Japanese language

Going back to Japanese study after a break

JP study after a break

September means going back to school/ work/ university after the summer holidays. It might be that you’ve taken a break from language learning too.

Sometimes with learning a language, you can be incredibly motivated to begin with, but then life gets in the way and by the time you remember about your plan to learn Japanese you feel like you’ve forgotten everything!

I myself have taken breaks away from learning Japanese – here’s what I do to ease myself back into the language.

  • Writing: Writing in my journal helps me to use vocab and grammar I may have forgotten – I tend to use this as the basis for my grammar study, ie. I will go back over a grammar point if I’m not confident in using it anymore (especially if I’m not working towards the JLPT).
  • Listening: Listening to podcasts helps me set my brain into ‘Japanese mode’. You might find that watching a TV show or film helps with this too.
  • Reading: I’m using Anki to help get my vocab and kanji skills back on track, together with reading articles on NHK News Web Easy.
  • Speaking: Speaking is probably the hardest to practice when coming back from a break. I suggest building your confidence by talking to Japanese friends about topics you are familiar with at first – focus on what you can say rather than what you cannot say.

Here’s a few key things to bear in mind after having a break:

• Don’t be afraid to go over ‘easy’ material.

• If there’s something that doesn’t make sense in the resource you’re using, try to find an explanation somewhere else.

• Make sure you have a goal to work towards. Having a goal, however small, will remind you why you decided to study the language in the first place.

Remember, language learning is much more about the journey itself than the destination – having a couple of stops along the way is nothing to be ashamed of.

Japanese Author Spotlight: Niimi Nankichi

As evidenced by how much I tend to write about reading resources on this blog, I love to read. Whilst I am getting better at reading in Japanese thanks to Tadoku, reading native materials can sometimes be a long and arduous process. So when I get frustrated with trickier books, I like to switch to easier stories. This is where Niimi Nankichi comes in.

Niimi Nankichi was one of the most prolific children’s writers during the 20th century and is often compared to Hans Christian Andersen. He wrote his most famous work ごん狐 (ごんぎつね) when he was 18 years old. Unfortunately, he died from tuberculosis at just age 29, but during his time as a primary school teacher, he penned a great many stories for his young students.

Fortunately, these stories are not only accessible for Japanese learners but are also available for free on Aozora Bunko. As with a lot of children’s literature, whilst the vocabulary used may be a bit dated or less common (such as names of plants and animals), the grammar used is straightforward. For this reason, I recommend reading these armed with a dictionary or a lookup tool like Rikaichan to make the whole process a bit quicker!

There are rather a lot of Nankichi’s stories at Aozora Bunko so I thought I would highlight a few stories here:

ごん狐/ ごんぎつね

Nankichi’s most popular story had to be on this list. This story is all about a mischevious little fox called Gon. Whilst it may not have the ending you would expect from a children’s story, it does have a very important message (much like the rest of Nankichi’s works). It is not the quickest read for Japanese beginners but is split into chapters which allow for a natural break between reading sessions.

There are also a number of videos on Youtube for the reading of this story, but the one below is my favourite (not too fast or slow and no distracting background music!)

狐のつかい /きつねのつかい

This is a much shorter story than ごん狐 which also happens to have a wolf as the main character. A wolf is entrusted with an important errand, but things do not quite go to plan. I’d say this is a fairly straightforward story – I would recommend it to JLPT N4 learners, but N5 learners may be able to give this a go if you’ve covered nearly all of the grammar.

ひとつの火/ ひとつのひ

In this story, the narrator discusses the impact of a simple favour he carries out for a cattle farmer. Like きつねのつかい, the language used in terms of grammar and vocab isn’t too difficult aside from a couple of phrases (eg. ~てゆく= ていく, ~てくれ = instead of ~てくれる).

二ひきの蛙/ にひきのかえる

This story is about 2 frogs who start off on the wrong foot – can they learn to settle their differences? This story is short and has a cute ending. In terms of grammar, I’d say this is more difficult than the above two stories. This is due to the dialogue between the two frogs being more casual in nature (eg. sentence ending ~だぞ; わすれるな as a more manly way of saying ‘don’t forget’ instead of わすれないで(ください)). Fortunately, the vocabulary used is straightforward – so overall, it is still accessible for N4 learners.

