Tag Archives: Japan

Karaoke: Japan’s Gift to the Language Learner

26 Mar

Four years living in a different country will change anyone. Especially if that country is Japan!

If you’ve ever known anyone who has lived (for an extended period of time) in Japan you’re bound to notice that they’ve picked up a few “interesting” habits and I’m no different;

Not wearing shoes in the house, sitting on the floor despite having a perfectly good sofa right next to you, eating salad with chopsticks (Try it. It’s so much easier), not feeling like you’ve finished a meal until you’ve had a bowl of rice (or two), bowing even while on the phone… the list goes on.

Salad with chopsticks? Try it. You'll never try to stab a piece of lettuce with a fork again!

Salad with chopsticks? Try it. You’ll never try to stab a piece of lettuce with a fork again!

Japanese was the first language that I learned to fluency and I have one of Japan’s greatest exports to thank for that: Karaoke! This article will cover how you can use it to learn any language to fluency “WITHOUT EVER HAVING TO SING IN PUBLIC”!!!

Why Karaoke?
Karaoke in Japan is as much a part of the culture as rice-balls and ramen. If you live there, it becomes part of your life; you go out for dinner with your friends, you end up singing karaoke; you have a staff party with your colleagues, you end up singing karaoke; it’s Wednesday, you end up singing karaoke. And the Japanese take their national passtime pretty seriously so you learn fairly quickly to improve your karaoke game.

I realized that I was going to need to learn some Japanese songs to keep my coworkers happy and in doing so I realized that practicing karaoke is a fantastic way to improve my Japanese in three major areas:

  • Pronunciation: listening to a song and repeatedly trying to match the way pronunciation of the singer is an amazing way to improve your accent and how you sound in your target language. I’ve spoken previously about how important pronunciation and understandability are when speaking a second language. Repeating a song over and over again allows you to practice the vocal chord/lip movements and breath control necessary to imitate a new language.
  • Reading: karaoke involves reading the lyrics of a song in your target language at (what can be) a pretty challenging pace. That challenge and stepping out of your comfort zone can lead to a huge improvement in your reading speed.
  • Vocabulary: learning (or at least practicing) the lyrics of songs inevitably leads to you learning new words and ways to use them and they tend to stick better when you mix in a catchy tune (I can still recite songs in Irish that I learned as a child in primary school)

How to Karaoke!!! (without the humiliation of actually singing in public)
So, how do you actually go about improving your Japanese (or any language) with Karaoke? It’s as easy as following these 3 (or 4) easy steps.

  1. Pick your Songs: Find songs that you enjoy and that are of a relatively easy tempo. It’s important to start with slow songs at the beginning as it’s easier to keep up and follow the lyrics on screen. Starting off by trying to follow the lyrics of a fast paced rap song is not a good idea, no matter how much you like the song. Love songs (cringe) are usually ideal, just like this one below which became one of my karaoke staples.

    Download the songs to your computer/phone or create a specific “Lyrics” playlist on Youtube (some videos will even have the lyrics included) so you can always access them easily.
  2. Find and Save the Lyrics: Thanks to the good old internet you can now find the lyrics for virtually any song instantaneously. Find the lyrics for your chosen songs and save them in some form of file on your computer or on your phone. I personally save them to the memo app on my iphone (check out the picture below) but I’m sure there are better, more organized ways to store them for easy access. At this point you can also look up any new vocabulary or grammar that you don’t understand so you can actually know what the song is really about.

    This is how I save lyrics to songs I want to my practice in the memo app of my phone.

    This is how I save lyrics to songs I want to my practice in the memo app of my phone.

  3. Practice: Here’s the fun part. When you have some down time just play the song you want to practice and recite the lyrics trying to match the cadence, intonation and sound of the singer. You can do it in the privacy of your own room and no one ever has to know about your new karaoke fetish. You can even practice in public without bothering anyone or appearing to be a total psychopath. For example, whenever I’m using public-transport I pop in my headphones and listen to my “Lyrics” playlist (I have one for Japanese and one for Spanish). Then I either recite the lyrics in my head as the song plays or I lip-sync the song. I consider lip-syncing the better option as you actually practice the mouth movements needed to produce the sounds. People do this on public transport all the time anyway (and it’s only annoying if they actually do start singing out loud).
  4. (OPTIONAL) Rock some Karaoke: When you feel like you’ve gotten the hang of a few songs, why not show your native-speaking friends how you can rock out and sing with the best of them during a night of unbridled, laser-illuminated mirror-balled, karaoke fury…
    …or just sing in the shower like a normal person!

    Just think. With a little practice, this could be you!

                                                      Just think. With a little practice, this could be you!

Time Efficient and Free
The reason I’m such a fan of this method for learning a language is that it ticks a couple of boxes that are important for me:

  • It can be done whenever you’re on public transport or driving or just chilling out at home

  • It is completely free

  • You can store the songs and lyrics on your phone and have them with you at all times

  • In all my time learning languages I have found this gives you some of the best bang for your buck when I comes to speaking improvement in relation to time invested.

