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Archive for the ' Learning & Resources' Category

5/5/2008

Learning methods: does it matter?

Normally I hate blog posts that just links to another blog that links to another blog that links to the primary source, especially when I’m subscribed to both blogs. Just give me the source, I don’t need your one line comment and link!

Nevertheless, I read a blog post about language learning methods and felt an urge to add my two cents. Here’s an excerpt from the post.

The neat thing here – and I’ve counseled this before – is that language learning isn’t about following a method; it’s about getting in sync with and enjoying a language.

In this light, the debates about which method is best are silly. But if they keep people talking about new things that others might not have tried yet, they’re still useful. Ignore the bombast about who’s best, then, and keep reading the forums and blogs. You might just find what you are looking for now in spite of everyone’s best efforts to settle what’s best left unresolved.

Looking at the many comments on the merits and drawbacks of Heisig, I’d have to agree. I’ve learned that what works for some doesn’t work at all for others and most importantly, what didn’t work for me may work for others.

In the end, it doesn’t matter what study method you use as long as it helps you spend more time with the language. Still, I have to argue that you have to do my very simple method at some point for fluency, which as many of you already know, is to practice in a real-world context with real people and primary source materials not just artificial textbooks and dialogs. Ok, I guess it’s more common-sense than “a method” per se.

For completeness, here’s the blog post that is link to by the blog I just linked to (whew!). Amazingly, that blog doesn’t link to the primary source which is a thread in the how-to-learn-any-language.com’s forum. (゚_゚;)


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2/27/2008

What, you forgot it? Good!

When I wrote that current spaced repetition software all suck, I wasn’t saying that you shouldn’t use them or that the idea of spaced repetition itself sucks. To make an analogy, Linus Torvalds said subversion sucks in a talk about git and while I found his talk interesting I still continue to use subversion. It’s because his philosophy and needs for source control are different from mine. Just like Linus, I think that the current SRS can be so much better based on my needs and philosophy (the difference being he actually built the software while I’m just all talk).

I have a basic and simple philosophy that learning languages should be simple and enjoyable. Current SRS are all based on the idea of study and review. I don’t like “studying” because it sounds like work and flipping through cards is work to me (and boring work at that), especially when I have to make them myself. I’ve learned enough about myself to know that I could never stick with it. But hey, I’m just talking about me personally, so don’t let me discourage you from finding the techniques that work for you. In fact, I encourage you to try out various different methods of study to find what works best for you. I went through the same experience to learn enough about myself to know what works for me.

Personally, I think spaced repetition works naturally if you have reading material with words that are spaced out. I’m talking about graded readers that naturally introduce new words while reusing old ones. You can even throw all the vocab in an SRS as a bonus but the most important part that’s missing in current SRS is the material; you have to find it yourself. The simple reason is because software is made by programmers not writers. That’s why my idea of a great spaced repetition program is not one that flips through words but one that allows use to share and find material that interests us in the language and at the right level of difficulty. Flipping through words based on the material is simply a nice bonus.

I love the concept of spaced repetition and enjoy the effects every time I learn a new word without even realizing it. This may sound counterintuitive but forgetting a word really is the best way to learn it. If you forget a word it means that you’ve already learned it and spaced enough time to forget it again. It’s hard to explain without experiencing it yourself but the more times you think, “Oh I can’t believe I forgot this word again!” the faster you end up memorizing it. So you shouldn’t feel discouraged when you forget a word, you should be thinking, “Yes! I forgot it! This is really helping me to remember it for good.”


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2/16/2008

Lingq, a cool and promising flash card website

I just wanted to write a quick post about Lingq, a website I just found about today. It’s so cool that I just had to write something about it right away. It’s a real world implementation of some of my ideas for a better flash card program. Instead of having to create your own index cards, the website has a thing called a store which is a library of content for the language you want to learn. You can create and share your own content by adding text and upload images/audio.

Flash cards are created by selecting text and clicking a little widget at the bottom of the screen. The flash cards show you a phrase with the word instead of just having the reading and definition like most flash card programs/websites. You can add them if you want, however, as a hint.

This is pretty much exactly what I was talking about. Sharing content and creating flash cards that have meaningful content. Though it doesn’t work for Chinese, Japanese lookups work amazingly well. Now, all they have to add is user ratings to help filter out the most interesting content.

There are also additional features involving tutors and Skype that I haven’t tried out.

I encourage everybody reading this to try it out.