Have you read Nankichi’s stories before? Which stories would you recommend? Let me know in the comments!

Using sentences to study Japanese (and other languages)

Studying using sentences is incredibly beneficial for studying any language for a couple of reasons:

  • It gets you used to sentence structure, which you can then adapt to use when speaking or writing
  • Helps you to learn vocabulary in context – important for words with similar meanings in your native language

This article from Fluent in 3 Months explains it better than I can, but the brain is good at spotting at remembering patterns. As we are learning to speak our first language, we hear sentences spoken by others around us and so we build up a bank of sentences for our native language(s) in our brains.

This is why it is very easy for us to spot when something sounds unnatural in our native language(s), even if we are not sure why. With learning a new language, we have to follow the same process of learning what phrases and sentences are natural or not.

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Sometimes, you just know when something has been put into Google Translate

Studying sentences alongside grammar rules will help the grammar to stick in your mind more effectively. Once you’ve understood a grammar point, you can then focus on making sure that you can implement in in your own speaking/writing – which is why I think keeping a journal in Japanese is such a good idea.
Let’s say for example that you are studying counters in Japanese, and come across the counter ‘hai’ which is the counter for glasses.

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If you also memorise the sentence [ビールを三杯ください/ ビールをさんばいください/bi-ru wo sanbai kudasai] meaning Please can I have three glasses of beer, you are not only memorising the counter ‘-杯/はい/hai’ but internalising several other Japanese grammar rules at the same time.

  • That after 三, -はい becomes ばい
  • That counters are used after the particle を
  • That ください can be used when making a request (especially when ordering food and drink)

You can then experiment with substituting in different vocabulary, for example using a different number with the same counter…

ビールを一杯 (いっぱい/ippai) ください

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Or you can change the counter itself…

ビールを三本 (さんぼん/sanbon) ください

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(Just like with -はい, the -ほん counter has a sound change to -ぼん when following 三).

Or you can change the drink to something else…

水 (みず/Mizu) を三杯ください

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(NB: probably a good idea if you’ve been ordering beer all evening)

… and this is all by changing just one word in the original phrase we learnt!

With Japanese, context is key to understanding grammar and vocabulary, so I believe that studying using sentences is more important coming from English. Adding Japanese audio in the mix is even better for learning to distinguish similar words, especially as Japanese has different pitch accents for similar words.

So how can I implement this into my language study?

With new grammar points, try writing out an example sentence you already know to be correct, then try changing different vocabulary as in the example above. You can always ask on an app like HiNative or a friend to check your new sentences to make sure they still make sense.

When learning across new vocab, look the word up in a dictionary or ask a friend to give you an example of how that word is used in a sentence and write it down for review later.

When making your own flashcards (real or online), make sure to write these sentences together with the vocabulary. If you are using Anki for vocabulary study, you’ll notice that a lot of decks introduce sentences at the same time.

I also highly recommend Delvin Language, which offers sentence and listening practice at the same time!

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You can learn new vocabulary via sentences taken from real life speech in dramas and documentaries, with all furigana and meanings provided for words and grammar points you may not know yet.

I hope the above post has helped – if you have any questions or suggestions please let me know in the comments!


Japanese sign image source: with attribution By Info2Learn (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

 

3 More Youtube Channels for Learning Japanese

They say you can learn anything from YouTube, and Japanese is no different. I have done a post on this previously, but since then I’ve found three more channels you might find useful on your language level journey.

Good for beginners: Bond Japanese

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Bond Japanese is a very good resource for newbies to Japanese, I certainly wish it had been around when I was a beginner. The channel has lots of helpful bite size videos on learning hiragana as well as basic grammar, common phrases and greetings. The language videos are presented by Marina who speaks clearly and does a great job of covering basic grammar points.

I find that at times, the spoken conversations can be quite a step-up in difficulty from the grammar or vocabulary covered but all dialogues have the Japanese on screen together with the English translations. At the very least this means you get used to natural conversation sooner rather than later.

