Beginner learners

The many uses of かける in Japanese

かける is one of those verbs that seems to have an endless number of uses. I remember looking up this verb in the dictionary when I first started learning and just feeling utterly overwhelmed. 

This is a screenshot from Jim Breen’s WWWJDIC:

With verbs like this, you might read the dictionary definition and stress about having to learn all of the individual meanings. 

Fortunately, the best way to deal with verbs like this is to break down the various meanings into easier chunks, so let’s do the same here.

Breaking the verb down by kanji

Firstly, as you can see from the above, かける has different kanji indicating different meanings.

欠ける to lack, to be insufficient, be broken

駆ける to run, dash

賭ける to gamble, bet on

However, this post focuses on かける which has the general meaning of ‘to hang’. This is normally written in hiragana but can be written in kanji a few different ways, usually 掛ける.

シャツをハンガーにかける = to hang a shirt on a hanger

Common collocations with かける

It’s important with words like this not to assume that the only English meaning of かける is ‘to hang’ as you will see. The following are some of the most common set phrases that use かける, which I’ve split into different groups:

To put on, put on top of something else:

  • 眼鏡(めがね)をかける to wear glasses 
  • ネックレスをかける to wear a necklace
  • 腰(こし)をかける to sit down, take a seat (literally ‘to hang one’s hips [on a chair])

To engage something mechanical:

  • 電話(でんわ)をかける to make a phonecall
  • アイロンをかける to iron (something)
  • エンジンをかける to turn on an engine
  • ラジオをかける to put on the radio 

More figurative uses:

  • 声(こえ)をかけるto greet, call out to; get in touch with
  • 迷惑(めいわく)をかける to cause trouble/ inconvenience for someone else

Other closely related verbs

かかる is the intransitive version of かける and works in much the same way:

時間(じかん)がかかる

to take time

Finally, you might see かける as part of a compound verb such as 出かける (でかける/ to go out) and 話かける (はなしかける/ to start a conversation). This generally adds a nuance of ‘to be about to, to start doing something.

So that is a very brief overview of the common verb かける. I have far from covered the verb’s many meanings. The English meanings given here are only here to give you a rough idea of how the verb is used (although if anything is clearly incorrect please let me know!).

My tip for verbs like this is to learn the general meaning of the verb to start with (ie. that かける generally means ‘to hang’). Then focus on learning the specific meanings of certain phrases/ collocations as and when you see them in context. For example, learn アイロンをかける rather than アイロン and かける separately. I also prefer this method as you also learn what particle you should use.

If you know the general meaning, you might well be able to guess the correct meaning from context anyway.

Have you got any tips for tackling tricky verbs? Let me know in the comments!

Author Spotlight: Misuzu Kaneko

Misuzu Kaneko (金子みすゞ*・金子みすず) was an author I’d never heard of until recently. Unfortunately, it seems that I wasn’t the only one.

Born Kaneko Teru in 1903, Misuzu grew up in a book-loving family and continued her education until age 18, a rare achievement for women at that time. She began to write poetry for children when she was 20. She sadly committed suicide at age 27, the day before her ex-husband was due to gain custody of their young daughter.

Her works were forgotten until the original manuscripts were rediscovered in the 1980s. However, it wasn’t until the March 2011 tsunami disaster that she gained popularity; her poem “Are you an echo?/こだまでしょうか“ was played in TV public service announcements.

Her works are not on Aozora Bunko, but a quick Google search will enable you to read some of her poems. In particular, this link has a lot of Misuzu’s most popular works. Having read quite a few of them, I think she is a good poet for Japanese learners to be aware of. In terms of language, I’d recommend her poems for JLPT N4 learners and above.

There is one caveat: you might find that her poems in their original form are in a style of Japanese that is sometimes different from the modern language. Fortunately, the above link has the poems in modern Japanese.

As I usually do, I have a few recommendations for you to read. I’ve posted the poems below with a brief vocabulary list:

こだまでしょうか (aka ‘Are You an Echo?’)

Obviously, this has to be the first on this list! The following is a reading of the poem as featured in a commercial from 2010.

