First Phrases in Japanese

コメントをありがとう、フランシスコさん。(Gracias, Francisco, por tus commentarios sobre Doing Hobbies in Other Languages: Taekwondo en Español.)

I dedicate this blog post to Francisco, who was kind enough to help me improve my Spanish on my previous post. フランシスコは日本語と英語を勉強しています。Francisco studies Japanese and English. (Or is he fluent?)

Japanese writing, basic hiragana syllabary

Learning to speak and understand very basic Japanese words and phrases is much easier than you might believe. Before getting to the easily pronounced phrases, let me tell you about the most intimidating part in beginning Japanese, the writing system. You may have heard that Japanese has three writing systems, but it is better to consider it as one writing system with two components.

Japanese Writing

(See my post on how to enable Japanese Input on Your PC.)

The scary component is 漢字 kanji (Chinese characters), which are used for writing most nouns, verbs and Japanese names. In Japan, school children are required to learn almost 2000 of them, which is enough to read a newspaper. For example,

  • 日本語 = ni-hon-go = Japanese
  • Separately, those three 漢字 (kanji) mean “sun”, “origin”, “language”, (amongst other things).

漢字 (kanji) are strung together with ひらがな (hiragana), which is a set of 48 phonetic characters — expressing, amongst other things, bits of grammar such as verb endings and “particles” (similar to prepositions) — which you could think of as an alphabet but is more correctly referred to as a syllabary. The difference being that each character in a syllabary represents a complete syllable ( ひらがな = hi-ra-ga-na). Important examples of ひらがな(hiragana) include

  • の (pronounced “no”) indicates possession, much like ’s
  • です(de-su, often pronounced “dess”) let’s say, for now, it’s basically the verb “to be”
  • か (ka) appears at the end of a phrase to indicate that it is a question.

For writing words and names from foreign languages, there is a parallel set of 48 characters, カタカナ(katakana), a little simpler and more square-looking than ひらがな (hiragana) — a bit like how typed English letters differ from cursive script. One place you will see a great deal of カタカナ(katakana) — which is also used to express onomatopoeia (sound effects) — is in manga (Japan’s popular graphic novels, book-length comics which often are, indeed, graphic!). カタカナ(katakana) is used to right such things as

  • エヴァン = eh-bu-ah-n = Evan
  • カナダ = ka-na-da = Canada
  • クレジットカード= ku-re-ji-to-ka-do = credit card
  • アルバイト= ah-ru-ba-i-to = part-time job (from the German “Arbeit” meaning “work”)
  • パン= pa-n = bread (from the Portuguese word for bread, “pão”)
  • ピンポーン= pee-n-po-n = “ding dong” (doorbell sound)

Compare the shapes of hiragana characters (top line) and katakana (bottom line):

  • ひらがな (hi-ra-ga-na) かたかな(ka-ta-ka-na)
  • ヒラガナ(hi-ra-ga-na) カタカナ(ka-ta-ka-na)

Japanese writing review sentence (containing katakana, hiragana, and kanji, which is not unusual): エヴァンの日本語ですか。= Evan’s Japanese is? (Is this Evan’s Japanese?) [Japanese readers, please tell me if this is correct Japanese.]「すみません、日本人は、私に教えてください。この文は正しいですか。」

Too much? Relax! = 休め!= やすめ = yasume = (yeah+sue+may). If you want to speak and don’t want to attempt reading and writing Japanese yet, Japanese can be written in romaji (roman characters, i.e. the Latin alphabet) which is easily understood by Japanese and non-Japanese alike. Our review sentence from above エヴァンの日本語ですか。can be written in romaji like this: “Eban no nihongo desu ka?” If you are willing to learn ひらがな, hiragana, this same sentence could be expressed as エヴァンのにほんごですか。(My non-Japanese name could be written in ひらがな (hiragana) like this えぶあん but that just isn’t done. That’s what カタカナ(katakana) is for.)

Speaking Japanese

Good news: Japanese pronunciation is easy and consistent! Chances are, any sound that is occurs in Japanese is something you can learn to pronounce perfectly with little or no effort, no matter what your native tongue (I am basing this claim on a rudimentary knowledge of only a few Romance, Germanic and Asian languages. If anyone has evidence to the contrary, please tell me which Japanese sounds are challenging for speakers of what language.) No Japanese word is more challenging for an English speaker to pronounce than 津波 = つなみ = tsunami.

Other news: Building your Japanese vocabulary is challenging, for two reasons.

