水曜日, 11月 07, 2007

More channels for Kanji learning

Spend all your time online hanging out with friends on social networking sites?

Think about nothing but how you going to express yourself in your next Facebook update?

Sounds like you might work in the news centre at the BBC, but equally, if you're in to learning Japanese then you may finally have a legitimate reason for spending time loitering on fb:

Kanji Box

Following a run of checking these things out, Kanji Box is an interesting addition to the pack. A fb app that actually manages to do something meaningful, it offers all the jouyou kanji, cut and sliced two ways - by school grade or JLPT. You can review or test yourself on the characters and, and perhaps this is the killer part of this app, you can review your score results online against your fb buddies.

In addition it offers vocab (something I'm criminally weak on) and kana - great if you are just getting started.

The testing app is okay - you choose the correct answer from four options (but I'm not sure that this is self-defeating as this means that guessing becomes legitimated) and you have a clock to go against. There is no faulting the material either as the code-ninja that pulled it together is hauling on the venerable J-Dic of Jim Breen. Truly the Nihongo-phile portion of the Internet would collapse without that man around.

I like this, because unless we are as focussed on our results as Carlie, who blogs her progress on Reviewing the Kanji, Japanese study can be quite an insular process. Bringing learning apps to fb offers an interesting, and hitherto unexplored angle to things.

However, that same blog has also brought to my attention another spaced learning tool, which comes with a Japanese focus, but excitingly is also ostensibly for what ever you choose:


I've not got so much to say about this one as it appears to be a commercial app, but Anki looks pretty sweet.

It's another tool that draws on the spaced learning ideas of Sebastian Leitner. Like I say, although this is a tool designed to work with what ever you wish to add, it comes preconfigured with Japanese content. It looks really clean and nice, which is a bonus in a field that can sometimes look a bit homebaked. What makes it stand out for me are the impressive reporting stats and graphs, and the sophistication of the spacing element.

Anki is available for Windows, Mac and Debian Linux. Check out the screenshots for a bit more about how it all goes together.

I'm not in the market for such a thing right now as my kanji needs are being met by Reviewing the Kanji, and now Kanji Box, but if I find a learning need that could draw on Leitner as precisely as kanji learning does, I think I know where I'll be looking.

木曜日, 10月 25, 2007

An approach based on sound practice

By profession I create learning material - in fact one of the key reasons for having this blog is to put in to practice one of my firmly held beliefs (born out of reading the literature, rather than simply because I believe it). A few approaches that I would always bear in mind when creating material:
  • it is important not to create cognitive overload by trying to learn too many things simultaneously
  • breaking things in to chunks helps us manage our learning
  • spaced repetition is the key to long term memory creation
  • taking in information can be assisted by using prior knowledge as a building block
Of course, brute application of the type Tony at English Alien has been showing will work, but as a learning designer I'm aware that certain approaches can make the whole process easier.

I have some practical experience of this as it relates to the study of Japanese. What was most striking about my last trip to Japan was home much more intelligible everything was.

In the period since I'd lived in Japan I had actually been studying Japanese - something I hadn't done a great deal at the time as I hadn't really intended to remain connected to the country forever. Subsequently, getting on trains, walking the streets or looking at things to buy, the strange squiggles, markings and etchings that had silently passed me by the first time suddenly began talking to me. With a hundred or so kanji under my belt everything seemed to make a little more sense. I had a hook upon which to hang a few words and with that I was able to unlock vastly more than I knew, simply because the few that I knew gave me a lever on the possible pronunciation.

That said, it recently occurred to me that if I was to get through the remaining 三級漢字 for the test I would need to find a different approach: trying to learn the strokes, the meaning, on on-yomi and kun-yomi, plus some of the main words a kanji appears in fails to meet a few of the key criteria I mention above.

SO I set myself the goal of, in twenty five days, learning all the meanings at least (too little, too late) as a peg upon which to build.

Today I stumbled on Heisig and his "Remembering the Kanji" approach, thanks to Carlie, who looks to be about to try out his system. It wasn't the first time I'd seen his name - a challenge was laid down by Tae Kim a while back, which I thought nothing of.

Kim's criticism is that the kanji in and of themselves don't mean anything in Heisig. Heisig simply introduces the 1,945 jouyou kanji by meaning and strokes. Japanese readings don't even get a look-in until volume 2 of his book!

I can see why Kim's sceptical - it is possible to 'learn' all the kanji you need in everyday life in Japan without learning a single word of Japanese - but I can also see, from a professional stand point, very compelling reasons why Heisig's approach makes a lot of sense. Heisig argues that one reason that Chinese and Korean students find learning Japanese easier is that they are familiar with the meanings for kanji, even if they don't know the language itself. His approach levels that playing field, or so he claims.

I think the system is worth closer scrutiny for several reasons:
  • the whole book is broken up in to manageable(-ish) "chunks" of between 10 and 130 kanji
  • they are ordered so that what you have learnt will help to make sense of what is to come
  • the system relies on spaced repetition
  • you are only focusing on learning two things for each kanji - strokes and meaning
All of these things are practical, tested approaches that have a sound basis in learning theories that have been tested. The pay off comes as you add vocabulary later on - looking at new words in kanji you should be able to recognise the characters that make it up, and perhaps get a handle on the meaning of the word in precisely the same way an understanding of Latin and ancient Greek roots helps to decipher new words in English, or indeed in other European languages.

There are problems with it of course:
  • learning all 1,945 jouyou kanji is all well and good, but at my level I am unlikely to need them, or encounter them to ensure learning continues
  • maintaining spaced repetition going forward would require testing yourself at 60 a day, everyday, just to make sure you view every one once a month
  • motivation is likely to be tricky as it would probably be unclear at times exactly where the benefit was - without an equally intensive vocabulary campaign to follow or run concurrently you may never need many of the kanji for years to come, if at all...
On balance, I don't think the system is going to be appropriate for me right now, but should I get that 三級 and we go back to Japan, I think this could be really useful.

