Archive for April, 2010

Week 4

April 30, 2010

I’ve been super busy with school, and haven’t had time to write about it. Golden Week, a series of consecutive national holidays, has arrived, so I have Thursday and Friday of this week off, as well as Monday through Wednesday of next week.

I got my Hiragana test back on Monday, a week after I took it. The reason for the delay is the school’s policy on makeup tests. Students who have an acceptable excuse for their absence are allowed a short grace period to retake the test. Additionally, students who did poorly on the test, getting a D or below must retake the test with a retake penalty of 10% off the earned score. Anyway, while none of this applies to me, I figured I’d let you know why there was such a long delay.

I got an 88 on the test. Although this is a good score, I kind of felt cheated out of 2 points because I labeled a picture as vegetables (やさい) when the picture was supposed to be fruit (くだもの). All I have to say is that picture doesn’t look like any fruit I’ve ever seen. Another 2 points were lost due to not knowing the word for scissors (はさみ), which I knew I got wrong from the start. The remaining 8 points were deducted, one point at a time, for the equivalent of not dotting “i”s and crossing “t”s. Although it’s frustrating to lose so many points when I knew the answer, it’s not nearly as frustrating as having known the words for both fruit and vegetable and getting the answer wrong because the picture was ambiguous. I’m only slightly mollified by the fact that 85 and up is an A, which I hadn’t realized until today when I reviewed the student handbook.

As for the Katakana test, it was the last thing we did on Wednesday before leaving for Golden Week. I think I did pretty well on the test. I found that my advantage of knowing the meaning of the words to not be that big of an advantage. The way English words are mashed into the Japanese sounds is anything but consistent or sensible. In fact, it appears that at some point the Japanese decided that they needed to add new sounds for the full vowel range of “f”, “v”, and “w”, but not every word which should use them does. It basically comes down to wrote memorization in the end. Another issue I had while studying was that I studied the incorrect spelling of at least one word; so I know I got that one wrong. Also, while I studied about 50 words for the test, there were some words which I didn’t study, including 2 for which I had to simply guess. Although I felt like I had plenty of time on this test, and was able to go over everything making sure I dotted my “i”s and crossed my “t”s, I don’t feel confident that I caught everything, and I’m kind of cringing to see how many points I’ll lose on this round.

Next is the test over chapters 1 through 13, which is coming up on May 12th. That’s going to be a brutal test because it covers a lot of material which I can’t say I fully understand, and unlike the last two tests, there will be more to it than memorization, although there will still be a fair amount of that.

Day 9

April 20, 2010

Today was back to the usual grind. We’ve started a new chapter which covers adjectives. Our first assignment is to memorize 50 of them for tomorrow (yeah right). I know about 15 of them already, which isn’t that much of a help.

Our two teachers today were not my favorites because they both have a habit of speaking too fast and not giving us enough time. They also seem to confuse us more than the other teachers. For example, our teacher told us that she was going to play a tape and to write in our workbooks. In the past, we transcribed the short sentences on the tape into our workbooks. The other teachers have been kind enough to repeat the tape at the end of each sentence so that we can make sure that we did it correctly, or in my case, so I can catch the second half of the sentence. Today, however this didn’t happen, and I tried frantically to keep up. It later transpired that our teacher had intended for us to write the answers to the questions on the tape, not the questions themselves. Oops

Today we had our first tardy students and a welcome absence. The importance of a tardy depend on one’s visa status. For those with student visas who may want extend, the government looks at the number of absences as part of their decision to approve the extension, and they (rather strictly) count tardies as abstinences. For those who don’t wish to extend, or those with a different visa, the only motivation is a school award for perfect attendance. As for myself, I don’t plan to extend, but I’m happy to get the attendance award. Meanwhile, the absence of the aforementioned student who answers every question was quite nice. The classes seemed much more interactive with his absence. I have to admit I thought that he’d be the last person to be absent.

I’ve got a little more homework to do, so I’ll finish up this post here. More news as I have it. Thanks to everyone posting comments. I really look forward to reading what you have to say.