「遊ぼう」っていうと
「遊ぼう」っていう。

「馬鹿」っていうと
「馬鹿」っていう。

「もう遊ばない」っていうと
「遊ばない」っていう。

そうして、あとで
さみしくなって、

「ごめんね」っていうと
「ごめんね」っていう。

こだまでしょうか
いいえ、誰でも。

Her most famous poem is typical of her style; expressing important messages in a really simple way. It reaffirms the importance of treating others as we would like to be treated – no wonder it was chosen as a poem to support Japan in the wake of the tsunami disaster. In terms of the language, this poem is pretty easy to understand, even if grammar such as 〜っていう isn’t too familiar (it is another way of quoting something, like 〜という).

Vocab list

  • 遊ぶ/ あそぶ = to play, hang out with
  • 馬鹿/ ばか = idiot, silly
  • さみしい = a misspelling of さびしい, ie. sad
  • 誰/ だれ = who
  • こだま = echo

雲 (Kumo – ‘Cloud’)

私は雲に
なりたいな。

ふわりとふわりと
青空の果から果を
みんなみて、

夜はお月さんと
鬼ごっこ。

それも飽きたら
雨になり
雷さんを
共につれ、
おうちの池へ
とびおりる。

A lot of Kaneko’s poems reference the natural world, usually animals. I guess this would be a good poem for remembering how the water cycle works?

Vocab list

  • ふわり(と) = softly, gently, lightly 
  • 青空/ あおぞら = blue sky
  • 果/ はて = extremity, end, limit
  • お月さん/ おつきさん = the moon
  • 鬼ごっこ/ おにごっこ = children’s game known as ‘tag’ in English
  • 飽きる/ あきる = to get sick, bored of something
  • 雨/ あめ = rain
  • 雷/ かみなり = lightning 
  • 供/ とも = companion
  • つれる = to take someone with you, to go along with, to be accompanied by
  • (お)うち = home
  • 池 いけ = pond
  • とびおりる = to jump down, to jump off

私と小鳥と鈴と (Watashi to kotori to suzu to – ‘Me, the little Bird and the Bell’)

私が両手を広げても、
お空はちっとも飛べないが、
飛べる小鳥は私のように、
地面を速くは走れない。

私がからだをゆすっても、
きれいな音は出ないけど、
あのなる鈴は私のように
たくさんな唄は知らないよ。

鈴と、小鳥と、それから私、
みんながちがって、みんないい。

This is another of my personal favourites. The poem very simply illustrates how we all have our own strengths, particularly the last line. 

Vocab list

  • 両手/ りょうて = both hands
  • 広げる/ ひろげる = to spread, expand, broaden
  • 飛ぶ/ とぶ = to fly
  • 小鳥 / ことり = little bird, small bird
  • 地面/ じめん = ground, earth’s surface
  • 速い/ はやい = fast, quick
  • 走る/ はしる = to run
  • ゆする = to shake, jolt, swing
  • 音/ おと = sound
  • 鈴/ すず = bell
  • 唄/ うた = song (another form of 歌)
  • 知る/ しる = to know 

A bilingual book of Kaneko’s works was published in 2016, which has some beautiful illustrations to go with it. It is also available in ebook format on Kindle. I’m glad that poets like Misuzu have had their works gain popularity a long time after they were written. 

Who is your favourite poet? Let me know in the comments!

*PS. You might be wondering (as I did) what theゞ symbol means. It turns out that ゞ is just a symbol used to repeat the previous syllable. As the dakuten is also used to change the sound, we know that the name should be read as misuzu rather than misusu.

4 Podcast Recommendations for Japanese Learners

This is a follow up to a previous post, where I wrote about some Japanese language podcasts. I wanted to find some podcasts that were a little bit easier for those who might find some of the podcasts mentioned in my previous recommendation a bit too difficult to study with intensely.

These recommendations are almost entirely in Japanese, but have been produced by people who want to help others learn the language:

Nihongo con Teppei

Teppei speaks English and Spanish fluently and is a Japanese tutor on italki. His podcast is a conversational one in which he talks about aspects of his daily life and Japanese culture.  Teppei almost always speaks in Japanese with the occasional English word. He speaks casually but will explain any certain words and phrases in simple Japanese.

Each episode is about 20 minutes long which I think is a good length – he releases about 2-3 episodes a week. I recommend the podcast for beginner learners who want something of a listening challenge or intermediate learners.

