Amazon.co.jp launched its Kindle store last month. When I logged into my US account today to see if the next Dresden Files book had come out yet, I saw a message telling me that I can consolidate my Japanese and US Kindle libraries.
Great news! You can now shop for Kindle titles at Amazon.co.jp. Consolidate your libraries and manage them from Amazon.co.jp. Change your preferred shopping site to the Amazon.co.jp Kindle Store to shop for Japanese titles in Yen.
One of my professors in the Japanese department here at UAF gave me the opportunity to take a JLPT N2 practice test. I did rather poorly on it. As I suspected would be the case, my lacking vocabulary was at the heart of all the problems I had with the test. I have too heavy a class load to make it worthwhile to study heavily and try to take the JLPT this year; even if I were willing to sacrifice my grades in the attempt, the air fare to Seattle is too expensive to be worth it if I fail. Just because I’m unwilling to cram, however, that doesn’t mean that I have no intention of stepping up my studies a bit. I have several resources at my disposal which have barely been tapped, including several books.
Shortly before the end of my study abroad term in Japan, I was given a full set of the 2005 Japanese language grammar textbooks for grades 1-9. These are the official Ministry of Education approved grammar books for native Japanese speakers going through primary school. There are twelve books for elementary grades 1-6, two books for each grade. There is only one book for each of the three middle school grades, and they’re thicker than the two books for any of grades 1-6 put together.
I’ve decided to start reading them straight through, beginning with the first of the first grade books. Some of the things in it are difficult for me to understand, because a lot of children’s language is used. They aren’t defined in the book because they don’t need to be for their intended audience. A child goes into school with a fairly large vocabulary, and grammar lessons start by teaching him to write words with which he is already familiar.
About midway through the textbook, however, once all the hiragana have been covered, short stories are introduced. There are three multi-page stories in the first textbook. One of them is a rather boring (to an adult) story about an old man who couldn’t pull a huge vegetable out of the ground. Along comes an old woman who tries to help him, then a kid, then a dog, then a cat, and finally a rat. Together they finally get the vegetable out. Very repetitive. The other two, however, are cute little stories that I think are worth sharing.
The translations are not quite literal in some spots. When I had to choose between faithful and accurate, I chose faithful. They’re stories for children, and they should read like children’s stories.
Steam Train (けむりの きしゃ)
A shooting star fell from the sky.
ながれぼしが おちて きました。
An old smokestack cleaner picked it up.
えんとつそうじの おじいさんが ひろいました。
The old man set the star on top of a smokestack.
おじいさんは、 ながれぼしを えんとつの てっぺんに おきました。
“Here, I’ll return you to the sky.”
「さあ、 そらに かえして あげよう。」
The old man started to burn some wood.
おじいさんは、 まきを もやしはじめました。
Smoke came out of the smokestack.
えんとつから、 けむりが でて きました。
“Thank you, grandfather.”
The star, riding the smoke, rose up and up into the sky.
ながれぼじが、 けむりに のって、 そらへ そらへと のぼって いきました。
The Mountains That Argued (けんかした山) by Mikio Ando
The illustrations for this story added context which aided me in its translation.
Two tall mountains stood next to each other.
たかい 山が ならんで たって いました。
They always argued about which of them was taller.
いつも せいくらべを しては、 けんかばかり して いました。
“Stop arguing,” said the sun.
「けんかを やめろう。」 お日さまが いいました。
The moon spoke, too.
“Stop it. If you don’t, the animals of the forest
「おやめなさい。そうで ないと、 もりの どうぶつたちは、
will be nervous and unable to sleep.”
あんしんして ねて いられないから。」
But neither mountain listened to their words.
それでも、 どちらの 山も いう ことを ききません。
Then, one day it happened.
ある 日の ことでした。
Finally, both mountains, unwilling to lose, suddenly spurted fire.
とうとう、 りょうほうの 山が、 まけずに どっと 火を ふきだしました。
Many green trees were engulfed in flames in the blink of an eye.
たくさんの みどりの 木が、 あっと いう まに、 火に つつまれました。
The songbirds spoke all at once.
ことりたちが、 くちぐちに いいました。
“Sun! Please call for the clouds to bring rain.
「お日さま。 はやく くもを よんで、 あめを ふらせて ください。
We’ll call for them, too.”
わたしたちも よびに いきますから。」
The sun called the clouds.
