Japanese Does Have Plurals Really


After the excitement of our first school Summer Barbecue, I spent last Sunday in bed watching one of my favourite films in Japanese.

It's not a Japanese film though. I watched Hot Fuzz (or to give its Japanese title ホット・ファズ -俺たちスーパーポリスメン! "Hot Fuzz: We Are The Super-Policemen!")

Watching dubbed British comedies might not be the "purest" way to practise Japanese. But if you enjoy it, it's definitely worth doing. Dubbed films are easy to watch, too, assuming you've seen the film before and know the plot already.

Anyway, there's a little scene in the Hotto Fazzu dub that's a nice example of Japanese plurals in action, so I thought I'd share it with you.

Angel and Danny are in the corner shop, and the shopkeeper asks them:

殺人犯たち捕まらないの?
satsujinhan tachi tsukamaranai no?

"No luck catching them killers then?"

"Killers" is translated as 殺人犯たち satsujinhan-tachi.

You take the word 殺人犯 satsujinhan (murderer) and add the suffix たち tachi - which makes it plural.

See? Japanese does have plurals! ...when it needs them.


Danny doesn't notice the shopkeeper's slip-up (she knows more than she's letting on), and replies:

人しかいないんだけど。
hitori shika inai n da kedo.

"It's just the one killer actually."



PC Angel, of course, mulls over the shopkeeper's words, and realises their significance: there's more than one killer on the loose.

It's the turning point of the movie, and it rests on a plural. Yay!

You can use たち like this when you need to indicate plurality:

私たち watashi-tachi we, us (plural)
あなたたち anata-tachi you (plural)
ジョンたち jon-tachi John and his mates

It's not common, but it does exist. Keep an eye out for it! You never know, you might just solve a murder case.


Plateaus in Language Learning and How to Overcome Them

The first three years I was learning Japanese I basically studied quite hard for tests and barely opened my mouth.

I like kanji, and what I saw as the oddness of the Japanese language. Three "alphabets"! A million different ways of counting things! I liked hiragana - so pretty! I studied hard and thought my university Japanese exams were easy.

Then, on holiday in China, I met a Japanese woman (at a super-interesting Sino-Japanese cultural exchange club, but that's a story for another time). I tried to speak to her in Japanese. And I couldn't.

I told this nice, patient lady that I was studying Japanese and she asked me how long I was staying in China for. I wanted to tell her I was going back to England next Thursday, but instead I said:

先週の水曜日に帰ります。
Senshuu no suiyoubi ni kaerimasu.

- "I'll go back last Wednesday."

OOPS.

I think about this day quite a lot because it shows, I think, that although I'd studied lots of Japanese at that point my communicative skills were pretty bad.

I couldn't quickly recall the word for Wednesday, or the word for last week.

I realised at that point that I hadn't made much real progress in the last two years. The first year I zipped along, memorising kana and walking around my house pointing at things saying "tansu, denki, tsukue". But after that my Japanese had plateaued.


So, I started actively trying to speak - I took small group lessons, engaged in them properly, did the prep work. I wrote down five sentences every day about my day and had my teacher check them. I met up with a Japanese friend regularly and did language exchange - he corrected my grammar and told me when I sounded odd (thanks Ken!)

(Most of this happened in Japan, but like I said, you don't need to live in Japan to learn Japanese.)

And I came out of the plateau. I set myself a concrete goal - to pass the JLPT N3. Then N2. I had some job interviews in Japanese. I wanted to get a job with a Board of Education, and a recruiter told me you needed N1 for that, so I started cramming kanji and obscure words. I was back on the Japanese-learning train.

I didn't pass N1 though.

And I was bored of English teaching and didn't want to wait to pass the test before I got a job using Japanese - that felt a bit like procrastinating - I quit my ALT job and got a job translating wacky entertainment news.

And after six months translating oddball news I passed the test.

↓ Artist's impression of me passing N1

That's partly because exams involve a certain amount of luck and it depends what comes up. But I also believe it's because using language to actively do something - working with the language - is a much, much better way of advancing your skills than just "studying" it.

Thanks to translation work, I was out of the plateau again. Hurrah!

When you're in the middle of something - on the road somewhere - it's hard to see your own development.  Progress doesn't move gradually upwards in a straight line. It comes in fits and starts.

Success doesn't look like this:
 It looks like this!
And if you feel like you're in a slump at the moment, there are two approaches.

One is to trust that - as long as you're working hard at it - if you keep plugging away, you'll suddenly notice you've jumped up a level without even realising. You're working hard? You got this.

The other approach is to change something. Make a concrete goal. Start something new. Find a new friend to talk to or a classmate to message in Japanese. Talk to the man in the noodle shop about Kansai-ben. Write five things you did each day in Japanese. Take the test. Get the job. がんばろう。

"How did you learn Japanese?"


When I tell people I'm a Japanese teacher they quite often ask: how did you learn Japanese? And I don't find this question particularly easy to answer in an honest way.

Sometimes I give a quick answer which is that I used to live there.

But you can live in Japan for years and not learn Japanese.

I've met lots of people like this (and there's nothing wrong with that, unless learning Japanese is the reason you moved to Japan).

The long and more honest answer to "how come you speak Japanese?" is that I studied a bit in university, then studied a LOT in my free time, got slightly obsessed with kanji, spent a lot of time with Japanese-speaking friends, avoided English-only situations and people who wanted to learn English from me for free, took all the JLPTs, went to Japanese language school full-time for a bit, read books and manga and newspapers (even when I couldn't read them yet), and watched a lot of Japanese TV.


You don't need to be in Japan to do any of those things. You can do all these things right here:

- listen to Japanese audio all day
- learn kanji on the bus (with Anki. Use anki. I'm going to write a blogpost about that too soon)
- find friends who speak Japanese
- watch Japanese stuff on netflix (seriously, there's loads)

Being in Japan was great motivation to learn Japanese for me because I hate not understanding things and find it incredibly frustrating. If you're in Japan and you want to know what's in your lunch or what that sign over there says or what the person next to you on the train is saying, you need to understand Japanese. That was a big push for me.


But you definitely don't need to live in Japan to get motivated.

I also started off working in English conversation school which was a good opportunity to listen to the kind of Japanese that five-year-olds speak. And one of the many good things about conversation school is you have the mornings off so I would get up and STUDY. Every day. Forever.

But I also probably have more free time now than I did in Japan.

You don't need to live in Japan to learn Japanese. There are people all over the world who learn languages without living in the country the language comes from. I've met lots of people like this and had the pleasure of teaching some of them.

(The other thing I tell people when they ask how I learned Japanese is that I didn't learn it. I'm still learning.)