Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Verb Groups - Beginners Japanese Grammar

Plain form is also called dictionary form and it is just like “masu” form but is used in casual, informal situations. Plain form is the present/future tense and is pretty important because you use this as a basis to create other verb forms (like past and negative).

You can practice all of these using the J-Talk Online Memrise course Beginners Japanese Grammar 1 (JLPT N5 Grammar). See last week's post on Studying Japanese Grammar for tips on ways to learn grammar.

But the first thing you need to know about plain form are the 3 groups.

Group 1 or “u verbs” 

These are words that have an “u” sound at the end. When you turn a “masu” form into plain form the “I” changes to the “u” for group 1 verbs. Such as the following.

いきます ikimasu  -> いく iku   = to go

あらいます araimasu -> あらう arau   = to wash

たちます tachimasu -> たつ tatsu   = to stand

はなします hanashimasu -> はなす hanasu   = to talk

かえります kaerimasu -> かえる kaeru   = to go home

はしります hashirimasu -> はしる hashiru   = to run

Group 2 or “ru verbs” 

This group can be distinguished by the “e” sound in “masu form”. To change it to plain you just remove the “masu” to make it into a stem and add “ru”. These verbs are easier because unlike Group 1 the stem doesn’t change at all.

たべます tabemasu -> たべる taberu   = to eat

しめます shimemasu -> しめる shimeru   = to shut
ねます nemasu -> ねる neru   = to sleep

いれます iremasu -> いれる ireru   = to put in

I mentioned that group 1 verbs can be recognised by the "i" before the "masu". There are a few group 2 verbs that have this pattern too, you just have to remember them and get used to using them as group 2 and not group 1 verbs:

います imasu - いる iru   = to be

かります karimasu -  かりる kariru   = to lend

おきます okimasu = おきる okiru   = to wake/get up

Group 3 (irregular verbs) 

There are only 2 verbs. They are irregular because they change differently from groups 1 and 2 

します shimasu -> する suru   = to do

きます kimasu -> くる kuru   = to come

As I said, these groups are particularly important to learn because each group changes differently depending on what you're turning the verb into. The following explains past tense and negative to illustrate these changes. Pay particular attention to group 1/U verbs as they change the most.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Studying Japanese Grammar

"I find it hard to learn Japanese Grammar"

In the past I've tried to explain basic Japanese sentence structure and introduced "masu" form, but I've not gone into much detail on how to learn these. That's difficult thing about Japanese grammar, you can't just read about it and expect to know it. There are hundreds of websites that explain grammar to you and tell you what you need to know for the various JLPT levels, but not much on how you learn that.

I guess to sum it up you just have to keep using it in different situations. But what's the best way to do this? Write a diary or a blog? Drill grammar over and over? How do you know if you're getting it right? Grammar is tricky because it seems so vauge and doesn't always have a 'direct' translation to English.

Hopefully the following tips and explanations will help.

As I said, you just have to keep using it in a mix of different situations, such as the following:

Flash cards programs - In particular Memrise, which is a great program, lets you have the ability to create your own flashcards which you can use to create your own drill sessions. Or you can use the J-Talk Online JLPT N5 grammar practice course. (N4 Grammar course coming soon)

Reading Textbooks - Textbooks will have grammar explained but also lots of example questions and segments of writing that will have the grammar in them. (For advice on textbooks I wrote a post on using Textbooks for Self Study)

Doing Japanese exercises - If you have a textbook with exercises or a workbook they will often have practice exercises you can do. (Try not to look at the textbook for reference and try to do it from memory). When you do exercises from a textbook/workbook do them on a separate piece of paper so you can do them again. Repetition of exercises will help enforce the grammar in your mind.

Using a teacher - If you don't understand how a textbook or someone online has explained a piece of grammar, asking a native Japanese teacher is the best way to understand as they can give you more examples and answer your questions quickly.

Using Lang-8 - This is a site where you can write things in other languages and natives will correct it for you (and in return you correct other's English). This is great if you're writing your own diary, using grammar and vocabulary etc, as you can see how a native person would write it and ask them questions directly. People will give you various answers and alternatives for a sentence in Japanese, and you have to remember they aren't teachers. But it's a great resource.

