Language learning

The 5 Second Rule

I really wish you could put your spare motivation into a bottle to use when you need it the most. Getting into a new routine is difficult sometimes, but I have seen making use of a new trick to boost my productivity: The 5 Second Rule.

The 5 second Rule is often used to refer to this myth that if you drop a piece of food on the floor but pick it up within 5 seconds, it is still safe to eat.

American TV host and motivational speaker Mel Robbins has written a book with the title The 5 Second Rule. The idea of the 5 Second Rule is simple, but if you are keen to get a feel for the book’s content I recommend checking out one this great summary video:

The gist of the book is that in order to develop better habits, you need to reduce the time you spend thinking about an action you might take. When you get an impulse to do something, you have 5 seconds to take action.

So if you find yourself thinking something like: “I should read an article in Japanese” “I should do my Anki reviews” “I should turn off the English subtitles

…You need to actually follow up on that thought in 5 seconds or less. After that point, you will most likely hesitate for too long and think of an excuse not to do it, especially if it is out of your comfort zone.

This works for reinforcing good habits and getting rid of bad ones. In fact, Mel used this method to tackle her bad habit of using the snooze button too much in the morning.

Apparently, the brain is very good at picking up on these impulses to take action whenever we are in close proximity to certain stimuli. For example, if you leave your Japanese textbook on a table that you walk past every day, you most likely have an impulse to pick up the textbook.

Acting on these brief moments of inspiration can have an extremely powerful effect, especially if you are a big procrastinator like me. Most of the time, it is the getting started that is the hardest part of my study lessons. Using the 5 second rule makes you feel much more in control of your habits, helping to reduce stress as well.

I started using the 5 Second Rule with really small things which made things feel much less scary. Together with making other changes like putting my Japanese books in easy to reach places has made a big difference. So far I feel like I have been able to make more time for Japanese study, mostly grammar stuff which I rarely look forward to starting. The truth is that I am using my time more effectively that I now feel like I have a bit more time left to focus on other interests.

What one thing has helped you to be more productive recently? Let me know in the comments!

Back Online

ひさしぶり readers and apologies for the lack of posts/ responses to comments.

I’m still in the process of unpacking!

You might know from social media that I’ve had an impromptu break from the blog as I have been moving house. I was only planning on being away for a couple of weeks but I had some issues getting the internet set up. Thankfully these are resolved and I am mostly settled in my new place. I also took the opportunity to refresh the blog’s theme.

Being away from the internet for so long did give me a chance to reflect on my language learning. When I have had time to study I have been keeping things really simple.

I mostly listened to my favourite podcasts, read books and did my Anki reps (well, some of the time).

I was appreciative of the break from the internet for the most part, as I realised that I spend so much time relying on the internet for just about everything. I certainly want to make more time for offline language learning in the future.

Naturally, as my daily routine has changed, my language learning routine is in the process of changing too. I have a longer commute which is ideal for Anki reps and podcasts. On the other hand, I have less time in the morning which is when I used to get in a lot of reading practice. I’m planning to spend more time doing some reading just before I go to bed to make up for it!

The great thing about moving is that I have my own desk for my study sessions. I definitely plan on hitting my JLPT textbooks more consistently going forward.

When I didn’t have the internet, the one thing that I definitely missed the most was the language learning community. Logging into Twitter and Instagram everyday is a massive source of inspiration for me (as long as I don’t spend too much time on it!).

This is a short post today but I want to end by saying thank you for your patience and expect some new posts very soon 🙂

Chrome Extensions for Japanese learners – Part 2

I wrote a post about some useful Google Chrome extensions for Japanese learners quite a while ago. Since then I’ve found some more useful extensions that others might be interested in.


Duendecat is similar to Mainichi, which I mentioned in my first post on Chrome extensions. This extension will show a random Japanese sentence/ hiragana/ katakana/ word/ kanji when you open a new tab.

Extensions that allow you to study when you open a new tab are a great way to get in a little extra practice. I’m a big fan of studying Japanese through sentences, so I really like that Duendecat has this option as the default.

Initially, the sentence will appear in Japanese on its own. However, clicking on the Japanese sentence will make the English translation appear. I’ve found that there is a wide range of sentences covering various levels of formality.


As you can see, furigana is provided above each kanji. Hovering over the kanji gives you the onyomi and kunyomi readings as well as a short English translation. If you use Wanikani to study kanji, then this is even more useful. You are able to set the difficulty of the sentence to match your Wanikani level. To set this up, just go to the options and add in your Wanikani API key.

By the way, the Duendecat website works in a similar way to the extension. You can study a range of sentences that are within your Wanikani level.

