Intermediate learners

Clozemaster Review

I strongly believe that studying with sentences is an effective way to learn new vocabulary. If this is something you are interested in, I recommend checking out Clozemaster – a website and app that is built around this concept.

What is Clozemaster?

Clozemaster is designed to complement the use of other sentence based language learning apps like Duolingo. There are a huge variety of language pairs available, with new ones being added all the time!

The “cloze” of Clozemaster relates to a cloze deletion test, where you are given a sentence with a missing word and you need to identify what the missing word is. Cloze tests are therefore a great method of learning to use words and grammar in context.

How does Clozemaster work?

Each language has its own bank of sentences, the number of which does vary depending on the language pair. For many of the popular languages, you can follow the Fluency Fast Track, which is designed to cover the most frequently used words in that language. In the free version, clicking ‘PLAY’ will start a round of 10 sentences to review.

As I mentioned above, Clozemaster is all about filling in the correct missing word from a sentence.

For example, you are given a sentence in Japanese, and with a specific word missing. The clue for the missing word will be in the English translation of the sentence.

You have the option of multiple choice or text input before you start each round. If you are in text input mode and get stuck, just click on the “?” button to the right of the Japanese sentence to view the 4 multiple choice options.

Writing the correct answer earns you points – the closer you are to mastering the word, the more points you earn. Text input gives you twice as much points compared to multiple choice, so this is what I choose unless I only have a very short time to practice.

At the end of each round, you get some quick stats on how you did:

As you can see from the image above, you can set yourself a daily points target and email reminders to get in your daily practice too. My daily goal is 200 points currently, but I normally aim for 500-1000 depending on how much time I have.

Studying using the Play button is for learning new words (although some words that you have encountered before will appear too). For words that you have seen before, you will want to click on Review instead.

The Review function is based on spaced repetition intervals like those used in Anki and Memrise – the more often you answer correctly, the longer it will be before you see that same sentence again. Reviews tend to earn you a lot more points than studying new sentences.

Cloze Listening – listening practice with sentences

Clozemaster also has a listening practice feature called Cloze Listening, as shown above. To access this, click Play and then choose “Listening” from the drop-down menu (the default is vocabulary). Cloze Listening is where you hear the sentence first, then have to fill in the missing word in the sentence.

I think this makes for great listening practice as well as for learning vocabulary in context. Unfortunately, having a free account only allows you to do one round of 10 sentences to do every day.

Leaderboards and levelling up

The points you earn from your study sessions allow you to level up. Every time you do level up you get a fun little gif as a reward, which never fails to put a smile on my face! There are two types of levelling up – one for your whole account and one that relates specifically to each of the language pairs you study.

Every language pair has its own set of leaderboards, where you can try and score the most points for that week. I didn’t think that I would care about scoring highly on the leaderboard at first. However, if there is someone I am close to overtaking, I will do the extra reviews to move up the leaderboard!

The Clozemaster App

I tend to use the web version of Clozemaster, but there are apps available for iOS and Android. I have used the Android app and I do not have much to say about it. I mean that as a good thing – because I have not had any issues using it at all.

The fairly plain style of the website translates well into an app, and having the app is really convenient for a quick study session. It is synced to your account, so it is easy to switch between the website and the app if you need to.

Make sure you have some sort of Japanese keyboard installed so that you can type in Japanese. From what I can see, there is no support for romaji in direct input mode when using the app.

Clozemaster Pro comes with extra handy features

Clozemaster is another freemium site – it is free to sign up and practice any language. However, you need the Pro version to do things such as:

  • Customise the number of reviews you want to do in each session and control how often you review new words.
  • Get unlimited access to cloze listening practice
  • Download the Fluency Fast Track sentences or sentences you mark in your Favourites for offline study.
  • View more stats related to your study sessions
  • The ability to click on any word and search for the meaning using Google Translate
  • Get access to additional features such as Cloze-Reading, Cloze Collections and Pro Groupings.

Cloze-Reading is designed to help you boost your reading skills. This is where there are several missing words from a native piece of text in your target language which you then need to fill in.

