Monday, March 29, 2010

Let's enjoy Japanese: Harry Potter and associative learning

So I just finished reading the first of the Harry Potter books in Japanese. Took me a few months, but it wasn't until recently that I really started to buckle down and read that thing. I just wanted to share a few thoughts, for those of you studying Japanese (or perhaps any foreign language).

I feel like in the past few months I've really had a sort of breakthrough. It's not that my Japanese has drastically improved, but I feel like it's improving a lot more steadily now. And it's not because of some awesome new textbook or expensive software. It's because I started to follow a bit of generally known, practical advice that I had (perhaps unintentionally) neglected for quite some time. And that is: if you want to learn a language, use it as much as possible.

Of course since coming to Japan I've done my best to converse in Japanese - sometimes with coworkers and students, with Japanese friends, and when presented with the opportunity (or challenge) in everyday life. But I really had been approaching the written aspect of Japanese all wrong, and this in turn has affected the progress of my speaking and listening ability, too. It's all connected.

(As a side note, check out this entry at Tae Kim's Blog for an interesting discussion about learning spoken Japanese while ignoring the written part of the language].

Don't neglect your reading and writing! Books and (as much as I hate to admit it) manga are great resources for learning. So is the internet. There are a lot of Japanese blogs out there. And of course writing your own blog using (at least some) Japanese is a good exercise.

So, Harry Potter in Japanese. It took me a few months, but that's because I didn't just buckle down and read it every day until recently. "Oh great," you must be thinking. "Now you know the words for stuff like 'witch' and 'wand' and 'incantation.'" Damn right I do - 「魔女」, 「杖」, and 「呪文」, respectively. And BOOM - 「悪魔の罠」- that's "Devil's Snare," folks! But even in something like Harry Potter there is a lot of normal, perfectly usable everyday Japanese to be learned. Not only did I retain a good amount of "normal Japanese," (期待 - expectation, for example), but I came to recognize the meaning, if not always the reading, of many new kanji characters and combinations. There was also a fair bit of dialogue, which helps one get a sense for the flow of conversation, albeit in written form.

Next I have a couple manga that I'll be working on, called あたしンち and ダーリンは外国人. After that, perhaps I'll pick up the next Harry Potter, or one of the Murakami books that I've already read. That is another point I'd like to make, briefly. Reading something you've already read in your native language means you already know the story. While you may not be as excited about reading it, you'll also be a lot less confused. Knowing how the story goes may help to clarify some confusing words or grammar for you.

While I would and do recommend this to everyone who is pursuing a language, I also want to note that this is my style of learning. There may be other ways that work for you. I tend to think of myself as an associative learner (is that a real thing, or did I make that up?). I've tried flashcards, I've tried writing words and kanji over and over again...I may remember for a little while, but I'll lose it quickly. I need a context, an association for what I learn. Be it watching a movie, speaking to someone, or reading a book or sign - if I can associate a word or grammar pattern with a specific memory or instance, I'm a lot more likely to remember it. So do what works for you, but this is my recommended method - putting your Japanese into practice.





  1. I have also started reading manga to help with my Kanji. Even though I live where it's spoken all the time, I'm not as immersed as I'd like to be. My new thinking is in addition to studying with my textbook, I can read Japanese books/manga, watch Japanese movies, and play Japanese video games in my spare time. Even if I get lazy and don't study my textbook one night I'll still get exposure.

    Recently I started writing a journal in Japanese as well. That's pretty time consuming but I'm sure it will get faster as my kanji improves.

  2. That's really cool. I've read the Harry Potter books about four times each in English (should I be admitting this?) so I guess a run through in Japanese wouldn't really hurt, would it?

  3. I totally recommend it. And no need to be ashamed of your Harry Potter fanhood here - I'm a Dumbledore's man myself.