If you're interested, you can download a sample of the first 250 or so kanji covered, and at the Reviewing the Kanji website you can track your progress and see useful stats about your progress (if you visit my other blog, Learning Rocks, you'll see why the application of IT to learning at there site, and their attempt to leverage the online community of learners, is so exciting to me).

木曜日, 10月 11, 2007

Chasing a better goal

Writing is key to language improvement

This post by Steve 'The Linguist' Kaufmann is interesting to me for a couple of reasons.
word accumulation is a more helpful goal [for new learners, than spoken fluency ]
This, to me, makes a lot of sense. In fact, word accumulation is my biggest barrier to being able to speak well as I very quickly find myself wanting to talk about a subject which my Japanese brain can't express. I can bugger about with the grammar and get my gist over, but without the labels to hand it is worthless.

But another point he makes:
if we have too much output before sufficient input, we risk ingraining wrong patterns in our brain
also rings true for me. I have become accustomed to speaking in casual Japanese at home to the extent that I struggle to remember the polite conjugations - hence the benefit I have had in using the fairly basic Berlitz book. I hear this too in other people - typically those who are better auditory learners than books types, who have picked up their language on working holidays or down the izakaya - one guy who entered my Japanese class a few years ago really struggled with the material we were covering simply because he didn't know the polite form very well, despite being far more capable of sitting and chewing the fat with folk in Japanese.

Moreover, Steve advocates writing as the way to improve:
Learners can write using their newly saved words and submit this for correction. Even a few lines will do
This is of course what he's going to do - he's plugging his product LingQ, but to me it makes sense: one of the most successful students I had, in terms of the pace of her improvement, was a girl who each week wrote just a few lines of diary and we corrected it and chatted over it (I use the word chat loosely, mind you). But the benefit was clear - she quickly moved through from very simple declarative statements to expressing opinions and talking about her weekends, past and future. Slowly, and on a limited range of topics, but moving far quicker than our actual book based study, or other students who only used that route.

So perhaps my goal should be to try and write more and use that as the basis of my language exchange each week.

The Coward

I went along to Japan club this evening since I found myself leafing through the paper a little after 9pm, swearing blind that I wouldn't fire up the laptop (ahem) and waste another evening looking at Ultimate videos on YouTube.

I was kinda surprised and happy to see a) that 日本クラブ was 忙しい, indeed it was almost 込んでいます、よ。

I chatted to a few folks and chewed the fat, but the fact was I was positively scared of speaking in Japanese. At Japan Club. Even after a few beers I was still not prepared to try to join in the conversation, despite the fact that I could follow it reasonably well enough.

Where do I have to be to make the mental leap to my comfort zone and just let rip? Curiously, as I said (in English) to one guy - the easiest time I have speaking Japanese is with my mother-in-law as she is so thankful for the communication (she speaks no English) that it makes my Japanese shine. Is that really what it has to come down to, ね?

土曜日, 10月 06, 2007

Is there any point?

For some reason I got it in my head that the cut off point for JLPT applications was mid-October. It wasn't. It was yesterday.

But no fear - this isn't a recent discovery - just one that I made last weekend.

I duly got the application away recorded delivery on Monday with, hopefully, enough of a margin to get it in by Friday, 6pm. But then you can never be sure with the terminal patient, the Post Office. And sure enough I may have been scuppered by the strike that has brought the entire postal network to a grinding halt mid-week.

So now I have just to wait...

木曜日, 10月 04, 2007

Doraemon - off target learning

One day in, I'm pleased that I'm actually studying, but my subject, chosen mostly because of its portability and use of pictures, is proving a little too obtuse.

As much fun as Doraemon is as a subject, and I've written about him before, some of what I have been looking at is unlikely to be on the syllabus for 三級。

In last night's learning I encountered valuable gems such as かほう meaning (and I'm guessing here) 'heirloom' and とのさま which I was unable to find in either of my (admittedly fairly basic) paper-based dictionaries, but which the wife tells me is 'king' or 'lord'.

Added to this fairly non-standard vocab, there is of course the matter of the subject being a bunch of school kids using pretty colloquial spoken Japanese, which is useful personally, but again, not likely to be on the test in two months' time.

Perhaps tonight I may give a text book a whirl...

水曜日, 10月 03, 2007

Getting back in the groove

Trying to pick up where I not so much left off as dropped out altogether is proving far more difficult that I thought it would be.

I have a subscription to JPod101 once again, but as I sort of found the last time round, the sheer volume of material there now, and of course there's more again, means it is quite intimidating. With my BlueTooth link seemingly on the blink, the best thing about this, and ironically the free bit too, the audio, is largely denied to me.

What's more worrying is that mentally I can't even seem to engage with the enormity of the task, but while I have more freedom at work from the stressful stuff - I'm working to help other people with their stress and that is personally a lot easier - I really need to knuckle down. That said, I do find that reading ドラえもん is reaping benefits - I am recognising more words in the stories these days (at last) and they provide useful queries for my language exchange on the weekend.

But now I'm going to dust off a few old friends:
  • Tae Kim's Japanese Grammar Guide - for me the best ordered guide to grammar (and not just online, but full stop)
  • J-Gram - widely considered the most comprehensive J-grammar resource, including by Tae Kim, himself a contributor I believe
and two JLPT specific resources:
  • Meguro Language Centre - one of my lottery winning dreams is to enroll with MLC for a few months, quite simply if it's not here it's not in the test
  • JLPT Study Page - from the Ronseal school of product marketing

Right then, I'm off to Kim's, after new thing for the day...

Thing for the Day

さ -
a filler word meaning 'right then' or 'ok', used to acknowledge the other speakers and signify a change of topic.

火曜日, 10月 02, 2007

An exam in two months?

