Cheat Codes: Japanese Language Shortcuts, Pt. 2

(Continued from Part I)

In Part One I talked about the two main cheat code sources that were a great help in jump starting my language studies. I knew that I needed to add some books to the equation too, and I waded through a bunch of choices before I narrowed it down to the ones that seem to work best for me:

CRITICAL TOOL

Random House Japanese-English/English-Japanese Dictionary
by Seigo Nakao

I have several dictionaries, but I find this one to be the most comprehensive and the best choice for my needs. I’m not ashamed to say that I am hopelessly addicted to Japanese TV dramas, and my poor dog-eared dictionary is a priceless tool. I often find myself glued to the screen during a pivotal scene and flipping like mad through my dictionary in a frantic attempt to figure out what the hero just said to the heroine that made her cry. An interesting note: if you find a show you really like, you start to really care about understanding what’s being said, and those new vocabulary words you have to look up are more likely to stick in your memory.

This dictionary is a full-sized one, so I usually bring it along with a pocket dictionary when I go to Japan. I’ve found the smaller dictionaries, while conveniently portable, aren’t all that comprehensive and don’t always include words I hear on TV or in conversations beyond basic chit-chat.

GREAT ADDITION FOR BEGINNERS

Living Language Conversational Japanese Manual

Though I bought this book at the same time I bought the Pimsleur program, it actually became useful after I’d completed the 10 beginner’s lessons and had started watching TV. At that point, I knew what the words and phrases in the book should sound like and Japanese sentence structure was beginning to make sense to me, so I was able to drop the info into the blueprint that the Pimsleur lessons had created. This book does contain some very useful vocabulary like months of the year, days of the week, and lots of basic introductions. It also has a pretty comprehensive list of English loan words – Japanese words that are English in origin but sometimes have meanings a bit different that the original.

GREAT ADDITION FOR ADVANCED BEGINNERS:

Colloquial Japanese, The Complete Course for Beginners
by HDB Clarke and Motoko Hamamura

It’s called a “compete course for beginners,” but I consider this a book for people who are moving toward an intermediate understanding of the language. If I’d picked it up in the very beginning, I’d have been hopelessly lost. This book wastes no time diving into things like complex verb forms, which can sometimes be tricky to use in actually conversations. But at this point in my studies it’s really helping me address challenges like how to create more complex sentences so I don’t sound like a 6-year-old for the rest of my life.

FUN & USEFUL EXTRAS

The Complete Japanese Verb Guide
by The Hiroo Japanese Center

Everyone has different hurdles they encounter while learning Japanese. One of mine is a distinct lack of verbs in my vocabulary: there came a point when I realized that I was stretching the 5 or 6 verbs I knew to the breaking point in conversation. This no-frills book includes hundreds of verbs (one per page) conjugated in all the forms you’ll ever need. Though most Japanese verbs have more than two dozen forms, dictionaries usually only list the basic plain form, so this one can do double duty as a verb dictionary.

13 Secrets for Speaking Fluent Japanese
by Giles Murray

Designed for students with a solid foundation of the basics, this book deals with challenges similar to my verb shortage – how to get an idea across when you don’t know (or can’t remember) the exact vocabulary word. This is a great tool – the methods are fun, easy to understand, and easy to put into use right away.

Zakennayo! The Real Japanese You Were Never Taught In School
by Philip Cunningham

This is one of my favorite fun language books. It covers lots of slang – from gangster speak and cursing somebody out to pick-up lines and pillow talk – and it’s helped me to understand some of the vocabulary I’ve encountered watching TV or on the street in Japan that I could never find in any dictionary. But there’s a big Buyer Beware that needs to be said here: most of the language in this book is NOT for use in polite company or, for that matter, in public at all. At best it’s too casual to be used with anyone but your very best friend, and the worst of it could be grounds for a fist fight. Really.

MOVING TOWARD READING & WRITING

Windows Japanese IME

Now that I’m able to speak a little Japanese passably, I’ve started working on learning to read and write. As Japanese has three “alphabets”, hiragana, katakana, and kanji, I’m tackling them one at a time. Again, no time for classes, so I recently began to look for the most intuitive and logical way to continue the flow of learning. I realized that I often chat with and email my friends who speak Japanese using romanji, or roman letters, to spell Japanese words. Lo and behold, Windows XP has a downloadable Japanese IME (input method editor) that can automatically convert romanji to hiragana, katakana, and kanji. I activated it this week and set it to hiragana, and I feel like I’m back to square one – it takes me forever to read a single paragraph.

Like anything, with practice I know it’ll get easier. And knowing that a better understanding of the Japanese language enhances my Bujinkan studies makes me look forward to the challenges.

がんばりますよ!

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