Sunday, June 21, 2009

Learning Japanese, Part 2 - Resources

It's a lot easier to buy Japanese textbooks and dictionaries these days. Just jump on and enter your credit card number. Further, you can watch Japanese TV shows if you have a satellite dish; visit Japanese websites if you have net access; watch subbed anime DVDs, and even converse with Japanese natives by using Skype or by spending time at a university campus. Additionally, you can visit the websites of the English versions of Japanese newspapers and check out their "Learning Japanese" articles.

And, naturally, none of these resources come close to the experience of growing up in Japan and learning the language as a native speaker. But, at least we do have access to these resources, anyway.

If you want to learn Japanese, you have to make a decision - are you going to focus on the written or spoken language? Written Japanese has certain conventions and rules that spoken Japanese does not. Further, in written Japanese you really have to know kanji, which is a completely different issue by itself. On the other hand, spoken Japanese is influenced by a series of etiquette rules that require that you know your relationship to the person you're talking with, and the pronunciation of words change based on the word just as in English ("I have read a book" versus "I will read a book"). I'm going to make a gross generalization here, but there's one form of Japanese for male speakers, another for female speakers, and the written language generally takes on the male form. On top of all this, Japanese history and culture have vastly influenced the present-day language, so if you're going to learn Japanese, you may need to study its history as well.

In my case, I want to learn both.

I went to a language school in Shinjuku a while back to learn a little more about a free introductory lesson that they had offered. The school, the Japanese Language Center (JLC), gave me a 5-page quiz to fill out, which took the better part of 1 hour. The quiz consisted mainly of questions regarding specific pictures ("here" is a picture of a red pencil, "there" is a picture of a yellow cat; what is the color of that cat?; what is that thing "here"?) Then, I received a short intermediary level lesson on counting, using polite Japanese. JLC's assessment was that I'm firmly in the intermediary level, but that I have huge holes in my basic vocabulary. That is, I can handle the question "how many books are shown above and below the table", but I don't know how to pronounce the numbers when counting from 1 to 10 books (ippon, ni-hon, san-bon, etc., using the counters for bottles) I then took their 2-month series of free classes, and it was a lot of help. I just ran out of free time for moving on to the regular classes. I still need to fix that.

Resources for learning Japanese:

A lot depends on your needs. A small dictionary is easy to carry around in a backpack, but won't contain all possible definitions of a word, or contain more obscure words. A larger dictionary will be more complete but less portable. At least consider getting a small Japanese-English/ English-Japanese translation dictionary. Keep in mind that if you get a kanji dictionary, if you don't know how to pronounce the kanji you're going to have to look it up manually based on the stroke count. If you get a phonetic dictionary (hiragana or romaji spelling of words), you're not going to be able to find a specific kanji if you don't know how to pronounce it.

You may also want to get a verb book. Japanese verbs can be complex, irregular, and hard to figure out. There are whole books just dedicated to explaining how the verbs work.

Electronic Dictionaries:
I really like my Casio dictionary. I have the Japanese model XD-SW6400, but it looks the same as the U.S. version. I can enter romaji or hiragana through the keypad, or write the kanji on the touchpad. It's a very powerful tool for kanji look-up. It also has all kinds of specialized dictionaries that can be downloaded from a PC, but I haven't needed those. If you buy anything, buy something like this Casio.

There are all kinds of workbooks and practice books on the market. If you take formal Japanese lessons, the required textbooks will be specified for you. If you study on your own, pick something that meets your personal needs and tastes. As for myself, I don't like anything on the U.S. market. As I mentioned in Learning Japanese - Part 1, Japanese is not taught as it is actually used in practice. This places a limit on how useful any given western-published book or audio course will be. Personally, I'd save the money and use it to buy an electronic dictionary.

Audio Courses:
I've tried listening to a few of the audio tapes and CDs on the market, and none of them did much for me. My opinion is that audio tapes are fine for some people, but not others. I guess that here, I'm an "other".