Okay, so I've sat on my arse and barely done a jot to prepare for the impending san-kyuu exam. That's smart.

I've completed my application form and I'm ready to send it off. But just look at it! What is this? The 1980s? Christ, it could be the 1960s. If ever there was an event crying out for a slick, automated online application programme, surely a once a year, simultaneous global exam is the ideal subject for one? But no, instead we have a carbon copy quadruplicate form. Insane

I need to get it away tomorrow. If I don't, there's every chance I will bugger up my application for this year - the deadline is Friday...

So how will I kick start my revision? With this - Berlitz' Basic Japanese.
It was a gift from Kazue for my birthday last month.
It's entirely in romaji. Initially I dismissed it as being below me but what I've found is that it has two very good reasons for using it:
  • being in romaji I can read it very quickly. I'm okay with kana and those kanji I'm familiar with, but my lack of practice means I'm slowed by an unexercised brain and poor vocabulary. Reading in romaji removes one of those barriers and allows me to quickly cover all the ground I've lost in double quick time.
  • Berlitz have a very good approach to creating material. The dialogues are wholly integrated - they build on the last and cement earlier learning in a way that JBP, for example, just do not. Perhaps it is the shortness of the chapters that allows this.
That said, though I think the format helps me now, that's because I know most of it, but I have forgotten it. I would find this a very difficult to learn from as it lacks the organised approach I need to learn from. An adaptive language learner would benefit from this, but a structural learner like me would struggle.

Note, for all you linguist out there, I just made up those adaptive and structural learner definitions.

土曜日, 8月 18, 2007

The sound of gibberish

The strange thing about the way language works is that everyone else has an accent except me.

The natural tendency is to look upon everyone else's variations from my normal as being the odd bit. What's equally fascinating is that for a large part of it, it is simply the sound that makes things different.

Here a guy called Crehnquist tries his hand at sounding like he is speaking a few foreign languages, including Japanese (thanks to Carlie who put me on to this one).

I think he does a remarkably good job, and though of course my familiarity with Japanese means I spot the sounds and words that are wrong, if I wasn't paying attention and I heard this in the background, I probably would have mistaken it for the real thing.

The responses are mixed and frankly they mostly seem to miss the point, but for this guy, a German who's voice sounds, if you tune out, just like a CNN newscast (actually, one of the responses says BBC but he is clearly too animated for the BBC who are more neutral sounding than this).

The important thing we should take from this as students of language is that if you want to speak a language there is so much more to doing it properly than simply learning the words and the grammar - you really need to listen to the sound.

Anyone who has taught English in Japan will understand the impact of a student who, after you've spent hours teaching kids and housewives who maybe have never been abroad or used English in anger, wanders in and starts communicating in accented Californian or Australian English. You almost wonder what they are doing there.

Personally, when I am thinking about my Japanese I always try to speak from the back of my throat and barely move my lips, like the monosyllabic grunts of Samurai films. Of course, for girls you have to do that whole trill screechy thing. Well, it's never easy is it?

月曜日, 8月 06, 2007

Panic On

There are just 118 days until the next Japanese Language Proficiency Test day, 2 December 2007 (thanks to MLC for that calculation).

I had once again let time slide and thought that perhaps I would ignore sankyu for another year. Then, out of the blue, comes a query as to whether "we" are on for studying for it together. "We" means my friend Rachel who has just returned to the UK after a little more than 2 years in Osaka.

Well, what do I do? I have rather let my studies slide for another year, but perhaps this shot across my bows should spur me in to action?

It costs around £50 to take the test in London at SOAS - the only test centre in the UK. That's not a huge sum, but would still smart if it was an outright waste of money because I know there is no point in sitting the exam. Hmm.

日曜日, 7月 29, 2007

Needing a new approach to learning languages

The problem that faces the self-driven learner is the usual lack of other people in the study process. Carlie at GoddessCarlie recently wrote a good piece on her approach and learning style, but one interesting feature was that in summarising the skills side of things she neglected to mention speaking - a function of what happens when you don't have too many opportunities for practice.

Learning a language has four areas that need to be addressed equally if it is to be successful:
  • reading (visual input)
  • writing (visual output)
  • listening (auditory input)
  • speaking (auditory output)
Of course, there are lots of different ways of learning a language, but without a concerted focus on all four you end up with odd anomalies:
  • a friend of mine spent his very early years in Japan before moving to the UK until after university. He could speak Japanese fluently but couldn't really read or write, except in hiragana.
  • my son, now in the UK, watches Japanese TV and films, and listens to his mum in Japanese, but hasn't much cause to speak it, so he is receptive to Japanese only. This is common for kids in the UK where one parent comes from a country that doesn't have a strong in-country community (for example Chinese, SE Asian or Muslim).
  • I'm far better at reading and writing Japanese than my dreadful spoken efforts would suggest.
The reason I've been ruminating on this is that I have been considering my language learning in light of the approach to developing training (my day job) advocated by Will Thalhiemer (amongst others, but Will is most passionate about it).

Will argues that any approach to training needs to focus on:
“What do learners need to be able to do, and in what situations do they need to do those things?”
But surely being able to read, write, listen to and speak a language is at the base of any language teaching?

Hmm, not really.

In schools the focus of language teaching is to pass exams. Vocabulary is taught in sets, small tests follow and on you go; group listening tests; paired communication exercises typically read out of a book. Rarely is there any ability to focus on those aspects that might encourage trying to embrace speaking it in a situation where the learner may find themselves.

In evening classes my experience has often been on blindly following a book. The pace will not match the abilities of the class and the learning benefit of in-class time is largely negligible.

My experience of the eikaiwa teaching environment is that the focus is very much on simply entertaining students and maintaining an illusion of progress, as long as the students return each week and pay their dues.

