• Learning Japanese in Hawaii: what is working

    Niu Valley Middle School has a world language core requirement, either Mandarin Chinese or Japanese.  Once that language is selected, if your child goes on to Kaiser, they must continue in that language unless that language is spoken regularly outside of school.  It's all part of the International Baccalaureate (IB) curriculum the two schools are a part of.

    It drives me crazy to no end because one of my children has absolutely no interest in learning Japanese: it's just a "dumb" requirement that he struggles with and doesn't excel in naturally.

    Short story: I'm determined to show that it can be done with just a minimal commitment.

    As part of my learning plan, I committed 30 minutes a day to some form of learning Japanese.  I use the term "committed" loosely because I'm willing to give myself credit for nearly anything involving Japanese language.  That includes things like quizzing myself on my phone while standing in line at the supermarket or passively listening to language tapes in the car.

    So far, I'm doing better than I expected.  Here's what has been the most effective for me:

  • You Can’t Know What You Don’t Know: How it Applies to Learning a Foreign Language

    The more I work at trying to learn Japanese, the more I think that schools shouldn’t make world language mandatory.  It’s not that I’m not progressing; I am.  In fact, more so than when enrolled in formal classes.

    It really boils down to the learning curve and the amount of time students have to focus on all of their studies.  Foreign language is an exaggerated version of the typical learning process.  Think about all of the time you had to learn your first language.  You had probably heard no less than 10,000 words before you first uttered your own.  To illustrate,  I found a graph from James Ryan, via LinkedIn. 

    graph of the learning curve

    Essentially, it boils down to the space between “you can’t know what you don’t know,” i.e. “unconsciously incompetent” and the next phase, “consciously incompetent.”  This particular graph is drawn somewhat how I expect for a foreign language.  There is a very long period between the two and nearly no progress.  I fear this is where most of us get stuck.  As a toddler, you had no choice but to continue.  As an adult, you do.

    In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell famously made the 10,000 hour rule a household phrase among tiger moms.  Essentially, Gladwell provides empirical evidence to support his idea that it takes no less than 10,000 hours for someone to become proficient at what they do.  Those that get a head start -- for example, kids in Little League born earlier in the recruiting group -- are often given more encouragement and are more likely to continue to practice and to grow.  Ultimately, however, it is the actual application of practice that makes them “prodigies” and not any special inherent talent.

    That’s another shortfall of foreign language in the classroom.  Looking back, didn’t you hate how some of the kids had vast exposure to the language while others did not?  It’s enough to make you not want to start your 10,000 hours at all.

    For me, I failed at foreign language proficiency over and over again.  First at Japanese language school as a kid, then in middle school and high school while taking French and even a bit of Japanese again in high school -- which I honestly took just because my mother speaks Japanese and I would be one of those kids you hate in class.  When I say failed, I don’t mean my grades.  I mean the final result.  Taking Japanese in high school did serve its purpose.  I got good grades, but that’s because I had a stronger foundation to begin with.  I just couldn’t be trusted to communicate effectively with anyone in Japanese.

    I’ve often wondered how people become proficient in foreign language.  This time, largely inspired by one of the Niu Valley Japanese instructors who was successful, I’m determined to give it a consistent effort for one whole year.  To be realistic about whether or not this is something anyone can do, I’ve dedicated a reasonable amount of time to doing so, an average of 30 minutes a day, about 183 hours for the whole year.  

    So far, it’s going better than I anticipated.  I’m planning on sharing some of the techniques I think are working, and some that are not.  Not surprisingly, the current method of teaching world language in schools ranks low on the effectiveness scale.

     

  • It's Too Bad Niu Valley Middle Only Teaches Japanese and Mandarin

    Yesterday my husband lamented the lack of choice in Niu Valley Middle School's world language curriculum.  "It's too bad they only teach Japanese and Chinese," he said.

    Underlying his sentiment, was the added burden of learning a whole new written language.  I had mixed feelings myself.  That is, I really love Spanish -- written in letters that appear familiar to us -- and if you had to pick a language that's second to English in America, it's Spanish.  Spanish is cool.  Spanish is ubiquitous.  Everyone should be able to know their tortas from their tortillas.  If you move to the mainland, you should be able to read half the billboards out there. (although, admittedly, most of those are for phone plans.)

    It is absurd that they don't teach Spanish at Niu Valley, especially because as an International Baccalaureate school that feeds into another, it greatly restricts students.

    I do, however, take exception to my husband's complaint of the "extra step" of learning a new writing system, particularly given the prevalence of the internet today. (As an aside, speaking of written language, as of last month AP Stylebook now suggests that the word internet does not need capitalization.)

    Today, I received an email from my Japanese friend.  She wrote to me in English and in Japanese.  It was nice to be able to read it in both our languages.  Ultimately, there is nothing easy about learning a new language and the writing portion of it is just what comes with the territory.  Academic foreign language courses are about the nitty-gritty, the extra dot above the kanji, the direction of the accent sign, or whether you use an accent sign at all.

    It's also about the perseverance.

