Vocabulary

The Best 7 Android Apps for learning Japanese

Longtime readers will know that I review language learning apps on this blog fairly often. However, in reality there are only a small number of apps that I think are the best for people studying Japanese. Many of them I wish had been around when I was a beginner! For that reason, I thought I would put together a list of the best Android apps out there for learning Japanese!

Choosing just 7 was quite tricky, but I have tried to include apps for studying Japanese vocabulary, kanji and grammar which are useful at any level.

The best thing is that these apps are either free or available at a low cost. As I almost exclusively use Android devices, this list was made with Android users in mind. Fortunately, many of these are available on the Apple Store too.

top-android-apps-learning-japanese

1) The best app to introduce you to Japanese: Lingodeer

Cost: free; also available on iOS

If you like the idea of using an app like Duolingo, then I recommend trying out Lingodeer instead. Lingodeer was initially aimed at those learning Mandarin, Korean or Japanese (French, Spanish, German, Portuguese and Vietnamese are also available) and so the lessons are tailored towards these languages in a better way than Duolingo.

How Lingodeer works

Lingodeer starts by teaching hiragana and katakana, which makes it a great choice for absolute beginners. Like Duolingo, the app has many lessons increasing in complexity covering a number of different themes.

Each lesson starts out with some grammar notes (called ‘Learning Tips’), then a number of smaller topics covering a few grammar points and vocabulary under the given theme. You also have the ability to toggle the use of kanji, furigana and romaji within the lessons if you wish.

When it comes to the lesson quizzes, the app tests your understanding in a few different ways. Successfully passing the quizzes earns you XP, and allows you to move on to the next lesson. Similarly, there isn’t a heavy reliance on English for learning new vocabulary; instead, the focus is on using lots of images to convey meanings. There is a ‘Test Out’ feature which allows you to skip ahead if you can pass the tests.

I wouldn’t necessarily recommend using Lingodeer as a resource on its own, but I think it is a great way to supplement learning using another textbook. Alternatively, I think it is a nice app to use if you have taken a break from Japanese and perhaps want to review the basics before starting new material.

2) The best textbook app for Japanese: Human Japanese

Cost: Human Japanese Lite is free, full version £8.99; also available on iOS

Speaking of apps for beginners, I would highly recommend the app Human Japanese. I think it is one of the best on Android for covering all aspects of Japanese

How Human Japanese works

This app has a textbook style app that takes you through hiragana, katakana and the basics of Japanese grammar. All aspects of the language are explained in a very clear and straightforward manner, imparting a lot of information designed to give as much context as possible to what you are learning.

The grammar lessons are also supplemented with relevant information on Japanese culture – you cannot understand the language without understanding the culture after all!

This short video gives you an overview of what Human Japanese is all about:

A lot of time and effort has clearly gone into Human Japanese – the quality of the app is great. All example sentences have crisp audio and example sentences have ‘ingredients’ which break down the sentence into its component parts, which is useful as sentences get more complex.

The full version of the app is not free and requires a one-off payment, but there is plenty of free content for Japanese newbies to work through to see if the app is appropriate for them before making a commitment. Looking at the content of the textbook, Human Japanese provides a solid foundation on which learners can continue to build on. I’ve written about Human Japanese in a previous post so I recommend checking that out if you would like to learn more.

3) The best Japanese dictionary app: Akebi

Cost: free

I have tried a number of free Japanese dictionary apps available on Android, but Akebi is by far my favourite. Again, this is another app that I have written a post about on this blog.

How Akebi works

The sheer number of features that Akebi has makes it a great learner friendly app. These include:

  • Inbuilt Japanese keyboard – no worrying about switching keyboards just to look something up
  • Detailed kanji information (including frequency, JLPT level, words containing that kanji)
  • Handwriting recognition and ability to search by radicals
  • Deconjugation – if you look up a verb in the te-form, it will find the verb in its dictionary form along with meanings and other useful information
  • Full functionality offline, perfect for when I am avoiding the internet during study sessions!
  • Example sentences

One of my favourite features relates to Anki; whenever I use the app to look up new words, I can immediately add them to a flashcard deck of my choice in Anki to review later.

Overall, I find that it has the right balance of user-friendly interface and powerful features that make it the perfect companion for Japanese learners at all levels.

4) The best app for practicing Japanese with native speakers: HelloTalk

Cost: free; also available on iOS

One of the biggest issues Japanese learners tend to have is lack of access to native speakers. Fortunately, language exchange apps like HelloTalk are the next best thing to address this issue.

How HelloTalk works

When you sign up for an account, you can select the languages you are interested in learning, as well as the languages you can speak. You can then post a message to native speakers of the language you are learning and find an exchange partner. When speaking with your language partner, you can post in your target language or record audio/ have a video call.

HelloTalk has expanded into a sort of social network for language learners. You can now post status updates on your profile called ‘Moments’, which other members can correct any language mistakes for you.

The above Youtube video by Reina Scully gives a good overview of how the app can be used to study Japanese.

HelloTalk has a couple of handy features for language learners. For example, as Reina mentions in her video, the Translate feature allows you to see translations from your target language by tapping any word or phrase. In addition, the Notepad feature also enables you to save a message or recording for later practice.

I think HelloTalk is a great way to find a language partner or even to practice your reading skills by reading other users’ Moments.

5) The best reading assistant app: TangoRisto

Cost: free, ad free version requires one off payment of £4.29; also available on iOS

Reading in Japanese can be a scary experience at first, but TangoRisto is a great app to build your confidence. TangoRisto draws together articles from NHK News Easy among other sources which you can read via the app.

Screenshot 2017-09-12 at 20.09.14

As you can see from the screenshots, the interface is crisp, clean and very user-friendly.

