words in the same way you would English words.

Generally, you don't need to actually think of the rules as you speak. Whenever you learn new words, learn their accent pattern. It will become second nature to drop down after accented mora and rise up on the second mora of words.  The two main things you need to watch out for are unaccented words (so you know when to rise up and when to dip) and where the accents are in all the other words (so you know when to drop back down).

Another way to think of it is that second mora of words are "rising points" the morae after accents are "dropping points." The only time the second mora of a word won't rise is, obviously, when the first mora is accented, because then the second mora becomes the 'dropping point.'

Don't make your pitch changes big. They're very subtle. It shouldn't sound like singing. It's just a slight nuance in your voice. Low pitches are more 'humble' sounding and high pitches are more 'pressing' sounding, in my opinion.

To really get an idea of what it should all sound like, listen to the audio clip on the Wikipedia article for Japanese pitch accent, which will demonstrate words that have the same pronunciation except for pitch. Also, listen to native Japanese speakers talk and pay attention to the way their voice rises and falls. Do your best to mimic this.

Pitch accent is one of the most difficult parts of the Japanese language for many English-speakers to learn because it's very unlike English. But one of the parts that makes it so hard is that many people practice Japanese for a long time without ever bothering to understand and practice pitch accent correctly, so not only is it different from English, but it's different from the English-accented Japanese they've incorrectly learned this whole time. The earlier you pay attention to pitch accent, the better your Japanese pronunciation will be.

Friday, May 29, 2015

The biggest mistake people make learning Japanese

I can't tell you how many people I've watched fail at Japanese. It doesn't matter if they were fellow students I learned alongside, students I taught or tutored, people who I've talked about Japanese with in some way, or even other Japanese scholars and teachers, there are people who really struggle with the language and can't speak or hear the language naturally for the life of them.

And so often, they're all making the same mistake: they are translating between Japanese and English in their head.

It sounds counter-intuitive -- isn't a major point of learning a second language so you can translate it? Yes, this is true, but translation is an applied skill, and it's something you can only do once you already understand two languages fully. Translation is not the way you should be learning your languages, though.

While it should go without saying, Japanese is not English. And I don't just mean the sentence structure is different, and I'm not just referring to how there are certain concepts or words that don't really translate. I mean nothing at all directly corresponds to something in English, not even concrete nouns, and you shouldn't think of it that way.

Think about how you expand on your native language. When you learn new things about English, you're learning new language, even though you've already lost your ability to pick up a native language. Of course, it's easier than learning a second language because it conforms to a paradigm you know well, but you're still learning something completely new.

The World Wide Web did not exist when I was born, nor by the time I had lost the ability to learn native languages. However, I still know words like "website," "hypertext," and "URL." How did I learn these? I certainly didn't translate them through another language. Though, I did learn about them through English. I learned that a website is that 'thing you can go to online with a bunch of webpages' and that hypertext is 'interactive text that links text to other text or media' or whatever. It wasn't translated from some other language in which I already knew those words. I had to learn them as concepts.

This focus on concept is what's important here.

You should be learning Japanese, or any language, through concept, not through translation.

And do this with everything, not just the confusing things.

Learn new words they same way you would learn them in English, so that you understand them in the same way you understand English words.

Imagine if I asked you to tell me what a refrigerator was. Pretend I really didn't know at all, like I'd never even seen one before. But the only language I know is English. How would you explain it to me? Would you just say el refrigerador and expect this Spanish translation to suffice? Of course not.

You'd describe the concept to me. There are a ton of ways you could do it -- perhaps you'd say 'It's a big cold box you put food in' or you might be more technical and say it's an electrical appliance used for chilling objects, particularly edible ones. Or maybe you'd even take me to your own fridge and show it to me and explain how it works hands-on.

And then I would know what a refrigerator was, and I would not have used translation at all.

Words are stored in your brain in something we call "lexicon." You access your lexicon through concept -- when you imagine that big cold box with food in it, your brain connects to the entry in your lexicon that knows that that thing is called a 'refrigerator.' The more experience you have thinking about it in various ways (talking about it, using it, whatever), the faster and easier your brain will be able to access the lexical entry. Similarly, when you hear the word 'refrigerator,' your brain accesses that entry and you think about the idea of a refrigerator.