So far, I've only found one podcast that issues episodes regularly - I have mixed emotions regarding Japanesepod (JP). First, JP does have some simple basic lessons that can help new learners. Second, if you get a basic subscription, you can read the dialog notes, get practice kanji sheets, and see more examples of specific grammar notes. Third, podcasts are really MP3 files that can be played in a car on any MP3 player, making them great when on long commutes. On the downside , I *hate* the main host - Peter. I can not stand him. His jokes tend to be stupid wastes of airspace, and when an episode runs long it's usually because he spent 5 minutes on a pointless digression. He over-explains simple grammar concepts, and often doesn't know about basic cultural things that even the newest fan to anime knows by heart. Another drawback to JP is that it doesn't stand on its own as a learning tool. You'll want to take night classes or buy some textbooks to build up a stronger starting vocabulary. Also, JP is aimed at the beginner to lower intermediate learner; they don't have an advanced learner course. Finally, the Japanese dialogs tend to be simple jokes. It's rare to have a dialog that is lifted straight from regular life. I don't really have a problem with the joke dialogs, since the humor makes the learning process more fun, but you're not being taught spoken Japanese that you can memorize and immediately use on the street or in the workplace. One thing that I do like a lot, though, are the audio blogs. Later episodes of Miki's blog were hosted by 2 Japanese natives, and the discussions as well as Miki's narrative were in all-Japanese. The more recent "Yuri's blog" is just the character "Yuri" talking in all-Japanese about fashion and pop culture (no co-hosts).

Japanese Textbooks:
"Nazo Pe" is not a textbook per se. Rather, it's a practice puzzle book aimed at Japanese school children. My wife gave me 2 books aimed at 3rd graders. Even at this level, they're almost too much for me. Lots of cultural references, and quotes from famous poetry and novels. I really like them, but they're not something a non-native speaker is going to be able to cope with without outside assistance. "Nazo Pe" is a shortened form of "Nazo Paper", or "Puzzle Paper", and the Nazo Pe books are designed so that a parent or older family member can study with you and help with questions or pronunciation problems.

Windows now comes with Japanese language support built-in. Just go into Control Panel and select the language you want to use. You'll want IME support to allow for entering hiragana or kanji. Beyond this, I recommend NJStar. NJStar is an Australian-based product that allows for Japanese wordprocessing. It has real-time kanji look-up, kanji selection based on radicals, and a separate dictionary feature. I like NJStar a lot, especially when it comes to finding kanji that I can't write by hand into my electronic dictionary. That is, if I find a kanji that I don't know how to pronounce, I'll first try writing it on the touchpad of the Casio. But, my handwriting is bad and the Casio will often convert it to the wrong kanji. When this happens, I'll go to NJStar and look for the kanji based on its radicals. Once I have the pronunciation of the kanji, I'll go back to the Casio and hand type it in romaji.

Language Schools:
I can't say anything about schools in the U.S. The extension night classes are usually too basic and shallow, and I've never studied Japanese in a university. I do know, though, that what's taught in the U.S. universities is not what's spoken in Japan, so keep that in mind. And the reason for this is that teachers want to be able to teach to a set of rules that they can then test you on for grading purposes. Unfortunately, spoken and written Japanese is very sloppy, and a lot gets sacrificed in order to shoehorn the language into a specific training format. Universities usually only teach polite Japanese, which is used only in moderation in real life.

As for language schools in Japan - I'm just starting to explore this myself. So far, there are about 10 schools that actively advertise in Tokyo. Most offer support for the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT), most have small group or private lessons, and most are full-time or part-time lessons. Full-time lessons average $600 per course, and about half the schools charge $100 for registration, with maybe another $100 in operating fees. Textbooks aren't included in the price.

Right now, I've only contacted the Japanese Language Center branch in Shinjuku. The staff is very friendly, and they broke the 2-person minimum rule for group classes. The lessons are taught in Japanese only, so it's an immersive environment, but it is easy to get lost and frustrated if you can't follow the instructions.

There are about 4 English-language papers in Japan: Asahi Shimbun, Japan Times, Nikkei Weekly, and the Daily Yomiuri. Of these, Asahi, Japan Times and Yomiuri have online articles on learning Japanese. None of these articles really go into specific grammar concepts in depth, but if you're taking full-time classes, these articles are good for explaining slang terms and popular word usage. You can get subscriptions to all these papers, but they're difficult to find at the stores. Generally, Daily Yomiuri and Japan Times are available only at select kiosks within the train stations in Tokyo.

English Language Magazines:
So far, I've found two English-language magazines in Japan: J Select and Metropolis. J Select is more business oriented and costs 500 yen. Metropolis has more articles on pop culture (the July 18, 2008, issue had a cover article on Cos Play) and is free, but it's centered on activities in Tokyo only. Both have large listings of ads for language schools. I found copies of both magazines at the Japanese Language Center office. The Metropolis can also be found on the Foreign language books floor of Kinokuniya bookstores.


Final Recommendations:
These are the things that I use myself:

NJStar Word processor
Casio XD-SW6400 electronic dictionary
Nazo Pe, vol. 1 and 2, 3rd Grade level
Japan Times newspaper podcasts

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