1. The labyrinth of honorific nuances—what word or verb form is appropriate for addressing your boss, a postal worker, a casual acquaintance, etc. Short cut: stick with the basic formal forms of Japanese that all beginners are taught. Worst case scenario, you address a five-year-old girl, as I once did, in a tone that must have sounded to her like, “Gracious lady, I trust you are keeping well?”

2. Apart from loan words from English and other languages you may be familiar with, you simply have to trick your brain into remembering words and expressions that are not remotely familiar, phonetically or grammatically. Read a lot, listen a lot, speak a lot. There is no short cut. How do you say “please” in Japanese? In the case of “be seated” or “have another cookie”, you say どうぞ do-u-zo (dozo), similar to “go ahead”. To request action, follow the verb with 下さい = ください = ku-da-sa-i. For example, 楽しんでい下さい。= たのしんでください。= Tanoshinde kudasai. = Fun, please (have). = Please, have fun.

Now the fairly easy bit. Memorize the following words and phrases, and there is nothing to stop you from learning more and more and more.

First phrases in Japanese:

  1. はい。 = hai (“height” without the “t”) = yes
  2.  いいえ。= iie (“eagle” without “gle” + “ex” without “x”) = no
  3. [“Speak”] は日本語で何と言いますか。= [“Speak”] wa nihongo de nanto īmasu ka? = How do you say [“speak”] in Japanese?
  4. 意味は何ですか。= Imi wa, nan desu ka? = What does this mean?
  5. 分かりません。= Wakarimasen. = I don’t understand. (Also means, I don’t know.)
  6. 分かります。 = Wakarimasu. = I understand.
  7. も一度下さい。= Mo ichi do, kudasai. = Once more, please. (Please say that again.)
  8. すみません。= Sumimasen. = Pardon me.
  9. ありがとう。= Arigato. = Thank you.
  10. どうもありがとうございました。= Domo arigato gozaimashita. = Thank you very much.

These are all expressions which I found effective when I lived in Japan for a year, but they may be crude or imperfect. I hope Japanese speakers will suggest more correct or appropriate ways to express some of these phrases.

Posted in conversation, Second Language Learning, 日本語 | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Doing Hobbies in Other Languages: Taekwondo en Español

As soon as you are able to communicate in the language you are studying, you should start using it outside of the classroom. A good starting point for putting the language into use is to pursue a familiar or a new hobby in your target language. What is great about this is that your focus will become the hobby, not the language; the conversation will not be about grammar and pronunciation, it will be about the activity you are doing. This is the most effective way to develop your language skills, to put the language into action rather than just studying it.

doing your hobby in the target language: Taekwondo en Español

Doing a hobby in your target language: Taekwondo en Español

As I have been doing martial arts since I was in high school, it is something I understand well and can talk about a lot. So it is an easy subject for me to discuss in other languages. Where can I find a Spanish martial arts class in Toronto? I have a profile on a bartering website called, (started by a world traveller who settled in Toronto). On my profile, I list items or services I want to acquire and items or skills I can offer in exchange.

I seem to have found a Spanish teacher who wants to learn martial arts. Here is what I wrote to her:

Me llamo Evan. Tengo cintura negra en taekwondo, y hace mucho, enseñé classes. Ademas, hice aikido un par de años (me encanta!).

Aprendi español en el norte de Mexico pero nunca tuvo un profesor. Como te parece si te enseño taekwondo (mas el auto-defensa general) en español? No tienes que enseñarme, de verdad, sino corregirme cuando necesario. Si tienes amigos que quieren practicar artes marciales en español juntos con nosotros, que bueno! Pero yo no tengo gymnasio. Hoy en dia, hago taekwondo en cualquier parque.

Dime que opinas.

Saludos cordiales,


If this goes well, I will get exercise and practice Spanish at the same time. “Dos pájaros con una piedra!”

P.D. Un chiste para indicar que soy un hombre de paz: La pronunción correcta de la palabra coreana “taekwondo” es “Té? Cuando?”

Posted in conversation, Español, 한극오, Second Language Learning | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

First Rule of Language Learning: Make Lots of Mistakes!

First Rule of Language Learning: Make Lots of Mistakes!

Primera regla de aprendizaje de idiomas: hacer “un chorro” de errores!

La première règle de l’apprentissage des langues: faire beaucoup d’erreurs!

Primeira regra de aprendizagem de línguas: Fazer um monte de erros!

