Thursday, July 24, 2008

Learn Kanji on a DS?

The month of August is one of the most painful parts of the school year for me to endure, since all the children are at home playing Pokemon in front of the air conditioner; while I’m stuck at school, sitting at my desk, drenched in sweat, with no classes to teach for a whole month and a half. In America it's called Summer Vacation. In Japan, we call it 夏休み (Natsu Yasumi). ‘Natsu’ means Summer, and ‘Yasumi’ means Rest. Being a salaried employee of the Japanese BoE, I’m pretty much expected to just sit here all day and do fuck all for 40 hours a week. Why do you care about any of this? Maybe you don’t! I won’t twist your arm, but there seem to be a lot of people interested in Japan, and if you think you’d like to learn some Japanese using your DS, then continue on, otherwise just move along… nothing to see here.

I’ve been in Japan for going on four years now; for those new to the site, I teach elementary school and kindergarten classes over here in the Okayama Prefecture. My Japanese is still pretty basic, as I have a wife at home who can speak English almost perfectly. Everyday I’m here, her English gets a little bit better, while my Japanese stays stuck at ‘pretty bad’. I usually take summer vacation off unpaid, and use it as a time to go back to the states and visit with friends and family, but I got a baby on the way in about 3 weeks, so this time I’m going to just tough it out and earn money to really get cracking on learning some kanji and verb conjugations.

Japanese is actually a really simple language once you can get over the fact that you can’t just pick up a book and start reading it phonetically off the bat. There are three ‘alphabets’ in Japanese: hiragana, katakana, and kanji. Hiragana and katakana are phonetic, in that they only represent a spoken sound. さ is the hiragana symbol for the sound ‘sa’, and so on. Hiragana is used for verb endings, or other minor words that don’t have specific kanji. Katakana is the same as hiragana (it’s phonetic), but is used primarily for borrowed or foreign words; I spell my name using katakana, for example. Kanji are symbols that represent a meaning, instead of the phonetic sound. It sounds really difficult, but as a spoken language, though, Japanese makes a lot of sense. It has a few simple concepts to understand, and then everything just works. It really gives you an appreciation for how ridiculously retarded English is, and how little consistency there is in English. There are two kinds of verbs in Japanese, Ichidan and Godan. Once you know how to make a verb in Japanese be the ‘past tense’ form, it pretty much applies to other similar verbs, with very few exceptions. When you think of English, very few verbs ‘follow the rules’. Try to think of a simple verb like ‘to _____’ … I will _____. I’m _____ing. I _____ed. Something like ‘blink’ works. Run almost does, but the second form throws another N in the mix, and the past tense is ran. Speak and spoke. Write and wrote. Fall and fell. A verb like ‘to have’ doesn’t even use the –ing… I will have. I have / He has. I had.

English past tense seems to be the biggest bitch, while Japanese has the added benefit of not even having a future tense. I will drink, and I’m drinking are the same word (飲みます - nomimasu). The only difference is the inclusion of the word tomorrow (or next week, whatever) in the sentence to indicate it has yet to happen. The one gripe people have about Japanese is the formality structure. There are polite and casual forms of every verb, but the verb itself is recognizable in either form and as a foreigner, no one will fault you if you speak to a superior using the casual form. I tend to just learn the polite form first until I feel comfortable enough to know exactly when to use the lesser version. As a result, I’m overly cautious in my speaking tone, but it’s always better to call your friend Mr. Smith on accident than it is to call your boss dude.

