We’ll continue the interview with Sugu, the JET teacher in Hamamatsu now. If you missed it, be sure to check out Part 1! In this section of the interview Sugu gives us information about his Japanese study methods, and the gear that helps him along the way.
Q: Just to ensure readers don’t get the wrong idea here, but you mentioned you sort through Japanese law as it pertains to ALTs needs as part of your job… But this is not to say you read Japanese law, in Japanese… Right? (Even me with my academic Japanese background would sweat if I had to do that!)
Well, I do read Japanese law….in Japanese. Does that mean I understand it all? Nope. My Japanese is nowhere near that level. But I read what I can, translate/interpret what I can, and ask my boss and other Japanese friends and fluent people for help when I can’t do it. In fact, oftentimes I don’t feel like my Japanese is getting better, but I’m becoming more resourceful at finding answers. For example, just the other day, I translated a web page about driving in Japan and how to pass the driving test for an ALT. Using my e-dictionary and many other resources (which I’ll talk about later), it was a very slow process and I’m sure that it would have been much easier for Harvey, but eventually I finished it. And yes, dear readers, Harvey has helped me on a number of translation questions, despite his modesty.
Q: I understand that despite the fact that you came to Japan with zero Japanese, you now speak quite a bit. How did you learn? Were there any particular books that helped you out? What advice would you give to other JapanNewbie’s regarding their language study?
I learned probably the hardest way possible. I learned the hiragana and katakana alphabet right before I came. That enabled me to read……something. In Japan, I joined a semi-professional choir, and learned kendo at my schools and a dojo. Then, I would design my classes so that the students would teach me Japanese while they learned English at the same time. It seemed to work. Of course, my Japanese is very limited now to music, hitting people with swords, and boogers. I didn’t really learn from books, but I talked to EVERYBODY I could. Grocery store clerks, convenience store clerks, banking tellers, choir people, my teachers, bartenders. Everyday, I played real-life Taboo. I would highly recommend doing what I did…as a MINIMUM. Study hard but speak to everyone possible.
One thing that helped me was that for everything I wanted to say in English, I would test myself and see how to say it in Japanese. If I didn’t know how, I would ask someone. All of my Japanese was built on top of each other. But now, after three years of living here, I realize that my Japanese, unlike other languages I’ve studied, is still very foreign to me. Rather than picking up the language, I’ve picked up pieces of the language, random and erratic. I can’t talk about how the cat is on the chair, but I can say with relative ease that honestly, I can’t eat anymore of Mr. Ed but I’ll have another glass of beer.
So because of my random Japanese, I started studying for the Japanese Proficiency Language Test, hoping that that will more than anything else, plug in the gaps.
Q: On that note, any books, gadgets or other gear you would recommend to people wanting to learn Japanese?
Of course. My significant other’s brother’s hobby is actually keeping up to date on electronic dictionaries and he keeps an entire arsenal of them. As an additional service, he keeps me up to date on the best value, and as a result, here is my list, depending on need.
First, if you can find it, the Seiko RM-2000 is a good buy for complete beginners. Everything about it is in the roman script, so learners can read. Unfortunately, they don’t make them anymore, but it might be possible to get a used one. My girlfriend actually uses this and it has helped her a lot. And I’ve been able to see it in action.
However, I bought my first dictionary into my second year. I personally hated learning Japanese through the roman alphabet, so I was ok with the Japanese kanji. It was a Sharp PW-M800. Small, compact, but basic. One of those good-enough-for-now-types. I outgrew it eventually, but it was great while I had it. I used it all the time and I got a lot out of it.
My new baby, however, is the Casio Ex-Word XD-GW9600. Amazing piece of gadgetry. You can actually write the kanji as you see it (stroke order is irrelevant) and if it can identify it, you can still look it up. It also comes with the Oxford Dictionary of English (English to English) and their Thesaurus (which I’ve found invaluable in many of my writings).
Other tools at my disposal were Declan Software’s Read/Write Kanji. This is one of the first programs that I bought while learning Japanese. It teaches all 1,895 of the common kanji, as well as stroke order, meanings, and readings. It tests you on them 10 at a time, so if you learn one, that particular one is removed, but replaced by the next one in the list. That way, you’re always learning 10 at a time (or more, if you choose) with various difficulty.
I also use KanjiQuick, a really good dictionary program for the computer. You can search all sorts of different words, but also add words to your own custom dictionary. It doesn’t go into sentence construction or grammar or those rules, but it definitely helped me with learning the kanji.
Outside of gadgetry and technology, I use the following books:
Jack Halpern’s Kodansha Kanji Learner’s Dictionary (which is also available as an add-on dictionary for my Casio e-dictionary). To use a JapanNewbie term, freaking amazing! This book offers a new way to look up the kanji that makes more sense to a foreigner. Halpern’s method does not require knowledge of radicals or even accurate stroke count. It has error entries, ie. how most learners would mistakenly count a kanji is there with a correction, so the learner won’t be lost. Also, scattered throughout the web is a lot of praise and accolade for Jack Halpern’s translation of the different kanji. Apparently his translations and meanings are not only far more accurate, but also understandable for a learner.
Boye Lafayette De Mente’s Japan’s Cultural Code Words. When one learns language, invariably, one has to learn culture with it. This book takes a good look at some of the nuanced phrases that the Japanese know and “live” by. Helps to understand important concepts behinds the words. For example, Western culture tends to view the heart as the emotional center of a person. Japanese view the stomach as that same center. As a result, phrases like “stomach twisting” take a different meaning in Japan than they would in the West.
That’s a lot of gear! Thanks! Actually I plan to buy the GW-9600 dictionary as well. Hopefully soon… As soon as my wife lets me afford it…
That’s a wrap for part 2. Stay tuned for part 3 which will be posted in a few days! In part 3, Sugu tells us more about what it is that would make a JET stick around in Japan for 3 years.
Official JET homepage
GuruSugu.com – Sugu’s website