If you’re sitting at home in front of a computer right now you could literally start practicing this method in less than 30 seconds i.e. the time it takes to find a song on youtube and its corresponding lyrics. There’s no reason not to give it a try.

Do I sing well now?
F%&K NO! But I now have a repertoire of Japanese (and Spanish) songs that I can belt out (as long as I have the lyrics to follow on screen) whenever I end up at a Shidax. More importantly it has improved my spoken Japanese and Spanish considerably, which I’m happy enough with.

Get singing folks.


Have you been working-out lately? Because you look spectacular  🙂 If you liked this article go ahead and share it with your friends via the Facebook or Twitter buttons below and if you use Stumbleupon please give it a “Thumbs Up”I’d really appreciate it  😉

How I ended up in Colombia (or “Thank you, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles!”)

14 May

First off, don’t worry, the title will make sense eventually. I promise.

I moved to Colombia in September, 2011 arriving first in Bogota and then, after 3 days of rain and cold far too similar to Irish weather for my liking, taking the 12 hour bus through the Andes to Cali, the world capital of Salsa. My Mecca.

That off course neither explains why I went there nor the title of this post. For that we need to go back, way back to my chubby childhood. To a period lost in the annals of mediocrity. Back to the nineteen nineties!

I like many easily influenced kids at the time used to spend my evenings after school sat in front of the telly watching cartoons until the children’s programming ended and that waste of air-time known as “the news” started. One day, a new cartoon began that was to captivate me every subsequent Friday afternoon and affect me profoundly (albeit unknowingly, initially) for the rest of my life. That show was the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

The show had everything; crime fighting, turtles, comedy, sci-fi and most importantly, martial arts. I was hooked. I managed to get my parents to buy me turtle video games and even a turtle costume complete with super-breakable plastic swords that I used with my younger brother who had a pair of super-breakable (although super-painful) plastic nunchuks. I didn’t manage to get them to buy me the pet turtles I wanted which in retrospect is probably a good thing, considering I would probably have tried to mutate them with something in an attempt to have my own mutant play friends (I loved science too which meant it was a genuine possibility).

However, I did manage to get them to send me to the local Shotokan Karate club so I too could be a crime fighter (I would have to try and work on the mutation stuff later). I imagine that many martial arts clubs at the time saw a jump in enrollment when the Turtles first aired, with so many kids wanting to emulate their heroes. A jump that was probably as short-lived as it was sudden.It was the first sport I ever really gave a go at and I did it for a couple of years, getting my purple belt after which I just stopped going, as children are wont to do.

The next stage of my journey with karate began in my 4th year of secondary school (1999-2000). I went through a lot of changes that year. I had decided that I no longer wanted to be the chubby kid who regularly got bullied by the other kids so I started to eat healthily, bought a cheap set of barbells and dumbbells and returned with a new passion to Karate. I practiced diligently and became relatively decent, winning a few trophies in competitions, getting my brown belt and gaining a new found confidence in myself that I never had before.

It was during secondary school that I started reading books about karate and other martial arts and this obviously led me to learning about the history and culture of Japan. I began to understand the origins of many of the things I did in my karate training and most importantly I learned and really came to appreciate the Japanese concept of “dou” (written in Japanese kanji as 道) which means road or way and is used as a suffix to signify the “the way of…” in numerous Japanese art forms such as sadou (茶道) “the way of tea” for the study of the Japanese tea ceremony or shodou (書道) “the way of writing” for Japanese calligraphy and of course in martial arts like karate-dou (空手道) “the way of the empty hand”.

I liked the fact that in Japan there was traditionally a correct process, a way, to do things and this left me with a strong desire to go there and experience it for myself. So strong in fact that I even asked the school guidance counselor about it and she let me know about a teaching programme called JET that paid university graduates to go to Japan and immerse themselves in Japanese cultures (this also happened to be the only time that the guidance counselor provided me with anything useful in my six years at that school). I was 16 years old and completely sold on the idea. Once I graduated from university, in 5 years, I was going to Japan.

When my final year of secondary school came around I decided to focus on my studies (as I was I good boy and deep-down, a total nerd) so I put Karate on hold. I did well in my final exams and got into the university I wanted, University College Cork, studying biological sciences (the sci-fi aspect of the Turtles leaving its mark in yet another way I believe. I also learned that mutation in real life was nowhere near as cool as it had been portrayed in the Turtles).

In college, I took the opportunity to try out the various clubs that were available; boxing, scuba-diving, gymnastics, break dancing and I even went to a couple of salsa classes thanks to their clever advertising campaign pointing out the shockingly large ratio of women to men (in my 2 classes I neither learned to dance nor met any girls, imagine that!). I did however become a pretty dedicated member of the kickboxing club and to a lesser extent, due to scheduling conflicts, of the karate club. I remained a brown belt throughout college, as I never took the opportunity to try and advance further while I was there (i.e. like many college students, I was just too lazy).

