Category Archives: japanese

The Heisenberg uncertainty principle of learning

It can be frustrating learning something new. When you hit a plateau, you feel like you’re not making any progress, which makes you feel like you suck, which makes it even harder to make progress. Sometimes I feel that way about learning Japanese, or drawing, or even coding with a new platform or API.

I really like khatzumoto’s blog post on Intermediate Angst: Dealing with Feelings of Suckage (from All Japanese All The Time). Here’s what made me go “Hmm…”:

Call it the Heisenberg uncertainty principle of learning languages: you can’t have any momentum if you’re busy worrying about your position.

And from earlier in the blog post, concrete advice on small victories:

If you want to win the long game, stop playing it.
Stop running the marathon and start sprinting instead.
Start running and playing and winning short games instead.

Don’t learn Korean.
Learn the chorus of this song.
Don’t learn Korean.
Play this movie. Don’t even watch it. Just play. It. Audibly.

Sometimes I get lost in the big picture, feeling the insignificance of each small step. If I focus on constantly making small steps, even absurdly small steps, I’ll get somewhere faster than if I’m worried about how slow I’m going.

I knew this truth better when I was younger, reading and rereading books even though I didn’t understand everything in them. Why not rediscover it with Japanese? Some small steps: to read the manga we have out loud, not worrying about whether I understand it, and to repeat that (and other things) until it gradually becomes clearer.

Intermediate Angst: Dealing with Feelings of Suckage

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!

Learning Japanese? Here are some useful resources

One of my friends is planning to learn Japanese, so I thought I’d put together some tips for him and for other people.

If you’re planning to learn Japanese, I have some Japanese-related bookmarks on that you might find useful. =) You might also want to check out what other people have bookmarked for japanese+language.

I particularly recommend this quick and dirty guide to Japanese, Jim Breen’s WWWJDIC and the example sentence search. You can download the examples file from the FTP server for totally awesome local lookup. I wrote some code in Emacs to make this easier (and to insert random taglines into my blog posts =) ).

Good luck and have fun!

Basic Technical Japanese

JC Helary reminded me that I’d bought a book called “Basic Technical
Japanese”, which is now sitting uselessly in a box or bookshelf
somewhere in the Philippines. I remember really, really loving that
book because of its examples. I’m serious! The examples talked about
atoms and nuclear fission, beakers, computers… Totally, totally
geeky, and totally, totally cool.

Did I give it to someone else, knowing that I wouldn’t be able to take
it to Canada during the first trip? Argh. Anyway, if I did, chances
are that I gave it to one of my barkada. Anyone?

I definitely have to get it next time I fly home. It’s a pretty hefty
book, but I’ll make space for it!

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E-Mail from Jean-Christophe Helary

Random Japanese sentence: 問題は誰が猫に鈴をつけるかだ。 The question is who will bell the cat.


Knowing how I wanted to practice my Japanese, Mark Chignell told me
about a couple of Japanese-related events this weekend. (Isn’t it nice
to have a research supervisor who keeps track of your extracurricular

The first event was a language exchange session held last Saturday, at
which I ran into no other than Baryon Posadas. Come to think of it, I
shouldn’t have been that surprised. Of course he’d be at a
Japanese-language event.

Everyone was heading off to Starbucks to chat over coffee. I wanted to
ask how he had been, but I needed to go to Clarkson Station to meet
Tita Sol. We tried to work out some other time to meet, but he had
promised to help someone move and he needed to find an apartment, and
a lot of other things. Technically, I think I’m supposed to e-mail him
if I want to meet him for coffee (or hot chocolate), but now that I
think about it, I don’t have much to chat with him about. Except
perhaps for general settling-in questions, like where’s a good place
to open a bank account or get a credit card, and I already sorta know
the answers to those questions.

Anyway, I went to the barbecue today because it meant a free lunch. I
didn’t get to practice my Japanese, though, as I didn’t feel up to
making small talk in a foreign language—not when there was a
perfectly good conversation to have with Mark about research plans and
what I should do while he’s off in Japan. (Yes, we were talking about
work. On a Sunday! During a long weekend!)

During a lull in the conversation, we wandered around in search for
non-MSG chips. Baryon was there at the table with the unflavored
chips, so I briefly introduced them to each other. Mark got drawn into
a conversation with a bunch of Japanese girls, so I was left on my
own. I asked them if I could sit there. I sat there for maybe a
minutes, idly munching on chips. Got bored, found it difficult to
break into a clique, eventually thought of a question to ask Mark and
left the table without a word.

Anyway, the entire thing prompted a reflection on divergence. I’d
borrowed a number of books from him before (speculative fiction,
mainly), and that was our common interest. Now my reading tastes have
changed (non-fiction and children’s lit) and our worlds are really
very different now.

Mark’s a pretty good judge of character, and he picked up on the
differences too. <laugh> In fact, he thought Baryon was strange.
I shrugged and said, “He’s from humanities.” (Nothing against the
humanities, of course. Hi Marcelle!)

I think that energy makes a big difference to me. Mark’s a positive,
high-energy kind of person, which is one of the reasons why I get
along with him very well. Baryon and a number of other people I know
don’t show that kind of energy often. They’re more reserved and

If you take a look at the people I love hanging out with (Hiya, Just
Geeks League! ;) ), they’ve all got positive energy. One of the things
I like about chatting with Dominique is the way his smile comes
through so well in his voice, and you know his face shows it too! Even
Sean’s deep and serious voice hides playfulness and wit. (You should
watch his Hulk impression… It’s hilarious!) Even though they have
problems like everyone else, their upbeat personalities make the tough
times easier to weather.

I don’t know if Baryon’s like that, and I somewhat remember that he
laughs and joke about some things. Although it would be nice to pick
his brains about stuff I need to know as an international student in
Toronto, I think it would be a fair bit of work to get to the point
where conversation’s comfortable. I’ll probably focus on developing
new contacts instead, at least for now.

もうすぐみんなが自分のコンピュータを持つだろう。 Everyone will have his own computer before long.

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