Japanese TV Dramas

SC asks how long it took me to be able to understand TV dramas. The answer is a long time. I still do not fully follow them after 9 years of living in Japan and using Japanese for over 30 years for business. Why? Because I rarely watch them, and I do not live with a Japanese family.

You learn a language by exposing yourself to a certain kind of content. The more familiar the content is, the easier it is to understand, and the easier it is to absorb the new words and phrases from that content. I needed Japanese for business, and I was soon able to understand business Japanese. I knew the Kanji so I could soon start to make out the newspaper, or parts of it. That made radio and TV news easier to understand. Baseball on TV was also understandable because I was familiar with the context. I was interested in Japanese history and tended to read that kind of material, usually containing a lot of Kanji. TV dramas represented a social context that I was not familiar with and a lot of casual colloquial language that I never came into contact with.

My son played professional hockey in Nikko for four years. Although he started basically from scratch, his casual or colloquial Japanese is probably better than mine. He picked it up from his teammates. My Japanese tends to be more neutral and formal.

The basis of The Linguist is that you learn from content that is interesting and relevant to your needs. And you expose yourself to a lot of such content through listening and reading. You do not worry about grammar rules. I certainly never did when learning Japanese or Chinese.

Instead The Linguist helps you create relationships or linkages between words to form natural phrases, and between these phrases and concepts so that you stop relying on translation from your own language. You study these words, phrases and linkages which come from the intensive listening and reading that you are doing. The key is that the content be relevant. I had no need to understand TV dramas. If I did, I would have applied myself to learning the necessary phrasing to fully follow them.

English culture

I was recently in London with my wife, visiting my son and his family. One day we took our two little grandchildren to a park outside London which offered a great variety of activities for kids. There were animals, boat rides, slides, mini-golf, trampolines and much more for a full day of things to do. There was a general admission fee and all events were free. One event was of a nature that I felt was very English.

An old and slow moving red mechanical harvester (farm machine) had been converted into a sort people mover. Parents and children stood on top of the harvester in a small group surrounded by a railing. The harvester shook and lumbered around a track about the length of the circumference of two football fields. It took barely five minutes. There really was nothing to see. The harvester was driven by a heavy set and jolly Englishman. Towards the end of the circular route there was a tree branch on which was attached a rod, suspended parallel to the ground. The rod had little holes in it and was connected to a water hose. When the harvester approached the tree the driver grabbed his umbrella and as the harvester passed under the branch, water flowed into the wand. The passengers on the platform of the harvester got watered down by the wand.

Everyone laughed, the passengers, the driver and the people watching at the starting platform and waiting to get on. The harvester then pulled up to the starting platform and the next group got on, parents, grandparents and children. They had about five minutes to wait to get wet.

Could such an event exist elsewhere other than in the UK?

Learning Japanese

Cliff Kwok, in a comment to my blog, asks about my experience in learning Japanese. Cliff has read my book in Chinese and would like to know more about how I learned Japanese in 6 months.

I learned Japanese in Japan. I had a very preliminary exposure to Japanese in Hong Kong before moving to Japan, while still in Hong Kong in 1970. For about two months I exchanged English and Japanese lessons over Chinese lunches twice a week with a Chinese speaking Japanese diplomat, Mr. Ohara. (The next time I saw Mr. Ohara he was on television interpreting for Japanese Prime Minister Sato on his visit to China in 1972). I also bought some books and tapes on Japanese but the texts were very poor. Essentially I arrived in Japan without any significant knowledge of Japanese.

However, I knew Chinese characters. The most important decision was my determination to pull out all stops and devote myself to learning Japanese during the first 6 months of my stay. I cannot repeat enough that attitude is 70% of the battle in language learning.

I was working full time at the Canadian Embassy so I had to spend my free time listening to and reading Japanese. I just did a lot of it. As soon as I was able to say a few things in Japanese I would use it whenever I had a chance. However, mostly it was constant listening and reading that started to condition my brain to Japanese.