The Cloze Collections function is in beta currently, but allows you to curate your own bank of sentences. This can be a mixture of sentences from within Clozemaster and sentences that you add yourself. I think this would be especially useful for language pairs that do not have a large number of sentences already on Clozemaster.

Pro Groupings allows you to break down the large bank of sentences into smaller ones. For Japanese, Pro Groupings gives you the ability to focus your learning on words from different levels of the JLPT.

Pros and Cons of Clozemaster for learning Japanese

After using the free version of Clozemaster for a couple of months, I have found it to have more pros than cons:

Pros

  • A huge range of languages to choose from
  • Sentences use words in order of frequency, so you learn important words first
  • Able to expose yourself to a range of sentence patterns
  • Can practice both reading and listening skills
  • Review intervals are spaced to help you retain vocabulary
  • If you’re competitive, the leaderboard will motivate you to get your score as high as possible

Cons

  • Japanese sentences and English translations are taken from the Tatoeba database, which is known for not being 100% accurate.
  • You have to type most vocabulary in kanji (as opposed to hiragana), which might be difficult for complete newcomers to Japanese.
  • No audio for Japanese within the vocabulary review section yet (this does exist for the most common language pairs)

Overall thoughts

I’m sure that the cloze deletion sentences can be replicated in something like Anki easily, which is what I would recommend to people who like a high degree of customisation. There are also excellent websites such as Delvin Language and Supernative which are specifically for Japanese and do have audio to go with their sentences.

However, for me Clozemaster is great because of the gamification aspect, as well as the fact I can practice on the go via the app. I would also give Clozemaster a go if you are learning (or maintaining proficiency in) a number of languages, as it is super simple to switch between languages and track your progress in each.

I really like Clozemaster, but I am not sure that for Japanese the features are fully fleshed out enough for me to justify the subscription cost of $8 per month at the moment. Having said that, there are new features being built into Clozemaster all of the time and I will certainly keep an eye out for any which might change my mind.

The good thing about Clozemaster is that you do not even have to sign up to try out the site – just choose a language pair and click Play to get started (which is what I did for a few days before even signing up)!

Whether you find that Clozemaster is useful for you or not, one thing I recommend checking out is the Language Challenge of the Day (or LCOD for short). These little challenges are fun ways to use your target languages in different ways every day.

Do you use Clozemaster? Do you find the website/ app useful? Please let me know in the comments!

Easy Manga Recommendation: Tsuredure Children

Today’s easy manga recommendation for Japanese learners is Tsuredure Children/ Tsuredure Chirudoren (徒然チルドレン), created by Toshiya Wakabayashi. This is a very funny but heartwarming manga which those who are upper beginners and above should be able to enjoy!

Manga Quick Facts

Author: Toshiya Wakabayashi (若林稔弥)

Genre: Romantic comedy, slice of life

No. of volumes: 12

Recommended for: JLPT N4

Furigana: Yes

Anime/ drama/ film adaptations?: Yes, an anime

Picture Source: ebookJapan website

Plot Overview

This 4-panel manga is a series of short stories involving different students at a high school. The stories are usually to do with romance, mostly relating to awkward confessions of love and first dates. They often remind you of how hard it can be to show your feelings for someone as a teenager. Some stories follow the same characters and are loosely connected to each other.

Tsuredure Children started as a webcomic when it started in 2012, which was then serialised in Shonen Jump magazine.

Why do I recommend the manga?

The premise is really simple, but the manga is genuinely amusing and accurately portrays all of the awkwardness and excitement of high school romance. The cast of characters come across as a bit wacky but ultimately charming and relatable for the most part. You really do come to root for a happy ending when reading these stories! I think that the 4-panel manga format is effective in telling these stories – they are just the right length for them to be entertaining and engaging.

Recommended Japanese language level

Thanks to the straightforward plot, this manga is very easy to follow. There is furigana for all kanji and speech tends to be short and not too grammatically complex. On the other hand, the characters are in high school and speak casually.

On this basis, I consider this manga to be appropriate for JLPT N4 or upper beginner level and above.

As always, you can read a sample of this manga on the EbookJapan website to get a feel for its difficulty by clicking the white ‘無料立ち読み’ button.