I think that the extension is a good one for beginners as they master hiragana, katakana and move on to kanji. I highly recommend it if you plan on using Wanikani.

Yomichan (*also available on Firefox)

I am a big fan of the Rikaikun extension, but I have found it less and less reliable recently. Fortunately, there is an alternative, called Yomichan. Having switched to this, I can say that this is one of the very best Chrome extensions for Japanese learners to have installed.

Like Rikaikun, when the extension is enabled, you can hover over a Japanese word to get its furigana reading and English meaning. Yomichan requires you to hold shift and hover over a word.


You can then click on any of the kanji you look up to learn more about it:

The kanji lookup feature provides plenty of useful information

If you just want to look up a word, you can use the Search function to look words up and get the same information.

Yomichan has a few additional features that set it apart from Rikaikun. Firstly, native speaker audio is available for a lot of words. Secondly, Yomichan offers integration with Anki (using a plugin called AnkiConnect), allowing you to instantly create flashcards from the words you look up.

For Yomichan to work you need to install at least one dictionary from their website which is very straightforward. JMDict is going to cover the majority of words you might need to look up, and is available in a number of languages besides English. There are other kanji, slang and name dictionaries available to download too. You can also import your own dictionary files using Yomichan Import.

Clearly a lot of hard work has gone into making this extension and it is an amazing tool for Japanese learners. It happens to be free but donations can be made via the homepage if you are able to.

LLN: Language Learning with Netflix or Subadub

I’ve given two options here as both extensions are to do with Netflix and subtitles. Readers on the blog will know that I do like Netflix for Japanese TV shows and films.

Dual language subtitles are really useful because it allows you to compare the differences in structure between the two languages. I had wished that you could enable two sets of subtitles on Netflix, and now you can with LLN: Language Learning with Netflix. If you are familiar with Viki’s learn mode, then this is pretty similar.

Subtitles are given in your target language with a translation into English. There are a few other options which this short video describes:

LLN supports a wide range of languages. Unfortunately at the time of writing, the integrated dictionary available for other languages does not support Chinese, Japanese or Korean.

This leads me to my alternative recommendation, Subadub.

Subadub is a bit different from LLN since Subadub provides enhanced language subtitles for your target language.


The subtitles in subadub are readable text, which means you can copy and paste them. You can also use this in tandem with Yomichan to look up vocabulary and then add it to Anki.

The subtitles can also be downloaded in full if you like to make flashcards to study with. I think Subadub is a great resource for an intermediate level learner as a way of getting used to only having Japanese subtitles.

So those are my latest discoveries when it comes to Google Chrome Extensions for Japanese learners. Are there any extensions that you find useful (related to language learning or not)? Please tell me in the comments!

Langjam and little discoveries

As you might know from the blog’s Instagram page, I took part in Langjam last weekend. I thought I’d do a little post about my experience, even though I didn’t make as much progress as planned.

What is LangJam?

Language Jam, (often referred to as Langjam) is a challenge where people interested in languages sign up to study a new language for a weekend.  

When you sign up, you input the languages that you already know and are then randomly assigned a language from the list available from the challenge. There’s a real range of languages covering all continents and various writing systems.

The language I was given to study was Swahili, which I was very excited about.

The “Whitecard” option gives you another language choice if you aren’t keen on the first one you are allocated

There is a prep phase for your language in the run up to the Langjam weekend where you have time to gather resources, read up on the language and start learning new scripts if applicable.

This was much needed as I basically knew nothing about Swahili. My knowledge was basically limited to the fact that it is spoken in a few different countries such as Kenya and Tanzania, and that Hakuna Matata is a Swahili phrase.

In my prep phase, I learned some interesting facts about Swahili. I didn’t know that Swahili has links to Arabic: Swahili can be written in the Arabic script and share some vocabulary. I also learned that there are a few other Swahili words referenced in The Lion King:

  • Rafiki = friend
  • Simba = lion
  • Pumbaa = foolish, silly, negligent
  • Nala = gift

I decided to join Langjam near the end of the prep phase, so I didn’t have much time to gather resources. In the end, I mainly used SwahiliPod101 and Duolingo as my main resources. I have mixed feelings about Duolingo, but the Swahili course seems pretty good.

My LangJam experience

Unfortunately I ended up being pretty busy over the weekend and didn’t get much time to study anything in depth. On the other hand, it has been really fun to follow how other people have been getting on with the challenge via the hashtag #langjam.

Swahili is a fascinating language and I hope that one day I will be able to develop some proficiency in it. I will stick with the Duolingo lessons as they are short and sweet, but my focus will remain on Japanese for now.

