Nihongo: The Point-and-Speak Edition

In a previous post I talked about the importance of approaching the study of Nihongo (Japanese) in some embodied ways. What I really meant by that was to search around through the myriad of different teaching tools and starting points for learning a complex language like Japanese and find the method that fits the best with your “way of learning.”

IMG_7530 2For some people this starting point will be audio lessons, for others it will be a full college course with structured exercises and homework. For me, Nihongo came alive when I could sit quietly and practice writing hiragana. From there I have been able to recognize the script characters I am writing as I encounter Japanese in its written form—for example as I study signage for public transportation or sushi menus.

In writing that first post, part of what I was also trying to convey was the importance of immersing yourself in the learning process. I think when we tap into our optimal “way of learning” it’s only the beginning of the journey. I can sit for an hour or two and practice writing hiragana, paying close attention to the stroke order and the length and position of each stroke. But I shouldn’t stay here, I need to surround myself with some other formats of learning that I can turn to in order to transform the phonetics of each character into some usable language and communication. Branch out.

So, in this post I thought I would share a handful of the different learning tools that I’ve been introduced to over the past year or so and highlight some of the affordances that they offer. They are each a little different from one another. Each of them have potential for being good starting points for you depending on your “way of learning.” And I can vouch for each of them as being valuable tools to put in your arsenal.

First up is Memrise—an addictive little language-learning app. What I personally like most about it is that it taps into my proclivity for Japanese in its scripted form and reinforces my learning on those levels. The app prompts you with flashes of vocabulary and kana/kanji, and then challenges you to remember and recognize them in and amongst a small constellation of similar words or phrases. The creators of Memrise purport to base the app’s design on principles of brain science and memory. They pitch the power of mems—a coined marketing term (if we’re honest) for “mnemonics, etymologies, amusing videos, photos, example sentences: anything which helps connect what you’re learning and bring it to life.” Coupled with this science they also aim to make the app fun and highly social. My coworker pulls it out at get-togethers all the time and we quiz on it for five or ten minutes. It’s a lot of fun. Makes for a great travel companion. It’s available on both iOS and Android.

Next up is Rocket Languages for Japanese—a must-have for taking steps toward understanding the spoken language—on both formal and informal levels. Using modules and levels it does an amazing job of moving a learner from simple greetings and conversations to much more complex interactions—all couched in the dynamics of modern Japanese culture. I’m almost through with Level One and can safely say that Rocket has helped boost my vocabulary, given me some confidence going into the street-level conversations that I will inevitably have with various locals, and most importantly driven home the nuances of the Japanese system of grammar. Each level can be a bit pricey, but if you keep your eyes open Rocket will frequently offer sales/discounts, especially during holiday periods. Truthfully, the only gripe I have about Rocket is the all too frequent misogynist remarks made by Kenny-san to the real star instructor of each lesson, Sayaka-san. It leaves a real bad taste in the ear if I can coin such an expression. But they both shake it off and she gets in some good counter-punches here and there along the way.

9781626164765_0Rocket can be great for getting a flavor for conversational Japanese, but if you want to understand the Japanese language in its larger cultural and country context then I highly recommend the book The Seven Keys to Communicating in Japan: An Intercultural Approach. Written by three highly accomplished professionals in communication and international business, and part of a series of country-specific books, the work emphasizes the LESCANT (language, environment, social organization, context, authority, nonverbal communication, and time conception) method. I have found it to be a highly digestible, pragmatic, but also conscientious look at the way that modern Japanese people live and how their values set the ground rules for how they speak with both foreigners and with one another. I’m only as far as the section on environment, but even here I have gained a huge appreciation for the ways that the Japanese respect for nature determines many of their living habits, even their urbanization, and how this in turn streamlines and formalizes some of their communication. It’s fascinating.

The last helpful tool I will encourage you to seek out is a local Japanese language or intercultural group. Do a little digging on Facebook for groups in your area and try to find one that meets at a local restaurant or coffee shop on a regular schedule. Here in my area we have a sister city organization (GRSCI Omihachiman) that meets once a month and hosts cultural presentations and language study. In the short time that I have been attending I have had a chance to learn about Noh theatre, kimono, origami, and even the historical role of women in Japanese society. The last hour of each month’s get-together is devoted to practicing spoken Japanese, and it has really helped with my pronunciation and usage. You get to hear directly from native Japanese speakers who can help you separate what you learn in a text book from what really happens in street conversation.

There are lots of other resources I could highlight, but I mainly wanted to provide you with a smattering of different formats that could be a good fit for your “way of learning.” There are apps, there are audio lessons, there are good old-fashioned books, and lots of in-person opportunities to practice. As my coworker says “we have zero excuses!” Indeed, starting next month I will be taking an online one-credit introductory course on kanji, and will have lots of things to say about how that is going for me—it really does stand to help me navigate the signage and other written sources that I’ll need to turn to for help in navigating some of the more rural parts of Japan that I will be traveling through. I’m excited!

Though I have been overwhelmed at times with too many resources I think I’ve finally found my leisurely groove with learning Nihongo. I owe a lot to my coworker and senpai for both throwing me in the forest and slowly but surely helping me find my way out. A very Zen instructor approach actually (whether she realizes it or not). She recently planted a wonderful little book in my hand straight from Japan—The Original “Point-and-Speak” Phrasebook. She handed it to me with the gentle reassurance that I’m never going to be ready for prime-time before I have to disembark in February, so relax a little, when I get there just point and speak. There’s just no way around it, to the vast majority of the Japanese people, I will just be a bumbling gaijin. So embrace it a little. Roll with it. Also very Zen.

It has taken a bit of a load off my shoulders. More than ever I feel like I can approach my ongoing study of Japanese with a genuine curiosity and respect for its history and it’s ever-changing lexicon. Whatever you do, lighten up and enjoy your learning. And with that I leave you with this!

Until next time…Sayanora!

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