Adventures in Slowed-down Japanese

So, my latest project is watching this video:

Why this video?

Why not?  I like dogs.  Also, because it is scripted, everything should be clear with no stumbling or fumbling for words, nobody changing thoughts in mid-sentence and nobody talking over anybody else.

(A Japanese friend sends me short audio clips in English to transcribe for him, and his clips have all of the above problems.  They drive him nuts.)

My problem is that it’s pretty fast, so I wanted to slow it down.  Audacity to the rescue.  Audacity is a free program much favored by musicians, because one of its features is the ability to slow down playback without changing the pitch.  The sound quality of the slowed-down playback isn’t exactly pristine, but it’s good enough for my purposes, and now I can catch every single syllable.

Step one was to rip the audio from the video and then use Audacity to break the audio into multiple sections.  I took section one and slowed it waaaaaay down, got what was being said and then gradually sped it back up to normal speed.  Now, when I listen at normal speed, I can hear everything.  (As you get closer to normal speed, the audio quality gets better and better.)

Next up, part 2.

The idea here is that, hopefully, after listening a bit, I will have to use this technique less and less, but, for now, it’s working for me.

After part one, I felt somewhat accustomed to the way the narrator speaks and tried part two (the section about ハチ公) without slowing anything down but with repeated listenings, and I got it.  There are at least two words in there that I don’t know, but I understand what is being said.  Progress!

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Mango Languages

Yep.  You read that correctly.  Mango Languages.  What, you may be wondering, is that?  It is a language learning website (what, another one?) that covers a whole lot of languages including, you guessed it, Japanese.

Disclaimer:  Through my school, I can get access to Mango Languages for free.  The normal package is (as of this writing) is about $18.00 a month, which is pretty pricey in my book.  I think they have a free option with less bells and whistles, though.

So, what is it, and is it any good?

I haven’t gone too deeply into it yet, but I have seen some good things.  You can test out of sections, which I like, and the tests are listening based – you hear a dialog and then you answer questions about what you heard.  That’s the kind of practice I can use.

Here’s what they say about themselves:

And here’s some guy I found on YouTube doing a (kind of slow and wordy) review of the Japanese lessons on Mango:

And, they have a mobile app, which is handy.  I’m going try it out for awhile and I’ll write a review of it later.

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Reading Smoothly

What is the most important thing about reading in Japanese?  Skipping words.

Yeah, I know.  It seems counter intuitive.  I am reading a book in Japanese in order to improve my Japanese rather than just for fun.  (Right now, reading a book is too difficult to be just for fun, but…one day…)  And, if I am trying to improve my Japanese, surely the best things is to look up every single word that I don’t understand.

I beg to differ.

My philosophy is:  If I can understand the sentence, then I am willing to let some words go.

Why?  The advantage of knowing every single word is obvious, so why would I throw that advantage away?

There are a couple of reasons for this.

1. Learning to guess at the meaning of words from context is a useful skill, so practicing it is a good idea.

2. I want reading to be at least kind of  fun, despite the difficulties, and looking up every single word that I don’t know slows me down so much, especially having to look up unknown Kanji.  It could get so frustrating that I don’t even pick the book up.

If a word is so important to the sentence that I can’t get the meaning without it, I’ll look it up.  If a word pops up several times, I’ll look it up.  If I feel like I should know the meaning of a word because I have already studied it but I can’t remember what it means, I’ll probably look it up.

Other than that, I’m going to press on.  In fact, if I can’t really make out a sentence but I feel like I have the meaning of the paragraph, I’ll probably press on.

This actually takes me some effort, because I want to know every single word, but I still think this is the best method, and I’m sticking with it.

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Bugaboo

Does Japanese have particular grammar points that make your head spin?

In my case, it is the use of long phrases (sometimes really long phrases) as adjectives.  This has consistently caused problems for me, although, やっと I am starting to recognize them when I see them.

