Language Nuances


I think a lot about the nuances of words these days. Someone on a forum I go to (a Japanese speaker) was asking about how to use “for crying out loud.” He linked to a Japanese dictionary where “Be quiet, for crying out loud” was translated as something like 静かにして下さい, which is basically “please be quiet.” I tried to explain that “for crying out loud” wasn’t polite…but then the question was “So it’s rude?” And I was like…um…it’s not polite, but it depends on the situation and who you’re talking too and what voice you’re using…My default in this situation is to say “I wouldn’t say it to my grandmother but I’d say it to my kid (if I had one.)” I realize that’s not a very concrete answer.

It’s not like similar situations and phrases don’t exist in Japanese, but as an English speaker I am much more attuned to the difficulty of explaining nuances in English.

I really like the phrase そんなことないよ。I don’t know why, probably because it’s easy to remember and every school idol Jdrama features it being said about 400 times. I looked it up in a Japanese-English dictionary (one in Japanese mostly meant for Japanese people to look up English) and I saw it translated as “That’s not true.” While I know that’s what it means, I wondered why “There’s no such thing” wasn’t in the list of definitions. That’s close to the literal translation, right? And isn’t that closer to the meaning? And then I started wondering how “That’s not true” and “there’s no such thing” are different in my mind. Perhaps in one there’s a greater sense of annoyance at what the person has said? Which lead to me thinking of the difference between 違うよ and そんなことないよ. Wondering about the nuances of Japanese is much more comfortable for me, though, since I don’t speak Japanese and don’t have to struggle through my brain shrugging and saying “that’s just how it is.”

Contradiction and agreement are also difficult. I was chatting with another Japanese internet friend in English, and he wrote something like “High-school wasn’t interesting.” I responded “Nope.” His response was, “Oh, you think it was interesting?” And I answered that if someone says a negative you agree with in English, you answer in a negative. (While I was writing this, I was praying that he wouldn’t ask me why, ’cause I have no effing idea.) But I realize I also could have said “Yeah, high school was lame” or if I disagreed, “No, I thought it was fine.” I also could have said “No, high school was lame,” which if you think about it is just weird. Why can you put a negative or a positive in the same sentence in the same position and mean the exact same thing? My fiance’s answer to this question was “because English.” This confusion mostly comes up when a negative was used. But, theoretically, if someone said “Highschool was great!” and you agreed, you could even say “No, no, for real, high school was wonderful,” but you’d be using no in a different way.

I often conclude that English makes no sense, which is fine, but doesn’t really help me. I know modern English is a hodgepodge of borrowed words and remnants of obsolete grammar (I and me, he and his, she and hers, for instance, are refugees from when English had cases.)

I do wonder, though, how much of my language study in the future is going to involve tricky nuances in other languages and figuring out the implications behind the English words I use.


Cute video, good for remembering adjectives


This is a goofy, not at all serious video by buzzfeed showing anime expressions. What I like about it is that before each expression it shows the adjective describing the expression written in either Hiragana or Katakana (whichever is usually used for that word.) You can use this to check your vocabulary and quick reading skills. Even if you are well past the point where you learned these words, it might still be useful. Everyday, I run into words I used to know but can’t remember. Looking at super beginner stuff refreshes my memory.

Japanese Sentences


I’ll talk a little bit about learning from sentences, and then I’ll put a few helpful sentences in Japanese with English translation at the end of this post. My definition of “helpful” is things one might have to say as a beginner/upper beginner student of Japanese who isn’t comfortable speaking yet and isn’t sure of their skill. (That’s where I am in my study.)

So, one of my recent methods of study is to put whole Japanese sentences into a flashcard program. I’m mostly getting the sentences from the online dictionary

To find sentences, I enter in a word in either English or Japanese into the search bar (you can use Romaji, Katakana or Hiragana as well as Kanji) and click “examples.” Sentences are shown in English and Japanese, with furigana over the Kanji (if you choose to display furigana.) Multiple ways to say the same thing might be shown. In that case, I choose the one that I’ve heard more or, because I figure a little laziness is ok, the one that seems easier to remember.


These sentences are sourced from the Tatoeba project (Tatoeba, たとえば、例えば =For example) where they were created and translated by volunteers, so they may not be natural or even correct. They are better than anything I can create off the top of my head, though, and their are many ways to check the accuracy. For me, If I’m unsure about a sentence, I go to Lang-8 and ask native speakers if it’s correct and natural.