During my 4 years at college I had almost forgotten about going to Japan although the idea must have kept hold somewhere in the back of my mind. Luckily, at the careers exposition of my final year I stumbled across the JET information booth, remembered my teenage dream, applied and was eventually accepted (it was not quite as easy as I’ve made it sound and MAY have involved lots of scrambling for deadlines and a little bit of crying. MAY!)

So in late July of 2006 I was shipped out to Japan and to my final destination of Miyazaki prefecture (which I had never heard of in my life) where I would spend 4 of the best years of my life.

At this stage you’re probably wondering “What does any of this have to do with salsa or living in Colombia?”. It’s coming, bear with me.

In Japan, I did so many new things; learning Japanese, Japanese archery, calligraphy, surfing, organizing Irish cooking classes and phenomenal St. Patrick’s Day parties that I almost completely forgot about Karate until my final year there when I found a great club with some great people, started training again and finally got my black belt, almost 15 years after I started karate for the first time (never let it be said that I don’t get the job done… eventually).

While in Japan, one of my best friends, Nahoko, a very international girl who was very socially active invited me to a salsa party that she was hosting at a local bar. I went, a little reluctantly, with my girlfriend at the time. There was an introductory lesson given by two people who were to become very important in my life; Yano-papa and Yano-mama (as they like to call themselves).

Here’s the thing, I had always wanted to learn to dance as I always watched jealously whenever I saw a couple dancing on TV, moving in perfect unison and harmony with the music and pretty much just looking much cooler than I ever could with two-step, back and forth, Irishman sway. My girlfriend at the time had danced ballet when she was younger and so had no problem picking up the rhythm instantly during the lesson and I have to be honest, watching her dancing in front of me, smiling and gently swaying her hips with to the music was one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen (I, however, was a little less than coordinated).

We had a blast at the party, and “danced” (as well as an Irishman with no rhythm can) until the party ended. I made a pledge to myself that night that I was going to get better at salsa, dance well with my girlfriend and impress the hell out of her.

Now, as you can imagine, finding regular salsa classes in a rural prefecture in Japan is not the easiest of tasks but I managed to do a few classes, kept secret from my girlfriend, where I picked up a couple of new “moves” and some “dodgy” rhythm. Over the next year and a half, thanks to new found motivation and few journeys abroad for “training”, I improved a lot (how and why I’ll explain in some other posts) eventually organizing and teaching at a monthly salsa class and party in my city to try and promote salsa to the masses. I can proudly say that that party is still going strong in Miyazaki city thanks to the help of my Japanese salsa friends.

In my final year in Japan, after breaking up with my girlfriend, I began to look for new challenges (filling the void that develops after a breakup is something I’m sure many of you are aware of). I was pretty happy with how I had progressed with Japanese so I wanted to try a new language and Spanish was the obvious choice thanks to my desire to actually understand the lyrics of all the salsa songs I regularly listened to. I gave it a shot (without much dedication) and began to think about what I might do after I left Japan, where I would go etc. and all the signs (Salsa, Spanish and a desire to experience a culture completely different from Japan’s) pointed to South America.

Around the same time I met a very beautiful Colombian woman, living in the neighbouring prefecture, who I mentioned my idea to. She told me straight away that I had to go to her hometown, Cali, the world capital of salsa, to truly live the “cultura de la rumba”. After asking my reliable and knowledgeable friend, Wikipedia, all about Cali, my mind was made up. I was moving to Cali, to learn Spanish and real salsa (I also learned that Cali is apparently home to some of the most beautiful women in the world and that didn’t hurt either).

I finished my contract in Japan and moved back to Ireland where I worked for a year after managing to get a great job at the Japanese Embassy that I thought would look nice on my CV and would help me smoothly readjust to western culture. It did.

I was more than happy to discover, when I moved back, that there was a very healthy salsa scene in Dublin and I became a regular at the various events and parties around the city and was very lucky to befriend some amazing salseros and salseras, both from Ireland and abroad. I learned and improved my salsa a lot that year and really came to appreciate Dublin (as it was my first time living there). However, my mind had been made up and I made all the arrangements to travel to Colombia as soon as my one-year contract at the embassy finished.
And so, after a little holiday back to Japan to visit my friends and get my fill of sushi I returned back to the family farm for a couple of weeks to get my affairs in order and say goodbye to my family and friends once again.

After a week’s layover in New York, relishing the chance to reconnect with some old friends, enjoying good food and dancing salsa I arrived in Bogota and then made my way here, to Cali where I’ve been ever since, bailando, rumbeando y gozando all that this very special city has to offer.

There’s a great deal more to tell you about but I guess that’s what a blog is for. I can’t wait to write the next post. Stay tuned.

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Fiona Uyema

Japanese Cookbook Author

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