My only minor complaints are that the navigation is hard to get at first and the site seems a bit slow.

Also, my original idea had linking and giving proper credit to the original content. I guess these guys are not too worried about the ethical implications of uploading other peoples’ content directly to their website without providing any kind of credit. Especially since it looks like they are trying to make a buck.


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1/31/2008

Final thoughts on remembering the kanji

In my first post about Heisig’s Remembering the Kanji (RTK), I invited people to convince me that the book can teach you to “write kanji like a native” as claimed in the book’s introduction. As it turns out, it all depends on how you define, “write kanji like a native” and the introduction needed some reading between the lines. (Only being able to write the kanji without knowing the reading or any words that use the kanji doesn’t count as “writing like a native” to me.) But in the end, my challenge was a bit unfair because no single book can really teach you how to write kanji like a native without turning into a dictionary, and in this age of computers, it’s debatable whether even many natives can write kanji like natives.

Though it’s obvious that the book alone is not enough to truly master kanji, many of you gave excellent comments on how it helped you retain the kanji that you’ve learned and at least got you on the path to mastery. Reading through the comments I think I have a better idea of who the book is for and I’d like to share my thoughts in this last post about RTK.

I stress that my opinion is only one of many and if you are considering buying this book, I recommend reading through the comments to form your own impressions of whether this method will work for you. You can find them here and here and maybe even on this post later on. Thanks to everybody’s comments, I think those posts have become a great source of discussion and information for those considering the Heisig method. Also, there’s no harm in trying out the first half of the book which is available for free.

How I learned Kanji

Before I talk about the book, I think it’s worthwhile to discuss how I learned kanji in order to have an alternative method to compare against. I may have mentioned this before but I never studied kanji; I studied the words that are made from kanji. For instance, I learned 「力」 as 「ちから」 but never as 「リョク」 or 「リキ」. I only learned the other on-yomi when I learned words like 「努力」 and 「怪力」. The key to learning these words is, of course, reading. Therefore, it’s very important to find reading material that is interesting and appropriate for your level, something that is a lot harder than it should be.

The advantage of this method is that you end up creating many associations with real words without having to waste time on individual kanji. The first association is, of course, the context of the text from which the word came from. The second comes gradually as you build up a library of words that share the same kanji. Once you get the hang of kun vs on reading and how the voicing changes based on the sounds preceding it, the readings become really easy to memorize as they are shared across different words.

For example, when I see 「試」, I think of words like 「試験」、「試作品」、「試す」 and even other similar kanji like 「式」 and 「武」. As I learn new kanji, I also reflect back and review not only words that share the same kanji but also other kanji that look similar. In this manner, I noticed that 「剣」、「険」、「験」、and 「検」 all have the same reading. It took a while but I finally remembered that the one with “horse” means “testing” based on words like 「試験」 and 「経験」 while the one with “tree” means to “examine” based on words like 「検査」 or 「検索」. Learning radicals, which are simpler kanji such as 「馬」 and 「木」 is also very important because they form parts of many other kanji. By learning radicals you can start to see little mnemonic patterns such as realizing that 「忘」 consists of a dying heart (心 and 亡).

There are mainly two ways to strengthen your memory, either by strengthening the path to a memory with repetition or by creating many paths with different associations to the same memory. With the method above, you can create associations with words that share the same kanji or radicals that form the kanji. You can also reinforce the memory with repetition by reviewing them every time you run into a new word that share the same kanji. Also, the benefit of reading is that by seeing the same words used in different contexts, you get both repetition and new associations. Basically, reading does make you smarter just like they always said! (Or at least teach you more vocabulary.)

Why you might need RTK

Now let’s get into problems with my method and how RTK might help.

The first problem I’ve learned from reading your comments is that the method completely fails if your brain isn’t wired to see these connections as you go. For instance, if you learned 「試験」 and later ran into 「経験」 in your studies, the assumption is that you’ll be able to recall 「試験」 and make the connection that they both use 「験」. If this does not happen, you don’t get the association which means you’ll have a really difficult time learning the kanji or the words that use them.

Now, I’ve had times when I couldn’t remember exactly which word I learned used the same kanji, I just knew that it looked awfully familiar. One trick I would do is look up just the kanji in WWWJDIC and scroll through all the words that use the kanji until I recognize the old word I learned before. Even with this trick, if all or most of these associations don’t come naturally to you, RTK might be just the thing to help you.

