Saturday, May 9, 2009

What a long, strange trip it's been

I've come a long, long way since I began in late August of last year. I'm cruising along quite comfortably now, but it hasn't always been this way. I've written in detail about my trials and errors and I've extensively gotten my hands dirty and tested new things in order to figure out exactly what worked best for me, and what did not; that's simply the kind of learner I am. If there's a different way to do something, you'd better believe I'm gonna give it a try. This is sometimes met with success... and sometimes not. Mileage varies, to be sure, but one important fact remains above all else: no matter what I end up doing, I'm still learning Japanese. 

The method is only a minor detail in the grand scheme of things - the most important thing of all is enjoying the ride, because it's gonna be a very, very long one.

So, what have I learned throughout my trial and error? Well, I'll tell you. The following should not be taken as gospel, as there is no such thing when it comes to language acquisition - if it works for you, do it. If it doesn't, change it. I hope that by sharing my experiences and opinions, I can help others discover and form their own.

  • Music
If makes plenty of sense that music is a recommended tool for language acquisition. Repetitive choruses, catchy hooks and common thematic elements should be quite easy to pick up in music, right? But it just doesn't seem to do a whole lot for me.

You know, maybe it's just the way I listen to music in general, but I don't usually pay a whole lot of attention to the lyrics. Perhaps it's the kind of music I listen to, which is often very melodic, heavy and... well, loud. Lyrics are great and some of my favorite music is absolutely brilliant and poetic in its lyrical content, but it's not something I actively pay attention to - if I can clearly hear and interpret the lyrics, I'll do so. Pop, folk and country music are examples of genres where lyrics are prominently featured and quite difficult to miss. Meanwhile, I doubt you're gonna care nearly as much about lyrics in, say, death metal or shoegaze where they tend to take the back seat to the much more powerful instrumental elements.

Maybe the solution is more Japanese country music.

Whatever the case may be, I don't find myself learning very much from listening to music. YMMV.

  • Subbed material
One of the most prevalent doctrines I've come across is the principle that subbed material is detrimental to the learning process of a language. For the most part, I agree: consider the massive popularity of fansubbed anime, for instance, and that most fans know only the most common of words and phrases. This is no slight against them, because most anime fans have no (or little) desire to learn the language; they simply want to enjoy the show in a language they understand. In that case, of course, subs aren't going to go very far where language learning is concerned.

Conversely, if one is actively working to acquire a language, they'll presumably be paying far more attention to the spoken language than the typical sub watcher. Assuming the subtitles are fairly accurate, a learner with basic knowledge of the language should be able to very easily pick out spoken words to match with subtitles. Without the aid of subs, the watcher is left entirely to context, which may be confusingly ambiguous given the situation, and may be passed up entirely.
In my experience, this has been the case. I certainly pick up plenty of goodies when I watch raw material, but at the point I'm currently at in my "journey", I find myself soaking up a heck of a lot more vocabulary from subtitled stuff. But don't get me wrong - this is not a case of which is better for learning, but a case of two entirely different methods with very different kinds of learning. Whereas one picks up on patterns and words through repetition and context from raw material, one has a more direct, unambiguous link via subtitles, and I believe the brain handles either instance differently.

I must note that subbed material still makes up only a very small portion of what I watch. Ultimately, however, I've found that subbed material is most definitely not the scaly, fire breathing devil it's demonized as by the community at large. Give it a try and see if you get anything out of it - see if you can follow the spoken dialogue and subs at the same time and keep a good dictionary handy (preferably going J-J, if you're manly enough!).

  • Monolingual dictionaries and J-J in general
Ahh yes, the much feared concept of J-J, which even many advanced-level Japanese learners still avoid! The basic idea is that looking up words in a Japanese to Japanese dictionary will give you the most accurate definition in the context of - surprise, surprise! - Japanese, without the many ambiguities and inaccuracies of Japanese to English, all the while giving you crucial exposure to the language and building a familiarity with the way a J-dic works.