My favourite videos to watch are the ‘Stroll Around’ series which focuses on different places in the Tokyo area. Through this series, I’ve certainly discovered a few places I’d like to visit next time I am in Japan.

For intermediate learners: Chop

Chop is a bit of a strange one and is a fairly new channel, but I am oddly fascinated by it!

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This channel focuses on super short videos which introduce Japanese, perfect for those looking to build their vocabulary. Each video has a short skit which can be summed up in one Japanese sentence containing the new word at the very end, along with furigana and an English translation. These skits are funny and often a bit strange, but I think this is what helps the vocabulary to stick in your head.

Whilst the type of humour will not be everyone’s cup of tea, if you do find them funny then this could be an entertaining way of getting in a couple of minutes’ study when short on time. Each week there is a ‘Weekly Chop’ which is a compilation of the skits from that week (there tend to be 3-4 videos uploaded per week).

The accompanying website has a full vocabulary list for all of the words that appear in each skit.

For intermediate/advanced learners: Talk in Japan

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Talk in Japan has a large number of videos aimed at Japanese learners from JLPT N5 right through to N1. I would be hesitant to recommend the grammar/ vocabulary videos to those just starting out as all videos are entirely in Japanese with English subtitles which could feel a bit overwhelming.

Having said that, if you are working towards the JLPT (especially for N3 and above) then I can recommend their videos on each aspect of the test which is targeted towards each level. I like the grammar point videos as they are normally less than 5 minutes long, do a pretty good job of explaining usage and are accompanied by example sentences and a short dialogue at the very end. There are also some videos on business Japanese etiquette in addition to Japanese culture and cooking videos which you may find useful as well.

All of these channels are up and coming rather than established channels but I hope you find them useful and can support them as they continue to grow!

What is the JLPT and is it for me?

If you are new to learning Japanese, you may have heard about the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, or JLPT for short. It is something that myself and other Japanese language bloggers often refer to as an indication of one’s Japanese language level.

In the UK, the applications for the next sitting in December, have just opened and the results were published for the July exam very recently With this in mind, I thought it would be a good time to write about the JLPT exams for those who know nothing about it.

What is the JLPT?

The JLPT was developed as a way of measuring non-native Japanese speakers’ proficiency in Japanese. There are 5 levels to the JLPT as follows:

N5 – Beginner proficiency

N4 – Upper beginner proficiency

N3 – Intermediate proficiency

N2 – Upper intermediate proficiency

N1 – Advanced proficiency

The exact composition of the exam depends on the level you are taking, but all cover reading (with different emphasis on kanji, grammar and reading comprehension) and listening skills. If you pass, you will receive a snazzy certificate for your efforts.

The exam can be taken either inside or outside Japan – check out the official website for information on test centres in your country.

How do I know which level to take?

If you’ve been studying for a while, you might not have an idea of what level you are currently working at. The official JLPT website has some sample questions which can give you an idea of which level you are working at – alternatively, you may want to check out the resources mentioned below.

Is it worth it?

The answer to this ultimately depends on your current situation and future goals. I would definitely recommend it if you are looking to work in Japan, especially if you would like to have a bilingual role. A lot of Japanese companies look for business level (=JLPT N2) or native level (=JLPT N1) proficiency, so having this on your CV may well help you get your foot in the door. I’ve summed up what I believe the main pros and cons below:

Pros

  • JLPT is a well-recognised qualification
  • A good way of measuring your own progress particularly if you are self-studying

Cons

  • Can be expensive (in the UK it costs £75 per sitting)
  • Can only take it 1-2 times a year depending on where you live
  • Does not test speaking proficiency
  • Especially at higher levels, grammar points can get obscure

There are more cons than pros in the above list, but the pro of having a widely recognised qualification is a great advantage for those wishing to pursue further studies or employment in Japan (this is not to say that not having a JLPT qualification will prevent you from getting a job!).

How do I study towards it?

There is a heavy emphasis on vocabulary and grammar, so a lot of study is needed to cover all of the materials at each level. For this reason, textbooks are a popular choice although there are some wonderful (and free!) online resources too:

Textbooks

For level N5, there are not many JLPT specific textbooks available. If you are working through a textbook such as Genki, then you should cover a lot of the grammar expected at this level – refer to the online resources below for lists of grammar points, vocabulary and kanji in the test.

