Monday, October 17, 2011

Assaulting the Japanese Language

Perhaps the title was a little strong, (a product of more metal in the itunes playlist maybe) but it actually fits my mood concerning the issue pretty accurately. I majored in Japanese language at university, and have lived here in Japan for almost two years, but am continually appalled at how inadequately I can express myself and how far I still am from reading Japanese texts. Hands down and a round of applause to all those people who can just live in a country for a year or two and become fluent by just "picking it up", but that ain't me. If I'm going to become fluent in this language, it's going to take a well calculated mass conquering strategy operating on all fronts in all terrain. Time to move to the next stage of Gaijin's invasion of Japan!

I contemplated taking Japanese classes in order to give this aspiration some kind of tangible form, but that seems absolutley ridiculous to me. I have stacks of Japanese textbooks to study from and Japanese friends to consult with questions. Tens of thousands of dollars were already put into a college education, so throwing more money at the problem isn't the answer either. Besides, if I'm looking for a class to support my system of discipline, then I should take a better look at the two things which interest me most in the world: martial arts and zen. The core of these two entities are qualities of self-responsiblity and self-empowerment. I know that I can pack a lot more learning that is directly applicable to me in one hour of self study than going to a class for the same amount of time. If this is something I really want to do, then I can devote that bit of time everyday to it's cultivation. So anyway, I'm pretty well set on that.

One hour a day; three 20 minute sections.

Section 1: 20 minutes reading through old textbooks reviewing grammar. This is invaluable. After two years, I'm conversational, and I've internalized a lot of the nuances and casual phrases necessary for a flowing comfortable conversation, but I know I'm misusing a lot of the particles and grammatical structures, making me communicative, but extremely gaijin. As an English teacher, I can see a HUGE difference in those who can use the correct grammatical structure versus those who continue to speak their own strange internalized version of the language. Even the simplest grammatical structures, I still mix and match a bit, so it's time to clean that up. This is addressing the cognitive and critical side of my learning.

Section 2: 20 minutes memorizing and mimicking Japanese sentences. A set of textbooks I received while teaching with JET presents particular grammatical points and accompanies them with about ten different phrases, and so in this section of my learning, what I do is I read these and memorize each sentence until I can say each one five times in a row from memory. This is to incorporate the subconscious learning from repeating and mimicking. I do this all the time in daily life by listening to the Japanese spoken around me, but I really feel like I need it written in front of me to totally understand. Listening to Japanese has made me a great listener, but I really need to see this stuff. In my job we focus on tailoring lessons to different learning styles; simply, 1.) auditory, 2.) visual, and 3.) kinesthetic. We all have different ways we assimilate information and often times our preffered method is some combination of these. For me personally, I'm definitely a kinesthetic learner, which may be why I'm so inclined to the martial arts. Give me body movement with something I need to learn, and I'll get it quick. A lot of my language assimilation has happened in aikido because movements are always incorporated with movement. Next for me is visual. If I can see the language that's being used then I am way better off, which is probably why my weakest part is listening. Have you ever played that language game where you listen to a paragraph of what someone said and repeat as much as you can from memory? I am the worst; borderline handicap if you ask me. Just listening is not enough for me. So, in this method of practice, by reading and repeating various sentences, I am internalizing proper Japanese by reading, repeating, and hearing myself ... and as a kinesthetic learner I try to incorporate as much gesturing as possible. One interesting trick to this part is that I'm usually struggling by trying to practice a difficult or new grammar point, but the whole while, what's really being internalized are all those particles and simpler grammar forms that I know pretty well, but have yet to really ingrain in my subconscious.

Section 3: 20 minutes kanji writing practice. This is arguably the most frustrating part of the language. The Japanese uses three different alphabets: hiragana, katakana, and kanji. Hiragana is composed of forty six characters, and is relatively simple. Katakana is another forty six character alphabet, but very similar to hiragana. Learning these two is not too difficult. They are phonetic and can be memorized in a couple weeks. I did it a long time ago in the first term of Japanese class in college. But kanji are 1,945 Chinese characters that are used in Japanese language. This is what I'm struggling with. We studied this in college, but I never made much of an effort to seriously learning them, so it was largely a memorize and regurgitative process. Being in Japan I've gone through a couple phases of seriously studying kanji, which did help, but it's always been random and infrequent, so I've again forgotten a lot of what I've learned. And again, just being here and seeing it is just not enough ... for me at least. So, what I'm doing is going through kanji in a textbook I have, making flash cards, and practicing writing them down. I'm not really sure how good of a practice this is though. The problem is that I'm not directly relating it to any other aspect of the Japanese language, and am still going about it in a relatively random and chaotic manner. The good thing is I'm being exposed to a lot of kanji and processing them through writing, which is something I want. One can learn to read a lot faster than you can learn to write, but if you learn to write it ... you can write! That's what I want.