お日さまは、 くもを よびました。
Black clouds gathered quietly and rained steadily.
くろい くもが、 わっさ わっさと あつまって、どんどん あめを ふらせました。
The extinguished mountains looked at each other glumly.
火の きえた 山は、 しょんぼりと かおを みあわせました。
One year, two years, three years passed.
一ねん、 二ねん、 三ねん たちました。
Years and years passed.
なんねんも なんねんも たちました。
The mountains were completely wrapped in green.
山は、 すっかり みどりに つつまれました。
(Illustrated by Masahiro Kasuya.)
かすや まさひろ え
In a nutshell: Smart.fm is a free, web-based flash card service. If you crack the nutshell open to get a look at the details of how it works, though, it’s far better than that. Here, let the official Smart.fm video introduction explain what I mean.
Smart.fm is not the only software based on spaced repetition. It does, however, have a few advantages over the other ones I’ve tried.
The first is that it’s web-based, instead of being a software program you have to install. That means you can access it from anywhere with a decent internet connection and reasonably updated browser software. Your progress data is saved on their servers — no need for frustration over the fact that the computer available to you has no clue how far along in your studies you are.
The second is just as wonderful, and can save you time. Since everyone’s data is stored on the Smart.fm servers, you have access to every flash card item anyone has created. These can be added to study lists you create. I recently created a Japanese vocabulary study list for terminology that’s been popping up in news articles related to professional Go, and most of the words I needed were already in the database. It’s actually simpler to add an existing item to your list than it is to create a new one, though not all items are created equally.
The service is very well-suited to learning vocabulary in another language. It seems useful for pretty much anything you can make physical flash cards for, too, though, with the added advantage of managing your study time for optimal learning efficiency.
A Couple of Downsides
It’s difficult to study the writing of kanji on a computer. This is a downfall that all computer-based kanji studies share, and Smart.fm is certainly no exception. The system throws kanji at you as rapidly as you can go through them. I find no fault with Smart.fm for this; it’s unavoidable. I mention it to be thorough.
No, the only real problem I have with Smart.fm is that there is currently no way to avoid having to transliterate hiragana to roman characters and vice-versa as part of your studies. While a fantastic feature for beginning Japanese students, someone who’s advanced well past the point of learning hiragana is really only hampered by having half of the quiz questions asking you to transliterate kimono back to きもの. I spent a good hour or two yesterday trying and failing to manipulate the Smart.fm item creation system to avoid this problem.
Any card with kanji in the vocabulary to be learned requires furigana input as well. While that’s a good thing, since most kanji have multiple possible pronunciations and some kanji compounds just have irregular phonetics, the system automatically includes hiragana-romaji quiz questions for all furigana. The furigana input you use when creating the flash card item can be changed to anything but blank. At first I planned to just use – in place of the furigana input, but I quickly realized that the result of that would be a whole lot of missed questions. When you have 5 quiz questions in a row ask you for the proper spelling of -, you’re gonna be in trouble.
Setting the meaning “side” of the flash card item to the furigana in an attempt to avoid English altogether crashed and burned as well. When shown a multiple-choice prompt for the English meaning of a Japanese vocabulary word, the correct answer is the only one displayed in Japanese. There’s no opportunity for learning there — you don’t even have to read it to know it’s right.
Attempting to create the flash card item with both “sides” in Japanese instead of one “side” in Japanese and the other in English worked almost as poorly. In my trial, the furigana I’d put in for the “meaning” of the word stood out just as horribly from the kanji-ridden meanings that took up all the other multiple-choice slots.
Fixing the Smart.fm system to allow advanced students to avoid transliteration exercises is the single biggest change I can think of to improve the Smart.fm students for Japanese students. I don’t know if the same is true of, say, Chinese and Russian language learners. I do know that Smart.fm — perhaps because the company that created it is based in Tokyo — already has a huge base in Japanese language studies.
If you’re a Smart.fm user and agree with me, please visit my post on their feedback forum and vote it up so they’ll pay attention.
iPhone/iPod Touch App
There is an official Smart.fm iPhone app. It is pathetically simple, compared to the web site quiz applications. It shows you one “side” of the flash card item and you have to match it to the other “side”. No kanji-furigana pairings, no sentence usage. And I’ve never seen it give me new material. Whether that’s on purpose or not, it’s only good for review at best, and for my purposes it’s practically useless. Goes right back to being great for beginners.