For the lone language learner there are patterns in the training material you are most likely to encounter that lead us away from the ideal:
  • most traditional courses (Mina-no-Nihongo, JBP and so on) are built in precisely the same way, mostly around use of the book, with a variety of additional texts to boost takings (the CDs and practise books). While fans of each will argue the toss on the relative merits, they are mostly talking about the nature of the vocabulary taught, for in learning approach they are essentially equal.
  • the JPod101 model, great though it is, is hit and miss. It offers far greater access to useful listening exercises, and even provides, as its subscriber service, access to written material. But in targeting lone students it excludes speaking practice almost entirely.

So, what's the alternative? Well, I'm going to save that until my next post. In the meantime, don't forget to ask yourself the following question as you learn.
"How will I benefit from studying this and how will I use it in practice?"

If you can't think of a reason for studying it, give yourself a break and try to find something useful to learn. Or else go out and engineer a situation where you can use it.

土曜日, 7月 28, 2007

If you're going to take one holiday this year...

...make it this one: One Life.

Lovely idea - I really hope it works out. I know from experience (cycling to work a couple days a week instead of riding the train) that cycling is about the BEST way to see Japan. These tours would be great. Maybe some day I'll get to join Kevin on one.

土曜日, 7月 21, 2007

New Product from J-Pod101

JapanesePod101, by far the best application of commercial elearning I have come across and simply one of my favourite ways of studying Japanese (when I can be bothered) have launched a new product range: eBook and audio 'study packs'.

In effect the study pack is like an extended lesson of the type you would usually get as part of their daily service as a subscriber. For your USD19.99 you get an 8-part audio set comprising 25 minutes of dialogue, and 8 corresponding eBooks totalling 91 pages of transcripts, key vocab and key grammar.

So far they have one of these 'study packs' available covering the day in the life of a university student - a valid subject I suspect as I'm quite sure JP101 are now on the required listening list of most non-Japan domiciled university students of Japanese (and many in-country too I'm sure).

It sounds like an interesting proposition - with each eBook being longer than the equivalent study guide that accompanies the daily podcast, it sound like you are getting a little more to work with, but given that the cheapest monthly subscription is only USD8, and this gives you access to the ENTIRE back catalogue of PDFs (the podcasts are free anyway), then it is difficult to see how the new product can really be said to offer great value for money.

For my money, I think the error lies in making these new packs story focused. That's what all the other content is. This is great for daily exposure, but the language covered tends to be very hit and miss.

I think that they could make more out of this approach if in the study packs they focused on one aspect of language - say a pack that dealt with mixed family so it covered all the family members, household vocab, events like weddings, births and so on. Or another could deal with getting about and cover this in all its aspects - navigation, landmarks, asking for directions, buying tickets and so on. This way, at the end of a work set you would really feel like you have mastered a linguistic area, and would open up a new area of conversation for you.

At present, because of the ad-hoc way in which language is covered simply to support the stories, you might learn the word 'river' and 'bridge' but not, say, the words that describe different sizes of river, the terrain that accompanies it and so on.

Alternatively, the theme could be built around language skills - for example introducing new grammatical structures, perhaps with alternatives, and drilling them. Perhaps they could do a study pack that dealt with exclusively with describing things, so adjective behaviours and lots of example vocab so you could build up through each study set.

I realise that this is not an approach that suits everyone - I particularly like the idea of covering language in themed sets - but I would suggest it as it is fundamentally different to the regular approach, so it would offer an alternative to complement the existing product range, rather than repeating it in a different way.

金曜日, 7月 06, 2007

Commercial de ja vous

When you go anywhere or do anything in Japan you get this strange feeling of "seen that before" whenever you look at ANYTHING. Seriously. The same names crop up time and time again. It's not that there aren't many names in Japan mind you - it just probably is the same name.

A zaibatsu was an single company that covered many fields. They sprang up, for the most part, during the peace of the Tokugawa period (1600-1853). These entities became enormous and a handful dominated the Japanese economy.

They were dismantled by the occupation powers following the occupation of Japan after the war, but they reappeared as a cluster of smaller companies still bearing the same name of their parent companies, usually sharing a common bank. The crucial factor in this is that all the companies tend to own shares in one another and so still share a common bond. They might even integrate themselves in a supply chain, so the mining company supplies the smelting company supplies the materials to the manufacturer. In other cases, individual parts may have gone independant in legal terms, but they still share a common heritage.

Sumitomo, a name still recognisable on the streets of Japan is a typical example. Founded in 1630 as a shop selling medicines and books, it branched out in to metallurgy (naturally) and nowadays, as a keiretsu, can be found in forestry, mining, armaments, consumer electronics and, of course, banking.

Here are the main players, their banks and a few of their headline brands:
Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ
Mitsubishi Corporation, Kirin Brewery, Mitsubishi Electric, Mitsubishi Fuso, Mitsubishi Motors, Nippon Yusen, Shin-Nippon Petroleum, Tokio Marine and Fire Insurance, Nikon

Sumitomo Mitsui Bank
Fuji Photo Film, Mitsui Real Estate, Mitsukoshi, Suntory, Toshiba, Toyota

Sumitomo Mitsui Bank
Asahi Breweries, Hanshin Railway, Keihan Railway, Mazda, Nankai Railway, NEC, Sumitomo Real Estate

Mizuho Bank
Canon, Hitachi, Marubeni, Matsuya, Nissan, Ricoh, Tobu Railway, Yamaha

Dai-Ichi Kangyo
Mizuho Bank
Fujitsu, Hitachi, Isuzu, Itochu, Tokyo Electric Power

Sanwa ("Midorikai")
Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ
Hankyu Railway, Keisei Railway, Kobe Steel, Konica Minolta, Kyocera, Orix, Shin-Maywa, Takashimaya, Toho
I must stress, the zaibatsu do not necessarily OWN the companies in the family, but they may still have close ties and more than likely a mutual shared ownership of shares. The leaders may get together to bond from time to time. In the case of Sumitomo, for example, it is said that they still all obey the rules laid out by the founder 350 years ago.