The webcomic is actually available online to read for free on the official website – the only difference is that this version does not include furigana.

There is an anime adaptation of this manga which is available on Crunchyroll and Funimation.

If you do try reading any of my 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!

I’ve written a few different posts on easy manga to read (check out the posts under the manga category). If you do like this recommendation, you might also like:

Happy Reading!

Subtitles and language learning

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

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

Native language subtitles

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

Target language subtitles

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

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

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

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

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You can click on any word from the target language subs to get the English meaning – really useful!

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

Transitioning to target-language subtitles

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

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

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

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

…and if I get stuck?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Appy Mondays: Ohayou App Review

Welcome to ‘Appy Mondays, my series of app reviews relating to Japanese language study. Today’s app review is of the JLPT listening practice app Ohayou.

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How the Ohayou app works

When you first log into the app, you have to create an account with an email and password or link the app to a social media account. I decided to go with the first option. Whichever you choose, the app should automatically log you in whenever you access it after this.

The listening tests are grouped by JLPT level, and on the far right there are non-JLPT specific listening exercises too. Each JLPT level has a number of tests, which have to be downloaded before they can be accessed. Fortunately, downloading is usually very quick.

There are various types of language questions, which correspond to the types of listening questions you will encounter in the JLPT:

The above table, taken from the official JLPT website, shows the different types of listening questions included at each level of the exam.

Depending on the level of the JLPT you are working towards, the types of listening questions you get in the exam will vary. Fortunately, the Ohayou app has pretty much all of the listening question types in the test. The non-JLPT listening exercises include practice for hiragana and katakana, as well as counting and calculations in Japanese.

Once the test has been downloaded, you can jump into listening practice. Each test has 20 questions which follow the format of the JLPT test, which are multiple choice. For lower levels of the JLPT the answers may be pictures, but they will be entirely in Japanese otherwise.

Clicking the ‘Check’ button after listening to the question show you if you answered correctly. You can then choose to listen to the question again or continue on to the next one. You can also rewind or fast forward 10 or 20 seconds using the arrows, which is really helpful if you need to hear a particular sentence again.

My thoughts on Ohayou

Ohayou is a very convenient app for JLPT listening practice and is a great app to help build confidence for the listening section of the exam. For all of the listening exercises I tried, the audio was very clear too.

One of my biggest tips for the listening section of the JLPT is to familiarise yourself with the format of the exam. The listening comprehension tests are the same as those you find in the JLPT so anyone preparing to take the test (especially for the first time) will find this very useful.

The non-JLPT exercises were a bit of a mixed bag for me. I thought that the hiragana and katakana tests were good – I would recommend them to those who had just finished learning the scripts and want to test their listening skills.

I tried the tests relating to counters, which I think are useful especially for reviewing common but irregular counters like ひとり and ここのつ, but the audio quality was not as good as the JLPT tests. It sounded as if the audio had been recorded from someone’s TV or perhaps had been recorded with the TV on in the background. Needless to say, this kind of distracting noise could just as easily happen in a real-life situation, but I found it a bit disappointing.

I need to mention that whilst the app is free to use, additional features can be bought with for money, although these features can be ‘paid’ for using points you gain by using the app.

Screenshot_20180923-112705_Ohayou

You can pay 400 points (US $2.99) to remove ads permanently, and 1000 points (US $4.99) to view all transcripts and access to one-click definitions of any word. For once, it is nice to come across a freemium app that does not require a monthly subscription!

Completing the tests for the first time earned me 2 points each, so at that rate earning enough points to unlock the premium features in full is probably near impossible without paying for them. There was also the option to earn 5 points by watching a video ad, but despite watching a couple of ads my points total never increased.

In the app’s defense, it is possible to purchase the transcript for individual questions or tests. So if there is a particular test that you are struggling with, you can spend 15 points to purchase the transcript. I would be wary about becoming overly reliant on transcripts for listening practice, as you will not have that benefit in the actual test. Generally, I found that if I got any answers wrong, listening to the question a couple more times made it clear where I went wrong.

I can’t really see the value of paying the $2.99 to remove ads – I didn’t think that the ads were intrusive enough to justify it. Having access to all transcripts for $4.99 could be useful, especially if you are planning on taking all levels of the JLPT in turn (and so would be using the app quite a lot).