The major problem, of course, is that the noun which the phrase is modifying comes after the phrase, and that messes me up.  Here’s the sentence that provoked this post:

サツキとメイは、雨戸をあけつづけている父さんのほうへと走っていた。

The first time that I read this sentence, I thought, “How are Satsuki and Mei opening the rain shutters?  Aren’t they outside the house?”

Of course, the problem was that I was trying to read the sentence like an English sentence.  The entire phrase 雨戸をあけつづけている is actually functioning as an adjective and describes their father, though the word 父さん doesn’t appear until after the phrase.  (You would think that the comma would have clued me in right away, but, no.  *sigh*)

The actual meaning is:  Satsuki and Mei ran in the direction of their father who was continuing to open the rain shutters.

Just for fun, let’s do a more literal word for word translation:

Satsuki and mei [subject], rain shutter [direct object] open continuing father [possessive] direction in ran [continuous past tense…were running?]

Yes, and this is why we love Japanese, isn’t it?

Actually, I am finally starting to get the hang of these adjective phrases so that I don’t get tripped up by them remain tripped up by them the way I used to.

Progress is good, even if it is slow!

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Reading, Reading, Reading…

I am a strong believer that, if you are going to learn Japanese, you should dive into learning Kanji from the very beginning.  (Reading, them, I mean.  If you want to dive into learning how to write them from the beginning, more power to you, but that’s not what I’m talking about.)

The idea is that you want to be able to read, and that means knowing the Kanji.  (And, yes, furigana and very nice in that they make your life easier, but they are also a crutch that you should get away from when you can.)

The great thing about reading is that you get hit with Kanji, grammar, vocabulary, set phrases…it’s a veritable wonderland of Japanese goodness.

The hardest thing is finding stuff to read that is at your level.  If you are a beginner, there are graded readers out there for you.  If you are advanced, just pick up any newspaper or novel.  But, what if you are in between?

Um…

Well…

Sorry, I don’t know.  That’s the struggle I’m having right now.  Where can I find interesting stuff that is at the right level for me?

Mostly, I can’t.

Still, I am crawling my way through my first Japanese novel.

This one:

totoro

Don’t be fooled by the fact that is looks like it is for kids.  This book is full of wordplay, puns and very poetic descriptions.

A kind Japanese friend in Tokyo that I speak with each week (hooray for Skype) went out and purchased a copy of the book for himself so that, when I have troubles, I could just tell him the page number and he could look at it for himself.  After reading one paragraph, he said, “Sometimes when Japanese people write books, they choose Kanji because they like how they look on the page, but they don’t always make normal words.”

Oh, boy.  The word in question was 平池林 which apparently means something like “a flat forest”.  I suppose it could mean “a forest on a piece of flat land”?…maybe?

Anyway, this has sent me back to the DVD to watch the movie again.  It is a movie I know well, but I am watching it in Japanese with know subtitles but with “pause” and “rewind” handy so I can listen and listen again to what people are saying.  Boy, do they speak fast sometimes!

So, the end result of all this is that I have something which is fun and interesting but somewhat beyond my level to read, but I’m reading it anyway with some kind help from others, and it feels really good to be able to do that.  I have already picked the next book, which is getting waaaaaay ahead of myself, since it is going to take me awhile to finish this one.

So, if you’re reading this, chime in and list a Japanese language accomplishment that you have reached or are moving toward.  Anything from “I have learned the daily use Kanji” to “I have passed the JLPT N1” or “I learned all the hiragana”.  Big or small, share one.

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Am I Learning? (Why, yes, I am.)

What am I learning by trying to read reading a book in Japanese for the first time?

It’s a good question, and I’m glad I asked it.

1. My vocabulary is much smaller than I thought it was.  I am running into a lot of new words.  Now, you could look at this as a negative (“You shouldn’t be trying to read that book.  It is obviously too hard for you!”) or as a positive (“You are really learning a lot of new words.  Good for you!”).  Which of these is the right way of looking at it depends on one’s tolerance for frustration, I suppose.  Right now, I’m going with the second way.

