Tag Archives: Self-studying

The Ideal Advanced Language Class

When Language Classes Aren’t Challenging Enough

In my previous post I praised my university’s Chinese 101 class, which was both challenging and interesting enough to make me want to study Chinese in the future. I now want to move on to Japanese, which I have been studying now for four and a half years since starting in college. My general thoughts on Japanese study in college are as follows:

The 101/102 level of Japanese, like Chinese, was great. Things were moving fast, I felt challenged everyday, and I was excited to learn. The second year classes were similar, and I struggled a bit in the beginning while trying to keep up (I did two semesters of Japanese in 2 months via an “intensive Japanese” summer program). By my third and fourth years into studying Japanese, however, I started to like Japanese class less and less. Having gotten the basics down, there was less pressure to memorize tons of words or grammar points. I would internally groan every time I had to listen to one of my classmates struggle to discuss something relatively difficult or abstract in class.

textbooks

All of the textbooks I used in college, taking 1.5 years to go through the first three, and 2.5 years for the following three. Looking back, being intermediate level (books 3~5) is the most frustrating.

1. Nakama 1
2. Nakama 2
3. Tobira
4. 日本への招待
5. 中級から上級への日本語
6. 文化へのまなざし

I didn’t feel challenged in class, and as a result I began to feel that an hour and a half in class was less helpful than an hour and a half of study on my own. In a good class, obviously, this should not happen; if lecture or class is less beneficial or interesting than self-study, then going to class has no purpose.

At this point some people draw the conclusion that classes are only useful up to a certain point, and self-studying and immersion is the only way to go. I agree that both of those things are useful (if not necessary in order to seriously improve), but I don’t want to give up on classes just yet. Surely there must be a way to make an advanced Japanese (or any advanced language class) useful and relevant. I’m nowhere *close* to knowing everything in Japanese, and so if I have the chance, aren’t there things I could still learn in a classroom environment? And if so, what kind of environment would be necessary?

Why I like Job Searching in Japan/at Japanese companies

Actually, the title is wrong. I hate job searching in Japan. In fact, I hate job searching entirely, regardless of country. It’s a soul-sucking, energy-draining, ego-destroying waste of time. But for the language learner doing job searching in their non-native language, it’s perhaps also the biggest motivator to study a language more than anything else. When you’re competing against native speakers as a non-native speaker yourself, it’s essentially a language test ramped up to eleven. You don’t know how terrible you are at a language until you’re being tested as if you were a native-speaker.

And call me masochistic, but I love it.

Last year I attended the Boston Career Forum, where I interviewed for a position at BCG, an international business strategy consulting firm. The interviews I had were completely in Japanese, and not once was my Japanese praised, nor was I told how 上手 (skilled) I was at speaking. It felt great, like I was being treated as an equal. After all, fluent Japanese was excepted for the position, and a company has no time to help you with your ego. If you can’t communicate, then say goodbye to any future interviews. While you can also talk to a Japanese friend in Japanese, it’s generally a low stress situation compared to an interview. With a friend you get the benefit of the doubt both because you both already know each other, and because you’re a non-native speaker. In an interview, this only works against you.

After the career forum I was invited by BCG to partake in a three-day long event in December called a “Winter Job”, which is used at BCG’s Tokyo office in place of final round interviews. When I arrived in Tokyo, I was the only non-Asian person (there was one Chinese student as well, but everyone else was Japanese) out of about 25 or so students at the Winter Job, most of whom were Todai/Kyodai/Keio  level undergraduate and graduate students. All communication before and after the event took place in Japanese, with the three days at the BCG office naturally spent entirely in Japanese as well. I wish I could say I became this badass, completely bilingual speaker overnight for the event, but I did not; over the three days I struggled quite a lot. Keeping up—let alone competing—with everyone else was hard, and I pushed myself to the limits of my Japanese ability.

So what if a class could recreate that same environment?

