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Thursday, September 17, 2009

水 - Water, and some patterns

Today's kanji is which is the kanji for “water”. It's has both an on reading and a kun reading:

On: sui

Kun: mizu, mizu-

Not surprisingly the Japanese word for “water” is “mizu”.

This is a great chance to teach you a couple things, how to type in Japanese (it's pretty easy) and, why patterns are great.

First let's do the typing. You want to go to your control panel and find the languages and regions option. It's pretty easy to find in vista, it might be a little hidden in XP but it's there I promise you. Once on that screen you want to selected the “keyboards and languages” tab and choose “change keyboard”. Choose add and then find “Japanese” and check both the “Japanese box” and the “Microsoft IME” box and hit apply. Either at the top of your screen or on you task bar you should now see a little box that says “EN”. You can use your mouse to select what input you'd like to use, but there are also keyboard short cuts.

Alt + shift will switch between English and Japanese input. It defaults to hiragana and kanji.

Once in Japanese Alt + Caps Lock will change it to katakana. To get back to hiragana you have to hold Alt and double tap shift, no idea why MS set it up this way.

Then to type in Japanese you just type as if you were typing in romanji. So for the above example you would just type “mizu” his space and out pops . Sometimes you don't always get the kanji you want though. For instance if you want to type “tsuki” for “moon” what you get at first is つき, which is “tsuki” in kana. However there is a kanji for moon, . In these cases once you type in “tsuki” and hit space if you don't get the kanji you want, hit space again and it will pull up a drop down menu.

Now onto the kanji itself. According to Heisig a lot of the kanji have compressed forms when they make up elements of more complicated kanji. For instance, becomes three little drops on the left side of kanji like in (they are drops, even if you don't think they look like drops), the kanji for lake. Conveniently this is a pattern and many water related kanji have these drops. For instance, marsh , swim 泳ぐ, open sea, , or (apparently there are two kanji that can mean open sea), and even juice or soup . Of course, not every water related kanji has those three drops (stream ), and those three drops are not always indicative of water (to stay overnight 泊まる) but those patterns where certain elements show up repeatedly in common ways certainly help speed the process of learning the kanji along.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

苦 - Suffering, sort of.

This is a tricky kanji, because as far as I can tell this kanji is only used in compounds and never alone. In Japanese suffering is actually written 苦悩 and is actually part of a kanji compound. Well maybe, things are complicated. There are a few different English words that could be used for that compound (“anguish” for example), and there are several compounds that could be translated as “suffering” (苦しみ for example). Well those are subtleties that can only be figured out by wrestling with the language. I've chosen this kanji today however to highlight an occasional problem I've discovered with the Heisig method.

This particular kanji is made up of the element identified yesterday as flower, and the kanji for old (). At any rate, my problem with this kanji isn't remembering it, quite the contrary, I am very good at remembering it because I have a very clear visual image associated with it. The problem is the story of that image isn't the same as the one Heisig gives, and could be a bit confusing. The story Heisig gives is one of a withering flower but I've found the image of Theodin in Lord of the Rings suffering as the site of his son's flower covered grave to be much more compelling. After all the kanji for old looks like a grave, and once a person gets old enough they end up in a grave. Only problem, grave has a kanji of it's own, . I don't want to risk getting the kanji for grave mixed up with the one for old. Unfortunately I think the story of Theodin is firmly lodged in my head so I think for this instance I am just going to have to make sure I keep things straight.

I've found that the stories and images that Heisig uses stick much better though when they are pop-culture reference or stories well ingrained in western civilization. So the Lord of the Rings story I've adopted is really good for keeping the kanji in mind but comes with risks.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Let's talk about Kanji

As many of you know, I am hoping to go teach English in Japan next year. While not required, in preparation I have begun to study Japanese. So to help me out I'm going to blog a little bit about what I am learning, mainly Kanji, which is probably the first big hurdle to learning to read Japanese.

The Japanese use four character sets. First there is Romanji, which we are all familiar with. Romanji literally means, “Roman Characters,” and it is the Latin alphabet we have all come to know and love.

Secondly and thirdly there is the Kana: Hiragana and Katakana.

Hiragana is a Japanese phonetic alphabet comprised of about 110 sounds that is used for Japanese words. For instance, みどり, which is “midori” in Romaji, and means “green” in English.

Katakana is a Japanese phonetic alphabet for foreign loanwords and onomatopoeia, and some names. An example would be バレット, which in Romaji is “Baretto” and “Barrett” in English. For every hiragana there is a katakana.

Finally there are the Kanji (漢字), literally meaning “Chinese characters”. There are thousands of Kanji. However to pass the hardest level of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test you need to know just under 2000. Each individual kanji has a meaning. For instance in the above compound 漢 means “Sino-” or “China” and “字” means “character. Also each kanji comes with readings, sometimes several of them.

The readings come in two varieties:
On'yomi, which is basically the Japanese estimation of the Chinese pronunciation when the character was brought to Japan. The “on” readings are typically used in kanji compounds. For instance the on reading for 字 is “ji”.
Kun'yomi, is the native Japanese reading and is basically the Japanese word that meant whatever the kanji stood for when it was introduced. Generally when a kanji is representing a single word then you use the “kun” reading. There are exceptions to this though as the Japanese word for “book” is “hon” which is the on reading of 本 (this kanji has more meanings than just book).