So it seems that nani can mean ‘what’ in English, just like Japanese! (it normally means ‘who’ though)

Doing the Langjam challenge reminded me of one very important thing; the joy of discovering new things about a language. Learning new words and phrases, sentence structures, writing systems, pronunciation can all be a lot of fun at the start.

That feeling we get from all of these new discoveries is so important for sustaining motivated in your target language. Sometimes even though we are settled in our language learning routines, we can be lacking that little spark that keeps you engaged. This is something I have tried to embody in my learning since finishing the challenge.

I love discovering new Japanese music and getting engrossed in Japanese dramas, so I am now trying to dedicate a little bit more time to both of these fun activities (not forgetting the ‘boring’ stuff too!).

If Langjam sounds interesting to you, keep an eye on the website and the social media channels to be notified of the next challenge (it gets held a few times a year).

Have you started any new languages recently? How have you found it so far? Let me know in the comments!

Japanese words with a different meaning from their component kanji

As a Japanese learner, you’ve probably seen the news on Ariana Grande’s tattoo fail online. If not, I’ll briefly fill you in on what happened.

七 (seven) + 輪 (ring, circle) = 七輪 (barbeque grill)!?

The singer intended to get a tattoo meaning ‘7 Rings’ (the name of her latest single) in Japanese on her hand. She posted an image of her new tattoo on social media last week.

However she may have been relying a bit too much upon Google Translate, since the tattoo she ended up with doesn’t quite mean what she intended it to. It turns out that the kanji compound she opted for is read as shichirin, which is the name for the small barbeque grills you find at yakiniku restaurants.

Pictures from Instagram: left is the original tattoo, the right is the revised version

Soon after being shared online, a lot of her fans were quick to look up the meaning of the tattoo and were pretty confused. Ariana then quickly got her tattoo changed to try and get the meaning closer to ‘7 Rings’.

Aside from not giving her future tattoo a quick search online, I think a lot of people studying Japanese may have seen the tattoo and not immediately thought of a barbeque grill.

Why does this happen in Japanese?

One reason for this is ateji (当て字). Ateji is the name given to words borrowed from other languages (mostly Chinese), where the kanji for that word were chosen based on their pronunciation rather than their meaning.

This is mostly the case for older loanwords, as newer loanwords are usually written with katakana.

However, you may see it in relation to the names of various countries, particularly in newspapers. For instance:

KanjiKana/ RomajiName in Katakana/ RomajiEnglish
えい / eiイギリス / igirisuEngland
ふつ / futsuフランス / furansuFrance
どく / dokuドイツ / doitsuGermany
西せい / seiスペイン / supeinSpain
ごう / gouオーストラリア / oosutorariaAustralia
か / kaカナダ / kanadaCanada
いん / inインド / indoIndia
い / iイタリア / itariaItaly

Sometimes these ateji readings are used in words in literature and TV to give them an artistic flair. If this is something you want to learn more about, I recommend checking out BuSensei’s social media feeds as he regularly posts about interesting kanji usage.

Another reason for this is that modern words are contractions of old sayings or idioms, which there are some examples of below.

Seeing the story about Ariana inspired me to look up other words which have a different meaning to the sum of the component kanji.

Here’s a few other words in Japanese which fall into this category.

馬 (horse) + 鹿 (deer) = 馬鹿 baka (idiot)

This is probably the most famous example amongst Japanese learners (although often written in hiragana), since we see it so much in the media.

The etymology of baka is contested, but there are two main theories. Baka could be a word derived from an old Chinese idiom (meaning ‘to point at a deer and call it a horse’, ie. deliberately misleading someone) or a loanword from Sanskrit.

寿 (longevity) + 司 (administer; servant) = 寿司 sushi

Like baka, sushi is thought to have two different origins.

The first is that it comes from the word 久し (ひさし/ hisashi), meaning long lasting (as in 久しぶり). This is why the kanji compound is made up of the kanji for longevity and the kanji for servant.

The second (ateji origin) is thought to be from the word ‘酸し’, (すし, meaning sour) which refers to the vinegar mixed with rice to help preserve the fish it was served with.

皮 (skin) + 肉 (meat, flesh) =  皮肉 hiniku (irony)

The origin for this compound is said to come from a longer phrase 皮肉骨髄 (literally meaning “skin meat bones marrow”) attributed to Buddhism in ancient China. ‘Bones and marrow’ were thought to show essential understanding, in contrast to ‘skin and meat’ which represented superficiality.

Consequently, 皮肉 was used as a way to criticise those who were unable to understand the true nature of something. This then developed into its modern meaning of irony.

