Sunday, January 06, 2008

New Adventures in Japanese

Beginning this week, on Wednesday 9th, my weekly PhD seminar shifts from being conducted in English to being conducted in Japanese. This auspicious moment has not been chosen because I am in any state to present in another language, but because I am supposed to be presenting my work to date at a conference in Tokyo in March - in Japanese. So I need to get a bit of practice in.

This has necessitated something of a flurry of (technical) Japanese study over the break, and it occurs to me that some of my readers are not perhaps aware of exactly what the phrase "Japanese study" really means. Because for me, at least for technical Japanese, "Japanese study" doesn't involve learning any grammar, or indeed anything complicated. It involves the incredibly painful and tedious task of breaking through what an acquaintance of mine refers to as the "physical barrier" of kanji. In the photo above you can see the tools with which I hammer away at this physical barrier, and I aim here to describe them. The photo is of my desk during a typical period of technical Japanese study. I am learning vocabulary, since the necessary grammar for presenting mathematics is simple and either mostly already understood, or to be learnt when I present. In the meantime, I learn words, and this is how. From left to right on the front row:

  • An exercise book containing new words: There is no easy way to learn new words in the technical world, since there aren't any dictionaries of statistics words in our university library (or anywhere, for that matter), and no Japanese course teaches them. So every week I attend the seminars of two of the fourth year students, one on Survival Analysis and one on Financial Maths, and I try to catch new words and grammar. I write these in the margins of this notebook (or, sometimes, I write maths notes in the margins of my new words) and look them up later.
  • A worksheet of kanji: every word is made up of two or three pictograms (kanji) and since I will be using these words on a blackboard, I need to be able to write them. In any case, one cannot read what one cannot remember, and these symbols aren't simple. So here I practice them. On the page you can see the kanji for eru (to get), shi (capital), osameru (to master oneself), nageru (to throw), kou (success), to (road), ryo (to master or complete something), yaku (promise or expectation) and the nasty bugger, ken (authority or power). Having practiced these a lot I can learn the words they are parts of: tokui (pride), toshi (investment), shuryo (completion), seikou (success), tochu (halfway), yakusoku (promise, appointment) and yoyakuken (option).
  • A list of kanji and words learnt to day: which summarises the above. I need these lists so that I can keep track of where I am up to, since these symbols start to flutter around my head like stars and I need the list to know what I'm doing
  • An electronic dictionary: with which I can look up kanji and words. Sadly mine is broken because I dropped it, so the corner of the screen is illegible. Of all the electronic devices to drop...
  • My book of kanji learnt to date: once I have practiced the kanji 20 or 30 times I write it and all its meanings in the exercise book at the far right of the photo. With this I can go back and check what I need to learn and what I should be revising.
Sometimes I also have a list of words from some other document or text which I need to learn. On the day this photo was taken I was working only from seminar notes, so it is not present.

On the back row, from left to right:
  • My collection of Japanese-English words: in this exercise book I write all the words I know in Japanese, with their English translation. This is necessary for looking them up in future (and to order my thoughts)
  • My English-Japanese collection: for the opposite (and perhaps more useful) path of translating from English to Japanese. This has a separate section for verbs and useful phrases.
  • My kanji dictionary, which contains only 1900-odd kanji plus 200-odd special name kanji. 99% of the kanji one needs are found in here, and I can look up any part of most words using it. It includes instructions on the proper way to write them, and common words formed using them. This is probably the best $30 I ever spent.
Not shown is my computer, on which is a website (JDIC, which I highly recommend) where more obscure words can be found, and a program for testing vocab and kanji randomly (very useful). Also I have some flash cards which the program is intended to replace. Using all of these tools together I can properly commit to memory, in about half an hour, 5-8 kanji and 4-6 words. So in a 2 hour study session I can usually get together about 12 kanji and 10 words. I think this means that I am learning new words only slightly more slowly than I forget old ones, thus maintaining through heavy commitment to memorization a vague resemblance of the status quo.

The really frustrating thing about this is that (my sloppy handwriting aside) there is nothing difficult or complex about kanji. This is pure memorisation and everyone has to do it to learn this language. Hence the phrase "physical barrier". In my estimation my language skills would be far, far superior to their current state if this barrier didn't exist, since from the moment I arrived in Japan I could have begun reading everything I saw. As it stands, it took me 2 months to learn the sign which said "push the button" at the traffic lights, due to the physical barrier of the kanji for "push". This hardly encourages regular reading, and it is easy to see why so many people with an informal education in Japanese don't ever bother getting past please and thank you. Reading is a really useful tool for fast language learning, and I would say essential for the development of technical or sophisticated language. How does one do this when one cannot read a line of a book after 2 years in the country? Simply put: one just doesn't bother. And it is still the case that, 99% of the time, when I pick up a book I cannot read the first line of it. But this all has to change, because as of Wednesday my sloppy language and sloppier handwriting is going to be on display for all my peers to see...


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