Monthly Archives: May 2011

Learning Kanji: Using Shorter Sentences to Study more Efficiently

Alternate Title: The Secret to Learning Kanji: Don’t Learn kanji.

Kanji

The good news: if you learn these, you'll be on your way to basic reading fluency!

The great thing about the kanji is that there are a lot of them. However, this may or may not in fact be a good thing depending on your point of view. The Dai Kan-Wa jiten apparently contains over 50,000 kanji, although it is generally recognized that the some 2000 Joyo Kanji are what is necessary for basic reading fluency in Japanese. Furthermore, because each kanji can take on more than one reading depending on the word, the task before the Japanese learner seems rather arduous.

But not to fear, right? After all, the most common 1000 kanji covers 93% of what you should expect to read. Except that this statistic—and I’ve heard it from Japanese teachers as well—is rather misleading. First, even if you did understand 93% of the kanji being used in an article, that’s still an unknown kanji to look up every 10 or so words—not exactly reading fluency by any means.

Furthermore, even if you recognize a Kanji, it might be used in a word that contains unknown kanji as well, making the word incomprehensible without decent guessing skills, and making your 1000 kanji knowledge base not as useful as you may have hoped.

So what do we do?

The most common kanji learning methods

There’s no reason to go over these in detail since they’ve been discussed ad nauseum:

1. Study just a few kanji by rote a day—if you studied just 3 kanji a day for two years, you would have studied 2190 kanji, a bit more than the entire joyo kanji list! Problem: sticking to a daily schedule for two entire years is easier said than done, not to mention the necessary need to review what you’ve learned already. Plus, what does “3 kanji” even mean? Just writing the kanji? Writing and all of its readings? Just recognizing it and its rough english meanings? There’s more here than meets the eye.

2. Use RTK (as I discussed briefly before along with AJATT) as a way to internalize kanji meanings to aid in the learning and writing of vocabulary words. Problem: and as I said before, I’m not the biggest fan of RTK. It advocates a piece-wise learning process that is not as useful as it seems. It’s possible to pick up kanji meanings without needing to study them explicitly first through rote-memorization.

3. Play/read/watch X game/manga/anime in Japanese to pick up kanji naturally. Problem: non-textbook style materials are very helpful, but they can lead to input overload when it comes to kanji—more on that below—and so students should exercise discipline when using this route.

All of these are useful ways of learning Kanji, but they each have flaws as well—as any learning method will likely have. Nonetheless, I have one more of my own to propose.

Learn Kanji by Not Learning Kanji

The problem I see with a lot of Kanji learning material is that you go one character at a time, treating the kanji as a sort of separate entity from the rest of your Japanese learning. This may be perfectly effective, but I feel that it’s actually more efficient rather than less to study kanji through the study of vocabulary.

That’s right—don’t study the Kanji; study words.

But why? Isn’t studying words long and tedious? Shouldn’t I learn the alphabet first?

Kanji is not phonetic like English or the Kana; as a result, trying to learn it like an alphabet may actually be inefficient. I’m not going to flat out say it is inefficient, but I think there are better methods.

So how do I go about learning word-by-word?

One thing you may notice about Japanese is that even when a kanji is used in multiple words, these words tend to take on similar meanings. This may not always be the case, but it’s a good general rule. For example, I have a list of JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test) words that I can sort by Kanji:

There seems to be a common theme here...

Even if we don’t explicitly study the meaning of 「予」we can get the sense of what meaning we should expect if we see this Kanji in a word. And by studying words, we ultimately assimilate both this meaning and the meaning of a real Japanese word as well—a two for one deal.

However, what I am not suggesting is to simply study lists of words rather than Kanji. Studying words by themselves is ineffective because we won’t know when to use them in real conversations or contexts. Four of the words on the list above have the listed meaning “forecast,” but only one of them would be used in the common construction, “weather forecast,” in Japanese:

  • 「天気予報」= 51,600,000 Google hits.
  • 「天気予想」= 154,000 Google hits
  • 「天気予期」= 123 Google hits
  • 「天気予測」= 108,000 Google hits

Despite the similar meanings, the winner here is pretty clear. We need to study words in context—more specifically, we need to study sentences.

Where do I get sentences to study?

