There is a wealth of tools, applications, and media available to facilitate the study of Japanese. It is truly amazing that people managed to learn without them. The following is a list of these tools and brief description of how I integrate them into my personal studies.
Heisig’s Remembering the Kanji (Volumes I and II)
James Heisig’s timeless method is a structured approach to learning kanji, the Chinese characters that are pervasive in written Japanese. Volume I guides students through a mapping process of Chinese characters to English meanings (for example 人 to person) using anecdotes to help students remember radicals, components of kanji, and stroke order. It is very important to note that this alone is not a perfect method of learning Japanese. There are many words that are comprised of kanji whose corresponding Heisig meanings make no sense whatsoever when combined. Not to mention that you can memorize all 2042 characters in the Heisig kanji for common use list and still be completely illiterate. This is where Volume II comes in. After (or simultaneously if you’re particularly daring) a grueling trek through Volume I, Volume II revisits the same kanji, but this time gives the readings and example vocabulary along with them. While traversing this long process, your vocabulary and reading will become exponentially better. Upon completing this, you have not achieved fluency, rather a new beginning in your ability to learn new vocabulary at an accelerated pace.
Actually staying with the process is a challenge of its own. If you are fortunate enough to own an iOS device, there is an app available for around $10, which is even less than the physical copy of Heisig’s book. The app is nearly perfect, incorporating both volumes into a unified application that allows you to switch between them with the push of a button. Also included is a well-developed flashcard system that allows you to create study lists and promotes repeated practice. The pseudo-random order of the flashcards seems to be an algorithm that aims to review specific kanji at optimal times, usually based on common radicals or groupings. I can honestly say that if it weren’t for this application, I likely would have dropped out of Heisig yet again.
If you don’t have an iOS device, all is not lost. There is a free piece of software called Anki that offers flashcard review for Heisig. The beauty of Anki is its ability to easily find and download decks, which are crafted by its extremely dedicated community. There is also an Android (and iOS) version of Anki that allows you to sync your desktop flashcards to your mobile device. If the Anki flashcards are not enough to get you started, you can also purchase physical copies of Heisig’s books via Amazon and other online retailers.
No matter how you do it, memorizing the kanji for common use simply cannot be avoided.
Feeds: Twitter vs. The News
While trudging through Heisig, it is important to actually apply the kanji that you are memorizing. The best way to do this is to have constant and varied reading material. Any Japanese student knows that the Japanese we are taught in the classroom is extremely different than colloquial Japanese. When compiling a list of reading material, remember to have a rich mixture of formal language and vernacular.
The best news site that I’ve come across for Japanese reading and listening practice is the Fuji News Network. The format of the news is absolutely perfect. I cannot stress this enough. Find an article that sounds interesting and there is usually a video embedded on the page that has an anchor reading nearly the exact text below. Personally, I like to watch the video just to see what I can understand first. After that I translate the article, select key vocabulary, and watch the video again once or twice more to get down exactly what they’re saying. This is amazing practice, because it offers excellent listening and reading practice simultaneously. Best of all, if you have no idea what they’re saying, you can read the passage below and try again. This integrated reinforcement of listening and reading is a large part of my daily regiment. It’s so simple, yet so powerful.
On the other hand, if you look at my Twitter feed, it’s all young and famous Japanese people who barrage their followers with colloquialisms about the trials and tribulations of their day to day lives. While maybe not phrases or vernacular that I can use often, it offers a refreshing contrast to the seriousness of the news and helps me to be well-rounded in my reading.
The idea that I’m trying to convey here is that it’s important to have a spectrum of reading material in order to expose yourself to a variety of vocabulary and grammar structures (whether they are appropriate or not).
Movies, Books, Music, and other Media
…are hard to come by. Especially if you go about the legal channels. I found out early on in my studies that iTunes, Amazon, etc. require a Japanese credit card in order to purchase Japanese goods from their sites. While this is incredibly frustrating, there are many legal ways to enjoy Japanese media.
Grooveshark and J-Lyric.net (and to a Lesser Extent Spotify and Pandora)
While somewhat inconvenient if you’re away from Wi-Fi or decent cellular coverage, Grooveshark offers an excellent selection of Japanese music to grace your ears with. The suggested artists are usually very helpful, and I have expanded my Japanese music library significantly because of this site. Spotify’s and Pandora’s Japanese music selection seems somewhat dated, but both are still a viable source of audio media.
J-Lyric.net is a pretty cool site simply because it provides the functionality that you would expect from any other Japanese site: the ability to interact with the text on the page. So far, it’s the only lyric site that I’ve been able to use Rikaikun/Rikaichan (browser extensions that I will discuss later on) with.
Netflix and YouTube
As it grows in popularity with its absurdly low prices, Netflix’s selection keeps on improving, including its selection of Japanese films. While most of them are J-Horror movies that offer extremely gender-specific dialogue, it is a fun way to spend a couple hours and learn some new phrases.
You can find pretty much anything on YouTube, and dorama and PVs are no exception.
Japan the Beautiful and Myself
In my humble opinion, Japanese literature is the most advanced and refined in the world. There is a world of quality Japanese literature, classic and contemporary, that is simply unmatched. After taking a Japanese literature class, I’ve developed quite a fascination with it, and I can tell you first hand that coming by literature in its original Japanese is often difficult or pricey. A lot of older short stories and poetry are sometimes available for free, but for the most part, it seems like you have to shell out the cash if you want the real thing. Short stories are a great place to start in terms of reading and translation, rather than delving into a full-fledged novel. My only caveat is that often the text is not copyable, which can make translating difficult without the proper tools.
Rikaikun and Rikaichan are two browser extensions for Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox respectively. Rather than wasting time copying and pasting text into an online dictionary, these two tools allow you to hover over text to provide meanings and readings for kanji compounds and other diction. You can also view single kanji, their meaning, and even their place in Heisig. The sheer amount of time that these tools save in translating is staggering, however, make sure that you don’t use them as a crutch. As for which tool to choose, it should be noted that Rikaichan, the Firefox version, allows you to download a dictionary of names as well. Sadly, the Chrome version does not offer the same functionality. While I personally prefer Google Chrome as a browser, I often find my self using Firefox solely because of the names dictionary.
大辞林 (Daijirin) is a real Japanese dictionary app for Japanese people available for iOS. While the application is expensive, it provides extremely useful functionality for reading printed materials: the ability to draw a kanji rather than using radical-building tools, which can be slow and often difficult to use. This is definitely a tool for more advanced Japanese students, because the definitions are in Japanese as well.
This guide is a work in progress. It’s a project that I’m going to continue to update with more detailed information and more useful tips as I have more time and improve my own methods. I would greatly appreciate any feedback that you may have, as well as tools you’re using or have used that have been helpful to you.
I would like to give special thanks to my good friend and mentor of Japanese studies, Kyle, who constantly gave me advice and showed me many of the things that I wrote about here. Visit his personal website at http://www.kyle-gearhart.com.
Until next time…