Another interesting feature of all this is that the people who worked for these companies would follow the line. So, again using Sumitomo as an example, if you were a worker for NEC (you assembled stereos), you might ride to work on the Keihan railway, living in a commuter town on that line build largely by Sumitomo real estate. You would bank with Sumitomo, who may have lent you the money to buy your Mazda and when you get home in the evening you would be most likely to unwind with a nice Asahi.

Sounds a bit fuedal really.

火曜日, 6月 26, 2007

A grim reality?

Why don't we listen to our inner voice? This week I told myself "buy that and your love of Japan will suffer." I did, and it has....

The Rogue "gave me" a Borders book voucher for Father's Day last week. I love book vouchers. I got one because Kazue complains that I always give people the same thing, which is largely true. I see book vouchers, particularly for Borders here in Bristol, as the gift that gives twice - on one level you get a few quids worth of books, but you also get the fun of looking for a book to buy. Borders rocks for me as I can stroll about on an evening (open till 10pm), browsing books on Japanese (nice Kodansha dictionary), IT, businessey stuff, new fiction, Iain Banks and so on.

I wondered about buying some GTOs (nearly half way) or perhaps a guide to Samurai warfare techniques but I was attracted to Dogs and Demons by Alex Kerr. I'd heard about this book when it was released, but hadn't ever had a chance to buy it. But as I'm thinking about returning again I thought a browse might be in order. I kinda wish I hadn't.

Kerr's hypothesis, not unique, is that Japan is eating itself. It is country that has never really gotten to grips with the fact it is an advanced nation and it going hell for leather along the same path that it set for itself in 1940 (even 1853) without ever really adjusting for the reality of modern living. This, he argues, explains the inability to reform the banking sector, the obsession with building huge roads way over-engineered (the road on stilts to Nikko is one I remember), the "messy" appearance of streets and so forth.

It makes for very grim reading - the never ending march of progress to a goal that Japan achieved in the 1980s. The chapter on buried pollution in particular is depressing - especially if you are thinking of living there. It seems from Kerr's reporting that you are taking your life in to your own hands if you do!

I think it is an important book, and worth reading by every potential long term NJ resident, even more so by Japanese themselves, but only if you are willing to face the inevitable moments of loathing it will induce.

日曜日, 6月 17, 2007

We -illas stick together

A few months ago I posted something with Godzilla on the grounds that our names are similar, despite it not really being in any way, even tenuously, language related.

Well, much as I hate to post too frequently, here's another one: Fumakilla - a Japanese roach spray. Frankly, it's another "only in Japan" moment, and of course, my little boy LOVED it.

月曜日, 6月 11, 2007

What are they on about? J-League Names

If ever you've stopped to think about the names of Japan's sports teams, and thousands haven't, one odd feature is that almost exclusively they are rendered in Romaji and are intelligible to foreigners without assistance.

In the case of soccer, or as it is known correctly, footy, it starts at the top with the national squad being Team Japan and the league even being called the J-League (Japan's name for itself, in case you didn't realise, is not Japan, but Nihon).

The names of Japan's soccer teams are high profile examples of brilliantly combined Japanese and Gaikokugo; more than just Japlish though, but Japlian (Japanese-Italian), Japanish (Japanse-Spanish) and so on. But far from being the usual rubbish there has usually been a degree of thought behind the titles. Let's have a look at them:

Kashiwa Reysol: Hailing from Chiba, Kashiwa were once the team of Hitachi, still their prime sponsor. The hi of Hitachi is sun, hence we get sol. Rey is a reference to king, in Spanish - think Rex or roi (not sure if this is related to tachi). So Kashiwa are the sun kings (as well as the best team in the league*).

Urawa Red Diamonds: Ever coveted an Evo (that's a fast car for those that haven't). If so, you've seen the red diamonds in question splashed across the front grill - Urawa have their origins in the factory team of Mitsubishi, whose name means three diamonds.

JEF United: WTF? A team called Jeff? Hmm, not quite. Chiba Ichihara JEF United, to give them their full (and redundant) title are the former team of Furukawa Electric (the F), later merged with the team of Japan Rail East (the J and E). Not so clever, but an amusing quirk, ne?

Ventforet Kofu: The "plucky" minnows of J1, Kofu have a name inspired by a great warlord, Takeda Shingen. The name is comes from a quote he in turn took from Sun Tzu's Art of War. And then it's been translated loosely in to French, coming across as "Windy Forest". Brilliant!

Vissel Kobe: The best thing I can do here is refer to the brilliant analysis from Rising Sun News:
"What the heck is a vissel?" Perhaps the team was choosing a yiddish word to describe what fans do after the opposing team scores a goal? No, the team explained, "Vissel" is a combination of the words "victory" and "vessel". This was a ship that was going to carry Kobe to victory.
Ha ha ha. Losers.

Jubilo Iwata: The former company team of uber-vehiclists Toyota, Jubilo take their name from the Spanish for "delight". Straightforward enough.

Nagoya Grampus Eight: Grampus are arguably the most well known Japanese team in the UK, thanks to their signing Living National Treasure Gary "Gary" Lineker (heck, even my brother considers them his Japanese team of choice and he's got nothing but contempt for the Japanese game). What's less well known is the meaning of their name - even in Nagoya.
The Grampus part is documented as being an English name for some dolphin-like figures atop Nagoya Castle. The mystery bit is the "Eight", which is probably why it is ignored in everyday use. Curiously, it is spelt "eight" on their logo, i.e. in English.

Sanfrecce Hiroshima: This team get their name in a spectacular example of Japlian, combining as it does san, Japanese for three, and frecce, allegedly an Italian word meaning arrow. The three arrows motif is a powerful symbol in and around Hiroshima, referring to wisdom from an ancient warlord to his sons.