Being Challenged in a Language

Finding materials to challenge myself with in Japanese is not hard. If I pick up a Japanese book and try to read it, I’ll be challenged. A recent analysis over on Reddit finds that a good 4-5000 kanji may be necessary to fluently read relatively difficult Japanese literature. If I want to challenge myself in listening or speaking, I could listen to or try to recite  NHK news podcasts. If I try to read a couple of articles from Bloomberg Japan, I’ll run into an unknown word before long.

Simply put, there are plenty of Japanese challenges out there for the advanced learner. If anything, being at an “advanced” level makes it easier to find material because basically anything a native speaker would look at becomes fair game. At the same time, however, this proves to be challenging to adapt to the classroom environment. Choose something too difficult and learning slows down. As mentioned in a Language Learning & Technology journal article titled The Development of Advanced Learner Oral Proficiency Using Ipads, the author professor Lys cites that

…exposure [according to linguist Stephen Krashen] to the target language is crucial and that the amount and quality of comprehensible input learners receive—defined as i+1—determines how fast they will learn.

Going right after native materials from the start might be something we want to do, but the reality is that we need comprehensible input as well. But what I found in my advanced Japanese classes was that the input was dumbed down too far. I was understanding everything. Now that sounds fine, of course, but in my Japanese 101/102 classes, that wasn’t the case. If I didn’t study the night before I would be lost in class. After all, starting from zero meant I had no background knowledge of the language to fall back on.

In my advanced classes, there were occasionally words I did not know, but nothing that required advanced studying in order to follow along. And if someone in class didn’t understand a word, the teacher would explain it throughly in class. Again, while that might seem fine at first glance, in 101/102 you were expected to have studied prior to the class because there was so much material being crammed into so little time, limiting any time for explanations. In short, the leisurely pace in the advanced class—while it allowed for deeper discussion of certain tricky words or grammar points—did little to stimulate my interest or get me really excited about facing another challenging class. If I want to look up new words or slowly go through a reading, I can do that by myself. The chance to be challenged to speak quickly, accurately, and sophisticatedly on a difficult subject is something that is hard to recreate without a teacher to be your parter.

Consider this next quote from the Professor Lys’ article:

In a study assessing language gain in Spanish speaking students spending a semester abroad, only 12 of the 22 students were able to improve their proficiency by one level (from Intermediate Low to Intermediate Mid), even though they had reported that they had used Spanish outside of class for more than forty-five hours per week (Segalowitz & Freed, 2004, as cited in Tschirner, 2007, p. 111). Students apparently blamed the repetitive and predictable nature of many exchanges with their host family.

As an intermediate or advanced learner, it’s too easy to cheat using your basic language knowledge. If you get stuck not knowing a certain word, you can talk your way around it and convey the meaning you want. This technique is called circumlocution, and it’s not a bad strategy for the beginning learner with limited vocabulary, but as the following article points out, it can become a bad habit where advanced learners “fail to push themselves to try to remember a particular word or phrase.” The Spanish students in the above example likely fell victim to the same habit: they didn’t push themselves out of their comfort zone to use more difficult vocabulary or phrasing.

The Advanced Classroom should be like a Job Interview

In a video featuring Khatzumoto of AJATT fame, Khatz points out at one point that Japanese learners (post-Japan’s 1990 bubble) are often studying Japanese out of their love of anime and other cultural interests, rather than for any economic reason. Unsurprisingly, my advanced Japanese classes have often revolved around Japanese anime and dramas, simply because most of the learners enjoy those kinds of materials. That’s all well and good—I am not suggesting that we use more dry materials in an attempt to be “serious”—but as a result the atmosphere in the class tends to be very low-stress. “Let’s all discuss this episode” or “What happened to the character in this scene” tend to be the usual discussion points, repeated ad nauseam. And when we do talk about a recent news article in class, it’s basically a “free discussion” time, with students giving their best shot at sounding intelligent. The teacher does not interfere.

