Why and how I’m (re)learning Japanese

Clay Shirky has a great term for this: cognitive surplus, or what you can do when you have discretionary time and available brainspace. Hence Wikipedia and open source and I Can Has Cheezburger.

There’s a lot I want to learn, but I figured that it would be good to carve out some room in my life to learn a language. It’s just One of Those Things. Latin is difficult to practise or immerse yourself in, especially if you aren’t a priest. It’s hard to find easy books for learning Cantonese, and I struggle with the tones.

Japanese sounds like it would be great. I can take advantage of the months that I spent studying and living in Japan, and there’s plenty of material on the Internet and in libraries to help me learn further. Visual expression is embedded in Japanese culture to such an inspiring extent, and I’d love to learn from those techniques. (Ukiyo-e prints, manga, animé…) Lots of technology news and innovations are slow to cross the language barrier, too, like some of the Ruby work and Emacs work hidden in insular tech communities. Besides, it’s fun!

Relearning Japanese

In 2004, I spent six months in Japan (three in Yokohama and three in Tokyo) on a technical internship sponsored by the Japanese government. To prepare for that, I studied Japanese intensively, and we also attended full-day Japanese classes while we were there. It worked out really well. I think I was #2 in my class, and my confidence in being able to find my way around made it possible for me to go on trips to Osaka, Kyoto, and Kobe instead of always staying in Tokyo, and exploring more of Tokyo as well. I remember watching a juggler in Ueno Park and being amazed that I could actually understand his jokes.

That was nine years ago, but it’s surprising how much of it is coming back in my review. I’m going through flashcards for kanji and vocabulary (more on this later), and it’s funny how I feel the answers. Grammar is a little harder, though. I’ll just need to make a concerted effort to relearn the patterns!

Unfortunately, the Japanese in my old blog posts has been lost in encoding errors, but maybe I’ll figure out how to put it back someday. Anyway, now that my site should be using UTF-8 throughout, this should be better now.

Tools for learning Japanese

Whenever I find myself waiting, I break out Obenkyo, a free Japanese study app on my phone. I’ve been going through the vocabulary flashcards by level, turning the readings on so that I can review those at the same time. Vocabulary is such a big part of following a conversation, and it’s fun rediscovering words. I like kanji. I’m starting to be able to understand the stories told by the parts within them, although the readings are still sometimes difficult. I find reading to be easier than listening, although I’m slower. =)

I listen to free podcasts from Japanese Pod 101 when I’m commuting or walking around. I can understand the beginner and intermediate levels, and I understand bits and pieces of the advanced audio blogs. It’s fun feeling more and more of it snap into place. Reading show notes is not really convenient in the podcast app I use, so sometimes I’ll read it on the computer instead.

As for video, it’s difficult to find Japanese-subtitled Japanese, but sometimes you’ll find videos on Youtube like this one. =) Kids’ videos are fun. Anime opening and closing sequences are often subtitled too. I also like watching Japanese game shows, cartoons, cooking shows, and the occasional bit of news.

For grammar, I’ve been reading books like Japanese in Mangaland. I also like Beginning Japanese’s mostly visual style (Kluemper et al). I remember liking Gene Nishi’s Understanding Japanese Step by Step book for its logical approach, and I’ve just requested it from the library. Because most of the Japanese I want to read is casual, I want something that introduces casual and idiomatic expressions early.

I used to have Reading Technical Japanese (which had awesome example sentences), but the Internet says that the new edition called Basic Technical Japanese is even better. It’s a bit pricey, though, so I might read the reference copy to see what it’s like.

I use WWWJDIC to look up words. I like WWWJDIC because I can search for Japanese or English within the same textbox, and it’s easy to find examples. When I’m looking up kanji, the Kanji Recognizer is pretty handy. I also use the IME pad built into Windows.

When I write in Japanese, I usually have to switch to the Japanese input method in Windows. It takes me a little bit of thinking because I normally type using the Dvorak keyboard layout and the Japanese IME uses QWERTY. If I’m going to type a lot, I might switch to Emacs and use the input method there because I can then type romaji with Dvorak and have that converted to kana/kanji. The kanji selection algorithm isn’t as nice as the one in Windows and I still haven’t gotten the hang of the keyboard shortcuts, though, so I have to pay closer attention to it.

