Some Success

Oarsmen_after_a_boat_race_in_1947In my last post, I talked about my Japanese literacy project, and the various resources I ran across while studying the general use characters (joyo kanji) over the past year.  Along the way, I also ended up taking level N1 of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test.  As with many things related to Japanese study, the JLPT is polarizing: people either treat it like a sacred cow or write it off as, at best, useless. Or maybe only people with strong opinions comment on it…. Either way, I think the test is simply another milepost on the long road to Japanese proficiency.  But it does feel good to pass.

The question is, what do I do now?

Learning to 読む


My major personal project over the last year has been to improve my ability to read Japanese.


In my last post, I talked about some reasons people give for studying languages, and the importance of maintaining motivation.  Part of my motivation for improving my ability to read Japanese is professional: I want to be able to have access to research in my field (clean energy) that is written in Japanese.  More than that, though, I’ve always been interested in languages — and have studied three or four other than Japanese — but have never reached any great level of proficiency.  Mastering the most frequently used kanji characters and their related vocabulary is the best way I see to reach those goals.

At the same time, the opportunity cost of studying Japanese is slowly rising.  I have a growing list of other personal projects that I’d like to take on, including writing this blog more regularly.  Plus, I ain’t getting any younger.  For all these reasons, the time to increase my reading proficiency is now.

Some Principles

My main conclusion from the past year is that it is possible (if difficult) to take a rational approach to learning to read Japanese, based on a few principles!  Such an approach would look something like this:

  1. Be S.M.A.R.T: set specific, measurable, achievable, results-focused and time-limited goals for each of the following steps.  For example, “learn the meaning and writing of the joyo kanji in 3 months.”
  2. Memorize meaning & writing of kanji: Use a mnemonic method (such as Heisig’s) to learn each component of each character, putting these components together to create vivid, unique images that express each character’s distinct meaning.  Heisig claims that once you memorize the meaning of the characters in this way, learning to write them is relatively easy.
  3. Memorize the reading:  Again using a method like Heisig’s, learn principles for grouping each character by its reading(s).
  4. Learn compounds:  Steps 2 and 3 provide a fundamental knowledge of the meaning, writing and reading of individual characters.  In this fourth step, you learn the meaning and usage of two-character compounds (i.e., vocabulary) based on how frequently they are used. There are several free frequency lists out there (e.g., Core 2000), plus other paid compilations like Kanji in Context.  To greatly increase your efficiency at learning vocabulary, memorize the nine word formation principles in Japanese, and apply them as you acquire new words.
  5. Read in your areas of interest:  Assuming you already have a solid understanding of Japanese grammar, this last step helps keep your motivation up — “look, ma, I’m reading Japanese!” — and guides how far you take steps 1-4.  If you want to read newspapers and magazines, learning the 1200 most frequently used kanji and their associated vocabulary should be sufficient to start.  As your interests develop, or you find yourself needing more advanced vocabulary, you can repeat steps 1-4 for the remaining ~800 characters of the joyo kanji, as well as the many more characters outside this standard set.

My Method

Am I following this seemingly reasonable method?  Nope.

If I were starting over from scratch, I am convinced this method would save me some serious time and heartache.  But, because of my long fight with Japanese, and my seeming unwillingness (inability?) to learn kanji in the abstract, divorced from their actual use, I decided to use a hybrid approach.

I jumped in at step 4, and have been systematically going through the Kanji in Context reference book and workbooks (1994 edition, which was recentlly revised). For those characters that are unfamiliar or difficult to remember, I begin with Heisig, creating a vivid image of the meaning associated with the character.  From there, I memorize the readings, noting if the character provides any mnemonic clues (such as a radical whose reading I already know).  After that, I go through the vocabulary lists, keeping the word formation principles in mind.  Finally, I go through the workbook to place the characters in context, putting the example phrase and sentences into Anki (a sophisticated flashcard app).  I generally review my Anki cards daily.

This is probably not the most efficient way to learn the characters, especially given the demands I put on my memory.  But, it seems to be working.  So far, I’ve covered 1350 of the ~1950 characters in the Kanji in Context series, plus associated vocabulary.  Although I’ve progressed in fits and starts over the past 12 months, I have definitely noticed that my reading comprehension and vocabulary have improved.  At this point, acquiring new kanji and vocabulary is noticeably easier than when I started.