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

Have you tried this app out? Are you aware of a better alternative? Let me know in the comments!

Daily Writing Practice with the NVA Challenge

I’ve posted before about keeping a journal in your target language as a way of practicing your writing skills. However, I’ve always struggled to think of things to write about in my journal. This struggle was the inspiration behind the Writing Challenge I did last November.

Fortunately, there is another language learning challenge that helps solve this problem: the NVA challenge!

What is the NVA challenge?

NVA stands for Noun-Verb-Adjective: each day, the challenge provides you with one noun, one verb and one adjective to write a text with. The words are normally of a similar theme or complement each other in some way, which makes it easy to think of at least one sentence. In addition, the words used are words you would commonly use.

My experiences with the NVA challenge so far

I’ve been doing the challenge myself for a few weeks and have found it very useful for building a daily writing habit.

I find that once I’ve actually written one sentence, it is much easier to write a couple more sentences. Even on days when I am busy, I have been able to write down at least one sentence. It’s become part of my daily routine to write just before I go to bed, which I find quite relaxing!

Excuse the messy writing – I currently insist on writing the texts by hand (in pencil!), as sadly I am forgetting how to write quite a lot of kanji…

I certainly recommend this writing challenge, as I think it is very accessible no matter what your language level is. You might not find a word in your target language which corresponds directly to English, but that shouldn’t be your main focus.

With Japanese, I don’t force myself to use the exact translation of the words given in the challenge. Instead, I normally try to use a word which has a similar meaning. This also has the benefit of focusing your time on actually writing rather than looking up lots of lots of words in the dictionary.

Make sure to get your writing corrected

You can always get your sentences corrected on language exchange apps and websites such as Hello Talk, HiNative or Lang-8. Hello Talk and HiNative are best suited for sentences or short paragraphs. Lang-8 is better for longer texts (sadly Lang-8 is not accepting new memberships).

Find the NVA Challenge on Tumblr, Facebook, Instagram and Habitica. If you use Habitica there is a guild dedicated to the NVA challenge, where others in the community check each other’s sentences too.

Today’s post was a short one but I just wanted to write about this great challenge. I hope that it might help some other language learners out!

How do you like to practice your writing skills? Let me know in the comments 🙂

Tadoku Tuesdays (4) What I’m Reading (in Japanese) in Sept 2018

As I did in the last Tadoku Tuesday post, I am going to write about two books I have read recently or am reading. I’ll also include any new additions to my book collection. Both of the novels I focus on here happen to be by two famous contemporary Japanese authors, Banana Yoshimoto and Kotaro Isaka.

The Novel I’m Reading: 「アムリタ」 Amrita by Banana Yoshimoto

It’s a little bit difficult to give an overview of the plot for this novel, but I have tried my best!

Sakumi is dealing with two major events in her life; memory loss caused by an accident as well as the death of her younger sister Mayu. Prior to the accident Sakumi had been making ends meet with a part time job, but then realises that she wants to pursue a career in writing. Her little half-brother Yoshio then develops telepathic abilities. As her memories begin to resurface little by little, she begins to come to terms with the circumstances of her sister’s death and gains the courage to work towards what she truly desires in life.

My thoughts

I’ve previously written about another of Yoshimoto’s novels before, which had not been translated into English. This time I thought I would try reading one of her more famous novels, which on the whole has been well received.

I wouldn’t say that the plot is particularly enthralling, although there are some interesting characters which help keep the narrative engaging. There are lots of dream like passages, which give the novel a mystic feel and are vividly depicted. Despite this, Sakumi as a narrator feels very grounded and relatable, even though situation she finds herself in is not.

This is a fairly long novel that has been split into two parts. I have finished the first half of the book and enjoying it so far, but knowing that there is another 200+ pages to read I do wonder what developments are going to occur which will keep me interested.

Language level

If I had to estimate the book’s difficulty in terms of language I would probably put it at JLPT N2 level. Banana Yoshimoto’s writing style is on the whole quite straightforward, although at times there can be long rambling sentences that might take a bit of careful reading.

