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December 29, 2005

New Year's Resolutions for Learning Japanese

So, how did your 2005 New Year's resolutions turn out? Yep, mine were mostly flops too. I didn't learn that new programming language (or even decide what it would be). I didn't lose X pounds either. I think I made some resolutions for learning Japanese, but they've probably been long-since erased with the rest of my BT email.

Since the new year is less than a week away, it's time to start thinking about new ones. I think that my main foci for the year are going to be learning kanji and getting ready for the JLPT.

First, the boring stuff. I'm almost finished reviewing lesson 6 of "Japanese for Everyone." That's as far as I got with Japanese lessons earlier this year, so I'm going to try to finish it off this week and begin lesson 7 next week/year. I have 21 lessons left. In theory I could finish the book in a year if I try to master a lesson every 2 weeks.

I'm not sure how realistic that is, though, because the other areas are going to take time. I definitely want to take the JLPT next December, level 3 if possible. I was hoping to do it this year, but school prevented it. Next year for sure.

I really, really want to make serious progress on kanji, though. The standard advice for language learning is to start reading as soon as possible for practice in translation, vocabulary and grammar. That's fine for languages with reasonably-sized alphabets or syllabaries. However, the kanji make that very difficult to do in Japanese. If you know the Roman alphabet, you can learn the Greek, Cyrillic or even Hebrew alphabets in a day or two. For that matter, you can learn the Japanese hiragana and katakana in a day or two. However, if you want to read a newspaper or magazine, you need to know not just the syllabaries but several thousand kanji as well, and you can't learn those in a day or two.

For the past 1.5 years I've been playing around with the Heisig method and even made it through 600 (or so) characters of the first book. That's not enough progress to be satisfying: I still can't read a newspaper or magazine (although I do plan to get a copy of Shonen Jump, where most kanji have furigana--that could be a big help). It'd be really nice to do the first 2000 kanji in the next year. The question is how to get there. It's a big mountain to climb no matter which path you choose.

Choice 1 is to stick with the Heisig method. I like the Heisig method. In order to do 2000 kanji (the first 2 books), I'd have to do each book in 6 months. That would mean learning to recognize and write about 12 characters per weekday (leaving weekends for review) from January through June, then learning the readings of those characters (12 per day again) from July through December. That would be about an hour per day. I don't think it's unrealistic, considering that I have 2 hours of commuting every day. If I can get into a vanpool, I could do 12 per day pretty easily.

Choice 2 is to ditch Heisig and go the traditional route of rote memorization. It has worked in the past for other languages, and it would give some more immediate results than Heisig (where you learn meanings and readings entirely separately). Thanks to the Barnes & Noble used book section and someone who decided to sell all of his Japanese learning books, I have copies of "Essential Kanji" and "Reading and Writing Japanese".

I do still believe in the Heisig method, although my own dedication to the method hasn't been very steady. I like the idea of learning all the meanings first, grouped in a logical order (by common primitive elements rather than simply by frequency of occurrence), and I like the idea of learning all the readings in groups as Heisig presents them in Book 2. However, "Essential Kanji" seems like it takes a middle road: according to the introduction it still presents characters and reading together in a huge long list, but does group them by common readings and seems to work along the lines of what Heisig calls "signal primitives".

I may give rote memorization a trial of a few days to see how it works out, then commit to one of the methods for the next year. When I was in college (and high school Spanish) my typical M.O. was simply to read through a straight vocabulary list a few times and I'd have them learned. Maybe I still have the brainpower to make it work.

As for language learning in general, I don't really have any resoutions, just things I'd like to accomplish. I'd like to warm up my Greek again and complete another Pimsleur course, maybe German or Mandarin. Probably Mandarin. I haven't really thought about it much: there's too much yet to do with Japanese, and too little time to do it all. I'd like to finish up the article I'm writing about the things I've learned in a year (* 1.5) of learning Japanese, and am thinking about starting up (yet another) site with learning advice, reviews, etc.

So what are your resolutions for learning languages, especially Japanese? Post them here (or a link to them elsewhere), and then you'll have something to check as the year progresses.