언어를 배우고, 당신은 많은 실수를해야합니다


You know how cute it is when little kids make language mistakes like “My foots are cold” or “I eated my ice cream”. You know what that is? That’s called the learning process. They are speaking, and you understand what they are saying even if they make mistakes. They learn by speaking, and so can you. You have the added advantage of being able to study the language as well, but the important part is speaking. The more you speak, the faster you learn.

I’ve been teaching English as a second language since 1997, which is the same year I started learning my third and fourth languages. What I have learned from experience, and have been teaching my students ever since, is that the first rule of learning any language is this:

Make mistakes, and make them every day, as often as possible.

Of course, I don’t mean try to make mistakes; I mean use the language, and don’t let the fear of mistakes hold you back. If you go to your language class once or twice a week and are shy to speak because you keep making the same mistake, it might take a very long time to fix. If you make that mistake several times a day for several consecutive days, you can fix it a lot faster.

If you don’t know you are making a mistake, then assume you are speaking correctly and keep conversing until your teacher or a native speaker of the language corrects you. And after they correct you, keep talking. If you notice you’re making the mistake, good! You want to notice; that’s how you fix it.

If you know you are saying something wrong but don’t know how to fix it, ask your teacher or look it up yourself. All the answers are right here on the World Wide Web.

When you go to class, or to a conversation practice session, don’t just sit there; say something! You shouldn’t feel pressure to speak; you should feel free to speak.

If you do not speak the target language fluently (yet), then don’t think about speaking “perfectly”, focus on understanding and being understood. Don’t try to understand every word that is spoken to you; try to comprehend general ideas, and gradually you will learn to understand more details.

Corollary to the First Rule of Language Learning: Perfection has no place in the early stages of learning a language. (Once you are able to converse in the target language with some degree of fluency, then you can attend to details of correctness.)

Posted in ESL, Second Language Learning | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Best ESL Class Ever

To get this language blog going again, I am re-posting this piece from my other blog, GoodEvaning.

Inglês   영어   英語

Last summer, I experienced the greatest moment of my ESL teaching career. I have been teaching English as a second language on and off since 1997. Having taught high school in Japan, winter camp in Korea, junior high and university classes in Mexico, and at several ESL schools in Canada, I always found it was much more fun teaching abroad than in my own country. In my home country, teaching is “just a job”, without the adventure of being in a foreign culture enlivening my daily life. In fact, I have always felt out of place in my own culture. I’m a bit of a weirdo. I don’t drink beer, I don’t play or even watch hockey; if I weren’t so polite and “nice” all the time, no one would ever believe I was Canadian. I only feel comfortable when I am surrounded by a language that is not English. I love English, but I love it more when it is a foreign language that I carry with me in another world.

So what happened this evening that was my best ESL experience ever? The first thing is, it wasn’t a class, with a teacher making students do exercises and repeat phrases; it was the Mega Conversation Club (MCC) at English Lab Toronto. (Let me state for the record, this is not a paid advertisement for the school. I was not asked to write this. I just can’t help writing about such a satisfying event!)

I have studied a lot of languages, and I can communicate in several. What I always say to students, and to people who are reluctant to try to learn a second language, is that learning a language is not—must not be—difficult, boring, or distressing. Communicating is a joy. It is magic. It is powerful. It is addictive. The first time I actually said an original sentence in Korean, (not just repeating something from a lesson), which was understood by a Korean person, it felt like the first time I rode a bike without my dad holding me up, it felt like a homerun, a slam dunk, a shot of soju (소주)! Someone asked me in Korean what I was doing on the weekend and I happened to know all of the vocabulary and grammar to answer without hesitation, “I’m going to a restaurant with my friends.” Slam dunk! That was last year, after completing my second course in basic Korean. I can’t speak Korean yet, but now I know I will be able to learn. I just have to put in the hours. Not hours of lessons, which is helpful but not enough; hours of talking to Koreans in their language, telling each other simple pieces of information. I will do it.

As I was saying, MCC is not a class. It is an organized conversation session with one teacher for every student. Every 20 minutes, the students change teachers. For the final 20 minutes, there is a group discussion or debate. Tonight it was a round-table discussion about the problem of world hunger. There were five students and five teachers. One of the students told me that she didn’t like the topic, because she thought everyone would say the same things.