How TangoRisto works

Once in an article, a quick tap of a word brings up its reading and meaning. Like Akebi, tapping a conjugated verb will bring up the dictionary form of the verb with a note to indicate the form it has within the text (eg. passive tense, past tense). You can then bookmark these words to revise in the Vocabulary Review part of the app.

I like the ability to only highlight and/or show the furigana for words at certain JLPT levels as chosen in the settings, as well as the ability to save articles for offline reading. There is also a Text Analyzer tool, where you can paste Japanese text into the textbox; by then clicking ‘Analyze’, you can click on any word to find its readings and meanings.

Considering that this app is free to use, it is a quality resource for Japanese reading practice. It is definitely an app that I wish had been around sooner, especially when preparing for the JLPT tests!

I have a post reviewing TangoRisto which might be worth reading if you want to know more about the app.

6) The best app for vocabulary reviews: Anki

Cost: free; also available on iOS (for a price)

I haven’t always been a fan of Anki, but it is on my list because when used correctly it can be a very powerful tool. Whilst there is a free Anki app available on Android, Anki is available on a number of mobile and desktop platforms.

How Anki works

Anki (anki/暗記 is the Japanese word for ‘memorisation’) is a spaced repetition flashcard app that has a high degree of customisation. Putting together your own flashcard decks tailored to the type of Japanese content you want to study (ie. from your favourite TV show, video game or novel) is a great way to learn Japanese and stay motivated.

There is a bit of time required to experiment with what kind of flashcard set up works best for you. If making your own flashcard decks sounds like too much trouble, there are some great flashcard decks available for download via the Shared Decks. Some of my favourite shared decks are the Kanji Damage deck and the Core 2000 vocabulary decks.

This video by Landon Epps gives a nice overview of some of the features Anki has and how Japanese learners can use it to review vocabulary.

Anki is a great app because it can be used to help memorise all sorts of things, not just the Japanese language. If you like looking at data, there are all sorts of statistics you can look into regarding your learning and progress for each flashcard deck.

7) Best app for Kanji: Kanji Study

Cost: limited content is free, full app costs £11.99; older version of app available on iOS

If you are looking for an app to specifically help you with kanji, look no further than Kanji Study. I love the user interface, and there are so many features to help you customise your kanji learning experience.

How Kanji Study works

You can choose to tackle kanji in any order of your choice, but the default is the order in which Japanese children learn Joyo kanji at school. You can then break down each level into smaller groups of your choice. In the ‘Study’ mode, each kanji has its own page showing the stroke order, radicals, common readings, useful vocabulary and example sentences to help reinforce the meaning.

If you long press a word, you then get the option to add it to an Anki deck or look it up via another website such as jisho.org – both very useful features!

You can then choose to review the kanji via flashcards, multiple choice quizzes or writing challenges. These tests are highly customisable so that you can tailor your study sessions to focus on your weaknesses. The app also allows you to practice writing kanji. I like that the app uses a very readable kanji font which is much closer to how kanji would be handwritten rather than a typed font.

It is possible to set a daily study target, and you can set notification reminders to make sure you don’t miss a study session.

The beginner level kanji content is free, however access to all kanji requires a one-off cost of £11.99. All in all, I highly recommend this app because the quality of the app is top-notch.

Honourable mentions

There are a lot of apps which are great alternatives to some of the apps on my top 7 list:

 

Hello Talk -> HiNative

HiNative is fairly similar to Hello Talk, but I find HiNative better for learning about the current trends or asking questions about the culture of your target language. You can read my full review of HiNative here.

Anki -> Memrise/ iKnow

If you prefer an app that makes use of spaced repetition with a more user-friendly interface, then I recommend checking out Memrise or iKnow.

About Memrise

Memrise has its own starter courses for the Japanese language, however, I cannot comment on their quality as I have not tried this out for myself yet. Instead, I like to use the Memrise app to study some of the courses created by other users for certain aspects of Japanese, such as JTalkOnline’s keigo course.

Recently Memrise has made it difficult to search for these user-generated vocabulary courses (via the app anyway – they are still easy to find via the website), which is a slight annoyance.

About iKnow

iKnow requires a monthly subscription (a free trial is available), but I think the Core 1000/ 3000/ 6000 vocabulary decks help build a good grounding in Japanese knowledge if you are not interested in making your own vocabulary flashcards.

Akebi -> Tangorin

Tangorin is another free dictionary app available on both Android and iOS, which also works fully offline.

TangoRisto -> Mondo

Mondo is another reading assistant app aimed to help Japanese learners. Mondo tends to pull its reading content from different sources compared to TangoRisto, and there is some original articles and dialogues that can only be read on the app. I’ve covered how Mondo works in an earlier blog post.

So that is my list of the best apps available for learning Japanese on Android. Do you agree with my list, or is there a glaring omission? Please tell me in the comments 🙂

Japanese Onomatopoeia for the Summer

At the moment, Japan (as well as a lot of other countries) is experiencing extremely high summer temperatures. Aside from the all too common 暑いですね (あついですね; It’s hot, isn’t it?), you might be struggling with ways to talk about the warmest season.

As I wrote in a previous post, onomatopoeia is a very important part of expressing yourself in Japanese. With this in mind, I have put together a list of my favourite summer-themed onomatopoeia:

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Feeling hot, hot, hot

Japan is well known for its 蒸し暑い (むしあつい; hot and humid) summers. The first group of words relate to the uncomfortable feeling of dealing with the heat.

