Wishing everyone a happy new year from Japan to Jamaica.

It’s been an interesting year for me, and looking back there were some nice moments and some rough patches. Last this year, I had just come back from a trip to Egypt and a quick pit stop in Dubai. This year, I just came back from Jamaica ( my home country ) which I haven’t been to in almost two years with a renewed sense of direction.

For those who don’t know. I live and work in Tokyo at the moment, and as time passed and I felt more and more pressure to learn the language and started realizing I could learn it, I feel that I need a serious approach to my language-based evolution. I’ve decided to attend a language school sometime in the near future, to take my Japanese to the next level.

Now here are some key things I can say about my learning journey thus far, that any persons new to this site can use as they start to learn Japanese.

1. You Have No Idea how powerful your Mind is.

I’m serious about this. Anyone who has read through this blog will see that it is more about my observations through starting and stopping the process of Japanese. I didn’t even have a “system” really. I was attemtping to follow the AJATT method, which emphasizes learning the 2,045 necessary Jyouyou Kanji (goverment supported Kanji which every Japanese person must know ) and then moving on to learning meanings in context. Either way, I moved to Tokyo without knowing how long I’d be there, this mean that my motivation to study and abosrb the language was mum. I felt that any day I’ve have to buy a plane ticket and get the hell out of dodge before my money ran out. But, nine months later, I’m still here and during those nine months, I didn’t speak much Japanese. In fact, I barely really spoke any. I just listened a lot. To movies, people around me, and then when I started working at a Junior high school after a six-month hiatus from teaching, I noticed that I was able to produce “okay” spoken Japanese with no practice. This blew my mind, because I had learned without studying.

2.  There are Easy ways and hard ways

I’ve probably written a post on this, so forgive me if I seem to repeat myself. Based on reading through forums and blogs, it seems that many people have a very romantic idea of learning a language that causes them to massively advocate one pathway over another. I read a post about AJATT versus other methods, and it was funny to see the cross-flaming, and baiting that happened between people at various levels of fluency. What I realize mostly with these kinds of “this method versus that method” type forums only do, is create an area for a waste of time. You see, when people who are fluent in a language are arguing about the best way to learn it, and a few neophytes come into the mix, it is mostly intimidating, and draining to read post after post breaking down the faults of this one or that one. Plus whoever started the post is most likely fluent, happily married to a Japanese woman, and has time to spare : p Here’s the thing I learned…

Just buckle up, and pick a method.

If you don’t like it, mix it with something else. There is no straight path in a system and there is no perfect system, but there are way to learn faster than slower. So here’s the thing for anyone who is JUST starting to learn Japanese.

Unlike European languages, the main barrier in learning Japanese lies mainly in one thing… the character sets. Everyone learning the language must (egad) memorize over two thousand characters to have a basic understanding of any kind of media. The spoken language is pretty much like any other one, with grammar points, vocabulary to learn, idioms and so on.  But unlike Spanish, German or French, where you can hop in the pool and start swimming with words, with Japanese you have to take a step back, breathe and then waiting to learn Hiragana, Katakana and Kanji (Chinese characters) before you can swim in the pool.

Let’s say hiragana and Katakana take you into the kiddie section, then Kanji is when you can start treading water in the deep-end. These three sets of characters ( particularly Kanji ) kick most people in the balls so hard they never recover after trying to learn. Now, should you be discouraged? I say no.

Generally people learn Kanji through rote memorization. Write something down enough times and you’ll remember it right? Wrong. Kanji is generally learned through rote memorization and then seeing, writing and speaking about the Kanji in context. This what most people miss… they practice writing 切 ”cut ” a hundred times and then see it somewhere else and forget it because they are not really getting the context. Now here’s where my ramble will start to make sense.

The difference between Japanese people and other learners is that they live in Japan. They aren’t going anywhere, aren’t studying for a year because it’s “cool” or becase they took it in college. For a child, taking ten years to learn their first thousand or so Kanji isn’t a problem because everyone their age is at the same level. But foreigners like things fast, and i’m similar. People want to know the fastest way to learn the language, get over the hurdle and start reading Manga and hitting on chicks at clubs. So here is what I have observed so far…

When I looked at rote memorization, I said no. It would take too long and I didn’t have five to ten years. When I initially thought of language school in late 2009, I said no too, because I was working at the time. Then I found the Heisig method, which I live by now as my method to learn how to write and remember Japanese characters.

