Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Building the Sentence Structure

Recap of Previous Post
In the last post we looked at some tips to get us started with our language learning project. I hope you found them helpful and at that you are now well on your way to broadening your understanding of Japanese vocabulary. I recommended that you focus on increasing your vocabulary by focusing on verbs (動詞, Doushi). I recommended this because we are focusing on increasing our communicative abilities and with a wide range of verbs at our command, we can describe the other words, such as nouns (名詞, Meishi) that we don't yet know or have forgotten in the heat of the moment, but are necessary to express that which we want to say. This communicative technique, which I often use, also helps to build our vocabulary base in a natural and communicative way.

Learning Approach
There are many ways to learn, but I agree with the philosophy that "learning is social" (Vygotsky, 1962). I learn best in the "zone of proximal development," (illustrated in the photo below) just outside my "comfort zone" and I seem to retain the information better in a "mentor/apprentice" dynamic.

(Photo retrieved at:

There is no question that it will take a lot of effort on your part to remember vocabulary and it may be very difficult to find a conversation partner, as mentioned in the previous post, but engaging with someone else in the target language will have a profound effect on your retention and fluency.

Useful Materials and Texts
In order to converse with any amount of fluency we must understand how the sentence structure works. When I was studying Japanese language and culture at Saint Mary's University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, the text that we used was the Japanese for Busy People series (Cover pictured below).

This was my first formal introduction to Japanese language learning and the materials were very well organised and easy to follow with a nice progression from romaji in the first text to kana in the second. There is also a third text which is a workbook. If you are hard core and price is not an issue you can purchase copies for about $30.00 each or you may be able to find pdf. copies on-line.

I cannot even begin to cover the material found in these texts in this blog and strongly recommend that you augment your language learning with as many materials as you can. The most important thing in choosing a study guide or textbook for such a purpose is that it has to agree with you. That is to say, you should feel good when you are looking at it; it should be visually pleasing to you and easy to follow and progress with. The materials covered in language texts and work books are usually the same or very similar. Therefore, I recommend taking the time and looking at many before choosing the one that speaks to you. Remember you will use it to speak for yourself!

And now for the Lesson...
Today we will look at something that I found on-line in a recent search, "The Surprisingly Simple Logic Behind Japanese Sentence Structure" (Raw Lisard, 2016)
The paper covers the "Basic desu 「です」 sentences, how particles work, defining different roles, and expanding individual elements."
Today we will look at the "Basic desu 「です」 sentences."
Desu pronounced "dess" is presented as the "equivalent to the English verb "be" (am, are, is)." This usually comes at the end of the sentence. Simple sentences that use desu usually follow the same basic structure:
"[topic] wa は ... (something that describes the toic)... desu です。"
Raw Lisard gives some common examples.
I recommend trying to personalise this material by making and practising your own example sentences.

Raw Lisard gives the example (This and following examples will be written in English, then in romaji, followed by kana, and finally kana including kanji):
Example 1) "I am a person. Watashi wa hito desu.
わたし は ひと です。 私 は 人 です。"
This could easily be altered to, I am Marc. Watashi wa Ma-ku desu.
わたし は まーく です。 私 は マーク です。

By altering the subject of the example sentence, by entering your own name, you not only personalise it, you also make it more functional. In this case, you can use it in your self introduction.
Let's look at some more examples and consider how they can be personalised or altered to express something that you want to say using the same sentence structure.

Example 2) "This is a car. Kore wa kuruma desu.
これ は くるま です。 これ は 車 です。"

Notice the difference of the [topic], it changed from watashi to kore. Use kore for non living things; objects that are close to you in distance. The above sentence gives the impression that the person speaking is standing next to a car, telling something what it is. While it serves the purpose, it is not very practical. Perhaps it would be better to change the subject of the sentence; the car, to something else. A taxi stand, or a bus stop/station. Instead of saying ,"This is a taxi," it would be more beneficial to learn and practise this is the taxi stand kore wa takushi noriba desu. (noriba is pronounced "No li ba")

Example 3) "The Car is red. Kuruma wa akai desu.
くるま は あかい です。 車 は 赤い です。"
Again, here I feel that with slight alteration to the subject we can increase the functionality of the example. The following example comes to mind, but please consider your own:
 The (traffic) light is red. Shingou wa aka desu.
しんごう は あか です。 信吾 は 赤 です。
The point that Raw Lisard is trying to make in these examples is in the structure of the sentence itself. Within the examples are "three very important rules."They are:
1. The particle wa 「は」 identifies the topic of the sentence
2. The verb comes at the end of the sentence
3. The articles "a", "an",  and "the" do not exist in Japanese.

