Using Kid’s Songs to Learn Japanese

This post was written by Dave of JapanDave.com who Tweets and has a great newsletter full of amazing pictures of Japan.

Kid’s songs are a wonderful resource to help you learn Japanese better. They are often overlooked because… well, they are a bit silly, but I think they are worth a second look. I’m going to cover a bit of theory here (I promise not too much), and then look at 6 kid’s songs you might use in your studies.

The How

Now I can see you scratching your heads. How can stupid kid’s songs help me learn Japanese? Right? Hold that thought. Let me ask you a question: Can you remember any of the children’s songs you learned when you were a kid? I’m guessing yes.

The basic problems with learning Japanese are pretty well known at this point. If you are a regular Tofugu reader, you probably know many of them. Two of the biggest ones, I think, are that we make our study too hard and we don’t have fun. These are actually two parts of the same problem.

The effects of these two problems are so common they almost go without saying: 1) loss of motivation and 2) burn-out. Kid’s songs help combat this by adding a bit of fun back into your study routine, and also by secretly working on your listening, recognition and (if you are brave and sing out loud with them) your pronunciation and speaking.

How’s that work, huh? Have you heard of a fella by the name of Alexander Arguelles. He’s a professor of languages, a polyglot who can speak some 30+ languages to varying levels of mastery (including some Japanese) . His primary method for learning is the shadow method. I’m sure you all have heard of this, right? This is where someone says something and we attempt to repeat it back at nearly the same moment, maybe only a second or two behind. Now the shadow method is common enough in language learning these days, but he recommends starting with a very strict version of it where all you do is shadow. No looking at text (reading), no looking at the translation to figure out what you are saying, just shadowing.

Crazy you say? How will I know what I’m saying/learning? That’s the point. By only shadowing you are narrowing your learning focus to just a couple things: listening, that is focusing on the actual sounds, and speaking. Interestingly, these are often the hardest areas for language learners to master. You can memorize as many words/sentences, as much grammar as you want, but if you have trouble understanding when someone talks to you or if you have trouble finding the right words when you speak, all that knowledge is for waste.

(If you want to know more about Prof Arguelles and his theories, start with this video on youtube, where he discusses his shadowing approach)

Still awake? Apologizes for all that boring theory. I think it’s useful to consider this stuff. At any rate, on to the list of songs. Most or all of these are very well known by the Japanese, so you will be sure to pleasantly surprise people if you manage to memorize any.

6 great Japanese kid’s songs

First, Mary had a little lamb.

[yframe url='http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dNHitUDJ1zo']

This is about as easy as you are going to get. Unfortunately, the video has English in it. Remember, at this point we really aren’t concerned with what the Japanese actually means. Concentrate on the sounds, both hearing them and reproducing them as best you can.

The acorn song!

[yframe url='http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ttLIUO3VH0M']

This is a fun song. Can you clearly understand the kids’ singing? Listen a few times before you try to shadow it.

Pushing the difficulty up a little, here is The Dog Policeman.

[yframe url='http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BrqVkdGHJZs']

This one is one of those everyone loves. I hear kids singing it all the time in the stores. The video is funny, too. The kana is on the video, but remember, we are working our listening not reading. Try to use your ears to figure out what sounds they are making.

Both the songs from My Neighbor Totoro are fun and easy to learn. Here’s a video with both of them.

[yframe url='http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FdALlQcS284']

As an added bonus, the kids in this video are adorable.

Ah, the Taikaki Song. This song is long and a little challenging, but he sings slowly and you should be able to follow along after a few trys. Unfortunately the one I want to embed here has embedding disabled. Go watch that version at youtube for some animation that will help you understand the song. Here’s another version with the guy who sings it. Awesome hair!

[yframe url='http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V8A2VzNL9kA']

Do you know what Taiyaki is? It’s kind of a hotcake with anko inside in the shape of a fish. This is quite an old song, but mention it or hum a few bars and you’ll bring a smile to the face of anyone over 30 .