Some Tools

Following are the tools that I’ve found most helpful in learning to read the kanji.  That said, methods for learning kanji inspire a lot of passionate debate among self-studiers, so it’s probably best to try out different resources to find what works for you.

  • Kanji in Context: includes a reference book of characters, their readings, and associated vocabulary, as well as two associated workbooks that place the vocabulary in context.  Kanji are arranged into levels by frequency of use, and are grouped within levels by connections in meaning and shape.  The most comprehensive resource I’ve seen for learning the joyo kanji.
  • Heisig’s Remembering the Kanji series: mnemonic aid for remembering characters
  • Anki: free, customizable flashcard system based on spaced recognition
  • Japanese word formation principles: mnemonic aid for learning two-character compounds
  • ja minimal: comprehensive self-study program for Japanese, based on research in the fields of linguistics, memory, and learning (and likely much more — I’ve yet to go too far down that rabbit hole)
  • 日本の論点 (Nihon no Ronten): collection of 100 very short essays on current topics in Japan

That’s what I know so far.  More updates to come.

Why Learn Another Language?

Some lifehackers argue that anyone can become functional (i.e., intermediate high on the Common European Framework) in a language in a very short period of time by following a few strategies (like timeboxing) and working like hell.  But it likely takes a lot longer to reach very high levels of proficiency.  In fact, the relationship between study time and high-level language proficiency may be non-linear — in other words, the path to “mastery” may be full of plateaus.  How much time it takes to learn a language seems to depend on which languages you already know, which language(s) you’re trying to learn, your goal in learning the language, how and how much you study, and most importantly, I think, how you manage your level of motivation.

There are guidelines (attributed to the U.S. State Department’s Foreign Service Institute) for how much time English speakers need, on average, to acquire “general professional proficiency” in various languages. Category 1 languages (those most closely related to English) require about 600 class hours to reach this level.  Category 2 & 3 languages, which are fairly distant from English, require 1100 hours.  Category 4 (“superhard”) languages such as Arabic, Mandarin and Japanese require twice as long as that (~2200 hours of class time) to reach general professional proficiency.  In other words, learning a superhard language requires an amount of time equivalent to a year of full-time work.

It’s significant that the FSI guidelines mention nothing about aptitude or intelligence.  The implication is that anyone, if they put in the time, can learn another language. There is a certain democratic sensibility to these guidelines, but they also imply that the main requirement to learning a language to a high level is sustaining motivation over a long-ish period of time.  I’d like to see some empirical data on this relationship — anyone know any good studies?  My personal experience suggests that it takes a committed adult English speaker (with a job, a family, and eclectic interests) two to three years to reach general professional proficiency in a Category 4 language.  And it has taken more than a decade to increase my proficiency beyond that level (more on that slightly embarrassing admission in my next post).

Maybe more money is sufficient motivation to learn a language?  A recent Freakonomics podcast cites a Harvard study that estimated the labor market returns to second language proficiency at 2%; in other words, a person who knows a second language will, on average, earn a 2% premium compared to a monoglot. That amounts to $1000 on the median U.S. annual income of $50,000 — not a mindbogglingly large sum considering the time involved. (The Economist points out, however, that saving this “language bonus” over a lifetime of work yields a more motivational total of almost $70,000.)  The study also found that some languages receive a higher language bonus (e.g., German at 3.8%), which the authors attribute to there being fewer second language speakers of the language.

One limitation of the study is that it depended on self-reported proficiency, so couldn’t ascertain the returns to different proficiency levels.  It’s possible that someone with very high proficiency could earn a significant salary premium, especially in a high-demand language.  The folks at Freakonomics also don’t compare the returns to learning a language to the returns to other skills, so it’s hard to conclude whether or not learning a language is worthwhile simply from the perspective of the extra time spent and the extra money earned.

If a higher salary can’t necessarily entice us to buckle down on that French, or Spanish, or Mandarin, what might? The answers that come to mind all revolve around the idea that learning a language can provide a person with a new perspective — on another country, a favorite author, or even on him or herself.