The Novel I Recently Finished: 「神様の制度」 Kamisama no Seido by Kotaro Isaka

This novel is actually a compilation of several short stories, which all involve the same narrator. Our narrator is only known as Chiba and works as a agent of death (a Grim Reaper of sorts). As an agent of death, his task is to spend time with the person he is assigned to, and decide within seven days if that person should die.

My thoughts

This is the first novel I have read by Kotaro Isaka, and I really enjoyed it. Like Amrita, this novel also looks at the themes of life and death. Having said that, the tone of this novel is completely different. Isaka has written stories spanning many genres, and elements of this come into play in the novel. He somehow manages to infuse the variety of short stories with suspense and comedic moments in a very satisfying way.

Being a death god, there are a lot of ‘fish out of water’ moments where he is trying to understand human feelings and motivations. This provided a lot of humour that I was not expecting. There is a wide variety of characters presented in the stories and through the narrator’s eyes, we get to learn a lot about the people he is assigned to. I found it very easy to get engrossed in each of the stories.

Language level

In terms of language level I’d probably recommend this for JLPT N3 level learners. I think this would make an ideal choice for someone looking to read their first novel in Japanese!

I find Isaka’s writing style easy to follow; he tends to write in shorter sentences that still manage to convey a lot of information. Being a series of short stories, it is much easier to digest than attempting to read a longer novel in one go.

There is a sequel called 神様の浮力 “The Buoyancy of Death” which was released a few years ago. I would like to read this in the future, although the novel seems to have more mixed reviews from fans of the original.

I will certainly be reading more of his works in the future, although with such a large catalogue to choose from I will struggle to decide what to read next!

Books added to my To Be Read pile:

I am trying my hardest not to amass too many books (because then it gets even harder to decide what to read next!) and have only added one book to my collection recently:

「舟を編む」 Fune wo Amu / The Great Passage by Shion Miura

Mitsuya Majime is an introverted man with a passion for reading. He takes the opportunity to transfer from the sales division to the dictionary department, where he is under the guidance of the highly regarded editor Kohei Araki. Araki’s team is undertaking the task of completing a dictionary called “The Great Passage”. The book follows the team’s pursuit of making the very best Japanese dictionary.

This has been on my wishlist for a long time, so I was super happy to finally buy this book! Given the subject matter, this could be a bit of a tough read in Japanese. Fortunately, I also purchased the ebook version of its English translation (“The Great Passage”) which I can use to help me with any tricky parts. I haven’t yet decided whether to try and read both versions in parallel or not.

There’s also an anime adaptation and a live action film, so I think starting with one of these two to give me a grounding in the plot and characters will make reading the novel a little bit easier.

So that’s it for today’s post – you can take a look at アムリタ and 神様の制度 on the Amazon JP website and read the first couple of pages if you are interested in checking them out.

What are you reading at the moment (in Japanese or otherwise)? Do you have any recommendations for me? Let me know in the comments!

15 Easy Japanese Songs to help you learn Japanese

Knowing where to start with Japanese music can be a bit of a minefield. On top of that, finding songs you can study Japanese with is even harder. Or perhaps you often go to karaoke, but never know what songs to sing? Look no further – here is a list of 15 easy Japanese songs to get you started!

The songs on this list have been chosen because they are popular songs which also have simple Japanese lyrics. Similarly, I’ve tried to include a mix of older and newer songs.

I wanted to write this post to show the wide range of Japanese music. Sometimes I worry that it can be hard to see past the idol music sometimes! I hope that this list will be a helpful starting point for discovering all sorts of Japanese music.

1. 上を向いて歩こう by 坂本九 // Ue wo Muite Arukou by Kyu Sakamoto

This is the oldest song on the list but a definite classic. Known as “Sukiyaki” in English, this is one of the best selling singles of all time. I’m not sure why this is because it has no connection to the lyrics!

It is also one of the few foreign language songs to reach the top of the US Billboard Top 100 chart.

The upbeat sound of the song contrasts with the sadness of the lyrics. The song tells the story of a man who looks up and whistles to stop tears from falling. The lyrics are simple and repetitive, which makes it a fun and easy Japanese song to study with!

