Sunday, March 7, 2010

How to study Kanji - part 6

This is a sixth part of a number of posts on how to study Kanji.

In my previous posts I have written on how to study radicals first, the importance of getting a good text book for studying Kanji, the way to get your brain to remember Kanji in an effective way, and how to set your pace for studying Kanji.

I think that if you keep in mind my advice from those 5 posts, you know enough to study Kanji effectively and at a good pace. But there is still another problem...

As you keep studying Kanji, the number of Kanji that you have (or should have) remembered keeps increasing and increasing. After some time you will have studied too many Kanji to be able to review all of them on a regular basis. So, it would be nice to have a way to keep refreshing what you learned.

You could of course keep going through your Kanji book every day at a very high pace, checking all Kanji you have studied already. But how long will you be able to continue this? It is not very entertaining, and the thought that you might have to continue this way of reviewing for years might drive you crazy.

What I recommend is to start reading as soon as you can. This might sound obvious, but I can assure you it is a very hard task. I remember I started looking for novels to read in Japanese around the time I took the JLPT2. The problem is obviously that you want to read something that both helps you refresh your Kanji, and at the same time is also interesting. But on the other hand it should not be too difficult to read. In other words, it should not contain too many Kanji that you have not studied yet.

Unfortunately, these requirements somewhat contradict each other: there are very few (or even no) books that contain exactly the Kanji you have studied already and none you have not studied yet. You might of course start reading children books, but I don't know how long you can continue that before you get tired of it.

What I did was look at things the optimistic way: I picked a book I wanted to read, and considered that every Kanji I encountered that I did not know yet was one that I should study soon anyway. So, while reading I looked up Kanji that I did not know, and made a list of the ones that were worth studying in the near future.

The raw reality is that this means that at first you have to write down a Kanji every couple of sentences. You will spend more time looking up the unknown Kanji that you spend actually reading. This is tough. But after the first 50 pages or so, you will start to feel a difference: more and more you will be able to read more sentences without haveing to look up Kanji (and vocabulary) you don't know. Before you know it you will finish your first book, and you can start your second.

Some (obvious?) things I have noticed:

  • the style of the Japanese differs strongly between authors. Some are easy to read, others are difficult to read. Pick one that is easy to read at first.

  • the style of Japanese differs strongly depending on when a novel was written. Pick a recent novel, and not - for example - Yasunari Kawabata's "Snow Country", written in 1935 and onward. I am speaking from experience again.

  • if you want to read a classic English novel in Japanese, keep in mind that the translation in Japanese might be difficult to read depending on who made the translation, and when the original was written. I have tried some works by Charles Dickens translated in Japanese, but all were hard to read.

  • if you pick a Japanese novel situated in for example the Edo period, you can be sure that the dialogs in the novel will be written in a way trying to immitate the way people spoke during that era. This will make the novel hard to read for you. There will also be references to old customs you don't know, etc. So I recommend not to read these kinds of novels at first.

  • if you pick a novel that you have read before in another language, or a novel for which you already know the content to some extend, you are less likely to get completely stuck. It decreases that change of you having to go back and reread several pages because you have no idea what is going on.
What I would recommend as first novels is for example a translation of "The Little Prince" by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. This novel is written in easy to understand language (although its deaper meaning might not be so easy), and is surely interesting enough to read. The Japanese title is 「星の王子さま」. Other recommendations would be novels by Haruki Murakami, which is rather popular outside of Japan too. His style is easy to read. I have read several of his novels, like 「ノルウェイの森」 (Norwegian Wood), or 「海辺のカフカ」 (Kafka on the Shore).

I have found that picking the right novel is very important as it is frustrating to be stuck in the middle of a novel that is just too difficult for you at your present level of Japanese proficiency. You'll have to put the novel asside and look for something else, and give it a second try later. On the other hand, sometimes you can find novels that are a true pleasure to read, and you'll find you can finish them in just a few days time.
Anyway, the important point is: read, read, read, read!! Whenever you feel like reading a novel, don't be tempted to buy the English version or the version in your mother language, but buy the Japanese version!! Reading Japanese must be the most entertaining way of studying it.

I remember very well the day I took the JLPT1. All students around me were checking grammar books and Kanji books before the test began. I on the other hand was just reading "Norwegian Wood" by Murakami, in Japanese. Now, tell me, which way of studying do you think is more fun: the grammar book, or the novel? We all know the answer.