For the upper levels, there are two series of books that are quite popular: Nihongo Sou Matome and Kanzen Master. I have not used Nihongo Sou Matome myself but it is very highly regarded.

kanzenmasterjlptn1

I have personally used the Kanzen Master series of books (pictured above – there are individual books for grammar, vocabulary, kanji and listening comprehension) which are a useful means of preparing you for the test.

Online Resources

There are a number of websites with vocab, kanji, grammar point lists and listening exercises – here are a couple of my favourites:

  • Tanos JLPT is a great place to start if you’ve just decided to take the plunge. The website has vocabulary, kanji and grammar lists which you can start to work your way through.
  • Japanesetest4you is a website filled to the brim with practice tests for all aspects of each level of the JLPT. As i’ve mentioned previously, it is really important to practice in exam conditions so that you have an idea of how to manage your time on the day!
  • MLC Japanese has lists of key vocabulary and kanji, worksheets with exam-style questions and study plan ideas for the JLPT.
  • Nihongo Pro has free vocabulary, kanji and grammar quizzes for all levels of the JLPT.
  • Flashcard apps like Anki and Memrise have a number of shared decks for each level of the JLPT

Classes

If you are lucky enough to be in Japan or a major city overseas, you may be able to find a JLPT prep class – for example in London, the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) runs JLPT prep classes in the run up to the exam.

This is a general overview of the JLPT test – if you have any further questions about the JLPT please let me know in the comments.

Manga Recommendation : Crayon Shin-chan クレヨンしんちゃん

This week’s recommendation is Crayon Shin-chan by Yoshito Usui (臼井 義人). I think this was the first manga I ever tried to read in Japanese some time ago, but even now I like to go back and read it.

This highly popular manga is about the adventures of a 5-year-old boy called Shinnosuke Nohara (nicknamed Shin-chan) who generally causes a lot of mischief around him, especially his mother.

The manga is split into several shorter stories that are generally only a few pages long. This makes it an ideal manga for Japanese language learners to dip in and out of as and when you have time to study it.

Crayon Shin chan manages to strike a great balance between laugh out loud moments and relatable moments (if you’ve ever had to look after a small child). Some of the humour can be a bit crude – you can find a few of the anime episodes on YouTube so I would recommend checking these out to get an idea of the type of humour you will find in the manga. Besides the anime series there are also several films, so plenty of material to get into if you do find yourself enjoying the manga.

In terms of language level, you can certainly give this a go if you have covered basic grammar and know the usual slang contractions – JLPT N4 and above should suffice. Like most of the manga I recommend this has everyday language and because of Shin chan’s age the vocabulary used is not too difficult. There are quite a few gags which rely on knowledge of puns in Japanese and aspects of Japanese culture, but I have always found this manga on the whole to be accessible as a language learner.

There is apparently a Japanese-English bilingual version of a couple of volumes (called クレヨンしんちゃんの楽しいゾ英会話) which would be a useful way of trying the manga out if you can get yourself a copy.

Disney Songs in Japanese

I recently wrote a post about using songs to learn Japanese. In that post, I didn’t personally recommend any particular types of songs as I believe that you should try to focus on songs you like listening to instead.

However, later on, it dawned on me that Disney songs are a really good way of studying language via songs, especially as a beginner learner.

If you’ve grown up with films such as Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King (my 90’s kid bias might be showing a bit here!), then listening to the Japanese versions of familiar songs from these films is an enjoyable way of learning new vocabulary. Another advantage of using Disney is that being aimed at kids, the lyrics are normally more straightforward in nature in terms of both grammar and vocabulary and do not have any slang that can often trip up language learners.

How to find song lyrics

I find the best way of finding the Japanese song titles of Disney songs is looking on Wikipedia. For example, if I was looking for the Japanese titles from Frozen I would go to the relevant page and look for information on international releases:

Screenshot 2017-08-18 at 21.34.33

Frozen happens to be a particularly popular film so I could find the song titles under the ‘Japanese release’ tab towards the bottom of the Wiki page for the Frozen soundtrack.