This might just be me disagreeing with a certain type of teaching methodology, but I think this style of classroom is setting intermediate and advanced learners up for failure. The teacher needs to be pushing students to speak accurately by making the class a little more stressful. We don’t want students to freeze up and fail completely, but allowing them to struggle freely by themselves out loud for five minutes as they attempt to produce intelligible output is not acceptable in an advanced level classroom.

For example, a roll-playing activity could involve being an interviewee for a large bank, and therefore the role would require memorizing how to use a large number of economic-related vocabulary. If the student is not particularly interested in economics, they could be asked to roll-play describing an abstract concept related to psychology in front of a professor, or be asked to describe a photo or movie in great detail in English, and then be asked to repeat the same description—with the same level of detail and vocabulary—in Japanese. See the following “English Lesson” video from a TV variety show:

The video is comedy, but repeating what you have just said in your native language in a language you are studying (at the same level of vocabulary and fluency) is difficult.

With these examples I am trying to think of ways students could be placed under more stress. I want situations where they would be forced to memorize a great deal more of the language than they already know. With a teacher there to correct mistakes and put pressure on students to be accurate and fast, the advanced class could potentially be just as intense—if not more so—than my intro level language classes. The native-level materials are out there and can be studied on one’s own, but I still believe a well structured class could be added-value for a student, rather than a leisurely waste of time.

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

The Value of the Beginner Language Class

In my junior year of college I enrolled in two language classes: one for Japanese and one for Chinese. For Japanese I enrolled in something called “Advanced Integrative Japanese”, which was a fancy way of saying “fourth-year Japanese class.” And as a complete beginner in Chinese, I also signed up for the “Chinese 101” class that I’m sure is offered at colleges around the world.

One thing I have noticed is that language classes get a lot of flack on the Internet, perhaps unsurprisingly by the self-studying crowd, which tends to be especially active on online forums and blogs. Traditional classes are often shunned as obsolete relics of the past, and perhaps that’s because of the breadth of material we have at our fingertips. After all, we’re all on the internet now, and we have (especially as a self-studier) more access to native-language material than ever before. Three popular blog posts come to mind that are particularly critical of language classes:

Why Language Classes Don’t Work: How to Cut Classes and Double Your Learning Rate (4-hour work week)

Classes Suck (AJATT)

Using AJATT to Pwn Japanese Classes (Which Still Suck) (AJATT, again)

There are a lot of good points in all of these posts, but their messages are similar: classes slow you down, and that the fastest way to learn is through native interaction, either with native speakers or native materials. The post on 4-hour Work Week is especially critical of classes when it claims that classes merely create “the illusion of progress” for students who are too lazy/scared/uninterested in using the language in the real world through interactions with native speakers.

This seems particularly true of most students who are forced to learn a foreign language they’re not really interested in, such as in high school. Often the only real speaking practice that goes on for languages learned in high school classes ends up occurring in the classroom, and as a result the language is merely treated as another academic subject that will be quickly forgotten by the end of the year. I certainly don’t remember every fact that I used to have memorized when I took American History back in high school, and that’s because I don’t constantly place myself in an environment where I would need to recall any of those previously memorized pieces of information. The same goes even more so for foreign languages. If I don’t care about the material enough to study it beyond what is presented in class, then the best teacher in the world is not going make a difference.

That’s why language classes outside of a mandatory curriculum are so much better—that is, classes taken in college by choice—and why I think they deserve more credit. These classes are populated (ideally) by students who, for some reason or another, care about taking the class. That means that even when the class ends, the studying goes on. Especially at the beginner level these students want to learn the language on some level, and are ready to dive in.

The Beginner Language Class – A Time-Wasting Hell of Poor Speakers or A Bastion of Language Learning?

My Chinese language class had the following format: once a day, 5 days a week, about 10 people in the room. The teacher puts a new grammar structure up on the board and asks a question—in Chinese, of course—to one of the students at random. He answers. She asks another person a related question. He stumbles, she starts the sentence for him, he finishes it. She tells another student to ask the person next to him a related question. That person answers. And so on.