(spear, halberd) + 盾 (shield) = 矛盾 mujun (contradiction)

This word too comes from Chinese. There is a story of a man who was selling spears and shields. He said that the spear and the shield were the strongest of their kind; the spear could not be beaten by any shield, and the shield could not be beaten by any spear. One person then asked, “what happens when you use the spear against the shield?”, which the seller was unable to answer.

This Youtube video explains the origin of the Chinese word better than I can:

十八 (18) + 番 (number) = 十八番 ohako (one’s special talent, party trick)

There are a few different potential origins for this word, but one of the most popular is to do with kabuki. The 歌舞伎十八番 (kabuki juuhachiban, ”Eighteen Best Kabuki Plays”) were a collection of plays chosen by the famous Ichikawa Danjuro line of kabuki actors. These were stored in a box to keep them safe, which is where the modern meaning is said to stem from. The number of plays is significant as eighteen is also thought to represent ‘a great number’ of things.

I remember hearing this word in a variety show and having no idea what it really meant. At the time, I assumed it had something to do with karaoke as the artist being interviewed went on to talk about her go-to karaoke songs. It makes a lot more sense now that I’ve learned more about the word!

猫 (cat) + 車 (vehicle) = 猫車 nekoguruma (wheelbarrow)

Again there are a number of different theories regarding the origin of this word. One is that the sound of a wheelbarrow moving is like a cat. Another is that wheelbarrows are long and thin, making them easy to move through relatively narrow spaces – something which cats are good at doing too.

Nowadays, 手押し車 (teoshiguruma) and 一輪車 (ichirinsha) are used as well as 猫車, which I think is a shame. The mental image of a cat wheelbarrow always makes me smile and sticks in my mind more easily!

In closing…

I think that this reiterates to learners of any language that putting two words together may just end up referring to another word with an entirely different meaning. I’m not a fan of Google Translate but I find that Google Images can be really useful for double checking the meaning of some vocabulary.

I am a bit late to the party with this post, but this is something I wanted to write about anyway. It’s been really interesting reading about the origins of words like this, which also led me to the useful Japanese website Gogen AllGuide. I think that these words having such unusual component kanji actually makes them a bit easier to remember!

Have you struggled with this type of word before? Let me know in the comments 🙂

Difficult Japanese words (for me to pronounce)

It is said that Japanese pronunciation is easy for native English speakers, but I think that this can make them complacent. Whilst a lot of sounds in Japanese also exist in English, there are still lots of differences between these sounds. This means that there are still quite a few difficult words to say in Japanese.

After reading this SoraNews24 article on the hardest Japanese words to pronounce, I had a think about the Japanese words that I find difficult with. My list is as follows:

暖かい あたたかい/ atatakai = warm 

笑われた わらわれた/ warawareta = was laughed at 

現れる あらわれる/ arawareru = to appear 

恋愛   れんあい/ ren’ai = love, romance 

範囲 はんい/ han’i = extent, scope 

全員 ぜんいん/ zen’in = all members 

婚約 こんにゃく/ kon’nyaku = engagement 

雰囲気 ふんいき/ fun’iki = mood, ambience 

遠慮 えんりょ/ en’ryo = hestitation, restraint

旅行 りょこう/ ryokou = travel 

料理 りょうり/ ryouri = cooking, cuisine 

This was actually a useful exercise for me, because it got me thinking about the types of sounds I need to keep working on to improve my pronunciation.

I then came across the following video by JapanesePod101 which brought up a lot of similar sounding words to my list.

I’m assuming a lot of these words are trickier for those that only speak English. However, I think 暖かい -> 暖かくなかった would be on most people’s lists – I can never remember if I have said enough た’s!

That word aside, I can pretty much characterise my difficult Japanese words into about three rough categories:

Words which mix w- and r- sounds:

  • 笑われた わらわれた was laughed at
  • 現れる あらわれる to appear

As a child, I always used to struggle with differentiating w- and r- sounds in English; for instance, I remember pronouncing “rainbow” as “wainbow” by accident quite a lot! This is quite common with young children and you usually grow out of it.

For some reason when it comes to Japanese I get tongue tied when I have to quickly switch between w- and r- sounds!

Words that have ‘n’ as a consonant in the middle

  • 恋愛 れんあい love
  • 範囲 はんい extent, scope
  • 全員 ぜんいん all members
  • 婚約 こんやく engagement
  • 雰囲気 ふんいき mood, ambience

‘N’ often sounds like its English counterpart, but depending on its position within words it can sound more like a ‘m’ or a ‘ng’.

This difference in sound reflects how the Japanese ‘n’ is more nasalised following certain sounds.

