I pulled out my Japanese textbook over the weekend and read the first chapter. All stuff I knew, so it went really fast – no big surprise.

So I pulled out my box of blank vocabulary cards, and started writing down words. At which point I felt like I was stuck in molasses.

Basically, my handwriting in hiragana sucks. Admittedly, my handwriting in roman script sucks, too, but I’m used to that, and if I slow down just a bit, I can produce writing that I don’t mind looking at. While, when writing in hiragana, I simply don’t know how to produce writing that I don’t mind looking at!

Part of the issue, I’m sure, is that I have basically no experience to hiragana outside of print or artworks. So I expect some of my issues are similar to somebody who was used to reading English in the Times font, had a hard time reproducing those serifs, but felt that writing looked weird without them. But I’m sure that there’s a lot of plain old practice required, too. (I bet practice will help with the basics of generating characters with the appropriate spacing and relative size, for example.)

Actually, I suspect that hiragana may be a bit tricky to generate neatly, as writing systems go: I’m not nearly as self-conscious about my kanji, it turns out, and I don’t remember being particularly self-conscious about my greek or devanagari. So hiragana may be a bit higher of a hill to climb than most. I was surprised to learn today that I was even getting the stroke order wrong on some of the characters; I’m sure that much of that is simple ignorance, but it also suggests that the characters don’t fit into patterns that I’ve learned to expect.

I’m optimistic that this will get better pretty soon. For one thing, I bet that I’ll gain a lot from just reminding myself to slow down. I usually scribble quite quickly, and correspondingly illegibly; if I were to take, say, two seconds per character, it would feel like a glacial pase, but I bet I could do a decent job of writing neatly without too much practice at that rate, and I’d still be able to churn out a bunch of cards in five minutes. Whereas now, I try to do it faster, but have to practice over and over again to get it right, more than eating up the time savings. Tonight already felt better than last time: I came armed with some practice sheets, and I spent a fair amount of time going over each character there before I wrote it on a card. But the results seem to be sticking: I just slowly wrote a ka on my palm with my finger, and I didn’t cringe in horror or anything.

I sure hope it gets better soon. There’s some virtue in having the process be a bit slow, so I don’t try to cram too much stuff into my brain at once, but I’m already finding it hard to make time to do this, and having the process of generating vocabulary cards slow me down excessively doesn’t make me any happier. Compounding the problem is that the book contains a fair amount of vocabulary, without much guidance as to which words to learn in each chapter. (As opposed to when you’re taking a class, where the teacher will give you a list of words to memorize.) So I think that I’ll probably end up basically trying to memorize them all, which means that I have to generate a lot of cards; the more time that takes, the less time I have to drill on them!

Another useful web site I’ve found: Real Kana is a nice, flexible drill for reviewing characters. I’ve just been using it for a few days and I’ve already swapped almost all of what I’ve forgotten back into my brain; I’m optimistic that, after not too much longer, I’ll be able to recognize individual characters completely reliably and fairly quickly. At which point I’ll want to switch to reading more Japanese passages written out in kana (as opposed to romaji or a kanji/kana mix), not as practice in figuring out what it means but as practice in drilling my brain in going from kana to sounds without an explicit recognition phase in the middle.

Speaking of which, another area where I wish my brain didn’t have to do as much of a recognition phase is numbers: whenever I hear somebody read a number out loud, it takes me seconds to decode it, which is way too long. I wonder if there’s some web site out there that can help me with that, too? Even a robotic-sounding voice would be a big help, I suspect.

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