Not all sentences are created equal—some can be too long or too complex, something we want to avoid when studying. Generally, your sentences should contain no more than a handful of unknown words, and you should be able to easily guess at the meaning of the sentence without too much difficulty without those words. That way, you won’t overload yourself.

Grabbing haphazardly from newspapers or tv shows—that while filled with useful Japanese—will likely result in having sentences with too much content for a reasonable human to study at one time: that’s input overload. You can take from a newspaper, book, or tv show if you feel you’re at that level, but keep the sentences very short while still retaining some semblance of context. Taking or transcribing sentences from tv shows in particular may be useful, since you’ll remember the context of when the words were used and thus remember both the meaning and when to use the word more easily.

But for the beginner, the following would probably be more useful:

A:どこ行くの?

B:ちょっと、コンビニにお弁当を買いに。

Taken from the beginner-level shadowing book I mentioned previously.

An easy-to-understand exchange about going to the convenience store to purchase lunch gives the beginner the chance to practice 「弁当」and 「買」while giving some context as to when to use these words as well.

After reviewing the sentence, one should practice writing it by hand—using fill-in-the-blank with the kanji—to review. By going over short sentences, we avoid input overload, study both kanji and words simultaneously without doing too much of either at one time, and study grammar and natural Japanese constructions as well.

In a future post, I’ll go over where to find good sentences to practice, and how to incorporate more fun things like anime into serious study.

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Filed under Japan, Japanese, Kanji, Language, Self-studying

Using Pimsleur to Jumpstart your Language Learning

Alternate Title: Why Repeating “I am going to eat” 40 times in 30 minutes will help you learn Japanese.

About two months into my Japanese 101 class in college, I had made it a habit of going to office hours to practice my Japanese. I was a bright-eyed freshman, and I was eager to show off the breadth of my Japanese vocabulary—all 10 words or so. Nonetheless, I dutifully showed up every week, and I recall at one point in conversation I used the phrase けっこうです (kekko-desu / That’s fine) in response to something my teacher said—a phrase we had not yet explicitly covered in class, but something I had picked up using Pimsleur.

Now, this is nothing to write home about, but my teacher responded positively, telling me she was impressed at how even with my limited vocabulary, I was able to effectively communicate my thoughts in Japanese compared to some of my peers. This turned out to be a very good thing in the end, as I was able to score a very good recommendation letter from this same teacher for an intensive Japanese program that summer—which I got into!

I attribute a lot of my success in Japanese 101 to having used Pimsleur outside of class, so it’s worth going over.

What is Pimsleur, and how does it work?

Pimsleur is a well-known audi0-based language learning course for beginners that’s available in a variety of languages, and I know I’m not the first person to write about it. Nonetheless, for Japanese consists of the following:

  • Three levels with 30 audio-lessons in each level (for a total of 90 lessons). Each lesson is an audio track about 30 minutes long.
  • When the lesson beings you listen to a dialogue. Then you repeat the words from the dialogue after a native speaker multiple times.
  • Once you have the word down, the narrator will prompt you in English to either repeat a word, or use the correct phrase in response to some scenario.
  • Do one lesson a day, making sure you successfully repeat about 80% of the time.

All of this takes place over the course of 30 minutes, and by the end of the lesson, you should be able to understand and use the phrases from the dialogue from the beginning of the lesson.

Pimsleur seems to offer free sample lessons on its website, so if you’re curious, I’d give one a try in the language of your choice. If you’re interested in what the Japanese lessons specifically will offer you, you can find unofficial transcripts for all 3 levels right here.

Why Pimsleur is worth your time

For the absolute beginner, this is a great program. You won’t be fluent by the end—after all, 90 lessons amounts to only 45 hours, less than amount of time you’ll spend on your average Final Fantasy game—and you may not be using the most natural Japanese either, but you’ll be able to communicate. In other words, you’ll have formed a powerful knowledge-base for future study.

By being forced to repeat certain tricky grammar constructions or particularly difficult-to-pronounce words over and over, you smooth out any language problems you might have had. Furthermore, actually speaking puts your language ability to the test: it’s all too easy to read over some Japanese and believe you understand it, but then when it comes to say it out loud, you get tongue-tied and confused.