Even some fairly advanced students are shy at first, and some want to just read out some notes they made in advance. But this time even the shy students seemed relaxed. I told them the person who speaks first will have the easiest job because they can say anything; the person who speaks last will have to say something no one else thought of. One of the quiet Korean students voluntarily spoke first. A Brazilian student, who sometimes tries to avoid saying much, responded. And then he did something that almost never happens. He turned to another student and asked, “What do you think?” He started doing it as a joke and began to act like he was a CEO running a business meeting. He turned to someone else. “Do you think education is [an important part of the solution]?” He didn’t say it perfectly, but that didn’t matter. The way he did it was very funny, but it was also very real, natural, meaningful conversation.

Soon, all five students were giving their opinions, sometimes supporting or challenging what someone else had said. Every one of them spoke clearly, intelligently, without hesitation, and best of all, they all cared about what they were saying and they listened to each other. It was not “English class”; it was a natural and passionate conversation. We all got so into it that the teachers started sharing their thoughts, and they had some significant things to say. A couple of us got choked up (yes, me too) as we talked about the suffering of people, the mistreatment of animals, the heartlessness of corporations, and other flaws in the world food system. If we had been in a restaurant, no one would guess that half of us were teachers and half were students; they would think it was a bunch of Canadians having a lively conversation.

It was a beautiful, beautiful moment and I have never felt prouder of a group of students. Twenty minutes became half an hour, and no one seemed to mind that we stayed a bit late. I can’t wait to go back to work! (I told you I was a weirdo.)

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First Phrases in Korean

Beginning in Korean is challenging. The hardest part is not the writing system, (which is surprisingly easy and you can learn to read and write it in a week), but the pronunciation. To learn vocabulary, you must grasp the pronunciation, and to grasp the pronunciation you have to learn 한글 (hangul).

한글 is so easy to learn that, at least for English speakers, using roman letters to learn Korean vocabulary is counterproductive.

Practice typing on Korean keyboard. Install Korean language input.

first phrases:

  1. 네 [ne]/ 예 [ye] = yes
  2. 아니요 [aniyo] = no
  3. 글쎄요… [kul se yo] = Well… (indicates hesitation, uncertainty)
  4. 이거 한국어뭐라고해요? [igŏ hangugŏ ro mwa ra go hae yo] = How do you say this in Korean?
  5. 무슨뜻이에요? [museuntteusi e yo ] = What does this mean?
  6. 모르겠습니다. [moreugesseumnida] =  I don’t understand.
  7. 다기한번말해주세요. [Dagi hanbun mal hae chuseyo= Please say that once more.
  8. 아직 이해가 안 돼요. [ajik ihae ga an dwae yo] = I still don’t get it.
  9. 적어 주세요. [chageu chusaeyo] = Please write it down.
  10. 감사합니다. (kamsahamnida) = Thank you.
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Suis-je bilingue ou non?

Suis-je bilingue ou non?

Je me trouve, de nouveau, à Montréal, où je me sens toujours bien dans ma peau. Mais comme toujours, je me demande si je parle vraiment le français ou si je me trompe. Hier et aujourd’hui j’ai posé des questions simples dans quelques magasins sans problème. C’est ça le bilinguisme?    

 Selon quelqu’un qui ne parle pas un seule mot de français, oui je le parle évidement; mais selon les francophones, je parle le français comme une vache espagnole, j’imagine. (Et, bien sûr, je parle l’espagnol como una vaca francesa.)  

Je sais bien que ma difficulté typique en rappelant le mot juste, ou d’employer le subjonctif, ce n’est qu’a cause de faut de la pratique. Mais la semaine passé, j’ai écrit à quelques amies, « Où sont vous? » Une heure plus tard je me suis demandé, « Comment puis-je dire que je sois bilingue? »

Je dis que oui, je suis bilingue, parce que si moi je ne le dit pas, qui va le dire?

SVP aide-moi être sure d’être bilingue, je vous en prie!

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Japanese Input on Your PC

Setting up your PC to read and write in Japanese is free, easy and just takes a few minutes. Doing a search on “Japanese Input” will give you many results to choose from, many of which reiterate or direct you to a Microsoft download page where you find instructions on how to install an Input Method Editor (IME)

Once you have installed the Japanese IME, there will be a language drop-down list on your toolbar where you can select from amongst the languages you have installed. Choose JP for Japanese, and begin typing in romaji.

As you type in romaji, the syllables come up in hiragana ひらがな which you can choose to convert into or kanji 漢字 by selecting from a drop-down list. You can also select for katakana カタカナ.

Once you’ve done all that, write to me 下さい !


Posted in 日本語 | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments