Learning kanji with modern tools

One of the challenges that Japanese presents to the aspiring language learner is that it employs three writing systems that you really must learn. Hiragana and katakana are syllabaries in which each symbol stands for a sound. That is, they are phonetic representations of spoken words, and there aren’t that many of them to memorize – less than 50, plus some diacritical marks that modify the sounds to create additional variants.

Kanji is different. Kanji are logographic characters that were borrowed from the Chinese. “Logographic” means that each character represents an entire word or phrase. There is no longer an obvious connection between words and their pronunciation, so you must instead memorize the sound that goes with the symbol, as well as its meaning. Since there are far more words than there are syllables, there are thousands of kanji to learn. Intimidating!

Today, however, we have great technological assistance for memorizing things. Spaced Repetition Systems (SRS) have become popular for learning not just languages but also subject-specific terminology in your native language. For kanji, we have wanikani. It teaches you kanji in little doses, then tracks how long it’s been since you were tested on each one and periodically quizzes you to keep your memories fresh. Anything you get wrong comes back more often, enabling you to focus memorization effort where it’s most needed.

So far, after a few weeks of daily practice, I’ve learned 60 “radicals” (common kanji building blocks), 45 kanji, and 83 vocabulary words that use those kanji. I have several more under active practice and repetition. It’s fun!

Another great tool for reinforcing your kanji is the wanikanify Chrome browser extension. Once you enter your wanikani API key, this extension converts any text in a webpage using what kanji you have already learned. Here’s an example from southwest.com:

wanikanify southwest.com

You can see that the English text was literally translated into kanji whether or not it makes sense in context. 本 means “book” as in the object that you read, not to “book” a hotel. However, just seeing the reminder of what “book” is helps! And if you mouse over the kanji, a voice speaks the kanji out loud! (Here, “hon”.) It also displays the original English text that was replaced, in case you don’t remember (or the context is so odd that it doesn’t make sense).

As you learn more kanji, more of the page will be replaced with vocabulary you should be able to decode. Effectively, you are reading English in kanji, which is how kanji came about in the first place – the Japanese mapped their oral language into the Chinese characters. To actually learn Japanese, you must also be diligent about learning the pronunciation (which wanikani also quizzes you on). These tools combined make for great practice and great entertainment!

Learn Japanese writing from a native child’s perspective

At various points in my travels, I’ve picked up books for learning Japanese that are aimed at Japanese children. It is a fun challenge to try to use them in my own language learning. These books are aimed at kids who are native speakers but are now learning to write. In contrast, I already know how to write (hiragana well, still learning katakana) but my vocabulary is very small.

One book I have is titled “こくご” which translates to “national (Japanese) language.” It starts out by having you practice writing hiragana syllables and moves on to writing whole words. Some exercises have you draw lines to connect words with pictures.

The hardest parts for me are

  1. Reading the instructions (which are probably aimed at parents or teachers, since the kids are still learning to read and write).
  2. Coming up with the requisite vocabulary, which is simple but still a stretch for me.

For example, here is lesson 7 (click to enlarge):


I am using colored pencils because… why not use colored pencils? Much more fun that way!

You work right to left and top to bottom. First I wrote my name (キリ) and the date (month 8, day 5). The instructions translate as “in the box, opposite of meaning of word, let’s write.” So then I got to figure out what one phrase meant (read vertically) to figure out what to put in its vertical partner that would mean the opposite. #1 is “high mountain” so I entered “low” (mountain).

After completing a lesson, you get to put a sticker on it! The book came with a page of over a hundred stickers. I used a yellow mouse sticker on this one. :)

I also have “The Giving Tree” by Shel Silverstein in Japanese. Someday I hope to be able to read it!

Learning Japanese through Spanish

I love to learn new languages, and I’ve been working on my español for a few years now. But I’m also tempted by Japanese. I took some classes on Japanese years ago, and I’ve been lucky enough to visit Japan twice – each time renewing my interest in the language! But who has time to learn two languages?

It occurred to me that there might be a way to learn them both AT THE SAME TIME. What if I tried to learn Japanese… in Spanish? That way I could leverage my (larger but still only lower intermediate) understanding of Spanish to learn Japanese.