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Sunday, February 28, 2010

How to study Kanji - part 5

This is a fifth part of a number of posts on how to study Kanji.

In my previous posts I have written on how to study radicals first, the importance of getting a good text book for studying Kanji, and the way to get your brain to remember Kanji in an effective way. One important remaining question is: how many new Kanji should I try to remember every day?

I have written before how those "one Kanji a day" websites are not really effective for your Kanji study. Even if we assume that you want to memorize only the 1,945 Kanji "for common use", a pace of 1 per day means it will take you more than 5 years just to complete the list. This is not acceptable.

However, from my experience I can say that studying Kanji at a too high pace is not helping either. I studied in a Japanese language school in Tokyo for 6 months, and in our classes we would see up to 10 new Kanji per day. These were mainly Kanji from the JLPT1 level, some of them even Japanese would have difficulties to read. Most students (me included) would somehow manage to pump these Kanji into our brain for the Kanji test the next day, but a day later we would have forgotten all about them. Reviewing them for some longer time might have helped, but there was little time for that, since the next day we would have to remember 10 new Kanji again, and the next day again, and again, and again. The result was that especially the last few months of my time in the Japanese language school were ironically the months when I made the least progress in my Kanji study...

Even worse, I found that I often confuse the Kanji that I studied during those few months. This is very bad, because it takes a long time to "delete" such wrong information and replace it with the correct information.

To conclude, too slow is not getting you anywhere, but too fast is not much better, or even worse in the long run.

What I recommend is to keep a high pace, without going too far. Typically I would study 5 new Kanji per day, but whenever I noticed that that pace was too high, I took some days to review the Kanji I learned during the past days, without introducing new Kanji to my pack. This resulted in a typical pace of about 80 new Kanji per month, sometimes just 50 or 60, sometimes 120 or more. For comparison, "1 Kanji a day" plans will give you only about 30 Kanji per month, while the Japanese language school would try to force us in a pace of about 200 (!) new Kanji per month...

Notice that if you can keep up the pace of 80 Kanji per month, you will complete the set of about 2,000 Kanji for "common use" in 2 years time. I feel this is a good pace, leaving you with enough time to do other things, and not so high that you start hating your study which is never a good thing.

In conclusion I would recommend you to:
  • study Kanji at a pace of 5 new Kanji per day
  • take "days off" whenever you feel you can't keep up with the pace
  • aim for about 80 new Kanji per month

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Friday, February 19, 2010

How to study Kanji - part 4

This is a fourth part of a number of posts on how to study Kanji.

So, you have had a look at radicals, you have your Kanji text book. What next? From now on, the battle begins: can you get your brain to remember about 2000 Kanji, within a reasonable time? Don't forget that you have to memorize not only the Kanji and their meaning, but also their pronunciation. This is an impossible task if you are just going to watch your text book. So, what to do?

Humans have a short term memory, and a long term memory. Things that are important are put into your long term memory so that you can remember them for a long time. On the other hand, information that you only need for a short amount of time is put into your short term memory.

The problem with your study of Kanji is that to your brain Kanji are not really important information. So, what happens is this: you read the Kanji you want to study, you can remember it for a few minutes or hours, and after that the Kanji is removed from your short term memory. You have forgotten all about it. You have made no progress.

The point is thus to force your brain into putting the Kanji information into your long term memory. This is not an easy task, as your brain does not regard Kanji as important information. So, the question is how to make your brain this Kanji are important, and make it put the information in your memory for long term storage?

There are several strategies that can be used for this. I can think of at least 3:
  1. repeated exposure: expose your brian to the Kanji multiple times
  2. active exposure: don't just passively read or watch the Kanji, but actively write it yourself
  3. diverse exposure: don't limit yourself to 1 way of exposure: watch/read the Kanji, read out loud its pronunciations, focus on the radicals and components of the Kanji, make a story for the Kanji, and use flash cards.
There might be more scientifically correct names for the three strategies I mentioned. But anyway, I will try to explain the idea I have about each of them.

The first one is to expose your brain to the Kanji repeatedly. Allow your brain to store the Kanji in your short time memory and erase it again a number of times, and the chances that it will put the data in the long term memory will increase. This strategy is true for many kinds of information. Very few people can memorize for example a text in 1 time. But if they read the same text a number of times, memorizing and forgetting it a number of times, gradually the text is stored in their long term memory. This explains how 80 or 90 year-old people can still remember unimportant things like children songs even though they memorized them 70 or 80 years ago.

