an early influence

I don’t know how many times I read Jules Verne’s 20000 Leagues Under the Sea when I was growing up, but it was quite a few. Even then, long before the idea of learning Japanese had ever occurred to me, this passage describing the library aboard the Nautilus always made an impression:

Strange to say, all these books were irregularly arranged, in whatever language they were written; and this medley proved that the Captain of the Nautilus must have read indiscriminately the books which he took up by chance.

I think knowing Japanese so effortlessly that my library had no need for any particular “Japanese section” (or for that matter German, French, or Italian, since those are all waiting in the queue), would be an excellent goal marker to work toward.

the end is the means

Tomorrow marks the beginning of the August reading contest, which you can find out more about and join at ReadMOD.  (That’s an abbreviation, but I just like the sound of it.  I’m installing a readmod in my brain! anyway …)  I’m prepared but I have no illusions of winning, since a lot of the other participants are pretty advanced compared to me.  Nevertheless I’m going to give it a fair go.  I still have goals on smart.fm in progress, and still have kanji reviewing to do, but none of that will take very long in a day.  If you haven’t signed up yet do it now!  The twitter hashtag we’ll be using is #tadoku.

The benefits of extensive reading as a means of language learning have been well documented.  Whereas an SRS system repeats tidbits of information at scientifically optimized intervals, extensive reading provides what you might call a “random repetition system” – you’ll run into the same words and constructions over and over again, and eventually you’re certain to know them all.  Of course you can mine sentences for your SRS as you go, which I do intend to do a bit of, but that becomes secondary.

For someone like myself whose aim is full literacy primarily, and speaking is not so much a focus, it seems no great stretch of logic that learning to do what I want to do by, well, doing it, ought to work well.  It does in every other endeavor of life, why not here?  But even for those who wish to converse primarily and never mind the rest so much, extensive reading is still a great benefit.  Ryan Layman has documented nicely here and here what he terms the “four skills flow”.  In short, reading is the primary skill, because you can’t output what has never been input, and reading provides the broadest, most accessible, and most involving input there is.

If you’re interesting in digging into why extensive reading works, have a sniff round the Extensive Reading Pages.  And if you’re somewhat literate already but looking for material, there’s heaps of free texts at Aozora Bunko.  They have an iPhone app too if you’d find such a thing useful.

dividing by zero

Yesterday I learned eight new kanji.

Now you’re thinking, that’s not terribly remarkable; in fact, not even really worth talking about, surely?

Perhaps so.  The thing is, though, I got home pretty late and didn’t really want to add any new cards at all.  But then I thought; okay, half a dozen at least, only takes ten minutes.  There was a bit of a divide in the current chapter after the first eight so I did those.

My optimum number of new cards seems to hover around the mid-twenties, depending on how many new primitives I have to deal with.  So eight is only 1/3 as good as twenty-four.  However: it’s twice as good as four, four times as good as two, and eight times as good as one; and most importantly, infinite number of times better than none.

The point is, even if you learn one kanji (or vocabulary word, or grammar point, or whatever it is you’re focusing on) a day, eventually you will finish*.  If you learn none, the project will die on the vine and all the time you’ve spent on it will be utterly wasted.  Do something, anything, even if it seems insignificant, because any progress is infinitely better than no progress.

*insofar as anything like this is ever “finished”

getting a little impatient

My plan once done the RTK is mainly extensive reading.  (Some SRS of mainly grammar (sentence examples) and Core2000 on smart.fm, but mainly, reading whatever I get distracted by.)  This is what I owe most of my English skill to, and it’s something I love doing anyway, so it makes sense that that’s how I should mainly be “wasting time in Japanese” as Khatz puts it.

Problem is I can’t really start until I’m finished RTK and the next month or so to do it just seems way too long!

Currently I’m at 1219 out of 2042 kanji.  The next chapter contains 28 characters so I’ll do that today; that’s 1247.  Tomorrow I have a day off work and intend to challenge myself a bit.  Lessons 34-37 include 179 characters – that’s the goal.  Then I should be past the 3/4 point by the end of the weekend.

just a little

Tiny habits have great power.

I read yesterday in my running magazine that adding three Oreos daily to your usual diet will gain you 17 pounds in a year.  (So that’s where they came from, hmm …)

And learning just six kanji per day will get you through the entire jōyō kanji in a year.  This “insurmountable task” can be done in a single year with hardly a trace of effort.

the visual language

Most would agree that the most difficult thing about Japanese is the kanji.  And sure there’s over 2000 of them – over 3000 if you want to master all the kanji used mainly in personal names and other uncommon uses.  But for general literacy, just over 2000, and it doesn’t really help a lot to know most of them; you really need to know all of them.

So the temptation is to think, “Well, kanji is pretty advanced; I’ll learn what I can in spoken communication, and use kana for reading (or – shudder – romaji).”

Do not do this.  Do not even think this.

In fact, for someone just setting out to learn Japanese, the kanji should be the very first thing to master, perhaps even before you learn your first vocabulary word*.

The reason for this is that kanji make reading a lot easier.  Easier? really? yes.  In fact, a sentence written entirely in kana can be nearly incomprehensible.  Where does one word end and another begin?  Well, if you have kanji, it’s immediately obvious.  But more than that; what does this particular word mean, when there’s a dozen homonyms for this string of three kana?

If you think i’m exaggerating, consider the case of the word(s) こうか.  Take a wild guess how many different words (not shades of meaning) are represented by this brief string of characters.  Five? Ten? surely not more than a dozen, no?  Wrong – there’s twenty-three**.  Twenty-three!  Now granted, the intonation will be different between many of them (but you can’t tell that when reading); and granted, the context will be a massive help; and granted, this is an extreme example.  But what if you know the kanji?  Then this case becomes trivially simple, because each of these words is written with different characters.

Learning vocabulary is far simpler when you are already familiar with the kanji.  Since you have the meaning attached to the visual code of the character to hang your memory on, sometimes you only need a very few reviews to remember a word for life.  Often enough you can make a very good guess at the meaning of the word the first time you see it.  Without them though, you’re swimming in homonyms and characters that make no more sense than hieroglyphics.

I read somewhere that the Japanese (and, I would presume, the Chinese) use an entirely different part of the brain for language than other language groups that use alphabets or syllabaries.  I could easily believe this, because relating those visual symbols directly to meaning without the intermediate phonetic step feels very different than scanning a string of letters that, other than the order, all look the same.

(Current status: at present I’m at 950 cards on the RTK site, so almost halfway through the first step, which I expect to finish sometime in June.)

* you will note that I am, unsurprisingly, a hypocrite.  In my defense, I came to this conclusion rather later than I would have liked to, after a considerable degree of frustration at mixing up words, not remembering words I ought easily to have recalled, and not being able to read words I “knew”.  As soon as I realized what was going on (yeah, I’m a little slow) I started to devote nearly all my dedicated study time to kanji.

** taken from results listed in Kotoba!, the dictionary I mainly use.  Highly recommended, by the way.