Day 8

April 20, 2010

My hiragana test went by without a problem. I studied the night before by reviewing the practice tests and studying the spelling of tricky words. The upshot to this is that I learned a few new words at the same time. Emi was kind enough to help me out by speaking sentences and then checking my work. Towards the end of our practice I was able to get the sentence down on paper even though she would only say the sentence twice. I think this helped a lot on the actual test, along with the teacher giving enough time between sentences. Going into the test, I thought that I was the slowest in class, but although I was sitting in the front row during the test, I could hear frantic writing behind me well after I finished writing each word.

Now that the hiragana unit is complete, we have moved on to katakana. Katakana is a different set of characters for the same phonetic sounds covered in hiragana. The Japanese use these two different writing systems, which are phonetically identical, to represent domestic (hiragana) and foreign (katakana) words. The good news is that I now have an advantage because most of the foreign words are borrowed from English.

Up until now, the students with the greatest advantage have been the South Koreans, whose language has a very similar grammar. These students have been able to get by only learning new vocabulary. This time, I have the advantage because remembering the names for these words, like the word for handsome (ハンサム – hansamu) is really easy.

Hanami (花見)

April 18, 2010

Before all the craziness of school started, we spent a Sunday afternoon viewing cherry blossoms (sakura). The activity is called Hanami, which translates directly to flower viewing. This is a very traditional activity in Japan and it makes for an air of the afternoon before the 4th of July, without any of the fireworks. The sakura only bloom for a few weeks, so it’s a very distinct marker that spring has arrived. The feeling of renewal and beginnings is so deeply associated with sakura in hearts of the Japanese that you’ll see sakura blooming at the beginning of every Japanese film (this is not that much of an exaggeration).

This year has been a bit strange as we just got snow in Tokyo this weekend, and this cold spell has confused the sakura into blooming much longer than usual.

I’m told that the news actually devotes part of the weather segment to following the sakura “front” as the trees start blooming south to north. In fact, I hear that there are tour buses for people who want to follow the blooming. I was too late in my arrival to witness the beginning of the blooming, and thus missed out on the special weather reports.

The typical hanami experience starts with selecting your sakura tree at the local park. If you start early, you can have any tree you want, but if you come in the afternoon, as we did, you will be hard pressed to find a tree. The ideal tree is one which will shower you with sakura peddles (well, that was my impression anyway). Once you’ve selected your tree, you can lay out your picnic blanket and get started. We had CostCo rotisserie chicken, but more typical yakitori or other traditional Japanese food is the norm. The Japanese beer industry has been pushing really hard through advertising to get people to accept the idea that a beer is exactly what they want on a warm afternoon under the sakura trees, so this is now the drink of choice. Make sure to bring sunscreen.

Sitting there watching the scores of other groups picnicking, it was easy to imagine this tradition going back hundreds of years. The general feeling was that of the beginning of a new year. Everyone seemed excited and upbeat, welcoming friends to their picnics, telling jokes, and toasting. Along with the beginning of spring, April is also the beginning of the year for schools.

Week 2

April 17, 2010

Now that the weekend has arrived I finally have some time to update my blog. This last week has been very busy for me. The rapid pace in the lessons kept up for the first two days of the week, but has finally slowed to something more manageable. In an effort to stay on top of my lessons I formed a study group last Friday, and we have been meeting every afternoon this week. This cut into my prime blog updating time, so I’m going to have to find a new time to shoe horn it in. Overall, my life has settled into a regular routine of waking up, eating breakfast, going to class, going to lunch, returning to school for the study group, and then returning home where I have just enough time to do my homework before Emi comes home. My evenings consist of running around the track at the park, eating dinner, and going back to sleep.

On Monday we found that the class had dwindled down to 12 students. This was kind of a surprise, and the first study group meeting that afternoon spent a bit of time talking about it. The new student who arrived in the recently vacated seat on Friday never returned, perhaps she was scared off. On Wednesday we were all surprised when one of our students returned, so we are now at 13 lucky students. I’m pretty sure that we won’t lose any more students at this point.

I got quite a shock on Monday when I was called out by one of the teachers during break and asked how I was doing. It’s true that I’m still working pretty hard just to get by, but I didn’t think that I was doing that poorly. It turned out however that she was more interested in the study group I was forming. Although the group was hardly a secret, I was surprised that the teachers were even aware of it as I had still to ask if we could borrow a room in lieu of camping out at a coffee shop. It turns out that another student had told them about it as proof of their motivation to improve their performance in class.