The in-class pace is fast, and the content is all speaking. There’s no writing during this class, no worksheets, and no handouts—that’s for your own practice as homework to be done outside of class. The textbook is a collection of ~30 conversations presented in both English and Chinese, with grammar notes explained in English and Chinese on subsequent pages. Homework involves memorizing the current week’s conversation, translating short paragraphs in English to Chinese (there’s your writing practice), memorizing short speeches in Chinese that you’ve written, and being able to transcribe short spoken sentences into Chinese characters. There’s a comprehensive quiz every week.

That was my Chinese Class, and for me it was awesome. I learned a lot, and I probably made as much progress as an average student does in 1-3 years of Chinese in high school. Seriously, it was hardcore.

Study the Language to Study the Language

I’m raving about my Chinese 101 class, but now let’s flash forward 1 year after finishing it. The result? I have forgotten most of what I learned. If I walked into my Chinese 101 final today I know I would surely fail; it has literally been over a year since I studied or engaged in the Chinese language in any serious way.

So does that prove the “class haters” points? After all, I took a class and now have few results to show from it—surely that means classes don’t matter. And if I can’t remember any Chinese, doesn’t that mean I’m in the same place as where I was after finishing my Spanish classes in high school? The answer, however, is no; and it’s because my mindset is quite different. Let me explain.

The Chinese class mattered because I’m still excited about picking up Chinese at some point in the future. Had I not taken the class, I might have had a vague desire to start learning at some point, but no language foundation or starting momentum. On the other hand, I have no desire whatsoever to study Spanish, regardless of how “useful” it is considered. The difference here is that the Chinese class instilled an interest in the Chinese language. I made rapid progress during the class and I feel confident I could do it again. I enjoyed speaking in Chinese and would love to be able to do it again at a higher level. There were very few lessons on “culture” in my Chinese class, but that’s because the class made the language challenging and interesting enough to be worth studying because it was fun. In other words, I studied Chinese because I wanted to become a beast at Chinese.

In my high school Spanish classes, the teachers tried to introduce students to Spanish culture, music, etc, as an attempt to give us reasons to study the language. While I understand the reasoning, I tuned most of it out. I didn’t give a damn about Cinco de Mayo, and it just turned me off to studying if this was supposed the “fun” part of the language. I should first be excited about studying the language because I simply like studying the language. For me, this is the purest and best form of motivation, and it’s something that a good class can do for a student. Cultural/native-language stuff like movies and music can be found on one’s own and can come later once the student has a decent foundation to actually make sense of the material.

Plus, since cultural stuff has to do a lot with personal taste—I would rather have my eyebrows plucked out than be forced to learn about traditional Japanese festivals and ancient shrines—trying to appeal to everyone in a single class is impossible. Classes in the beginner level, therefore, should focus on making the language challenging and interesting. And because an entire language can’t be taught in a single class, the goal should be to provide motivation and basis for further study if the student chooses to do so. Chinese 101 did that well.

Later I want to talk a little more about “Advanced language classes”, something I feel could be done a lot better than what I have experienced so far in my study of the language. Until next time…

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

A fresh batch of Japanese sex-vocabulary: 下ネタなんでだろう(歌)

If you’re looking for Japanese that you’re not going to find in any textbook, then sex-slang is certainly at the top of your list. While books like Dirty Japanese might have something useful, I’ve mentioned before that books like that tend to have a bunch of terms that are old or outdated, but are left in simply to enhance the book to a reasonable size for publishing—the author has no real incentive to keep the book updated with current content while cutting outdated or stranger words. So if you missed out on AJATT’s Moe Sentence Pack (apparently full of dirty vocabulary), then I suspect this post (and the longer videos linked below) should be more than satisfactory for your “learning” needs.