Coming up with sentences in your head (and/or saying them out loud) - If you're at school or work, just think about how you'd say something in Japanese randomly. Write it down or say it out loud, and then look it up online to see if you're right or not. You can do this anywhere and coming up with your own sentences is a great way to practice using the grammar rather than just reading about it. (And if you're not sure if you're right write it down and get someone on Lang-8 or a teacher etc to check it)

These are just a few tips. As Master Japanese says, it's important to do regular study and to keep a variety of how you learn. One of the best ways is role play, so if you have a teacher ask them to role play situations where you'd use grammar you learn, and try and do it regularly.

Do you have your own tips/advice for people learning grammar?
Do you have any requests or questions about learning grammar?
Feel free to leave comments and questions!

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Japanese Sign Language - 手話

If you'd like to try something different but keep learning Japanese I strongly recommend shuwa (しゅわ・手話), Japanese sign language.

I've found learning Japanese sign language to be a really enjoyable experience, not only because it's fun to learn something new but learning it from Japanese people who use Japanese Sign Language (JSL) is also a fantastic experience. I find them to be incredibly friendly and outgoing people and you will often find some people wanting to learn foreign languages or about foreign culture. So if you're living in Japan and want to make some new friends I learn JSL.

It's actually surprisingly easy to learn sign language, and there are LOTS of videos on youtube to help you. The following are videos are ones I've found which give you a good start on the basics of Japanese sign language.

When watching these videos make sure you pay attention to which hands are doing what. You want to make sure your right hand is doing what their right hand is doing etc so that you don't get your signs mixed up and accidentally say something else.

Something good to know about Japanese sign language is it's structured the same as a Japanese sentences but without the particles! So 「ベールをのみたいです」"I want to drink beer" in sign language would be 「ベール」「のむ」「ほしい」 (ほしい being "want", the same as saying "のみたい").

Deaf Japan TV

This first video is a great one from Deaf Japan TV and shows you basic greetings, numbers, time, dates, some adjectives and other useful words, and even some sentences at the end.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Telephone Calls in Japanese

I find that in the day and age where we use email and texting all the time, using the phone can be a daunting experience. Even worse if it's in another language! The first time I talked on the phone was to a possible WWOOF (volunteering on farms in exchange for food and lodging) host family. I had the possible phrases I would need written in front of me with my Japanese teacher on stand-by. I was so nervous I probably sounded awful and rude! But I'm sure they understood my Japanese wasn't that great as a foreigner. Even so, it's useful to know the basics of talking on the phone in Japanese if you ever go to Japan for work or when staying with a host family.

Just like in English you will always speak in polite Japanese on the telephone, so there's lots of keigo used. (For other keigo posts see here.) But these phrases are still easy to learn because there's only one context you'd be using them in - on the phone. These are used when calling both businesses and someone's home.

There is also a list of essential vocabulary for beginners from the phrases at the bottom of this post.

A quick note, Japanese phone numbers are made up of 3 parts which look like this (XX) XXXX-XXXX. The first is the area code (cities and areas within Japan have their own codes not country code), and the second and last part is the person's number. The dash in the middle is said の "no" (so the phone number 1234-5678 would be いち、に、さん、よん、、ご、ろく、しち、はち)

Start of a Call
Hello? - もしもし (moshi moshi)

Who is this? - どなたですか? (donata desu ka?)

Is this the Tanaka residence? - たなかさんのおたくですか? (Tanaka-san no otaku desu ka?)

Yes, it is. - はい、そうです。(hai, sou desu)

Who is this please? - どちらさまですか?(dochira-sama desu ka?)

This is ____. - こちらは____です。(kochira wa ____ desu.)

May I talk to ____ please? - ____さんをおねがいします (___san wo onegaishimasu.)

Please wait a moment - ちょっとおまちください (chotto omachi kudasai)

I'm sorry to phone you so late at night. - やぶんおそくにすみません。(yabun osoku ni sumimasen)

Saturday, 14 June 2014

Japanese Textbooks for Teaching Yourself Japanese

"What text books should I use for teaching myself Japanese?"

Using text books to learn Japanese can be tricky business because they are often made for class studying rather than self study, but it doesn't mean they're not useful if you can't afford the time or money for classes.