Many, many, many people are against this method, and if you who are reading this are too, no worries, I’m not an affiliate ; p But what I can say is that, I have seen no other way to learn hundreds of Kanji quickly, and have a difficult time forgetting most of them . I will talk about the “why people hate this method” in a bit, but I will also add how even though I have been doing a horrible job of finish Heisig, it makes studying ( at my present level a bit easier ).

Now here’s the catch boys and girls. Japanese characters have multiple readings.. which are called Onyomi and Kunyomi. Let’s just say that you have to learn these readings as well as how to write the characters. Now there are people who want to learn both at the same time. Meaning if i learn 日 (day) I would learn all 10 readings for this particular kanji at the same time. My issue with this method is that is painfully slow for those who want to move faster. But note: Only for those who want to move faster. There are people who are happy to spend a few years learning this way, and there is nothing wrong with that. But if I take one Kanji at a time, learning the meanings as I go along, just like Japanese children, it will take me  a good while to learn the first 1,500 or so basic Kanji just to read. This I didn’t want, and I saw that people had completed Heisig in weeks, or just a few months and then moved on to the readings.

Here’s my take. I said.

1. This is a way to learn ALL the Kanji in X amount of time.

2. Once I’ve learned these, I can spend ALL my energy learning the readings.

so instead of doing both, its one then two. A serious person can finish Heisig in one and a half to three months, then spend another three months learning most of the readings, adding a touch of laziness or frustration, let’s say in 6 to 8 months, you can start READING JAPANESE. You will also be able to write it.

I think that last part is the only diffference. As a person living in Japan, I know that most of the “old heads” people who live here and speak super-duper fluent Japanese, often cannot write Kanji from memory . This showed me, that I, humbly speaking, who can write over 1,300 now have a certain advantage, but with computers and cell phones having built in character sets… it ends up being a matter of taste.

Still, I have not started from scratch. My current advantage is that living in Japan for close to two years (without much study) has given me thousands of hours of listening time, a thing crucial to your brain absorbing the language.

Despite being very on and off with Heisig, each time I see a Kanji i’ve studied, I immediately remember it, regardless of the reading. What is happening now, that I am studying readings, I can quickly get a sense of the difference between “research” and “railroad car”, “river” and “spring” without any problems. I used to worry horribly about how I’m going to learn all the readings… but once you start reading little stories, interpreting songs and flipping through Manga, you will start seeing 99% of the same Kanji over an over. Stuff like house, love, want, give, walk, run, etc. I already know these words in English, so after a few quick translations witht a dictionary, I can start reading through Manga.

This allowed me, without a really powerful Japanese ability presently, to read through a good bit of Death Note. I didn’t understand the readings as I saw them, but eventually so many words repeated that I didn’t have to keep looking back at the dictionary. 犯人?(that’s crimininal… for the life of me I can’t forget that word ; p )

I think this is the power of the system that hits people later on. It’s like your head is an English to Kanji dictionary, and then you need to use a Kanji to Japanese dictionary for a while to cross translate until you get familiar with words and readings.

So as I saw I was progressing, I realize that also, if I devoted 99% of my time to learn the language, I can move faster, and enjoy my Japanese experience more. That said, i’ve decided to look for a language school to attend for a while. Why? Becoming good at speaking is major for me. I still chat like a six year old with a bad case of the sniffles. But, if i was to be practicing and talking Japanese for several hours a day for months on end, there is no way to go but up when it comes to proficiency.

Plus I really, really want to be able to read classics like Slam Dunk and Akira in Japanese. Call me weird. I’m also missing the interaction with similarly minded-people that comes with a school. Learning solo dolo as I am can be a bit of a mind trip if you don’t have a large circle of friends. You need to beast yourself to get jyouzu (good) or else, and most of the time I don’t have the motivation. For me anyways, I think my learning DNA is the kind that functions better with company and deadlines.

