6 Tips for Learning Japanese

2 Jul

JapaneseHave you wondered why some people learn a language better than others?  I’ve had a long time to think about this subject, because I’ve spent most of my adult life using my second language – English.  When I moved to the U.S 16 years ago, I spoke very little English.  After many trials and errors I began to realize some essential knowledge that applied to acquiring English that no one had taught me.  And then I realized that the same principle applied to learning Japanese, while teaching Japanese to Americans.  Here are 6 tips for learning Japanese:

1. Let go of your fear of being embarrassed

I think this is the most important aspect of learning any language – let go of your fear of being embarrassed.

When we’re trying to speak a language we don’t know very well, it is natural to be self-conscious.  We want to pronounce words correctly while appearing intelligible.  But being concerned about these things won’t help you improve the language.  You’re going to make mistakes and possibly going to embarrass yourself.  The sooner you accept that, the faster you’ll become fluent.

And here is a good news:  No one cares about your mistakes as much as you do.   So don’t worry about it and move on.

2. Speak clearly and loudly

Japanese people speak to each other as if they were whispering or mumbling.  But if you spoke in this matter with your beginner’s Japanese, they can’t understand you.

Believe it or not, sometimes it is a simple matter of speaking loudly, clearly, and slowly that will help a person understand you.   This is related to the first point – Don’t be afraid of making mistakes.  So when people don’t understand you, here is what I want you to do: First, repeat exactly what you just said, but do so more clearly and loudly.  Then, if the person still does not understand you, try a different word or a sentence.

3.  Practice it every day

Learning a language is very much like learning to play a musical instrument.  It’s better to practice it 15 minutes every day than 1 hour once a week.  Learning a language takes discipline, commitment, and willingness to do the same thing over and over again until you master it.

4. Develop a good sense of hearing

Having a good sense of hearing is imperative to learning a new language, because it requires you to distinguish subtle nuances in sound.  I believe that being a musician has helped me learn new languages over the years.

So how does one develop a good sense of hearing?  For starters, turn down the volume when listening to music or watching TV. Listening to loud sounds can damage your ears, and it has long term consequences.

5. Learn Japanese from a person of the same sex

This is very important if you want to learn casual/informal Japanese, because Japanese men and women speak quite different when speaking casually (We speak polite forms similarly).

Over the years I’ve met many American men who speak Japanese like Japanese women, because they learned it from their Japanese ex-girlfriends or female friends.  As you can imagine this is not the most attractive thing.

6.  Find a person who wants to understand you

How well someone understands you has partly to do with how well you speak the language, and partly to do with how much they want to understand you.  You probably already know this, because it’s the same thing even when two people speak the same language.

In my first year in America when I spoke little English, people who understood me the best were those who were interested in what I was trying to say and who cared enough to make that effort.  Whenever we’re having a conversation, it’s a two-way street.

I hope you’ll find a Japanese person who is willing to spend his/her time and energy to understand you.  This is probably the fastest way for you to learn Japanese.

If we spoke a different language, we would perceive a somewhat different world. ~Ludwig Wittgenstein

Related Article:

Is Japanese Hardest Language to Learn?

9 Things You didn’t Know about Shinkansen

1 Jun
Shinkansen at Tokyo Station

Shinkansen at Tokyo Station

The Shinkansen (新幹線 new trunk line), also known as the “bullet trains” is a network of high speed railway lines in Japan. The shinkansen network consists of multiple lines, connecting most major cities on the islands of Honshu and Kyushu, with construction of a link to the northern island of Hokkaido underway.

Traveling by the shinkansen can be pricey, but it’s an incredibly pleasant and comfortable experience.  It’s by far my favorite way of traveling the country.

Here are 9 interesting facts about the shinkansen:

1. How reliable is it?

According to the report in 2012, the Shinkansen’s average delay from schedule per train was 36 seconds, including delays due to uncontrollable causes, such as natural disasters.

2.  Is it safe?

The Shinkansen has an impressive safety record.  Over the Shinkansen’s 49 year history, carrying nearly 10 billion passengers, there have been no passenger fatalities despite frequent earthquakes and typhoons.

3. How fast is it?

The maximum operating speed is 320 km/h (200 mph). Test runs have reached 443 km/h (275 mph) for conventional rail in 1996, and up to a world record 581 km/h (361 mph) in 2003.

4. How many Shinkansen do they run per day?

About 800 trains per day, although the number of tarins depends on the day.

5. What is “Shinkansen Theater”?

It refers to the cleanup crew who clean the entire train in 7 minutes.  I don’t know how they do it, but the shinkansen is always clean.  You’ll have to see it to believe it.  Check out this video.

6. Who invented Shinkansen?

The shinkansen was invented by Japan’s chief railway engineer, Hideo Shima (島 秀雄).  He wanted to design the trains to “feel like an airplane” which he succeeded in creating.  After retiring from the railway career, he became the head of the National Space Development Agency of Japan (NASDA), where he pushed the development of hydrogen engines to power rockets.

7. Can you bring food and eat at Shinkansen?

Yes, you can.   It is typically not okay to eat in most other trains in Japan, but it is fine to do so at Shinkansen.  Most people bring foods and beverages and enjoy them on the train.  For this reason you’ll always find stores selling bento box (lunch box) at Shinkansen stations.

8.  Are there discount tickets for Shinkansen?

Yes, check out Japan Rail Pass .  Note that this is available only for foreign tourists, and it has to be purchased before arriving to Japan.

9.  Can you see Mt. Fuji from Shinkansen?

Yes. When you are traveling on the Shinkansen around Shizuoka prefecture, you can enjoy viewing Mt. Fuji if the weather is good enough.

View of Mt. Fuji from Tokaido Shinkansen Photo by Alexander Mirochnik, Under the Creative Common License

View of Mt. Fuji from Tokaido Shinkansen
Photo by Alexander Mirochnik, Under the Creative Common License

Spring Glory: Cherry Blossoms in Hirosaki Castle

1 May

Hirosaki 2 (398x640)

The cherry blossom season finally arrived in Aomori last week.  Sakura (cherry blossoms) began to bloom in the southern parts of Japan a few months ago and slowly moved up to the north.

Over the weekend I drove to Hirosaki, a western city of Aomori, known for beautiful cherry blossoms.  There are about 2600 cherry trees around the famous castle built in 1611 by the Tsugaru Clan.   It is where a cherry blossom festival is held every year from April 23 to May 5, when cherry blossoms are usually in bloom.

On the day I visited, they were in full bloom.  I was not expecting that, since a local man had told me this year’s peak bloom might be delayed due to the heavy snow in the winter.  So it was a wonderful surprise to see the entire city covered in various kinds of cherry trees (yes, there are many different types of them).  Walking through the cherry blossom tunnels, I could see the castle behind the trees.  They were gorgeous.

The cherry blossom season is short.  They reach full bloom about a week after the opening of the first blossoms, and a week later the blooming peak is over and the blossoms begin to fall from the trees.  Perhaps this short-lived nature of cherry blossoms is what makes them special to the hearts of Japanese.  They are breathtaking only for a little while, and we’ll have to wait for another year.  In my case I had waited for much longer – 18 years to be exact – since the last I had seen them bloom in Japan.

Hirosaki was a wonderful place to view sakura, one of the most beautiful and memorable hanami (cherry blossom viewing) I have ever experienced.

Hirosaki 4 (640x360) HIrosaki 6 (640x360)Hirosaki 7 (360x640)


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