Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Life in Japan

I've finally started to get settled here. I've got my apartment, some furniture, a few dishes and my main appliances (refrigerator, washing machine, and microwave/oven/toaster). I've got running water and gas and electricity. Unfortunately I've yet to get internet, although that should be coming soon (I hope).

For a quick refresher, I'm studying computer science at Keio University's SFC campus; specifically media databases. I've always been very interested in Parallel and Distributed Computing, so any research topic I choose will have elements of that in it.

I am studying quite a bit of Japanese, although its all on my own right now. The Japanese classes at my campus are too low level, and I'd have to commute 90 minutes on my only free weekday to my school's Mita campus in order to get in a higher level class.

Right now I'm studying Japanese through a couple of different methods. I'm still working on memorizing transitive and intransitive verb pairs. I've started using a website called "Quizlet". I tried it out a while ago and thought it had potential, but in these last few months it feels like it's matured enough that I can use it on a frequent basis. It's essentially a free flash card website with some "social networking" built in. People can share their sets with others, as well as compete in games and so forth. The transitive/intransitive set that I've put together and am studying right now is JIM: Transitive - Intransitive. I'll continue to add vocabulary to it and create other sets as well. One annoying problem with using flash cards to memorize words is that some words have very similar or identical meanings. Sometimes there are small nuances in meaning which I can add to the flashcard to help differentiate, but its a very difficult process (especially since I may not know the nuances). For instance, one verb I'm trying to learn is "あらわす" (arawasu) which means "to show". In this case, the meaning is more like "to reveal" or "to express" according to the online dictionaries I've looked at. The problem is that I learned that "みせる" (miseru) means "to show" a long time ago. I keep inputting みせる and getting marked as incorrect on the website :/ (old habits die hard I guess)

Additionally, I'm reading an online Japanese newspaper (AsaGaku) while using the Perapera-kun Firefox plugin. There are probably better newspapers out there (this one seems related to teaching Japanese to Japanese children. I found it while trying to find a Japanese children's newspaper), but this newspaper has plenty of vocabulary for me to study. I have a large vocabulary that isn't linked to kanji in my mind, so I find that as I am trying to read the newspaper by mousing over each word using the Perapera-kun plugin, I find vocabulary which I know in hiragana but not through kanji. I've already started recognizing words in everyday life on signs and posters whose kanji I've learned through the aforementioned online newspaper reading method.

If anyone can point me towards some easier online reading material written in Japanese (maybe some that has been written with children in mind) that would be much appreciated :)

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Thoughts on Japanese

I'm surprised how well I've been able to communicate with people right off the bat. It's exciting to think where I'll be in just a month or two's time. I'm focusing on studying sentence structures and kanji right now.My most intensive area of study right now is on learning the readings of kanji. Right now the book I'm using is called Essential Kanji by P.G.O`Neill. I've had it for a while but was always a little intimidated by it. Now that I've had a lot more experience with the Japanese language, it's making for a great resource. I still don't feel confident in my kanji at all, so I'm starting from the beginning. Of course I know a few of them pretty well by now, and I'm already 35 kanji into the book. I'm sure I'll hit the ceiling of my pretty-well-known-kanji soon and the speed at which I pick up new ones will fall drastically. As I mentioned before, I'm memorizing the readings of each kanji as well as writing each about 20 times.

At the same time I'm working on using transitive and intransitive verbs correctly, as well as some of the sentence constructs surrounding them. I'm also brushing up on older sentence structures that I haven't used for a while and therefore am rusty in their proper usage. I've brought the Japanese in Mangaland books with me, and packed some other ones to be shipped to me once I have a permanent address.

First week in Japan

On September 16th I finally arrived in Japan. I flew on Northwest Airlines direct from Seattle to the Tokyo-Narita Airport (10.75 hours). It was the first time I've ever been on an airplane that had a power plug under my seat (for which I was very grateful). The fare was very reasonable as well, only costing about $700 for the one-way ticket.