   2. 世界に一つだけの花 by SMAP // Sekai ni Hitotsu Dake no Hana by SMAP

The recently disbanded boy band SMAP were very much a national institution, having a career spanning almost three decades. Besides music, the band’s members expanded into acting and hosted one of the most popular variety shows of all time, SMAPxSMAP.

Their biggest song (The One and Only Flower in the World) was released in 2003. It was an instant hit, selling over a million copies. The song’s simple lyrics and pacing make it a karaoke favourite even today.

3.手紙〜拝啓十五の君へ by アンジェラ・アキ // Tegami ~ Haikei juugo no kimi e by Angela Aki

This single by singer-songwriter Angela Aki was released in 2008. Originally featured in a NHK documentary, it became popular again after the March 11 tsunami disaster and is still heard at graduation time today.

I think it perfectly encapsulates what a lot of us would write a letter to our younger selves. It’s a song with a great message and certainly one to listen to when you’re feeling a bit down.

By the way, 拝啓 (はいけい/ haikei) is how you traditionally start off a letter in Japanese.

4. First Love by 宇多田ヒカル // First Love by Utada Hikaru

Utada Hikaru is one is Japan’s most famous contemporary artists – it was tricky to pick a song from her many albums.

First Love was Utada’s third single, taken from the album of the same name which went on to over seven million copies in Japan. That’s not bad considering she was just 16 years old at the time! This easy Japanese ballad has a mix of Japanese and English, and is likely to be a karaoke favourite.

5. PONPONPON by きゃりーぱみゅぱみゅ // PONPONPON by Kyary Pamyu Pamyu

Kyary Pamyu Pamyu is the stage name of Kiriko Takemura. Takemura started as a blogger and model before entering the music industry. Her 2011 single PONPONPON was the first of her singles to become a viral hit.

The catchy beat is the invention of famed producer Yasutaka Nakata, who is also the creative force behind pop trio Perfume. The song and music video are the epitome of cute. Together with the simple lyrics, this is a very easy song to get stuck in your head (you have been warned!).

6. ありがとう by いきものがかり // Arigatou by Ikimonogakari

Ikimonogakari are a pop-rock band that have been around since 1999, although they are currently on hiatus. The band’s name refers to the group of children assigned the task of looking after plants and animals in Japanese primary schools.

Arigatou is a song they released in 2010 and is about treasuring a loved one. The lyrics are very sweet, and the tempo of the song makes it a good choice for singing at karaoke!

7. ORION by 中島美嘉 // Orion by Mika Nakashima

Mika Nakashima is a singer and actress from Kagoshima prefecture who debuted in 2001. As an actress, she is probably most famous for her role in the live-action adaptation of the shojo manga Nana.

Her single Orion was released in 2008 and is one of her many popular singles. In this song, Mika sings wistfully about a past love. The lyrics here are slow and not too difficult which makes it a nice song for Japanese learners.

8. リンダリンダ by ザ・ブルーハーツ // Linda Linda by The Blue Hearts

The Blue Hearts were a punk rock band popular in the 80s and 90s. Linda Linda is one of their most popular singles and remains a karaoke favourite.

Originally released in 1987, the song was a key part of the film Linda Linda Linda (2005), where 4 high school girls form a band which covered several songs by The Blue Hearts.

9. 恋に落ちたら by Crystal Kay // Koi ni Ochitara by Crystal Kay

Crystal Kay is a singer hailing from Yokohama, who released her debut single at just 13 years old. Koi ni Ochitara was her seventeenth single released in 2005 and was the theme song for a drama of the same name. This pop ballad is probably the least well known on the list, but it has simple but sweet lyrics perfect for karaoke!

10. 涙そうそう by 夏川りみ // Nada Sou Sou by Rimi Natsukawa

Nada Sou Sou is an Okinawan phrase which means “large tears are falling”. In standard Japanese this would be 涙がポロポロこぼれ落ちる/ namida ga poro poro kobore ochiru. The song tells the story of someone looking through a photo album of someone who has died.