By systematically going through each kanji and assigning a story (basically a mnemonic), RTK can provide you with the glue to jumpstart your associations. For example, let’s say you’ve gone through the whole book and memorized every story for each kanji. Now suppose you see the word 「省略」. Now you’ll recognize 「省」 as “focus” from story 124 (page 61) as, “…picking up a few things and holding them before one’s eye in order to focus on them better”. So when you learn another word such as 「省電力」, even if you couldn’t make the association with 「省略」, you have the story to serve as the glue to link the kanji together.

Now I would argue that it’s better to think of 「省」 as a combination of 「少ない」 and 「目」 instead. In addition, I think memorizing 「省く」, which means “omit” is a better use of your time than memorizing “focus”. However, all that assumes that you can make those connection on the fly as you are learning these words. RTK creates the associations systematically for you and provides the glue to help you link kanji together by having the single story to link them.

Of course, no one could claim that this “bootstraping” could magically teach you how to write all the vocabulary that contains kanji, which is why I was so critical of the book and it’s claim to teach you to “write kanji like a native”. Nevertheless, my personal dislike for the wording in the introduction has no bearing on the value of this resource. If you need it, RTK can help you start creating associations and get you started in seeing the patterns that are not obvious when you’re just starting out.

Finally, based on your comments, there seems to be a great deal of psychological benefit to tackling a text full of kanji that you at least recognize instead of a page full of crazy Chinese symbols. But that issue stems from a larger problem of the difficulty in finding adequate reading materials.

The root problem

The main problem with my method is that you can’t just start reading a novel to learn kanji without becoming frustrated at every other word containing a completely new kanji. A big part of my method is actually enjoy yourself while comprehending what you’re reading, something you can’t do if you need to look up every kanji for every word. Plus, there’s no way you’re going to be able to create associations when every kanji you see is completely new. It’s like telling a beginner skier to start on an expert slope. The slope will look really scary, you’ll fall every second, you won’t have any fun, and you might even hurt yourself in the process.

Fortunately, one of the first books that I got my hands on was one of those anime/manga based books geared for younger readers. But it was still insanely hard, painful, and frustrating to go through all the unfamiliar kanji. It took about a week to read a single page. Not an enjoyable experience.

The problem with today’s Japanese language education is that most classes never go beyond the textbook and textbook reading material is both boring and laughable in terms of depth and scope. What we need is a guided reading curriculum that can gently get us started in learning vocabulary and kanji without killing ourselves. Remember reading “Hardy Boys”, “Nancy Drew”, “The Chronicles of Narnia”, “Where the red fern grows”, etc. for English class or for fun as a kid? We need the Japanese equivalents to be part of our Japanese language education. You’d think some Association or Committee of Japanese teachers would draw up a recommended reading list of books of different levels adapted for adults. If there is such a list, please send it to me. But in the meantime, RTK might be just the book to help ease you into the exciting world of kanji.

Conclusion

I don’t think RTK is for everybody but I’ve learned that it can be really helpful for certain types of learners. I think it depends greatly on your learning style and personality. For those of us who are comfortable taking shortcuts by jumping straight into the Japanese and creating associations as we go, I would suggest continue what you’re doing. Why take the time to memorize key words and stories in English when you are learning the kanji with real Japanese words? Though I wouldn’t suggest it for beginners, some people on my forum even switched to a Japanese-only dictionary to immerse themselves even further.

However, if you are the type who prefers a more systematic method or if you find yourself having difficulty remembering the kanji and coming up with your own patterns and mnemonics, certainly give RTK a try. It could be the “glue” you need to piece together the kanji to make sense of all this craziness.

Or you could even try a mixture of both: jumping into Japanese and using the stories to help you remember how to write the more difficult kanji. Whatever method you choose, I hope this post and the various comments gave you a good idea on how you want to learn kanji and what approach to take.


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1/8/2008

Ruby tags considered harmful

For those of you unfamiliar with the ruby tag, it is an html tag that adds tiny readings over kanji. 「ルビ」 traditionally is used in print for archaic kanji or when the author wants to indicate a non-standard reading for the kanji. However, on the net, ruby tags are being abused everywhere I see them. Here’s a simple benchmark (with a neat acronym to make it “official”) for determining whether you’re abusing the ruby tag.