2. You can fail to understand a lot of words, phrases and even sentences and still know what’s going on.

Of course, it would be nice to understand every single word, but you can’t let the fact that you don’t understand everything get you down.  Can you follow the story?  Yes?  Good enough for now.  (In this, I am, of course, helped by the fact that this is the novelization of a movie that I have seen.)  However:

3. There are a lot of things in the book that aren’t in the movie.  This is good.  It means more reading, and it also explains some things that just got glossed over in the movie.

For example:  In the movie, Satsuki and Mei are riding in the back of a truck full of luggage driven by the father and another man.  (Who is he?)  Satsuki sees a uniformed man on a bicycle and tells Mei to hide because it is a policeman.  It turns out to be a postman instead, and the girls happily wave to him.  (Why did they want to hide from the police?)

These things are explained in the book.  (In case you’re wondering, the second man is Mr. Fujiyama, a lifelong friend of the girls’ father, and they were hiding because a busybody annoying aunt told their dad that he would get fined if the police knew the girls were riding in the back of the truck with the luggage.)  But I was able to understand the book well enough to get those questions answered.  (To be honest, I never did wonder who the other man was, since I barely noticed him in the movie, but the girls’ concern over spotting a policeman did leave me curious.)

Where was I?

Oh, yeah.

4. Looking up Kanji is much easier when you can just hit cntrl+c. When you are looking up Kanji from a book, you get to look up radicals and have all kinds of fun.  (Though I will confess that 梅 almost drove me nuts.  It was my own fault.  I was the using the radical 田 when I should have been using 毋.  What can I say?  It’s a 文庫本 so the print is very small.  Anyway, I couldn’t get it.  This particular Kanji annoyed me for some reason, so I scanned the page, snipped the kanji in question, used a Japanese OCR site to convert it to a usable format and then entered into Jisho.org.  It means plum in case you were wondering. This means, by the way, that it was just a description of the scenery and therefore not at all significant for the forward progress of the story and probably didn’t justify all the effort I went to, but, hey, now I know what it means.  Also, this parenthetical comment has gotten ridiculously long by now, so let’s close parentheses, shall we?)

5. Reading is still fun, despite all the extra effort required.

Anyway, I’m going to tackle another page now.

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So, the book I’m reading…

is this one:

totoro

Yes, I’m sure it would be considered a young adult novel or something like that, but I’m not troubled by that.  It’s still a novel in my book.  (See what I did there?)

So far, my memrise course for the book contains 34 vocabulary terms, so it’s increasing by leaps and bounds, especially when you consider that I am only on page 13!

The hardest sentence, though, came right at the beginning:  五月の五月と五月をのせて父さんは、メガネをかけ、白いシャッポをあみだにかぶって、たのしげにうたう。

This is the second time that I have tried to read this book.  The first was quite some time ago, and this sentence stopped me in my tracks.  Most of it was fine:  the father, wearing glasses, with a white hat cock-eyed on his head, was having fun singing.  It was what he was singing that was messing with my mind.

五月の五月と五月をのせて。。。

I was baffled enough to try Google translate, which was precisely no help.  I asked a couple of Japanese friends who were as baffled by the thing as I was.

This time, I simply blipped over the sentence and kept reading.  After all, it couldn’t be that important, could it?  It it wasn’t, I could do without it for now, and, if it was, maybe there would be something later on to explain it.

It was, and there was.

So it turns out that the father has two daughters (which I knew from the movie).  Their names, as I also knew, were サツキ and メイ.  (I did see a possible connect through English between メイ and the month of May, but that didn’t seem to make much sense.)

A few pages later, the book casually comments that the Kanji for サツキ is 五月.  Aha. A page letter it informs me that メイ in English is 五月.  So that connection I saw turned out to make sense after all.

So 五月の五月と五月をのせて could ends up being In May, with Satsuki and Mei on board (they are riding in a truck) which makes perfect sense but will try the patience of the poor language learning.  This is not only work play, but word play that stretches across two languages!

Okay, then.

Back to work.

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