The first, べたべた is generally used to refer to something sticky or gooey. It is a common word used in the summertime to describe the icky feeling of being sweaty and your clothes stick to you. You could also use the onomatopoeia だらだら, which when used with 汗 (あせ; sweat) has the meaning of sweating profusely:

Eg. だらだら汗(あせ)が出(で)る                sweat is pouring out

Another common phrase you might hear is 夏バテ (なつバテ), which is a combination of 夏(なつ) meaning summer and ばてる, meaning to be tired/ exhausted. It is used to describe that feeling of fatigue and lethargy you get when it it constantly hot outside. This SavvyTokyo article has some great tips on do’s and don’ts when coping with 夏バテ!

Staying cool as a cucumber?

With the heat and humidity, keeping cool by any means possible is essential. The word ひんやり can be used to talk about something which feels nice and cold, especially on a hot day. This covers things like cooler pads that you put on your bed or pillowcase, or the feeling of a cool breeze on a hot day, as well as food and drink.

There’s nothing better than a cold glass of juice or a bottle of beer on a summer’s day. Fortunately, there are lots of ways to describe that feeling with onomatopoeia in Japanese.

For instance, キンキン refers to a shrill sound, but it can also be used to describe something that is cold and refreshing.

Eg. キンキンに冷(ひ)えたジュース             ice cold juice

To stay cool, it is highly likely you would be regularly tucking into something しゃりしゃり or ガリガリ. しゃりしゃり indicates something is crunchy; summer foods often have a crunchy texture due to ice or crunchy vegetables – think of a slushie, a salad, a sorbet or かき氷 (かきごおり, kakigoori). Kakigoori is shaved ice topped with a flavoured syrup and sometimes condensed milk. Popular flavours include melon, strawberry and the Blue Hawaii (usually soda or ramune).

If you see a flag with the above kanji on, you’ve found a kakigoori stand! Image by Rog01 (Nara 2010) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

ガリガリ is often for someone who looks very skinny, but is also used for something that is hard and crunchy, eg. an ice lolly. There is a brand of ice lollies called ガリガリ君 (Garigari kun) which are a cheap treat and have been popular for decades!

Sights and sounds of summer

The last couple of onomatopoeia are those that really help to encapsulate summer in Japan.

Unfortunately, summer means plenty of bugs to contend with. The insect most strongly associated with summer in Japan has got to be the cicada (known as 蝉・せみ).

If you’ve been to Japan or watched any TV show/ film/ anime that is set during the summer months, the みーんみーん sound of a cicada is probably very familiar. The video below talks about cicadas in more detail:

Another iconic sound of summer in Japan is the sound of 花火 (はなび; fireworks).

A lot of festivals take place during the summer months, where there are lots of opportunities to play games and eat street food from a variety of stalls. Along with this, there are often 花火大会 (はなびたいかい; firework displays) which take place in the evening.

Fireworks have a long tradition in Japan and were originally used as a way to help ward off bad spirits. If you are in Japan in the summer, seeing fireworks is a must! The onomatopoeia どんどん or ドーン can be used to describe the sound of fireworks in Japanese.

This post could very easily have been much longer – onomatopoeia is such an interesting part of the Japanese language.

What is your favourite summer word (in Japanese or any other language)? Please tell me in the comments section!

Top 20 Japanese Verbs to learn for Beginners

When I first started learning Japanese, I had no idea which verbs to learn. With that in mind, I have put together a list of 20 basic Japanese verbs to study.

For each verb, I have tried to give a brief overview of how they are used. This isn’t intended to be an in-depth guide, so if you want to learn more I recommend the resources listed at the end of this post.

The list below shows the verbs in the polite (-masu) form, but I have given the plain/dictionary form below. One good thing about Japanese is that there are very few irregular verbs (which all happen to be in this list!), and I have indicated these verbs below.

 

います imasu

Meaning: to be; exist (used for animate objects, ie. people and animals)

  • Verb type: ichidan (て form -> いて ite)
  • Plain/ dictionary form: いる iru
  • Kanji?: 居る (note: the kanji is not often used and you will most likely see it in hiragana only)
  • Often used with the particle を or に

Example sentences:

ねこはへやにいますneko wa heya ni imasu

The cat is in the room.

にわにいぬがいますniwa ni inu ga imasu

There is a dog in the garden.

あります arimasu

Meaning: to exist (used for inanimate objects, ie. those not ); to have

  • Verb type: godan (て form -> あって atte)
  • Plain/ dictionary form: ある aru
  • Kanji?: 有る・在る (note: the kanji is not often used and you will most likely see it in hiragana only)
  • Often used with the particle が or に (definitely not を!)

Example sentences:

ペンはつくえのうえにありますpen wa tsukue no ue ni arimasu

The pen is on top of the desk.

ほんがみっつありますhon ga mittsu arimasu

I have three books.

します shimasu

Meaning: to do

  • Irregular verb
  • Verb type: ichidan (て form -> して)
  • Plain/ dictionary form: する suru
  • Kanji?: none (always used with hiragana)
  • Often used with the particle を

Example sentences:

きのう、ともだちとテニスをしましたkinou, tomodachi to tenisu wo shimashita

I played tennis with my friends yesterday.

まいにちにほんごをべんきょうしますmainichi nihongo wo benkyou shimasu

I study Japanese every day.

いきます ikimasu

Meaning: to go

  • (Slightly) irregular verb; see て form conjugation
  • Verb type: godan (て form -> いって itte)
  • Plain/ dictionary form: いく iku
  • Kanji?: 行く
  • Often used with the particle に

Example sentences:

きょうがっこうにいきますkyou gakkou ni ikimasu

I am going to school today.

らいねんにほんにいきますrainen nihon ni ikimasu

I am going to Japan next year.

