I’m going to start by talking about how I originally got interested in Japanese language learning, and what I did to try to learn along the way.
The first アニメ (anime) I ever saw was when I went to visit a friend-of-a-friend named Andrew. I had never heard of anime before. It was in the first few years of the 1990’s, and I was finishing up High School. Andrew showed us a movie (on VHS) called Riding Bean. Here it is on Youtube:
So, within the first few minutes we have: blood, nudity, guns, an extremely high level of detail, police chases, a car that can drive sideways, and people speaking a funny cool-sounding language.
As I stayed over at Andrew’s to play role playing games (e.g. Shadowrun), we got to see more of his anime collection. He had Bubblegum Crisis and Bubblegum Crash on laser-disc, and he’d play Hurricane Live (the music from Bubblegum Crisis) on the TV. Bubblegum Crisis shamelessly steals a lot of material from Blade Runner. For instance, the band is called “Priss and the Replicants.” Here’s a song from that, which I still love. (I made a CD for myself of the music.)
Along with that, I was introduced to the works of the great Rumiko Takahashi. Andrew had an imported video game of Ranma 1/2. We also watched some Urusei Yatsura, specifically the first movie. Here’s a random segment from the movie. If you don’t have time to watch it (and who wants to watch from the middle of a movie anyway?) I can probably sum it up as “wackiness ensues.” It features Lum, a girl from outer space, who is an Oni (鬼 – a kind of Japanese demon, hence the horns) with horns, blue hair, and a tiger-striped bikini. She is in love with, and considers herself married to, Ataru, who is too lecherous to want to be with one girl because it would mean not being with *all* girls. When she gets angry or jealous she can zap Ataru with electricity from her body. And she can fly.
Soon, college started, and I chose to take Japanese as a language. I continued to watch various anime. It wasn’t too many. The first year, I rented Urusei Yatsura and Ranma 1/2 tapes from a comic book store, and several other ones I can’t remember. After that, I got to see tapes that my friend Dan had in the dorms. He would go to A-Kon with Andrew and so he had a lot of good stuff to watch, even some Hayao Miyazaki, such as Porco Rosso. In Japanese class one day instead of normal class we watched Tonari no Totoro (Disney calls it “My Neighbor Totoro”). There’s no need to include a clip here because if you haven’t seen it already you should go watch it today (in Japanese, if at all possible. Go into language setup and pick Japanese.)
So, anime was a big part of the reason I wanted to learn Japanese, and I watched some of it, but I didn’t keep up with it too much. I don’t really know about most of the stuff that has come out more recently than that time, except for a few: Everything that Miyazaki has released since then (Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, Howl’s Movie Castle; I have not had a chance to see Ponyo yet), along with a few anime that I had to buy and watch because I heard they were the best: Cowboy Bebop, Ghost in the Shell, Evangelion. I haven’t bought very many because anime is pretty expensive and I’m never sure what I would like to get.
Enough about anime. I will try to avoid talking about anime for the rest of this article.
In college, I took as much Japanese as I could. There was only one teacher, a nice older Japanese lady, but there weren’t very many people taking the class after the first year. They used a series of books called “Japanese for Busy People.” I think that it could have been a lot better, but the book was made to be as easy as possible. It only had kana and English letters (ローマ字) (no Kanji). You could mostly ignore the kana if you wanted to. In fact, it used ローマ字 only, without kana, in the sections that explained the grammar. I now know this was a big failure of the book. Although there was no kanji in the book, although the teacher did show us a couple. By the third book, there was a lot more Kanji, but the teacher didn’t really expect us to know them, except maybe about 26 of them including the day of the week and the numbers. I’m glad I took the class though, because I still learned a decent amount of grammar, vocabulary, and how to read and write kana.
We also used “A Dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar” which is a pretty heavy-duty grammar book.
We only ever learned the polite (です/-ます) form of speaking. Which means that the anime I was watching didn’t even really sound like anything I had learned, except for when they were speaking politely.
So, in the end, I couldn’t really speak Japanese, except to sound out kana. I also contemplated doing the JET program (going to Japan to teach English) for a little bit.
Life continued, I graduated, worked, moved to Seattle, worked some more, got married, had some kids, moved back to New Mexico. In Seattle there was a bookstore called Kinokuniya which had tons of manga, books (the ones without pictures), magazines, and all kinds of stuff. Every once in a while I would buy a manga or a text, so I have a very small collection now. Now I kick myself because now I would love to access to that store, but I don’t live there any more. I will go there when I go to Seattle next month.
