Saturday, March 21, 2009

日本の音楽 Week 9: 五人一首

Ahh - the weekend, the second day of spring and I'm feelin' like a new man. Could there possibly be a better time and place for some Japanese progressive death metal? That's right.

They just don't make too many bands like 五人一首(ごにんいっしゅ, commonly romanized as Gonin-ish). Forced to draw a comparison between 五人一首 and any other band, in a situation of life and death, I'd have no choice but to take a bullet between the eyes. (Cynic or Unexpect would be a stretch, but the closest comparisons I can think of)

Best described as progressive death metal, 五人一首 plays a chaotic, yet melodic and poetic form of music that takes inspiration from a plethora of sources, including progressive rock and metal, death metal and even anime soundtracks. Anoji, the adorably terrifying bleached-blonde frontwoman whose cryptic lyrics are heavily inspired by classical Japanese literature, switches up between a traditional Japanese vocal style to a raspy death scream at the drop of a hat. Due to the nature of the band's lyrics, archaic language is quite common, making 五人一首 a challengingly difficult band to interpret - but that's part of the fun, isn't it?

Man, I love this band.

五人一首 - 無碍の人

Recommended albums:
  • 内視鏡世界 (Naishikyou-sekai)
  • 五人一首 (Gonin-Ish)

A quiet reminder

"To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to the violence of our times."
-Thomas Merton

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Progress, frustration and a light at the end

Phew. So I'm back on track, finally - my SRS is all caught up and, in fact, the vast majority of my existing cards are quite ripe and mature so I'm only having a light trickle of about 25~ expired cards a day. Merging my RTK deck with my sentences was an excellent decision - although awkward at first, it was quite necessary as I'd neglect my poor ol' RTK cards otherwise, and my motivation to get to newer, fresher material under this mountain of RTK kept me plugging away. My kanji isn't suffering as a result, as it was during my period of SRS neglect, and my recognition is better than ever before... as well it should be!

Lately, though, I've really been having a difficult time finding motivation to add new material. I've had success with Tae Kim's grammar-rich sentences (many of which sound kinda unnatural to me, but hey, good practice nonetheless), and I've previously had a lot of success with iKnow (now known as And, of course, I have a pretty decent amount of content to dig through via manga, dramas, movies, games and blogs in Japanese. But lately, none of it has been really doing much for me, which has led to several days of frustration... and subsequently my questioning exactly what the heck I'm doing. Certainly my personal stress, busyness and other factors have taken their toll as of late - normally I'd be up for any and all of the above enjoyable activities, having fun doing them and soaking up some tender, juicy language. Lately, however, this hasn't been so.

I'll avoid getting into personal details, but I certainly do run into these phases once in a while, and they're tough. They take a conscious effort to get out of, as well as time, and as of yet, I've not been able to crawl out of this pit - not quite, anyway. If you've ever experienced this, you'll know exactly what I mean. I know I'll be back on my feet in the next few days, good as new, but trust me when I say it's been a long past couple of weeks!

At any rate, I figured that, in the meantime, I'd give my ol' buddy iKnow a ring and see what he's been up to. We spent a little bit of time together, and I remembered the good times we used to have, going through useful, practical vocabulary together for an hour each day, cementing these words into my head with the help of my bro Anki. Those were the days. It was a systematic approach to learning Japanese that I actually enjoyed, and within weeks, I had a heck of a lot to show for it, from iKnow's first 400 words alone.
And then, our relationship suddenly took a turn for the worst. And as I sat there going through words such as "office president" and "economics", I remembered exactly why we broke up in the first place. For the love of all that is good in this world, why does Step 3 and up have to be so ridiculously boring and stupid? It's quite a shame, since the previous steps are generally smooth sailing, with actual practical vocabulary that most people would want to learn. I suppose that if you wanted to learn Japanese with the intent of studying overseas or working in a professional office environment, you'd get a bit more out of this vocabulary than someone like me who simply just wants a useful foundation of words to build my knowledge off of, but it just ain't gonna work out. Not for me.
Halfway through Step 3 and a slew of unrelated Anki errors later (to add insult to injury), I hung it up and put on a movie. In English.

All right, so I've since cooled off. Actually, I'm feeling pretty damn good now, and I'm ready to jump back into action! Yotsuba never fails to make me smile, I have a slew of awesome games to play through in Japanese (The Last Remnant seems pretty baller so far), and I've decided to poke around at LingQ a little bit more once again.

I briefly mentioned LingQ in a recent post about Steve Kaufmann, a fascinating polygot whom I've come to respect greatly. It's a language learning website/service that emphasizes the importance of reading and listening over everything else. A typical LingQ lesson consists of a relatively short page of text (from any source, really) with an accompanying audio dictation. You read, you listen. If you come across a word you don't understand, you simply highlight it with your mouse, click the LingQ button and save it for later review or reference. When you're done with the lesson, it'll tally up the number of times you've read and listened, and how many words you know (any words you haven't highlighted are assumed known words).
And it doesn't really get much more complicated than that. You can go through flashcards of your unknown words, but 90% of the emphasis is on the reading and listening of this material rather than review. You're encouraged to download audio and listen passively whenever you can, and to frequently reread lessons until your understanding is maximized. (You may also option for the help of a tutor in your writing and speaking, but this is a premium service that I imagine most readers of this blog wouldn't want nor need, albeit quite fairly priced)
Nothing fancy, nothing spectacular... but a fundamentally simple system that has tons of merit and potential.
Japanese (as well as Chinese) is only in its beta stage, but there's an impressive amount of material present already - interesting material, I might add! My biggest complaint is that the website's interface is a little on the clunky side, and the dictionary is occasionally slow which can be a drag when adding a lot of unknown vocab. But the philosophy of the site touches on the fundamental principles of language learning that are easy to forget and ignore when there are dozens of systematic methods and grammar rules at every turn, and is definitely a site worth checking out.

