Friday, May 20, 2011

Kanji? More like Yawn-ji: My journey in learning Japan's written language

I'm very excited to be able to contribute to the 2011 May Japan Blog Matsuri and I want to thank NipponTheBus for hosting this month. His choice of topic for this Matsuri caught my eye since Kanji is something near and dear to my heart. Though, it didn't start out that way.

I live in Japan. I moved here three years ago, giving up friends, family, a good job, and my country. I did this for a couple reasons but at the top of the list in bold font was TO LEARN JAPANESE. I didn't like being the typical example of 4 years of mandatory American high school foreign language class: knowing that the Spanish equivalent of my name is Jose, being able to say "donkey" (why did we all learn that?), and knowing a couple naughty words. I wanted to be bi-lingual and Japanese was the language that fascinated me. Immersion is the way to go, right? So leaving everything I knew, I went off to a strange new country with the main goal of mastering a foreign language. But of course I didn't want to put in a lot of effort.

After arriving I soon picked up my first textbook: Minna no Nihongo Romaji Edition. Romaji, as most of you know, is Japanese not annoyingly written in Japanese. In fact, it's these characters right here. Aren't they easy? It was excellent! I could dive right into learning Japanese without all the bother of actually becoming literate. Right off the bat I could say "Watashi wa Joe desu" and state to the world that "As for me, I am (politely) Joe." It was an exciting time when every word I learned increased my knowledge of Japanese by a good percentage. But all was not well. My aversion to Japan's written language while studying had quickly led me to be able to order in a restaurant, but it didn't actually give me the ability to read menus. This limited my choice of restaurants to ones with pictures. I've even taken a photo with my mobile phone of the plastic display model of the meal I wanted and shown it to the waiter. Of course you can only tell so much from a picture. I'm not proud of all the horse meat I've eaten. Also one time I used conditioner as bodywash and complained about it's lack of lather.

Another pitfall I ran into while studying Japanese sans-Kanji is that memorizing words became incredibly difficult. Without these words grounded in my mind to a visual image they just became this kind of floating vagueness. They were all sounds without meaning, unconnected to anything. Imagine English if you didn't realize that rewind, remove, and remix all have the same prefix with the same meaning. Or worse, what if you assumed rewind and ridicule were related because of the similarity between 're' and 'ri'? Here's a vocab quiz for you: What's the Japanese word for 'teacher'? 'Student'? 'Menstruation'? If you answered 'sensei', 'seito', and 'seiri', you are right! Without Kanji you might not know that all those 'sei's are the same: 生. Knowing this, those words are much easier to remember. They're connected in your head so you don't have to memorize them in a vacuum. You just know what pieces go where and you build up vocab words like Legos or some other building simile. With my Romaji version of Minna no Nihongo I'd grind lonely vocab words into my brain for hours straight. Afterwards I would actually feel physically exhausted.

I continued to study Japanese in this broken way until I signed up for one-on-one Japanese lessons at my local international center. My teacher suggested I buy Minna no Nihongo. "No need!" I said, proudly pulling the textbook from my bag. She looked at the book and said, "WHAT IS THISSSSSSSSSSSS?!!" and smacked it from my hands. Actually she politely let me know I wasted $25 and lent me the actual Japanese version of my Japanese textbook until I bought my own copy. Looking at all those foreign squiggles, I could only describe them as uninviting. For the first couple lessons my teacher worked with me using flash cards to get my Hiragana and Katakana (the most simple and phonetic characters) down. At home I studied using the game Slime Forest which is a fun little RPG that helps you learn to read basic characters. It felt like a long time especially since it seemed like my Japanese studies were on pause. And even after I learned the characters, reading was still slow. But suddenly, one day, I realized I could read menus. Especially menus at foreign restaurants which are all in Katakana, the characters used almost exclusively for foreign words. I could order piza (pizza), and pasuta (pasta), and furaido poteto (fried potato: aka french fries), with ease! It was very exciting. Also I could finally tell bodywash from conditioner at the store.

