Wednesday, November 24, 2010

A Note on Foreign Languages

Here I sit, in my room at almost 6 am, after a largely sleepless night. My friend William asked me earlier if I could help him with Chinese and Japanese. I thought it would be tutoring him in grammar or something. Turns out, he just wanted to know how to do it. I'm taking out my parts of the conversation and editing them into a respectable post, because this blog's reason for being is foreign languages.

First, let me say this:  I HATE people who say they aren't language people or they don't have a knack for it.  It's a shit ton of work no matter how you split it, but motivation and practice make perfect.  If you can remember just one thing remember that: practice makes perfect, persistence wins the battle and attitude begets results.  You can do it, even if it's after 1,000 failures.

If you think about it, you don't have an encyclopedic knowledge of every word and grammatical pattern in your native language (in this case, English) at your disposal. Also, shocking news: you probably only used about 10,000 words. And you probably use less than 200 grammatical patterns. And you're considered fluent. Congratulations. Okay, so how do we start adding languages?

1. It's not English, so don't force it into being English. A method might be to make an equation of a grammatical point. The boy kicks the ball SUBJECT(article NOUN) verb OBJECT(article NOUN). You can do that with Chinese, French, Greek, Nahuatl and so forth if you treat it that way. It might be old fashion and inaccurate, but it might help 80% of the time.

2. Try using your target language as often as you can - even if it's speaking to yourself. You will feel more confident with it and you'll get a feel for what is natural and what isn't. Open the refrigerator and think "I will open the fridge, I am opening the fridge, I opened the fridge" in your target language: you'll be using 2-3 grammatical patterns an elementary level, and you can build on it to higher levels. Speaking the language to yourself makes you comfortable with speaking in general.

3. If you have the opportunity to get a tutor (even if you're just talking to a friend who speaks the language), ask them if you can talk in the language and correct the most GLARING errors. By focusing on larger trends in your deficiencies, you'll break down your largest obstacles. As you go on, you'll save yourself from those mistakes, and then you won't make those mistakes anymore. And your tutor can correct the finer points as you progress. In the same vein, if you know that XYZ is "book," don't study it. "Study automatic vending machine" instead.

4. Don't stress over it. Don't expect perfection and don't worry about mistakes. You're obviously NOT XXXXX. Even if you were, you live in YYYYY. And unless you went to a language school or were immersed in language XXXX-ese since a young age, you're going to make mistakes.  Most people you talk to will at least try to make the effort to communicate.

5. Also, while writing, reading, listening or speaking while thinking in your target language. It will cut down on time and you won't go "He said 'I will do to ihfiewhade... what is sugfuegw? OMFG I don't know this!!!! DEERINHEADLIGHTS'" If you're in language mode, you'll think "Okay he said "I will go to thejhdsgfjhbce because I'm hungry.' I thought I heard "student" in there... student... hungry.... ah-hah - student cafeteria.'" Just keep at it and it will become automatic.

6. Don't cram for 4 hours a day... at once. If you want to study 4 hours a day, do it in maybe 30 minute bursts a few hours apart. And it can be as simple as making a deck of 20 vocabulary flash cards here, reading from the text there, Skyping friend X on Thursdays for an hour. You'll digest the material easier and you'll become adept with switching gears quicker and quicker. Do you have an iPod touch or something like that? Download flash card apps - especially if you can make your own lists - to study on the go. Listening AND reading no matter where you go! You have your iPhone everywhere anyway. Whip it out do a few cards while you're waiting for the prof to come in, while you're in line at the store, poopin'. Seriously. We have some of the most ingeniously convenient technology and we carry it everywhere... and we use it for Plants vs Zombies.  Download songs in your target language, watch TV and movies, read anything from shampoo labels to the newspaper.  While we're at it, try writing a blog, diary or anything else.

7. You are an intelligent, bright person starting to speak a second (third, fourth...) language. Some people can speak very well in their second language, but only know a few words and fairly simple grammar (they stay at an intermediate level, you should be able to hold a basic debate or give broad-strokes explanation about something). You may not be able to deliver a speech in Japanese about the finer parts of thermonuclear dynamics, and no one expects you too, but surely you can tell some one about that funny thing that happened the other day. And which are you going to use most often?

8. Have fun with the words. Children learn languages by babbling. Try it. Say suihanki slowly, tasting each syllable. Say it in a yakuza accent. Say it fast, slow, angrily, lovingly -- sing it. Write the kanji and make up stories to remember them. Use your hands to act out a sentence. Engage your body and your mind.

9. Keep a daily journal in said language. Go back and review it every so often. Edit it, have people help you edit it. Use EVERY kanji you can as often as you can when reading or writing. Write vocab on index cards and stick them to things. "DOOR" goes on the door, WINDOW on the window... Seeing them daily helps make the language part of your daily life.