So, repeated exposure is one strategy. But it is relatively time-consuming if the exposure is limited to just a passive exposure like reading or watching the Kanji. You might have to watch each Kanji hundreds of times in order to be able to remember 2000 of them...

If you, on the other hand, do more active exposures, the transition from short term to long term memory becomes faster. So, instead of just watching the Kanji, write it yourself. Write it again and again. The next day, write it again. And so on.

Finally, diverse exposure. It is easier for our brain to remember things if we use different parts of the brain. So, by combining different ways of exposure, we can stimulate different parts of the brain, and thus speed up the process of memorization. In the case of Kanji, it is better to use a combination of ways to remember Kanji. Read them, write them. Read out loud their pronunciation, write them (again and again), study words containing them. This makes it easier to remember them. Study the radicals and components of the Kanji, and make connections between them and the meaning and pronunciation of the Kanji. Where necessary make a story from the components to help you remember the meaning of the Kanji. 

I have found that the best way to combine many ways of memorization is to make or buy flash cards. On one side of a flash card is the Kanji, on the other side its meaning and pronunciation, and perhaps some vocabulary using the Kanji. Decide a set of Kanji cards to study, read the cards, write out the Kanji on the cards, read out loud their pronunciation. Hide the Kanji side of the cards, and see if you can recall each of the Kanji. If yes, do things the reverse way: hide then meaning/pronunciation and see if you can recall them by watching the Kanji. If yes, see if you can write the Kanji when seeing its meaning. And so on.

Some time later (the next day of a few dys later) check what you learned. If you can still write out the Kanji without watching it, if you can still remember the pronunciations, put the card in your "memorized" stack. If not, study it again, and check again later on. The cards in your "memorized" stack to0 have to be reviewed after some longer time (a week, a month, etc). Each time make the time interval longer and longer, until you really have no need to review the Kanji again.

This flash card strategy combines the 3 points I mentioned: repeated exposure, active exposure, and diverse exposure. You can make your own flash cards (which is rather time consuming - I speak from experience), or you can buy them. The White Rabbit Press flash cards (for which you can find a banner on this site) are my recommendation, but there are other choices too.

This is the way I memorized about 2000 Kanji.


 












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Monday, February 15, 2010

Today's Japanese expression: 首が回らない

This is another one of those Japanese expressions where you really can't guess the meaning from the literal meaning of the words at first sight: 「首が回らない」.

Literally, 「首が回らない」 means something like "my neck doesn't turn", or "I can't turn my neck". Well, if you have troubles with your neck, you can actually use this in a literal way. However, there is another meaning too. This is an example of it's use: 

「借金で首が回らない」(しゃっきんでくびがまわらない), meaning "I can't make ends meet because of my debts". 「首が回らない」 thus means "having trouble making ends meet", or "having trouble getting by", and is often (always?) used in the sense of financial difficulties. I good translation might be "being up to your neck in debts", or "being up to your ears in debts".

The explanation behind this Japanese expression is that the financial difficulties are restricting your freedom in the sense that you can`t just to what you would like to do.


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Sunday, February 14, 2010

How to study Kanji - part 3


This is a third part of a number of posts on how to study Kanji.

The point I want to stress out in this part is: buy a text book on Kanji. If your goal is to master just a few hundred Kanji (maybe JLPT3 level) then I think you might manage without a good book. But if you are aiming for a higher level you really should get yourself a text book solely for studying Kanji.

I know that a text book costs money, while there are some useful websites which are for free. I will try to explain why I prefer a text book over web sites. There are basically 2 reasons: 1) you need a plan, a structure to master over 2000 Kanji, and 2) you need useful information about each Kanji. On both points I think that most web sites fail, while many text books succeed (at least to some degree).

First of all, as I wrote above, in order to be able to master over 2000 Kanji, you need a strategy, a plan, a structure. My experience with websites is that they contain just the Kanji, a huge amount of data without much thought behind how they are presented. Many of them also do not contain information on stroke orders, example vocabulary using the main readings, and small tests to check whether yourself. Texts books, on the other hand, ofto do contain such features.