I sought out some Japanese language learning materials aimed at Spanish speakers. They learn Japanese too, right? And I found this delightful website called Hablemos en japonés. It uses anime-style graphics and schoolgirl voices to illustrate sample dialogs. Each 10-minute lesson is conducted in Spanish (with adult Spanish voices)!

Here is a screenshot from Lesson 1 (I encourage you to check out the whole thing):

Soy Anna

I’ve gone through the first three lessons and enjoyed them greatly. (And already I learned that “haga clic” is how you tell someone to (make a) click!) At this level I already know both the Spanish and Japanese lesson content, but refreshers never hurt, and listening to the explanations in Spanish requires concentration. But who doesn’t want to know how to ask where the bathroom is in multiple languages?

I still haven’t figured out why Anna, who’s from Thailand, is somehow a native Spanish speaker (she writes in her diary in Spanish). But it’s convenient for me! There are 48 lessons total – enough to keep me busy for a while. :)

さようなら and adiós!

The Words You Really Need to get Around in Japan

After months of squeezing in language study where I could, my trip with Kate to Japan in May taught me what words were really most useful. These were the ones that we used daily as we navigated Tokyo, Nikko, Kyoto, Koya-san, and all the spaces in between:

  • wakarimasu (I understand) and wakarimasen (I don’t understand) — probably the most useful phrases ever.
  • daijobu: It’s all good, everything’s okay.
  • sugoi: wow! amazing!
  • chizu: map (surprisingly common!)
  • gomi bako: trash can (surprisingly rare!)
  • A bunch of handy train words, including tsugi (next), hidari (left), migi right, eki (station), and noriba (platform). Useful for learning which door (left or right) will open at the next station.
  • nimotsu (luggage) and omoi (heavy)
  • ichimai (one), nimai (two), sanmai (three): counters for flat things, like…
  • kippu: ticket (this is one of my favorite Japanese words to say. It’s just fun.)
  • iriguchi (entrance) and deguchi (exit) — I even learned the kanji for these, since we encountered them so often
  • oki (big) and chiisai (small) — I also learned kanji for these, primarily from toilets. You can select a big flush or a small flush based on the kanji labels.
  • kore o, onegai shimasu: this one(s), please — this was my generic way to indicate that I wanted to purchase something.
  • shita (under) and mae (in front of, before) and ue ni (up, above) and shita e (down, lit. “towards under”)
  • shite imasu: know
  • panfuretto: brochure (from “pamphlet”?)
  • mizu: water
  • tori: bird
  • kaieru: frog
  • chou: butterfly
  • taki: waterfall
  • zembu: all
  • itsumo: always
  • nani mo nai: nothing (lit. “what more not”)

There are far, far more that we used (consulting our phrasebooks frequently), but these are the ones that stuck with me. There’s nothing like living it to provide a great incentive to learn it!

Planning foreign travel in today’s world

I am planning a trip to Japan in May, and right now I’m working on finding places to stay for a few nights in Tokyo. It’s Japan, so naturally I want to stay in a ryokan to get the full experience. I browse the various ryokan websites and check review sites to get other travelers’ impressions. And then — lo and behold — in walks Youtube. You can search for a ryokan’s name and get videos people have posted from their stays, e.g., this video walkthrough of a room at Hotel Edoya (a ryokan, despite the name). It’s fascinating and yet somehow eerie to be able to preview the rooms in this informal way (perhaps made more eerie by the guy behind the camera getting a shot of his shirtless self in the bathroom mirror).

The other ultra-cool thing about trip planning, at least with respect to Japan, is Google Maps. I requested directions from Tokyo to Kyoto just to get a sense of how far apart they were. Instead of driving directions, maps.google.com gave me train directions. What does that say about cultural assumptions? I was blown away by how cool this integration is. It shows you four alternate trips, starting with the next departure time, and lists each train you need to take, how much time between connections, and how far you’ll need to walk (if at all). You can also give it future departure times to plan ahead. Why can’t we have this for the U.S.? I’d love it if the LA Metro schedule were integrated into Google Maps. You get all of the beautiful google zooming and panning, topography and satellite images, and you can (for example) follow your planned path and see just how close the train gets to Mt. Fuji. Totally awesome.

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