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A pocketful of Japanese immersion is just a few key taps away

by

Special To The Japan Times

I live in Chicago these days, which isn’t exactly ideal for a student of the Japanese language. I have to make my own immersion, whenever I can, wherever I can, whether it’s reading a Japanese book or listening to a Japanese podcast.

I’ve come to think of these moments as a sort of 携帯 (keitai, portable) immersion, as it were. Keitai also happens to be a shortened form of 携帯電話 (keitai denwa, portable phone), and switching one of these into Japanese is an effective way to use 画面中毒 (gamen chūdoku, screen addiction) to your advantage and put language immersion in your pocket.

Whenever I pass my iPhone to a friend, it always results in gasps of surprise (and perhaps admiration?) at the Japanese. The first thing they see is スライドでロック解除 (Suraido de rokku kaijo, “Slide to unlock”) on the lock screen, along with a picture of my cat, Butthead. (Don’t ask; it’s a long story.)

Once I’ve unlocked the phone for them, they probably recognize most of the main screen from the icons alone, but many of them have simple Japanese translations: メッセージ (messēji, messages), カレンダー (karendā, calendar), 写真 (shashin, photos), ビデオ (bideo, video), マップ (mappu, maps), 天気 (tenki, weather), etc.

Changing your phone into Japanese will drastically increase your exposure to these words, and exposure is what changes Japanese words from bits of kana and kanji into larger, more meaningful blocks.

Obviously there may be times when you want to switch back into English, which is why it’s key to remember that you need to tap 設定 (settei, settings), 一般 (ippan, general), 言語と地域 (gengo to chi’iki, language and region), and then select English or the language of your choice when you want to revert back.

But I would challenge you to leave the settings in Japanese as much as possible, even when (especially when!) you see an intimidating screen full of text. Often, as with 利用規約 (riyō kiyaku, usage agreements), you can ignore the details and just hit 同意する (dōi suru, agree) to get on with things, or 同意しない (dōi shinai, don’t agree) if you’re not ready to take that step. However, if you load up a new app and generally like to have control over how often your phone bothers you or what the apps are allowed to do, there are a few messages to pay attention to.

One of the key compounds to be familiar with is 許可 (kyoka), which as a noun means “permission.” As a verb it means “allow” and operates very similarly to dōi above, except the suru is excluded. The negative form is 許可しない (kyoka shinai, don’t allow).

Most of these new-fangled アップ (appu, apps) take advantage of the GPS feature on your phone, and they’ll ask your permission to use this with the following: 使用中に位置情報の利用を許可 しますか (Shiyōchū ni ichi jōhō no riyō o kyoka shimasu ka, “Allow the use of location information during operation?”).

One word to handle with care is 削除 (sakujo, delete). You can use it to get rid of photos, text messages or podcasts, and even just to backspace when typing in a number, but keep an eye out for the passive phrase 削除されます (sakujo saremasu, to be deleted). This will pop up when you remove an app or take another action that will then indirectly lead to the loss of other data. You’ll see Xを削除すると、そのすべてのデータも削除されます (X o sakujo suru to, sono subete no dēta mo sakujo saremasu, “When you delete X, all its data will also be deleted”). On these occasions キャンセル (kyanseru, cancel) might be your savior and help you escape the situation and prevent any data loss.

Dating apps also present some interesting translations. I wasn’t impressed with OKCupid, especially the translation of the personality questions. Bumble, on the other hand, one of the newer dating apps, has a crisp, youthful translation that matches its target audience. Bumble is also interesting because it is レディースファースト (rediisu fāsuto, “ladies first”). You swipe left and right to match, as in the Tinder app, but once you’ve matched, only the women can send the first message. If they don’t message within 24 hours, つながりは永遠に消えてしまいます (Tsunagari wa eien ni kiete shimaimasu, “The connection is lost forever”).

After installing apps like these, Facebook users will often find themselves using their FB account to log in, which means you’ll see Facebook経由でログイン (Facebook keiyu de roguin, “Log in via Facebook”). I know this is a troubling process, especially since many apps will post to your Facebook timeline without first giving you much of an opportunity to turn off this feature. Luckily, these dating apps seem to know that no one would use the apps with this feature on. The line you’re looking for to ensure this is Facebookに投稿することはありません (Facebook ni tōkō suru koto wa arimasen, “[This app] never posts to Facebook”).

One of the best parts about using the Facebook app on a phone switched into Japanese is that all of your friends start speaking Japanese as well! All of their status 気分 (kibun, feelings) are automatically translated into Japanese, so you’ll see American friends who’ve never spoken a lick of Japanese describing themselves as へとへと (hetoheto, exhausted) or 興味津々 (kyōmi shinshin, curious), among other perhaps more familiar emotions, such as わくわく (wakuwaku, excited).