That said, I am using a few cool systems to step up my Japanese. I am going to post a video on how I’m using Rosetta stone, and maybe I’ll chat about outher stuff I’ve tried. I think SRS-ing is good to an extent, but I’m not in love with it. I’ve also tried Pimsleur, but I find it god awfully slow, and I keep forgetting words if I don’t use them right away.

Anyhoo… I guess to sum up this post, my present level of “absorption of Japanese” if you want to call it that, is allowing me to fiddle with different systems without feeling the burn of ぜんぜんわかない! Meaning, without feeling like I don’t know anything, or like I’m an idiot.

I saw somewhere that Rosetta Stone is pretty good for learning vocab (which I knew) but is also pretty sweet if you are more intermediate, looking to sharpen things up. I only started RS two days ago and I learned a bunch of delightful words like 図書館、(library),劇場(theatre), 仕事場(work place), 美官(art gallery) and so on. Here’s the fascinating thing. I switched the Rosetta stone program to Kanji, and i’m able to read and recognize most of what I see…. because of heisig, but the way Rosetta Stone works, associating images and sounds to the Kanji you are seeing, it is totally adding on to what I already know. This is why I am going to do a post ( most likely video ) about Rosetta, because currently I want ot use it to massively boost my vocabulary. I mean, stuff like 二番目人は、(the second person in line) are things I need to know how to say. Don’t quote me on that, but when I first started using Rosetta stone, I’d have been frustrated by not knowing the Kanji, or having to troll through the program in Hiragana. Which can be a nightmare when sentences get long.

So not only can i memorize words, learning Onyomi and Kunyomi in context and see pictures associated with what i’m learning, but also sounds… and yes, I’m rambling about it, because for me to just spit those words out (and type them nonethless) without reference is bananas coming from days I used to fantasize about having even 1% of my current comprehension skill.

So on to 2011, and the path of jyouzu.

今年に、上手街で歩。(hope this makes sense… its literally “this year, on the smart road, will walk.)

Till next time!

About marcusbird

Writer, Designer, Filmmaker
This entry was posted in motivation, Remembering the Kanji, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to 今年もおめでと!

  1. Paul Nogas says:

    “Just buckle up, and pick a method.” I agree to an extent, but don’t downplay the research. Do a decent amount of testing and trial with different methods for a while (not too long) before you buckle down. make sure it you like the method (ie: it fits your DNA). Don’t commit to find out later that you could have taken a more enjoyable path.

    “But foreigners like things fast, and i’m similar.” very astute observation. I think there is a big gap between the speed of learning and depth of learning and there isn’t a good way to judge/describe them accurately yet. I as well fall into this speed category.

    “This is a way to learn ALL the Kanji in X amount of time.” again, it’s not all, not by a long shot. Only the most useful kanji.

    “Once I’ve learned these, I can spend ALL my energy learning the readings.” my thought process too. I have a good feeling that it will prove to be the better path for the both of us.

    “I’m also missing the interaction with similarly minded-people that comes with a school.” In many ways I am anti-school. but in just as many ways I am pro-school. schools have the problem of teaching a group meaning that you can be lost if you are the slowest in the class or bored if you are the smartest in the class. Your learning isn’t optimized for your current level. As well the curriculum might be about things you don’t want to learn (example: a lesson about the prefecture names/history might not be of no interest to the students). And a big part of language learning is to keep you wanting to do it.

    then as you mention, there are good things. you are in a positive atmosphere where you can make friends and be motivated /held accountable to attend.

    “…DNA is the kind that functions better with company and deadlines.” I recently read a book called “the 4 hour work week” it has some interesting ideas, one of which talks about how deadlines can help you work more efficiently. (there is a story of a guy who wants to learn to tango, so he signs up for a competition in a few months or so, even though he doesn’t know how. This is is motivation to practice)

    “Pimsleur, but I find it god awfully slow, and I keep forgetting words if I don’t use them right away.” I just started using this as I walk to work and I really like it so far. I will comment more on my blog about this later.

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