Context Manipulation


Context Manipulation

It:s a rainy morning here in Tokyo, and I was on the train, fiddling with Death Note. During a burst of inspiration a few months ago, I tried going “All Japanese All the Time” to push myself into new levels of understanding with the language, but crashed and burned for many reasons. Now, I feel a little more comfortable with my pursuit of what I am doing, and I was thinking about context.

I don’t consider myself lazy. Like many people, I used to troll through forums looking for the most “efficient” way to learn Japanese and see the methods that people used. As I tested out a few methods, I discovered two things that most people will find with learning any language.

1. It must be enjoyable.

2. You will need a peer group to interact with eventually

3. You remember things best through context.

But here’s the kickers with Japanese. With so many systems, programs, audios, methods and resources now available, a beginner literally has TOO many steps to take, which is quite different from days of old. So on the train this morning, I flipped open my copy of Death Note 1 that I was slowly going through a few months ago. As I read through the first few pages, naturally there were some words I didn’t know, but I didn’t feel “bad” about it, I just looked them up, and picked up few gems like 戦い(battle),

直訳 (literal translation), etc. Most people will say Death Note is a “hard” anime to start reading, but the reason I picked it up is because

1. I know the story almost in its entirety.

2. I would like to be able to read the story in Japanese.

3. The manga has a very specific context, of good and evil, and introspection, things I like.


This is an expression I am repeating from memory, which is probably incorrect grammatically, but is part of this whole post on context. I think the expression was loosely saying that “two people must choose when the battle starts”, or “or it is only with the choice of two people that the battle can begin”. Either way, I’m finding that a lot of my frustration I had with learning Japanese could actually be called “passion”, and that a big part of why I didn’t want to Anki, or use certain systems because they REALLY BORED me.

I like Death Note, and when I was reading the manga, I started to read aloud each sentence as I gained its meaning. The Heisig meanings are also visible, but I sometimes don’t pick it up immediately. For example, 直訳 in Heisig is “straightaway” and “translation”. So it’s not a big stretch to imagine that it is “Literal Translation”. Now, I could pop a word like this into Anki and test myself on it a few times….

Or I could just read the book again, and again and again. Sort of like how I used to read comics. I remember an old x-men comic (or Avengers or something) where there was particularly verbose superhero. He yelled out in a frame “How dare you display such effrontery?” At the age of probably 9, the word “effrontery” was a beast. I looked it up, and never forgot the meaning which is “being extremely brazen, or overly bold”. Each time I hear the word, I still see that super hero person in a white costume shouting it across the pages. I also remember when I got in trouble with my mother once, I she said something about me being “recalcitrant”, (disobedient in the face of authority) and I could never forget that word either.

So in this Japanese journey, I find that I have been having more “fun” taking an older, simpler journey thus far. I am NOT advocating this as a system. I believe at some point I will start putting sentences into Anki, or maybe certain words, but I would rather go the “X-men way” for now and just re-read comics I like and keep reminding myself in context.

There is a huge difference between seeing Yagami Light holding the Death Note and then saying “chokuyaku” than me seeing it on a while screen on my computer with no supporting context.

This is why for now, I am doing some Rosetta Stone (which is quite visual and allows me to better recall new vocab) than going a rote route. For me, I am tired of the work behind the learning which requires me to spend more time adding sentences and tracking progress than getting in the mix. This is a hazard of my general skill set (writing, graphic design and doing video editing) which makes me not want to sit at the computer if I am not doing any of those three things.

So why did I crash and burn before?

I wasn’t casual enough with myself in my pursuit. I let my desire to gain knowledge overwhelm being relaxed about it, and at each hurdle I would shut down. Also, I find that “throw away time” meaning, the time you are idling at the train station, waiting to meet a friend, or whatever, requires a nice system to maximize your time. For me listening to Japanese music without really knowing what they are saying is O-K sometimes… watching a movie without knowing the central storyline is O-K, if you can handle not understanding the plot.

But if I was listening to maybe Japanese film reviews with a heavily specific context, maybe that would have been different. I was watching several of my favourite movies in Japanese and picked up a few words here and there, but I realized I didn’t know enough grammatical patterns to get everything, but still it sort of worked.

So sadly for me, I found Japanese TV, Japanese News and most Japanese music very boring and campy, yet I knew that the meat of what I want….manga, video games, maybe a novel or two, requires the understanding of all these things at a very high level.

So I kept pushing. What’s weird is that after all this blogging and stopping and starting, I have yet to really use a grammar book, or text book, (which is making me a bit frightened about doing language school entirely with a textbook written in Japanese).

Either way, as I said many moons ago, I can already see that at 1700 Kanji, I am starting to be able to recognize most of what I see around me, and I am also starting to subliminally recognize some of the readings (though I don’t know why yet) I think it has something to do with my passive absorption of Japanese coming out of the wood work.

So just an update, over the last several weeks I have.

Not watched any Japanese TV.

Not watched any movies in Japanese TV.

Barely listened to any Japanese music.

Hardly spoken any Japanese.

Yet here I am, blogging about the language and living in Tokyo. This is more to do with the “dark side” of living in Asia which I don’t like blogging about so much… but I maintain. Really want to gun it and finish Heisig this week and start posting videos.



About marcusbird

Writer, Designer, Filmmaker
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