Raw Lisard states that, "these rules apply to everything, so using the first two in particular, we can adapt our sentence structure... [to]:
[topic] wa は ... (other information) ... [verb]. This is a very easy to understand format that is highly adaptable to use in "real life" situations. He closes the section with the following:
When the verb is desu 「です」, the 'other information' can just be a noun (kore wa kuruma desu これは 車 です) or adjective (kuruma wa akai desu 車 は 赤い です). In fact, the last thing immediately before desu 「です」 should be either a noun or an adjective.

If you can remember and aply this simple rule when developing your sentences you will be well on your way to communicating in the target language. The next step is to understand what you are doing more deeply so that you can develop more elaborate sentences by using "particles" correctly. But, speaking from personal experience, leaving particles out completely will not hinder the communicative power of your sentence in the beginning. The rule presented in this article is a very good one to start with!

I will finish off this post with a quick grammar point related to the above examples and ground this learning approach in the literature, but if you are not interested in that stuff, you can stop reading now and get to work with your conversation partner. Stay tuned for the next post where we will look at some essential Kanji to help you get around when you are travelling.

Monday, 6 March 2017

Framing a Japanese Language Learning Project

As many of you reading this blog know, the International Chito-Ryu Karate-do Federation (ICKF) will hold its Tri-annual World Championships "Soke Cup" this year in Kumamoto, Japan. The championships will take place on August 12th and 13th at the Kumamoto Prefectural Gymnasium (Pictured below).
(2010 Chito-Ryu Karate-do Soke Cup, Kumamoto, Japan)

I have been very fortunate to have competed in this tournament representing both Canada and Japan and it has been an honour to compete alongside of my good friends and fellow karate-ka each and every time. This event was originally scheduled to take place in Kumamoto last summer. However, it had to be postponed due to the devastating earthquake that hit Kumamoto hard in the Spring of that year (see "Reflection on My Changing Perspective" for more information on the earthquake, there are also Internet sites provided on the page which offer detailed information).

Although I qualified for the Japanese National Team by winning the Grand-championship award at the ICKF All Japan National Championships (see "Focusing on the Goals not the Results Changes Everything!") and was looking forward to competing one last time for Japan last year, I have since decided to retire from competition. I will focus my time and energy to helping strengthen the relationships of the international membership.

I have been appointed to the position of Chief Liaison of the Public Relations Division of the All Japan Chito-Kai and as such am a member of the organising committee for this year's Soke Cup. I have been charged with the responsibility to coordinate a staff of translators for the event and am excited about the opportunity to help members of the Chito-Ryu community communicate more effectively with each other to develop and strengthen friendships with one another. This responsibility has caused me to consider ways to facilitate better communication and in this respect I would like to use this blog to help people who may be thinking about preparing for their trip to Kumamoto by learning some Japanese.

Over the next few posts I will provide you with some helpful Japanese language learning materials. In each post I will share with you something beneficial that I have found useful in my own language studies, but I  recommend that you perform your own online searches as well. From personal experience I suggest focusing on learning applicable phases and practising the correct pronunciation of the phrases you are learning. With regards to vocabulary building I recommend focusing on verbs.

When learning any language there are some simple steps that one can take to increase success and sustain motivation. There is an abundance of information online that can help you frame your learning approach, but the bottom line is that as a language learner you must do the work. Therefore, motivation plays an essential role in the success of your studies. I believe that we can maintain our levels of motivation by knowing the purpose of the endeavour. Understanding the purpose also helps us form more effective goals.
(Japan image from

In this post I will introduce you to the following information on how to learn a language in 7 days written by Ed M. Wood and presented by multilingual twins,  Matthew and Michael Youlden. Unfortunately the support site, Babbel does not offer study guides for Japanese so I will try to relate the tricks to our goal of using them to learn Japanese as the study tips may help to frame your study approach. Visit the site in the link below to view the video or read the 7 tricks in more detail:

7 Tricks To Learn Any Language In 7 Days (From The Superpolyglot Twins Who Did It)

Trick 1 - Get to know why - The tip here is to clearly define your goal(s) at the very beginning and then plot a route towards the achievement of your goal(s). In this case, your time line would start today and lead to your trip in August. As you continue your studies and practise of the language you should develop proficiency and confidence which will peak during your time in Japan, very similar to your physical and mental preparation for the competition.