きます kimasu

Meaning: to come

  • Irregular verb
  • Verb type: godan (て form -> きて kite)
  • Plain/ dictionary form: くる kuru
  • Kanji?: 来る
  • Often used with the particle に

Example sentences:

BABYMETALはよくアメリカにきますBabymetal wa yoku amerika ni kimasu

Babymetal often come to America.

ともだちがいえにきましたtomodachi ga ie ni kimashita

A friend came to my house.

なります narimasu

Meaning: to become

  • Verb type: godan (て form -> なって natte)
  • Plain/ dictionary form: なる naru
  • Kanji?: 成る (note: the kanji not often used and you will most likely see it in hiragana only)
  • Often used with the particle に

Example sentences:

もうすぐはるになりますmousugu haru ni narimasu

It will soon be(come) spring.

せんせいになりたいです。 sensei ni naritai desu

I want to become a teacher.

みます mimasu

Meaning: to see, look at

  • Verb type: ichidan (て form -> みて mite)
  • Plain/ dictionary form: みる miru
  • Kanji?: 見る
  • Often used with the particle を

Example sentences:

かのじょがテレビをみますwatashi ga terebi wo mimasu

She watches TV.

しゃしんをみてください。 shashin wo mite kudasai

Please look at the photograph.

はなします hanashimasu

Meaning: to speak, to talk to

  • Verb type: ichidan (て form -> はなして hanashite)
  • Plain/ dictionary form: はなす hanasu
  • Kanji?: 話す
  • Often used with the particle を or と

Example sentences:

でんわでははとはなしますdenwa de haha to hanashimasu

I speak with my mom on the telephone.

えいごとスペインごをはなしますeigo to supeingo wo hanashimasu

I speak English and Spanish.

あいます aimasu

Meaning: to meet

  • Verb type: godan (て form -> あって atte)
  • Plain/ dictionary form: あう au
  • Kanji?: 会う
  • Often used with the particle に

Example sentences:

あしたえきでともだちにあいますashita eki de tomodachi ni aimasu

Tomorrow I will meet my friend at the train station.

らいしゅうかれにあいたいです。 raishuu kare ni aitai desu

I want to meet him next week.

つくります tsukurimasu

Meaning: to make

  • Verb type: godan (て form -> つくって tsukutte)
  • Plain/ dictionary form: つくる tsukuru
  • Kanji?: 作る
  • Often used with the particle を

Example sentences:

ばんごはんをつくりますbangohan wo tsukurimasu

I make dinner.

ちちがわたしにドレスをつくりましたchichi ga watashi ni doresu wo tsukurimashita

My dad made me a dress.

つかいます tsukaimasu

Meaning: to use

  • Verb type: godan (て form -> つかって tsukatte)
  • Plain/ dictionary form: つかう tsukau
  • Kanji?: 使う
  • Often used with the particle を

Example sentences:

せんせいのじしょをつかいますSensei no jisho wo tsukaimasu

I use my teacher’s dictionary.

あねはくつにおかねをたくさんつかいますAne ha kutsu ni okane wo takusan tsukaimasu

My older sister spends a lot of money on shoes.

わかります wakarimasu

Meaning: to know, understand

  • Verb type: godan (て form -> わかって wakatte)
  • Plain/ dictionary form: わかる wakaru
  • Kanji?: 分かる (note: kanji is not often used, and you will most likely see it written in hiragana
  • Often used with the particle を or が

Example sentences:

にほんごをすこしわかりますnihongo wo sukoshi wakarimasu

I understand a bit of Japanese.

フランスごがわかりませんfuransugo wo wakarimasen

I don’t know/ understand French.

たべます tabemasu

Meaning: to eat

  • Verb type: godan (て form -> たべて)
  • Plain/ dictionary form: たべる taberu
  • Kanji?: 食べる
  • Often used with the particle を

Example sentences:

まいしゅうピザをたべますmaishuu piza wo tabemasu

I eat pizza every week.

ゆうべラーメンをたべましたyuube raamen wo tabemashita

I ate ramen yesterday evening.

のみます nomimasu

Meaning: to drink

  • Verb type: godan (て form -> のんで nonde)
  • Plain/ dictionary form: のむ nomu
  • Kanji?: 飲む
  • Often used with the particle を

Example sentences:

さけをのみませんsake wo nomimasen

I do not drink alcohol.

まいあさ、みずをのみますmaiasa mizu wo nomimasu

I drink water every morning.

かいます kaimasu

Meaning: to buy

  • Verb type: godan (て form -> かって katte)
  • Plain/ dictionary form: かう kau
  • Kanji?: 買う
  • Often used with the particle を

Example sentences:

スーパーでやさいをかいますsuupaa de yasai wo kaimasu

I buy vegetables at the supermarket.

しんぶんをかいませんshinbun wo kaimasen

I don’t buy newspapers.

かきます kakimasu

Meaning: to write

  • Verb type: godan (て form -> かいて kaite)
  • Plain/ dictionary form: かく kaku
  • Kanji?: 書く
  • Often used with the particle を

Example sentences:

まいしゅうかんじをかきますmaishuu kanji wo kakimasu

I write kanji every week.

しょうせつをかいていますshousetsu wo kaiteimasu

I am writing a novel.

ねます nemasu

Meaning: to sleep

  • Verb type: ichidan (て form -> ねて nete)
  • Plain/ dictionary form: ねる neru
  • Kanji?: 寝る
  • Often used with the particle を

Example sentences:

まいにち10じにねますmainichi juuji ni nemasu

I go to bed at 10 o’clock every day.