The books I used were 漢字マスター 3 2級漢字1000 for JLPT2 Kanji, and later on the book from the same series for JLPT1 (which I could not find on Amazon, it can be found on ther ARC website here). Kanji in these books are more or less grouped according to meaning (for example, Kanji for emotions are together in one chapter). For each Kanji the stroke order is shown, allong with its readings, and example vocabulary.

Below are some books that might be helpful for your study of Kanji. Notice how I did NOT include the books using the Heisig method. I will explain later why I didn't...








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Friday, February 12, 2010

How to study Kanji - part 2

This is a second part of a number of posts on how to study Kanji.
I remember very well how overwhelmed I was when I decided to start studying Japanese: so many characters, so many different pronunciations. I remember I didn't even get why they needed different Kanji with identical pronunciations. Wouldn't things be much easier to use 1 Kanji for each pronunciations? These might be questions many people have at first.
I didn't even know where 1 Kanji stopped and another started. Now I can read books, novels, websites in Japanese with little help of a dictionary, and I should (according to my JLPT1 certificate) know more than 2000 Kanji...
The first book I bought on Kanji was "Let's Learn Kanji: An Introduction to Radicals, Components and 250 Very Basic Kanji". I have to admit I bought this book (and not another one) because this was all they had in the book shops where I lived. But, notice the title: in includes radicals and components. And, even though this is a book on learning Kanji, the word Kanji comes at the end, AFTER radicals and components.
I consider myself very lucky that I bought this book, along with my other first text book (Japanese for Busy People I). The reason is that it forced me to start my study with radicals and components, and not immediately with Kanji.
I have to admit (again) that I don't remember the exact difference between radicals and components. It seems I am not the only one, see wikipedia for the difference and confusion between radicals and components. The important thing is that I learned from the very start the kinds of radicals and their placement, and their meaning.
There are several types and placements of radicals. For example there are 偏 (Hen) type radicals which are positioned at the left of a Kanji (for example the 木 radical in 林, 板, 松, and so on). There are 脚 (Ashi) radicals which come at the bottom of Kanji (for example 心 in 志, 悪, 恩, and so on). Learning things like this helps you understand the construction of Kanji later on, and helps you remember them. Moreover, this is also the way Japanese themselves learn Kanji and also the way they use it to explain Kanji to each other.
Secondly, the meaning of the radicals can help you remember the meaning of Kanji containing them. See the example above for 木 in 松. 木 means "tree" , and 松 is "pine tree". I don't have to point out that a pine tree is a ... tree, do I? Likewise, a lot of words I can think of that have a meaning related to trees or wood tend to contain this 木 component: 植, 樹, 杉, 材, 棒, 桜, 桃, etc. Learn the meaning of radicals, and they will often give you a hint about the meaning of other Kanji. Not always, but often.
Finally, a thing that is often forgotten: components of Kanji can not only give you a hint about their meaning, but also about their pronunciation. An example: 高 has kun-yomi "taka(i)", and on-yomi "kou". Likewise, the on-yomi of 稿 (which contains 高) is "kou". 兆 "chou", and 挑 (which contains 兆) is also pronounced "chou". 義 "gi", and 議 儀 (which both contain 義) are both also pronounced "gi". This is not a coincidence: some Kanji contain components indicating their pronunciation.
There are the reasons why I recommend learning radicals and components BEFORE starting on Kanji. Studying Kanji requires a plan, a strategy, a systematic approach. Sure, you want to get started on "real" Kanji right away. But you didn't learn to run before you could walk, did you? Get the basics right first, get a firm foundation: learn radicals and components first. You will catch up with the impatient ones who started on Kanji immediately within a few weeks time, and leave them behind you forever.


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Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Today's Japanese expression: 口が堅い

Two guys and a girl are sitting in a restaurant. The girl asks one of the guys whether or not he has a girlfriend. To that the other man says "It's no use to ask him about it", because 「あの人は口が堅いだから」.
Literally, 「口が堅い」 (くちがかたい) means "having a hard mouth". The proper meaning is "being tight-lipped", "being discreet", or "being able to keep a secret". So, in the conversation above, the one guy says "It's no use asking him about it, because he is tight-lipped, he won't speak about this subject".
How about the opposite of 「口が堅い」? You might expect "to have a soft mouth", 「口が柔らかい」(くちがやわらかい) but as far as I know there is no such expression. Instead they say 「口が軽い」(くちがかるい), which means literally "to have a light mouth", or in better English "to be talkative", "to have a loose tongue".


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