It's easy to understand why people might get a little nervous at the prospect of looking an unknown word in a largely unknown language, for obvious reasons which I need not elaborate upon. It's not uncommon for me having to look up words within definitions within definitions, sometimes up to half a dozen or more generations. This can indeed quickly get tiring, but considering how much you've just learned by leaping from word to word, the benefit is right there in plain sight.
Even more profound is the fact that, even if a definition contains several words you don't understand, you can still quite likely get a very good idea of what the word means by the other words in the definition that you can understand. You'll realize this more as you get comfortable to the layout of the dictionary. It's quite a powerful thing, and it gives you access to a huge world of language acquisition at your finger tips.

One thing I've struggled a bit on, however, has been adding J-J definitions to my SRS. For the most part, I found that it's simply too time consuming, tedious and generally not beneficial enough to warrant all the extra typing and copy-pasting - at least not unless the unknown word or words are really tricky ones. Besides, my sentence decks are already, for the most part, monolingual. If the source sentence comes with a translation, I'll paste that too, but I have to highlight it with my mouse in order to make it show up (thanks to some very simple HTML tagging in Anki).

  • One deck to rule them all?
Some months ago, I consolidated my good ol' RTK deck with my growing sentences deck. At the time, it was the best solution to tackle my growing problem of reviewing two relatively beefy decks at the same time, and it worked pretty well. Though I find reviewing RTK cards quite dull, this sorta forced me to get them out of the way before sinking my teeth into the sweet, cream-filled center of the sentences within - gotta eat the vegetables before getting to the dessert, basically.
But boy, did that deck start getting messy and disorganized quickly. I don't keep much of anything meticulous and perfectly arranged, but talk about a bunch of bloat. This wasn't particularly the fault of a consolidated deck as it was my own overzealous experimentation with importing material from spreadsheets and iKnow, resulting in more bloat than Windows Vista and Rush Limbaugh combined. I kept up the reviews regardless.
Recently, I made a brand new deck as something of a supplement, and something of a "fresh start" - that meticulous, clean deck I've sorta always wanted (which, of course, would build up its own clutter over time as well), focusing on NukeMarine and co's awesome 2001KO lists on, vocabulary and onyomi in general. It was then that I realized once again the benefit of having multiple decks - more focused and flexible reviewing.

When it came time to back up Anki for my reformat last week to give Windows 7 a try (pretty slick OS, by the way!), I made the decision to split these two decks into three: RTK would become its own deck once again, as would all my 900~ grammar sentences, and my new, growing vocabulary/onyomi deck. I've been quite happy with this setup. Sure, it means more neglecting my RTK deck while I focus on the two others, but as I've said in the past... I don't think anything can make reviewing that deck any less dull. Luckily, the writing I do when I review sentences goes a long way in reinforcing my mnemonics, so perhaps I can soon retire that poor ol' bag of bones? We'll see... At any rate, I'm back to multiple decks and quite comfortable.

  • Importing SRS material
Letting a spreadsheet or Anki plugin do the hard work and injecting slews of new material into your deck. This is a very tempting proposition, especially considering how much time it takes to enter hundreds, thousands of your own sentences. In some cases, it tends to work out quite well, too - Tae Kim's grammar guide comes to mind.

However, assume you import one thousand new sentences from, each containing a new word you're not familiar with. Will the plugin even import the image and audio along with it? Will it import the kana correctly? If you're like me and prefer to break up kana with spaces and highlight key vocabulary, you're pretty much S.O.L. there, too.
But most of all, doesn't this sort of go against the whole idea of the SRS, where you're technically meant to "learn" the sentence first, before throwing it into the thing? Or, at the very least, having a vague familiarity with the sentence. In my experience, it's that complete unfamiliarity that completely ruins the process of importing material, causing me to spend significantly more time reviewing and frustratingly failing cards, without any sense of association between image, audio, kanji and the sentence itself. 

Allowing yourself time to build those associations beforehand seems like a very important step, which is why I do almost all of my adding by hand. It takes time, to be sure, but my brain thanks me later when I don't have to strain during the already intensive reviewing process to make sense of all this junk! Besides, I can also ensure that I have everything in place the way I want it (as I outlined above) with no unwanted surprises, no B.S., nothing that will slow me down or distract me.