In addition, the other thing that I find difficult is not blending the sounds together when ‘n’ is followed by a vowel. For example, ‘renai’ should be pronounced so that the sounds ‘ren’ and ‘ai’ are separate – unfortunately it often comes out as ‘ren nai’ or ‘re nai’.

Words which have lots of r sounds, especially include ‘rya’/ ‘ryu’/ ‘ryo’

  • 旅行 りょこう travel
  • 料理 りょうり cooking

My pronunciation of the Japanese R has improved with some practice, but I struggle a lot with the ’rya’ and ‘ryo’ sounds in particular.

Words with ‘n’ followed by ‘r’

  • 遠慮 えんりょ reserve, constraint

Further examples – 心理 しんり/ state of mind, 管理 かんり/ management, control

The word 遠慮 combines two of my biggest pronunciation difficulties! Fortunately, Dogen explains how to pronounce this particular sound combination in this clip from his excellent pronunciation course.

Tips for tackling difficult Japanese words

As this is very much a work in progress for me, I am still looking at various methods to improve my pronunciation. There are a couple of things that I think are helping so far.

Train your ears and your mouth

Firstly, I’ve been reading about how I should be making the sounds in terms of mouth shape and tongue movement. When I listen to spoken Japanese now, I pay more attention to how the sounds are made, especially for difficult Japanese words.

I think that this ear training is an important first step in making your pronunciation more accurate. Dogen’s course mentioned above covers this in a lot of detail and is helping me a lot. I’ve also been dedicating some time to shadowing, which I am intending to write about in another post. I’ve been using Japanese tongue twisters as a warm up exercise!

Record myself and listen back to it

One thing I might do more often is to record myself speaking – as embarassing as it feels to do this, it is much easier to pick up on your own mistakes this way.

I’ve been learning Japanese for a relatively long time and so these bad pronunciation habits are probably ingrained into how I speak. For this reason, I am not expecting quick results and intend to focus on developing a regular pronunciation practice routine in order to improve how I sound in Japanese.

Remember, just because you find certain words difficult now doesn’t mean that you will never be able to pronounce them more accurately!


I imagine that a lot of these words will be much easier for speakers of other languages. I often hear that Japanese pronunciation is easy for Spanish speakers.

Which words do you find difficult to pronounce? Do you think the languages you already speak help you with Japanese pronunciation? Let me know in the comments!

2018 Year in Review: Lessons Learned and Looking Ahead

2018 has come and gone in what feels like a very short time. I thought it would be fun to look back on the year in terms of my Japanese learning, which will help inform my goals for 2019.

I didn’t want to make this post too long and boring so I have chosen to write about two things that I think have gone well this year and two things that I need to work on for next year.

The Good: Developing a better Japanese reading habit

I am slowly working my way through a pile of Japanese novels that I have on my bookshelf, which is a very nice feeling. I try to pick books that are manageable for my current level, as I use the tadoku approach to learning. You can see some of the books I have read this year from my Tadoku Tuesdays posts:

I use Bookmeter (basically the Japanese version of Goodreads) to track the books I am reading/have read/ want to read, which has been very helpful.

I’ve also picked up some helpful tips and book recommendations from other bloggers such as Inhae’s blog Inside That Japanese Book. This has really kept me motivated to keep reading (and more importantly, finishing) books.

I feel that reading more has generally helped me with all aspects of Japanese, but mostly with learning to recognise grammar and vocabulary in a wider range of contexts. Reading speed is really important for the JLPT and obviously reading more has helped with that too.

Reading physical books, in particular, is a great way to wind down at the end of the day, and more importantly means I am not staring at a mobile phone/tablet/computer screen. This is definitely something I want to keep up next year.

Rediscovering Japanese Music

I used to be really interested in Japanese music but I have been listening to way more podcasts than music in the last couple of years. I spent some time this year catching up with the artists that I used to listen to a lot, which was a lot of fun 🙂

I can’t believe I forgot how catchy this song is!

There’s a lot of great Japanese artists that can be hard to find beyond the idol stuff, especially if you are new to the language. This is what inspired the 15 Easy Japanese songs post, and later the Japanese Music Mondays series on Instagram and Facebook.

It’s so important to have fun with the language you are learning, and I think music is a highly accessible way to do just that. This is definitely something I will write about next year. In fact, I am already working on a couple of follow up posts about Japanese music for next year as well. Another benefit of this is that I have spent more time on Japanese websites reading about new artists and new music releases.