    I could, at this point, diverge into the differences between spoken language and written language, but here's the bottom line.  I could have chosen not to learn how to read Japanese since I'm just doing this for myself and for the purpose of communicating with others verbally.  Yet, I find that having the extra tool of writing opens up new doors and new worlds.  By being able to read (albeit slowly), I can check my comprehension at leisure and research vocabulary and grammar too.  I also get a glimpse into another culture.  For instance, by reading NHK's easy news, I get articles that aren't easily flagged for US readership.  This month I learned about Korean citizens' lawsuit against humidifier disinfectant companies.  I read about Obama's visit to Hiroshima from a Japanese viewpoint.  Last month, I read about John Lennon's hair being sold at auction. (The Japanese love the Beatles -- still.)

    Then again, it's also your outlook.  I love crossword puzzles: for no reason.  At least, that's how some would see it.  You spend a huge amount of time filling out blanks, and for what?  Yet, it's fun for me.  It's true that my heart aches for my son who doesn't share my feelings.  And when I was his age, I didn't necessarily love foreign language either.

  • Bargain Karuta and other tips for learning written Japanese in Hawaii

    I'm in heaven.  Today I stopped by at Don Quixote on Kaheka Street and discovered that Book Off used bookstore has opened inside the supermarket.  I bought a set of Karuta from them.

    Karuta is a child's game for learning the Japanese alphabet.  Players race to find the right card as the leader (who has a separate set of reading cards corresponding to the alphabet) reads a passage containing the letter the kids are looking for.  It's a great game concept I've adopted for other learning tasks too, like for teaching the kids multiplication.

    Book Off sells used books and other media such as videos, CDs, and video games.  A little more than half of their stock is Japanese.  Book Off has been in business for some time at Shirokiya.  However,  with the new renovation they opted to move to both the Don Quixote store and Ward Warehouse (next to Hakubundo),  

    My great news is that I scored a practically new karuta set for me and the kids for just $5.  I'll have to read and understand the cards before using them, and that will help my Japanese studies.  The kids will learn from the game itself, where they will race for the right card.

    Book Off is not the only source of great printed material for learning Japanese.  Hawaii Kai Library has a used bookstore in their basement   It is run by the Friends of Hawaii Kai Library and it has a plethora of material, mostly in English but with a handful of Japanese books as well.  Of the Japanese books, a good number of them are children's books written primarily in hiragana and katakana.  Kanji is usually accompanied by alphabet script known as furigana, essentially clues for the reader.  Amazingly, these books usually cost no more than a dollar, with some as inexpensive as 25 cents.

    Another great source of printed material is NHK's "easy news" website.  This site contains a lot of Kanji, but it's all accompanied by furigana.  Additionally, it's also a transcript of audio which you can play while reading along.  For adults like me, it's a good way to learn relevant material you might actually get a chance to use.  As much as I like reading children's books from the Hawaii Kai Library bookstore, I doubt I'll ever have to discuss talking dogs, cats, and mice with other adults.  This site takes me a bit longer to translate because the vocabulary is mostly unfamiliar to me.  In any case, it's completely free and there are usually 3-4 current event pieces for every weekday.  

    (For translation, I like Jisho.org.  I just cut and paste the Kanji from NHK to find what I need to know.  A word of caution on Japanese translation, Google Translate isn't a very good source and I would never use it to directly translate from English to Japanese and send it out.  For individual words, Google will work in a pinch, but I still prefer Jisho.org.)

     

     

  • Typing in Japanese - What you didn't learn 30 years ago at Manoa Language School

    In order to type Japanese characters on an English keyboard, you'll need to install language packs.  The link below will guide you through the steps for either a Macintosh (Apple Computer) or Windows PC.

     Japanese Typing Practice for Beginners (Windows and Mac installation instructions included)

    for those who use Linux, you can use the following instruction set to install fonts, then use the keyboarding guidelines for Windows.

    Adding Japanese Fonts and Typing on Linux

     

    The first link will also take you to a practice site where you can test your ability to type in Japanese.  I'm excerpting the important shortcuts you'll need to know here.  These are tips I wish I had taken the time to learn earlier.

    1.  If you need to create a small character such as the っ in あさって, hit "x" or "l" before the letter that you would like to make small.  You can also do double letters, such as asatte, if that's easier for you. 

    2.  To toggle between modes for Hiragana, Katakana and English, on a Windows PC you can use:

    • Alt-Caps Lock for カタカナ (Katakana)
    • Ctrl-Caps Lock for ひらがな (Hiragana)
    • Either Shift-Caps Lock or Alt-[tilde] toggles AlphaNumeric English and Hiragana
    • Alt-Shift will toggle between language packs, e.g. Japanese Microsoft IME and English

    On an Apple PC you can use:

    • CTRL+SHIFT+j switch to hiragana input
    • CTRL+SHIFT+k switch to katakana input
    • CTRL+SHIFT+; switch to romaji (standard English) input 
    • APPLE + SPACE switch between English/hiragana/katakana

    3.  If you hit the space bar, the computer will suggest a series of different Kanji for your typing.  To avoid using Kanji (I'm at the stage where if I use it, I have to look it up to make sure it hasn't changed into something else), don't use the space bar.  Use [enter] instead. Or, you can hit F6 to accept the typing entirely in hiragana or F7 to accept the typing entirely in katakana. F8 will also toggle between Kanji choices.

    4.  “Reconverting” is essentially calling back the kanji selection list for a word that has already been entered. Select the word you want to change, right click and choose “Reconversion.” On a Mac you can use two fingers on the touchpad to simulate a right click.

    4.  If you make a mistake, don't worry.  In Windows you can still use Ctrl-Z to undo your work.  On the Mac, use Command-Z.

  • Foreign Language Learning