I think I’ve mentioned this before, but learning Japanese continues to increase my sympathy towards kids who are learning to read and misread words in ways which seem inconceivable to me. My brain is pretty much incapable of looking at a word in English and not reading it immediately; the same is far from true in Japanese. For example, one of my vocabulary cards has a character written on the front, and the readings shutsu, desu, and deru on the back. (With their meetings.) At least that’s what I thought was written on the back for several days, until I took a closer book, and noticed that the second reading was dasu, not desu. Oops. I mean, it’s not like da and de even look similar, I simply wasn’t paying attention, and my brain isn’t yet wired to read correctly when I’m not paying attention.
I started off studying the language with the help of JapanesePod101 and a textbook (Japanese for Today). Then I added Read Japanese Today, which I continue to think is an excellent way to learn kanji. I’d also been using Kanji & Kana as a reference book, so I got my stroke order right when writing characters for vocabulary cards; over the last few month, however, I found myself browsing through it more often in odd moments.
It’s a book I’ve had around since the last time I tried to learn the language. It contains the government-approved list of 1945 basic kanji, showing how to write each, giving the various readings and meanings, as well as a few compounds in which they appear. And does so in an order based more or less on how important they are. A great book to have around, if you want to immerse yourself in the basic kanji; last decade, I tried to go through the book and memorize the kanji in order.
But I went too far with the book. At one point, I could go through the first 200 characters or so, and write them down in the order given in the book, with the proper stroke order. Which is a very seductive thing to do: it gives you something to practice if you just have some spare time, or are falling asleep at night, or whatever. The problem is that my memorizing of my strokes got ahead of my memorizing of the readings and the meanings, so things got unbalanced.
Because of my bad experience, I stayed away from doing the same thing this time. But then I glanced through the start of the book and realized that I claimed to know most of the characters on the first few pages. So what’s the harm in memorizing the order in the book, and reviewing the strokes in my head?
Thinking about it more, I think that, not only isn’t there harm, there’s virtue in it. If I claim I know a character, even if I’m only interested in reading the language rather than writing it, I have to be able to recognize it completely reliably; given the number of characters that look similar, in practice I can’t claim that unless I could write the character. But vocabulary cards, by their nature, don’t give me practice in writing characters. So I have to find another way to practice writing them; memorizing them in the order in that book is as good a way to practice that as I can think of.
Having said that, I don’t want to forget what happened last time. I think/hope I’m doing a better job of managing my learning; the key here is to not have my memorizing how to write the characters get ahead of my memorizing their readings/meanings. If I do that, I’ll be okay.
The other book I’m reading right now is Japanese the Manga Way. It’s a relatively informal grammar of the language, with examples taken from manga. Which works well: besides being fun, manga gives a natural source of language examples that are closer to regular spoken Japanese than other written examples would be.
Other things I like about the book: for one, I can occasionally figure out what the examples are saying, kanji and all, before reading the explanations. And, for another thing, it presents the grammatical points in a rather different order than other sources that I’m using. (Perhaps because it isn’t constrained by having examples only use material that has been previously introduced.). I like seeing another lens on the language, and one which is perhaps a bit more coherent than others I have access to, one which is less intent on mapping the grammar to concepts in English.
The other thing I’ve been doing is watching (the excellent) Last Exile in Japanese with subtitles; again, nice to occasionally be able to figure out by myself what people are saying. Don’t get me wrong, the vast majority of the time I depend very much on the subtitles, but I’m starting to get the feeling that it might really stick this time.
Or maybe I’ll burn out in another couple of months! Always a possibility…
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