I feel that I’m still struggling in class, I’m getting all of my homework in, but the grammar is getting me down. I feel like I forget all the words when they are spoken to me. The good news is that we’ve gotten to a point where all the other students are having to struggle too.

There is one guy who is ahead of all of us in a way which suggests that he has covered all this material before. I just can’t believe that he is studying extra hard or is studying a chapter ahead of us, he knows the material too well. The really annoying thing about this guy is that he prides himself on being able to answer every single question the teacher gives as quickly as possible. The end result of this is that he shouts out the answers, even when someone else is called upon, and during readings, he yells out the sentence in rapid fire, completely out of step with the rest of the class. I don’t know if it’s his age (he’s the youngest in the class at 17) or the way schooling works in his country, but I do know that he’s getting on everyone’s nerves. If I were in his place, I would remain silent giving the rest of the students the opportunity to get the most out of the class. As it his, he’s kind of denying the other students the chance to learn.

We have a test coming up on Monday covering hiragana. I wasn’t too worried about it at first, but now I am because on Wednesday we got our first sample test. It’s not actually a hiragana test at all, but a test on vocabulary and spelling. Worse yet, the format of the test consists of the teacher reading off a list of words and sentences and expecting us to write them down in hiragana. My problem is that I’m a slow writer; one of the many reasons I turned to computers early on was that it takes me forever to write things by hand. Of course, doing so in Japanese takes even longer. However, most of the teachers do not leave enough spacing between the sentences for me to madly scribble them down. I fear that there will be the double jeopardy of having to write the characters neatly, which is difficult at speed. The idea of doing poorly on a test because I wasn’t able to write fast enough really upsets me. I don’t mind doing poorly if I don’t know the material, but knowing that I’d do fine with a just a little more time gets me pretty angry.

I’ll let you all know how the test goes.


April 9, 2010

As Lisa mentioned in a comment, men’s wallets do not have change pockets. I don’t even use a wallet, so that problem hasn’t hit me exactly. However, as Lisa points out, unlike in the US, the change in Japan is worth something. It’s not unusual to be carrying around a significant amount of money in the form of coins. Right now I’m carrying 1460 yen in change, which at the moment is worth $15.60.

My solution to having coins rattling around in my pocket is this nifty coin pouch which I was given, free of charge, by a market vendor in Vietnam. The lady gave it to me to cement a haggling deal she was making with Emi over much more valuable merchandise.

Here you can see my change purse, which set the Korean girls all atwitter in class today, along with (from left to right, top to bottom) 1, 10, 50, 100, and 500 yen coins.  Missing from this is the 5 yen coin, which is smaller than a 10, lager than a 50, is copper colored and has a hole through the middle of it.

Day 2

April 9, 2010

Friday came, none too soon, as the class accelerated through it’s third chapter. Today saw the first student drop from the course, which I think came as a shock to us all.

I can’t say that I was surprised necessarily, after all, as a class we hardly know each other and blindly assume that the other people are doing much better than we are. Still to have someone from your “team” drop out makes you suddenly become introspective and wonder how well you are really doing. At the beginning of class, the person in question surprisingly refused to write five characters of hiragana on the board, which isn’t that hard- if you know the characters. I guess that we had all assumed that everyone knew their hiragana (alphabet) before applying to the class. Learning it from scratch, while working, took me a week; so if you knew nothing, there is no way you’d be able to get up to speed in one day.

I feel that the class is divided into two groups. The first group are those who know their Japanese pretty well. Those whom I have talked to have completed a six month course prior to coming to Japan. They tell me that we are moving through the material so quickly that we will have covered everything they know in the next week or so. The second group, and I count myself amongst them, are those who are already working hard. There are about five of us (six until today) who fall into this group. One of them I talked to after class, and she is really nervous that she won’t be able to make it. I cheered her on and hope that she’ll be able to stick with it.

By the end of class they had already replaced the dropped student. I have no idea where the new student came from; perhaps there is a waiting list.

Despite all this, I’m feeling pretty good with how things are going, it’s a lot of work, but I’m not falling behind yet.

