Sudoku

I’ve been recently learning how to do sudoku puzzles, and it turns out that I’m really good at it with the right hints, and really bad at the harder ones otherwise.  But I can’t help but to find some similarities between sudoku and the Japanese language.

Both of them – particularly the harder sudoku – are incredibly intimidating when you first look at them.  Sudoku has only a few numbers filled in, and you’re thinking “I’m supposed to deduce a solution from this?  But then, you start to learn, and as the basics become more old hat, it’s a little like filling in more of the numbers – the puzzle gets easier the more correct numbers you fill in.  It’s like a harder puzzle becomes a medium puzzle and then becomes an easy puzzle.  It gets easier as you go on.

In some ways, I feel this way about Japanese.  When you first start, you have this intimidating world set out before you – with brand new characters that have nothing to do with our writing system, even when it does, with ambiguous meanings that only make sense in context – it’s just this huge thing that you have no idea how to tackle.

But then you start, and you master one small part of it, then another part of it, and pretty soon you’re competent enough to read simple vocabulary and learn the most common readings of kanji.  And at that point it becomes clear that the common readings of kanji will get you most of the way to where you want to go.

Unlike sudoku, of course, more challenges immediately present themselves as you progress.  It is almost as if you solve one sudoku puzzle, and then it immediately expands to a cube of 729 units, and have to solve that as well.  So the analogy isn’t perfect – no analogy ever is.

But the first step to solving any puzzle – sudoku or otherwise – is to just start and keep going until you solve it.

What I Hate About Most Online “Learn Japanese” Sites

I’ve been using Wanikani lately  I’ve gotten to level 5, and it’s actually a little frustrating.  You have to get the radicals/kanji/vocabulary right a specific number of times, spaced out over months, before they consider the item “burned”, and you don’t have to see it again.  And they dole out the lessons sparingly.  You can’t binge on them.  A cynic might make the argument that they’re just doing that to stretch out the amount of money you need to pay them to complete the program, but while that may be a consideration, I don’t think I agree with that.  They’re doing the right thing.  They have mnemonics, and sometimes I find those useful, but most of the time I don’t.  I think, though, that’s primarily because we haven’t yet gotten to kanji I don’t know on some level.

This is unique amongst online “Learn Japanese” sites.  I have used several in the past, and they promise to teach you Japanese quickly, and they make it possible for one to rocket through their courses as fast as you want to.  They sell “quick”.  Rosetta Stone, for example, promises you can learn conversational Japanese quickly, but the argument could (and has been) made that it will harm your efforts in the long run.  I’ve found probably ten to twenty sites who promise to teach you Japanese, and they don’t and really can’t.  It’s just too big.  I could see learning German in a year (I became conversational in it in nine months years ago, but I forgot most of it), and other languages that might have some commonalities with English.  But Japanese just has too much to learn, too much to memorize, too many kanji, too many yomikata, too many vocabulary words.  The grammar takes some getting used to but isn’t too bad, but it’s so different from English that it’s nearly impossible to find any commonalities whatsoever.

Japanese can’t be forced in.  It has to sink in.

So this is why I don’t like most online Japanese courses.  They don’t teach patience.  Because when learning Japanese, that’s about the best advice that you can be given, to be patient.  But they sell based on learning fast, and they’re selling snake oil.  Some learn Japanese quicker than others, but I don’t think anyone who is not from either China or Korea will ever learn it quickly.  It takes a lot of time to even figure out the basics, it has thousands of kanji, even more vocabulary words, and no similarities whatsoever with English.

I’m not trying to advertise for Wanikani.  There are some aspects I don’t like.  They teach recognition of kanji and vocabulary, but they don’t teach how to write the kanji.  That’s a rather important thing, and something you’ll have to study outside of them, perhaps using “kanji tree” or something similar.  But they’re the only site I’ve found, so far, that actually incorporates patience into their model.  There are some similar sites, such as Jalup, that offer a similar service, but they don’t dole out the lessons as carefully – you can get overwhelmed.  And that’s why I use them, and none of the others.  They may be able to deliver what they sell, but they don’t tell you the most important thing.  It’s going to be a long, long ride, and you’re going to have to be extremely committed.

Two Years In

I don’t remember the exact day that I decided to study Japanese, but I think I’m approaching the two year anniversary at some point in the next couple of months.  It’s been a lot of ups and a lot of downs, a lot of “I don’t know if I can do this” and a lot of “hey, this is starting to make a little sense now”.  To be frank, I’m not entirely sure where I am at the moment.  I think I could probably pass the JLPT N5 if I chose to take it, but I want to keep studying for right now.

If I had to go back to the beginning and tell myself what the most important thing about learning Japanese is, I’m not entirely sure what I’d say.  I’d say that certain parts of it are deceptively simple, but in Japanese, the devil is always in the details.  I’d say that trying to self-teach is a fool’s errand but that learning in a classroom setting may not be the best of ideas either.  I’d say that most people who claim to be able to teach Japanese don’t have the slightest idea how to teach it – even if they can speak it and promise up and down that they do.  I’d say there are zillions of online resources out there that claim to teach you Japanese and 99% of them absolutely suck.  It’s not that they’re bad, or wrong, or anything like that.  It’s just that they’re not good at teaching.  I’d say that you have to find all sorts of different resources and mesh everything together to even start to get a good grasp on how the language works.  And first and foremost, I’d say “do you really want to do this?”

