Adventures of Fuku-Mimi: Learning Japanese

Adventures of Fuku-Mimi: Learning Japanese

If you hadn’t noticed, I’ve been in Japan for nearly a year now. Initially I thought I’d come, get some childhood curiosity out of my system and then return to the UK all fine and dandy. Overall I’ve had a pretty enlightening experience. Not that I’ve found myself through rigorous zen practice or that Eastern culture has put my neurotic Western mind into higher perspective. More that it was an experience that taught me how to be independent, to make friends and connections, to try new things and make an effort to get to know my wider community. In all honesty, I was a lazy f*~#er who did little in my first few years of university, barely studying enough to get good results in my essays and that all changed.

So I reached Japan and was compelled to learn how to communicate. When I was 15 I tried to teach myself Japanese only reaching far enough that I could say これはりんごです[kore wa ringo desu]. Five years later I revised hiragana and recalled only こんにちは [konnichiwa] and ありがとう [arigato], all said with appalling pronunciation. Joining Elementary Japanese 1 I realised that I really enjoyed studying the language, unlocking the keys to communication, learning a new writing form. I found myself studying several hours a day driven by a desperate need to improve, to engage, to communicate with the kind old ladies asking me where I was from.

I came with only the ability to read one of the syllabaries and here I am able to read and write hundreds of kanji, make basic conversation and an even greater ability to listen and understand what is being said. I love studying Japanese, I love speaking it, it’s a beautiful language that I hope I can continue learning and improving in.

So this post will be about how to get into studying Japanese, the trials and tribulations and the endless fun.

THE HISTORY

I’m a history undergraduate so I will indulge. Really though, the history of the language is fundamental in explaining why Japanese has three writing systems, katakana, hiragana and kanji.

Japanese began as a language lacking a writing system with roots either coming from continental Asian or Pacific islander settlers. A writing system was later adopted from Classical Chinese with the spread of Buddhism. Using Chinese characters both for their meaning and phonetic value, they were grammatically altered to be read as if Japanese. Earliest Japanese texts are found to be written in Classical Chinese or Kanbun which is the process of using Chinese characters to transcribe Japanese.

Around the 9th century two syllabaries, hiragana and katakana, were developed (not alphabets as different vowel sounds are attributed a character, for example ha can be written as either は or ハ). Hiragana arose as cursive abbreviation for kanji and was used primarily by women. The epic Genji Monogatari written by Murasaki Shikibu utilises hiragana and kanji. Katakana on the other hand was the product of priests in Buddhist temples, translating Chinese works into Japanese and inserting katakana beside the kanji as a mnemonic device.

The development of the Japanese writing system into a three fold kana (character) system was necessary as Japanese greatly differed from Chinese. Nowadays, Japanese utilises katakana primarily for loanwords and foreign names. Most Japanese words either use kanji or hiragana and particles are usually written in hiragana.

FIRST STEPS

Before learning any grammar I would strongly suggest learning hiragana and katakana. Do not fall back on writing Japanese out in roman characters [romaji]. Get used to writing and reading katakana and hiragana as soon as you can. Before you know it you will be writing and reading both syllabaries naturally.

If memorising is hard I suggest using memrise.com and this nifty little website in which you drag the kana to their corresponding pronunciations. From there grab a grammar book and get as much vocabulary in you as possible. I used Genki with my class and as a supplement I would read through Tae Kim’s guide. Genki is a bit pricey but Tae Kim’s resources are all available free online.

MEMORY PROBLEMS

Vocabulary is incredibly daunting. I studied French for seven years, grammar was frustrating but easy enough to make sense of, yet I could never remember any vocabulary. I found out about an application called Anki which uses SRS, or spaced repetition. It is a learning technique that uses increasing intervals of time between reviews of previously learned material. This method exploits the spacing effect of our brain in which learning is greater when spaced out over time. Memrise uses the same system as Anki but follows a game format whilst Anki functions offline. With Anki on my computer I create my own decks and add to them as I please, on my phone I use a downloadable deck. Personally I prefer Anki to Memrise but to each their own. A lot of Japanese learners, much more linguistically capable than I, actually don’t use SRS and find it difficult to keep up when you’re busy or on holiday. I can agree to that as whenever I have gone travelling I have seriously neglected any Japanese study.  Give it a go if you have a shitty memory and hate learning vocabulary as I do.

Do not be daunted by kanji! It can be frustrating and overwhelming, but try to find the fun in it. I would say that learning it as soon as you can after hiragana and katakana is a good idea. I use the website wanikani which has its first three levels free. It uses SRS and mnemonic methods to help memorise the meanings and readings. First you learn radicals, components that make up a character, then a kanji – its reading and meaning – and finally some vocabulary. In my spare time I practise writing individual kanji in one notebook with the kanji’s meaning and in another notebook I dedicate to writing down vocabulary. I then practise writing them. I still struggle to remember a lot of kanji and the proper stroke order but I enjoy writing them. There are other methods such as Heisig which uses the mnemonic system of stories. Really it is up to each individual to find a method that suits them best. As I’m a learner that benefits from writing I try to do as much hand-writing exercises.

