I’m Learning Dutch Super Quickly (And You Can Too)


This post has nothing to do with sheep

When we met, I thought there was something a little odd about Boyfriend’s accent.

To the untrained ear, it sounds like a perfect example of Queen’s English. But when he admitted to the other pub quiz members that he’s not British, I got it. He was Dutch, and I’d spent enough time around Dutch people at Nintendo to know that “more-perfect-than-perfect” accent anywhere.

As a person who loves languages, I love any excuse to start speaking something new and so I started studying Dutch in secret, with the plan to just come out with a load of it one day and amaze him.

Here’s a thing – I am terrible at keeping things quiet when I’m excited about them, so of course I let de kat out of de zak way too soon.

But luckily, I am learning pretty quickly, so it now means that I can drop Dutch into normal conversation pretty easily. The Boyfriend says I am a genius to be able to learn so quickly. Ha. I wish. I just have a winning method for picking up languages, and I would like to share it with you now.

You can use this method on a whole range of languages (though there are limits, as I’ll explain).

Step One: Get Dutch into my brain.

When I was studying Japanese, I found that sitting over books all day got me absolutely nowhere. It was only when I started to use the podcast Japanesepod101 every day that things seemed to fit into place. Walking to university took about 30 -40 minutes, and I would listen to the podcasts during this time.

It made a huge different to have the language going into my ears passively. When I went to Japan and had Japanese all around me the whole time, it was even better and my brain turned into a sponge.

The languagepod101 series are quite good, but I have found something even better: The Michel Thomas series. This is how I learnt German when I moved there.

Michel Thomas was an absolute dude of the highest rank. Being Polish, he escaped the Nazis eventually after being captured and tortured a bunch of times, and then after the war he escaped to the US. You should totally read his wiki page because he is really awesome.

His language tapes aren’t the traditional kind where you’re repeating after the teacher, who, without hearing you (since they are a recording, of course) says that you’re doing well. He has two students in the room, and it is to them that he teaches. I swear they choose really simple people to play these roles (maybe to make the listener feel better about themselves?)

The languages are built up brick by brick. For example:

Do you want

Do you want it

Do you want it to eat

Do you want it to eat or drink

What do you want

What do you drink

And so on…until you think to yourself “hang on, I think I might be speaking a whole new language!”

I listen to the Dutch tapes (which sadly doesn’t have Michel himself as the German ones do, but this real “mumsy” kind of woman who sounds like she’d give you a massive hug, a glass of milk and a cookie when you make mistakes) in my car either to or from work. Each CD has about 15 tracks on it, and I get through them in a week, with me listening through it at least twice before moving on.

Step Two: Get Words In My Eyes

When I studied French at school, I hated it. Up until GCSE (16 years) I remember mainly making posters and memorising a small speech about my work experience (a lot of which I can still recite to this day). After GCSE I took it up at A Level, and the difficulty jump was massive. Even though the class had just 6 of us in it (because that’s how many people were stupid enough to take A Level French), the teacher was tired and gave us lists and lists of words to learn, so we could understand the books.

I did really badly at it; I had zero motivation (I only took it so that I could take Japanese at university) and sitting memorising loads of stuff just is not my bag.

My teacher told me that since I “could not grasp French, you should just give up on Japanese since you’ll get nowhere with it”. 10 years later, I am fluent in Japanese, conversational in German and can also get by in Chinese, Korean and now Dutch. I wouldn’t even try to use French.

Unless you have the type of brain that loves lists of stuff to memorise, then this is not a good method to learn a language. But you need to know loads of new words, right?

There is another way. Let me introduce Duolingo.com to you.


Duolingo is a free, online, language learning programme which is nothing short of awesome. It works with you translating lots of sentences which get progressively more difficult and are split up into categories like “prepositions” and “clothes”.

You can see above there’s the sentence in Dutch, which looks a bit intimidating. But you can hover over the words to remember which each one is. They used to penalise you for this, but the website has changed over the years and it doesn’t anymore.