Many apps will still load up in English, especially if you’re using the U.S. Apple Store, which can’t be helped. But make do with what you have. Take these small experiences and focus on staying mindful when you do interact with them, so that the repetitions take hold and your brain magically starts seeing them as you see your native language.

  • Jean-Michel Levy

    Too bad Samsung smartphones do not speak Japanese, although by downloading a (non Samsung) keyboard it is possible to write in Japanese and use japanese dictionnaries and apps.

    • saitamarama

      What are you talking about? I have a Galaxy Note 4 and it has QWERTY and 10-key keyboards for Japanese input set by default along with a decent text predictor. Japanese language interface settings too. Don’t even have to reboot the thing to get it in Japanese like I did with my iPhone.

      The obvious elephant in the room is that one must know how to pronounce the words/kanji for it to have any 意味。Do you 見る how you can 混乱する if you 読めない the 言葉? It might as well be 文字化け that you feel your way through instead of truly 日本語を身に付けてる。Incidentally – it physically hurt me to write like that, but non-Japanese readers get my point – if you don’t know how to say what you see, it might as well not mean anything.

      For full disclosure, I unapologetically use Facebook and a couple other apps in Japanese to expose myself to the language. It actually is a decent tip for intermediate users wanting to internalize vocabulary, but not sure it warranted a full article. Kudos to the author for sharing and hope he uses the check from the article on something nice.

      • Jean-Michel Levy

        I’m talking about my Galaxy S3 -not the latest model, admitedly. As said, by using the GO keyboard (instead of Samsung’s) I have been able to read and write in Japanese for three years, even with a prehistorical S1. I understand that there is now a Samsung keyboard in Japanese also, but evidently I have no reason to change.
        All the more so that it seems rather clumsy.

        Still, the system does not have Japanese in its languages although it has a lot of non-western languages and scripts among which simplified Chinese.
        Taming the ‘elephant in the room’ is the central point of the game, obviously. I use Nihongo (spacehamster) jisho and/or weblio.

      • Jean-Michel Levy

        I’m talking about my Galaxy S3 -not the latest model, admitedly. As said, by using the GO keyboard (instead of Samsung’s) I have been able to read and write in Japanese for three years, even with a prehistorical S1. I understand that there is now a Samsung keyboard in Japanese also, but evidently I have no reason to change.
        All the more so that it seems rather clumsy.

        Still, the system does not have Japanese in its languages although it has a lot of non-western languages and scripts among which simplified Chinese.
        Taming the ‘elephant in the room’ is the central point of the game, obviously. I use Nihongo (spacehamster) jisho and/or weblio.

  • Johnny LoveFive

    Or, import a Japanese Nintendo 3DS, you’ll have plenty of language choices provided you can decide between Japanese, Japanese, Japanese or Japanese. Then, you can also get plenty of text based games- doubutsu no mori, and learn an insane amount of kanji, written text!

    • Daniel Morales

      This is a great idea. I actually have an original DS, which was region free, so I’ve played through a few games on that. Many of the Square releases for iOS also play in Japanese when you set the phone to Japanese, so that’s another easy way to get some practice.

    • Daniel Morales

      This is a great idea. I actually have an original DS, which was region free, so I’ve played through a few games on that. Many of the Square releases for iOS also play in Japanese when you set the phone to Japanese, so that’s another easy way to get some practice.

    • Daniel Morales

      This is a great idea. I actually have an original DS, which was region free, so I’ve played through a few games on that. Many of the Square releases for iOS also play in Japanese when you set the phone to Japanese, so that’s another easy way to get some practice.

  • http://www.facebook.com/sharif.sircar Sharif Sircar

    Kanji is the hardest challenge for me,I can read the others or look them up but kanji is a bit more difficult

    • Charles

      When I first started studying Chinese in middle school in 1998, I really thought the Chinese characters (Japanese kanji, Korean hanja) were nearly impossible. I stressed over them so much. From 1998 to 2009, I hovered around several hundred characters.