You can download the episodes from his website, or find the podcast on platforms like Spotify and iTunes.

JLPT Stories

JLPT stories is designed to improve your listening skills, with bitesize stories written and performed by native Japanese speakers. Each episode is targeted at a different level of the JLPT and is usually about 3 minutes long. There are a few different narrators and there is a good mix of male and female speakers (Japanese listening material tends to be female dominated in my experience).

The content varies but is usually about everyday topics. The speaking is at a natural speed, but for the lower levels of the JLPT there are more pauses in speech to allow learners to follow it more easily. It might still take you a couple of listens to catch everything though!

Download the episodes from the JLPT Stories website, or find the podcast on Stitcher, iTunes and Spotify. The website has a transcript with an English translation and explanation of some grammar points for all episodes. This gives you quite a few options in how you can use this resource to study, which I really like.

Let’s Learn Japanese from Small Talk

This is another conversational podcast run by two Japanese girls who are currently living in the UK. The aim of the podcast is to provide casual listening practice for Japanese learners. Each episode has a main theme (normally an aspect of Japanese culture) although sometimes they go off topic!

Like Teppei’s podcast, they speak as Japanese people actually speak but will clarify any tricky words and phrases, usually in Japanese and English. As a British person, it is interesting to hear about UK-Japan cultural differences from a Japanese perspective!

Again this is best suited to learners who are learning how to speak more casually in Japanese. There are lots of useful little phrases which I have picked up from this podcast and their twitter account.

I’ve linked to the podcast on Stitcher, but it is also available on iTunes and Spotify. There are vocabulary lists for the episodes on the podcast’s blog page, but from what I can see this is something they’ve started doing recently.

Nあ Casual Nihongo

If casual forms of Japanese are something you find difficult, then this is the podcast for you!

Nあ Casual Nihongo is hosted by Dai, who decided to create the podcast after working as an assistant Japanese language teacher in Australia. This podcast is in Japanese but is aimed at teaching learners a more natural way of speaking compared to what you get in textbooks. Each episode follows the same structure:

  • Answer a listening comprehension question
  • 5 new Japanese phrases to learn (with explanations and examples)
  • Casual conversation (this gets repeated)

The conversations are a natural speed, which might take some getting used to. To make things easier, the podcast’s website also has a script for the conversation part of the episode, with the new phrases that are introduced highlighted for you. Clearly, a lot of hard work has gone into making the podcast accessible for learners who already have a bit of a foundation in grammar and vocabulary.

One thing – Dai is based in the Kansai area, so people interested in the Kansai dialect will find this useful!


I really like podcasts for listening practice – if you want to know how I use them in my studies check out this post.

Have you got any great podcast recommendations or tips on improving your listening? Please tell me in the comments.

Cultural Kotoba: Tsuyu (梅雨) – the rainy season

Japan’s rainy season, or tsuyu (梅雨/つゆ) is nearly upon us, which means spring is over and summer is around the corner!

梅雨入り(つゆいり; tsuyu iri)

The start of the rainy season; usually early June

梅雨明け(つゆあけ; tsuyu ake)

The end of the rainy season; usually mid-July

The kanji compound for tsuyu is literally 梅 (うめ;ume) meaning ‘plum’ and 雨 (あめ; ame) meaning ‘rain’. There are a few different ideas regarding how these two kanji came to represent the rainy season. One popular reason is that the rainy season coincides with the time when plums become ripe. 梅雨 can also be read as ばいう (baiu) originating from Chinese, which is thought to refer to the humidity which allows mould to flourish.

Why does Japan have a rainy season?

Japan experiences this because winds from the Sea of Okhotsk north of Hokkaido comes into contact with warm winds coming up from the Pacific Ocean. This leads to the humid and often rainy period before summer begins. Despite the name, the probability of rain during this time is only about 50%.

長靴 (ながぐつ; nagagutsu) = rainboots and 傘(かさ; kasa) = umbrella

Having said that, an umbrella or 傘 (かさ: kasa) is definitely a must – you can choose to buy a cheap clear umbrella from the convenience store, or invest in something more hardwearing. There is a wide range of clothes and accessories sold in shops that are both stylish and practical.

