How to Practice Japanese by Playing Video Games Every Day

How to Practice Japanese by Playing Video Games Every Day

Earlier this year, I was telling a friend about the various monthly challenges I set myself to practise Japanese.

“What are you going to do in July?”

“I might try writing every day, like a diary or something? Or I might watch Japanese TV every day…”

“Fran, watching TV every day doesn't really sound like a challenge.”

“…or I might play video games every day.”

“That definitely doesn't sound like a ‘challenge’ to me.”

“…all the more reason to do it, right?”

Who says challenges have to be challenging? I played Japanese video games for about 20 minutes a day for a month. Here’s what I learned: six reasons to play video games in a foreign language. 

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How to Use Anki to Not Forget Vocabulary

How to Use Anki to Not Forget Vocabulary

Lots of you probably use flashcards already. Why not use really, really clever ones?

Imagine you're studying Japanese vocabulary with a set of flashcards. You go through the cards one by one, putting them into a "pass" pile if you remembered them, and a "fail" pile if you didn't.

When you finish, you work through the "fail" pile again. You get about half of them right.

The next day, you go through all the cards again. It takes ages, and it's boring - you did all these yesterday.

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Six Ways To Say "Happy Birthday" In Japanese


Whether you're sending a birthday card, or writing on a friend's Facebook wall, it's good to share.

And you'll want to wish your Japanese-speaking friends "happy birthday" in Japanese, right?

Here are six different ways to share the love.

First of all, let's say Happy Birthday:

1) お誕生日おめでとう! o-tanjoubi omedetou


Simple and classic, this one means "happy birthday", or literally "congratulations on your birthday".


2) お誕生日おめでとうございます。 o-tanjoubi omedetou gozaimasu


Stick a "gozaimasu" on the end to make it more polite.

Good for people older than you, people you know less well, and definitely good for your boss.


3) ハッピーバースデー!happii baasudee!


This one is actually one of my favourites - a Japan-ified version of the English phrase.


If you're writing a message, it's good to follow up after the birthday greeting by also wishing the person well:


1)  楽しんでください tanoshinde kudasai


"Have fun!"

e.g. お誕生日おめでとう!楽しんでください ^ ^
"Happy birthday! Have fun :)"


2) 素敵な一日を sutekina ichinichi o


"Have a great day."

e.g. お誕生日おめでとう!素敵な一日を〜
"Happy birthday! Have a great day."


3) 素晴らしい1年になりますように subarashii ichinen ni narimasu you ni


"I hope it's a wonderful year for you."

e.g. お誕生日おめでとうございます。素晴らしい1年になりますように。
"Happy birthday. I hope you have a wonderful year."


As you may have noticed, birthday messages wishing someone well for the year are kind of similar to a New Years' Greeting in Japanese.

それじゃ、ステキな一日を!And with that, I hope you have a wonderful day!



How to Read The Japanese News


When I first moved back to Brighton I had a lot of time on my hands. I also didn't have a job, so I was desperate for free Japanese reading material.

So I started borrowing Japanese books from the library.

This plan was not exactly a success. It turns out reading Twilight in Japanese is only slightly more entertaining than reading it in English.

But we are really lucky to live in a world where, if you have internet access, you can read just about anything you want in Japanese online. And the news is a great place to start.

If you can't read fluently yet, looking at a wall of Japanese text can be intimidating. You don't know the meaning of the word, or even how to sound it out.

You need a dictionary - a really smart free one like Rikaichan.

Rikaichan is a browser add-on that works as a pop-up dictionary. I used it every day for years, and I love it. Let's take a look at how it works, and start reading the news!

How Rikaichan works


Here we are on the website of the Asahi Shimbun, one of Japan's largest national newspapers.

I hover the cursor over the word 音楽. Rikaichan's little blue pop up tells me the reading of the word (おんがく ongaku) and what it means - "music".

Rikaichan also shows us the dictionary entries for individual kanji (Chinese characters).

Here, it's showing 音, the first character in the word 音楽, and telling us that 音 means "sound".

Learn where words begin and end


Japanese doesn't have spaces between words so if you're looking at unfamiliar words, it can be hard to know where each word starts and finishes.

Rikaichan is pretty smart at doing that bit for you.

Here, it knows that 九州 (Kyushu island) is one word, and 豪雨 (torrential rain) is the next, separate word.


How to get it


So that's what Rikaichan does. Here's how to get started with it!

1) Get the right browser


Rikaichan and its "little brother" Rikaikun are for the web browsers Firefox and Chrome. If you're not using one of those programmes, you'll need to download the browser first.

It's worth it. I used Firefox religiously for years just so I could use Rikaichan to get my morning news.

As far as I know the add-on doesn't work on mobile, unfortunately. (There's a similar-looking app called Wakaru for iOS - if you've used it, let me know what you think.)

2) Install Rikaichan or Rikaikun


Which one do you need? Rikaichan and Rikaikun are the same add-on, but for Firefox and Chrome.

So, download and install Rikaichan from the Mozilla add ons page, or Rikaikun from the Chrome Web Store.

3) Download a dictionary


Rikaichan needs a dictionary to pull readings and meanings from, so after you've installed the add-on, you'll be prompted to install at least one dictionary file.


If English is your first language, you want the "Japanese - English" dictionary.

I recommend installing the "Japanese Names" dictionary too, so that Rikaichan can identify common names when they pop up.

That way, it'll know that 中田 is Nakada, a common Japanese surname, and doesn't just mean "middle of the ricefield".

4) Turn Rikaichan on


You probably won't want Rikaichan on all the time. Sometimes you'll want to read without a dictionary, and sometimes you won't be reading Japanese. You can turn it off and on when you like.

Turn Rikaichan on, and let's give it a go.

Read everything!


Years ago when I started using Rikaichan, I set myself a challenge to read one headline with it every day.

Next, I made myself read three headlines per day. Then five. Then the first paragraph of an article. Eventually I was reading entire news articles, and using the dictionary less and less.

These days I get the Asahi Shimbun news straight to my inbox, because I don't need to look up words often enough to use Rikaichan any more.

But it was a completely invaluable part of my language learning journey. And it's definitely more interesting than reading Twilight in Japanese.

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.)