Wednesday, April 20 2005

Reading and writing Japanese

The most obvious stumbling block for westerners learning Japanese (or Chinese, or Korean…) is the large number of seemingly indistinguishable symbols they’re written in. For Japanese, basic adult literacy requires 2,324. I’m about 10% of the way there, and have been for a while now.

I’m pretty good with the ones I know, enough to puzzle out many book titles and store signs, and I can read short blocks of text with the help of my dictionary, but the real pain was writing each new character out about 100 times. Many years of computer work has left me with both RSI and a lack of “pencil stamina”.

So I switched workbooks. Instead of the solid but strenuous A Guide to Writing Kanji and Kana, I’m now using the Basic Kanji Book. Con: less repetition might make for sloppier handwriting. Pros: less repetition makes my hands happier, it includes reading and writing exercises that put each character in context, and, perhaps most importantly, there’s almost no Rōmaji; it’s assumed from the start that you’ve mastered hiragana and katakana.

With this book, I very quickly learned that my ability to write the characters I had learned degraded rapidly. Even some kana required conscious effort to remember, despite my ability to read them. So, switching workbooks has helped me out even more than I originally expected.

For additional practice, I went back to Level I in my Rosetta Stone courseware and switched to the writing exercises. It doesn’t support a real Japanese Input Method, but it does have a very good sentence-assembly drill, sort of a Kanji Scrabble quiz (see a picture and hear a phrase that describes it, then select the right characters to transcribe the phrase from a set of tiles). It’s quite effective.

The only problem with it is that they don’t use your platform’s native font rendering, so you’re stuck with bitmapped fonts at specific sizes, and even at the largest size, it’s difficult to differentiate between 一 and ー on the tiles. Yes, they’re different, and yes, the software will beep haughtily at you if you pick the wrong one.