Ruby Abuse Benchmark (RAB)

1. Do you use ruby tags for every kanji?

2. Do you use ruby tags for any kanji that most Japanese people can read?

3. Do you use ruby tags?

If you answered “Yes” to any of the questions above, you are abusing the ruby tag.

This abuse happens most often on sites that are intended for people learning Japanese. For example, this site about the JLPT or Japanese language blogs like the one you’re reading now. I don’t use ruby tags though. Even sites for kids stay away from ruby and just use Hiragana instead. Here’s why you should stay away from them too.

The Technical Reason

Ruby is only included in the XHTML 1.1 specification, which has been around forever and still hasn’t gained much traction. The HTML 4.01 and XHTML 1.0 Transitional DTDs are still being used in the majority of website that care about standards. This means that if you want to use a schema that the majority of the web is using, <ruby> won’t validate.

Plus, the markup is terribly hard to read and write. Take a look at these markup examples. Imagine doing that for every kanji. Your Japanese text will be indecipherable and an incredible pain to edit.

The Practical Reason

Because XHTML 1.1 hasn’t gained much traction, a majority of browsers don’t support ruby. The only one I’m aware of that does is IE and in today’s world where up to 30% of your visitors might not be using IE, IE-only is not practical.

People without Ruby support will see this.

田中(たなか): はい、元気(げんき)です。早坂(はやさか)さんは?

Terrible, just terrible. It’s totally unreadable. Plus, even if you DID have Ruby support, the text is far too small. It’s a lose-lose situation. The correct use of ruby is to show the readings of a few archaic words that the author assumes will not readable by his audience or when he wants to expand on the word. It is NOT intended to be used for every kanji. The print is too small for people who need them and distracting for the people who don’t need them. Also, it can become a crutch allowing people to never actually read and learn the kanji.

So, even if you can install something such as an extension to make ruby tags work, it’s just not a good idea.

Alternatives

1. CSS mouse-over popups: It’s one simple span tag and it works in all major browsers. It’s also more versatile because you can add more information such as English definitions, etc.

Html: <span title=”たべる – to eat” class=”popup”>食べる</span>
Appears as: 食べる

I suggest adding a visual highlight so that the reader can easily see which part of the text applies for the popup or whether there is a popup at all (not supported by some older browsers). You can easily do this by adding some CSS like the following to your stylesheet.

span.popup:hover {
text-decoration:none;
color: rgb(159,20,26);
}

Plus, you can easily see the readings for only the words you need, removing the distracting ruby text and preventing the furigana from becoming a crutch.

Here’s a recent convert and look at all the positive comments he’s gotten.

2. Make a list of the vocabulary at the beginning or end of the page so that the reader has something to refer to.

3. Suggest additional tools such as WWWJDIC, 理解.com, moji, and rikaichan so that people can learn to teach themselves. (You know, the whole teach a man to fish thing.)

Conclusion

I think the first method is good for static resources like my guide to Japanese grammar but when you don’t have the time to add readings and definitions manually all the time (like this blog), you can’t beat the third method. Plus, it helps your readers read any online Japanese text instead of just your own. In the end, whatever method you use, it certainly beats the hell out of writing this for every word that uses kanji.

<ruby>日本語<rp>(</rp><rt>にほんご</rt><rp>)</rp></ruby>

Ah!!! My eyes!!


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1/5/2008

日本語のブログ

みなさん、日本語で書かれている面白いブログ、ご存知ないですか?英語のブログをたくさん読んでますけど、日本語のブログは全然です。

人気ブログランキングがあるんですが、範囲が広すぎて、面白いブログを探すのがめんどくさいです。有名人のブログも人気あるようですが、個人的にはあまり好きじゃないし、私みたいな凡人よりもっと面白い人生を送っているようで、なんかムカつきます。

ちにまに、私が読んでいるブログは、この日本語教師のブログぐらいです。日本語に興味なくても、なかなか面白いですよ。

コメントで面白いブログをシェアーしましょう!

最後に...(もう遅いけど)

あけましておめでとうございます!

今年もよろしくお願いします。これからも、コメントをじゃんじゃん書いてね!


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12/22/2007

Where’s the research for Japanese language education?

I was taking a look at last year’s admissions test for the Japanese Applied Linguistics Graduate program at Waseda and there are some very interesting and intriguing questions.

Here’s a small sample:
G JSLの子どもを対象にした日本語学習教材について述べなさい。

B CLL (Community Language Learning) について説明しなさい。

H 「総合型教科書」 について述べなさい。

You can download the whole file at:
http://www.waseda.jp/gsjal/dat/nyusi_master/07.4-07.9m_kakomon.pdf.

