Sunday 29 September 2013

Turning Japanese

Nagora is a samurai of great honour
Blog's quiet at the moment as I'm spending a lot of time learning Japanese using Heisig's system and the Obenkyo application on my phone, which is working very well. However, if anyone else is interested in trying this be warned that Obenkyo is based on the 5th edition of Heisig's Remebering the Kanji and the cross-referencing will not work with either the new 6th edition or the older ones.

With 70 minutes to spend on the Tube each day, I've been able to get up to 508 Kanji memorized pretty quickly, which only leaves another 1600 to go!

I have also learned the Hiragana (using Heisig's method as well), but of course that gets you nothing other than the ability to read out some Japanese without any comprehension. Learning 500 Kanji means I've learnt 500 actual words/concepts which I can use to read and comprehend text. This is a lot more satisfying, especially now I work beside SOAS and have access to huge amounts of Japanese books, magazines, and newspapers. As fragments become lines and lines become paragraphs of understandable text it is a great boost to morale and I'd heartily recommend learning Kanji before tackling phonetic Japanese, especially as there are many Japanese books which are almost totally written in Kanji. If you can get a Japanese text about something or somewhere you know about it's useful too; I'm using a Japanese guidebook to London.

The ultimate goal is to be able to visit Japan and be able to get about without help - reading signs, maps and so forth - so verbal communication to others is definitely a secondary requirement for me and I'm happy to leave it until I can read and write useful amounts. The downside is that, as Heisig says, knowing 50% of the 2000 common Kanji isn't really enough - they're genuinely "common" and normal text has a wide variety of them, just as written English casually draws on thousands of words without seeming flowery or overblown. So Heisig presents the Kanji in an order that suits his memorisation method rather than the more normal presentation in frequency order. This means that the symbol for person (人) is #951 in his system, whereas it usually turns up in the first ten or so Kanji in flashcards and dictionaries.

The major downside of not learning the sounds of the Kanji is that it makes it impossible to take advantage of Emac's very impressive Japanese support which depends on the user being able to type the phonetics and then choose from a menu of Kanji.

Heisig's method for the Hiragana leaves something to be desired, by the way, if one is a native English speaker rather than an American. He suggests mnemonics for the sound of each symbol and links that back to a word which has a similar sound in American and if you aren't American it can be rather weird. The worst example is the mnemonic for あ (an "a" sound) which Heisig links to "otter"! Try saying it with a broad American accent and it's a bit clearer: "ay is fer ahtter, y'know?" sort of thing. So, you have to patch the method up a bit if you're not from the right part of the world but other than that it works well and of course the Kanji are not affected by this as he's not trying to teach you the pronunciation of those.

So, that's what I'm doing at the moment.