  • Distractions and Concentration
If there's anything more detrimental to progress than distraction, I sure don't want to be on the receiving end of it. I'm sure this is something that everyone is more than a little familiar with, in any line of study or work or what have you: you're chugging along on a project when, suddenly, something inexplicably distracts you from your work and completely derails your concentration. If you're anything like me, it takes time to regain that state of concentration and focus. Whatever that distraction may be - instant messages, door bell from the mail man, booty call on the telephone, dog on fire, fire alarm from the dog on fire, building burning down around you - you can be certain that your focus will be left in shambles after some amount of (or magnitude of) distractions.
If there's a way to prevent this broken focus, I sure haven't found it yet. It helps me to quiet my mind and meditate for a short period of time, certainly, but this is only one step of many back to the path of concentration. The trick is, of course, to prevent these distractions entirely... but that's easier said than done.

One of the tools I sometimes use is, which is just that - simply white/pink/brown noise in the most literal sense, which is actually quite soothing to listening to and does a great job in muffling nearby sounds. The side effect is that this could just as easily muffle any audio cards, but I haven't really had this problem (I do wear headphones often, though).

Another solution for avoiding distraction is finding the best times in the day when possible distractions are kept to the bare minimum. Again, easier said than done, especially for the more busy and active among us. Personally, the early afternoon works well for me, when I can comfortably invest a good hour of uninterrupted SRS review time. When it comes time to add more sentences, distractions aren't as big a deal since that process is a little more mechanical and doesn't require as many mental cogs working in tandem. 

Your mileage, once again, may vary. Sometimes, I just have days where I wake up on the wrong side of the bed and can't seem to focus at all, distractions or none. In those cases I just have to suck it up and do the best I can, which is really the only thing I can do. Other times, I'll go for a week straight with my mind blazing, plowing through anything thrown at me with ease and a pristine clarity. Man, I wish I had those more often.

  • Video games: not just for antisocial kids!
Looking back, as a jaded 20-something, it's easy to grimace at all the time I wasted on video games since a very early age. At the same time, they've undoubtedly helped shape me into who I am today (ahem, for better or worse!), and the experiences have stuck with me quite profoundly. It was largely the classic RPGs of the early 90s that influenced my greatest interests and hobbies (writing, Japanese culture and language, etc), so I can't regret those countless spent hours.

Lucky for me, they'd serve another, far more practical purpose further down the road. I've begun replaying many of them in Japanese, of course, and since I know a great deal of the dialogue by heart, I've found it incredibly easy to adapt to the Japanese script and pick up phrases and words. 
The most recent example is Final Fantasy 6 (classically known as Final Fantasy 3 here in the USA), a game I've probably played to completion a dozen times since its release in 1994. It still ranks as one of my favorite games of all time, and my very favorite Final Fantasy game along with 4. A memorable cast of many, an epic struggle versus an oppressive, power hungry empire (hey now, it was one of the first RPGs to do it, practically!) and dark, thematic elements I had never seen in a game before (many of which were, in fact, censored from the original SNES release). It seemed like the perfect choice of a game to replay, and now a few hours in, I'm sure I made the right choice. Loads of text and a story I already know like the back of my hand makes for some highly effective language learning.

Another example was Cave Story, which was actually only recently released, in 2004. I discovered it about two years ago and loved it to pieces, got the itch to play it again recently, and of course did so in Japanese (this time completing the insane difficulty "hell mode", to boot!).

Even if your past experience with RPGs (and any other text heavy game with a Japanese release, really) is nonexistent, I highly recommend picking up a few. I can hardly imagine a more fun language learning activity, personally.

That covers most of the bases for the time being. Needless to say, I've gotten my hands dirty in the brief time I've spent so far, and yet, I feel like I've barely scratched the surface. There's much experimentation, trial and error ahead, and much to learn. Never a dull moment, that's for sure, but considering how long the road to fluency is, this is nothing but a good thing.


Thomas ( said...

I played Dragon Quest 5 recently on my DS and found it pretty easy to follow along in Japanese (with a little help from the dictionary every now and then). I recommend it if you are looking to improve your Japanese with video games.

And Dragon Quest 9 is coming out in July.

Burritolingus said...

Sweet, I'll definitely put it on my to-do list. I've actually barely played any DQ games, now that I think about it. Could never get into the old NES games, and never got around to any of the others - whoops.