It seems like there’s a lot of research and things going on for teaching Japanese. But I have no idea where I can get information about this stuff. For instance, how do I get these teaching materials for JSL kids? (I’m guessing JSL is Japanese as a Second Language like ESL?) I’m also curious about what a 「総合型教科書」 is and how it could help people learning Japanese. It certainly can’t be worse than the mainstream textbooks here. Or maybe Community Language Learning is the way to go for learning Japanese? I have no idea because unfortunately, real research studies and papers are nowhere to be found on the net. I guess I can try looking in University libraries nearby.

The thing I’m wondering is how does all this research help people learning languages? Biomedical research cure illnesses and technology research (eventually) creates new and innovative products but how does research in applied linguistics help improve the language classes that you and I take? Why are we still stuck with workbooks, flash cards, drills, cheesy dialogues, and crappy textbooks? When is this Applied Linguistics research going to “apply” to us?

I’m curious to hear from anybody studying Applied Linguistics particularly for Japanese or Chinese. What’s the best way for me to catch up on current research and introduce the good stuff to the rest of the world?


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12/19/2007

How many of you have a stack of index cards collecting dust?

Following up from yesterday’s post about index card programs, I stumbled upon Jonathan’s blog and his post about spaced repetition software by following his comment link.

I won’t talk about them here because as we all know, I think they all suck. Why is it that these programs never think about sharing index cards, community ranking by difficulty level, and incorporating richer content than just text? Jonathan, if you want my opinion, you’re wasting your time. Please do let us know how it goes, though.

But it’s only been a few days that I’ve been using this method, so I can’t gauge yet just how effective it is. For now, however, I’m pretty pleased. It certainly beats the pit of near-inactivity that I have been falling in recently.

I certainly can’t argue with that.

Personally, I’ve tried them all and could never stick with it. I ignored the desktop or homepage widget, deleted my kanji email after they piled up, stop going to the websites, and my index cards were collecting dust long before I finally threw them away. I eventually realized it wasn’t a problem of motivation (I had that in spades) but rather a problem stemming from a flawed method. The index cards themselves were as interesting as reading a dictionary because well… that’s essentially what it is.

Have any of you successfully used these programs or index cards to study for a significant period of time? (I know my readership is dismally too small to make a statistical difference but I’m curious anyway.)


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12/18/2007

Read this before you build yet another index card program/website

Japanese is probably one of the most popular languages to learn for English speakers. As a result, you can find more online and offline resources compared to other languages such as Korean. I’ve seen great online resources pop up on the internet over the years and some that are… not so good. I was ecstatic when I first discovered the WWWJDIC and it has continued to improve; adding example sentences and expanding the edict dictionary. (Some entries, I’m proud to say were submitted by yours truly such as 「夢うつつ」). Then, I discovered 英辞郎, which has an E->J dictionary that is actually useful and Yahoo!辞書, which has TWO awesome J->J dictionaries: 大辞泉 and 大辞林 for free. I’m surprised if people even buy paper dictionaries anymore.

If you think about it, a dictionary is a perfect fit for the internet. It’s accessible from any computer with internet access, searches are instantaneous, and you can copy/paste words without having to know the reading. Any type of instructional written and audio material such as ebooks and podcasts can also benefit from worldwide access and fast search capabilities. I also applaud sites that brings people together to talk, discuss, and ask questions such as forums and social networking sites such as Mixxer.

While these online resources are helping people from all over learn Japanese, it seems that there’s some sort of carnal instinct to create not so helpful index card programs. I’m talking about the numerous kanji/vocabulary sites or applications that you can store kanji/vocab into. Some of them make index cards for you, some might send you emails daily, others even have algorithms to determine how often you should review a word based on how many times you tell the program you’ve learned the word.

All of these sites and programs share the same critical flaw of being based on the index card learning routine. They might have some nice features to dress it up but underneath it’s the same process of writing words down with definitions and testing yourself by going through them one by one.

The reason why these sites never seem to help me is because the index card method has the following problems:
1. It’s boring
2. Lack of meaningful context
3. It requires too much work for little benefit

I mean, sure it might work if you expended enough time and energy but guess what? With enough time and effort, I can memorize the entire dictionary. Sure it’s theoretically possible but is it realistic? I’ve said before that index cards are only good for preparing for tests in the short-term and the tests themselves are only useful for teachers in grading. They don’t actually help you learn or retain the language very well.

