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".