Tsuyu can be a troublesome time since the humidity makes it difficult to dry clothes. A dehumidifier/ 除湿機(じょしつき; joshitsuki) is necessary to stop mould (カビ; kabi) growing everywhere. This is also the time when food poisoning is a particular danger, so extra care has to be taken when storing and preparing food.

What to look out for during tsuyu

All of the rain and high humidity is annoying, but there are some interesting things to look out for during tsuyu:

Hydrangeas

Hydrangea flowers are known in Japanese as 紫陽花 (あじさい; ajisai). Hydrangeas grow in abundance during the rainy season and are therefore strongly associated with it. Places such as Meigetsuin Temple in Kamakura are particularly famous for their hydrangeas.

Fewer tourists

The rain generally puts people off travelling, so outdoor tourist spots tend to be quieter. Instead, indoor attractions like cafes, onsen, aquariums and museums are more popular. However, if you are happy to brave the weather, some places are just as charming to visit in the rain. Hokkaido is the best destination for those that hate tsuyu as the prefecture is lucky enough to avoid the rainy season!

Teru teru bouzu てるてる坊主

Making teru teru bouzu is a cute way to wish for clear weather. These handmade dolls are often made from tissue paper or cloth – it is best to hang them outside the day before. The verb てる (照る; teru) means “shining” and 坊主 (ぼうず; bouzu) is the name for a Buddhist monk. Young children usually learn to make them at school, and there is even a (rather sinister) nursery rhyme!

Looks like the teru teru bouzu didn’t work this time…

Rainbows

With all the rainy weather, rainbows 虹 (にじ; niji) are much more common during this time. I think this is one of the many reasons why tsuyu provides an opportunity to take some fantastic pictures!


This post was inspired by me watching an episode of Rilakkuma and Kaoru that was set during the rainy season. Although not explicitly stated, you can tell the time of year from things such as Kaoru wearing rainboots and making teru teru bouzu, as well as the appearance of mushrooms and a frog in her apartment. These things would be very familiar to Japanese people but less so to international audiences.

Have you got any tips for surviving wet weather? Let me know in the comments!

Easy Japanese Manga Recommendation: Assassination Classroom/ Ansatsu Kyoushitsu

Today’s easy manga recommendation for Japanese learners is Assassination Classroom/ Ansatsu Kyoushitsu (暗殺教室), a manga series created by Yusei Matsui.

Quick Facts

Author: Yusei Matsui (松井優征)

Genre: Comedy, sci-fi

No. of volumes: 21

Recommended for: JLPT N3/ intermediate

Furigana: Yes

Anime/ drama/ film adaptations?: Yes, anime and live-action film adaptations

Plot Overview

Class 3E at Kunugigaoka Junior High School is a group of misfits who have been given a rather important task. They must kill their teacher, who has already destroyed part of the moon, in order to save Earth. Unfortunately, this is no ordinary teacher; he is actually an octopus-like monster who can move at super speed and regenerate his body parts. Worst of all, he is actually a good teacher who helps them with all sorts of life lessons. He is given the nickname Korosensei (a play on the Japanese: Korosensei is a contraction of 殺せない先生/ korosenai sensei = unkillable teacher). Will the class be able to kill Korosensei and stop the world from being destroyed?

Why do I recommend the manga?

The premise might be off-putting to some, but after I started to read I felt like the manga was more about the pupils’ growth more than anything. Class 3E are the underdogs; they have the worst grades in the year and are widely expected to not achieve much in their lives. This task, however, begins to give them more confidence, even though regularly fail.

The class contains a variety of characters and from the outset are pretty creative in their attempts to kill their teacher. Korosensei is interesting too; rather than the menacing villain you might expect, he actively helps his students improve themselves both in and out of the classroom. It’s a lot of fun to read and has plenty of comic moments.

Recommended Japanese language level

In terms of language, I think that this manga is suitable for someone around JLPT N3 or intermediate level (JLPT N4 learners should certainly be able to follow quite a lot of the plot). As there is a high school setting, it helps to be familiar with casual forms of Japanese. However, there isn’t as much of this as you might expect, which makes it a bit more accessible compared to other manga in the genre.

Not only that, there aren’t many lots of long sentences to read which makes it easier to understand even when there is a lot of action happening. Furthermore, as with other Shonen Jump manga, this has furigana to help you look up words faster.

