I’m Back and Ready to Kick Butt in 2018!

Happy New Year, friends!

Yes, I’m finally back. Our trip to Japan was incredible, and I do plan to post about it soon, but for now I want to jump into the “fresh new year full of possibilities” Zeitgeist and resume blogging.

The blog has been quiet, but my life has not! I went to Japan after a twelve-year absence, took a trip home to Michigan and Ohio with a side road trip to Tennessee, continued volunteering, moved again (the photo above is the view from our new home), and continued to think, “I really need to get back to blogging!” pretty much every day. Well, here I am!

I’ve also been doing a lot of reflecting on my goals for my work, my family, and my life in general. Going back to Japan after twelve years reignited my motivation to master Japanese. To be honest, I really haven’t improved my Japanese skills in all that time, I don’t think; in fact, I’m sure I’ve forgotten a lot because I haven’t kept myself immersed in the language. Even on the short trip we took, so much came back to me. I especially realized this when we visited my former host parents and お母さん (Okaasan – “Mother”) mentioned getting out the おつまみ (otsumami – “snacks”) for us to share. If you had asked me one minute prior to that what the word for “snacks” was, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you, even though I knew I’d known it when I lived in Japan. Suddenly it was back in my brain, hopefully to stay!

I desperately want to live in Japan again, but until that opportunity comes, there’s no better time in history to be able to enjoy and learn through Japanese media, which are more available than ever thanks to the internet. In addition, we currently live in the Bay Area of California, a land replete with Japanese markets and bookstores (at least compared to where I’m from!) where I can easily procure Japanese books, food products, and free regional magazines in Japanese, not to mention a decent number of local Japanese people with whom I could speak in person. I really have no excuse to stay in my upper-intermediate rut. Being able to function in Japanese is not good enough — I want to be awesome at it!

With that goal in mind, I’ve joined a kanji-learning site called WaniKani (not a paid endorsement — I wish!). In fact, I’m about to pull the trigger on joining the lifetime membership to the site while their annual sale is still on. Only the first three (out of 60) levels are free, and I’ll soon be finishing the third level. Obviously I like it enough to pay a couple hundred dollars for lifetime.

Out of the 300 or so kanji and vocabulary words I’ve unlocked so far, I already knew almost all of them already (this site teaches kanji in a slightly different order than other books I’ve used), but I’m taking the long view here. Even if it takes me six months or longer to get to mostly-new content, if I know 2000+ kanji and thousands more words in a couple years, it’s worth it! I’ve had many books and found many websites, yet I haven’t been motivated because the goal seems too large. WaniKani’s teaching methods (to be discussed in detail in future posts) and gamification have me motivated to finish it all, while the other books and sites have not. I’ve been in a rut for too long and I think this is my key to being able to pass the JLPT N1 in two or three years.

When I tutor Japanese, I realize how much knowledge I have that I take for granted, and I certainly have a lot to offer beginner and low-intermediate students. I’ve gleaned a ton from all my studies and living and working in Japan, but I haven’t had the motivation to push myself to that higher level. Having the goal of finishing WaniKani will get me there. I’ll be writing much more about this process as I go.

To switch gears, I’m also working on an online TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) certificate, “just to have the piece of paper” as I’m known to say. I’ll be writing about my progress with that as well. I’m already through 11 modules out of 27 or so. It’s supposed to be a 160-hour course, but with my prior experience and knowledge, I think it’ll take me much less time.

Finally, I’m strongly considering becoming certified as a Spanish medical interpreter. I’ll go into detail about how and why in future posts.

As you can see, I have plenty of goals on my plate, long- and short-term, and I plan to use the blog to keep myself accountable and share my experiences for anyone who may be interested in similar pursuits. In addition, I’m always open to tutoring English, Spanish, and Japanese, online or in person.

I hope your 2018 is starting off well, and that you’re just as excited about what’s in store for your year!

明けましておめでとうございます。今年もよろしくお願いします!

¡Prospero año nuevo! Espero que logren sus deseos este año y que 2018 sea un gran éxito para todos.

I Think I’m Learning Japanese: Thoughts From Our Japan Trip

Hey everyone! Thomas here. Lee and I have been meaning to write more posts, but we had a big trip to Japan last month, and between planning for that, and recovery (we tend to take vacations where you need vacations from the vacation, hah!), we’ve been just chilling here.

For myself, I don’t have a huge post to make really, but I just wanted to share my experiences having learned a tiny bit of Japanese, then going to Japan, and what I plan to do with it! So here goes.

What my knowledge was, before the trip:

I “sort of” knew most hiragana, but I didn’t really know much katakana, and only the tiniest bit of Kanji. Super limited! I think I read one shinkansen (bullet train) sign once. Yay!

Speaking and comprehending:

Limited to what I would call “tourist Japanese.” Introducing myself and so forth. I did know how to say I liked something, so proved useful.