Learning Japanese can be a “cool” thing.  It’s almost always an interesting topic of conversation.  It can also broaden one’s mind as to how language works, how culture shapes language and vice versa, and also how much of my own views of the world are constrained by language.  It is also a very difficult thing to which there is no easy solution, and the only way to really succeed is to find a way to learn that works for you and keep doing it until it sinks in.  Eventually it kinda does, but never immediately.

The logographs, or kanji, can actually be really pretty, and some can tell an interesting story on their own.  Once you understand the symbology, some kanji are striking in the stories they tell, such as 桜 or 休み.  But two years in, is it really worth it?

To be frank, I’m still not entirely sure.  It really hasn’t opened new worlds for me, and I’m starting to wonder if it ever will.  And isn’t that kind of the point?  But I still learn.

 

Thinking in Japanese

Over the past week or two, I have found something happening, and I am not sure what to make of it.  On multiple occasions, I have found myself nearly responding in Japanese to an English question – and I have to consciously correct myself.  Sometimes that’s before it comes out of my mouth, and sometimes it’s not.

Yesterday, I was at a Sushi restaurant, and the waitress came up to ask what I wanted to drink.  I replied “Mi-er, I mean, Water, please”.  I very nearly said “Mizu kudasai”.

I’m not entirely sure why that happens, but it’s an interesting phenomenon nonetheless.  Maybe it means I’m starting on a long road to fluency.  Or maybe I just have an identity crisis.

Japanese is Biased Against Beginners

As I have been learning Japanese, one observation keeps coming to mind, one I can’t shake:

Japanese is incredible, amazingly, spectacularly biased against beginners.

What I mean is this: when you start learning Japanese, there is a hump. The hump seems almost insurmountable. You have to learn an entirely new way of thinking about language – the grammar is exactly backwards from English, there are several different writing systems that are completely unfamiliar, and (at least for any practical purpose) you have to learn them quickly, because you’re not going to get anywhere with the language until you get over the hump.

In the community college class I took last year, half the class dropped out, because it takes a spectacular effort to get over that hump. It is very difficult and it seems insurmountable. And if you’re struggling with hiragana when the rest of the class has moved on to katakana, you may never recover – at least when it comes to that class.

But once you get over the hump. it realy is kind of like learning any other language. You learn vocabulary, you learn grammar, you learn pronunciation, and picking it up gets easier, because you’ve successfully bootstrapped the language.

I personally don’t really think Japanese is all that hard. Others disagree, and I absolutely understand why they think that, but other than there being an extraordinary number of words and characters to know, it really is just like learning any other language. But you have to get to the point where you understand the assumptions and the prerequisite knowledge first. And, frankly, I think that’s where most people stumble.

And with very good reason, to be honest.

I wonder, for Japanese people, if the English hump is as seemingly insurmountable.

Drinking From the Firehose

I have been learning Japanese now for a little over a year.

One the one hand, I know more than I did. I can put together basic sentences, I know probably a thousand words (a hodgepodge of adjectives, nouns, verbs, and things I picked up from variety shows and songs), and I think a fair assessment of my skills right now is that I could probably find my way around Tokyo if I needed to. I am very familiar with hiragana and katakana, and I even know a few kanji, and even more importantly, how to use them.

Which is really no small feat, don’t get me wrong. I’m already ahead of most casual Japanese media consumers, and I have learned enough about Japanese culture to lose my unthinking admiration for all things Japanese. I see that as a sign of maturity.

But a year in, I find myself overwhelmed with a sense of frustration, because as much as I’ve learned and progressed, I feel like I haven’t even scratched the surface. It’s, as the title suggests, like drinking from a firehose, and theres just so much of it that I haven’t yet found a really effective study method. I don’t feel like picking up a few words a week is going to get me where I want, but I can’t seem to absorb them at a faster rate.

I definitely have a love/hate relationship with Japanese at the moment, to be honest. I think it’s a really cool thing to learn, but sometimes I step back, facepalm a little, and wonder what the heck I’ve gotten myself into.

A year in, I still find it interesting, I’m still learning a lot, and I’m still not convinced I’m not wasting my time and money.

Throwing in the towel?

I just took my second Japanese test at ACC.  And while I think I did okay at it, I’m feeling very discouraged and I’m very close to giving the whole thing up.

I am pretty good at remembering kanji, pronunciations, and grammar, but it all falls apart when I need to actually put together coherent sentences.  Perhaps I’m not getting enough practice, perhaps I’m just not good enough.  But I really feel as if I have about hit the limit of how well I’m going to do if I keep going the way I’m going now.

But I’m really embarrassed to speak it.  I feel like I’m not good enough to hold even a basic conversation and that everyone I attempt to speak to would rather I just didn’t, but I also know that there’s no way I’m going to get better unless I find people to speak with.  So I’m in a position right now where I don’t know why I’m learning it, I find it interesting but I don’t have a really persuasive reason to continue, and every time I attempt to speak with someone it just leaves me embarrassed.

So, why try?

I recognize that learning a language is grammar, etc., second, and exposure and familiarity first.  If I can’t find that, then there’s no point in wasting my time.

I’m certainly not throwing in the towel until this class is over, but after that, I don’t know.  I don’t have a reason.