After all, it’s either use this, or just open up one of the educational videos you recently downloaded in that that 12 gb folder you having laying around your computer. You know, the one titled “Puppies and Kitties (MOM, DO NOT OPEN),” I know it’s there somewhere.

—-

So luckily, I came across a new language-learning website (new for me at least) called RhinoSpike. The premise is pretty simple—you have pieces of text in a language you’re learning, and you want the audio of a native speaker saying your text out loud. Alternatively, you have some audio in the language you’re learning, and you need a transcription of it. Both are possible to get at RhinoSpike (although audio recordings are much more popular) as long as you record or transcribe another user’s request in return.

The premise is interesting, and custom audio made out of text of your choosing—perfect for your shadowing practice (you have been shadowing daily, right??)—is quite neat. I would just warn potential users not to get too into using the site. An audio file of a lengthy text or transcription of a long video is enough to keep anyone at a high-intermediate level or below occupied for quite a while. And by “get too into,” I mean get obsessed with recording for other users without practicing on your own. I know, for example, I’ve wasted many an hour correcting the English of various users on Lang-8 without actually working on a post in Japanese myself!

That said, the point of this post today is to share an absolute gem I found in the transcriptions section of RhinoSpike. I present to you 下ネタなんでだろう (Literally: Dirty Joke, I wonder why? although I might consider translating in context as simply Why does this (shit) happen? — you’ll see when we get to the translation) , a song by みうらじゅん (Miura Jun), a manga artist who has also branched out into doing other things as well, such as songs.

The song here is one of the dirtiest and funniest things I’ve seen in Japanese (although like most Japanese comedy, puns still continue to make up a bulk of the humor), and thanks to the wonderful transcriptions by smokedoyster and tomoch of RhinoSpike, it’s now much easier to understand and translate into English!

下ネタなんでだろう

Why does this shit happen?

嫌だと言いつつあそこがぬれぬれなんでだろう?

Why do you say “no” when your pussy is so wet?

今日のワン子のタイトルにドッキとするのなんでだろう?

???

ソープ嬢がゼリーを塗っている時寂しい思いをするのなんでだろ?

Why do girls at brothels get lonely when they lubricate themselves?

ラブホのカミソリ品質悪いのなんでだろ?

Why are the razors at Love Hotels such bad quality?

あいつとやったらちんぽがかゆいのなんでだろ?

Why does your penis get itchy when you’re about to do it?

神社の裏で大量にエロ本見つかるのなんでだろう?

Why is there so much porn at the bottom of Shinto shrines?

バックでやる時違う子想像するのなんでだろ?

When doing it from behind, why do you think of someone else?

前立腺やられると癖になるのはなんでだろ?

Why do you get addicted to doing it in the g-spot?

フェラの時だけおいしいって聞くのはなんでだろ?

Why does she only say “delicious” when giving you a blow job?

シオを吹いてもおしっこの匂いがするのはなんでだろ?

Why does it smell like piss when she’s blowing you?

処女だというのにアナルを許すのなんでだろ?

Why does she let you go down on her even when she’s a virgin?

口内発射の後キスをしたくないのはなんでだろ?

Why doesn’t she want to kiss you after you cum in her mouth?

フニャチンのままいっちゃう事あるのはなんでだろ?

When you can’t get hard why do you cum anyway?

授業中、勃起して机が持ち上がっちゃうのはなんでだろ?

When you get a boner in the middle of class, why does your desk get lifted up?

パンティー脱がしてふとももで止めるのなんでだろ?

Why do girls stop removing their panties after they reach their thighs?

行く時必ず行っていいって聞くのなんでだろ?

Why does she always say “It’s fine to leave” when you’re leaving?

セックスの後よかったって聞奴なんでだろ?

Why do some people ask “was it good?” after sex?

クンニのしすぎで唇腫れるのをなんでだろ?

Why do your lips get swollen after going down on a girl for too long?

穴ならどこでも入れたくなるのはなんでだろ?

Why is that whenever there’s a hole you want to fuck it?