However you may need to go to the English Wiki page first and then select the Japanese version of the same page from the menu on the left hand side. Then look for a category 主題歌 (しゅだいか ‘theme song’) or 挿入歌  (そうにゅうか ‘soundtrack’/ ‘featured songs’)  to find song titles – for the most popular songs the English tends to be given in brackets alongside the original Japanese.

Once armed with this information, the website I’ve found the most useful for tracking down Disney song lyrics is this one. Although skewed towards the most popular Disney films of the 1990s, this is the best site I have found with lyrics grouped by the film’s name.

If you are struggling to track down song lyrics, then simply googling the Japanese (or even the English) song title + 歌詞 (かし ‘lyrics’) should lead you to a website with lyrics.

Fortunately a lot of Japanese Disney songs can be found on YouTube with Japanese subtitles too. It helps to know the Japanese title before searching but you may have luck with the English title and if you add ‘Japanese’ on too.

The YouTube channel Nobuyoshi Takeuchi has a large number of Disney songs so is the best place to start.

My favourite Disney songs in Japanese are:

  • Colours of the Wind/ カラー • オブ • ザ • ウィンド [ポカホンタス/ Pocahontas]
  • Belle/ ベル [美女と野獣/ Beauty and the Beast]
  • Love is an Open Door/ 扉を開けて [アナと雪の女王/ Frozen]

What are your favourite Disney songs (in English, Japanese or another language)? Let me know in the comments!

Best Chrome Extensions for learning Japanese

Reading the title you may be thinking, “but how is a browser going to assist my language learning?” As it turns out, there are a couple of nifty extensions available for Google Chrome that I think are essentials for Japanese learners.  Here are 3 extensions that I use all the time for boosting my Japanese skills:

Rikaikun (also known as Rikaichan on other platforms such as Firefox, Internet Explorer and Safari).

This is an incredibly popular extension and is a must have for Japanese learners. With this extension activated, you can go to a page in Japanese and hover over any word and the reading and English meaning will be displayed in a handy pop up box. With this, tackling a website entirely in Japanese is a lot less scary!

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It is also worth noting that Rikaikun is pretty good at recognising the root of conjugated verbs as well as place names, which can sometimes be an issue with apps like this.

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This is useful when you need to practice the te form!

Mainichia

Mainichi is a handy extension which will show you a new piece of vocabulary every time you open a new tab in Chrome. The word is shown in kanji, kana and romaji with a helpful pic – handy for reviewing or learning a new piece of vocabulary.

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I think the pictures are really cute

You cannot choose the type of vocabulary that appears but I have found that there is a good mix between simpler and more complicated everyday vocabulary. Besides Japanese, there are also options for Korean and Mandarin Chinese if you are also learning those languages.

Pocket

Pocket is not specifically for language learning but I use it a lot for Japanese study. The Pocket app allows you to save a page for offline viewing later.

The Chrome extension allows you to add new pages to read later with a click of a button and will sync with the app if you have this installed on another device. I find this useful for saving news stories online – together with Rikaikun, you can make short work of tricky articles. If you install the app on another device you can start reading on your laptop and carry on reading on your mobile.

Are there any must have extensions (on Google Chrome or any other browser) that you cannot live without? Let me know in the comments.

Studying Japanese with Songs

Early on in my Japanese learning, listening to Japanese songs accidentally became part of my study plan. I do not really listen to new Japanese songs much nowadays but every so often I will go back to artists I know I like and study the vocabulary from their latest songs. Language learning is all about fun, so if you love music I recommend trying this out at least once.

Whilst I would recommend studying songs as part of your language journey, there are some pros and cons to consider.

The good:

  • Of course studying something you enjoy helps with learning vocabulary – repetition helps to memorise words more effectively.
  • Knowing popular songs makes a great talking point with friends or language partners.
  • It provides an insight into culture – language and culture are inevitably intertwined.

The bad:

  • This is true in any language but not all songs reflect how language is actually spoken as lyrics tend to be more poetic.
  • Song lyrics do not always make sense, so take unusual grammar structures and vocabulary with a pinch of salt.

 

How I study with songs

Here are the steps I follow when I use songs as study materials:

Step 0 – Find a song you like.