The Not-So-Good: Kanji kanji kanji (and writing in general)

Improving my Japanese writing was one of my aims for the year, but I haven’t been as good at writing consistently. I have struggled the most with kanji since I fell off the Anki bandwagon a few months back. Because I read regularly, my kanji recognition is OK but when writing in my journal I spend a lot of time looking up how to write kanji which I used to know.

My aim for next year is to make sure I stay on top of my kanji practice. I am making a new set of physical kanji cards and review a smaller amount of Anki cards daily.


The act of writing kanji helps me remember them more effectively so I will be doing more kanji writing practice. I recently found my Kanji Kentei game for the 3DS (an educational “game” aimed at Japanese people reviewing their kanji) so I have been using that to revise kanji too.

Scheduling Japanese practice

This year has been fairly busy, which means that I have had to work harder to make sure I am getting my daily Japanese practice. As a result, I have become much more interested in productivity and habit-forming, which I have written a few different posts about:

The Pomodoro technique has been incredibly helpful in getting stuff done, especially when it comes to writing blog posts. I have also found tracking my progress on an app (I use Habitica) has helped keep me accountable too.

Unfortunately, there have been some days when I realise as I am falling asleep that I haven’t done anything Japanese related at all. Of course, those days are inevitable sometimes but I want to make sure I can have as few of these as possible. 2019 is looking to be an even busier year for me, so I want to make the most of it!

I have been doing some research into timeboxing and how I can use this to make sure I am working towards all of my goals, not just language learning.

Looking forward to 2019

I am planning on some changes to the blog in the very near future, so watch this space. The plan is to keep posting on a weekly basis, and potentially a bit more often if time allows.

I haven’t yet finalised my Japanese learning goals for 2019, but so far I want to read at least one novel a month, and to sit the JLPT N1 by the end of the year.

Have you decided on your language goals for next year? What are they? Please tell me in the comments!

PS. As this will most likely be my last post of 2018 (and my 100th post!!), I want to end this post by thanking everyone who reads this blog. At the start of this year, I had only been posting for a few months and I had no idea how many more people from all over the world would be reading, liking and commenting on the blog. I am genuinely thankful and will keep working hard!

PPS. Happy Holidays 🙂

Kickstarting a new language learning habit

We are almost at the end of 2018 – can you believe it? It is naturally the time of year when we reflect on the last 12 months, and set our goals for 2019.

If you haven’t quite met your goals for this year, now is the perfect time to reset for next year. And what better way to do so than in the form of a language challenge?

Why do a language challenge?

Language challenges are a great way to develop new habits, which is ultimately the best way to achieve your goals. I like language challenges because they offer what often feels like an easier way to start a new habit. When you know that you only have to stick to something for one week or one month, it doesn’t feel as hard to get the motivation to keep going.

I think it’s a great way to get back into language learning if you’ve had a break for whatever reason (sometimes a break can be more beneficial than we think). There is also a sense of community around people doing the challenge at the same time, especially on social media.


There are many types of language challenges out there. Some focus on developing a particular skill (eg. speaking), and some are more focused on exposing yourself to a language in some way every day. It’s worth having a look around to see if you can find a challenge that tackles one of your weak points.

You could always make up your own language challenge tailored to the skills/knowledge you want to work on. For example, you could set yourself a challenge to:

  • Learn x number of words
  • Watch x number of films/ episodes of a TV show
  • Speak for x minutes every day
  • Read x pages in your target language every day

How to make the most of your language challenge

Normally the first couple of days of a language challenge are super exciting, but as the reality of following the challenge hits it can be tricky actually complete them. These are some of the things that have really helped me with past language challenges:

  • Think about when you are going to dedicate time to complete the challenge

Have a think about the best time of day for you to dedicate to the challenge. It is very easy to start a challenge and then give up because you are too busy to actually finish! Take a look at your schedule and try to identify any so-called ‘dead time’ in your day, which could be spent more wisely on completing the challenge.

There are going to be certain days when you are busier than others. If there are any large events coming up, have an idea of how you might be able to work around it. There’s no harm in missing a day here and there should you not have the time – just add them on to the end of the challenge.

  • Think about what you want to achieve

This could simply be getting to the end of the challenge, which is absolutely fine!

Getting to the end of the challenge is can be the beginning of something bigger. I do think that pursuing a challenge is to bring about some sort of change in your way of thinking.

With languages, it could be something like getting the confidence to speak your target language, or getting a deeper understanding of the culture(s) that the language is connected. These are most likely going to be your motivators for actually getting to the end of the challenge.

  • Find a way to track your progress

I am really keen on tracking my progress with challenges in some way. This could be in the form of a bullet journal, crossing dates off in a calendar, or using an app. Having that visual representation of the challenge in front of you can be an extremely powerful thing for your motivation!