First of all when studying Japanese it's good to know the answers to these questions: Why are you studying Japanese? What's your goal? It could be to read manga, watch anime without subtitles, to be able to read/speak it while on holiday or for a possible career. Your answer will mean that you need text books to focus on different things. If it's reading, you'll need a book that focuses on kanji and lots of reading practice. If it's for a job JLPT and business books are the best way to go as they give you clear goals with a certificate that shows your skills to employers.

Getting text books can become costly, so it's useful to know what you're getting and that's it's the right one for your goal and learning method. Japan Language Centre (Europe) and are a great places for buying books within the UK at a reasonable price. For people in US there are more options for getting hold of Japanese books on and various Japanese stores across the country.

(Each textbook below is linked to sites where they are explained further either in a review or official website.)

Extra tips using texts:
If you do have a Japanese friend or teacher who can check your work and improve on your mistakes, that's always a great help too. Self-teaching while studying with a teacher will improve your Japanese much faster!

General Text Books for Beginners

I don't think beginners necessarily need work books because there are so many online resouces for them. But some people need direction, set structure and a clear goal and text books/work books can be really good for that. The following are 2 textbooks that I have used in the past (but in lessons not for self study). There is also Japanese for Busy People but I can't expand on that if I've never used them.

Genki - This series is written by mostly Japanese language teachers from Kansai Gaikokugo Daigaku (Kansai International Language University). There are 2 in the series and are made for beginners (JLPT N5-N4). They are well rounded books that tries to use speaking, reading, listening and writing. With 23 lessons covering 300 kanji and 1100 vocabulary and grammar. Exercises are written into the book so you don't have to buy an extra workbook (although there are workbooks useful for extra practice). Lessons are set up with a conversation (to be practised out loud) with a translation; vocabulary list; grammar; lots of practice exercises. It's designed so that you learn the vocabulary, grammar and kanji through use and comes with a CD for listening exercises as well as the conversation.

A great book for self study because of the exercises (if you don't write in the book you can do them over and over for more practice) and clearly laid out pages which makes it easy to work though. The most expensive, but worth it considering what you get from it.

Good for:

  • JLPT N5-N4
  • Reading, writing, listening, speaking
  • Practice
  • Steady pacing

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Manga Japanese for Beginners

"I want to be able to read Japanese manga"

Japanese manga is great fun to read but can be pretty tricky for beginners who are studying Japanese. This is because a lot of the Japanese people learn is polite, where as the Japanese used is colloquial, and sometimes written with an accent, making it hard to understand and hard to look up certain words. Not only that but Japanese manga used a LOT of sound words which don't always translate to English. This post is a guide for beginners who want to read manga (and assumes you already know how to read the kanas).

In a previous post I talked about the advantages to learning Japanese using different forms of Popular Media. Manga is great for:

  • Reading practice (especially beginner and intermediate)
  • Learning Japanese culture
  • Informal Japanese
  • Onomatopoeias (Japanese has a huge selection of sound words used in everyday life) 
  • Variety of topics (can focus on areas you're studying)

The Basics - Informal Japanese Grammar

There are some key grammar points you need to know when you're reading manga in Japanese. The following 5 are, I think, the most common ones that turn up in manga that you need to be able to understand in order to understand what's going on. 

If you'd like to learn how to use these and write them yourself I will be making a Memrise course soon (and will link it here). But if you're just interesting in reading manga, it's important to recognise the following verb forms and their uses but not necessarily know how to make them (which is why the following is not a detailed explanation).

1. Plain form - Also know as 'Dictionary form' is the informal Japanese spoken on a daily basis. It's split into 3 groups which are important because depending on the group changes how the verb is turned into other forms like past, negative etc. (More on this in another post coming soon.)

Group I - "U" verbs
Group I verbs are also called "U" verbs by some people because the end of the word finishes in an "U" sound. When these verbs are turned into "masu" or polite form, the "u" becomes and "i" sound.