So far, the sentences have been fine, and have gotten me a lot of praise for speaking Japanese well (which I inavariably awkwardly answer by writing  いいえ、まだ上手じゃありません and hoping that I got the phrase correct. Continue reading

Some helpful Japanese videos on Youtube


There are youtube videos to help with almost every level of Japanese learning.Japanese pod sometimes has videos I like.

Absolute Beginner:

Some key words


Try watching Japanese TV and seeing how many times you hear these words. You could even turn it into a drinking game. It may seem silly to learn these three words and expect greater comprehension, but think about it. If you are watching a TV conversation and someone angrily yells “うそ” at someone else, you now have a bit of any idea of what is going on. The other person said something unbelievable. If someone sees someone from a far and says “かわいい” You can guess one person thinks the other person is cute and might be a bigger part of the story. If someone says ”すごい” you can guess they’ve been impressed by something. Any words you learn can help you better understand the context of a conversation or TV show.

Notes: Kawaii can sound a little bit like Kowai, which means scary, if you don’t take care.

At first you might be sticking schwas everywhere, so you may try to pronounce the first sound of both as “Kuh.” Don’t do that; other languages really like to preserve the individuality of their vowels, unlike English where we just want them to be what we want. Oh, so that’s an ‘a,’ an ‘i’, and an ‘e’? Oh well, I don’t care. They’re all going to occasionally and for no reason be pronounced as “uh.” For the most part, Japanese doesn’t work like that.

Anyway, that long ‘ii’ at the end of kawaii will also help distinguish between the words.

Listening Practice

To call this “absolute beginner” might be a little startling for some. However, if you have just began Japanese study you can absolutely get this correct , as long as you listen out for words you know instead of worrying about the words you don’t.

This one is helpful if you’ve been working on comparison and stature words.

Anyway, if you’re getting the jist of everything, but you don’t understand every single word, remember that that is ok.  The point is to use what you did understand.

Funny/Cool Commercials

The speech in commercials is usually delivered very carefully and crisply. The visual aspect of the humor keeps you from feeling left out even if you don’t understand all the language.


The Benefit of Language Nerd Friends Pt. 1


I find that a good way to reinforce my knowledge of Japanese is to hang around other people learning languages, whatever those languages are. I spent the week with my best friend Molly in Sacramento. She’s learning Russian and Spanish. Surprisingly, we’ve learned discussing vocabulary and grammar rules in our respective target languages is a good way to get the information to stick.

Molly is MUCH better at remembering grammar rules and recognizing parts of speech than I am (especially in Spanish, in which she is at a true intermediate level.) I usually would chose to avoid thinking about grammar entirely, but talking to her about why certain verb forms are important in Russian or Spanish makes me realize similar things about Japanese. For instance, we use the same word, “open,” whether a door is being opened by someone, a door opened by itself, a store is open for business, or a we’re describing a space that doesn’t have a lot of clutter. In some languages, these concepts all are described by different words.

Molly is also very good at pronouncing foreign words. She doesn’t hold back when trying to learn sounds. She told me once that I’ll pronounce new vocabulary better if I pretend to be impersonating a native speaker of my target language, exaggerating the accent to the point where it seems it’s almost offensive. It sounds silly, but it works, provided you listen to people speaking your target language often.

I’m always afraid I’ll sound dumb speaking another language, so I don’t commit. I usually start laying a weak version of another language’s pronunciation on top of my American accent.  If I go straight to an impersonation instead, my ego doesn’t get in the way as much. Also, the exaggeration is important because sounds in other languages are usually more complex than we realize when we’re trying to learn them.

For instance, you’ve probably heard that there aren’t diphthongs in the Japanese language. Japanese vowels, even when next to each other, are all pronounced. (All rules all have exceptions, but it’s good to learn the rules first before you learn the exceptions.) Hairu, for instance, whatever it sounds like to English speakers, is not HIGH-ru, but -ha-i-ru (はいる.) Oishii (おいしい)not only contains おい which is tempting to pronounce like “oy” as in “boy”, but a double vowel at the end, which makes the “i” sound take a double beat (as in become longer.) I slow down video until I can actually hear the separate moras, and then I imitate that, making sure to pronounce everything clearly, and then slowly speed it up until I feel like I naturally am saying every sound even when I speak quickly.

Continue reading