It gets you to do sentence after sentence and slowly, you’re learning grammar, vocabulary and word order without much effort at all. What’s more, there’s a points table and you can connect with friends on there. I have a friend in Germany who, apparently, is learning every language under the sun right now and so I always try to keep up with her.

Dutch is quite hard visually because it’s not said as it’s written. “Goed” is said something like “hhuuid”, with lots of throat-usage while you’re at it (steady, sailor). So if you want to properly learn the language, you need to be using something to learn to read and write it.


There are, of course, more steps to this method. But frankly, I’ve not got there yet. I plan to use memrise.com to build on my vocab when I get better, and also to speak with the boyfriend when I can. There’s a Dutch manager (quite high up) who I had to give some documents to the other day. In an email to him today I tagged onto the end that I am studying Dutch and he told me that when he’s in the office next time we can chat in Dutch. EEEEK. I think bullying myself into Dutch situations is the best way to improve; it’s how I got to be good at Japanese, after all.

Lastly, you can follow these two steps and learn languages super fast as long as your language is listed in both Michel Thomas courses and on Duolingo. The listening course is a little limited and sticks to European languages, but Duolingo has an ever-growing range these days (including Irish and Turkish and other cool things like that!)

If anyone has awesome language-learning tools to recommend to me, I’d love to hear them!

The Guest Cat: Notes on Translation


The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide was a book I picked up in Foyles in London. A shortish story, about a cat, written by a Japanese guy – YES PLEASE! Plus, is says on the cover that it’s a New York Times bestseller!

The story is of a man and his wife, going about their daily life with a little cat who comes to visit them. It’s not the kind of story that has a beginning, middle and end. If I listed all of the things that happened in this book, it would be a very short list. However, it is one of those books that you read just to step into another world. It was lovely being able to spend some time in 80’s Japan, a nice, quiet place.

The story started when Hiraide wrote up essays in a newspaper about his time with the little cat, which apparently then turned into a book, which was then translated by Eric Selland.

When I was at university, my professor would throw my translations back at me and say “this STINKS of translation! I can still tell what the original Japanese was when I read the English!” And since working at Nintendo, I too have become very picky with translations. And, well, I think my professor would throw this book back at Mr Selland. Having said that, I wonder if it’s possible for me to enjoy anything that had originally been in Japanese. When I’m reading English and can make an educated guess at what the Japanese was, it’s pretty annoying.

Translation is a touchy subject. People like to do things in different ways. There are people who like to translate literally, some people like to blend the meaning into the target audience’s world. When you translate something you feel like it’s a baby that has come from your actual genitals, so when another translator comes and validates it, you feel like shooting them in the face.

The thing that I disagreed with most with the translation of The Guest Cat is that he mentioned Japanese cultural points and then explains them at the back of the book in an translation notes section. I asked my translator friends on Facebook and it seems that my opinion is not in the majority, but I believe that good translations shouldn’t need explanations at the back of books. All the information the reader needs should fit naturally and smoothly into the actual text.

These are two quotes of text that I thought were slightly annoying:

“A little after noon on the day of the Tanabata Festival” Ok, so the Tanabata Festival is on July 7th. It’s just a day when people make wishes and so a few other nice things. It has no relevance to the story, so I would have chosen to just not mention the festival. I don’t see why something so minor needs to be introduced to the reader, because it’ll take their mind off of the actual story while their brain says “huh, what’s tanabata?”

“Other than one ring of the bell on New Years Eve at the old buddhist temple nearby…followed by a visit to an all-night noodle shop” In Japan, on New Years Eve they eat noodles for good luck. It seems weird that a translator who insists on putting Japanese cultural points into the text would gloss over this one. How about “followed by a bowl of noodles, as is tradition”? I dunno.

Have you read a translated book before and felt that the translation was a little off? Do any of you have the translators’ curse of not being able to enjoy things again?!

Check out The Guest Cat if you can – it’s a decent read!

