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


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.

  • 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!

  • 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

  • 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.