Progressive acquisition of foreign characters

I love YesJapan!

This website, designed to teach you “Japanese from Zero”, has a lot going for it. It has a simple, clean design, five courses of increasing complexity, and a free 7-day trial period (after which the monthly subscription fee is $14.95). But beyond the mechanics, I really like the pedagogy. One of the things I find most challenging about learning written Japanese is the kana (and kanji). If a book is written purely in Japanese script, I find it tiring and tedious to slog through; I’m just not fast enough at decoding the symbols (yet). But if it’s all in romaji (“our” characters), then it’s easy to be lazy and not learn how to read actual Japanese. Given my upcoming trip to Japan, I’m guessing that being able to read signs will come in particularly handy.

YesJapan to the rescue! They use a “progressive” solution to this problem in which they teach you a handful of new kana at a time, and from then on, the new ones are replaced in all subsequent lessons. For example, by lesson two you’ll encounter words like “あre” (“are”, “over there”) because you’ve already learned the hiragana for “a” (あ). You end up being able to read the kana without exerting much incremental effort at all, since there are only a few new foreign things to remember at each time. Brilliant!

Another great thing about the site is the copious use of pronunciation links. There’s nothing like being able to play (and re-play) native speakers’ versions of what you’re trying to say, so that you can emulate your way to perfection.

There are quizzes to test your retention, vocabulary lists for writing practice (using only the kana you’ve learned to date, of course), and interactive games like Kana Attack to let you “fire” at incoming kana by correctly guessing their romaji — flash cards on steroids!

Course 1 has this motivational phrase at the top of the page:

Chiri mo tsumoreba yama to naru

Piled up specks of dust become a mountain

So here I am, piling up specks of Japanese dust to build a my own little mountain. Yesterday, after four hours of teaching and five hours of work on my thesis, it was great fun to indulge in a couple of hours working through the first two lessons in Course 1.

I cannot fathom the fiery letters

I’m re-reading The Lord of the Rings for the umpteenth time, and it is such a joy to re-immerse myself in Tolkien’s language–lyrical, visual, and sometimes beyond my ken. In particular, the use of archaic units of measurement has been tripping me up, so I finally looked them up:

  • league: the distance a man walks in an hour (about three miles, unless you are Aragorn son of Arathorn)
  • fathom: about six feet, literally “a pair of outstretched arms” (for a full-grown man, presumably)
  • furlong: a eighth of a mile, but originally used to describe the length of a furrow, which was the long side of a then-standard rectangular acre-plot (the short side was 22 yards or “one chain” wide). Thank you, Wikipedia!

  • I already knew that “fortnight” was “two weeks” but somehow hadn’t connected it as “fortnight” = “fourteen nights”. Wikipedia’s entry on the FFF System makes for some fun related reading.

    I remain stymied by some other words Tolkien uses, though; most are landscape words. I cannot find any reasonable definitions for “hythe” (a place where a boat comes ashore, from context?), “mew” (something on a hill), or “thrawn” (a kind of tree, from context). If you have any hints, please share in the comments. Thanks!

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