Even with this new found pleasure in being able to sort of read some things, Kanji still didn't hold a great interest to me. I tried some Kanji workbooks which focused on rote memorization but I'd always quickly forget them. I was able to passively learn to read some. I could recognize the Kanji for male and female (important for restrooms), to go, the Kanji for the days of the week, and some other random ones. Most I couldn't write and none could I write well. "But what's the need, really? Everyone just uses mobile phones and computers nowadays," I reasoned. "What's the point of learning to write?" I dealt with the embarrassment of not being able to write my own address on forms with my head held high.

I continued in this vein for two years. I still tried to expose myself to as much Kanji as possible without really studying it. In emails with my girlfriend we would communicate entirely in Kanji so at least I would often see it. In truth you can get pretty far with this passive style of learning. By far I mean live in Japan and give the impression of being a functional adult. I was able to write and read the simple things my girlfriend and I would want to say to each other in emails. I could recognize the food I liked to order in restaurants and the Kanji on the ATM I needed to press to get money. But this has it's limit and I hit it. I plateaued hard. I started to no longer learn new Kanji since I didn't need to. As my Kanji learning stalled I found it affected everything. I wasn't learning many new words and even my grammar ceased to progress. I don't know what triggered it in my mind but suddenly I came to the realization that I was at a crossroad. Either I could give up and accept my mediocre Japanese, or I could dive in and succeed in what I set out to do those two years ago when I packed up and moved to Japan.

It was at this time that I came upon the site All Japanese All The Time. The proprietor of this Japanese learning establishment is Khatzumoto. Many of you might already know of this (in)famous gentleman. His creed is simply "All Japanese All The Time." Completely give up English and live entirely in a Japanese world. He did this and went from zero to fluency in eighteen months. By fluency I mean he landed an entirely Japanese job at a Japanese company in Japan and did all his work in Japanese. The amazing part is he did this while studying in America. I made my decision and abandoned English and sought Japanese enlightenment and followed Khatz like he was a Japanese-language Buddha.

The number one technique in Khatz's teachings is of course "All Japanese All The Time" but so close to this that it's basically technique 1.1 is learn the Kanji. ALL the Kanji. Well, not All all, but all the ones Japanese students learn in their ten years of schooling, about 2,050 Kanji. To do this he, and now I, heartily recommend the Heisig method. It's not easy and there are no shortcuts. It takes anywhere from three to six months (it took me five) to learn them all while studying every day for about an hour or more. Heisig is a smart guy who figured out that the reason Chinese people learn Japanese so much faster than English speakers is that they already know all the Kanji and their meanings. All they have to learn are the readings. In the Heisig method you learn how to write each Kanji plus its meaning given as one English keyword. But no readings. So in the end, after studying for 6 months or so you'll be on par with a Chinese person, but you won't be able to read a word. Sounds great (I say sarcastically)! But in reality it works incredibly well. All the Kanji you would confuse because they look similar are now no longer confusing since you know what each means. You start to notice that a bunch of words (like teacher, student, and menstruation) all have the same Kanji in common, making them easy to remember. But the best part which is endlessly fascinating to Japanese people is that you, a foreigner, can actually write your address now.

Two notebooks filled with Heisig practice Kanji

One of the most important points of the Heisig system is the order in which the Kanji are taught. Each Kanji is made up of a bunch of smaller Kanji pieces called radicals. Heisig ordered them in such a way that it feels like you're constantly building on Kanji you've learned before so you never have to rely on pure rote memorization. Also a big part are the mnemonics that break each Kanji into a little story. You use the story for awhile when writing but eventually you get to the point where you just remember and you don't need it any more.

I finished Heisig two months ago but I still study my Kanji every day for maybe a half hour so I don't lose it. Since finishing I read a lot more and get a lot out of watching Japanese movies with Japanese subtitles. I can't believe how quickly my Japanese is improving now that I'm completely comfortable with Kanji.

This has been a long post and I congratulate you for making it to the end! As a reward I'm going to give you some of my unsolicited advice. If you're studying Japanese, whether you just started or are a couple years into it, learn from my mistakes and do Heisig ASAP. If Heisig was the first thing I did when I came to Japan I know I'd be completely fluent by now. I wasted two years half-arsing it. There are no shortcuts but there are ways that are better than others. And the key to Japanese is through Kanji.

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