Sometimes I use Google Translate to get started or to find words that fit together. I re-type the words using the Japanese input method to help me remember the pronunciation. When I put together a phrase or sentence, I use the regular Google search to see if other people have used it or what Google suggests would be better. I look at search results in addition to example searches because I want to see the context of the sentence or other things I may want to say.

Next steps: More learning! More reading! More practice! I want to complete all the vocabulary flashcards in Obenkyo and perhaps quantify my progress in doing so. I want to catalog the grammar patterns I learn and keep track of which ones I’ve spotted in the wild. I want to someday be able to speed-read manga without furigana and understand movies without English subtitles. It could take a while, but learning is good mental exercise anyway!

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  • Glad to hear you’re getting back into your Japanese studies!

    I really enjoyed Japanese Pod 101 back in the the early days, and Hiroko Nakamura (of JP 101 fame) is to this day one of my absolute favorite YouTubers (http://www.youtube.com/user/HIROKOCHANNEL), but I don’t find myself enjoying the podcast as much now for some reason.

    I have the Japanese in Mangaland books as well and I’ve always loved their style but I never felt like I got as much out of them as from a solid, traditional textbook. Nakama is decent, and Genki is good, but the most successful Japanese learners I know all recommend the Japanese For Busy People series. Matheson’s Japanese Verbs is also really handy and the book that left me with an important aha! moment—Japanese is *all* about verbs.

    But at the end of the day, what keeps me on track and never dropping my Japanese studies is iKnow.jp. I can’t recommend it enough and the $10 monthly fee is the $10 of my budget I’m most happy to part with.

    • Perfect, I’ve got the Japanese for Busy People series checked out of the library as well. (Hooray for libraries with liberal checkout policies. =) ) Thanks for the recommendations!

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  • Katherine Cox-Buday

    I was delighted to come across this post! Learning Japanese is on my bucket-list, but hasn’t been something I’ve given a lot of attention to. I used to have a subscription to Japanese Pod 101, and really enjoyed listening to the podcasts on my way to and from work, but I didn’t keep up with it. Kanji are something I never even started learning.

    Aside from solidarity, the only thing I have to offer are these two links:
    – “Slime Forest Adventure”, an indie RPG meant to help learn Kanji http://lrnj.com/
    – “Alternatives to Rosetta Stone Japanese”, a post with a plethora of ways to go about learning Japanese. http://www.tofugu.com/2009/12/01/alternatives-to-rosetta-stone-japanese-i-e-should-i-buy-rosetta-stone/

    頑張って! (shamelessly copied from Google Translate ^.^)

  • merrua

    You should take a look at memrise. Its a flashcard system, with spaced repetition but nicely done. I tried it and like it alongside anki and italki japanese classes. If your not reading it maggie senseis blog is nice for slang lessons. I’ve heard good things about reading japanese posters on twitter, but I’m not really there yet.

    • I really like the Anki decs that people have made, so I’ll probably stick with Anki on my phone. Glad there are a lot of people looking at this space, though, and thanks for the recommendation!

      • tntdynamight

        I’ve tried anki but it was too frustrating to learn kanji just by repeating them. I’ve used wanikani.com (which is a paid subscription webpage (free trial) from tofugu.com’s founder) with great success; the key is: he provides you a modular, advancing system of spaced repetition and mnemonics starting from radicals and easy kanji, slowly progressing when you know enough of one level. The effort-payoff is more than convincing for the price. here’s what I learned there so far, hope the link works:

  • Andrea Rossetti

    Hi, I just wrote an Emacs function that shows readings and meaning of the kanji at cursor: see the readme at https://github.com/thesoftwarebin/the-emacs-software-bin, section “learnjap.el”. That’s just a toy, but may stimulate the curiosity of Emacs-addicted Japanese learners.

    • That should be handy. Thanks for sharing!