One of the most important things that foreigners moving to Japan buy on one of their first days here is an electronic dictionary. Casio, Toshiba, and Sharp (among others) make a series of these things aimed at Japanese users that help them to learn English (or Chinese). Nothing screams I JUST GOT HERE like whipping one of these bad boys out at the convenience store counter, and fumbling around in the menu system trying to figure out how to say ‘toilet’. I’m waaaay too cool for that crap, and usually just get by 90% of the time by pointing, grunting, bowing a lot, and smiling. One of the cool features the super top end models have is the ability to draw a kanji you see on a sign somewhere, and have it recognize that kanji and spit out it’s meaning. I actually broke down last night and decided that if I really wanted to spend the time studying Japanese I would need that ability. Trying to look up the kanji 誰 in a paper dictionary is pretty pointless if you don’t even know how to pronounce it (that kanji, btw, is ‘dare’, Japanese for who). With $400 in hand, I stormed into Bic Camera, determined to ignore the fact that I could buy a way better CPU that I had in my rig for that much money, and tried to find one of the dictionary things that would just do that one feature well. Using the 誰 kanji again as an example, not a single one I came across could recognize that kanji, no matter how many times I drew it, using the correct stroke order and everything. 誰 is a somewhat complicated kanji with 15 strokes, but easier to draw on a little touch screen than something like 嚢 (‘fukuro’), the 22 stroke one for bag. Even something as simple as 4 stroke日 (‘hi’, sun) seemed to throw a few of them for a loop. Wow. GG.

It turns out that those machines pretty much suck for that application, and are way more useful if you already know how to pronounce the kanji (surprise, surprise, they’re aimed at Japanese end users), and can just type in D-A-R-E and find out how to say that in Engrish!

It turns out there are a bunch of way better ‘games’ for the DS that do exactly what I was looking for, and have way better text recognition skills as well. For anyone interested in using their DS in this fashion, this one’s for you.

The most useful kanji app I have come across on the DS, for doing exactly what I mentioned above (draw a kanji, what’s it mean?), is called Kanji Sonomama Rakubiki Jiten. It has a tiny little section of the screen where you can draw kanji, and if you’re using compound kanji, you can string them together and link up two or three kanji in a row. More often than not, kanji come in little clumps, and having the meaning of one isolated one isn’t very useful. It also serves in the reverse, where you can write out letters in English, and it’ll show you the Japanese equivalent. While it will say English words out loud, it doesn’t bother to say the Japanese end out loud, since it figures you’re Japanese and can already say the word. It does, however, offer up the phonetic pronunciation of kanji, assuming you can read the phonetic Japanese alphabets of hiragana and katakana. There's a YouTube of it in action HERE.

Another ‘kanji game’ I’ve come across is the Kageyama Method - Dennou Hanpuku: Tadashii Kanji Kaki to Rikun. This one turns your DS sideways, and really gives you a much larger area to draw your kanji on the right hand pane. This is really cool, and gives you a much better feeling for drawing the intricacies of each kanji, but the problem is that it assumes you’re Japanese, already know what they all mean, and are just looking to improve your technique. This one is aimed at elementary school children who just want to drill themselves on stroke order, or just practice drawing the kanji they know over and over. The game itself is even divided into sections based on what grade you’re in (1st thru 6th), and has sections for practicing the kana alphabets (hiragana and katakana), as well. While it won’t ‘teach’ you kanji, it’s really helpful for once you know the kanji, and just want to practice. It rates you on each kanji drawn, from failure to 100, and allows you to watch an animation of the character being drawn, and tracing paper to be laid down in 'your pane'. Later, you can play a ‘fill in the blank’ style game, where it will give you a sentence written all in hiragana, and ask you to provide the relevant kanji. There’s a system in place for youngsters in Japan that might not know all the kanji yet, where they put little hiragana above kanji on signs or whatever so they can suss out the meaning of the word by how it’s phonetically pronounced. It’s called furigana, and is really useful for learning kanji. This ‘fill in the blank’ game provides the furigana over the blank, so you know what word they’re looking for, and you provide the kanji, assuming you know it.

While writing this, I actually came across a newer version of that same game that’s been released: Kageyama Method: Tadashii Kanji Kakitori-Kun - Kondo wa Kanken Taidaku Dayo!. I loaded it up to check it out, and this one has a few new buttons on the screen that leads to the reading of the kanji being practiced, example sentences, and expands the range to include some junior high school and high school kanji as well! I can’t imagine a reason to get both, so I’d actually recommend the newer version here over the last one.

There are a whole slew of other basic kanji drill games available for the DS, but they’re almost impossible to get any functional use out of without knowing the basic government approved list of 1,945 kanji that kids are supposed to know by the time they leave elementary school. I’ve got an R4 cart in my DS, so I’ve glossed over most of them, but the ones that I go into detail above are the only ones worth really checking out, or that will do me any good until I really have a better grasp on the kanji.