I worked hard on pronunciation. Japanese was now my fourth language, and in a way my sixth, since I had spoken little bits of European languages while hitch-hiking in Europe. As a result I had a range of sounds in my brain that was much wider than the average monolingual student attempting Japanese. Japanese pronunciation was not difficult.

There were difficulties. The words all sounded the same. Some of the structures were completely new and strange to me. I had to learn two new writing systems, Hiragana and Katakana. The meanings of some of the Chinese characters were different from Chinese, and they all had at least two different pronunciations. But as in all language learning, only exposure can overcome the strangeness of a new language. You grow accustomed to what at first seems difficult only through constant input overload. As usual I ignored any attempt to analyze or explain the structure of Japanese. I just observed how the language worked, how the words related to each other, and I imitated.

I was not fluent after 6 months, but certainly able to communicate in many situations. If language learning is a journey, and it is, there is no destination. You will not achieve perfection. However, you can constantly improve. It is most important that you enjoy the journey. I did. I enjoyed learning Japanese. I still do. I still listen and read Japanese. I still try to add new phrases and words to my usable vocabulary. I try to make my Japanese effective for the purposes for which I use it. That does not include the latest slang nor erudite expressions.

Excerpts of my book in English,Chinese, French, German, Italian, Korean, and Spanish are available at www.thelinguist.com. The book can also be bought at the site.

Ishihara Shintaro and French

The Governor of Tokyo managed to get into Le Monde newspaper this morning. I am spending a few days in the little town of Brulon near the Loire valley in France. The town is small, charming and Medieval in its architecture. I went out for my pre-breakfast shopping which included a copy of Le Monde newspaper. As I looked at the newspaper over my coffee I noticed a headline that said that Ishihara Shintaro insulted the French language. Ishihara likes to make outrageous statements which appeal to certain Japanese people who like it when their leaders are allowed to say things that people usually only say after a few drinks.

It appears that Ishihara said that French did not have the qualities of an international language because it was not good for computation?? If he had said that French was not as important as at least a handful of other languages that are spoken by more people, even many French people would have agreed with him. But what was he referring to?? when he said that it was not suitable for computation? The French have produced brilliant mathematicians. Is it the fact that in French eighty is called four-twenty? Ishihara would be aghast at Danish where fifty is half-threes, sixty is threes, seventy is half-fours and so on. Yet this did not prevent Denmark from producing a Niels Bohr.

Every language has its idiosyncrasies, not the least Japanese ( is “ashi” foot or leg, “ude” hand or arm etc.) . Yet somehow it all works and people communicate just as well in all languages more or less. I can only speak for the ten languages that I know, yet I suspect it is true for all or at least most languages.


I welcome the comments from Pauline McNaughton explaining that the Canadian Benchmarks system is going to be made easier to understand. I look forward to that. Right now I feel that the Common European Framework levels are easier to understand. Having only 6 levels is also an advantage with the CEF.

At The Linguist we have more or less adopted the European benchmarks and added our own known words count to further describe learners levels. But we are open to all ideas. Simplicity has to be a major concern where learners are concerned.

The more the learner can evaluate him or herself, or understand the evaluation criteria, the better for everyone.

I am having trouble with this French keyboard and hope I did not leave too many typos here.

Sprachen und Beruf

I just finished attending a conference on “language training and the corporate sector” which took place in Duesseldorf, Germany. As soon as I have good access to the Internet I will send some observations.

Two intensive days of discussion on language training in Duesseldorf only confirmed my conviction that language learning is all about communication and not complicated instruction of grammar, quizzes, tests, role playing and the rest. I do not agree with the comment below that you just need a good teacher, a good student and a good textbook. Most of all you need a motivated learner (and that is where the teacher can be the most effective, in motivating the learner), interesting authentic language resources and an efficient system to enable the learner to take advantage of these language resources.