How this played out on the trip:

It was the opposite of what you’d expect. You’d think that my very limited Japanese would be of most help in short, common situations day-to-day, while our time spent with Lee’s Japanese friends in deeper, longer conversation would basically eliminate me from the conversational mix! In reality, the opposite was true. When we would walk around Tokyo, Niigata, Kyoto, Osaka, and Hiroshima (the cities we visited, all lovely!), you need to know how to say and understand something *immediately.* So I would clam up, and let Lee do the work here (who is far, far more advanced than I).

However, when we visited Lee’s friends, I could sit back and just listen, and I was able to pick out various things. At minimum, I could discern the general topics of conversations, which was nice (this, I think, was the result of studying enough of the language to at least have a since of its rhythm and flow; in other words, my ear was somewhat tuned to it). It also gave me the opportunity to speak the few sentences and thoughts that I could: basically, whenever the conversation moved to a place where I had a thought I could express, I said something (probably much to everyone’s amusement). Usually I was expressing things like “I like bean paste,” which is “watashi wa an suki desu.” Or, to write this properly: 私は好きです。

Mostly, though, I was really inspired. I just loved visiting Japan! I could feel my love of the country blossom in particular when we were in Osaka, which I have decided is my favorite Japanese city. Osaka is every bit the glowing, modern metropolis, but it has a slightly gritty, down to earth feeling, which I like! This is also reflected in the people, who have a reputation of being more gregarious and fun loving.

So because of this, I have decided on a mid-term goal: To study for and pass the JLPT N5, which is the Japanese Language Proficiency Test. N5 is the easiest level, but it would not be a trivial accomplishment. It would represent a sort of “bare minimum” to get by as a non-native speaker of Japanese, which might sound easy, but we’re talking something like 800 words of vocabulary here (which sounds scary until you realize simple things like “1” (ichi) count in this).

The test is in December, but I still have a lot of work to do! I’ll keep everyone updated on my progress here.

-Thomas

I Think I’m Learning Japanese, Part III: Kanji!

みんな おはよう! That’s “Minna ohayou,” or, “Good morning everyone!”

I’m back with another progress report on my Japanese self-study.

I’ve gotten just about all of the hiragana memorized, but I’m lagging on the katakana, so I have to get on that! My verbal Japanese is coming along nicely. I’m able to introduce myself pretty easily now, say where I’m from, and ask simple questions. It’s all very, very basic stuff, but it feels great and I have confidence I’m on the right path this time, versus the many false starts I have had.

So that brings another topic. One that is very intimidating. Kanji.

Unlike hiragana and katakana, which are really just alphabets like ours, kanji is a pictorial system borrowed from the Chinese that represents ideas and sounds with pictures. There are, I think, two things that make kanji appear intimidating: how bizarre it looks, at first, and the sheer amount of them.

I work in the video game industry, and I have sometimes assisted in language localization on some projects. When converting to Japanese, one of the technical challenges faced by developers is a font may have something like 5000 kanji characters in the font, yet the actual Japanese language has tens of thousands of kanji. While many of these are out-of-use characters from the past, not all of them are, and invariably the translators we hire choose one that isn’t actually in the font! When this happens, the computer renders a plane square or some other “error” character, telling us there is a problem.

So when studying Japanese as a beginner, kanji seems horrifying. However, Lee has a great collection of Japanese learning books at home, and I found a terrific one that has made the process of kanji learning fun! It’s called Read Japanese Today by Len Walsh.

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Learning Japanese with TokyoTreat!

こんにちは!Konnichiwa! What’s up, my 友達 (tomodachi — friends)? I’ve been meaning to start posts like today’s for a long time, but life has been quite busy. I’m getting it done today, though!

I wanted to share a method I’ve used for a long time to study languages: reading product packaging! I’m sure that doesn’t sound exciting, but especially once you get beyond the very beginning stages of language learning, deciphering packaging can be a very useful way to learn common vocabulary and grammar.

Before we go any further, if you’re studying Japanese, you really have to learn the two phonetic syllabaries — ひらがな hiragana and カタカナkatakana. There’s just no getting around it. Learning how Japanese is written is by far the best way to get your pronunciation and listening comprehension on point, in addition to the obvious reading and writing skills.

Japanese is not that hard to pronounce most of the time, but if you’re trying to use ローマ字 roomaji (“Roman characters” — or good ol’ English letters) to learn Japanese pronunciation, you’ll likely end up with a very strong accent at best, or at worst, you’ll be incomprehensible to native speakers. Learning the kana (the collective term for hiragana and katakana) will go a long way in keeping your pronunciation on track.

Chinese characters used in Japanese — 漢字 kanji — are also extremely important, but they can be learned over a much longer period of time, and as needed. Kana, however, should be learned as soon as possible once you’ve decided to study Japanese. It will take a few hours, probably, but they’re hours well spent.