So, armed to the tooth with everything I'd ever need from here on out, I think I can finally see a light at the end of the tunnel that isn't, in fact, a train. I'm optimistic again.

... Although, I could use a few dozen more good Japanese movies. Any suggestions? I love the oldies (Kurosawa, Ichikawa...), but I'd prefer some more recent stuff. You know, because I gotta stay hip like all the cool kids.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

日本の音楽 Week 8: ROVO

It's that time again! This week, I'd like to introduce to you an unusual band known as ROVO, which is best described as an instrumental psychedelic jazz/chillout band with an almost middle-eastern flavor - something like the bastard child of Shpongle and The Boredoms.

In fact, Seiichi Yamamoto of The Boredoms is one of the band's founders, so the influence ain't exactly a coincidence. ROVO features a slew of talented musicians, often combining the skillful blend of guitar, bass, synth, multiple percussion and the band's distinctive electric violin in many of their songs for nothing short of mindblowing results.

ROVO - Condor

ROVO - Nuou

Recommended albums:
  • Mon
  • Imago
  • Nuou
  • Flage

Kaufmann on SRS and sentence mining

Respected and outspoken polygot Steve Kaufmann posted his thoughts on spaced repetition and sentence mining the other day, which I found particularly interesting. 

For those who don't know, Mr. Kaufmann is fluent or near-fluent in nine languages and is the founder of language learning site LingQ, as well as an advocate of learning through reading and listening primarily, as well as an adversary of traditional classroom language teaching. Always interesting to read through his articles and blog posts, as this is obviously a guy who's had an incredible deal of success in his life with language learning.

...they are deliberate learning tools or tasks, that take us away from listening and reading or using the language.
The deliberate review of vocabulary represents less than 10% of my language learning time. Since I have, on average 50 minutes a day to spend on language learning, this means 5 minutes a day on vocabulary review.
Very interesting statements, but not entirely surprising and reinforces a few of my own core beliefs. It certainly seems to me that most folks of the AJATT school of learning tend to apply far too much reliance on SRS (not to mention the systematic mining of learning material), without regard to what they're actually studying. 
I can only take so much SRS at a time until I just can't take it any longer. 60 minutes is my limit, but more commonly I'll top out around 30-45 minutes a day of SRS study. The rest of my "study" time is spent reading (2ch,, manga) or listening (news, dramas, audio books). This seems to be a pretty solid recipe for success, in my mind.

Don't get me wrong; Anki has done wonders on the way I learn language and it's one of the most vital tools in my repetoire. Personally, I don't believe that SRS will necessarily take us away from listening or reading or using the language. But I absolutely cannot fathom going by cramming sentences into my SRS alone in order to reach a higher level of fluency. It's a trap that I think a lot of people fall into, and a very easy one to fall into, at that. Remember why we use SRS and sentence mining in the first place. Remember why we're studying this language in the first place.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

日本の音楽 Week 7: Church of Misery

Hope you like your music heavy, because Church of Misery is thicker than an anvil to the face.

Inspired heavily by the likes of early Black Sabbath and many other 70s psychedelic, stoner and doom metal bands, Church of Misery isn't exactly the kind of underground band from Japan you'd expect to find, but my experiences have long since taught me not to expect anything in particular when it comes to the Japanese underground.

The vast majority of Church of Misery's songs are named after, and written about, heinous serial killers of the not-so-distant past such as Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, Aileen Wuornos and Ed Kemper, to name but a few. It's somewhat of an odd theme for a band, especially one from Tokyo, but it works. The band isn't necessarily glorifying the actions of these individuals, but rather invoking a sinister atmosphere that blends so naturally with their psychedelic, groovy offerings.
Notice the above image of the band, specifically the band shirts they're wearing - you got Nebula, The Stooges, Burzum and Corrupted - four dramatically different inspirations that nonetheless all come through in Church of Misery's music.

They sure ain't for everyone, but Church of Misery personally remains one of my very favorites. I think it's safe to say that most fans of Black Sabbath and ultra-heavy music will find plenty to like in these guys.

Church of Misery - Filth Bitch Boogie (Aileen Wuornos)

Recommended Albums:
  • The Second Coming
  • Master of Brutality

Picking up the pace

Progress is still a lot slower than I'd prefer, but quite manageable and (gasp) enjoyable. Seems as though I've found a sweet spot lately, simply going through a small handful of reviews several times a day (whenever I get a chance and feel like it, really) rather than in large, painful segments once or twice a day. Furthermore, I have a trickle of actual new material going, finally, which is sort of a surprise to my brain which has almost become used to seeing older material (which I may or may not remember). It's a good feeling.

I've decided that I will give iKnow another shot once my expired cards are safely contained in a few days. Looking back, the pros far outweighed the irritating cons (ahem, school and office oriented coma-fodder) - cons that I can avoid by means of deletion or suspention. I feel that vocabulary is still one of my weaker areas, so I'm confident that my ol' chum will see me through once again.

I must confess that I haven't been keeping up on reading very much. I really have no excuse, either, as there's plenty I want to read, not the least of which being several of my favorite manga. I'm gonna see if I can work in one chapter of Yotsuba and Jojo daily, or at least something along those lines. I long for the day when Berserk is within my grasp, but I suppose that's a goal to work at!