On this last point, “hyperpolyglot” Tim Doner makes a point about how he changes his mannerisms and mindset when speaking a foreign language. At a recent TEDx event, Doner talks more about his own motivations for language learning, and suggests that, while words may be easy enough to translate, meaning must be made anew each time we speak.  This tracks with what Kazumi Hatasa, Director of the Middlebury Japanese School, said about language — that it is “generative” — i.e., that you remake yourself in some way when you use a new language.

Language not only provides a window into understanding others — a typical justification for language learning requirements in schools — but may help us to understand ourselves as individuals.  While this last idea is intriguing, I don’t think it’s a powerful enough motivation to sustain interest in learning languages over the long term.  As Timothy Ferris has noted, we should be specific about why we want to learn a language, and should use materials and methods that address those specific motivations.  More on that in my next post.


Shrinking My Anti-library

I own a lot of books I haven’t read.  Many I’ve left in various stages of “read-ness”, some I’ve barely started, and a very few I haven’t opened since I bought them months (years?) ago.  A quick glance at my shelves yields an estimate of the ratio of read to unread books of approximately 1:1 — meaning, of the books I currently own, I have as many yet to read as I’ve already read.  I have to admit that the thought gives me a thrill — so many new books to dip into when I have a moment, not to mention books to revisit.  Alas, not everyone in my family feels the same way.

In my defense, I believe I’m in good company.  In The Black Swan, Nassim Nicholas Taleb proposes the “anti-library”: the notion that the unread books one owns are more valuable than those that have been read, if only because the unread books incessantly and “menacingly” point out the depth (and breadth) of one’s ignorance.  The anti-library is an inoculation against intellectual hubris.

Taleb gives the example of author Umberto Eco, who he reports has a personal library of more than 30,000 tomes, many of which Eco claims remain unread.  (Eco’s website mentions a second library of 20,000 volumes.)  My much more modest collection occupies 32 linear feet of space on four bookshelves in one corner of the apartment.  At approximately one book per inch, that comes to 400 books total, or more than two orders of magnitude fewer than Eco.  Seems about right for now.

Needless to say, my wife isn’t convinced of my need for an anti-library.  Why not just read the books I have before getting more?   In the spirit of domestic harmony (with a side benefit of financial responsibility?), I vowed at the end of 2012 to buy no new books until I had significantly decreased the number of unread books in my possession.

I of course did the easy things first.  I sold some books I had already finished but didn’t want to read again, which reduced the total number of books I own.  (Bad from my perspective, good for domestic harmony.)  Next I procrastinated by going to the library and reading two or three forgettable books on personal finance.  Then I re-read a few of the books I already own: Murakami’s South of the Border, West of the Sun, Le Carre’s Mission Song (a Bildungsroman of “your top interpreter”), and Alain de Botton’s The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work and The Consolations of Philosophy; I also meandered through bits of Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust (a fantastic book on the history and culture of walking).

Finally to the unread pile.  Over the summer I got about halfway through Shogun, and most of the way through Jay Rubin’s translation of Rashomon Then for my day job I read Daniel Yergin’s The Quest, which traces the origins of the changes happening in the energy industry.  Truly fascinating, but also deeply sobering, given the historical pace of technological change in the industry compared with the pace at which many people want the industry to change.

Then one morning as I was eating my eggs, I picked up A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson’s hilarious survey of the history of Western science and the people who made it.  Leaving my breakfast half-finished, I had one of my “I love science!” moments.   Bryson’s book brims with ideas and historical figures that beg to be further investigated — Niels Bohr, Marie Curie, Richard Feynman, Timothy Flannery, Stephen Jay Gould — and that is only one section of the bibliography.  (More on the book in my next post.)

So let’s say I’ve moved three formerly “unread” books to the “read” pile.  It is clear that, no matter the short-term implications of my current enthusiasm for reading my unread books, in the long-term my anti-library will likely only grow.  Apologies to my wife.

Work — Is Less More?