Finally, the Japanese dub of one we probably all know. Challenge yourself and learn this version.

[yframe url='http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M8NKp4sGe14']

Want more?

Follow any of these videos to youtube and you should find a great many video links to other kid’s songs. Find some you like and learn them. You’ll enjoy yourself and it really will help your Japanese.

This post was written by Dave of JapanDave.com who Tweets and has a great newsletter full of amazing pictures of Japan.

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    test

  • WC

    “Can you clearly understand the kids’ singing?”

    No. I can't clearly understand anything kids say, in any language. That's the problem with learning from kids' songs.

    I tried a while back to learn from things aimed at young kids, but everyone wants to speak with them in baby-speak, or let them speak it, and so I can't understand it.

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  • http://twitter.com/kodakku_muuma Emma Selwyn

    One that's pretty useful – if VERY CREEPY – is “RuRuRU no Uta”. Not sure I can put liks up but search for it using hiragana on Youtube.

    It's all -ru verbs and the story it tells is funny if you can get past the creepiness of it.

  • http://cnandbolts.wordpress.com/ Crowbeak

    I took an opportunity to volunteer to help run a kids' weekend camp while I lived in Japan. My Okinawan friends invited me along. It was interesting, but I discovered that understanding the children was difficult at best. Kids have yet to fully master pronouncing things properly, and when you mix in kiddy words (which, of course, you never find in text books), you end up hearing nothing but kids babbling. Thankfully, as with kids speaking your native tongue, they're usually just looking for someone to listen and acknowledge them without necessarily replying before they run off to do something else.

    I definitely recommend interacting with and observing foreign kids in action, though. They're generally happy to teach you things, for one. For another, it's cRaZy how similar they are to kids back home. Somewhere along the line I encountered a boy with an empty soda bottle hitting himself over the head with it, *bonk* いで [ow] *bonk* いで *bonk* いで, over and over again. When I told my mom about that, she busted up laughing 'cause my brother used to do the exact same thing.

    Anyway, I enjoy learning Japanese kids' songs when I get the chance, but I prefer to learn from an adult singing it. When I got Utada Hikaru's latest full album, Heart Station, I was delighted when I realized that Boku wa Kuma must be a kids' song.

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  • erika

    i like the warabe uta songs, i don't know why though, there nice. However, it's really creepy what some songs in different languages are allusions to an event like a plague, execution, winter, ect. like one song, teru teru bozu, referred to about a monk who said the rain will stop after alot of rain and the sun will shine, but it kept raining and he was executed. i like the part of the song were the lyrics sing “Ashita tenki ni shite o-kure” with emphasis at the end.

  • http://twitter.com/MahoYuu Maho Yuu

    Yes, yes, this is good! I think with just enough influence of Japanese music, television, and so on… Then, it'll make a big difference to your language abilities. Especially since the shadowing is very natural technique. Toddlers do the same and are always learning by listening to you (can't read) and just repeating (''no timmy that's a bad word!!'').

    I watched that acorn song only a few times and it's already stuck in my head. It's so cute! Though I think learning from just any Japanese songs, which ever you like, would help. They're more difficult but you'll learn it easily if you really like it.

  • Sravana

    I love it! I particularly liked to show the police dog vid to my niece, who is learning spanish through immersion at school. We ended up in a discussion of “wan wan!” which lead to googling what sounds animals make in spanish. :)

    Koichi, i recently purchased Pocket Tunes Radio for my iPhone (it was on sale, fwiw), and am now streaming various Japanese radio stations during the day. I particularly like Shonan Beach, though the songs are all classic US pop rock. I'm not trying to shadow the announcers (they are so fast!), but I do catch various words from time to time. It's helped me with my pronunciation, particularly of words that end in く、む、つ、etc. I didn't know how unbelievably short those “u”s are!

    I would really like to find a Japanese talk radio station, I'm going to try to get those through iTunes Japan on the Mac.

  • http://www.b-speak.com William

    Kid's songs also give you an opportunity to joke with locals. They will usually know the song and find funny that you can sing it in their languages.