Last up on the list of commercially available titles is the newish DS Bimoji Training (Beautiful Kanji Training), which even comes with its own swanky variable-pressure tipped (a.k.a spring loaded) stylus that looks like a calligraphy brush. I saved the best for last, and this one is pretty awesome. If you're looking for something to critique your writing, this is the cleanest one out there. The presentation is very clean, and it actually feels like you're writing with a brush. It's silly, and kind of hard to explain... while the others feel you're writing with the pencil tool in MS Paint, this last one feels like you're in Photoshop with an expensive Wacom tablet. The speed of your stroke affects the width of the path, and 'flicking' the end of a stroke provides a good representation of doing the same with a brush. The DS touchscreen is pressure sensitive, and this has made the most of it. This title asked for me to write my name for the savefile, which is pretty common, but then went through an awesome tutorial showing me how to effectively even write my name more elegantly... this was before the 'game' even started, really. The first training session had me drawing three kanji two times over, then presented me with detailed screens rating my ability, and highlighting points to work on. You get bulleted lists showing thing like 'the spacing between these two lines is good' or 'the left hand component shouldn't be taller than the right hand part', and various marks for each point on the list... kinda like 'great, great, good, fair, bad, good'.

I really wish the entire game was in English, as I tend to gloss over much of what is being said, and I feel like I'm missing out on a major chunk of the game just clicking the 'next' button to get to the next exercise. Learning more kanji will obviously allow me to slow down and take more in, but I see myself spending the most time with this one over the Summer slump.

It sucks not being able to make the most of these, being that they are in Japanese, however, having the R4 cart allows me to check out various homebrew apps as well! Since Nintendo apparently thinks no one in any English speaking country would be interested in learning Japanese, and Ubisoft’s ‘My Japanese Coach’ isn’t due out until September or so, code monkeys have taken it upon themselves to write their own software and give it away for free! Unfortunately, as is often the case with unsupported software, dead links abound, or the downloads you do find don’t do much. Due to this, I’ve hosted the files themselves here on our own servers, so while these links might become outdated, they at least work.

I managed to get DSLearnJ (DL v0.5) working, but it doesn’t do much but allow you to quiz yourself. It’s basically a glorified stack of flashcards that you need another app to build yourself a deck with. It asks you to draw a certain kanji on the lower screen, but has no way of checking if what you drew is correct. You basically draw a kanji, ask it to show you the proper kanji on the upper screen, and keep score for yourself. Might be good for on the train or bus, and is better than just using a stack of flashcards, since you’re actually drawing the kanji yourself on the lower screen.

Japanese Training (DL v0.8) has various quiz modes to learn the meanings of kanji, but not really how to pronounce them. There are multiple choice game modes, and a ‘drawing’ section that lays out a rudimentary tracing tablet where you can draw the kanji or kana. There seems to be a lot of choices, but each section doesn’t seem horrendously deep.

Kanjidict (DL v0.2) seems pretty straightforward. It doesn’t really muss around with game modes or whatever, you just draw a kanji and it gives you the reading and a simple meaning. The recognition engine is actually not half bad, but it crashed on me a few times. Also kinda nice is that it presents a boxes to the right of the recognition area offering possible choices… maybe it didn’t recognize it completely, but there are ‘related kanji’ offered right there to choose from.

In the end, these carts aren’t going to allow you to pick up an import version of Metal Gear Solid and be good to go, but assuming you were interested in studying some Japanese, they offer good solid alternatives to buying one of the electronic dictionary type pieces of hardware, and when you’re sick to death of stroke order, will allow you to pop in Super Mario, and beat the shit out of mushrooms to vent some frustrations. One of the best ways to learn a language is of course to just dive in head first, but if you come to Japan, stay single for a bit. I hooked up with who would eventually become my wife on the second day here, and she spoke English well enough that I didn’t really NEED to learn Japanese at all… I’d just hide behind her when I needed to get a bank account or sign up for my cel phone, and my Japanese has suffered as a result ;)

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