My plan was to take a taxi from the airport to Keio's SFC (Shonan Fujisawa Campus), however my sense of scale based on looking at maps was way off. I had completely underestimated the distances involved. I ended up taking a bus to the Fujisawa station, and then taking a taxi from there to the SFC. The bus ride lasted about 2 hours, and the taxi was another 20 minutes. It cost about 4000 yen for the bus ride and another 3000 yen for the taxi drive. I touched down at about 2pm in Japan, and finally made it to the campus around 5:30pm.

I arrived at the campus and finally met with the two people with whom I'd been communicating the most. One was a woman who worked in the school's administration office, and the other was the secretary of my research lab. After getting my luggage situated in the campus's Guest House where I would be staying until finding an apartment of my own (for $35/night), I went to the research lab that I'd be spending a lot of my time in (and am currently writing this entry now). None of the students or professors were there because of a conference, so it was just the two of us at that point.

From then we began discussing apartments, and we made several calls to go see them on Friday. We ended up seeing four apartments together on Friday, and then my professor and I looked at a fifth one. Three of them were very conveniently located, but extremely old (20+ years). One of them was pretty nice, but less convenient. They ranged from about 45,000 yen to 65,000 yen a month. Each one had different amounts of initial payments, insurance, and furniture rental costs. None of them offered a bed/futon in the rental packages, so that's another hurdle I'll have to overcome down the road.

I'm trying to find a place to live near Shonandai Station. There are many buses that go from there to the SFC, and back again. There is another station called Tsujido Station near which there was another apartment we looked at. That station also has buses that travel to and from SFC. Unfortunately it took about 40 minutes to travel to that apartment (25 of which was spent on bus), which is just too long of a commute for me (The commute to Shonandai Station takes 10-15 minutes).

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

School Update

Although I had planned on arriving in Japan on September 1st, the process of securing a visa has delayed those plans. The timetable for applying, being accepted, worrying about visa papers, registering, finding a place to live, paying tuition, etc. has been extremely compressed. I'm not sure how everyone can keep up with this pace, it requires several communications per week with the school. The visa process works like this. Once I fill out paperwork about myself; my family; references; ability to pay the tuition; photocopies of such things as passports; and additional pictures; I am then forced to wait for the school to apply for a Certificate of Eligibility on my behalf, and then to have that shipped to me. There is apparently no way to get the proper visa without that certificate, and no way to speed up the process. I can't even go to Japan on the normal three month tourist visa, and then get the visa changed to the student visa status according to the Japanese Consulate here. Once I receive the certificate, it will be another week while I wait for the Japanese Consulate to actually issue my visa.

It's difficult because with all of the unknowns, I haven't been able to nail down a date of departure, which means that my tickets are going to become more and more expensive. I'll probably just try to guestimate a date, and make a reservation which can be held for three weeks. At least I have the possibility of guessing right and paying less in that case. I asked if I could make two reservations and then cancel one of them, but unfortunately the travel agency said I couldn't. I'm planning on using this agency (http://www.sankeiseattle.com/). If anyone has suggestions for a different one I'd appreciate it. I have nothing against Sankei Seattle, I've used them before and they were great. I just like to have alternatives.

I'm having problems finding an apartment there before I go too. The school even recommended one to me, but then I haven't figured out how to setup a lease while I'm still in America. I'm working with one of my professor's graduate students right now, so hopefully he can help me out. Also, there is this weird requirement that my registration papers be handed in, in person. I'm not allowed to mail my papers directly to the school unless I am getting a doctorate degree. It seems like an odd requirement, that I have to find someone who lives near the school in Tokyo and mail them my registration packet so that they can then turn it it.

Despite all of these difficulties, I'm still very excited about going. I wish some of these obstacles would get resolved a little sooner, but I'm fairly immune to stress so it's not a huge problem for me. Also, this Friday is my last day of work, so I will finally have some time during the day to sort these sorts of issues out.