When I was learning kana I used old-school flashcards made of paper! Nowadays, of course, there are tons of apps, computer programs, books, whatever you prefer. My co-contributor here, Thomas Typo, will likely make a post about the methods he’s currently using to study beginner-level Japanese, but I know you can easily find support for your preferred method.

I’m going into all this because if you want to study Japanese with product packaging, you really need to know kana at a minimum. Of course, being able to look up kanji you don’t know is also necessary, but if you don’t know kana, even a lot of Japanese dictionaries will be far less useful to you. Just learn ’em!

Now, I currently live in the Bay Area of California where we are blessed with several Japanese grocery stores and even two Japantowns! I’ve been loving that aspect of living here! But what if you don’t have easy access to Japanese products? Well, that’s where TokyoTreat can help. There are other similar subscription crates out there but this is the one I’ve tried and I’m happy with it so far. I wrote an introductory post about it here. I admit that I’m behind in even opening the boxes beyond January because I want to review each one at least a little bit in order and give each one the attention it deserves. That’s obsessive of me, I know. I’ll get to the new ones!

I wanted to share some bits I noticed from the January box.

The main words on the above package are chenjikoora shuwaboo sofutokyandi. The first and third words are very easy to understand — “change cola” and “soft candy,” very simple if you know English and can read katakana. The biggest word, written in big rainbow katakana, was one I didn’t know. I know that bou (pronounced with a long “o” sound — reminder that you need to learn kana so you won’t pronounce things as in English!) means “stick” and that part is self-explanatory since it’s a stick of candy. But what about shuwa?

The little blue dialog bubble next to the blue squid gives a clue. It says shuwashuwa paudaa. All right, some kind of powder. But I didn’t know what shuwashuwa meant. I went to one of my favorite Japanese dictionaries, Jisho.org, and looked it up. Success! It means “bubbliness (of a carbonated drink); sound of bubbles (of a carbonated drink); fluffiness (of a cake, souffle or whipped cream).

This candy is basically a stick of taffy (orange flavor and lemon flavor, as the red and orange bubbles say) with powder inside. The idea is that when you chew the taffy and it mixes with the powder, the whole shebang turns into cola flavor in your mouth! Personally, I’m not a fan of cola flavor in general — I’m a rare American who never drinks pop — and I’m not the biggest fan of lemon or orange flavors, either. So while I agree that the taste does change to resemble cola, I wasn’t a fan of this particular candy, just because of the flavors.

But even though I didn’t love this candy, I learned a new word! Japanese has tons of onomatopoeic words, and I know very few of them. This candy was not bubbly or fluffy as shuwashuwa would suggest, but I think they gave it that description because it’s supposed to remind you of the bubbly taste of cola.

I’ll mention one other small part of this package, the bit that is next to the brown squid. It says orenji + remon issho ni tabero to coora!? That explains the main draw of this candy, that if you add the orange and lemon flavors together with the powder, it makes cola. This little phrase reinforces that if you want to say something is together, you say issho ni — it reminds you that the particle ni is what goes with issho. It’s also an example of the construction of verb + to = result. If you eat the orange and lemon flavors, the result is a cola flavor.

Well, I’ll end here for this post, but I have lots of other TokyoTreat snacks to comment on! I want to make this a regular feature. Your Japanese level will determine how useful these posts are to you, but I hope that you can learn something from even the simplest package, as I did here. 読んでくれてありがとう!また今度いっしょに読んで勉強しましょうね。Thanks for reading! Next time let’s read and learn some more together, all right?

 

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“Thank You Day” and the Good and Bad of Japanese Customer Service

In Japan, today is “Thank You Day.” Today is 3/9 — well, it still is here in California, anyway.

Numbers in Japanese have several possible pronunciations, so there’s a lot of wordplay based on that. Business phone numbers will often reflect the business’ service in some way by combining the pronunciations of the numbers in a way that makes a phrase relating to the business. This page has a lot of examples.

Today is “Thank You Day” in Japan because one way to pronounce the numbers 3 and 9 is “san kyu,” or “thank you.” Isn’t that cute? The above picture explains it. It’s from the Facebook page 今日は何の日, which means “What Day Is Today.” The little sign says, “いつも見てくれてありがとうございます,” which means “Thank you for always looking (at this page/site).”


I saw a listing for a freelance job editing mystery shopper narratives and decided to apply. The application requires a short writing sample about a good or bad customer service experience, so I’m going to include it right here and let my writing do double duty! I don’t know if the job will be right for my circumstances, but it won’t hurt to write a short entry, as follows:

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I Think I’m Learning Japanese, Part II: Learning How to Learn

It’s Thomas again, or, rather: Watashi wa Thomas Typo, yoroshiku onegaishimasu!