生理と聞いたとたん突然さめるのなんでだろ?

Why is that when she says she’s on her period you suddenly realize what you’re doing?

アワビを見るため見てるな言うやつなんでだろ?

Why do some guys say “I’m not looking” in order to watch a girl jack off? (probably wrong on this)

松茸見る度勝ち負け言う奴なんでだろ?

Why do some guys compare their penis size when they see a Pine Mushroom (a very penis-y looking mushroom)

なんでだろう、なんでだろう、下ねたなんでだろ?

Why does this happen? Why does this happen? Why does this dirty shit happen?

The rest of the transcription can be found on the RhinoSpike site, although I don’t think I’m up for translating much more of it at the moment. I admit that the translation thus far has been a bit of a learning experience for me, but doing this in a public library has made me somewhat nervous about continuing (especially when I need to rely on Google Images in order to figure out what some of the sex slang is actually referring to…).

At any rate, I’m certainly taking the AJAAT credo of “Any Japanese is Good Japanese” to its absolute limit by trying to understand this…song. The song sounds a lot funnier in Japanese than it does in English (although that could be the result of my clunky translations that are likely inaccurate or plain wrong), and for those who just can’t get enough, NicoNico video has two additional videos of the same material, clocking in at 14 minutes and 23 minutes respectively. Even the Japanese commenters on NicoNico video make plenty of comments while watching the full-length videos, including ones like “way too long” and “I can’t believe there is still 20 minutes left on this video.”

However, I think I’ll leave it to you to see if you can make it through an additional 30 some minutes of what you’ve just seen above.

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Filed under Japanese, Language, misc

Maruzen: Japanese Learning Resource Jackpot

For those looking for Japanese resources beyond a few sub-par textbooks and books titled “how to curse in Japanese!” I would suggest looking at the White Rabbit Press, as they carry a large number of Japanese-related books that you won’t find in your average Barnes & Noble.

However, the other day in Japan I just found the Japanese-learning Jackpot. Behold: Maruzen near Tokyo Station in the Marunouchi OAZO shopping complex:

Four floors of Japanese bookstore -- mmmm!

I walked in casually, expecting the usual fair of books that could be found in any small mall bookstore, but soon found myself on the fourth floor, face-to-face with a rather drool-worthy site.

Yeah, there was a lot. Maruzen in Marunouchi OAZO building near Tokyo Station.

For some reason I’ve always had this obsession with collecting Japanese-learning resources and books without actually using those resources. Of course, I always have the intention of using said resources, but something about amassing a huge amount of books on learning Kanji or vocabulary simply makes feel like I’m actually learning, even if I’m not.

Perhaps one day I will be able to learn Japanese through osmosis simply by pressing my face into my Japanese textbooks. Until then!

Lots of grammar books. The fat red and orange one is the Dictionary of Misused Japanese

In any case, to cater to my book collecting habit, seeing multiple shelves of “no use this book to study for the JLPT” was quite a feast. And while there are a ton of books to look through, I unfortunately do not have the infinite time (and money) necessary to look through and consider all of them. Nonetheless, two books did catch my attention:

  1. A Dictionary of Misused Japanese.
  2. New Penguin Parallel Text: Short Stories in Japanese

The first, completely in Japanese, goes over common grammar errors and provides correct and incorrect examples of language usage. I liked the comprehensiveness of the book, but I admit I did get a little fatigued looking through it. Perhaps in a perfect world I would go through it, but it’s over 700 pages long — more a reference than anything else. Probably a great supplement for those wanting to cement a new grammar point into their heads.

The second looked especially excellent: it’s a bilingual book in both Japanese and English, with the Japanese text sufficiently furigana’d. Of the stories I quickly browsed through, they seemed sufficiently interesting, and because the English translation is provided, I avoid having input fatigue. Because while I like to think I could just immerse myself in a Japanese book and read, at this point it’s just not something I can do for very long, or very quickly. While English is a crutch, it also keeps me from giving up on reading after a few dragged-out pages, something that would likely happened were I to pick up any Japanese book off the shelf.