Where did I study?

This has happened to me a couple times, but it was only this most recent time that I actually remembered the word. I was at a teppanyaki restaurant yesterday, and my chef was a Japanese man in his mid twenties. It was fun practicing my Japanese with him, but the conversation started out a little rough. He asked me where I studied Japanese, but did so using the word まなぶ (manabu) which I was unfamiliar with (and whose subtleties I'm still unsure of). According to my handy online dictionaries, the meaning is to study (in depth); to learn; to take lessons in. I've been taught benkyousuru (to study), and narau (to learn) both in class and through reading textbooks. I don't ever remember running across this word before in those contexts.

I'm not positive, but from the context it sounded like the verb implied where did I first learn Japanese. It might just be the case though that I was focusing so much on an unfamiliar verb, that I didn't hear some of the rest of the sentence. When I replied that I was studying with a private tutor, it seemed to be an incorrect response :) I guess I'll ask my teacher this week about manabu. I can't believe that in 2.5 years I've never learned that word before.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Politeness Gets in the Way

I'm still looking for a place to stay in Japan for when I move there in a month or so. A couple of days ago I called up an apartment that definitely has potential. It is close to my school, reasonably priced, and was even recommended by my school. Before calling, I wrote a quick outline (in English) of what information I wanted to tell them. My plan was to say everything about my situation up front, and then ask for suggestions on how to proceed. My main concern is being able to setup a lease before I get to Japan without having normal documentation such as the Alien Registration card.

So initially, my plan went smoothly. I called them up fine (using SkypeOut), and was able to get my message across pretty well. At this point though, the inevitable happened. Vocabulary outside of my studying scope was spoken. I apologized and explained that I was still learning Japanese, and asked the man to repeat what he had said. He immediately began speaking in very polite Japanese. This is where things get really tough. While I might be able to understand things in informal or standard-politeness "masu" form, I'm completely at a loss when it comes to even higher levels of formality. I need to learn how to say "Please speak less politely to me". The conversation continued for a bit, with me asking him questions and him trying to explain things more simply, but still the lapses into formal Japanese continued. In retrospect I think he was repeating my questions back to me to make sure he understood them, but switched them to more polite forms. After asking if he spoke English, he laughed said something to the effect of "English huh? it's been a while...." That kind of broke the ice, and eventually I was able to use my online dictionaries to discover what he was saying (even though he continued to speak in Japanese). It turns out right now is a long holiday in Japan, and the Building's Manager/Owner (still not sure which) is gone until this Monday. I guess this Sunday night I'll be making another call, hopefully I'll know how to request less polite Japanese by then.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Awesome firefox plugin

After getting frustrated running across websites and emails that had lots of Japanese I didn't know, I figured there must be a Firefox addon which could help me out. Enter Perapera-kun ( https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/addon/3343 ) this addon is amazing. As you mouse over Japanese words (no matter if they are written in hiragana/katakana/kanji/mixed) it highlights them and tells you their meanings and readings. It's just so useful, it's hard to explain how impressed I am with it, and it's free!

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Kanji studying misgivings

I continue to have misgivings about my kanji studying methodology. I've bounced around between several different methodologies, and even gave up on studying kanji for a while as I focused again on grammar constructs. I'm still convinced though that my ability to learn the language will greatly increase if I am able to read books, and for that I need to "know" kanji.

First a little background on kanji. Each kanji can have a variety of meanings, but those meanings all relate to each other. I'm going to use "ishi" (石) as my example, since it pretty much means "stone". Now, in Japanese kanji can have several different "readings". While the kanji itself means stone, depending on what word that kanji shows up in, it might sound like seki,shaku, koku, or ishi. The kanji finds itself in such words as oil, stone, pebble, coal, jewel. You can see how those words are all related to stones. My dilemma is that just knowing the meaning of a kanji doesn't necessarily help. When I'm trying to read a word that is composed of two or three kanji, even if I know the meaning of the individual kanji, that doesn't give me how to read the word, or what word the three kanji together form. As I mentioned above, if I see 石, it could be read in one of several different ways. Do I study the kanji, the meaning, and memorize all of the readings? Will those readings help me by themselves? I've used a methodology whereby instead of studying just the readings, I've actually memorized words that the kanji shows up in. In that way it's more like memorizing vocabulary than individual kanji. I automatically know how to read the word since I memorized that group of kanji's reading.