That was: I am Thomas Typo, pleased to meet you!

I’ve been working diligently on learning Japanese in time for our trip in April,* and so far it is going well.

Here is an inventory of what I’ve learned so far:

  1. I’ve memorized maybe 50-70% of the hiragana, and a few katakana. A lot of work left to go, but it’s getting there!
  2. I’ve learned some basic phrases for introducing myself, and more importantly how to ask people how to say things in Japanese (so I can practice without going back to English when talking to Lee for practice).
  3. I’ve ditched what isn’t helping me right now, and I’m focusing what I need instead.

Let’s look at number 3 for a little bit. The first time I tried to learn Japanese, I made the mistake of trying to learn using just one method. This was bad. You probably need to use several different apps/books/tools if you aren’t paying for private lessons (which is in my opinion the best way to learn anything**). However, I was beginning to get the opposite problem: by trying to do too much, I wasn’t learning much of anything!

In my case, I turned off the writing module in the Learning Japanese app (which I continue to use and enjoy!). Writing is great, but it isn’t helping me now with my goals — to attain an ability to have basic conversations and to read simple things.

There is also the issue of finding time. I’ve set aside the hours of 9pm-10pm on most days for study (that is when our oldest daughter goes to bed, so it is a good time to study!). However, I realized that I have about an hour per day of commuting in the car to work. I should totally use that for study!

So to do that, I went shopping on Amazon for an audiobook, and found this one: Learn Japanese with Innovative Language’s Proven Language System.

What I purchased was a bundle for ten dollars that included their introductory boot camp, as well as the more in-depth lessons. What I like most about this audiobook is that it is not just a simple phrase-teaching book. They go into great detail on the culture and context of the language, and even have little pop culture quizzes that are quite fun! I feel like this is doing a good job of not just teaching me a language, but helping me to understand the overall culture better.

Here’s an example: there is an easy-to-remember word for “yes” in Japanese, called “hai” (pronounced like our “hi”). This is easy enough, but did you know that Japanese people will say this while listening to another person speak? You might hear a person say “hai, hai” throughout a conversation. In our culture, interjecting this way might be considered rude (imagine someone saying “uh huh” a lot while you talk: you probably don’t like that, and think they are brushing you aside or not paying attention). In Japan, however, it is the opposite: it’s considered weird to not say anything, and saying “hai” (and other interjections) is a way to let the speaker know you are following the conversation. That’s great to know!

That’s it for now — as I keep learning, I’ll keep reporting. I hope my ruminations are helpful and possibly a little inspiring! I can definitely say I’m having a lot of fun studying a second language!

*Obviously not mastering Japanese, but learning enough to feel like I’m not totally lost!

**I admit that I teach private guitar lessons, so I’m biased here!

Daily Audio Bible — iPhone App Review

If you’re like me, you don’t have enough hours in the day to get done all the things you wish you could do. Does that sound familiar?

One thing that’s important to me is increasing my knowledge of the Bible. Don’t worry; this is not a proselytizing post! But it is a post about another resource for practicing languages if you’re open to learning more about the Bible, even if just to study it as literature.

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I Think I’m Learning Japanese

Thomas Typo here.

So over the years since being married to Lee, I’ve wanted to learn Japanese, which is one of the languages she knows. Back in 2008, I purchased Rosetta Stone with the meager tax refund we had. I worked on it pretty dutifully (at least I remember doing that!), but despite using the product consistently for many hours, I really didn’t learn a whole lot outside of random vocabulary (“Watashi wa Thomas Typo desu,” meaning “I am Thomas Typo,” and tamago being “egg” and so forth).

The reason is that Rosetta Stone — while being really cool and slickly marketed — attempts to imitate an immersion environment. That is, they want to dispense with grammar and structure and just have you learn the language “naturally,” like your first language.

Well… yeah. I’m skeptical that approach works. I have an adult mind, and structure helps fast-track learning in a way that pretending to immerse yourself does not. A baby is surrounded by native speakers 24/7. When you consider how long most children take to speak reasonably well (years, despite being *totally* immersed!), is that really the best model for an adult?

Anyway, we have a trip coming up to Japan soon so I was inspired once again to try to learn the language. Since language is a huge part of this blog, I’m going to blog about my progress and review the various educational products I try along the way!

So far, I am using an app called “Easy Japanese,” and I’m pretty excited about my progress! What Lee and I like about it is that it combines vocabulary, grammar, and hiragana/katakana in a holistic fashion in bite-sized lessons. If I’m busy, I could easily get a lesson in that is meaningful in 20 minutes. As I continue to use this app, I’ll let you all know here how useful we find it! It comes free to try, with all lessons combined costing $5.99. Not bad; certainly much cheaper than Rosetta Stone…

I look forward to reporting my progress with Japanese, as well as reviewing all the educational materials I try!