  • Keep in touch with others doing the challenge.

Social media hashtags provide a really good way of finding out how everyone else is doing. Sometimes it is that little extra push we get from seeing others in the same boat that helps you stay on track.

It is important to say that you shouldn’t compare yourself to others too much – ultimately your journey will be different from others, and there are some things that others may find easier than others and vice versa.

Even if you don’t quite make it to the end of the challenge, don’t beat yourself up. Always focus on the positives and if needed use the opportunity to think about approaching things differently next time.

List of Language Challenges

Here is a list of language challenges out there that I know of:

General Language Challenges

Eurolinguiste Language Learning Challenge (general language learning challenge)

Joyoflanguages Language Diary Challenge (speaking)

Lindsay Does Languages Instagram Language Challenge (speaking/writing)

30 Day Record Yourself Challenge (speaking)

Italki Language Challenge (speaking/ tutoring)

Noun Verb Adjective Challenge (writing – I’ve written about this challenge here*)

Japanese Language Specific Challenges

Manga Sensei’s 30 day Japanese Challenge (for complete beginners)

LearnJapanesePod’s 5 day Japanese Self Introduction Challenge

JapanesePod101’s 10 day Hiragana Challenge and 10 day Katakana Challenge

JTalkOnline’s Improve Japanese Reading Challenge (2-week challenge)

Kotobites 30-day Writing Challenge (writing, but you could use it for speaking too!)

I know that the above list is only scratching the surface of the many challenges out there. If there are any cool language challenges you have come across, please let me know in the comments so that I can add them to the list!

Subtitles and language learning

When I’m watching Japanese TV, I try to make use of Japanese subtitles instead of English subtitles as much as possible. But until recently, I had never given much thought to whether native-language or target language subtitles are better for language learners.

The following is a list of what I think are the main pros and cons for using native language and foreign language subtitles:

Native language subtitles

  • No matter what your level, foreign language content is accessible, which is great for listening practice. This is good for themes requiring specialist knowledge and/or vocabulary.
  • You can begin to make associations between words in your target language and words in your native language. I find that this is most likely to happen with everyday vocabulary.

Target language subtitles

  • Helps you to recognise common sentence patterns and vocabulary. For example, with Japanese, I found watching TV really helped me to understand more casual types of speech. Since we only studied polite language (ます/です) in class for quite a while before learning the plain form, this made things much easier when it was introduced.
  • You can focus on how certain situational phrases are used. This is especially good for phrases that don’t really translate to English, such as 失礼します (shitshurei shimasu) and お疲れ様でした (otsukaresama deshita) in Japanese.
  • It is much easier to recognise the words that you do not understand (and then look them up in the dictionary). Even in our native language, we often mishear things, and when we use native language subtitles it is easy to overlook words that we don’t know the meaning of.

As the above shows, both types of subtitles can have their own benefits. The choice between target and native language subtitles often depends on your language level and familiarity with the source material.

One way to make have the best of both words is to watch something without any subtitles, then again with target language subtitles, and then with native language subtitles. Fortunately, YouTube, Netflix and Viki make switching subtitles pretty easy.

Viki is especially good as dual language subtitles are available using the Learn Mode. This feature already exists for Korean and Chinese and is now in beta mode for Japanese.

Screenshot 2018-10-29 at 22.22.18.png
You can click on any word from the target language subs to get the English meaning – really useful!

My experiences with Learn Mode so far have been very positive and you get both benefits of native and foreign language subtitles.

Transitioning to target-language subtitles

As you progress in your language learning, you will be able to benefit even more from target-language subtitles. Here are my tips on moving towards using them over native language subtitles:

  • Choose something that you are really interested in, especially if you plan on watching it multiple times.
  • Try to choose something that is not too complicated. I recommend starting off with shows that closely relate to everyday life – because choosing something on a niche topic unrelated to something you already have knowledge of will only succeed in leaving you demotivated. Cultural differences can exacerbate this problem too.
  • Doing a bit of homework in your native language before watching anything helps a lot. This could be:
    • Reading the synopsis of a film in your native language
    • Reading the original book if you plan to watch a film adaptation (and vice versa).
    • Watching the trailer before watching the film
    • Reading a (spoiler-free) review

I might even write down names of key characters and locations. I find that doing this helps a great deal when you are actually watching a TV show. It means that you are not wasting precious time trying to remember the name of the main character’s sister!