- to write  --> かます
はな - to speak  --> はなます
- to wait  --> まます
- to drink  --> のます

Group II - "Ru" verbs
These verbs are called "Ru" verbs because they end in "ru". Group II is easy because to change them you swap the "ru" for "masu" or "ta" (past) or "nai" (negative)

たべ - to eat  --> たべます
- to see  --> みます
おき - to get up  --> おきます

Group III - Irregular verbs
Group III only has the following 2 verbs and that's simply because they are irregular.

くる - to come  --> きます
する* - to do  --> します

*NOTE: in manga and colloquial Japanese する is often replaced by the infromal やる. (See the panel from Yotsuba-To! above)

Saturday, 31 May 2014

Keigo III - Rules for Using Keigo

"I find it really hard to remember keigo."

There are many websites that cover the basics of keigo and special vocabulary, but I find not many that give a clear rule on when to use which keigo in different situations, and very many people with questions and confusions. I myself have these same confusions and in my research came up with the following rules and situational examples.

If you need a recap on kenjougo (humble Japanese) and sonkeigo (respectful Japanese) you can do so here:
Keigo I - Sonkeigo
Keigo II - Kenjougo

When Should You Use Keigo?

Politeness Levels

First of all it's important to know the levels of politeness, but as a general rule if the sentence is longer the more formal it is. Similar to English when you ask for things from "Can I have a cookie?" to "Could I please have a cookie?" to "Would you mind terribly if I had a cookie?".

Here is a great chart from wikipedia that shows you the various different levels:

informalpoliteformalpolite formal (keigo)
kore wa hon da.
kore wa hon desu.
kore wa hon de aru.
kore wa hon de gozaimasu.

When to Use Keigo 

Keigo is a matter of understanding "inside" and "outside" relationships. As I mentioned in the last posts kenjougo (humble) is used when you're talking to someone higher than yourself but you're talking about yourself. Sonkeigo (respectful) is when you're talking to someone higher than you but about them. So what happens when you're talking to someone higher than yourself but about their child? A child would technically be lower ranking. Or if you were talking to a customer about people in your own company? This is where you have to realise who is "inside" the group and who is "outside" it.

When talking about people "inside" your group you would use kenjougo (humble), and for those "outside" you would use sonkeigo (respectful). So when you talk about your bosses child you would use sonkeigo. Although a child is 'lower ranking' than you, they are within your bosses group and outside your own. When you talk to a customer about people in your company you would use kenjougo even if those people are higher ranked than you in your company. This is because your company is part of your group, and your customer is outside. You would humble your own company and respect the customer.

For example:
I am talking to my boss/teacher about myself and what I did at the weekend (kenjougo)

I then ask my boss/teacher about their weekend (sonkeigo)

I tell my boss/teacher about something my classmate/co-worker did (kenjougo - because although we are the same status they are part of "my group")

I ask my boss/teacher how their child is (sonkeigo - because although a child is lower status than me, they are part of my superior's family and therefore "inside their group")

I am a receptionist on telling a customer that the president is not here (kenjougo)

I am a customer asking the receptionist to ask him to ring me back (kenjougo - because I am requesting they doing something for me)

There are many situations where this would merge together and often you have to go with your instinct. If you first arrived at a company you would humble yourself when you introduce yourself, and use keigo when speaking to people you're meeting for the first time. As you got used to the job and the people you would use the causual sonkeigo (passive form) discussed in the first post so that you're being formal with your colleagues but not so formal that you're distancing yourself from them.

If you go to a school in Japan you would use keigo when talking to your teachers, and sonkeigo when you're talking about them to other people, even students.

When I was at a meeting in Japan I notice the Japanese co-workers talked to each other in casual sonkeigo, and used kenjougo and sonkeigo with their bosses.


I think this is what makes keigo tricky and many Japanese people can't even use it correctly all the time! I do get annoyed when people say that foreigners don't need to worry about learning keigo but if you want to learn how to use it correctly then why not!? Sometimes if you get stuck you should ask a native Japanese person who might have a better idea than you. is great for this as you can practice and ask questions and native people will correct them. Especially good if you're preparing for a presentation or speaking exam.
If you're in Japan working or studying it's also helpful to watch other, how they act and talk in certain situations (try and make some notes because you might forget what they've done/said later on).
Otherwise, you could watch some anime where certain characters would use keigo normally, or certain situations where people would use keigo.

It's a matter of practice, watching and learning.