10. Listen to the target language as often as you can. Download music you like, podcasts on topics that interest you personally or professionally. Watch movies and TV shows unsubbed. New research and theories suggest that listening to a target languages 2 years before trying to speak it yields better results in comprehension and pronunciation. Increased listening while already speaking a language also boosts comprehension and pronunciation.

Lastly: search "The Theory of Multiple Intelligences." You should be able to find a quiz or two that will take 15 minutes and allow you to find out how you learn. Apply that to your endeavors, especially if you're young. We're forced at a young age to learn by one mode, and although a student might be brilliant, he or she might not learn math well if it's taught as abstract symbols. They might need to move jellybeans into jars. You might not learn Japanese from reading a textbook by rote, but you might learn it by conversation, or a comic strip from the newspaper into Japanese.

And visit this website:

Yeah. There are A MILLION ways to learn something.

Right now you're are 100% Engish. You're maybe 25% fluent in Japanese and 12% Chinese (for arguement's sake). You could have started the two at the same time, so long as you keep them separate there should be no problems. Say you have Chinese class 3 hours and 45 mins a week. Spend another 12 outside class and alternate it with 12 hours of Japanese a week (Monday Japanese, Tuesday Chinese....) a half hour here and a half hour there. Try and do it when you feel best. If you for some reason are a studying machine when watching prime time TV on Thursdays, that is 45 mins of, say writing kanji while doing flashcards during commercials. BOOM - done.

Don't forget to keep yourself interested and self motivated. You are not doing this for a just grade, right? You obviously want to learn the language(s). Why? You like the culture, you think it's a beautiful language, you want to live in China, Taiwan, Japan.... Whatever the reason, you have some sort of GOAL to obtain that's not just LEARN IT FOR FRIDAY'S TEST. You're learning it because it's something you WANT TO DO. Too many people say "When am I going to need to use French?" When you want to go to France, maybe? When you meet that special someone who's Swiss? When you go Quebec for business? In those three scenarios are three valid scenarios with different degrees of need behind them, all of which have some degree of motivation behind them. Find out your reason and never for get it. And never drop a language. It will come back to haunt you when you least expect it.

You're doing something very difficult and that is impressive in and of itself. If you're hazy but getting it, that's amazing. If you can make sense of it, you're pretty much a genius. If you have some rudimentary degree of command and proficiency when trying to make a complex sentence there is NOTHING stopping you from becoming fluent in time. It's not going to be over night. And it might not be in a year.It might take 10. But I'm willing to bet it'll be less than that.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

About Japanese Verbs - Plain Form

Level 5 – Honorific/Humble: certain words are substituted to increase the politeness level
To eat: meshi-wo-agarimasu (honorific) / itadakimasu (humble)
Level 4 – Without using Level 5, we can still achieve a higher level of politeness by changing the verbs into their “~masu” form
To eat: tabemasu
Level 3 – By using “desu” at the end of a Level 2 verb, we can bump up the politeness of a sentence without sounding too formal or too informal
To eat: taberu desu
Level 2 – An intimate form used between close friends and family as well as in the smaller phrases that occur in complex sentences, such as “the boy wearing a blue coat”
To eat: taberu
Level 1 – Vulgar or colloquial language; the word choice maybe deliberately course, a matter of sex/gender or dialect
To eat: kuu

Plain Forms (Level 2):
Japanese has several distinct levels of politeness, as noted above. A honorific/humble level (Level 5), a daily formal form, also called the “~masu” form (Level 4). At the familiar level (Level 2), we have the plain/informal form of the verbs. There are several types:

The regular える and いる
Then the semi-irregular groups of: -; -; -; -; -; -; -; -; -
And the completely irregular する andくる

Plain Positive:
These are also called the “dictionary form” because we find verbs in this form while consulting a dictionary. Every verb (including Level 5 and Vulgar/colloquial (Level 1) verbs). In their plain form, these verbs have their own distinct way of behaving.

In their natural form, these verbs are in their imperfect tense (to ~), but can mean “does,” “will do in the future,” or “will as a matter of habit.”

食べる taberu - (to eat)
見る miru - (to see)
履く haku - (to wear pants/shoes)
脱ぐ nugu - (to undress)
貸す kasu - (to lend)
待つ matsu - (to wait)
とる toru - - とった (to take)
*beware: some verbs that end with いる/える conjugate like this type of verb
買う kau - (to buy)
死ぬ shinu - (to die)
読む yomu - (to read)
飛ぶ tobu - (to fly)
する suru - (to do)
くる kuru - (to come)

John eats/will eat sushi. : ジョンは寿司を食べる。

In the case of です (desu), we have two forms: (da: used for casual speech and in newspapers and books) andである (dearu: for formal public addresses, such as speeches and official documents). In the case of true adjectives, we preserve them as is (大きい).
Plain Negative:
In this form, we create the opposite of the plain positive, and as one would think, these words be come “does not~,” “will not do in the future,” or “does not/will not do as a matter of habit.”