Albirex Niigata: The team at the end of the most expensive bit of bullet train track in the country take inspiration from the stars. Albireo is the third brightest star in the constellation Cygnus, so no overly ambitious symbol then. Cygnus is, of course, the Swan; the swan being a local symbol apparently. Since the name Albireo was already taken by someone else (my sources can't say who), the club were forced to append the word king to the title, this time in the form rex. Sure enough, the club mascot is a fat-assed swan in a crown.
Interestingly, the club have a spin off team in a league in Singapore(?!), usefully entitled Albirex Niigata FC (Singapore). Perhaps ManU or Chelsea should look in to this.

Oita Trinita: Way down in Kyushu, the southern most of the four main islands of Japan, is where Christianity has its firmest evil roots. In recognition of this, the most prominent club on the island are named after the Holy Trinity, the sickening religiosity tempered slightly by clever use of the the -ta ending of the city's name.

Yokohama F. Marinos: Okay, so the former club team of motoring also-rans Nissan are based in the town that has one of the biggest ports in a country full of big ports. Marines was out thanks to the local presence of the rather less pleasant USMC; Mariners is out as they are a (Japanese-owned) baseball team in the States; so we get the quasi-Latinate sounding Marinos, presumably named after the greatest quarterback in the history of the Miami Dolphins.
Rather more interesting is the F. There used to be two teams in Yokohama: Marinos and the Flugels (WTF?). One day, without warning, the two clubs were "merged". Just how much of a merger this was is evident from the reduction of one half of the new team being reduced to an initial. All the Flugels fans turned their backs on the new team (haha) and instead supported an alternative team, Yokohama FC, who his year were promoted to J1 themselves. Hurrah!

Shimizu S-Pulse: These guys see themselves as the Pulse of Shizuoka-ken. Obvious really; though this claim is contested annually by the rather more successful Jubilo, also from Shizuoka-ken.

Kashima Antlers: Deer have a long tradition of links with football - see White Hart Lane, home of Spurs, and, er, {ahem} oh, and Gary "Gary" Lineker played there too [neat distraction work - Ed]. The eastern coastal city of Kashima has deer as a local symbol, so that's obvious enough. Functional, though hardly imaginative, it's the best one can expect from a team in Ibaraki-ken.

Omiya Ardija: A word in Spanish for squirrels. I mean, why? Where is the thinking behind that? Still, they're from Saitama-ken, so it's hardly surprising.

It's not all exciting, mysterious names though: thank heavens for the rather more prosaic FCs Tokyo and Yokohama, and the bold move taken by Gamba Osaka to actually take a name based in Japanese (roughly translated for the terraces, Gamba means "Go on!").

*Okay, so Reysol aren't the best team in the sense that they are the most successful (Antlers), currently top of the league (Gamba), title holders (Reds), or even best in the face of obvious adversity (Ventforet are waay smaller than the other clubs, but still do okay) or the best supported (take your pick). But in another, very real sense, they are without question, the best.

Advice on dating, from an expert

I'm a cautious man by nature - I like to stick with what I know - so it's no real surprise to see that the author of this very good overview on finding a language exchange partner is none other than Tae Kim, who is second only to Tony for name checking here.

For all my interest in it, I really struggle to get the time to pursue this. However, I can vouch for the value of Mixxer that gets a shout. I signed up there and got half a dozen offers of exchange in the first couple of weeks. It tailed off one I stopped frequenting the site, afraid of how I would explain sitting up late at night chatting to teenage Japanese girls (well, some of the women were a bit older, but there certainly weren't any blokes) to the wife. That may not be a problem for you, in fact it may be something of a draw...

水曜日, 5月 23, 2007

Wanted - Japanese Car

My old man has just traded in his old Mitsubishi Delica, a great 4x4 imported from Japan.

To replace it we are interested in the Nissan Cube, but as you can see, the prices are quite high in the UK. Anyone interested in trying to buy one in Japan for me and export it?


月曜日, 5月 21, 2007

...and no tag backs...

Hmm, seven things I'm willing to reveal here?

1. I apparently look like Hugh Grant - this has been a regular comment from people I know and those I've just met met since I was about 19. Sadly, I've never dated anyone that looks good in a pink cat suit. Frankly, neither has Hugh or anyone else. Pink cat suits are inherently a bad idea.
2. My last words to my Mother as I went through the gates at Heathrow were "Don't worry, I won't come back with a Japanese wife or anything silly like that." No, indeed; I came back with much more than that.

3. I used to play basketball and sucked for five years at school when I played with Tony. But I was taller than him so it was occasionally possible to stop him. This pic documents the county championship winning team of '93. Tony, as our mascot, sits front centre; I'm trying to psyche the camera man out in the number 10; Ian (6) and Ed (9) are subjects of posts by Tony and I bumped in to Joe this week - pretty much one of the first times since this picture was taken... Owain (13), Mike (11) and Graham (12) are MIA.

4. I secretly still like to go skateboarding at the age of 30. This is frowned upon by parents and associates as deviant behaviour so when I have meetings with clients I throw my deck in the back of the car, finish up when I can, then skulk around playing fields looking for shapely bits of of plywood or concrete.

5. Bristol Japan Club is Bristol's premier venue for people in Bristol who are interested in Japanese culture. Most people who go there probably have no idea what my connection to Japan is - my wife never, ever goes. I used to sell Japanese books there, mimicking my love of Good Day Books, but I lost money on the venture.

6. I read the Guardian. I have to keep this secret from my parents, who would doubtless be offended at the soft-bellied liberalism this implies.

7. I was border-line narcoleptic at uni and slept on a speaker in a night club, on the stairs in halls, in the hallway, in a shop doorway, in a park, in the library, in lectures, etc. This was a serious medical condition you understand and not in any way related to consumption of alcohol.