In The ‘Busy’ Trap, Tim Kreider debunks the idea that the frenetic pace of modern work is due only to forces beyond our control, arguing that people who describe themselves as “crazy busy” do so not to complain, but rather to boast. And this ironic shift goes one step further: people not only complain to dodge responsibility for boasting, but are really just boasting to ameliorate their anxiety about the pointlessness of their work.  In other words, busyness is not a condition imposed by external forces (or not only imposed by external forces), but is also, and perhaps mainly, a choice.

Kreider details how he has made the opposite choice: to work 4-5 hours in the morning and then spend the rest of the day with friends, exercising or reading.  Some of the essay sounds like justification for his decisions: “Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets.”  But he ends the piece with a recognition of the tradeoffs he has made:

“My own resolute idleness has mostly been a luxury rather than a virtue, but I did make a conscious decision, a long time ago, to choose time over money, since I’ve always understood that the best investment of my limited time on earth was to spend it with people I love.”

This focus on choosing relationships over greater material gains is echoed in a 2011 Grist post by David Roberts, in which he lays out his concept of the “medium chill,” a slowed-down version of the rat race.  Medium chill means making a choice to “[get] off the aspirational treadmill, forgoing some material opportunities and accepting some material constraints in exchange for spending time on relationships and experiences.”  Roberts describes the medium chill as a type of “satisficing,” or settling for a situation that is good enough rather than optimal.  In the medium chill, there is no need to boast about how busy you are, because busyness is no longer a badge of honor.

So why don’t more of us adopt a medium chill lifestyle?  Roberts draws on social science research to identify several possible reasons.  First, it is particularly difficult for humans to close off possibilities (like making more money).  Second, none of us is good at identifying what will make us happy (and perhaps, beyond a certain point, more money does not do that).  Third, we over-emphasize the impact of external events on our happiness and vastly under-estimate the amount of internal control we have over our happiness.

While I agree with these points, especially the last one, I think that there is another to add.  Neither Kreider nor Roberts delves into the second half of the ironic shift that boasting smoothes over the anxiety we feel about the point of our work.  Many people may default to being busy because they don’t like what they do.  But Kreider and Roberts have found a common activity — writing — that appears to satisfy their professional needs while enabling them to adopt the medium chill lifestyle.  My point is that the kind of reorientation of priorities that Kreider and Roberts discuss may only be possible once a person has identified work that they relatively enjoy, and that enables them to control the location, amount and timing of their work.  I say “relatively enjoy” because searching for the perfect work situation goes against the principle of “good enough” inherent in seeking to be less busy.

Along these lines, in his The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, Alain de Botton is skeptical of our being able to find the perfect work situation, and even more so of the ability of the modem workplace “…to provide us, alongside love, with the principal source of life’s meaning” (p. 30).  His view becomes clear as he observes a career counselor at work:

“…[Symons, the counselor] remarked that the most common and unhelpful illusion plaguing those who came to see him was the idea that they ought somehow, in the normal course of events, to have intuited — long before they had finished their degrees, started families, bought houses and risen to the top of [their professions] — what they properly should have been doing with their lives.  They were tormented by a residual notion of having through some error or stupidity on their part missed out on their true ‘calling’.

“…Symons maintained [that this idea of the true calling] was prone to torture us with an expectation that the meaning of our lives might at some point be revealed to us in a ready-made and decisive form, which would in turn render us permanently immune to feelings of confusion, envy and regret” (p. 113).

In the end, the principle of “good enough” seems to apply not only to how much we work, but also to what kind of work we do.

Re-reading Murakami

I must have read Murakami Haruki’s novel South of the Border, West of the Sun four or five times.  After reading it again recently, I still love it, though something about the behavior of Hajime, the main character, disturbed me for the first time.  He starts out as a regular kid in a regular town, but is transformed by empty success, desire and heartbreak into a troubled middle-aged man.  There is not much endearing about this older Hajime; he is compelling only because of his gradual awakening to that which he lost so many years before–Shimamoto, the girl he loved, and the self that he left behind.  Every time I read this novel, something new strikes me; this time it was the sense that, no matter how much he tries, Hajime can never recapture what he has lost.