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    podcasts are the way to do it. Nice!

  • Kelly ehlers

    TAKE….. ANY TING YOU WANT! TAKE…. ANY TING YOU WANT!!!! lol

  • http://twitter.com/travisbelrose Travis Belrose

    I loved studying using 歌から学ぶ日本語 (Learning Japanese from Songs) from ALC.

    http://shop.alc.co.jp/spg/v/-/-/-/7001697

    A handful of the 21 songs are children's songs, with the rest ranging from classics like “Sukiyaki” to pop tunes like “LOVE LOVE LOVE”. Even if you don't use the study guide, learning the songs will help you expand your karaoke repertoire at least!

  • http://JapanDave.com David LaSpina / JapanDave

    That's true — any song will work, really. As long as you enjoy it enough to listen again and again and again.

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  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_GU32JUZXIAEFQBIVHCTZ23XCFQ Otaku-in-training

    Yeah, songs can help you learn any language!
    I'm self-teaching myself Japanese while also taking a French class for school, and my teacher uses songs all the time. Though it's stupid… and kind of embarassing… it's very effective!!
    (Plus these are cute 'n catchy! hehe!)

  • staonwahl'sbass

    my favorite song to try and sing is that “we are men” song from mulan; it's a favorite of my language class. it pumps you up durring that test! if you walk in you can hear some of us hum it XD

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  • http://JapanDave.com David LaSpina / JapanDave

    I've never seen Mulan. Luckily youtube has us covered. Here's the Japanese version: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VYSKHp6VkO8

    I'll have to watch it now!

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  • http://mistersanity.blogspot.com Jonadab

    I think the song from Aladdin may be just about the easiest of the lot for me (apart from Mary’s Lamb, which is too easy to be useful), not just because I have a rough idea already what the lyrics are saying, but also because it contains mostly ordinary vocabulary and grammar, probably because it was written (or translated) to express certain ideas, so it’s largely straightforward.

    Kids’ songs are typically written to be fun and cute, so they do weird things with the language, and you end up with weird repetitive sequences like do-n-gu-di-ko-do-ko-do-do-n-bu-di-ko (pardon the bad transliteration; I’m not on my regular computer and don’t have an input method for kana), which would never occur in any normal context, written or verbal. For a non-native speaker, who doesn’t necessarily know all the words and can have a hard time figuring out where one words leaves off and the next one begins, this can be pretty confusing.

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  • http://mistersanity.blogspot.com Jonadab

    I found one called メロンパンうた that’s fun and easy, and one called 踊りたい? that’s terribly catchy, though I’m not yet sure what it’s really about (if anything).

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  • Daniel Parrey

    Ahh I love this. Hell I learnt “I’ll make a man out of you” in mandarin for fun alone!

    In terms of Japanese , I sing myself ‘Musunde Hiraite’ むすんで、ひらいて all the time.

    http://ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E3%82%80%E3%81%99%E3%82%93%E3%81%A7%E3%81%B2%E3%82%89%E3%81%84%E3%81%A6

  • Daniel Parrey

    Sorry for the double post. I just tried this with the walnut song and the problem is its so hard for me to listen carefully and then speak the words at the same time.

    But when I solely listen, I can repeat the words they say just not at the same time :P

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  • Patrick

    I’ve just started learning Japanese. While i was looking at the Rosetta Stone alphabet, I was thinking how I learned my alphabet as a child. The ABC’s song, “next time won’t you sing with me,” I was taught that annoying song in school and often heard it on kids shows.

    I googled this idea, and your article is what came up.

    I’m definitely going to have to watch my favorite movies in Japanese now.

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  • dizzymavis124

    i love learning Japanese songs. they are so awesome !!!!!!!!!! :) :) :)

  • http://www.wheatleycopywriting.co.uk Neil Wheatley

    I made a video where I sing the Mobile Suit Gundam theme and learn some Japanese words from it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iBIQtzIwtc0. Thanks for the inspiration :)