水曜日, 5月 16, 2007

The ドラえもん conundrum.

Why is Doraemon spelt like that?


Notice that? The name uses both katakana and hiragana. If you don't read kana, notice how the first two characters are angular, the other three more rounded.

Weird. My local expert hasn't a clue. Any suggestions?

火曜日, 5月 15, 2007

Formality saves me!

Taking a leaf out of Tony's book I reached for Doraemon #1. Sure enough, we have a copy. In fact, as far as I can tell, there is not a home in Japan that won't have a copy of these books chronicling the adventures of the earless robotic cat from the 22nd century! They bloody love 'im.

Still, I ploughed on, for most part dumbfounded by the casual language until on page 36...

Someone's, what? Boss? Landlord? Has come by and Nobita-kun has been sent for biscuits. He offers up some animal crackers he finds in his room.

You don't need to be able to read Japanese to tell that Nobita's mum isn't so happy (I reckons she's saying "What's this? What are these biscuits?"). The best bit is that the gentleman, polite as the situation demands, is using the kind of textbook Japanese I've come to know and, well, if not love exactly, at least get a functional understanding of. He's saying "It's okay, I love these biscuits."

36 pages in and at last my starchy, stiff collared Japanese gets a break.

What's also interesting is that alone here 大好き (love - lit. "big like") gets a kanji rendering, while "I" and "what" are in kana. I would presume this because big 大, is learnt early on (it's a man with his arms outstretched, see?) as are 女 and 子, woman and child, that form 好, the root of "like". So the word for love is learnt ahead of self or what just because it is easier to learn (the other kanji being 私 and 何).

What is rather less clear is why the other kanji I have recently learn, 世界, world, and 世紀, century are presented in kanji when they are clearly more advanced (rank about 200 on the list I've been using).

It's this seemingly arbitrary arrangement that has caused me to struggle with the learning in GTO and ラブヒナ as my patchy kanji mean long tracts are impenetrable - I might have the vocab, but I can't read the kanji, or it takes me ages to associate a string of kana with the right words. Still, either way, manga kicks JBP ass!

日曜日, 5月 13, 2007

East/West Perception

Not sure this really fits on here to be honest, but it is fascinating.

Apparently Asians see the world in a different way to Westerners, according to this article from some science website I never heard of.

In summary, Asians pay more attention to the interrelatedness of things, while Americans of European extraction(the actual subject it seems) are more interested in bold features. This extends to conscious description of an image as well as studies of eye movement. Amazing.

May have greater relevance to Learning Rocks frankly, but I like this site.

火曜日, 5月 08, 2007

Building a Japanese Environment

Over on Learning Rocks, my "professional" blog, I have been following the "personal learning environment" thread that has been going around blogs on the same subject.

There have been a few points of view, but the settled opinion of a PLE is the space you build yourself, online in the most part, to help you learn. With Learning Rocks, extensive use of Google reader on elearning blogs, joining in on Wikis and various other bits I do every day constitute my "PLE" with regards to elearning.

However, with Japanese it is proving more difficult. What I'm keen to try to do is find a community of other learners who blog about their experience of struggling with the language. This I seem unable to do. Tony's blog is a perfect example, for although he alludes to his learning and has blogged about it explicitly, it is a small part of his oeuvre. Tae Kim, whose Guide is one of my favourite learner resources, is an intermittent writer and at a very high level anyway.

I could rejoin the forums at JPod101, but I never found them as useful - they are not a place for reflective learning; newbie questions and boasting are the norm.

So, if you know of any blogs that add to the mix and discuss the pleasures of learning Japanese, please let me know and help me build my J-PLE.

日曜日, 4月 29, 2007

My namesake in action

You have to check out this mash-up game video, hilarious entitled "Fuck Yo Mushroom Kingdom, Nigga", created in the M.U.G.E.N engine and featuring the original bad-ass gaijin visitor with a problem communicating.

土曜日, 4月 28, 2007

Days of the week

One of the great curios of learning Japanese, for me at least, was the similarity in the naming of the days of the week in Japanese and English:
日曜日(nichi-youbi) literally translates as sun-day
月曜日(getsu-youbi) is moon-day, or Monday
(the bi bit is the part used for sun, one sun being a day, naturally)

I couldn't understand how this might have occurred unless by Japan adopting new names for the days of the week, and presumably a western style seven day week along with all the other things it took up during Meiji.

Well, as it happens the story is more interesting. The Japanese calendar is, surprise surprise, based on the Chinese calendar. The Chinese calendar is itself the product of a Babylonian influence on pretty much the whole world. The Babylonian seven day week, probably born from the 28 day lunar cycle and the need by early agrarian societies to meet to trade, was named after the seven bodies in the sky that were visible, ie the sun, moon and five planets.

In English this got corrupted as certain days of the week were re-associated with Norse gods, for example Thursday = Thor's Day, Friday = Freya's Day; but the sun and moon remained.

In Japanese, from Chinese, the relationships for the rest of the week are:
火曜日 (ka-youbi) or fire-day = Tuesday
水曜日 (sui) or water-day = Wednesday
木曜日 (moku) or wood-day = Thursday
金曜日 (kin) or metal/gold-day = Friday
土曜日 (do) or earth-day = Saturday

The observant might spot that these relationships are like the elements, and that's about it; in Chinese mythology the planets are associated with elements - for example the planet Saturn is associated with the element earth. Which is, lo and behold, found to be doyoubi, or Saturn's Day = Saturday.

On a related note, in written form the days in Japanese usually omit the you bit of the days of the week, so 土日、日日 etc would be common. This (you) bit is a little odd as while in Japanese its use is limited to the meaning discussed here, in Chinese it means 'pretty bird' or something along those lines.

NOTE: this is predominantly pieced together from Wikipedia (here and here), which as we all know is an entirely unreliable source, but as the facts seem to hold together from various entries, and bare out a logical consideration of the facts, I'm content that in this instance it seems reasonable.