You can read a sample of this manga on the EbookJapan website by clicking the ‘無料立ち読み’ button.

If you do try reading any of the recommendations, please let me know how you get on the comments. I am always on the hunt for beginner friendly manga, so if you have any suggestions please let me know!

Happy Reading!

PS. There is an anime and live-action film adaptation of the manga.

What is the difference between てから and たあとで?

Today’s post is about how to use grammar points てから and たあとで. Both てから and たあとで are JLPT N5 grammar points, used to show the sequence of two events.

A (verb) てから B

After A, B; B happens after A

A (verb) たあとで B OR A (noun) のあとで B

After A, B; B happens after A

Both of them allow you to link two phrases each other, although they require slightly different conjugations.

Let’s look at two actions that we want to link together in one sentence.

Action A is going to be 本を読みました/ ほんをよみました = I read a book

Action B is going to be 寝ました/ ねました = I went to sleep

With てから, you conjugate the verb at the end of action A into the て form and add the word から, and then add action B.

よみます (よむ in plain form) becomes よんで in the て form. Therefore the sentence becomes:

ほんをよんでから、ねました.

To use たあとで, you need to conjugate the verb into the た form and add あとで before adding action B. If you’ve mastered the て form, then the た form is super easy – just replace the て with た.

Action A can also be a noun, which can be linked to あとで by using the possessive particle の in between.

Using the same example above:

よみます (よむ in plain form) becomes よんで in て form and therefore よんだ in た form. Therefore this time the sentence is:

ほんをよんだあとで、ねました

What is the difference between te kara and ta atode?

てから

てから is used when the second action (B) is going to happen straight after the first (A). In a lot of A てから B sentences, action B is only possible after completing action A. For that reason, it is useful when you want to express actions that take place in a specific order, such as in your daily routine.

A good way to remember this is to think of how the word から can be used on its own to mean ‘after’, ‘since’ or ‘from’ in English.

Further examples:

  • コンビニで買物(かいもの)をしてから、うちに帰(かえ)りました。
  • 毎朝(まいあさ)おきてからオレンジジュースを飲(の)みます。
  • きっぷを買(か)ってからおんせんに入(はい)りましす。
  • しごとが終(お)わってから、昼ご飯(ひるごはん)を食(た)べました。

たあとで

たあとで on the other hand, contains the word あと (the kanji is 後) which means later, behind, or after. たあとで is used to show that action B takes place after A, but it might not be immediately afterwards.

Taking the example sentence we used before:

ほんをよんでから、ねました

= I went to bed after reading a book

ほんをよんだあとで、ねました hon wo yonda atode, nemashita.

= I went to bed after reading a book (but between reading and going to bed I did other things, eg. brushed my teeth)

たあとで can also have the nuance of emphasising the fact that action B takes place after A (and not before). It’s good to remember that this grammar point uses the た form, which is the past tense in plain form.

ato de jlpt n5 japanese grammar

For instance, there is a famous book/ live action drama/ film called 「謎解き(なぞとき)はディナーのあとで」(The After-Dinner Mysteries). Using あとで emphasises that solving mysteries only takes place after dinner.

Further examples:

  • しゅくだいをしたあとで、ケーキを食(た)べましょう。
  • じゅぎょうのあとで、先生(せんせい)に質問(しつもん)をします。
  • 高校生(こうこうせい)になったあとで、ピアノを習(なら)いました。
  • ひらがなを勉強(べんきょう)したあとで、カタカナを勉強(べんきょう)します。

Vocabulary list:

本・ほん book

宿題・しゅくだい  homework

食べる・たべる  [godan verb] to eat

授業・じゅぎょう lesson

先生・せんせい teacher

質問・しつもん question –> 質問をする to ask a question

高校生・こうこうせい high school student

習う・ならう [godan verb] to learn –> ピアノを習う to learn (how to play) the piano

勉強・べんきょう study  –> …を勉強する to study…

謎・なぞ mystery –> 謎を解く・なぞをとく to solve a mystery

買い物・かいもの shopping –> 買い物する to go shopping

切符・きっぷ  ticket

仕事・しごと work, job

I haven’t written one of these posts in a very long time – the last one was almost 2 years ago! I hope someone finds this useful. If you have any feedback, please let me know in the comments!