As you can see, learning the read Kanji is a bit of a juggling act for an English speaker. We have to identify the character and learn how to tell it apart from others (for instance 日(day) and 目(eye). We have to learn what that character means. Then we have to learn the different readings for that character and how it fits into various kanji compounds. For instance 日本語 which is read “nihongo” and means Japanese language.

The method I've decided to employ to help me with Kanji is the Heisig method which is in the book “Remembering the Kanji” by James W. Heisig, and covers a little over 2000 kanji. In his book Mr. Heisig attaches a meaning and story to each kanji and slowly builds more and more kanji from more basic primitives. The idea is that adults learn better using their imaginations rather than rote memorization. There are really strong points to his method, as generally I can get the kanji provided I can recall the story. Therefore, the trickiest part for me is matching the story to the meaning (he wants to you to go from meaning to kanji, as he says that going form kanji to meaning will naturally flow). I might add it is harder to go from meaning to kaji than from kanji to meaning. If I see a kanji I've review I normally nail its meaning right away, but remembering how to write the kanji when I see the meaning is trickier. I think that is mostly because when you see the kanji you can visualize the associated story, but it is more difficult to recall the story if you are working from the meaning.

Since I am working on getting the Kanji down right now I am going to try to blog about one kanji per day as an additional method of helping me to remember, hopefully without undermining the method that I have decided to employ to help me get the kanji down. Generally I'll be sticking to kanji I am having a harder time remembering, and will do so, hopefully, while avoiding any copyright issues. Today though I am going to start with something more fun.

This is the kanj for cat and its kun reading is “neko”. The kanji itself is made up of three primitives. To the left is a primitive Heisig identifies as “dog” and it is a squished version of犬 (at least according to him it is), which is the kanji for dog. On the top right is a primitive that Heisig identifies as flower, and it is not a stand alone kanji. On the bottom right is the kanji for “rice field”, 田. Heisig has a story involving all three elements to help people remember the kanji's meaning, but that's for him to tell, not me (because I don't want to run afoul of IP law).

But I like cats, the internet likes cats, and maybe you do too, so I've shared this with you.
It is used in compounds like:
猫舌 (nekojita) which is the dislike of very hot food or drink.
猫背 (nekoze) which means bent back.
At perhaps a few others.

That's it for today, thanks for reading.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Orthdontics School

So it's attempt number N at a blog, because I've got the time to do this these days. I am going to start by re-posting my Facebook note of a personal statement for Sandy's orthodontics school application.

Sandy asked me for a little assistance in touching up his personal statement, I decided to write something from scratch:

(Note, I didn't bother to proof it).

Since I was in about eighth grade teeth have just called out to me. The white shine of enamel stalks my dreams and brightens my nightmares. Truly, I love teeth. But crooked teeth are an abhorrence to me, my obsessive compulsive disorder demands bring order to those mouths that have failed to find a straight path. Orthodontics is indeed the perfect profession for me as it combines my ardor for teeth with my desire to spread the gospel of the linear.

Perhaps my love of teeth is rooted in my formative years when I was exposed to Timmy the Tooth. While other children were concerning themselves with Super Man, Mighty Mouse, Sailor Moon, and Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, I took a shine to that true defender of democracy, Timmy the Tooth. Teddy Roosevelt once commented on how Timmy the Tooth shaped his upbringing, inspiring him to become New York City police commissioner to bring reforms and was also a key to his joining the progressive movement. In the same way Timmy, the bane of all plaque, inspired me in my youthful years making me yearn to do something great with my life, and so it began. Like Timmy always said, "Speak softly and carry a big toothbrush."

Having completed three years of my dental training I realize that I must continue to pursue greater education, so that I may help the masses who suffer from the curse of crooked. There are many people out there that have the eye to help get teeth clean but we must be sure that our great nation never lacks in people that can help bring an even more perfect smile. Here in the United States we have set high standards for our mouths, our teeth must not waver, they may never fail. Straight teeth are a symbol of our national pride and it sets us apart from our former imperial overlords, who lack the appreciation we have for a more orderly mouth.

I want to do my part, to help the people, to help America. Even though I’m Canadian, I was raised in this country and I have great reverence for our most sacred oral traditions. With my little round mirror and army of assistants I shall embark on a journey to spread even more head gears and retainers throughout our great nation. And that journey starts with you good sirs and madams, with the education you can provide me. Under your tutelage I shall hone my skills and become a tooth corrector without equal. So I beseech thee, help me on my quest, assist me as so that I may assist others.

I shall not back away from my mandate, my quest to banish the chaos so often found within the confines of that center of mastication. I am ready to pursue my career in orthodontics with great zeal, no tooth shall ever be out of place while I’m on the job. I’ll greet each day and each patient with a smile of aligning love and help guide them down the path to a more perfect mouth, for I am an orthodontist at heart and I will never back away from a tooth in need some of repositioning.