I have seen people point out that Pimsleur is boring, but I’ve never found this to be the case for me. Figuring out the syntax and construction of sentences from pure audio is difficult, especially when the built-in pauses during the audio are short enough to keep you on your toes. Remember, you want resistance when you study, and as a complete language beginner, you will be challenged when using Pimsleur from scratch.

Plus, unlike shadowing, there are no prerequisites to using Pimsleur: it’s a self-contained course for the pure beginner, and can be used alone or in conjunction with your basic-level college course or textbook. With Pimsleur, you will memorize the heck out of a small number of words and sentences, and you will see a difference in your language ability.

Why this works over other study methods

Beyond the usual marketing-sounding stuff you’ll find about the “Pimsleur method” on the official website, it works because you spend 30 minutes a day, every day. That takes some serious commitment—I know I have trouble sticking to a daily schedule with regards to most things. When you self-study, it’s easy to put off for later; with Pimsleur, you’re forced to keep at it, and that’s what makes the difference.

In a future post I’ll be going over some ideas for reading and writing Japanese.

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In-Depth: How to use Shadowing to Study Japanese

Alternate title: Good language learners copy; great ones steal.

In a comment on my last post about incorporating resistance into your studying, Peke Penguin (author of a bilingual Japanese-English story about the (mis)adventures of Peke) points out that well-known fact that immersion is the best way to really learn a language fluently.

Of course, for many language learners the chance to visit our target country—in this case Japan—is not always a simple feat. Visiting is costly, and without sufficient preparation or basic understanding of Japanese, going abroad could just as easily be unhelpful as well. Thus, today let’s consider one of the best ways to practice real and useful Japanese right from our very homes.

What is Shadowing, and how does it work?

C&B Comic

Your shadowing goal: be that human echo!

Prerequisites:

  1. Know Kana and some basic Kanji.
  2. Have a decent grasp of basic Japanese grammar.

Shadowing means repeating. You hear something in Japanese, and you repeat it. That’s it! Of course, this is easier said than done.

By repeating something, you demonstrate you have some knowledge of what was just spoken. Otherwise, you would just be repeating a series of random sounds, which would be much harder, if not impossible. When you repeat, you’re practicing both your listening and speaking skills at the same time.

Furthermore, you can take your repeating one-step further by repeating not when the audio you want to repeat is finished, but while the audio is being spoken you begin to repeat. This is the key part of shadowing that makes it difficult and useful when learning the language; remember, you’re aiming for resistance. Let’s use an example:

Say you’re practicing the following conversation:

A: 何、これ。食べ終わったら片付けなさい!

B: あー、それまだ食べかけなんだから、おいといてよ。

[audio https://sites.google.com/site/coldfrost/files/ShadowingExample.mp3]

To shadow this conversation, follow these steps:

1. Understand the conversation. Once you do, never look at the English text again.

A: What’s this? If you’ve finished eating then clean everything up!
B: Ah, but I haven’t finished yet; just leave it.
2. Listen to the conversation.
3. Listen to the conversation, and repeat after it has finished.
4. Listen to the conversation, and repeat after person A has finished speaking (yes, you will be repeating while the conversation is still going on) while looking at the Japanese text.
5. Listen to the conversation, and repeat after person A has finished speaking without looking at the Japanese text.
6. Repeat this process until you can complete step 5 fluently and easily.

And that’s how shadowing works.

Why use shadowing to study Japanese

Shadowing is not as easy as it may seem, especially if you’re going to be shadowing more complicated or longer dialogues. The point is to find dialogues that contain just a few words at most that you don’t know; you don’t want to overwhelm yourself with something too difficult for your level.

However, by repeating to the point where you can repeat the dialogue with ease without needing to look at any text, you will have effectively internalized the dialogue and you will find yourself using it in actual conversation without even realizing it. Effective shadowing does not require memorization, but does require enough practice to force the structures and vocabulary used in the sentences into your head.

Since these are authentic Japanese-sounding conversations, you won’t have to worry about wrestling with which grammar rule to use or word to chose when speaking; you’ll have already internalized a sentence or structure that expresses exactly what you need to say. Remember, good language learners copy, but great ones steal.

So where do I get good material for shadowing?

An excellent question—I realize I’ve been going on about real Japanese, but have failed to actually say where this material is located.