いる/える: Remove final and add ない (nai)
食べる食べ食べない taberu - (to not eat)
見る見ない miru - (to not see)

In the other verb's cases, let's make an easier way to conjugate for now and the future. Japanese has 5 types of vowel sounds: A I U E O. If we order these as A = 1, I = 2, U = 3, E = 4 and O = 5. To create the negative, all we must do for these verbs is simply change the U-sound tail into the corresponding A-sound and add ない. This can be called the V(erb-stem)1+ない form.

履く履か履かない hakanai - (to not wear pants/shoes)
脱ぐ脱が脱がない nuganai - (to not undress)
貸す貸さ貸さない kasanai – (to not lend)
待つ待た待たない matanai - (to not wait)
とるとらとらない toranai - - とった (to not take)
*beware: some verbs that end with いる/える conjugate like this type of verb
* the verb あるaru is irregular in this case: あるない to not exist (inanimate)
買う買わ買わない kawanai - (to not buy)
*this form is irregular through out - verbs
死ぬ死な死なない shinanai – (to not die)
読む読ま読まない yomanai – (to not read)
飛ぶ飛ば飛ばない tobanai – (to not fly)

The irregular verbs, being irregular, need to be memorized for their correct conjugation:

する becomes しない shinai – (to not do)
くるbecomes こない konai - (to not come)

John doesn't eat/will not eat sushi. : ジョンは寿司を食べない。

です, becomes じゃない in casual communication or ではない for official documents and public speeches. The final in true adjectives becomes -くない: 大きくない.

Plain Past-Tense:
One of the more vexing plain verb forms comes from a contraction of V2 stem with た; here it's called the V2'ta. Pay close attention to the divisions made because the grouped verbs behave the same:

いる/える: Remove final and add
食べる - 食べ - 食べた (to eat)
見る - - 見た (to see)

/: Change /into いた/いだ. The "ten-ten" remains preserved; i.e.: GU - IDA
履く - - 履いた (worn pants/shoes)
脱ぐ - - 脱いだ (undressed)

: Changes into した
貸す - - 貸した (lent)

//: Becomes った
待つ - - 待った (waited)
とる - - とった (took)
*beware: some いる/える verbs conjugate this way
買う - - 買った (bought)

//: Becomes んだ
死ぬ - - 死んだ (died)
読む - - 読んだ (read)
飛ぶ - - 飛んだ (flown)

Irregular: Must be memorized
する - した (did)
くる (来る) - きた (came)
行く - 行った (went)

True adjectives’ final is removed and is replaced by かった.
新しい - 新し - 新しかった (new)

***Coincidentally, to achieve the PAST-NEGATIVE, all we have to do is conjugate the final -ない like an adjective to get the plain past-negative form.***

食べる食べない食べなかった tabenakatta (did not eat)

です and だ becomeだった in informal exchanges and in books or newpapers. であった is used in the case of official notices or speeches.
The so called -te form is handy. By know it, we can begin to stack sentences to create longer and more complex thoughts, such as creating a sequence of actions, listing qualities and expressing modes of how something is done among other complex ideas. It conjugates like the V2'た form, but we obviously use て instead.

いる/える: Remove final and add
寝る - - 寝て (to sleep)
見る - - 見て (to see)

/: Change /into いて/いで. The ten-ten remains preserved; i.e.: GU - IDE
履く - - 履いて (to put on pants/shoes)
脱ぐ - - 脱いで (to undress)

: Changes into して
貸す - - 貸して (to lend)

//: Becomes って
待つ - - 待って (to wait)
とる - - とって (to take)
*beware: some いる/える verbs conjugate this way
買う - - 買って (to buy)

//: Becomes んで
死ぬ - - 死んで (to die)
読む - - 読んで (to read)
飛ぶ - - 飛んで (to fly)

Irregular: Must be memorized
する - して (to do)
くる (来る) - きて (来て - to come)
行く - 行って (to go)

True adjectives’ final is removed and is replaced by くて.
新しい - 新し - 新しくて (new)

です becomes .