Permalink | Posted by Joe at 10:18 AM | Comments (2)

December 18, 2005


What a month it's been. Ever since Thanksgiving it's been non-stop schoolwork: first a group project for database design, then a group project for project management, then two exams this past Tuesday and Wednesday. That database exam was one of the worst I've ever taken.

But Wednesday night I uploaded my project management exam and that was the end of school for the semester. Ok, the midnight phone call from a classmate was the real end of the semester, I guess.

On Thursday I started my new job. Wow. It's going to be interesting: they're so swamped with work and hiring contractors so quickly that no one has time to sit down and show me what I'm going to be doing. That's actually pretty fun: on Thursday I sat down and started reading all the general documentation I could find, then got some hints about the system I'd be working on. Friday I talked to the project manager and found out that I'm going to be starting on the automation end of things, which should be fun and not too unfamiliar since that's the type of thing I was doing at BT.

It's going to be interesting.

Permalink | Posted by Joe at 09:53 PM | Comments (0)

December 01, 2005

Still more Skype: Someone, please speak to these people!

Somewhere in Tokyo a professor or two recently told his English classes to use Skype to get some English conversation practice. How do I know this? I know this because The Mixxer, a great language exchange site, has recently had about 3 dozen new users from Japan who are looking to practice their English. Now the number of Japanese looking to practice English is almost double the number of English speakers looking to practice Japanese.

If you have any interest in speaking Japanese at all, no matter what your level, sign up at The Mixxer and help out a few of these people!

Permalink | Posted by Joe at 11:09 PM | Comments (4)

More Skypitude

I spent Sunday afternoon and evening working on our database group project at the apartment of another group member. As midnight approached I really needed to get home, but we also really needed to keep working. The solution turned out to be our good friend Skype. With Skype we were able to keep working till 3am, and the next night until 4am. Wait a minute. Is this supposed to be a good thing? Oh well, at least we handed in our project on time.

Permalink | Posted by Joe at 11:03 PM | Comments (0)

What a month

Well, November was quite a ride.

As previously noted, on October 26 my company announced that it was laying off 14 people in order to make its quarterly budget, and I was one of them. It wasn't a huge surprise, since the company has been constantly laying off people since 2001. I'd been carrying over vacation time for years and keeping my resume up to date.

As soon as I got the news I started the job search. As usual, there were lots of calls from headhunters promising the world and delivering nothing. I did my own job searching, sent in a resume for a C/SQL/Unix programming job in Lansing (about 75 miles away), and got an interview on November 11. It didn't look too promising, though, since they really wanted 3 years of C programming experience: I have been doing C since 1987, but only had about a year on the job. Otherwise the job market has been pretty slim. I hand-delivered a resume for a Unix admin job at a local healthcare company but didn't hear anything.

November 15 was my last day at work. I spent the rest of that week trying to catch up on errands, homework, etc. There were no job calls, no prospects at all. On the 21st I was on my way out the door when I had a call from the consulting company handling the Lansing job: the managers wanted a second interview, a technical interview on the phone, and it was scheduled for the next day.

On November 22, the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, I spoke with a really nice recruiting manager at 11 am and by noon I had a job offer. On the downside, the job is 75 miles each way. On the upside, it's a 25% pay raise over my job at BT, and I'll finally be working as a C programmer, a job I've wanted since 1988. Needless to say, we had a nice Thanksgiving this year.

The rest of the month has been busy. The end of the semester is coming at Grand Valley and in both classes we have major group projects due. We worked about 30 hours on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday to deliver the first project on Tuesday evening. Now we're rushing to finish up the second project, which is due next Wednesday. After that it's one week until final exams, and on December 15 I start my new job.

I'm looking forward to the job. The commute won't be pleasant, especially during a Michigan winter, but overall the new job will be a good thing. We're quickly looking into selling the house and moving, but I don't think it's going to happen anytime soon.

As I've said, what a month!

Permalink | Posted by Joe at 09:22 PM | Comments (0)