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.