This is Step 0 because I’m assuming when you read this post you already have a song in mind to study with!

I generally find ballad style songs to be a good choice because these are more likely to tell a cohesive story than a dance track for example.

If not, I recommend checking out my list of top 15 Japanese learner- friendly songs. I’ve also written about using Disney songs in Japanese as they are a lot of fun to learn.

There is also an amazing podcast called Japan Top 10 which showcases music currently in the charts as well as episodes dedicated to some of the most popular Japanese artists.

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Step 1 – Find the song lyrics.

Google is your friend here: simply search for the artist name and/or song title, then add ‘歌詞’ (かし‘kashi’ meaning lyrics). The website I often use is called Uta-Net (all in Japanese). Just type the artist or song name into the search box and click on the red button to search.

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Step 2 – Listen to the song with lyrics.

How much can you understand just by having the lyrics in front of you whilst you listen? You might surprise yourself with what you can pick up at this stage – I often find that seeing the words written down helps you to pick out the words you already know.

Step 3 – Arm yourself with a dictionary/ Japanese friend and get meanings for the vocabulary and grammar structures you are unfamiliar with.

Use this exercise to get a feel for the overall meaning of the song. I wouldn’t worry too much about finding an exact translation into English as this is not always possible.

However, translating can be a fun exercise to check if you have grasped the general meaning of the song. Again Google is really useful for finding a fan page of your favourite artist which may have English translations that you can compare your version to. Can’t find a translation? It may be worth posting your own and making translations a new hobby!

As previously mentioned, there may be kanji usage or grammar that doesn’t necessarily appear in everyday Japanese so make a note of it here. If you have a language notebook make sure you only jot down the most commonly used kanji or correct grammar structures. If you are a fan of flashcards, I would make new flashcards of the most common kanji/ vocabulary that crops up at this stage.

Step 4 – Listen again when you have looked up unfamiliar words and phrases.

How much do you understand now? It should be much more now that you have a better grasp on the song meaning.

 

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Don’t be afraid to pick up a microphone (or hairbrush) in the name of language learning!

 

Step 5 – Karaoke!

Japan is the home of karaoke and I couldn’t possibly write an article about Japanese songs without mentioning it. If you live in Japan I recommend you take the opportunity to go for an hour and try singing a couple of songs, no matter what your singing ability.

Having to follow the Japanese lyrics onscreen is not easy, but if you go regularly you will really build up your reading speed, especially when it comes to kanji.

Not in Japan? Try searching for a song you like on Youtube and see if you can find a karaoke version/ lyric video to practice with.

Bonus: if you play an instrument you may finding actually playing and singing along to songs helpful too. If you play guitar (or sometimes attempt to play the ukulele like me) you can find chord tabs for popular songs by Googling the song title together with コード (chords). I tend to use a website called Gakki.me.

How do you use songs as part of your language learning? Let me know in the comments!

Manga Recommendation: Orange

Today’s recommendation is Orange by Ichigo Takano. I have been meaning to read this for a while and I am so glad that I finally got round to reading it!

The story centres around a girl called Naho who receives a letter from herself 10 years in the future, warning her to make changes to her actions at high school to prevent a tragedy linked to her friendship group from happening in the future. The letter comes with a diary giving certain key dates and events that all help to change the future for the better. By heeding these warnings, Naho not only impacts the future of those around her but also learns a great deal about herself in the process. The manga switches back and forth between the present day Naho and the future version of herself, which is particularly engaging as you get increasingly curious about what has happened in the intervening years.

Orange grabbed me immediately and I couldn’t stop myself from reading it until I got to the end. I think the idea of wanting to go back in time and change things is something that everyone can relate to, especially when looking back to your school days. In addition, the relationships amongst Naho’s friendship group is particularly pleasant to read and this only makes the dramatic aspects of this manga more powerful. Part high school drama, part sci-fi, the blend between the two genres make the manga accessible but a little bit different from other slice of life manga you may have come across previously.

I recommend this manga to Japanese learners because the language used is everyday – no specialist vocabulary required. If you’re familiar with common slang, particularly within the high school setting, then following the characters’ dialogues is pretty straightforward. In terms of language level, I would recommend this for N4-N3 learners.

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