Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Yes We Could've

It has been a sad ten years for the American people and it is shaping up to be a sad ten more.

Tomorrow is the 10th anniversary of the arrival of the first prisoners detained at Guantanamo Bay.  As despicable as it is that the United States government ever operated the facility, the fact that it is still open with 171 prisoners held without trial is a sad testament to the morality (or impotence) of our leaders, our politicians, and our people.

This isn't a simple matter of inheriting a bad legacy from the previous administration.  By passing the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012, authorizing the arrest and imprisonment without charge or trial of terrorism suspects, Congress recently demonstrated a renewed commitment to the policies that led to the creation of the Guantanamo Bay prison in the first place.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Bon Nouvel An

12 years ago, almost to the day, my wife and I started learning Japanese.  It began when my wife gave me Pimsleur's Japanese 1 for Christmas 2000.  We studied together for the following 8 years, driving to San Francisco almost every Saturday to take lessons at Soko Gakuen, spending every Saturday and Sunday evening watching Japanese programming on KTSF, and most other evenings practicing Kanji and vocabulary flashcards.  It was a lot of work, but I really enjoyed it.  For the first time in my life, I felt like I was capable of learning another language (as a point of reference: I studied Spanish for 5 years in High School & College and can't say I ever felt competent in Spanish).

Finally, we moved to Japan in October 2007 where we lived for the following 2 and a half years.  That also marked the end of our studies.  During our time in Japan, I spent pretty much all day every day conversing and corresponding in Japanese, so I feel that my reading, speaking, and understanding skills continued to improve, but I stopped learning new vocabulary and stopped hand writing Kanji so I feel like I left Japan in some ways worse off than I had arrived.

Since returning to the U.S., I have been on the fence about resuming my Japanese studies.  While I really enjoyed learning the language and met a number of kind and interesting people through my studies, it just isn't practical for me to continue.  I have no intention of going back to Japan to work, my current work doesn't require Japanese skills, I've never been very keen on anime, and while being able to play Japanese video games in their native language is a neat trick, it really isn't worth spending years of your life for.

So it is with some sadness that I've finally decided that I won't be resuming my Japanese studies for the foreseeable future.

As a sort of final trip down memory lane (and possible reminder list should I decide later to study Japanese again), here is are some of the reference books that I found invaluable in learning Japanese:
  1. Japanese for Busy People Volume 1, 2, and 3.  Kana versions, of course.  If you aren't willing to learn the Kana, then you might as well stop pretending you are going to learn Japanese.  These are a great place to start learning grammar, vocabulary, and kanji.  Once you finish all 3 volumes, you are probably ready to take level 3 of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test.
  2. After you pass the level 3 test, it is time to start studying for the level 2 and level 1 tests.  Really, the JLPT tests can be thought of as two sets of tests: level 4 and level 3 are for beginners; level 2 and level 1 are intermediate/advanced.  The grammar covered in the level 4 & 3 tests is very similar, but level 3 is harder due to including more vocabulary and Kanji.  Likewise, level 2 and level 1 cover almost the same grammer, but level 1 requires almost twice as much kanji and level 2.  Anyway, when you get to studying for the level 2 and level 1 tests, you have to pick up a copy of どんな時どう使う日本語表現文型500 from ALC Press.  I found this book to be absolutely invaluable; my copy is well-worn with lots of notes in the margins.
  3. Now, to actually prepare for the level 2 and level 1 tests, I recommend the following study guides:
    1. 日本語能力試験1・2級試験問題と正解
    2. 日本語能力試験2級受験問題集
    3. 完全マスター2級:日本語能力試験文法問題対策
    4. 完全マスター:日本語能力試験1・2レブル:語彙 
  4. Finally, if you are thinking of living and working in Japan, I highly recommend getting a copy of 敬語これだけBOOK.  I picked this up on a whim while waiting in line at a bookstore and simply cannot recommend it enough.  People will tell you that you don't need to know 敬語(keigo)...they are lying.  Unless you have a significant other who can take care of your housing arrangements you will need keigo.  Unless you work for a foreign company (where you can speak English) or you have no intention of working or researching in a professional office environment, you will need keigo.  This book is extremely easy to understand; it consists of a series of situations where keigo would be appropriate and tells you 3 acceptable phrases -- ranked "good", "better", and "best" -- for each scenario along with a brief explanation why one phrase might be better than another.  This books was written for young people in Japan, who also have trouble with honorific speech, so the opposing page consists of 3 common mistakes with explanations of why the phrases are wrong.  As a non-native speaker, you can reasonably skip reading the mistake page -- if nothing else, skipping it will make sure that you don't have the wrong words floating around in your head ready to slip out when it matters most.  Seriously, get this book.
Other than that, I highly recommend the full 3-course Pimsleur Japanese language program to anyone getting started with learning Japanese.  I'd go so far as to suggest that you complete the entire first course -- 30 lessons -- before you even start with the Japanese for Busy People books.  Buying the series new is pricey, so check with your local library, E-bay, or Craigslist for a used copy.

Finally, if you are in the San Francisco Bay Area, you have a great local resource in Soko Gakuen.  It is a non-profit language school associated with the Buddhist church in San Francisco's Japantown.  The classes are reasonably-priced, have small class sizes, and are taught by great teachers.  My wife and I took classes there every quarter for over 6 years.

So, what now?

Next up, we are trying our hands at learning French (hence the title of this post).  We started the same way we had success with learning Japanese: with the Pimsleur Language Program.  We're still on the first course, but so far, so good.  Here's hoping that our studies will, again, lead to something rewarding.

Happy New Year!