きのう7じにねましたkinou shichi ji nemashita

Yesterday I went to bed at 7 o’clock

ききます kikimasu

Meaning: to listen to

  • Verb type: godan (て form -> きいて kiite)
  • Plain/ dictionary form: きく
  • Kanji?: 聞く
  • Often used with the particle を

Example sentences:

せいとはせんせいのしじにききますseito wa sensei no shiji ni kikimasu

The pupils listen to the teacher’s instructions.

おんがくをよくききます。 Ongaku wo yoku kikimasu

I often listen to music.

かえります kaerimasu

Meaning: to return home

  • Verb type: godan (て form -> かえって kaette)
  • Plain/ dictionary form: かえる kaeru
  • Kanji?: 帰る
  • Often used with the particle に

Example sentences:

あしたイギリスにかえりますashita igirusu ni kaerimasu

I will go back to the UK tomorrow.

きのうごご10じにうちにかえりましたkinou gogo juuji ni uchi ni kaerimashita

I got home at 10 pm yesterday.

のります norimasu

Meaning: to get on, ride (eg. a vehicle)

  • Verb type: godan (て form -> のって)
  • Plain/ dictionary form: のる noru
  • Kanji?: 乗る
  • Often used with the particle に

Example sentences:

まいあさでんしゃにのりますmaiasa densha ni norimasu

I catch the train every morning.

どこでバスをのりますか。 doko de basu ni norimasu ka?

Where do you get on the bus?

20basicjapaneseverbspin

So this is my list – choosing just 20 is tricky, but I think with the above you will be able to practice expressing a variety of things in Japanese.

If you are just starting your Japanese journey, I recommend looking at the following resources to learn more about the different types of Japanese verbs and how they are conjugated:

New to Japanese? You might find my Japanese Resources Masterpost and How to Start Learning Japanese pages useful 🙂

Cultural Kotoba: Tanabata

cultural_kotoba_tanabata

Tanabata is just around the corner (in some parts of Japan anyway), and it might be one of my favourite celebrations in Japan.

Tanabata is not a national holiday, but it is widely celebrated around the country. To me, this festival is truly a sign that summer has arrived. I just love the colourful celebrations at Tanabata, so decided to write a bit about it today.

Where does Tanabata originate from?

One of the things I was curious about is why Tanabata is written in Japanese as 七夕. 七 is normally read as しち・なな (shichi/nana) and 夕 is normally read as ゆう (yuu), so where did the name Tanabata come from?

Actually, what we now know as Tanabata was a festival called Qixi originating in China and was brought to Japan in the 8th century. Tanabata is thought to originally refer to a special cloth (棚機・たなばた) offered to a god to pray for a good harvest of rice crops in a separate ritual. The timing of this offering coincided with Qixi, and so the two festivals merged. Once merged, the festival was still called tanabata but the kanji used was written as (七夕; meaning “evening of the seventh”) referring to the timing of the festival, which at one point was read as しちせき (shichiseki).

The timing of Tanabata is based on the traditional Japanese calendar; it is usually celebrated on the 7th night on the 7th month (ie. 7th July in the Gregorian calendar). However it can be celebrated during early August; during Japan’s transition from the Chinese lunar calendar to the current Gregorian calendar, the definition of the first month can vary by over 4 weeks and so August is sometimes treated as the 7th month in the calendar.

The Story of Tanabata

The Tanabata story is based on the Chinese folk tale “The Cowherd and the Weaver Girl”. Here is my rough summary of the story:

Orihime ((織姫・おりひめ), literally “weaving princess”) lives by the Milky Way and works everyday weaving fabric. Because of her work, she doesn’t really have time to meet anyone and so her father, the Sky King(also known as Tentei/ 天帝・てんてい), arranges for her to meet Hikoboshi ((彦星・ひこぼし), the cow herder) who works on the other side of the Milky Way. They fall in love immediately and get married, but they also begin to neglect their work duties.

The Sky King is angry about this and takes his daughter back to the other side of the Milky Way as punishment. Orihime is extremely upset and pleads with her father to let her see Hikoboshi. The Sky King then agrees that they can meet on the 7th day of the 7th month every year as long as Orihime works hard.

If you want to try reading the story in simple Japanese, you can find it on the children’s story website Hukumusume here.

The celebration is therefore of the one night in the year when husband and wife are allowed to meet. Having said that, it is thought that the star-crossed lovers can only meet if the weather is clear on July 7th!

How is Tanabata celebrated?

Laika_ac_Tanabata_Wishes_(7472067930)

By Laika ac from USA (Tanabata Wishes) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

It is customary to write wishes on small strips of paper known as tanzaku (短冊・たんざく) which are then hung on bamboo along with other colourful decorations. Bamboo is culturally significant because it is a strong and durable plant and therefore symbolises prosperity.

Other decorations include:

  • Paper cranes known as 折鶴 (おりづる・oridzuru) which represent longevity
  • 吹き流し (ふきながし・fukinagashi) – these are streamers meant to represent the threads that Orihime weaves.
  • 網飾り(あみかざり・amikazari) – decorations that represent fishing nets. These are used to wish for an abundance of fish.
  • Purse or pouch shaped origami to wish for good luck with money

TanabataFestival_-_Panoramio_55635202.jpg
By rinia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=52729862

The city of Sendai in Miyagi prefecture is well known for its Tanabata celebrations, and lots of tourists flock there to enjoy the event. It is customary in Sendai to eat 素麺 (そうめん・soumen), a type of noodles usually served cold with a dipping sauce which makes it a refreshing meal in the summertime.

If you want to test your understanding of Tanabata in Japanese, JapanesePod101 have done a great video outlining Tanabata and its customs (recommended for intermediate learners and up!).

What is your favourite national holiday or festival (in Japan, or another country)? Please leave me a comment!