The lesson started erratically again, we started with the same teacher from the day before, so maybe it’s a trait of that teacher, but it’s too soon to tell. We covered our homework and then set about reviewing the next batch of hiragana. This is really kind of a farce because all of the homework is in hiragana, so it isn’t like we could do the work and not already know it. It’s almost like they feel that they need to pack the day with lessons, but they also realize that new material will overwhelm us, so they are giving us review as filler. Personally, I wouldn’t mind if they just reviewed the stuff we are supposed to be learning, there is a lot to go over. Anyway, we reviewed the content from last class and dove into another listening session where we followed a video conversation between two neighbors, one introducing himself to the other. Then we listened to another introduction on tape, and then we practiced saying the conversation to each other. Everything went well, but our teacher seemed a little hurried and disorganized.

The second period brought a new teacher. She taught us how to count money, how to recognize different values of currency (which is largely unnecessary, you can’t make it a day in another country without figuring out how to use the currency) and how count floors in a building. The quirks of counting in Japanese are probably the most challenging aspect of the language. Just as we have “st”, “nd”, and “rd”, which are exceptions to the general rule of “th” which we add when counting (ex. “1st” and “2nd” vs. “5th”), Japanese has similar constructs. Except the English system is standard, if you are counting money, drinks, or floors, when you have five, it’s always the “5th”. In Japanese, there are different names for the numbers depending on context, and there are different ways of pronouncing them based on what you are counting. We only covered the basics today, but there is a whole appendix in our text book devoted to “counters”. We finished off with a video of someone buying something and then a round of practicing that conversation ourselves.

Homework tonight is the same as last night, about 20 minutes of workbook activity (which turned into an hour), more hiragana practice, and a full page of vocabulary. The vocab is going to kill me because there are 50 words in the list. Luckily, I already know exactly half, so I only have to learn 25 words in two days, which isn’t impossible, but isn’t easy either.

Day 1

April 8, 2010

Today was my first day of class!

I didn’t really know what to expect, in fact, I didn’t even know which room I was in. It turns out that we were in room A/B (There’s a sliding partition, so you could make two really tiny rooms A and B if you wanted to, but you could only have one row of desks if you did that. As I entered the room, I saw a lot of familiar faces. Many of them were people who spoke pretty good Japanese, so at first I thought I was in the wrong class.

As it turns out, the class covers quite a range of skill. Some of the students have been studying quite a bit, and are pretty good while others need some practice. I feel I fall somewhere near the back of the pack, I’m really weak on speaking and grammar, but I’ve got a decent vocabulary which supports me. My pronunciation is also pretty decent, so I don’t think that this is holding me back as much as some of the other students.

Today’s lesson was a little erratic. First, we covered hiragana which I studied the night before, then we lept into introductory sentences along the lines of “Good morning, my name is Bob. I am from America. Nice to meet you.” This was all new territory for me, so I’m going to have to study this stuff tonight. Next we wrote down our names in katakana (the alphabet used for foreign names), which we haven’t studied yet, so it’s kind of strange to be teaching us hiragana and expecting us to know katakana when one usually learns them the other way around. We then broke into groups and practiced our introductions. Finally, we got back together and studied a bunch of vocabulary about half of which I know, before the period ended.

The school day was broken into two periods each taught by a different teacher and each lasting 2 hours with a break every hour. The second period started out with a listening lesson and a repeat of half of the material from the first period. Then we broke into more, different (ugh!), vocabulary and covered the basics of how to ask what different things were, and how to say “a book of Japanese”, “a card of the bus system”, or “my book”, all of which use the same construct in Japanese. Finally we were assigned homework and sent on our way.

So my homework for tonight is to do the easy 20 minutes of homework required by the class plus about two hours of repeating the stuff I just learned today in class. This is totally manageable, but I’m worried that I may find myself slipping behind if tomorrow brings another 2 hours of stuff they expect me to already know.

A rant about laminated cards

April 7, 2010

Since I just got my student ID card, I feel that I should rant about how to make a laminated card because nobody seems to be able to do it right.

Here’s the deal, you want to make a card, and you want it to either look cool or survive in a pocket for more than a few months (and maybe a trip through the laundry machine), so you think, “Hey! I’ll make a laminated card!” At this point, please stop and ask yourself why you are too cheap to print out your card on plastic “credit card” stock. It’s much better, not only does it make you look even cooler and more official, it will survive more trips through your laundry machine than any of your clothing, and that plastic stuff is so strong it can be used to scrape ice off a frozen windshield without looking any the worse for it.