So, as briefly as I can explain it, that is the skeleton of my plan to conquer Japanese. But it's not enough. There are two more aspects that are necessary for it to fit my ideal of self-education.

First, which goes with the kanji practice, is reading manga (Japanese comic books). If I want to read Japanese, then I have to practice reading Japanese right? There are tens or maybe hundreds of thousands of interesting manga out there, which I am more than enthusiastic about reading, and by reading manga, I can practice reading kanji as well as reading casual conversation through the dialogue. But I'm having some real trouble getting started. There are two different ways to go about this. Some manga, which are often more directed towards kids (which are still incredibly relevant and interesting to adults, a huge difference between Japanese and American comics and animation) have the hiragana characters for all of the kanji. With this, I can read everything and can look up the words I don't know in a dictionary. Two problems though, are going through paper dictionaries which take up a lot of space and time, and always looking at the hiragana translations instead of the kanji. The other option is reading books with only the kanji, which is more difficult, but in the long run will teach me kanji faster and more efficiently(?) The big problem with this, again, is the dictionary. It takes a lot longer, and requires a lot more energy to look up the kanji than regular words. So, in an attempt to have a casual time of enjoyably reading Japanese through the medium of manga, I'm spending my whole time leafing through giant dictionaries. I'm sure already some of you have already began to think of a solution while reading this entry, but the big answer to this problem of dictionaries can probably be found in technology. I've heard that for the Nintendo DS, they have a kanji dictionary where you can just begin writing the kanji in the correct stroke order and you'll get the word ... which would be a giant answer to my question. But do I really want to throw down the cash for a DS, one that will inevitably be a huge distraction for someone like me who has a natural affinity for video games? There are also loads of electronic dictionaries, but I haven't come into contact with one thats really good for processing the kanji. Another answer could be found in an iphone app. I'm not really sure about this, but there's got to be an app for looking up kanji right?

This is probably a fairly simple problem to fix. I could probably fork over the cash for either a DS, electronic dictionary, or an iphone and be on my way to faster language acquisition ... but it seems like a huge technological boundary for me. Maybe I need to just go cry about it for a minute, think about all the money I throw at beer, and just accept I need to upgrade this part of my life in technology and spend a little less money on those things that aren't so important.

OK, last issue with my Japanese invasion plan: review. In my study, I'm going through a lot of grammar structures, vocabularly, and kanji, and I love learning new things, but if I don't review, I'll lose it. This has been my biggest problem in studying Japanese from the beginning. I need to devote some time to this, but reviewing flash cards while on trains or waiting in lines has never worked. It just becomes a fat stack of something I always have to do sitting in my pocket wherever I go. So do I add another 20 minute section to my routine??? I think I max out at an hour of hardcore textbook, flash card learning a day.

I've been operating on this plan for about a month at maybe 70%, due to the fact I'm still getting acclimatized to my new life and schedule, but I'm already feeling the benefits. Perhaps the bugs will naturally work themselves out as I go along ... but that kind of thinking is not really what I'm going for. In this routine I'm setting up, I'm attempting to use my discipline and concsious cognitive workings at a maximum level. I want this language and I want it as soon as possible.

Once I get it, I will now longer be thrashing around in the water struggling to stay afloat, but will gracefully swim along, eventually by a boat, and be a pirate sailing gloriously across the Sea of Japan!

PLEASE post if you have any methods or recommendations for my studying of Japanese.


  1. The sad thing is that no one really picks up a language in one year. It might look so to others, but it just doesn't work. You might get very proficient, if the language is similar to your own mother tongue but well, with japanese... I guess you just have to sweat on it.

  2. Hey, long time no write eh. Good to hear from you. As I remember you're quite the linguist yourself, so hearing this gives me some consolation. I'll jump in that sauna and sweat all over it. Thanks for the comment!

  3. It appears to be a lifetime effort. See Jake Adelstein's Tokyo Vice. He spent a LONG time in Japan and worked for a newspaper, yet there is a constant murmur in the book how hard it was to really meet standards.