The plain forms are, in general, more useful than the formal -masu forms, because these forms become imbedded phrases, can act like adjectives and are sentences in and of themselves.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Lesson 1: Grammar, Syntax and Nouns

Obviously languages function in a certain way so that their speakers can communicate. In English our basic syntax is SUBJECT VERB OBJECT, as in "The cat drinks the milk." In Japanese, the syntax is SUBJECT OBJECT VERB; ミルク飲みます. However, a grammatical particle must be used, in the cases of English and Japanese to show how the subject, object and verb relate to each other. In English, we use the for this purpose. "The" is a definite article allows use to specify a particular subject and item. The verb too allows us to identify a single milk-drinking cat, so conjugation is also important.

In Japanese, there is a lack of definite articles, a pluralization of nouns and conjugation of plural verbs as well as no separate future tense makes this sentence vague; it could become "the cat drinks the milk," "cats drink milk," or even "the cats will drink milk." So what are we to do?

In the case of nouns, we have a system of numbering related items by type. For instance, cats are small animals, so they have a distinct counting word which can also be used for all small animals. That is to say, things like cats and dogs would have a different counting word than cars or boats. This system is not used as often as one might think; it's only used when the number of a noun needs to be specific.
Occasionally the suffixes like -たち will be used. たち (tachi) means "group" and again, is generally used when a specific group needs to be defined. 猫たち would mean "the group of cats," although using just 猫 would be sufficient to imply cats as a whole. Saying 私たち (watashitachi) would be an acceptable use as it sets apart ME (私) and my group (たち), or simply "we."

Verb conjugation in English is difficult because the verb has to agree with number and tense: I drink, I drank, I will drink, I do not drink, I did not drink, I will not drink, You drink.... etc. Japanese's basic verb conjugations are Present/Future Positive, Present/Future Negative, Past Positive and Past Negative: 飲みます, 飲みません, 飲みました, 飲みませんでした. These conjugations also account for I, you (singular and plural), he/she/it, we, and they.

Now, to reflect the parts of speech, we use post-positional particles. In other words, the particle after the word tells us what its doing in the sentence. は shows us the subject or topic of the sentence. Interestingly, a Japanese sentence does not require a subject; so long as the topic has been introduced and hasn't been changed, we can omit it: 猫はミルクを飲みます。一杯を飲みました。太っています。The cat drinks milk. (It) drank a lot. (It) became (and remains) fat; or even (It) is fat. Our direct object particle を, in this case shows us our direct object (what is affected by a verb) and usually goes before a transitive verb (a verb that needs a subject and an object to work).

Hopefully this was enlightening, and I'm going to be editing and adding to this and all posts constantly.

猫 - neko - cat(s)
ミルク - miruku - milk
飲みます - nomimasu - (will) drink (polite)
私 - watashi - I/me (polite)
私たち - watashitachi - We/us (polite)
飲みません - nomimasen - will/do not drink (polite)
飲みました - nomimashita - drank (polite)
飲みませんでした - nomimasendeshita - did not drink (polite)
は - wa - topic/subject particle; sometimes translated as "Speaking of..." or "As for..."
一杯 - ippai - a lot (of a liquid); literally "one (cup, spoon etc) full"
太っています - futotteimasu - to get (and remain) fat
を - (w)o - marks a direct object taking a transitive verb; the "w" isn't usually pronounced

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Review: The Kodansha Kanji Learner's Dictionary

The Kodansha Kanji Learner's Dictionary
Edited by Jack Halpern
1999, Kodansha International
ISBN 978-4-7700-2855-6
$39.99 US, but can be found as cheap as $24 and change

I have nothing bad to say about this book, save it was expensive when I bought it, but it is worth every penny. This dictionary is easy to use, fairly portable and contains 2200+ kanji. The SKIP system employed by the dictionary could not make it easier to find a character, and each entry has several examples per reading of a given kanji. Just browsing the book makes for an interesting read.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Review: Japanese Step by Step

Japanese Step by Step:
An Innovative Approach to Speaking and Reading Japanese
Nishi, Gene
2000; McGraw-Hill
ISBN 0-658-01490-0
$16.95 US (a new edition will be published soon at $12.00)
New edition pictured; Image from Amazon

I bought this book about 2 years ago and it remains a favorite. I absolutely adore Nishi's code for conjugation, which simplifies the process of conjugating mentally on the fly. His clear, practical and concise explanations are practical and easily bring the student to an intermediate level of grammar. And the index for counters and numbers is a rich resource for the beginning and advanced student.However, vocabulary is somewhat lacking; although it possesses one of the richest compendiums of verbs that I've ever seen, as well as a large index of counter-words,the lack of a comprehensive noun glossary makes this book a little less than adequate for it to remain a core text for self-study.Still, this book is great for a beginner, or if one already knows some Japanese from travel/phrase books and are looking to take the next step without enrolling in a course, or don't want to tackle a textbook.