Turning Japanese

One of the biggest hurdles in learning Japanese is taking that step from learning basic/intermediate Japanese in class to reading actual Japanese literature, whether that’s newspapers or the latest Harry Potter. For me, the problem is rarely grammar, but frequently kanji and vocabulary. I’m always working on that in some form or other, but recently I was told that Japanese Ph.D. students need to know 1,000 kanji on entering the program. Ouch. To see how far I have to go, I printed out a list of the kyouiku kanji, the 1,006 characters Japanese kids learn in elementary school*, and tested myself on their readings and meanings. Good news: I could come up with a fair bit for most of them even with no context for the characters, and I was able to get at least something for almost all of them. Bad news: most isn’t all, and even if I remember the meanings and readings of characters A and B I may not know the reading and meaning of the word AB. Worse news: I was surprisingly bad at getting all of the information for the “easiest” characters. What’s happening is that I learned a lot of characters way back when and never saw them again. Remember the character for bamboo? You probably do (I did), but when’s the last time you read anything with the word bamboo in it? It’s one of the first characters they teach because it’s simple and a simplified version of it is part of other kanji. A lot of the ones I’m forgetting are like that: easy, but I haven’t seen them in years.

I’m now doing all sorts of stuff both to remember that which time has left in the dust and to learn new kanji. But this is a common problem, everyone who studies Japanese faces it at some point. So I thought I would post mini-reviews of some of the best resources I’ve found for pushing yourself from intermediate/advanced into advanced/fluent.

Japanese Cultural Episodes for Speed Reading is pretty much what it says it is. It’s not intended to teach grammar (or vocabulary, really). Instead, it has 74 roughly one page-long essays on simple cultural questions like “Do you greet people you don’t know in the apartment elevator?” featuring various fake characters. There are eight or twelve questions after each reading to ensure that you understood it, followed by a short vocab list.

I have to admit, I love this book. I’ve only just started using it, but it’s wonderful. The vocab list is nice, but it’s also clearly meant to be cumulative: どうりょう is defined (“colleague”) in episode one, but when it shows up again in episode four you’re expected to remember it. And they go out of their way to ensure that words like that pop up again, so you get to see useful words multiple times (repetition is key for remembering that stuff). They give you furigana in the readings for names (a sticking point for most Japanese-learners), but nothing else, so you don’t use it as a crutch. If I get to a word and look at its meaning only to find that it’s incredibly simple, I know immediately that I need to study. In works with tons of furigana, sometimes I catch the furigana out of the corner of my eye and read that before even noticing the actual kanji. That doesn’t help me practice.

Final verdict: This book rocks. It’s an easy read, but it incorporates a variety of words that you’re likely to hear (unlike those textbooks that teach you words you may hear once in a blue moon), and it supports both reviewing kanji you know and learning those you don’t. It’s a great way to keep your hand in, if you’re worried about forgetting what you’ve learned.

*Apparently they’re reviewing and expanding this list this spring. That kind of depresses me.


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