This post is linking up with Fictional Fridays over at Bookworms in Dresses (which is an awesome blog).

Reasons Why I Love Japanese


When I meet people for the first time, the same conversation often comes up. Maybe I tell them that I’m a PA at a big Japanese company, maybe I mention that I studied Japanese. But people always want to know how – and why – I know Japanese.

The “how” often bothers me. It seems simple. I sat down and studied it really hard, just like everything else. No one just woke up one morning and had maths down. Or could play the piano. You have to study, practise, and work really hard at it. That’s how I got to know Japanese.

With the why, well, there’s a story that I have told on here before about why I started Japanese – but there are certain things about the Japanese language that have kept me going when things get tough. It’s a great language, and it has things which I think are pretty unique, that makes it amazing to use. When I’m having a conversation in Japanese I feel happy. I feel I can express myself in ways I can’t in English. The rhythm, structure, sounds of it, all make it such fun to speak.

But here are some of the reasons why Japanese is a really cool language!


So Japanese uses Chinese characters called kanji. These are the really complicated characters that you see, like this 愛 (love), 尊敬 (respect), 水 (water).

But here’s the thing, depending on what these kanji are doing, they are pronounced differently. Let’s take that water 水. Just by itself, it’s “mizu”. But sometimes, it’s pronounced “sui” like “水族館” which is an aquarium and said “sui zoku kan”. Sometimes, when it’s with other kanji, it can still be “mizu”, like with swimwear 水着 “mizugi”. Literally “water clothes”.

So furigana comes in. These are little letters that sit either above (when the writing is horizontal) or next to (when it’s vertical) to help you know how things are said.

This is what furigana usually looks like.

tenshi nanka jyanai


This is from a young girls manga called Tenshi Nanka Jyanai (I’m Not an Angel). Since it’s for a younger audience, they put lots of furigana on the words, to help them along.

But this isn’t the only usage. Sometimes, they use furigana to give extra information to people. Here’s another photo from a manga –

indo manga

This is a manga for adults and is about a Japanese woman who is married to an Indian guy. The kanji on the right there is 亭主 meaning head of the household (referring to her husband). But the furigana says インド人 Indian person, so when she’s talking, she’s wanting to make it clear that it’s important to know he’s Indian. (She’s saying that he doesn’t think a man should change diapers/nappies and that it’s a woman’s job. She wants to point out that he thinks this way because he’s Indian).

This one time, when I was dating a British-Indian guy, we went to an Indian restaurant and when we ordered, I asked him to make sure the guy knew not to make it too spicy. When the food came, I was crying because it was just too much for me. I said to him “I thought you told the guy not to make it spicy when you ordered!! What did you say to the guy when you went up there to order?” He replied “don’t make this one too spicy, please”. “No! That’s the wrong thing! You should have said ‘my girlfriend is white’ then it’d be fine!” If there was ever a time when furigana is needed in English, it would be then – “not too spicy” (furigana: girlfriend is white) hahah!

Picture words

So as you can gather probably already, these kanji things – they are complicated but they also look like little pictures. This makes them pretty easy to learn if you can see what they are trying to be. For example 人 this looks like a person standing, right? That’s because it means person. 馬 kind of looks like a horse – and it means horse!

It gets even better when the kanji evolve like Pokemon. (You think I’m going crazy now, right?)

木 is a tree. Can you see how it has a trunk and branches coming down? Cool, huh?

林 is two trees together – some woods!

Now for the final evolution of this Pokemon – 森 is three trees together – a forest!

See? Japanese is easy! (Just don’t complain to me when you have to work out how 安い cheap is a woman under a roof… I don’t know…)

You can tell a person’s character from how they speak

There is a slight problem with guys who go to Japan, date Japanese girls and pick up Japanese from them. It’s that they end up speaking like girls.

I’m not sure how many other languages there are where the way of speaking differs so much between guys and girls, but in Japanese it’s pretty different. Girls speak softly – even in a more high pitched tone. They also use endings like “wa” to make them sound extra girly, and refer to themselves in 3rd person. These are all things to make you sound more girly.