Good shadowing material can come from anywhere. Listen to your favorite anime—maybe just a line or two of dialogue—write down the dialogue, and start repeating it. Or maybe the lyrics from your favorite Japanese song are worth shadowing if they seem useful enough; you can use shadowing with any authentic Japanese spoken material.

If you’re looking for a little more guidance, however, I’d recommend the following books, available from the White Rabbit Press:

I own both of these books, and I find the dialogues in them to be incredibly useful. Plus, these are made for shadowing specifically, so you should have no trouble getting started if you decide to purchase them. The conversation example in this post was taken from the beginner-level book.

I hope this helps you! Next up I will discuss my feelings on the ever-popular Pimsleur series, and how you can use it effectively in your studies.

C&H Comic 2

Just don't try and go too quickly!

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On Learning Japanese: Self-Studying with Resistance

Alternative title: So how do I go about learning Japanese—or any language—anyway?

As I draw closer to the two-year mark in my Japanese language studies, I always wonder if the way I’m studying is the most efficient or useful. With such a huge number of learning resources out there, it’s easy to become overwhelmed and not know where to start, or where to go from where you might find yourself in your studies.

For example, I expect most people who have tried to self-study Japanese on their own have come across the following things:

I have a particular interest in AJATT, not because I find his method (1. Memorize the Kanji via RTK 2. Memorize sentences 3. Now you’re fluent) especially useful, but because he lays out a self-study method very different than what is found in your average Japanese 101 class. In that respect, AJATT is unique, and the author’s inspirational blog posts are always fun to read. It’s also quite popular among the self-studying crowd, so I’ll address it briefly first.

To start, I don’t think AJATT is incredibly useful. The first step, RTK, asks learners to memorize how to write and the English meaning of each Kanji individually, but nothing else. As a result, I expect that the learner who starts with RTK is sure to find himself frustrated by the amount of study time he has put in compared to the amount he will be able to actually read or understand in Japanese.

Nonetheless, I am not against RTK as a method; in fact, I think it’s incredibly useful for remembering how to write Kanji and differentiate similar Kanji when reading. I just don’t think I would use it FIRST—to me, that seems the least helpful time to learn Kanji, when the student has had no other Japanese input.

How to Self-Study Effectively: Do it with Resistance!

One thing to note is that I actually have not self-studied Japanese—I took classes at my university. I don’t think classes are a bad idea, not because I found the textbook used (Nakama) very good, but because taking classes causes what I like to call resistance, or some sort of discomfort while learning.

A good teacher in a language-learning class will force you to constantly use the language you’re learning. You’ll have to use specific structures, talk with your equally-confused peers, and in general feel some sort of discomfort as you try to say something or use a new vocabulary term but have initial trouble doing so.

That’s resistance.

That’s what you should feel when you’re learning a language. The feeling that it’s hard, and that things aren’t going smoothly. Because when that feeling hits, you’re learning. However, the self-studier can easily remove any resistance in his learning by skipping reviews, or doing easier tasks; there is no teacher forcing him to interact or speak in a language using structures or vocabulary that are just above his level.

Perhaps the most dedicated student will plow through and always force himself to reach the resistance state, but in general, we’re lazy. The old adage that I could learn everything in college for the same price as a few late fees at the library rings true at first, but simply reading a book in the library without any pressure removes resistance, and in that same way, removes a good deal of the learning in the process.

School as an institution is something we resist. We don’t want to be there. We don’t want to go to class. We don’t want to do this stupid five-page essay assignment. By having others tell us what to do and giving us deadlines on when to do it, we experience resistance. But again, this resistance, in my view, is when we are learning the most. On average, the hard class will teach us more than the easy class—resistance follows that same idea.

How do I incorporate resistance into my self-studying?

I will actually save specific ideas and methods that I have devised for later posts, but for now, two of my better recommendations:

Pimsleur acts as a teacher, forcing you to respond and use the language; it’s very effective, and I would say the best resource to have when you’re in your beginning stage of learning. Shadowing forces you to use the language as well, and allows for not just aural learning, but practice in reading (and writing, if you go far enough) as well.

I will go into how these work (especially shadowing, since it seems vastly underrated in my opinion) in a later post. Until then, good luck studying!

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Filed under Japan, Japanese, Language, Self-studying