木曜日, 4月 26, 2007

On the JLPT trail (again)

It's the front half of the year still, so time to make some vague promises to myself to get JLPT3 again. That'll be four years then...

This time I have a half-assed agreement with my buddy Rach to work together to achieve this. Not a bad idea. In keeping with my way of doing these things, my study buddy is in Japan - well, she is at the moment - I think she returns soon after two years over there.

I'm going to be interested in this as she won't be living near me, but we are going to be wokring together to achieve our goal. Collaborative learning online is the sort of thing that usually gets me exercised at Learning Rocks, but it will be interesting to see if I can bring a newbie along with me - I mean, she doesn't even have a blog...

火曜日, 4月 24, 2007

Kana or Romaji - that is the question

Tony (my muse it would seem) posits a valuable question about learning Japanese in his most recent entry.

Is it better to study wholly in the target language, using only kana and kanji, or is it more effective to rely on the prop of romaji (spelling Japanese words in Latin alphabet).

My old chum Olly, now a resident of west Tokyo, seemed to work by this rule. He worked heavily in romaji and this meant that he was often waiting for me to catch up when we studied for JLPT4.

On the other hand, Nigel, a friend from Japan (I met him there - obviously with a name like that he isn't actually from Japan), swears blind that you should work wholly in kana if you want to make the breakthrough.

On a personal level, I feel it is hard working with kana. Counter-intuitively, it became much easier for me once I started learning enough kanji. Kanji allow you to make sense of a sentence far more quickly than is possible in kana. Consider this simple line:
Watashi wa Eikokujin desu.
(I am British)
The top line, with its kanji, has some shape and texture, and with a little familiarity with the few kanji are instantly recognisable. The second line is all very samey and this problem is accentuated by the fact Japanese doesn't have spaces between words (though often they are when using kana).

Below the kana the romaji interpretation on the other hand is instantly recognisable - three decades of decoding the characters means I don't have to think for one second what is being said. The act of reading does not present a barrier for me.

But does it help me "get in the Japanese frame of mind"? Moreover, would relying on the romaji slow up my development of the ability to read effectively in Japanese. I think the answer to this second question would overwhelmingly have to be yes - but it depends very much on what you are trying to achieve.

Nigel studied Japanese at university. His aim was academic attainment and he would be tested on his written as well as spoken ability. It was imperative that he develop his skills on all fronts. Olly, by contrast, had little need for written language skills - he needed the language to speak to his wife, or more importantly to his in-laws.

My situation, much as I fantasise about being able to take up a bilingual position in a Japanese company, is much closer to Olly's. Perhaps I should take a leaf out of his book (he is, after all, a PhD) and ditch the kana and kanji and focus on building the vocab the easy way.

I look forward to following Tony's progress and seeing how he does and how he begins to benefit from the intermediate boost when you start being able to apply more kanji. Maybe in a few weeks (at the rate he is learning) we'll see. I'm curious to find out.

水曜日, 4月 11, 2007

A true challenge

I struggle with Japanese. Not so much the language itself, it's fairly logical, though I'd be the first to suggest I'm not so good at it.

No, I struggle to make the time for the study it requires. I labour and tussle with my time and never seem to make time for what is arguably the most important change I could make to my domestic arrangements. In this I suffer in learning the vital parts of the language that I need to be able to communicate - my vocabulary is terrible and without it, for all my understanding of the various tenses and conjugations, I understand very little of it.

In all my time (about six years now) I have only achieved the very modest level of JLPT4. Pathetic.

So it is some admiration that I look at my friend Tony of Englishman in Japan fame who is just now embarking on a crash course in Japanese at university in Kanazawa. He is expected to reach JLPT2 this year. A chum from my time in Japan, Nigel, struggled to get 2-kyuu after a year of living there, and four years of study at university here in the UK, so I appreciate it is one hell of a challenge that Tony has had thrown at him.

I'll be watching his progress closely.

月曜日, 4月 02, 2007

Try a Japanese second life!

One of the great ways to learn a language is to emmerse yourself in it, spend time amongst the natives and soak it up.

Easier said than done when your language of choice is Japanese and you live in the UK. So rather than give up, here's a way to do it: www.splume.com.

This is an emmersive online world much like Second Life, but aimed at the Japanese market and, apparently, following a somewhat different design philosophy. Whatever, I'm sure it would be fun.

火曜日, 1月 23, 2007

Facing the challenge!

Okay, so I need an external motivator to get me to study. How about this one?

I've signed up for the free san-kyuu kanji email service from the Japanesepage.com, - this will operate as my external force - and I am entering them in to my brilliant kanji drilling tool from Declan (see Nihongojira passim).

This will force me to at least get exposure to the basic kanji, without my own useless sense of study gold-plating ("can't move on till I understand, dammit!") interfering to block my progress. In fact, as I signed up to the list a few weeks ago, I will have to more than keep up! I need to go faster to catch up!

The sad truth

Inspired by the fact that I noticed that I hadn't posted for several days (well, you can count it in weeks actually), I thought to do a quick check on exactly how much Japanese learning I actually do. After all, this blog is supposed to be about helping me study Japanese, right? So why wasn't I learning anything, or at least, why wasn't I learning anything worth posting about?

Well, a week and a bit on, I think I have found the root cause. I'm not studying.

I have been keeping a record of how much learning (any subject), running (for my 10k in April) and writing (of any sort) I am doing*. Well, I didn't really even need to make the cursory glance that I did make to reveal the cold hard fact that I spent NO time engaged in Japanese study at all. In fact, without much flexing of the old grey matter, I can safely say there has been no casual study at all in a month or so, and no serious, books out study since, well, probably last autumn.

Sad really.

*these, sadly, are the goals I must set myself in order to feel successful.