So for whatever reason, you’re either a cheapskate or afraid of new technology, and you really have to make a laminated card. Here is my message to you: MAKE YOUR CARD SMALLER THAN 82MM x 50MM (3 1/8 inches by 1 7/8 inches) !!!

You see, the standard dimentions of a credit card are 86mm x 54mm (that’s 3 3/8 inches by 2 1/8 inches for those of you not on the metric system), but lamination takes at least 2mm off of each side, and probably closer to 3mm if you have any kind of multilayer stupidity like a photograph glued to the card (why aren’t you printing the card and photo with a color printer?). Now, that’s per side, so don’t forget to double those numbers before you subtract.

If you don’t do this, your card is not going to fit into any wallet known to man; it will be shoved into some other place where it will be bent, mangled, and forgotten just before the clothes are tossed into the laundry machine. If you are the sort of person who has wondered why people are not respecting your card, this is why. If you wonder why people are not carrying your card with them, this is why.

If you are making one of these cards, be sure that the lamination can be reliably trimmed down to credit card size without making the card come apart.

Trust me on this, I’ve had dozens of these stupid laminated cards and only a few have been clever enough to take the laminated size into account, all of the other cards always ended up looking like crap after a week.

This card is too big:


April 7, 2010

Today’s Commencement Ceremony was conducted at 11am, so once again I was able to sleep-in to an unreasonable hour. This will only make tomorrow’s classes at 9am all that much more painful. The ceremony was conducted entirely in Japanese, and entirely without translation. My Japanese is good enough to follow the gist of what is going on, without being able to trouble myself with any of the actual details. The head of the school delivered an amazingly clear speech using pretty simple Japanese and lots of hand gestures. I think I understood 90% of what he said. In contrast, the instructors, who followed him, where harder to understand.

After the head master’s speech come the introductions, first students, and then teachers. Each student was called, in turn, and was expected to deliver an introduction. The first student was clearly quite advanced and ratcheted up the dread in my mind several notches as she flawlessly said the Japanese equivalent to “it’s nice to meet you”, stated her name, city and country of origin, favorite thing in Japan, and concluded with a formality which I had never heard before “yoroshiku onegai shimasu”. In fact, each subsequent student also followed this form, so my panic increased as I realized that not only was I supposed to use a phrase I had never heard before, but I was also supposed to build a sentence about something I liked, or where I’m from, which, frankly, is something I forgot long ago.

I decided that I’d just stick to saying “Nice to meet you”, my name, and conclude with this new mystery phrase. I was sure that this would be good enough, and it brought a measure of calm to me as I feel confident that I can tell people my name. I was also calmed by the fact that, since the letters of my name fall into the middle of the alphabet, I would not be the first one called. Usually I’m right in the middle; so with about 20 students, I figured that I’d have no problem memorizing the new phrase after 10 repetitions. No sooner had I thought this than my name was called; the fifth student. It occurs to me now that they may have been following the Japanese alphabet, where the first letter (sound) of my last name is in 9th place.

It was just my luck to be the first lousy speaker; it’s like having Mozart (and a few of his protégées) do the introductory music for your first piano recital. Great, I thought, now that we’ve heard some pretty good Japanese, we’ve got me to show you some pretty awful Japanese. I stuttered through my introduction, but managed to say “orosuko onegai shimasu” at the end (which is what I thought that they were saying. It was only when I got home and looked it up did I learn the correct spelling and meaning- in this context it means something like “Thanks in advance” or “I’m in your care” or “I nice to meet you”. It doesn’t translate very easily.).

Although I sank into my chair as the next person told anecdotal stories about their love of karaoke, it was not too much later that they hit a whole patch of clearly panicked and unpracticed speakers. I guess I should feel relieved that I didn’t have long to suffer with the dread of speaking. While I was bad, I had plenty of company, and I didn’t fail completely. Afterwards the guy who sat next to me (whom I had sat next to yesterday at the orientation) told me that I was probably ahead of him with my spoken Japanese, boy do I have him fooled.

After the students introduced themselves, the teachers all got up and were introduced, and then we finished off with a group photo and the dissemination of class materials.

So now I have my student ID card, my homework schedule for the month, and my first night’s homework (which is to study hiragana, which I already know). The course schedule looks a little aggressive, so I’m interested to see how well this works out. Anyway, I’ve got a lot of time, so I might as well hit the books and do a little review.