10 Japanese-English False Friends

As I’ve covered in a previous post, Japanese loanwords can be trickier than they initially seem. In that post, I wrote about ‘false friends’, where Japanese words that appear to be the same as English can actually have a totally different meaning in Japanese.

I find Japanese-English false friends extremely interesting, so I wanted to post about some of the ones I’ve come across. This is a mix of words that have completely different meaning in English, and words where the meaning has a different nuance to them.

 

1) マンション

Romaji: manshon

 

The word ‘mansion’ in English conjures up the image of a large house with more rooms than anyone would realistically need.

However, in Japanese a mansion is an apartment/ flat/ condominium (normally larger than what the Japanese call アパート).

Source: By アラツク [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons
 

姉はお金持ちで、広いマンションに住んでいます。

あねはおかねもちで、ひろいマンションにすんでいます。

My older sister is rich and lives in a spacious apartment.

 

2) アバウト

Romaji: abauto

 

Like English, アバウト can mean ‘roughly’ or ‘approximately’. In Japanese, it can also mean ‘sloppy’ in regards to someone’s personality (ie. they are not particularly concerned with finer details).

彼はアバウトな性格です。

かれはアバウトなせいかくです。

Literally “he has a sloppy personality”, it could be translated as “he is not a meticulous person”.

 

3) サイダー

Romaji: saidaa

 

As a British person, discovering what Japanese cider really was a bit of a disappointment. In the UK, cider is a type of alcoholic drink normally made with apples (or sometimes using other fruits such as pears).

So imagine my shock when I saw saidaa in the non-alcoholic section of a bar menu! It turns out saidaa is a fizzy soft drink, which is best translated in English as ‘soda’.

 

Source: By Mj-bird [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons
 

 

今朝コンビニでサイダーを一本買いました。

けさコンビニでサイダーをいっぽんかいました。

This morning, I bought a bottle of soda at the convenience store.

 

4) スマート

Romaji: sumaato

 

Like English, スマート can mean ‘stylish’ or ‘refined’ in reference to the way someone dresses or acts. However, it can also be used to mean ‘slim’.

彼女はとてもスマートですね。

かのじょはとてもスマートですね。

She is very slim, isn’t she?

 

5) コンセント

Romaji: konsento

 

Originating from ‘concentric plug’, コンセント refers to an electric outlet or plug socket.

テレビをコンセントにつなぎました。

I plugged the TV into the socket.

 

6) サービス

Romaji: saabisu

 

サービス does overlap with the English meaning ‘service’ as in ‘customer service’:

このレストランは、サービスがとてもいいです。

However, サービス can also be used to describe something given as a discount or as a special extra when buying something.

 

これはサービスです。

Literally “this is service”, when buying something at a store this would be used when you get an extra item for free, or a free service offered at a hotel.

 

7)トランプ

Romaji: toranpu

 

Whilst searching this word is quite likely to bring up a certain American president (he’s normally referred to as トランプ氏/ toranpu-shi), トランプ refers to playing cards.

トランプします = play card games

 

昨夜おおじいさんとトランプをしました。

ゆうべおじいさんとトランプをしました。

Last night I played cards with my grandfather.

 

8) Japanese: シール

Romaji: shiiru

 

Shiiru can mean the same as its English counterpart ‘seal’ but is more commonly used to mean ‘sticker’.

手紙に青い花のシールをはりました。

てがみにあおいはなのシールをはりました。

I put a sticker of a blue flower on the letter.

 

9) Japanese: サイン

Romaji: sain

 

サイン means signature or autograph in Japanese. It can also mean sign as in ‘signal’.

この書類をサインしてください。

このしょるいをサインしてください。

Please sign this document.

 

10) Japanese: タレント

Romaji: tarento

 

Talent refers to a TV personality or celebrity in the world of entertainment. There are tons of popular タレント on Japanese TV who are generally there to play games, tell the occasional joke and react to pre recorded material. They may also sing or act in addition to their variety show appearances.

妹は人気なタレントです。

いもうとはにんきなタレントです。

My little sister is a famous TV personality.

 

So that’s it for today’s post – here’s all of the words in today’s post summed up in one image:

As I wrote in my post, sometimes the easiest way to double check the meaning of loanwords is to use Google image search. If there is a different meaning or broader meaning in Japanese compared to its English counterpart, you’ll get a pretty good idea of this from looking at the search results.

I’m interested to know what is your favourite Japanese-English false friend? Let me know in the comments!

Japanese Loanwords (gairaigo): 5 things to remember

japaneseloanwordsgairaigo

 

Foreign words imported into Japanese (known as 外来語 gairaigo) is an increasingly large part of the Japanese language. Japanese loanwords are easy to spot, as they are written in katakana rather than hiragana or kanji.

The use of loanwords is often touted as a way for learners of Japanese to quickly increase their vocabulary. This is somewhat true and fortunately for beginners, common Japanese words are indeed borrowed from English.

 

Computer コンピュータ (Romaji: konpyuutaa)

Piano ピアノ (Romaji: piano)

Hamburger ハンバーガー (Romaji: hanbaagaa)

 

However, loanwords in katakana are not always what they seem and therefore can cause issues for some learners for a few reasons:

  1. Pronunciation differences
  2. Loanwords are not always from English
  3. Loanwords from English can be false friends
  4. Pseudo-Anglicisms
  5. Abbreviations

Let’s look at each of these in turn.

 

(1) Pronunciation differences

Japanese is a phonetic language, unlike English. This point can cause confusion for Japanese beginners, as items are written in Japanese based on their pronunciation, not their spelling.

For example, the country Cuba is キューバ not クバ.