Duolingo Japanese Course Review

I see a lot of people asking: is Duolingo any good for learning Japanese?

From my perspective as a long time Japanese learner, I believe that it can be a useful place to start learning the language.

However, if you are serious about learning Japanese, do not make Duolingo your only resource. As great as the app is for allowing you to practice Japanese and many other languages, it does have some limitations.

About Duolingo for Japanese

Duolingo is a free app for learning various languages. The Japanese course is designed to help you learn the basics through a number of lessons. Each lesson covers a different topic and introduces relevant vocabulary.

People who are not new to the language can take a proficiency test to jump ahead to later lessons.

Duolingo has you practicing new words in a few ways. Often this is by translating them from Japanese to English or vice versa, writing or rearranging sentences and filling in the missing word.

Duolingo has a crown system. By completing all of the lessons within a topic, you level up a crown for that topic. As your crown level increases, the complexity of the sentences does too.


Advantages and disadvantages of Duolingo for Japanese

What I like about the Duolingo Japanese course

There are some obvious benefits to learning Japanese with Duolingo:

  • It starts from teaching Hiragana. Katakana and kanji are gradually introduced, and they doesn’t use lots of romaji, except at the beginning.
  • The audio is clear. You can repeat it as much as you need to, which is great for shadowing. There are also sometimes options to hear the audio a little bit slower if you need it, by clicking on the button showing a tortoise.
  • Vocabulary is introduced by theme. With a new language, the amount of vocabulary to learn can feel overwhelming at times (particularly with Japanese). Introducing words and phrases by topic gives learners a better idea of how to form sentences around that topic.
  • It encourages you to make language learning a daily habit. Doing a little bit each day is much more effective than once a week. I think the Duolingo streak is a fun way to try and stay consistent with your learning.
  • The Duolingo community is friendly and helpful. During lessons, you can click on the comments button to see discussions regarding sentence translations.
  • If you are competitive, it is easy to compete against friends or other learners on the Duolingo leaderboard.

What I don’t like about the Duolingo Japanese course

On the other hand, the disadvantages of the Japanese course as I see it are:

  • Grammar is not explained at all (in the app, that is). Duolingo relies on inference to learn grammar, ie. by seeing a sentence pattern repeatedly you will work out what it means. This is usually fine for languages with a similar structure to English. Unfortunately, Japanese grammar is so different from English that it is hard to pick up on the differences simply from observing phrases in two languages.

For example, when Duolingo gives you the sentence:

アメリカ人です

= I am American

I would want to know why the Japanese doesn’t include the word ‘I’.

Fortunately, the desktop version does have grammar notes, which can be viewed before you start a lesson.

I think that these explanations are clear and cover a lot of the basics. However, sometimes the sentence patterns change within the same lesson but lack any explanations on why this happens.

An example of this that is introduced in the Food lesson is the sentence:

ごはんは食べません= I don’t eat rice

I would be confused as to why は is being suddenly used rather than を. Even on the Desktop app, the notes prior to this lesson introduce を as an object marker and there is no mention of how は could be used at all. I think it would be particularly difficult to pick up particle usage from the course.

The comments section goes a long way in filling some of the gaps in grammar explanations.

Having said that, I would be a little wary of some of the comments. After all, they are from fellow learners who may unintentionally give out incorrect information.

This is why a lot of Japanese learners would benefit from using other resources for grammar alongside Duolingo.

  • When it comes to hiragana, katakana and kanji, the focus is on recognition. Together with the fact that most questions are multiple choice, it is easy to think that you have learned all the kana when you are not studying it on a deeper level.
  • The introduction of katakana and kanji feels abrupt without explanation (again, I am referring to the app). This would be very confusing to learners without any background on how the various writing systems work.

It would be good for the app to explain how the pronunciations of kanji can vary – for example, 何 kanji is introduced within the first few lessons, but it appears in example sentences as both なに and なん.

Similarly, some vocabulary needs explanations, especially since a lot of English words can correlate to a number of different words in Japanese. Sometimes water is 水, sometimes it appears as お水.

  • Example sentences and their translations can feel a little off.

Part of this is because some Japanese phrases do not have an English equivalent. I have seen a noticeable improvement in this since the Japanese course was first released in beta. This is because of the many people who have been reporting suggestions on what should be accepted, which Duolingo have then added to the course.