The original song was performed by Ryoko Moriyama, but it is Rimi Natsukawa’s version released in 2001 that steadily became a hit. It was so popular that broadcaster TBS made two dramas and a film between 2005 and 2006. The song is sad but beautiful and certainly a Japanese song worth knowing about.

11. KARATE by BABYMETAL

Babymetal have a unique blend of metal and idol style music (now known as “kawaii metal”). Babymetal formed in 2010 and consists of three members: Suzuka and Moa. Since their formation, they have performed in many places around the world.

The group’s 2016 song Karate is from their second album Metal Resistance and is all about never giving up in difficult times. A lot of the main phrases are repeated and overall the lyrics are not too tricky. This is a definite crowd pleaser at karaoke!

12. Monster by 嵐// Monster by Arashi

I don’t think it is possible to escape Arashi, the five-piece boyband who have been together since 1999. Like SMAP, each member is involved in TV hosting and acting.

Released in 2010, Monster was the theme song for the drama adaptation of the manga Kaibutsu-kun which starred member Satoshi Ohno. The lyrics are straightforward – if you are in the mood for a Halloween pop song then this is for you.

13. Best Friend by Kiroro

Kiroro are a duo who released their first single in 1998. Both members Chiharu and Ayano are from Okinawa. However, the name of the band was actually inspired by words in the Ainu language after visiting Hokkaido.

The song Best Friend was released in 2001, and was the theme song for a drama called Churasan. It is a popular song to sing at graduations, as the song relate to appreciating close friends.

14. キセキ by Greeeen // Kiseki by Greeeen

Greeeen (the 4 e’s represent the four members of the group) are a pop-rock band originating from Fukushima prefecture. Kiseki was released in 2008 as the theme song for the baseball drama Rookies, and quickly became a bestseller.

The title kiseki has the dual meaning of 奇跡 (meaning “miracle”) and 軌跡 (meaning “path, track”), which is why it is written in katakana rather than kanji! The lyrics aren’t too difficult and emphasise how important it is to treasure each moment and to keep moving forward.

15. 恋するフォーチュンクッキー by AKB48 // Koi Suru Fortune Cookie by AKB48

[Note: there are options to have Japanese or English subtitles on the video!]

AKB48 are a massive girl group with several best-selling songs to their name. Named after the area in Tokyo where the group are based (Akihabara), the idol group is split into teams that hold performances there every day.

Released in 2013, the message of Koi Suru Fortune Cookie is to try positive about the future, because you never know what will happen tomorrow. I am not the biggest AKB48 fan but you cannot deny that this song is incredibly catchy, upbeat and has a fun dance to learn too!

So this turned out to be a very long post! It’s always good to have a shortlist of songs when going to karaoke. Here’s a handy Spotify playlist for the majority of the tracks:

Hopefully, this post has given you a few ideas of easy Japanese songs (it was certainly fun writing this post). If in doubt, you can’t really go wrong with good old Disney song in Japanese!

What is your favourite Japanese song? Let me know in the comments!

Easy Manga Recommendation: Let’s Dance a Waltz

Today’s manga recommendation for Japanese learners is ‘Let’s Dance a Waltz’ / Warutsu no Ojikan (ワルツのお時間), a manga series created by Natsumi Ando.

Quick Facts

Author: Natsumi Ando (安藤なつみ)

Genre: Romance, slice of life

No. of volumes: 3

Recommended for: JLPT N4/ upper beginner

Furigana: Yes

Anime/ drama/ film adaptations?: No

Plot Overview

Tango Minami is a high school student whose family run a ballroom dance studio. Having danced from a young age, he teaches at the studio to earn pocket money but keeps his connection to the dance studio a secret from his school friends.

One day, a girl turns up looking for a trial lesson. The girl, Hime Makimura, is a shy student who is looking for a way to break out of her shell. Hime falls with love with dancing from the very first lesson, but Tango realises that they are both in the same class at school! Can Tango manage to keep his ballroom dancing a secret, whilst helping Hime to become a better dancer?

Why do I recommend the manga?

First things first, this is in many ways a typical shojo manga – the female protagonist is a shy girl who learns to find confidence in herself, assisted by the charismatic and popular male lead. The plot develops pretty much exactly as you would expect from this genre of manga. Having said that, the ballroom dance aspect helps to keep the narrative feeling fresh.

