The Background Story
Just yesterday I took a two-hour Japanese exam for the MEXT Scholarship, which would give me a free-ride for a year at a Japanese university to study Japanese. A great deal, but apparently so highly competitive that my local Japanese consulate has been only able to successfully send one student in the past several years to Japan—and on top of that, the person they were able to send was half-Japanese, and apparently already fluent in Japanese. For example, I found this post on the Reviewing the Kanji forum posted by Zorlee, who is going for the same scholarship, except that he’s already long passed the highest level of the JLPT, and therefore is much more likely to get the scholarship than I am. Hmm, perhaps if the Japanese government were really trying to bring more foreigners over to Japan, they shouldn’t require near-native Japanese as a prerequisite? (Sorry, that’s my bitterness speaking.)
At any rate, I had already come down to the consulate for the interview, so they let me take the qualifying Japanese exam for the scholarship as well. It was mostly multiple-choice, split into 3 difficulty levels. If you’re familiar with the JLPT, I would say the easiest difficulty was around 5/4-kyuu on the JLPT, the intermediate level around 3-kyuu, and the hardest difficulty 2/1-kyuu—certainly no walk in the park. The test was two hours long, with each difficulty level having the same sorts of questions. First some grammar fill-ins, then some expression/keigo questions, and then a reading passage.
Furthermore, while there was no listening section to the test, the test did have a short “Kanji Writing” section, where you would have to produce Kanji based off the given readings in a sentence. This is where I failed, big time.
While I’ve gotten pretty good at recognizing the meaning and readings of Kanji when I come across them in reading, my writing-kanji-by-hand skills have taken a very sharp nose-dive. After all, I do all my writing on the computer, so thanks to the magic of auto hiragana-to-Kanji input, my ability to actually write almost any even moderately complicated Kanji has all but disappeared.
For example, with a word like 準備 (junbi – preparation), I can recognize it in writing, hear and understand it easily, and even use it in a conversation freely without much effort. But if you were to place a blank piece of paper in front of me and ask me to write it down, I would laugh in your face—I would simply have no idea where to start. How do I bring my horribly deficient writing skills up to speed with my comparatively strong listening and speaking skills?
Enter Kanji Kentei — Kanji Learning Software for the DS
On my way back from the Japanese Consulate, I stopped off at BookOff to browse a few manga titles to distract myself from my failure at being able to reading Kanji when I came across a used copy of 200 Mannin no Kanken, a Kanji learning game for the DS. Kanji learning games for the DS are nothing new, but at least for me, I had always been tempted by the idea of buying one but had yet to through with it. But since I was already there at the BookOff, I what-the-heck-ly decided to purchase it.
For those who don’t know, the game is actually designed to prep one for the Kanji Kentei (Kanken) — a test of Kanji ability designed for Japanese people, which has a wide variety of levels, from elementary school all the way up to beyond-adult at the highest level, where even a fully-literate Japanese adult would need to sit down and do some studying in order to expect to pass. And unlike tests of Japanese ability designed for non-natives (e.g. the JLPT), the Kanken is not fully multiple-choice—rather, many of the questions require production of Kanji just from its reading in context, or from its location in a 4-kanji expression. Example questions can be found here.
I’m not sure how interested I am in taking the test—it seems like there’s too much emphasis on memorization of tiny little Kanji rules that wouldn’t be so useful for me to learn as a non-native, at least not at my current, relatively-low Japanese level.
But getting back to the game, while the reviews for it on Amazon.co.jp are not terribly high, most of the given complaints have to do with how the Kanji-recognition system is not too great (often being too generous with writing mistakes). While I understand the complaints, I’ve found that for my purposes, the recognition system is good enough. What’s most important is that it’s giving me a chance to easily practice my Kanji recognition and writing skills in a rather fun way. I’ve been reviewing the easiest Kanji levels (the ones designed for first graders) pretty quickly, but expect to slow down once I head into middle-school level and start coming across lots of new words. Perhaps it’s just the strange pull of using a DS itself, but I do find myself a little addicted to learning Kanji right now using this game. Here’s hoping this isn’t just a passing obsession.
There are a number of gameplay modes, including ones that force the player to count the number of strokes in a character, or figure out which number a certain stroke is, but I don’t find those too useful. The ones I’ve been using most often include:
– Write the kanji from the given reading in context
– Write the reading of the kanji in the sentence
– Write the correct Furigana (for example, choosing whether 登る or 登ぼる is correct)
There are also modes for writing 3 and 4 character kanji compounds and for determining if the kanji in a certain word are compliments, opposites, etc, but again, at the moment I just want bare-bones kanji writing and reading practice. The modes I’ve listed above have been sufficient for my needs in that respect so far.
So is this the Best Method? Is this worth my precious Japanese-learning time?
Everyone on the internet seems to be concerned about using the “best” and “fastest” method to learn Japanese—just see the claims made on AJATT about various learning methods that say, “This […] is not how to learn. Not effectively.”
I’m wary to suggest one learning method over another, but I will say that the addictiveness of the game environment has been important to me in helping me stick with it. I can just pop open my DS and do some reviews of Kanji for a little bit without much hassle. I’m also a sucker for progress bars and learning statistics pages, and the game is luckily chock-full of those too. Furthermore, the game has lots of sample sentences that I plan on compiling in order to review for later.
Since the game is designed for native-speakers, the game does not include any sort of dictionary (the biggest problem for me in my opinion), but I’ve been able to supplement my playing by looking up unknown words on my computer. A lot of the vocabulary in the sentences is not always the every-day sort of stuff found in Japanese textbooks—even on the easiest levels I’ve come across words I never bothered to learn in Japanese, like stilts, plaza, steamboat, harbor, feather, etc. Not the most useful words in the world, but at this point, these are words I need to force into my passive vocabulary so I can prepare myself to read texts more fluently, and not get tripped up when a conversation turns to something rather specific.
I’ll try to update this blog with sentences from the game so that others can see what it offers more concretely, and for my own learning purposes. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend the sentences in the game for shadowing practice—the vocabulary is not terribly useful—but for kanji and reading practice these should be worth a look.