Next time I may go over books that Japanese people use to learn English — both how those books work and how they can be used to study Japanese as well (hint: you study the Japanese translations, not the English).

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Filed under Japan, Japanese, Language, Self-studying

Procrastinate on your Studying by Studying

Inspired by a recent AJATT blog post, I have been trying to think of a good way of keeping myself from the inevitable decline into sweet, sweet, procrastination. I think I may have a decent solution, but it goes beyond simply studying Japanese—instead, let’s treat it as an ADD-approach to studying in general.

Keep yourself busy: multi-task like a mother fucker.

I know a lot of people who like to be busy. They’re the kind of people who don’t like sleeping, who need to constantly be on the go, who have full schedules filled with appointments, and who feel guilty whenever they aren’t being productive. I am not one of those people. I like to take things one task at a time, giving myself as much time as necessary for each task. Thinking about tackling multiple assignments at once is not my style. Simply put, I’m not a multitasker.

But I should be. And so should you.

You can cram for tests, but you can’t cram languages.

The reason multitasking is important in language learning is because languages—especially when it comes to speaking and listening—take a long time to learn and acquire. You can’t cram speaking fluency in Japanese, or the ability to quickly reading through a Japanese document the night before a Japanese test the same way you can cram a hundred or so vocabulary words into your head before a PSY 101 test. Being able to actually use a language requires time; even if you try to cram vocab words or kanji into your head quickly, it won’t mean much if you can’t actually do anything that information.

That’s why you should multitask.

How to multi-task: You now have ADD

Studying with ADD means you jump from one task to the next without too much regard for whether you’ve actually finished the specific task you were just working on. The perfectionist in my is always calling out, telling me I need to be done with my English essay before I can move on to my Japanese studying. However, this only leads to inefficiency. I need to simply force myself to stop if I simply am not making progress, or have made sufficient progress in the last few minutes. That way, I never stop being productive.

Step 1: Make a specific list of things you have to do.

This isn’t groundbreaking advice, but it’s extremely important. It keeps you organized, so make the list. Not only that, make the list specific. That means that if you plan on studying Japanese, don’t just write down “study Japanese.” Instead write down exactly what you plan on doing. Your list might look like this:

Japanese: Study 10 vocab words, listen to and repeat 5 shadowing sentences for speaking fluency, write paragraph in Japanese for Lang-8.

English: Find 3 sources for essay, summarize each source’s main points in document, outline introduction of essay

History: Read first 40 pages of the week’s reading, summarize in 3 sentences what you read in notebook

Misc: lift weights for 30 minutes, jog for 30 minutes, sort dirty clothes for laundry, do laundry

And so on. The point is to have specific goals that are not unreasonably difficult or time consuming. If something on your list looks like it may take hours and hours, break it down into smaller chunks.

Heck, you may even list leisure activities on your list—like watching a single episode of Legend of the Galactic Heroes. You keep the tasks on your list short—so you don’t end up watching 10 episodes—and it’s something easy to jump to if you need a break from being efficient, while still being efficient. Win-win.

Step 2: Do the tasks in any order, and jump around as much as necessary

I might be working on my English essay, but I know I’ll get bored rather quickly. Thus, as soon as I finish one of my small tasks that I’ve outlined on my list, I’ll jump to something else less likely to give me a headache, like sorting clothes or laundry.

The point is to stay actively involved in completing goals. When I try to do one painstaking task at a time without stopping I lose interest and end up falling asleep. The next time I crack open that 200-page history reading, I won’t try to do all of it before moving to the next assignment; I’ll stop after 20 pages and study a kanji or two. And then maybe go jogging. And then read another 20 pages. But in the end, I’ll have still gotten everything done.