While that is a great way to eventually learn how to read, it also seems very inefficient. I could learn a word for every one of 石's readings (in this case four words). This means that I would put my effort into learning how to write 石, the meaning of 石, four words which contain the different readings of 石, those word's meanings, and how to read those words. Instead of doing all of that, I could just learn how to write 石, the meaning of 石, and the four readings related to it. Is the latter approach the better way of learning kanji? Is it too artificial to be useful for reading? In the latter case, I might know all of the readings for a kanji when I come across it in a word, but I won't necessarily know which reading is correct, or the meaning of the word. I think I will try to switch to the latter method in the hopes that being familiar with a lot more kanji will let me more easily match up words in kanji whose readings I don't know with vocabulary that I memorized without learning the kanji.

Interesting Sentence Construct. Arigatou Origin?

While meeting with my Sensei yesterday, we were discussing how to say "Thank you for x". The teacher explained that the following sentence structure could be used:

N wo arigatou

This type of structure is a very common one in Japanese, where the N(oun) is a direct object of the last word which is a verb. At that point I had to ask "is arigatou a verb?". This led to some interesting conversation of which I can't say I have a complete understanding, but the basic idea is as follows. There used to be a grammar construct which is very rarely used now, but was much more commonly used in the distant past. It is as follows:

V-stem + gatai

Which meant "difficult to do V(erb)." For instance, difficult to eat would be tabegatai, or difficult to sleep would be negatai. Apparently arigatou used to be arigatai. I'm not sure how "difficult to have" (or any other of the several variations in meaning of arimasu) eventually became "thank you" but it kind of made sense when Sensei explained it :) As a side note, the V-stem + gatai grammar construct has been replaced with V-stem + nikui for meaning "difficult to V".

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Accepted into Graduate School, Conitnuing to learn Japanese

I've some exciting news. I was recently accepted into Keio University's IADP program. I'll be moving to Japan in a little over a month, and will have many more experiences with which to update this blog. The IADP is a program in which a mix of Japanese and international students are brought together to be taught in an English language environment. While I would certainly like to be immersed in Japanese, even while taking classes, my language ability is nowhere near a "college" level of comprehension. The program I am entering will allow me to continue in my pursuit of computer science, and will combine classes with research based on a proposal I submitted along with my application.

I'm still studying Japanese with a private tutor. In the last few weeks I really feel that my Japanese has improved substantially. It's like I can more easily formulate sentences, and fluidly switch between Japanese and English in my head. I'm still hampered by my vocabulary through, as well as a lack of knowledge on a few basic sentence constructs and verb tenses that I'm aware of ("eba" conditional tense, passive verbs D:). Most of all, my lack of focus in the area of Kanji is really starting to irritate me. One of my goals is to learn how to read and write Kanji, but that has proven to be a very difficult task.

Sunday, April 6, 2008


My original tutor has returned to Japan, and I didn't have one for a while which limited my studying. I was just focusing on memorizing vocab and the associated kanji while I was tutorless. I used Craigslist again to find another tutor, and she is really great. I'm studying several things in parallel at the moment:

  1. Kanji vocabulary from the book Kanji in Mangaland
  2. JLPT kanji worksheets
  3. Weekly sentence structures
The Kanji in Mangaland (KIML) book is my favorite kanji book so far. I think the ordering of the introduction of kanji introduces very relevant kanji. That was my main problem with the other kanji books I've used. Oftentimes I'd be studying kanji that I felt I would very rarely use, which led to less motivation to study. Another plus is that there is a lot of vocabulary associated with each kanji. If the KIML book gives a "reading" for a given kanji, there will also be at least one and oftentimes several words that use that reading provided for studying. Learning vocabulary in kanji really helps me to remember the different readings each kanji can have.