Trick 2 - Get Sticky - They recommend mapping and labelling your immediate environment in the new language as the very first physical step to learning. This builds and reinforces passive associations without drastically altering your daily routines. The visual stimulus will help you familiarise yourself with the vocabulary however, since Japanese is a 漢字 kanji (character) based language there is a debate regarding whether it is better to label in romanji (alphabet) or kanji. Either way I recommend that if your goal is to develop communicative competence you should worry less about spelling and more about phonetic pronunciation even when labelling.

Trick 3 - Get a Partner - "There are few better motivations than a peer with the same goal." I totally agree with this statement. Whether you are training for competition, studying for a test, or learning a language, the importance of a training partner is massive! With a partner it doesn't matter what your motivational trigger is, i.e., competition or a sense of responsibility, the mere presence of a training partner will add the type and amount of intrinsic pressure needed to 'force' yourself to do the work even on those days when you are tired or don't really feel like it (sound familiar? I'm sure you have experienced those days when you didn't really feel like going into the Dojo to train, but you got that phone call from your training partner who persuaded you to go and that night becomes the best training session of the week. Thank you Fabian Massol for those times you called me!).

Trick 4 - Prepare Mini Motivations - It is now March, 5 Months out, you need to create "landmarks" on your route towards your over all goal. The article suggests that these "landmarks can consist of small challenges" such as real like interactions in the target language which force you to prepare areas of vocabulary to overcome them. They state that "gratification will come with the completion [and] will serve to spur you onto even greater heights."

Trick 5 - Eat the Language - They suggest finding ways to tie everything you are learning together. You could surround yourself with the food, music, movies, etc. "so that even in your down time you can prime your mind towards the language and... trigger further areas of interest and motivation." In hind sight, this is exactly what I did when I was a high school student. My room was filled with anything and everything Japanese. Looking back, my interest in Japan at that time was obviously an obsession, but I do think it all contributed to my Japanese communicative competence. (A more detailed example of how to use this trick is provided below)

Trick 6 - Use What You Already Know - Don't wait for perfect mastery and try not to think of the subject matter; Japanese Language and Culture as something totally foreign. "Find pleasure in drawing parallels and making comparisons between the language(s) you already know and your new language." This would be easier for someone who is already bilingual or multi-lingual, but Japanese is still tricky because of all of the perceived cultural differences. Try not to focus on the differences, rather look a little harder for the similarities. Being Karate-ka there is already a lot that you know about Japan. Focus on building upon this base and deepening your understanding of the Karate-do related concepts.

Trick 7 - Variation is the Spice of Life - These tips can help you to frame your study plan, but remember to try new things as well. Your new language could open doors to finding out new things about yourself. A new language, a new culture can be an opportunity to develop a new you.

I have spent almost half of my life in Japan and I know that my experiences here have and continue to affect me deeply. There are somethings that I can only use Japanese to express my true intent. These experiences have made me think that if this is the case than communicating true intent is more important than the language we are bound to.

We need to free ourselves from the bounds of language and develop our communicative skills so that language becomes what it truly is; a tool that we use to express our intentions to others in an attempt to create a condition of shared understanding. So, use what you have learned together with your training partner(s) and beyond. Example of Trick 5: 
Go to the Asian market on Saturday morning and use the Japanese phrases you've learned to buy some produce to make a Japanese dish that you will prepare, maybe okonomiyaki or sushi, or something not as common that you have recently come across in your studies, with friends or other memebers from your dojo, who you will invite over to watch a Japanese movie and drink Japanese Beer or Sake or some kind of Japanese juice or tea if you are under age or don't drink alcohol. The movie can be old or new, I recommend all "Kurasawa films" and the original "Ring,” but I am sure that you could find more modern productions online, in the genera of your personal interest. In this case, karate related videos may be preferred. The point is use what you've learned in an everyday context to submerse yourself in the language and the culture and celebrate what you have learned by using it to do these things as naturally as you can. The people around you will recognise your enthusiasm and react positively to your passionate approach to learning the language!

Access is becoming less and less of a problem, but you still need to do the work. 頑張りましょう!
(Fuji San and Sakura image from

In the next post I will introduce some tips on how to approach the dreaded and confusing Japanese sentence structure. until then try applying the tricks mentioned in this post and build up your vocabulary and motivation to take the next step and bring your language learning to the next level!