To sound more manly, you have to use different words. Instead of saying “oishii” to mean delicious, you get to use “umai!” It just sounds more manly when you eat your steak sandwich and yell UMAIIIIII!

If you’re reading a book, you can tell exactly what kind of person the character is, just from how they are speaking. I think with English you can to a certain extent (“like if you, like, use all kinds of stuff to, like, make your sentences sound more, like, young, and stuff”) but I love how you can tell exactly who a person is in Japanese.

The better you get at Japanese, the worse Japanese you can use

As I mentioned, I used to study Japanese pretty hard. I was a horrible person to be around at uni because I just wanted to be the best. I was so competitive and wanted to come out on top. I’d sit and memorise correct grammar all the time, remembering which particles to use and how verbs should end.

Then I got to live in Japan and realised that to speak Japanese like a native speaker, you have to forget all the grammar rules. The lazier you are with your language, the better you speak it. So I started dropping the articles, not finishing sentence and just being generally lazy!

Even better still, I found that if I didn’t move my mouth so much when I spoke it, my Japanese even sounded more natural! To be super good at Japanese, you just have to be really lazy – it was awesome!

You know how people use “literally” in English incorrectly? Well they even have something similar! “Zenzen” means not at all. But some time in the early 2000’s, people started using it with positive sentences, like “Don’t worry about it”, “zenzen ii yo” (not at all/good). It’s grammatically incorrect, but everyone uses it. So, if a Japanese person ever says sorry to you or bumps into you or does something that they think is wrong, just say to them “zenzen ii yo!” Now there’s some cool Japanese!

So there are some of the reasons why Japanese is so cool. Maybe I’ve tempted you to pick it up? If so, give me a shout and I’ll put you on the right track.

You’re probably wondering what’s up with that leaf at the top, right? Well that’s shiso leaf. It’s a Japanese leaf used in things like sushi and also can be found in tempura sometimes too. And it’s DELICIOUS. But quite rare outside of Japan. I love shiso as much as I love Japanese. And that’s a lot.




Word Whines


I don’t know when it happened, but some time between when I was in Japan teaching and when I was in Germany at Nintendo, something snapped in me and I began caring about words.

While I was teaching, I was thinking about language more because I wanted to give my students and Japanese colleagues good words to say and the correct usage of the things they learnt. I became aware that I was using literally wrong, and noticed that I didn’t really like the students (and pretty much all Japanese people) using “oh my God” without actually understanding what even “God” means. I told them if they say it in front of a Christian, they might offend them.

Arriving at Nintendo, I had to quickly learn the strict style guide. With my peers checking over my work, there was a huge pressure to write things well the first time, and so I started caring a lot about words and grammar. I remember the shame when I’d written “stolen” as “stollen” and my German colleague was the one to point it out and to say I’d spelt it like the German cake!

Then I started to have feelings and opinions about the way people used words. There were things that mildly bemused me about words but there was one thing that made me shiver every time I heard it being used.

“He gifted it to me”.

ARGH! It sounds so wrong!

I put it up on Facebook to see if anyone else felt the same and I don’t think I’ve ever had a status with so much activity on it before. Some people were supporting my belief that it’s just so wrong – whereas other people were trying desperately to show me that it is a legit usage and that it’s even in numerous dictionaries. People were very passionate about it, and I even lost a friend a few weeks later when I wrote a joking status saying I’d been on a date with a German guy and he’d used gift as a verb – and that I wouldn’t see him again. Of course, I’m not that much of a bitch and while it gave a few people something to chuckle about, one person became very upset and when she tried to correct me, just worked herself into such a tither over it.

I know it’s correct to use gift as a verb. Languages are living things, and while the origins of gift as a verb are very early, it is back in fashion because “gift this” fits nicely on a web button whereas “buy this as a gift” is too long. But still…

Is there anything in language that really gets your goat? I’d love to know in the comments!




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