When learning Japanese, or any second language, you need to build onto your lexicon, not just learn translations.

When you learn a new word in Japanese, chances are you're going to learn it through translation. For example, if you want to know how to refer to "dog" in Japanese, you will look it up in a dictionary or ask a Japanese friend or something. And you'll get a one-word response:

犬 (いぬ inu)

If you just learn this like you would learn a science fact or piece of trivia "OK, 'inu' means 'dog,' " then you have not created a lexical entry for this word in your head. Your brain is not processing this the way that you process normal language. It's just learning some random fact. So now if someone asked you "Can you translate 'dog' into Japanese?" then, if your memory serves you well enough, you'll be able to come up with 'inu.' But that's not speaking a language; that's just reciting trivia.

Imagine you look out your window and there is a dog in your yard. You don't have a pet dog so this is a bit of a surprise. You want your friend to look at the dog too. So you say "Look! A dog!"

Now, when this happens, you don't translate "Look! A dog!" from some mystery language into English. You have this concept in your head -- there is this canine animal within your sight, and there's another person around, and you want to encourage them to also bring this animal into their sight. This concept is in your head, and your lexicon naturally accesses the words for you so you can say them.

Now, if you wanted to say this in Japanese, but all you ever did was learn "inu means dog in Japanese," you don't have this lexical access. Your brain won't naturally pick those words for you. It will instead just pick the English words, because that's all it knows.

Now you have to go through the trouble of translating it in your head, which is work, and it will produce a result, but it's not the same as speaking a language naturally. 

Imagine if you were speaking Japanese with a friend who didn't know English at all, and they knew you were a computer expert, and they asked you to explain the concept of cloud computing to them.

Having to translate in your head is like having to sit down with a piece of paper and work out an algebra problem. If the problem is simple enough, you can do it in your head, and spit out an answer, but the more complex it is, the harder it's going to be. Eventually, you just won't be able to do it. People who learn Japanese through translation speak choppy, broken Japanese because their brain is literally incapable of producing the language naturally. Putting together a complex idea into words is too hard, because their brain can't process it, so they say a bunch of smaller ideas or chunk together things that don't make sense. Likewise, they have trouble understanding Japanese when they listen to others speak because they get bogged down trying to translate in their head. They miss a lot of nuances, syntax structure, and even entire words and phrases, because their brain can't keep up.

What you need to do is, after you see in the dictionary that inu = dog, is to ignore that relationship between the Japanese and English words. Instead, think of all kinds of different things about dogs. Imagine your own pet dog or a friend's dog, and imagine yourself referring to it as inu. Think about pet shops, dog training facilities, dog houses with dogs in them, puppy calendars, think about all kinds of dog things, and think to yourself 'this is inu.'

The concept of that creature that you're thinking about should become inu to you. The idea that inu is dog should not be as natural.

You can even try it now! Think about the season of summer. Now, forget about the word itself. What are you thinking about? You probably have a certain picture in your head. Maybe a scene from childhood, or your favorite vacation spot, or a certain holiday or event, or something. Think about that image. Think about all the things you associate with that time and that image -- maybe it's ice cream, or the beach, or hanging out with your friends, or visiting your family. Maybe you think of ideas that aren't so concrete, like the heat. Just think about all those things. Don't think of any words. Just ideas.

Let's add some ideas to that. In Japanese culture, some popular imagery associated with this season is the loud cry of cicadas, and smashing open watermelons on the beach. Mix those with the ideas you were already thinking about.

In Japanese, this season is called 夏(なつ natu/natsu). Without thinking about the English word, apply this new Japanese word to the ideas in your head. Know that the way to refer to this season is natsu.

If you want to try more, but without the prompting from me, try to go from these dictionary translations to your own lexical entries that link Japanese words with ideas for the other four seasons:

春(はる haru) - spring
秋(あき aki) - autumn
冬(ふゆ fuyu) - winter

Translation, as a skill, comes after you do learn another language like this. You hear about an idea in one language, then think of the idea, then express it in a new way in another language. Sometimes, if you were to use a dictionary, it would sound completely different! This is why computer translations always make no sense (and even when they do make sense, they're usually wrong!) because the computer cannot process ideas, it can just link up words to translations. If you learn Japanese, through translation, your Japanese will literally sound like Google Translate, and when you hear Japanese, you'll interpret it like that and just be trying to guess what it means.

As you continue to learn Japanese, you'll start to realize that even the most basic things don't really 'line up' with English anyway. Dictionaries are rough estimate of what the most similar words are between languages. Translation, though, is completely made up. When Japanese was created, it was not based on English, and when English was created, it was not based on Japanese. So no word came about in the same way. There may be something you look at at say "table" in English, but a Japanese person might say 机(つくえ tukue, tsukue) which in a dictionary will say "desk." Learning these nuances is up to experience, just as it is in learning words in your native language, and if you're using translation to learn, you'll never be able to do it.

It will take a little bit of effort to overcome the tendency to want to 'translate' things as you learn them, but soon it should become second nature. You'll have to use English to learn about Japanese, but you should be using concepts and ideas to actually learn Japanese. You can do this from your very first word you ever learn in Japanese, and should never look back to memorizing translations ever again.

If you've already come so far and have been learning through translation, try to relearn as much as you can. Think about the concepts when you think about words, rather than their English 'equivalents.'

The more you learn Japanese, the more you brain will separate your Japanese and English lexicon, and the less you'll think about them jointly. Your brain will switch between 'Japanese mode' and 'English mode' when it needs to, and when you are 'thinking in Japanese,' the English words won't even come to you unless you make an effort to think of them.

About Easy Breezy

Easy Breezy Japanese is intended to be a guide for self-study of the Japanese language, with the intent to help give direction to solo students go from absolute zero knowledge of Japanese to fluency, helping build solid language foundations while teaching you how to teach yourself Japanese in a structured way. The blog can also be used as an additional resource for classroom students who want to better understand their classroom material and make sure they're really learning Japanese and not just completing coursework. I intend to approach Japanese learning from a casual point of view, using personal linguistics knowledge to present a method of learning Japanese without knowing much about linguistics as a student.

I originally started trying to learn Japanese with the intent to work in the video game industry. I quickly found that self-study was incredibly difficult for me. When I was finally able to study Japanese in a formal classroom setting, I learned more in a couple of weeks than I had learned in my five or so years trying to teach myself Japanese.

I quickly became fascinated with language acquisition and wondered why I was able to learn so much more easily in a classroom. While having a teacher is definitely a plus, I'm generally better at learning things on my own anyway. I usually was bored in other classes and found I would learn better if I just studied on my own, but Japanese was the opposite. I wanted to find what made such a difference.

Going on to study linguistics and second language acquisition and analysing the structure of classroom method, I soon began to realize what made classroom learning so much easier for me. Language acquisition outside of your native language requires a great deal of structure and direction that doesn't normally come with self-study in any field.

Using what I learned, I decided to apply these concepts I was thinking about to teaching myself Korean. I was able to learn Korean quickly and easily even without the help of a classroom setting (though I did end up studying Korean in the classroom, which I found to be more of a formality than anything -- I learned more through self-study than I did in the classroom, even).

Normally when you study on your own, you're left to giant labyrinth in which various resources and concepts are hidden. To successfully study Japanese, you need to be able to navigate to the useful resources whenever you need them, and visit all of the concepts in order to really build a solid language foundation.

A classroom is like a map of this labyrinth, with a guide helping you find your way with every step, and helping point out where all the traps are so you don't go the wrong way, too.

That's what I want this blog and site to be. Originally, I had planned on writing a book or book series to help bring classroom structure and direction to the Japanese solo student, but I quickly realized how much better it would be to have this as a resource available online.

I don't believe that knowledge should be something only for the privileged who can afford expensive classroom instruction. I want to be able to reach as many people as possible and give them the most useful tools I can give them. And so I've decided to start this blog and develop it into a full "course" to help solo students learn as much Japanese as they could learn by getting a Japanese degree at a university.

Fortunately, if you're intending to self-study Japanese to use in a career, a degree is not as useful as ability. With a high Japanese proficiency and something like JLPT certification, you'll be much more qualified than someone with a B.A. in Japanese who fumbles over their words with a thick accent, and employers will realize this easily.