      In 2009, I discovered four secrets:
      – Spaced Repetition Systems (like Anki, which is free)–this allows you to make your own flash cards and schedules reviews so you know when to review characters to avoid forgetting them. The algorithm works quite well. You will see a flash card again after 1 day, then maybe after 2 days, then maybe after 3 days. Gradually, 5 days, a week, 10 days…eventually you’ll be able to remember a kanji even if you see it only every few months. Make sure to WRITE them on a sheet of paper, otherwise you will end up like most western learners of Asian languages–unable to write more than a few hundred. Just looking at them on the screen and recognizing them isn’t enough.
      – Educational games for learning Chinese characters that make it fun (Magic Hanja 1000, or Mabeop Cheonjamun DS, was what I used)
      – Diminishing returns: 1,000 characters will get you 89% character comprehension. 1,800 will get you to 98%. 2,100 will get you to 99%. Basically, the highest-frequency characters you learn will give you a huge bang for your buck. I don’t recommend trying for better than 99% comprehension; few Japanese can read more than about 99%, and it’s a waste of time that would be better-spent on other things.
      – Take out a newspaper, count the total kanji in an article, highlight the ones you know, and come up with a percentage. Do this every week or so, but not too frequently (the same way that an overweight person should weigh himself/herself once a week or once a month). For example, there are 100 kanji in the article and I know 75. 75 / 100 = 75%. This number will grow and grow as you learn more until eventually, it is 90% or better. At that point, you’ll be feeling pretty good about yourself. Great way to stay motivated. “You can’t manage what you can’t measure,” as they say in business.

      As soon as I discovered those three secrets, my Chinese characters shot up from a few hundred to 1,000 in a very short time. Officially, I know 1,322 right now (Kanji Kentei 4-kyuu, passed last year–I took it together with my 9th graders), but unofficially, I’d say probably 2,000+ since many of the kanji that I know and can write are not on that test specification. Kanji are no longer a serious problem for me, and I don’t bother to learn additional ones, usually, simply because I already know enough and it’s not my bottleneck anymore. I can read the kanji in pretty much anything, though the correct readings of names and place names are still hard (I’m not at all ashamed of that–Japanese people have extreme difficulty with those, too–I can’t count the number of times that my J-boss or J-girlfriend has misread the kanji for a person’s name or place).

      Basically, to summarize, just use the methods I mentioned above, and try to learn three per day for a year (not hard). You’ll know 1,095 kanji by the end of the year. Try to cover all 1,006 of the Kyouiku Kanji in that; if you do, you should be able to recognize 90% of the kanji you see within a year.

      Good listening comprehension? Vocabulary building? Being able to untangle the meaning of Japanese sentences with complex grammar, ommitted subjects, obfuscation, etc.? Those are MUCH more difficult. Children spend tens of thousands of hours learning their first language. An educated native speaker probably knows 60,000~100,000 words. But kanji really aren’t all that hard–there’re only about 2,000 of them in common use, which is nothing compared to 60,000~100,000 (vocabulary words in a native speaker’s vocabulary) or 10,000 hours (what they say it takes a person to become fluent in a new language).

      • http://www.facebook.com/sharif.sircar Sharif Sircar

        I really appreciate the time you put into writing this,funny thing is I started to seriously get into it near the end of Middle School and few minutes a day,can actually add up to something,I am glad I came across this app called Memrise,thanks to another awesome person over the internet like you.

        I was recommended to try out Anki (I already have it installed) and it’s similar to memrise as far as I know,which I have used to learn Hiragana and katakana and currently using it to growing my vocabulary (A course based on the genki book but just the vocabs) ,it’s much easier for me to read them now.
        Though I neglected on taking time on writing,so I have work on learning to write characters first before I can get involved in writing Kanji.

        I was initially in the situation in allocating time for Kanji over vocabulary,I ended up going with vocabs thinking it would be more rewarding and thus motivating me to go further, so far it is but I keep on coming across Kanji and Anki I had installed on my computer and neglected putting time in but the main issue for me is finding time,I got my CIE exams in 6 months or so,I am not the brightest student so I am trying to improve and it takes up hours.After finally done with my daily routine,I keep on going with entertainment and hence how I end up with 10 mins with memrise and sleep

        I don’t have a DS and I am no way ready to get close to a Japanese newspaper or actually find one since I Don’t live there (Ignoring the articles on the internet) but now that I looked at 3 per day,it doesn’t seem that bad in terms of time.

        Can you please link me to a Kyouiku Kanji deck I can go through as time passes?

  • blondein_tokyo

    Memorizing how kanji look doesn’t actually teach you to read. You might memorize quite a few words, but when the individual kanji appear in different combinations, will you know what they mean? And will you be able to write them? Not without some other kind of practice, you won’t. And if you want to be able to speak, that is a whole other set of skills.

    Personally, I’d recommend reading children’s books at first, since they have furigana, and you can see how it’s pronounced as well as how the kanji combine into different words. It’s also fun to go to karaoke and sing while reading the kanji. That really forces you to remember and pronounce them properly! You also will need a writing workbook, to practice writing them in the proper stroke order. Kanji cards are also good, as long as you contextualize the meaning of the word and know how to use it in a sentence.

    I have a feeling this guy just enjoys the attention he gets when people see his phone is set to kanji. ;) That’s fine, and I definitely encourage people to do whatever it is they enjoy doing in order to learn.