Hime (meaning ‘princess’) really hates her name as she feels she could never be a princess in anyone’s eyes. Therefore it is heartwarming to see her find a natural talent and passion for ballroom dancing. Whilst this is a ballroom manga, the manga is more focused on the emotional impact dance has for Hime. Tango also grows as a person through his interactions with Hime, which helps him feel like a more rounded character by the end.

At just three volumes, this manga is a short but enjoyable read.

Recommended Japanese language level

I consider this manga to be appropriate for JLPT N4 or upper beginner level and above. You may be surprised to learn that the vocabulary used in this dance-themed manga is not too difficult. There are a few terms that are specific to dance, and these terms tend to feature a lot of English loanwords. As the main protagonists are high school students, there is a bit of slang used but if you are used to manga slang conventions, this should not pose too much of a problem.

As always, you can read a sample of this manga on the EbookJapan website to get a feel for its difficulty by clicking the blue ‘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!

If you do like this recommendation, you might also like:

Happy Reading!

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:

japanese-summer-onomatopoeia.jpg

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!

Podcast Recommendation: Manga Sensei

Today’s podcast recommendation is the Manga Sensei podcast, a podcast that offers great Japanese lessons in just 5 minutes each episode!

manga-sensei-logo

The podcast is hosted by John, the titular Manga Sensei.

About the Manga Sensei Podcast

Most of the Manga Sensei episodes are language-focused. Each of these episodes are short and focus on a different grammar point. Language focused episodes will provide an explanation of the grammar point, how to conjugate it and when it used. There are plenty of example sentences too.

In addition, the Manga Sensei podcast also has interviews with people who regularly use Japanese. Normally, the interviewees are people who live in Japan and/or write about Japan and the Japanese language. Previous guests include Youtuber Kemushichan and Tofugu.

Every now and then, John hosts episodes that focus on helpful language learning tips for Japanese (or any language). One of the episodes I particularly enjoyed is “Bridging the Gap between Intermediate and Advanced” (an episode from May 14, 2018).

Why I like the Manga Sensei podcast

  • One of the best things about the podcast is how much John sensei manages to cover in 5 minutes. I am impressed how each episode has detailed information on how grammar points are used, without it feeling too overwhelming.
  • With over 250 episodes, there is plenty of content to listen to. New episodes are also uploaded on a near daily basis!
  • The type of Japanese covered in the grammar episodes includes more informal speech. It is more natural than what you might get from a textbook.
  • In every episode, John comes across as an enthusiastic teacher who really wants everyone to do the very best with Japanese study. The Manga Sensei ethos is all about knowing you’ll make mistakes and doing it anyway, which I think is the best way to approach languages.
  • I find the interview episodes are really fun and perfect for when I need some study motivation!

One thing to note: the episodes have not been produced in order of grammar difficulty. You may find yourself searching around for a little while if there is a particular grammar point you are stuck on. Fortunately, if you are a beginner to intermediate Japanese learner, he has most likely covered the grammar point in an episode already.

Who I recommend the podcast for

I think that this podcast is good for anyone studying Japanese, as the grammar points covered range from the basics up to more sophisticated aspects of the language.

It is a great resource to complement Japanese classes or self-study. Hearing about the same grammar points explained in different ways helps to really deepen your understanding.

Where to find the podcast

You can find the episodes on the Manga Sensei website, or via any podcasting app, Spotify, iTunes or Soundcloud (just search for “Manga Sensei”).

The Manga Sensei website itself is a helpful resource

I definitely suggest checking out The Manga Sensei site. Short manga in Japanese is posted on the website each week.

I’d probably recommend these short manga to upper beginners (JLPT N4) as there is no furigana on the manga itself. However each panel comes with a vocabulary list and helpful notes on the Japanese used. If you are intending to read manga in Japanese at some point, these notes are pretty useful.

Aside from that, the website’s blog has a number of posts on the Japanese language and culture. These posts expand upon a lot of the topics covered in the grammar episodes.

Have you tried this podcast? What did you think? Let me know in the comments!

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