Why this works for language learning

As I’ve said before, it’s much too difficult to cram using a language into your head—that requires consistant and long-term practice. By returning to Japanese throughout the day—instead of doing it in one multi-hour burst— it’s actually better for retention and studying efficiency.

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Using Video Games to Study Japanese: A Grandia Case Example

Alternate Title: How to be badass: get better at Japanese by playing video games while your friends are stuck in class using Genki I.

I’ll admit that the alternate title here is a little misleading: you might be able to become better than your friends, but simply playing your video game of choice isn’t going to do anything for you. You need to have a plan, and you need to follow it carefully and methodically. You might be playing a game, but you’re not playing around.

My Experiences Using Grandia to learn Japanese

Title screen from grandia—but you're not allowed to begin until you look up all the kanji!

The great thing about using video games to learn Japanese is that the video games that are going to contain the most text are RPGs, and many of these originate in Japan. So if you have a favorite RPG—think Final Fantasy, Chrono Trigger, Dragon Age, Pokémon, etc—then a Japanese version is bound to exist. One that contains lots of text to read will obviously be better.

I personally love Grandia, so going through the Japanese version and trying to figure out what is being said is fun. There’s lots of text to read and the characters travel to a variety of places so the vocab will be varied. Plus, having gone through the original English version, I’m not completely lost on what to do. Here’s what you’ll need in order to effectively study from your video game of choice:

  1. The game.
  2. Your flashcard program of choice that supports multi-sided flashcards. A popular choice is Anki, although I’m personally partial to iFlash—it’s your choice in the end.
  3. If possible, a separate English translation of the Japanese text—one for Grandia can be found on GameFAQs, although they probably exist for many other games as well.
  4. Patience—you’re not playing the game normally this time around.

The search for the Sulfer Weed medicine begins!

Your task while playing is to essentially mine the game for all that it’s worth—jot down every sentence you think is useful and not overly convoluted with difficult or rarely-used words. Using the above screenshot as an example, let’s see how I would go about creating my flashcards:

1. Write down the sentence in Japanese.

苦しそう。。。

いま薬草を見つけてきてあげるからがんばってね。。。

If you’re not sure how to read a kanji so that you can enter it into your computer, you can search by kanji by handwriting or by kanji radical.

2. Know what the sentence means in English.

If you’re having trouble, the sentence may be too difficult for you at this point—you can save it for later after you’ve improved your grammar—or you can check your English translation for an idea.

3. Now you’re ready to build your flashcard. Here’s what I would use for the new unknown word 薬草:

Side 1薬草

Side 2: やくそう

Side 3: medicinal plants

Side 4: 苦しそう。。いま[薬草]を見つけてきてあげるからがんばってね。

Side 5: 苦しそう。。いま[や…]を見つけてきてあげるからがんばってね。

Multiple-sided flashcards gives me a wide variety of ways to go about studying. I could start by studying the sentence, doing Side 4 first by reading it out loud. If I don’t understand the key word I’m trying to study (I put it in brackets in case there’s more than one word in the sentence I might be studying), I’ll look at Side 3, the English meaning, to remind me. If I don’t remember the reading as well, I can also look at Side 2.

And when I want a bit more intensive practice after I get the meaning down, I could do a Side 5-2-1 review. That is, look at Side 5 first and try to recall the reading (Side 2), and after that, recall the writing of the kanji itself (Side 1).

There are many different ways you can choose to study your cards, but I believe combining these two methods—meaning you go over each card at least twice before you can count it as memorized—is very effective.

Words of warning

When playing through games with authentic Japanese text, you’re bound to run into a lot of words you don’t know—this is a good thing! However, don’t try and rush through studying by quickly creating cards and moving on; slowly work your way through the cards and the game so you’re actually learning.

There may be thousands of words you don’t know, so this isn’t going to be a fast process if you actually want to get something out of it. Going to fast leads to input overload, as I’ve discussed before. So take your time and enjoy learning Japanese! These techniques can be applied to anime and manga as well—so choose whatever medium you like best when studying.

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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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