The JLPT or Japanese Language Proficiency Test seems to be widely known, but somehow I hadn't been exposed to it up until now. There are four levels of proficiency, and people take tests created by the Japanese government to determine what proficiency they are at. I'm not too interested in taking the test, but it's another thing that can help my studying become more structured. For now I'm just learning the kanji that I'd need to take the test at JLPT level 4 (the lowest). Right now I'm studying off of a worksheet that has 120 characters on it. The sheet also includes the readings of the kanji that I have to memorize. Fortunately I already knew most of the first 75. I need to study more regularly so that I can figure out how many kanji per week I can memorize.

I've often wondered how important sentence structures are compared to vocabulary. When I'm at Japanese class, I'll frequently try to use some convoluted sentence to say something, and then I get corrected by just being taught new vocabulary that means what I was trying to say. This leads me to believe that learning vocabulary is more important than sentence structures, but of course you need both if you are to communicate well. A very important benefit of studying sentence structure is that to do so you need to form sentences! This means that the act of actually speaking Japanese is being studied, and not just memorization/recollection.

Because of studying sentence structures, I realize that I need to speak Japanese more often. We were studying "n desu" and "hazu", forming sentences that encompass the entire range of usage scenarios for these sentence structures. There were times when it took me 10 seconds just to parse all of a sentence's information and say the Japanese equivalent of the English sentence I was translating. I could tell that my teacher frequently thought I just didn't know the vocabulary, however it was just me fitting everything together in my head. I'm just not used to speaking Japanese, and that's something that I have to practice outside of class somehow. I feel like if I were to move to Japan, my ability to form Japanese sentences from English thoughts would quickly catch up with the rest of my Japanese language ability at least.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Kanji Studying

I finally feel like I have an effective kanji studying technique. I've been using the Kanji in MangaLand book lately. It has the most logical progression, and the most useful vocab I've found in any kanji book so far. Up till now I've always struggled with the various aspects of studying kanji:

  1. Do I memorize the individual meanings of kanji?
  2. Should I memorize all the common readings of individual kanji?
  3. How do I effectively memorize a kanji's stroke order?
  4. What about vocabulary written in kanji?
I used to memorize the kanji individually, including their meanings and readings. I've now shifted to memorizing kanji vocabulary instead. I find that by memorizing four to six different words with a specific kanji character in them, I naturally learn the different readings a kanji can take, as well as its meaning. Of course I look over the kanji individually before studying them in vocab, but I don't have to do any memorization independent from studying the vocab.

I write the word in kanji on one side of a notecard, and the hiragana reading plus the English meaning on the other side. I look at the kanji side, and make sure I know both the English meaning of the word, and the hiragana reading of it. I then write the kanji a few times in a notebook and go on to the next one. If I don't know the meaning of a word, then I make sure to review that one more often. I tend to memorize in batches of 6-12 words, and then move on to the next batch. As I accumulate words that I have lots of trouble with, I'll memorize a batch of the trouble makers separately from the rest.

I've found that studying this way increases my vocabulary, allows me to memorize stroke order and the various readings of a kanji, and the individual meaning of a kanji. Frequently, vocabulary includes kanji that I am studying, and kanji that I have not yet studied. I try to learn the stroke order of all the kanji in a word I am studying, although I don't feel the need to learn the meaning or the readings of kanji that I haven't gotten to yet. I can usually discern some meaning anyways, and I figure I will get to that kanji in the future.

The only disadvantage to this method is how long it takes to get through a group of kanji, since I am not only memorizing the kanji, but it's stroke order, other kanjis' stroke order, and several new words per kanji.