CONSISTENCY

The first term of my year abroad I spent hours each day studying Japanese. As well as doing Genki exercises, I also signed up for Japanese Kumon course. In Kumon I received worksheets teaching me new grammar. That along with Genki helped reinforce new grammar. Whatever new grammar you learn make sure you practise using it either by writing example sentences or speaking. Get someone to proofread it, if you have no Japanese speakers nearby there are applications and websites in which you can make language exchange partners such as HelloTalk or Lang8.

I would dedicate hours a day to studying. More than just a Japanese class a day. You need to practise vocabulary and grammar everyday in order to improve. Staying motivated is difficult but keep strong! There are plateaus and peaks but keep it going and it will be worth it.

Finally, download a Japanese dictionary on your phone like ‘Japanese’ or ‘Imiwa’, if you only have a computer, websites like Jisho are incredibly useful. All three of these dictionaries have example sentences and kanji stroke order animations.

Good luck Japanese-ing !

Adventures of Fuku-Mimi: Farming, Friends and Farewells

Adventures of Fuku-Mimi: Farming, Friends and Farewells

Finally going to wrap up my winter travellings, it’s been a journey eh?

Having met Mark and asked if I could volunteer at the farmhouse he had acquired I went off to Niino, a tiny village in Hyogo. Spring was dawning yet it was still cold and smatterings of rain came and went. The house itself was gorgeous, needing a lot of work, and freezing at night. Inside was often colder than outside. I slept with two pairs of socks on, leggings, jumpers and my winter coat, sometimes gloves. Staying in a room meant huddling around a space heater, wrapped in blankets. My sleep pattern changed from late nights and 10:30am wake ups to heading to bed once black nights consumed the area and waking up around dawn. It was refreshing to have a regular sleep schedule chasing the sun. Planting seeds and potato spuds with the other volunteer. Cycling around the sparse area. In a bamboo forest behind the property was an abandoned house.  All in all, it was a beautiful place but with little to do especially if your only means of transport was a bicycle. I stayed six days and returned to Kobe to see friends a final time before returning back to university.

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Adventures of Fuku-Mimi: A Month in Kobe

Adventures of Fuku-Mimi: A Month in Kobe

It’s been an awful long time. This is part 3 of my winter/spring holiday travels and it’s only taken several months for me to find time to write about it. I apologise, but goddam, blogging is hard work.

I arrived in Kobe around midnight and wandered around the main road unable to find the hostel I would be volunteering at. I had to be fetched. I was hungry and tired and just wanted to sleep. I did just that and the following morning I was introduced to the staff, residents and work I would be required to do.

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Adventures of Fuku-Mimi: Sendai My Love

Adventures of Fuku-Mimi: Sendai My Love

You might be thinking, why the bad pun, Sam? Because I am British and we are a punny people. Part 2 of my Winter/Spring travels.

 

That was Hokkaido, this is now. Well not now, but a week afterwards. You saw the boat journey, we took it from coast to coast. Reaching Sendai in the morning and catching a bus to the city centre. I’m not sure why we chose Sendai as our next stop, but we did and we went, it was cold but there was less snow. Regarding the city’s planning, it seemed more familiar than Sapporo: giant department stores, walk through shopping arcades and overpasses that looked down onto busy roads, confusing streets you’d get lost in – like a real city.

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Adventures of Fuku-Mimi: Sapporo and Sadness

Adventures of Fuku-Mimi: Sapporo and Sadness

So it’s been a long time. I really tried you know, to do this blogging thing, I’m still going to give it a go because for some masochistic reason I want to be a writer or something along those lines. People tell me they read this and say that I’m good but I don’t trust people, and it’s only very British of me to be self-deprecating and bitter.

After an intense 12 weeks of studying, with no breaks or national holidays followed, my college let us free for Christmas and also gave us a ridiculous Winter/Spring holiday of three months. I went back to the UK all of January and returned the beginning of February.

My honeymoon love of Japan seemed to die as soon as I landed. Unlike my flight to the UK, I didn’t bond with a sweet old Japanese lady sat next to me. I just struggled to sleep. Moreover the mini-tv sets weren’t working so we couldn’t choose what to watch. All you could do was flick through the channels hoping that you caught a film at the beginning. I thought I was timeskipped back to 2001. I really like flying though, it’s grown on me, especially when you catch a gorgeous sunrise.

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I love clouds most of the time so the experience of looking down onto different formations makes the cramped conditions bearable. But really that’s a whole article on its own.

When I landed early in the morning, the next bus to Yamanashi wasn’t until 1:30pm, I didn’t want to kill time in a bland airport so I bought a ticket to Tokyo. Tokyo station. What I really should have said was Shinjuku. Trying to work out how to get from Tokyo station with a couple bulky bags, I ended up relying on a kind woman who helped my buy an extortionate express train ticket to where I needed to go.

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Adventures of Fuku-Mimi: LIBERAL ARTS!

I’m doing pretty well with this blog thing. For someone with a weak understanding of time and schedules, I’ve been updating regularly. You lucky sods.

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On September 1st I moved into the dormitories of ICLA – International College of the Liberal Arts, a new university branch of Yamanashi Gakuin University. YGU is one of the top sports universities in the country and ICLA is its foray into academic excellence or whatever. It’s all shiny and new and has conceptual architecture and expensive weird furniture.

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my high-technology Japnese lamp

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