  • Break shows down into smaller chunks. It’s much easier to watch TV series rather than films because TV episodes are shorter.
    • Watching without native language subtitles requires a high level of concentration which is hard to sustain for a 90+ minute film.
    • TV shows also have the advantage of being much easier to follow as you get used to how characters speak.
    • If you do choose a film, try watching it over a number of sessions to build your confidence.
  • Have a notepad handy and make a note of words and phrases that you didn’t understand or find interesting. I then look these up at the end of my listening session and add to my vocabulary list to review later.

…and if I get stuck?

Don’t beat yourself up if there is a phrase you just don’t understand. It is highly likely as a learner that you will encounter:

  • A slang word/ phrase
  • An idiom or saying
  • A word pronounced in a strange way (or said in different accent)
  • A pun
  • Words that merge together when spoken quickly
Keep calm and carry on, even if you are feeling like this!

When you come across things like this, you could record a clip of what is being said and ask a friend or language partner to explain what is going on.

In some cases, I find that continuing to watch the show can help – later developments in the story might fill in gaps from what you missed earlier.

If you can turn on English subtitles, don’t be afraid to turn them on. Just because you do not understand something right now, doesn’t mean you will never understand it.

Obviously, the ideal situation is not to have any subtitles at all. Becoming too reliant on subtitles is unlikely to improve your listening or reading skills in your target language. One thing I try to do is to read native language subtitles as quickly as I can so that I can focus on the spoken language.

Sometimes you have to take the plunge and watch things without any subtitles – how much you do understand might just surprise you!

What is your stance on this? Do you go for native language subtitles, target language subtitles or none at all? Let me know in the comments!

I failed with Anki (again)…my new approach to Anki reviews

As the title suggests, my relationship with Anki has its ups and downs. I haven’t been using Anki for Japanese vocabulary reviews on a regular basis for a couple of months, which I have been feeling guilty about recently.

The main reason for my guilt is that when I am consistent with Anki, I retain so much more information. Unfortunately, the problem I have is that I always end up falling off the bandwagon.

A few months ago, I was doing a pretty good job of keeping up with Anki reviews. I felt that I was retaining more vocabulary, especially in conjunction with daily tadoku reading. At first, I could get my reviews done in 20 minutes or less, which felt achievable even on a busy day.

But then I realised that I was spending more and more time reviewing cards – my review sessions were now at least 40 minutes. I began to dread opening up Anki and seeing how many minutes it would be until I finished my reviews, especially if I had missed a day. I stopped reading in Japanese as much because I felt that I needed to prioritise flashcards instead.

It seemed as if my Japanese study was being entirely dictated by Anki reviews and not any of the more exciting stuff. So at that time, sticking with Anki didn’t feel like the sensible choice and I stopped using it.

For the record, I do like Anki (and similar spaced repetition programs) a lot, but I find that after a couple of months I get burned out and have to take a break. This is probably the third or fourth time I have been in this situation, so I thought I would take a step back and think about how to be more consistent.

On reflection, here’s where I think I was going wrong:

I was learning stuff that was not important to me

I was using shared decks, which can be great, but it meant that there were words I was learning that I didn’t have any real interest in learning. I usually add interesting words I come across directly from Akebi (a wonderful free dictionary app) into Anki, which I find easier to learn because I discovered them in a context that interests me.

Eventually, I want to transition to making all of my flashcards myself but thinking more carefully about what vocabulary I want to learn is a good first step.

I was trying to do all reviews in one long session, rather than breaking it down into smaller chunks

Using the Pomodoro technique could work, but as I find it difficult to focus solely on flashcard reviews for 25 minutes at a time, I will change the time spent a little bit. I think I should be looking at focusing for 10 minutes at a time, perhaps at different times of day (eg. 10 minutes in the morning, 10 minutes during my lunch break, 10 minutes in the evening).

I wasn’t balancing flashcard reviews with the fun stuff

Flashcards are not a replacement for reading, listening and speaking the language. For every 10 minutes I spend in Anki, I want to be spending another 10 minutes practicing Japanese in another way that I enjoy (such as reading, or watching TV shows).

The limit on the number of new cards was too high

If you miss a day, the number of cards that I had to review the next day was very disheartening. Going forward I will experiment with how many cards I can comfortably review in about 20 minutes, and set a limit accordingly.

I wasn’t being honest with myself about whether I had actually learned the card or not

It is very easy to conflate recognition of a kanji with knowing how to write it, which doesn’t help me in the long term. So following on from my previous point, I want to limit the number of cards I review, and then I can spend more time reviewing each card in more depth.

There are a lot of ways to customise Anki, and I think that making better use of these will help me stay engaged with my vocabulary reviews.

It’s going to be a bit tough getting back into the rhythm of daily Anki reviews again, but I hope my new approach means I can keep an Anki habit for longer!

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