My vision

There’s a lot of obvious or meaningless stuff in the whole web 2.0 hype like rounded-corners and larger fonts but the idea of users sharing data online, while obvious in hindsight, is really quite innovative. And yet there is still no site that I know of where we can share our vocabulary and kanji learning beyond the level of stuff you can find in dictionaries anyway. There’s a lot more to a word than: reading, stroke order, and definition. What we need is a site where people can share interesting content on the web like digg but with enhancements for studying Japanese. The key to that idea is an index card truly made for the web: wwwindex cards.

Wwwindex cards

A wwwindex card is kind of like a digg submission but instead of a description of the link, you have an excerpt that pertains to your study. You mark the part that interests you and decide what you want to test yourself on. The submission will include information like the following:

1. Level (beginner to advanced)
2. Type (grammar/kanji/vocabulary)
3. Source (link or title/author or maybe even link to the book)
4. Excerpt to test with specific portions highlighted.
5. Answer

Here’s an example of a card I could make.
1. Intermediate
2. Grammar
3. http://www.alc.co.jp/nj/2007_01/section4_manga_jpn.swf
4. 母親が受験勉強中の子どもに軽食を運んでくると、子どもは勉強をしないでテレビゲームをやっています。
5. Doing one action without doing another.

I can make a vocab version of the same card by highlighting a word like 「勉強」 instead and putting 「べんきょう – study」 in the answer. Or I can test my kanji writing ability by replacing the kanji with hiragana and putting the kanji in the answer. The point is that it’s more than just information you can find in a dictionary because it comes with context and potentially interesting material.

You can even copy short paragraphs from a book or textbook. All the site would have to do is restrict the size of the text to abide with copyright laws. Pretty soon, with enough users, the site should be rich with contextual study materials and links that can be shared for further study. If you add voting and ranking, you can have a site that is fresh with interesting materials to explore everyday. You can find links to interesting websites, video, images, audio, or excerpts from books and textbooks. The excerpts might even help you find and decide on what books to buy. I know I have trouble finding books that are easy enough for beginner to intermediate learners. You can even test yourself with other peoples’ wwwindex cards based on level and type. It solves all the problems of traditional index card sites by making the content interesting, adding context to what you’re studying, and removing the tedium of having to make the cards all by yourself.

Notice also, that there’s nothing in the index card that is specific to Japanese. You can simply add a language field to the wwwindex card to have the site work for any language.

Does this sound interesting to you?

Unfortunately, while I have the skill necessary to make a site like this, I don’t have the time to drive such a large project. So if you’re interested in making this project come to life, feel free to email me at taekim.japanese AT gmail.com and I will setup a new project on http://code.google.com/hosting/. Ibiblio gives me unlimited space for php websites as long as it’s not for profit. Or if you’d rather start your own project, feel free to send me a link to your work.

Posted by Tae Kim in Learning & Resources | 4 Comments »

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11/27/2007

Do I need to take a class to learn Japanese?

When I started learning Chinese, I never once considered taking a class. The simple reason is that I didn’t have the time and didn’t want to pay the money. But it might be more accurate to say I didn’t think that classes were worth the time and money. And although I’m currently not too thrilled with my rate of progress (mostly because I study for only 2 hours a week and also because I’m a perfectionist), I know that I’m a lot better off meeting with my language partners twice a week instead of attending a class for the same amount of time. Instead of having one teacher who I’d not only have to pay for but also share with all my other classmates, I have two private teachers all to myself who can cater to my wants and needs. That sounds like they’re my servants or something but it just means I get to decide what I want to learn and how fast for the fair price of returning the favor with the languages I’m familiar with.

My language partner once told me he was surprised by how much Chinese I’ve learned considering the fact that I never took a single class. I might have said the same thing many years ago but after learning Japanese, I knew that the bulk of the learning happened in the real world with real people. It’s telling that everybody I know who can speak Japanese has gone through tons of real-world exposure and practice. You can’t spend every day using Japanese for 2 years without getting really good. However, you can certainly spend years taking Japanese classes and still not be able to speak or read one whit of Japanese. This applies to about 80% of the students in my Japanese class in college even though we went through the same 2 years of classes. How many times have you heard the phrase, “You’ll never really learn Japanese until you live in Japan.” The first question to that should be, “Well then, why should I bother taking a class?”