Why do Murakami’s writings appeal to me so much?  He often writes of memory, the unconscious, the self and a weird, shifting reality on the other side of our world.  His stories rarely come to a satisfying conclusion. So much of the his characters’ behavior appears to be unknown to them, and is perhaps not even known to Murakami.  This is not because of a lack of introspection in his characters, but instead because his novels seem to point to an essentially unknowable mystery at the center of life.   As a reader, thinking of that place where self-knowledge ends is both strangely comforting and terrifying.  Perhaps that is why I like Murakami’s books.

There is also much to like about Murakami as a writer.  Jay Rubin, translator of his recent books and author of Making Sense of Japanese, quotes Murakami in an interview in which he denies trying to lead a new movement in literature. Rubin uses the quote to illustrate the usage of the Japanese term tsumori, but I was most impressed by how it suggests Murakami’s attitude towards his work:

“‘I never was striving for anything like that [to be at the forefront of the new “urbanization” movement in literature] and I am not striving for it now; I believe that what I have done all along is to concentrate my attention on one point, and that is to write about what I want to write about in the way I want to write about it.'” (Rubin, Making Sense of Japanese, p. 105)

Out of context, this sounds stubborn, if not churlish.  But I take away something else from it, too: trim the fat from life, avoid status anxiety, get shit done.  

This attitude is mirrored in Murakami’s description of his approach to running in What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

“For me, running is both exercise and a metaphor.  Running day after day, piling up the races, bit by bit I raise the bar, and by clearing each level I elevate myself.  At least that’s why I’ve put in the effort day after day: to raise my own level….In long-distance running the only opponent you have to beat is yourself, the way you used to be.” (p. 10)

While Murakami’s character Hajime struggles to recapture something he has lost from the past, Murakami himself appears to dwell only on the future.  I share that sense that you can’t go back.



Forgoing Wheels for Wifi

A new report by the Frontier Group and New Jersey Public Interest Research Group (NJPIRG) describes the shifting contours of American car culture.  Their research found that many 16-34 year-olds are ambivalent about the prospect of owning a car, and that many find that they can satisfy their yearning for connection through social media rather than getting in a car to visit friends.  Public transit, walking and biking numbers are way up in this age group, as is the number of people opting out of getting a driver’s license. It looks like Cupertino is putting the final nail in Detroit’s coffin.

The report rightly calls for a sea change in transportation policy, and, to my mind, not soon enough.  In Washington, D.C. some 25% of adults do not own a car, and the report’s findings suggest this might be because many people have access to a wide variety of transit options made more convenient by smartphone apps, because they want to invest their money elsewhere, or perhaps because they are concerned about vehicles’ impact on the environment.  Still, have you seen the traffic here?   The wider metro area has a long way to go, but proposed changes to land use both in DC and in surrounding counties should help.

A decade ago, I had the fortune of stumbling on a book by James Howard Kunstler called “The Geography of Nowhere“.  A more cantankerous writer I have yet to read, but Kunstler put into words the inchoate angst I felt about the American suburban landscape in which I had grown up.  The strip malls bobbing in a sea of parking spaces, the sunbaked summer days stuck in gridlock, the constant to-ing and fro-ing to friends’ houses, the sidewalk-less cul-de-sacs to nowhere.  Growing up in a landscape antithetical to going anywhere without one, I saw the car not as a key to freedom but as just another encumbrance.  As Kunstler describes, it hadn’t always been this way, both in urban areas and in small towns throughout the country.  Our post-World War II policy choices had reshaped the landscape.

Having lived in several places with more balanced approaches to getting around–approaches that emphasize a mix of transportation options, thoughtful urban planning, and access rather than mobility for its own sake–I believe we are still a long way from achieving any kind of stable coexistence among cars, pedestrians, bikes, buses and trains in most areas of the country.  But some examples do exist, and it seems that people are increasingly moving to places that are walkable and bikeable, and are increasingly pushing for changes to transform their communities.  

Just to be clear, I am not anti-car; I am for shaping (and reshaping) our communities so that using a car to fulfill our daily needs is a choice, not a requirement.  I am for places where our kids can get to school, to their friends’ houses, or to the park without our having to cart them there.  I want similar things for myself.

Apparently, I am not alone.