 

(2) Loanwords are not always from English

English native speakers tend to think of Japanese loanwords as being from English, but this is often not the case.

Portuguese loanwords

パン (pan) bread

イギリス (igirisu) the UK

キリスト(kirisuto) Christ

コップ (koppu) cup

 

Dutch loanwords

コーヒー (koohii) coffee

ランドセル (randoseru) backpack used by Japanese schoolchildren

ゴム (gomu) gum; rubber

コッコ (kokku) cook

 

French loanwords

アンケート (ankeeto) survey, questionnaire

コンクール (konkuuru) competition

ズボン (zubon) trousers

エステ (esute) beauty salon

 

German loanwords

アルバイト (arubaito) part-time job

エネルギー (enerugii) energy

テーマ (teema) theme

カルテ (karute) a patient’s medical records

 

(3) Loanwords from English are often false friends

English loanwords do not always retain their meaning when used in Japanese. Some words take on additional meanings in Japanese, and others have completely different meanings to their English counterparts.

These so-called ‘false friends’ are fairly common, so make sure you check with a friend or refer to a dictionary when you come across new words.

 

Examples of Japanese-English false friends

ペンション (penshon)

The word pension refers to the payments one is entitled to after they retire, but in Japan a pension refers to a type of lodging or inn

 

ホーム (hoomu)

This is a shortened version of プラットフォーム means railway platform

 

カンニング (kanningu)

カンニング in Japanese refers to ‘cheating’ (ie. on a test) and is often used with the verb します.

 

(4) Pseudo Anglicisms/ Wasei-Eigo

Pseudo Anglicisms are words borrowed from English in other languages but do not actually exist in English in the way an English speaker would recognise or use. Japanese has a lot of these, known in Japanese as 和製英語 wasei eigo.

 

サラリーマン (sarariiman)

Literally ‘salary man’, this refers to a male office worker

 

ベビーカー (bebiikaa)

pram, stroller, pushchair

 

チャームポイント (chaamupointo)

‘Charm point’ is used by people when describing an attractive feature about themselves or others.

 

(5) Abbreviations

Abbreviations are pretty common in Japanese. For example, けいたいでんわ (keitai denwa 携帯電話) is the correct word for mobile phone, but it is usually shortened to just けいたい (keitai 携帯).

When some words are imported into Japanese they become quite long and so it makes sense to abbreviate them. Loanwords are often shortened to four syllables, which makes it easier to remember but on the other hand, makes it more difficult to work out what the original word or phrase was.

Japanese

English

Original Japanese word

パソコンPC, personal computerパーソナルコンピューター
コンビニConvenience storeコンビニエンスストア
デパートDepartment storeデパートメントストア

 

So what is the best way to tackle Japanese loanwords?

This post isn’t intended to scare you from learning any loanwords, as they are incredibly useful.

It is best to treat loanwords as Japanese words, even if they sound similar to English. ‘Relearning’ words that are already familiar to you might sound counterintuitive but could save you from embarrassment later on.

Asking a Japanese friend or tutor is a good way to confirm the correct meaning of any word. Failing that, searching Google images (not Google Translate!) comes in really handy for checking whether that new katakana word means what you think it means.

‘Appy Mondays: Drops Japanese Review

appymondays

Welcome to my series of app reviews relating to Japanese language study. Today’s app review is of the Japanese version of the language learning app Drops.

Whilst I do make use of Anki for learning kanji and grammar, I have never personally found it as effective for studying vocabulary. I was looking around for other apps for learning vocabulary and came across Drops, a free language learning app that has a number of language options (28 languages in total!) including Japanese.

What sets Drops apart from other apps you may have tried is its highly visual interface which focuses on pictures to help you learn the vocabulary. Studying in the way feels like a more exciting way to study compared to your usual flashcard app.

How Drops works

 

Vocabulary is split into a number of topics such as family members, travel, shopping, and occupations. When you decide on a topic, new vocabulary is presented which you can drag downwards to study or upwards to skip if you already know it. The new piece of vocabulary is linked to a certain image which helps convey its meaning – you will also get the English but it will not be displayed unless you press and hold the image. All vocabulary comes with Japanese audio too.

The words you have studied are then added to a list known as Collections.By swiping across from the main menu, you can quickly check this list where the vocabulary you have learned is grouped by topic.

The app keeps track of your progress and will display this at the end of each study session. Keeping up a learning streak unlocks rewards such as extra study time.

The Options menu gives you some freedom to tailor your study to your language level:

  • Language mission: choose from enthusiast/ traveller/ business/ student/ romantic.
  • Skill level: beginner or advanced
  • Choose to set up daily practice reminders

 

The Japanese version of the app has options to study hiragana and katakana, in addition to the topics. You also have the ability to add romaji and turn kanji on or off if you like.

My thoughts on the Drops app

I’ve been using it for a couple of weeks and I think that as a vocabulary focused app, it does a pretty good job at testing your recall of vocabulary in different ways. The use of images to convey meaning is clever because it means that you spend less time thinking about the English equivalent of the word you are learning, and more about the Japanese.

While not a complaint, I found that sometimes it would have helped to see certain words in context. This was especially true when I was studying the ‘Emotions’ topic where a lot of the words which are usually adjectives in English are verb phrases in Japanese. For example, angry was taught as 怒(おこ)っている; if I was a newbie to Japanese I might not realise that 怒っている is not actually an adjective but a conjugated form of the verb 怒る. In these cases, having the context of how they are used within sentences is more important and therefore it is a good idea to look up how these words are actually used.

The app has a ‘freemium’ model, meaning that you have access to most of its features but free users are restricted to how long they can use the app for. There are 98 topics in total, and free members have access to a good amount of these. As a free user, you have 5 minutes to study the vocab, which you can increase by regularly using the app or watching advertisements.