At one point, I found a book called “How to Learn Any Language” by Barry Farber. It was really interesting but some of the techniques pretty outdated now. Based on his ideas I tried to kick-start my Japanese language learning again. For one thing, I ordered a set of Pimsleur’s language CDs. It is completely audio-based course which teaches you to speak using a type of spaced repetition. It increases the interval of time that you repeat what you already know in order to make you remember. I’ve heard that Pimsleur’s can be good for improving your pronunciation. For some reason, I have never gotten past the first few lessons though.
Another thing I did was go to Kinokuniya and buy a Japanese newspaper. The idea is to start on the first article, and when you find a word you don’t know, look it up, make a flashcard for it, and keep going like that. Use the flashcards to learn the words, and proceed until you can read the whole article. Well, I still have that copy of Asahi Shimbun from 8/18/2004. I wasn’t able to make that method work because it was much too difficult to figure out what the words were and what the sentences meant. The problem is the words are in Kanji (without furigana) and it’s pretty hard to look them up, and even if you do, to figure out what the sentence means. I got nowhere and my language learning stalled out again.
Once, I bought a book called “A Guide to Remembering Japanese Characters.” Looking back on it now, it has many of the classic problems that we now know about, which are:
- Presented in traditional grade order, rather than using a logical order based on what parts you already know
- Tries to teach readings (and vocab) at the same time as you’re trying to learn the character
- Uses etymology of the character, rather than breaking it down into more memorable pieces
- Although it tries to break it down into parts with a mnemonic to remember, it gives you a mnemonic, instead of letting you create your own mnemonic (story).
Here’s is a sample from the book:
I made some flashcards based on this book, but didn’t really keep up with it after a few days. Little did I know I was doing everything the hard way.
Then one day I found this article: Learning Kanji in Two Months by a really interesting guy named Tynan. He linked to some guy whose blog is gone now, and that lead me to the real gold-mine of Japanese learning: All Japanese All the Time or AJATT for short. I bookmarked every page on his table of contents and read it all in a day or two. This had a huge effect on my motivation. Khatzumoto (who wrote the AJATT blog) learned enough Japanese in a year and a half to go to a job interview in Japanese and get the job. I don’t care what anyone says, to me this is amazing. I took Japanese class for three years and can’t carry on a conversation.
AJATT method, to be brief, is to create an immersion environment (contact with Japanese as much as possible), learn Kanji, learn Kana, and then sentence mining. I made a few efforts at immersion. I got some Japanese podcasts, try to watch some Japanese TV online, watch some Anime (without subtitles… sometimes). I really have to do a lot more for the immersion part.
For Kanji, I used Reviewing the Kanji (RevTK for short) both to get good stories, and I use it as my Spaced Repetition Software to review the kanji. I’m getting ahead of myself, I haven’t explained James Heisig yet!
James W. Heisig created a book called Remembering the Kanji (RTK for short). Actually there are three volumes. Volume I contains 2042 kanji, which contains all of the commonly used ones, plus a few extra. Volume III contains another 1000 or so rarer kanji. (Volume II is about learning the readings, i.e. pronunciation.) He created a brilliant method of breaking down the kanji into smaller components and then using those components to remember each kanji by making up a “story” which combine together to make that kanji. He greatly simplified things by ignoring the order in which kanji are traditionally taught to kids, ignoring the real etymology of the characters, ignoring the readings of the characters (what they sound like in Japanese), and even ignoring all but one of the meanings of that character. By simplifying things down to just the writing of the characters, and presenting them in the order in which he could gradually introduce the “primitives” that make up the character, he made it possible to learn how to write them all, completely from memory, in a couple of months. This is something that most people learning Japanese who haven’t heard of it think it almost too hard to even both learning at all.
I started doing RTK volume I in March of last year (2009) and I finished nine months later. I went really slowly compared to a lot of people. However, I did it in one try, so I’m glad I finished it. Right now I am continuing to do reviews on RevTK and I am a little bit behind in my reviews, but I am catching up. A lot of cards I did not review within the time period I was supposed to and so I have forgotten them. However, once I see them, 99% of the time it all comes back; I don’t have to completely re-learn them.
Spaced Repetition Software
The brilliance of AJATT is that he uses both RTK and Spaced Repetition Software (SRS for short). SRS makes it possible to review what you have learned in gradually increasing time intervals so that you remember the most material in the least amount of time. Above, I mentioned that I let my kanji reviews fall behind, and so I did not refresh those memories soon enough, and so I have mostly forgotten about half of the characters that have gone stale. When you “fail” a card, the time interval goes back down. Of the cards I had to fail, my memory is close to 100%. SRS works well if you don’t fall behind, but it also corrects itself if you keep working on it.
I will write more about what I’m doing now, and what I plan to do next in future posts.