What good is a class, then?

Well, you certainly can’t beat a class if you have no idea where to start. In other words, if you have no idea what particles are, how to use a dictionary, or how to even begin learning Japanese, a class can certainly help you get started. Also, the classroom is simply the most efficient medium of teaching when there is limited teaching resources. If there is only one teacher available for a large number of students, a class can be very effective in distributing the teachings of one person onto many. And if you have a particularly skilled teacher, many can reap the benefits at the same time.

As you can imagine, finding a good Japanese teacher can mean the difference between night and day in terms of getting a good grasp of the language and having a good foundation to build upon in the real world. Unfortunately, finding a good teacher can be difficult because you can’t really tell how good she is until you’ve already learned the language! That’s where I’m here to help with a list of some important things to check for in a Japanese class. Check your course syllabus or textbook and if you find that your class is failing every one of my criteria, you might want to consider finding some language partners or a private tutor and going it on your own. My guide and forum can certainly help you get started on your own.

Signs of a Bad Class

1. Uses Romanji
Ahhh, the famous romanji that forces every experienced Japanese learner to cringe. And yes, I misspelled it on purpose. In any case, if your class/textbook doesn’t teach you at least hiragana from the beginning, quietly excuse yourself from the class and never come back. Also feel free to set fire to the book, and wave it around while laughing at your former classmates like a madman through the window.

2. Doesn’t use Kanji
This is my second biggest pet peeve. Even if your class is smart enough to save you from the monstrosities of romaji, most classes won’t teach you a single kanji until it’s far too late. Your teacher should introduce them very early and also stress how important they are in reading things like… oh I don’t know… everything?? Start with 一、二、三. See? They’re not so bad.

3. No Dictionary Form
I understand that politeness is very important in Japanese society but do we really have to start learning masu and desu before the dictionary form? First of all, casual Japanese involves a lot more than just using the plain dictionary form. In addition, to nobody’s surprise, all the verbs in the dictionary are in the dictionary form. So if your very first list of verbs consists of 「します、見ます、食べます」, you’re not even learning words you can look up. First, you have to learn to reverse-conjugate them to the dictionary form and then you can conjugate them into something else. Seriously, I saw one textbook with masu-form to dictionary form conjugation rules. It’s crazy! All of Japanese grammar is built on the dictionary form and the conjugation rules for the polite form are one of the easiest in the language. I can hardly see Japanese students saying 「うぜえよ、このくそばば」 to their teacher just because they learned the dictionary form first and learned to conjugate from there.

Dictionary forms first, it just makes sense.

4. No rational understanding of the language
If your teacher says, “は is the topic particle, and が is the subject particle”, and you ask, “So what’s the difference?”, and he answers, “は describes the topic, while が describes the subject of a sentence”, you can assume he has no idea how to answer your question. Native speakers are great because nothing is worse than having a 外人… excuse me, 外国人 Japanese teacher who… can’t speak Japanese! However, the drawback of native speakers is that sometimes the basic aspects of the language such as particles are so second-nature to them, they really don’t know how to explain or even really understand how they work. Having a feel for the language is great for the speaker but doesn’t really serve as an explanation when teaching somebody else. I can’t tell you how confused I was when I was learning 「んです」 for the first time. Saying that it adds emphasis doesn’t really explain things at all.

The best teachers really study their own language and are experienced in explaining them to clueless students. Also, there are the rare non-native teachers who are really freakin’ good at Japanese and know how to explain things in a way that made sense to themselves and will probably make sense to you.

Signs of a Great Class

1. Teach casual Japanese at least somewhere down the road
It’s amazing to me that most Japanese classes never teach you everyday slang and casual speech. NEVER. I guess the idea is that you’ll somehow figure it out on your own (aah, the classic “throw them into the pool and watch them swim/drown method”). Or maybe they think there is no value in teaching a style of speaking that is used among close friends. Sorry, John-san, NO FRIENDS FOR YOU. I’m not even talking about the stupid stuff like 「ぶっちゃけ」 or 「私的には」. I’m just talking about everyday stuff like 「てしまう=ちゃう」 or using 「の」 to ask questions. Is it so bad to teach, 「何してんの?」? OH MY GOD, WHAT DID I JUST WRITE??