The ‘Curious’ premium access grants you 15 minutes use of the app every day and costs £2.49 a month or £16.99 a year. The ‘Genius’ premium access for unlimited use of the app across all 28 languages will set you back £6.99 a month, £45.99 a year or you can make a one-off payment of £59.99 (discounted from £109.99 at the time of writing).

In my opinion, this is a lot of money for an app that is solely focused on vocabulary; you will also outgrow the app once you have covered all of the topics offered. For the free content though, I think it is a nice way of getting in 5 minutes of vocabulary practice and also offers a nice change from other flashcard apps. It also offers a good way to review hiragana and katakana if you are studying them currently.

If you are interested in checking the app out, it is available in the Apple store and Google Play store.

Cultural Kotoba: Sakura and Hanami, the mainstays of spring in Japan

Spring is nearly upon us (in some parts of the Northern Hemisphere at least), which could well be the most celebrated time of year in Japan. I recently learned a new word 春めく which reflects the early signs of spring:

春めく

(はるめく; verb)

to become spring like

Defined in Japanese as 春らしくなる; something becoming spring-like. For example in terms of weather, this could be the days getting longer or the temperature increasing.

I thought I would seize the opportunity to write about a couple of the most common words and phrases associated with spring in Japan. This post will focus on 桜 (sakura) and 花見 (hanami).

Spring in Japan = 桜 (さくら Sakura; Cherry blossoms)

sakurapavement.jpg

Whilst the arrival of 梅 (うめ ume; plum blossoms) happens earlier, the blooming of cherry blossoms, or sakura, is the event which truly indicates that spring has arrived in Japan.

There is a lot of anticipation for sakura as sadly, the blooms usually last for less than two weeks. As such, the sakura hold a special significance in Japan as they reflect the transience of life, a key teaching of Buddhism.

Additionally, in many areas of Japan, the blooming of sakura coincides with the start of the new academic year and is often the time when people begin new jobs. For this reason, the spring and sakura also represent a time for new beginnings.

There is so much art in various forms which have been inspired by the onset of spring. Personally, I’m always reminded of the song GLORIA by YUI, in particular, the following lyrics:

Screenshot 2018-02-25 at 14.00.47

Rough translation: wo~ when the cherry blossoms bloom, wo~ I’ll find a new me

The build-up to the blooming of sakura begins with the sakura forecast. The sakura forecast starts showing on TV alongside the weather forecast in February, indicating rough dates of when you can expect to see cherry blossoms depending on where you are in the country.

Knowing this in advance gives you as much time as possible to start making important plans, namely for 花見.

Spring in Japan means 花見 (はなみ Hanami; flower viewing) time!

The arrival of sakura is as good excuse as any to celebrate, and what better way to do so than to sit under the blossoms to eat, drink and be merry?

The practice of hanami is said to date back to the Nara period in the 8th century and was initially associated with the flowering of the aforementioned ume plum blossoms. Once a practice restricted to the imperial court, it later became commonplace for everyone to take part in. Hanami remains a popular tradition today, with people gathering early in the morning to lay down a tarpaulin and secure the best area at popular hanami viewing spots.

Hanami parties with friends, family or co-workers involve plenty of eating and drinking. Easily shareable food such as onigiri and yakitori are popular hanami choices, as well as beer and tea. It is a great time to enjoy bento and limited edition snacks only available in spring.

1024px-Hanami_dango_by_gochie-_in_Seiryu-cho,_Kyoto
By gochie* (花より・・・) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

These special springtime snacks include 花見団子 (はなみだんご Hanami dango), special Japanese style sweets related to もち. During hanami season, 団子 are available in the 3 colours commonly associated with sakura; pink, white and light green (also known as 三色団子 さんしょくだんご; three colour dango).

Unfortunately, spring in Japan has a slight downside. The arrival of flowers means the arrival of 花粉症 (かふんしょう kafunshou; hayfever. Those that are afflicted with hayfever will need to stock up to make sure they can make the most of hanami and the rest of the spring season.

So that is all for today. What is your favourite thing about spring? Let me know in the comments!

A Guide to the many “why” words in Japanese: どうして, なぜ and なんで

Japanese is so vocabulary rich that knowing when to use similar words and phrases can be a bit of a nightmare for language learners. どうして, なぜ and なんで can all be translated as ‘why’ in English but it is the level of formality which largely differentiates the three words.

なぜ Naze

なぜ orginated from the older term なにゆえ. It is the most formal of the three and is the word most often used in the written language rather than in speech.

なぜ日本語を勉強していますか?     naze nihongo wo benkyou shiteimasuka?

Why are you studying Japanese?

なぜ昨日のパーティーに来なかったの? naze pa-ti- ni konakatta no?

Why didn’t you come to the party yesterday?

 

どうして Doushite

In a lot of cases, どうして can be used interchangeably with なぜ, but is considered to feel less formal. The word is a contraction of an older term どのようにして, and therefore can sometimes be used to mean ‘how’ rather than why’ in English.

どうして知っているの? doushite shitteiru no?

How did you know?

どうして昨日そんなに早く帰ってしまったの? doushite kinou sonna ni hayaku kaette shimatta no?

Why did you go home so early yesterday?

 

なんで Nande

なんで is the most informal of the three terms. As you can imagine, this word tends to be used more by young people than other age groups.

なんで私が? nande watashi ga?

Why me?

なんでそんな所に行ったの? nande sonna tokoro ni itta no?

Why did you go to that place?

どうして is probably the word you’ll hear used the most and is therefore your safest bet for everyday use, but make sure to choose wisely depending on what setting you are in.

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