Of course, this is a tough issue to address, but Japanese learners should be aware that the phrase Duolingo tells them is not necessarily the definitive answer in all situations.

What I think Duolingo needs to continue improving on is giving greater flexibility when it comes to writing the right answer. Japanese can be quite ambiguous, so there are many ways to interpret even the simplest sentences.

duolingo-japanese-course-itadakimasu
According to the comments, there are a few acceptable translations including “bon appetit”

Overall impressions of Duolingo for Japanese

Overall I feel that Duolingo is a fantastic starting point for those who are interested in learning Japanese. However in my opinion, the cookie-cutter format that Duolingo uses isn’t really compatible with the Japanese language.

By completing the whole tree, you are going to cover a lot of basic Japanese vocabulary, kanji and grammar. The sentences that you cover do increase in complexity but you will most likely reach an upper beginner level (JLPT N5) by the end.

This is great if you are thinking of travelling to Japan in the future. In fact, the last lesson on the Japanese language tree (at the time of writing) is about the Olympics!

If you like the style of Duolingo, but want to try something that addresses some of the issues I raised above, then I recommend checking out Lingodeer. Lingodeer is an app which has a similar format to Duolingo, but is more tailored to East Asian languages. I wrote about the app in my post on the best 7 Japanese learning apps on Android.

By writing this post, I do not mean to discourage people from learning Japanese if Duolingo is their only option. The more people study Japanese, the better! Japanese is a relatively recent addition to Duolingo and there are updates and improvements being made all the time.

I do however think it is important to be aware of the limitations of the course as I see it at the time of writing. At least you can be aware of what things you may need to be careful of or learn via another resources.


What to do alongside or after the Duolingo Japanese course

If you do have a long term goal of learning Japanese beyond beginner level, here are my top tips on making the most of Duolingo Japanese.

1) Use the Desktop version of the course

The desktop version of the course is going to help you understand the structure of Japanese much better than trying to guess grammatical rules.

I do think that it is best to study basic Japanese grammar from other resources where you can. Sometimes grammar makes more sense when you can see the same topic explained in different ways.

When it comes to textbooks, Genki I will help you build a solid foundation in Japanese grammar and comes with a workbook to practice with too. Online alternatives to Japanese textbooks include Tae Kim’s Grammar Guide and Human Japanese.

2) Practice hiragana, katakana and kanji outside the app/ website.

For learning kana you can use apps such as JustKana, Japanese Kana Dojo (iOS, Android), Dr Moku (iOS, Android), RealKana (iOS)

Marvellous online resources for kanji practice include Kanji Study app and Kanshudo.

If learning to write Japanese by hand is something you want to do, then make sure you are practising this alongside apps or online resources.

There are also some books you can get that focus on learning kana and kanji, such as the Basic Kanji Book.

3) Review vocabulary regularly.

The spaced repetition in Duolingo will only help you so much, and with a wide range of topics it can get hard to keep track of everything you’ve learned.

Make your own flashcards based on the vocabulary you encounter in the app. Either physical flashcards or flashcards on a program like Anki both work really well.

Duolingo has a sister app called Tinycards which you can find the flashcard decks for the kanji and vocabulary introduced in the Japanese course. The app is one of the cutest things I’ve ever seen!

4) Get in some real world listening and speaking practice

You want your learning to be as active as possible. I recommend trying out the following things depending on your interests:

Listening – Netflix, YouTube, podcasts

Reading – Watanoc, Hirogaru, children’s stories

Speaking/ WritingItalki, Hello Talk, Japanese classes, language exchanges and meetups

I want to end this post by saying that I believe that the most important thing in language learning is consistency in your studies rather than what resources you use (although some are definitely better than others!).

My How to Start Learning Japanese page has a lot more resources for beginners.

There is going to be an update to the Japanese course on Duolingo very soon (known as Japanese 2.0). This update will significantly increase the number of skills, kanji learnt and grammar that you learn. I look forward to giving it another try when it is officially released!

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

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.

duendecat-chrome-extension-learn-japanese

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.

yomichan-chrome-extension-learn-japanese

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

yomichan-japanese-learning-chrome-extension
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.

subadub-chrome-extensions-learn-japanese

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!

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!

japanese-pronunciation

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!

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