2. Use a good Japanese-only textbook
Following up from #1, I was amazed when I saw one textbook that actually had a polite and casual version of the dialogue side-by-side. This was a Japanese-only textbook and upon further investigation, there appears to be a lot of excellent Japanese-only textbooks that you will never see in a store like Barnes & Nobles. (I went to the Kinokuniya in Seattle.) This is the kind of textbook they use to teach Japanese in Japan for people who don’t necessarily speak English.

Needless to say, I have yet to see a single English-based Japanese textbook that passes my simple criteria of a good textbook. Most of them have little to no kanji, some even use the dreaded romanji, they never teach casual speech, and they never explain things like particles very well. Japanese-only textbooks have some drawbacks as well such as very few explanations of how things work (it’s a Catch-22 because even if it did have a good explanation, it would be in Japanese and if you could read and understand it, you probably don’t need the explanation). However, they often do give you authentic, no-nonsense material and the rest can be taken care of by the teacher.

3. Teach the man how to fish, man!
No language class could ever go over every vocabulary or kanji needed to attain mastery of the language, so it’s inevitable that you’ll have to teach yourself at least some if not most of the language. I see this in advanced romance language classes all the time. They give you a novel and if there are words you don’t know, you’ll have to look them up in the dictionary and figure it out yourself. Big whoop. Ok, while it’s not as easy in Japanese, it’s by no means impossible. Your class should ideally teach you the skills to teach yourself.

Personally, I would explain how to study from example sentences from online resources such as alc.co.jp and the easiest way to look up kanji. I would also recommend some good electronic dictionaries with instructions on how to use them. There’s really no point in wading through a traditional Kanji dictionary and trying to identify the correct radical in our day and age. Also it doesn’t hurt to explain when to use 訓読み vs 音読み and yet, I don’t remember ever learning this in class.

4. Make the man fish even if he doesn’t feel like it
There’s really no way to become good at Japanese without practice and if a teacher’s job is to teach Japanese, he should make sure that his students get the practice they need whether they want it or not. At the very least, he could facilitate some kind of language tutor or partner setup. You can even match up classes from Japan via Mixxer. Ideally, practice should factor into the grading process like the Chinese classes at my college where meeting with language tutors was required. (Tutors were not required for the Japanese students which combined with the difference in how much kanji they learned, enforced the image that the Chinese students were just more serious than we were).

Personally, I would probably reserve one day of class to meet individually with the students if the class was small enough or make them find a partner/tutor somehow and reserve a day of class to present and grade on things they learned from their last session.

5. Teach what things really mean
When I ask my language partner how to say, “Can I go to the bathroom,” he knew the answer right away. But when I asked him how to say something like, “Even if I went now, I won’t make it in time”, he was stuck. This was very interesting to me because in Japanese, 「トイレに行ってもいいですか?」 and 「今行っても間に合わない」 uses the exact same grammar. As you can see from the literal translation, “Toilet go also is good?” and “Now go also won’t make it on time” is virtually the same sentence structure-wise. You can also probably guess that the negative such as 「今日行かなくてもいい」, which translates to “Today not go also is good” means “You don’t have to go today”. It really pays off to know what each part of the grammar is actually saying instead of just the English translation and your teacher should break it down from time to time.

6. Help students find what interest them
Mastering a language takes a lot of work and often times it can be a real drain to be constantly studying boring things like ordering at a restaurant or talking about the weather. I see people all the time having difficulty sticking with the language because of what seems to be an insurmountable goal, feeling of a lack of progress, or just a loss of interest. I think it would really be helpful if your teacher helped you explore what uniquely interests you about the language (hopefully it’s something a bit more inspiring than finding a Japanese girlfriend).

A good teacher should take interest in your interests and have a large library of movies, books, and other media of various genres that the students can freely explore. I would even put my PS2 in the student lounge if I was in charge. The really cool part is that it can only play Japanese games and DVDs. Another great idea is to have a budget for requests of stuff that the students are interested in (all in Japanese, of course).

Conclusion

So to answer the original question, “Should you take a class to learn Japanese?”, I think a good class can certainly be very helpful. Certainly better than no class especially if you’re a complete beginner and don’t really know where to start. However, there is nothing worse than having a bad class/teacher screw you up and create some very hard to break habits down the road. I think the field of Japanese-language education has been steadily improving overall but you still need to be careful. And with this post, I think you’ll have a good idea of some of the things to watch out for.

If you have any outrageous experiences in your Japanese class, please share them in the comments!


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