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Language diary #4

In this post, I am talking about some highlights of February and the books I am currently reading.

Interview with Koipun

The highlight of these past days is without a doubt my interview with Gabriel from Koipun. If you don’t know Koipun, it is a site dedicated to learning Japanese, it provides reading guides for manga and games (upcoming) and Anki decks for the textbook Genki.

I participated in the interview series on learning Japanese. I wrote more about me and how I have learned Japanese during this interview than I have ever done on my blog! If you are interested in knowing more about how I started reading in Japanese, you can have a look at my interview with Koipun!

My first novel in Korean!

The second recent highlight is that I have finished my very first novel in Korean by a Korean author. I have learned Korean, but my reading level is much lower than my Japanese reading level. I have read 2 or 3 translations into Korean of American best-sellers, but I have never been able to read a Korean author before.

The book I have read is a detective novel by Jayeong YUN (윤자영) called <교동회관 밀실 살인사건>. I loved it and I wrote a review about it. I am currently working on a new blog for Korean books!

I have finished 『誰か』by Miyuki MIYABE (宮部みゆき)!

Third highlight: I have finished the novel『誰か』! I started it in December 2018 so it took me 2 months to read! I liked it, but I didn’t find it very engrossing and I took long breaks between the chapters. The review is still on the making!

Currently reading

As usual, this is an overview of the books that I am currently reading in Japanese:

Harry Potter

I am still reading Harry Potter and The Chambers of Secrets in Japanese. It was published in two volumes in Japanese and I have finished the first one. While it does not mean anything (because it is still the same book), it is somehow rewarding to reach the end of a volume!

『スマホを落としただけなのに』by Akira SHIGA (志駕晃 )

This book is, I think, a best-seller since there has been a film adaptation by Hideo NAKATA. I purchased the audiobook some months ago, and I have listened to it twice since then. I am very pleased with it because I can understand it well.

I have decided to also buy the book and read it while listening to the audiobook. It is a good exercise to improve both my reading and listening level. There are a lot of things that I did not understand when I listened to the audio but that I understand while reading.

As I already know the story, I am not reading the book every day so it will certainly take a while before I finish it. I will write a review of both the book and the audiobook when I finish it.

『向田理髪店』by Hideo OKUDA (奥田英朗)

This is another book that I am reading slowly because each chapter focuses on a different story and I tend to take a break when I finish a chapter. I have read three of the six stories.

『誓約』by Gaku YAKUMARU (薬丸岳)

This is my most recent acquisition! I have never read Gaku YAKUMARU before, and I have chosen this book because the summary was very appealing to me. It is about a buried past that comes back to haunt the narrator’s present life.

I have just started it, but this book looks engrossing and easy to read so maybe I will finish it before all the others!

Book review: 『ジャッジメント』by Yuka Kobayashi

Introduction

Title: 『ジャッジメント』(Judgement)
Author: Yuka KOBAYASHI (小林 由香)
Published by 双葉文庫 (Futaba bunko)

『ジャッジメント』is Yuka KOBAYASHI’s first novel. It is a short novel of 284 pages. While it has a single narrator that evolves throughout the chapters, each of the five chapters is devoted to a different and independent story.

The setting

The story is set in a fictive Japan where two justice systems coexist. The law as it is now, and the law of retaliation that was implemented to respond to the increase of violent crimes in the last years. The injured party (mostly, the family of the victim) can choose between the two systems. If they choose the law of retaliation, they can avenge themselves on the guilty party in a special facility for executions. Our narrator, Ayano TORITANI, works there. He is in charge of the injured party, follows them as they make their choice and supervises the execution.

Why I loved it

I chose this book because I like reading novels about justice and morality, particularly novels that question the death penalty. By creating a fictional setting where the law of retaliation is implemented, Yuka KOBAYASHI initiates interesting discussions about what is right and what is a good justice.

While the setting and the cover made me think that the novel would contain elements of violence, this book is not at all a horror story. On the contrary, the novel uses the themes of vengeance and retribution to analyse the complexity of human relationships, especially inside the family. I was surprised to see that the book has much more depth than I expected.

The five stories are told from the point of view of the victim’s family or close relations. I found each of the story very sad, and the book is certainly not a light-hearted read. While it reads like a page-turner, I often had to close the book and take a break!

This book is thought-provoking and won’t leave you indifferent. I was sometimes sad, sometimes angry, and I sometimes wished that the characters had made another choice. In any case, I loved 『ジャッジメント』and I will certainly read Yuka KOBAYASHI’s second novel 『罪人が祈るとき』.

JLPT Journal #4: How I study N1 grammar

I am writing three JLPT posts on how I study vocabulary, grammar and kanji. This is the second one, and it’s all about grammar!

Two resources

I am using two resources to learn N1 grammar. The first one is So-matome grammar and the second one is the dictionary 『日本語文型辞典』.

I use the So-matome mainly for its structure. I like that similar grammar is grouped together and the quantity of new content in each lesson is perfect for me.

However, I think that the book lacks explanations, and I am often unable to understand the difference between two different grammar points, or even, to tell exactly what a grammar rule means. This is where the dictionary is useful.

How I study new grammar

I am studying 2 or 3 lessons of So-matome per week.

First of all, I read the whole page and decide whether or not I understand the grammar in it. For example, I understood the grammar くらいなら at once, and I didn’t think that I needed further explanations. The example sentence そんなことをするくらいなら、死んだほうがましだ (I would rather die than do that) was clear enough.

In this case, I only read the example sentences twice, make sure I understand them well and start creating my physical flashcards (see the section below).

But to be honest, most of the time, I don’t understand the grammar well. So-matome does not give any explanation concerning the grammar points. The book gives an equivalent in Japanese and a translation in English. While it is enough to understand what the sentence means, I don’t think that it is enough to really master the grammar point. When is it used? What nuance, what meaning does it convey? What is the intention of the speaker when using this grammar?

Moreover, I find that the So-matome book tends to present several different grammar points as if they were the same. It certainly comes from the compact layout of the series.

In this case, I need to study with the dictionary. I look up all the grammar that I don’t understand and take notes on a loose paper sheet.

To give you a concrete example:

The lesson of week 3 day 1 presents three different grammar points using まで. The problem is that the book presents several different grammar points in the same section. The best example is the first “grammar” called までだ. This is how the book looks like:

As you can see, the example sentences have very different meanings. The first one means “I just wanted to…”, the second one and the third one have the meaning of “I don’t have another choice than to…” and the last one means “it is not useful at all”. I was very confused about what exactly the grammar meant. When I looked up the dictionary, I realised that there were three different grammar points here: Vる+まで, Vた+まで and それまで.

Explaining these grammar points is not the point of this post, so I will just show you the kind of notes I take:

I always try to explain the grammar in my mother tongue (French) and give an equivalent in French. More importantly, writing these three columns really made things clear to me: three different grammar points, three different meanings.

I have a lot of similar notes. It does take some time to look up the dictionary and write things down, but it is this process that really makes me understand and remember the grammar. I remember that at school, our teacher would tell us to re-write our lesson using our own words, instead of just reading it over and over. This is exactly what I am doing, I am re-writing the So-matome in my own words, using my mother tongue, using my own structure and layout. Only then can I say: I know exactly what this grammar means.

How I review the previous lessons

Reviewing the grammar has always been a challenge to me. Until now, I could not find a good method to review the lessons I had learned, and I always had the feeling that I was forgetting the previous rules as soon as I was learning a new one.

This year, I finally found a method that works for me: using physical flashcards. I have never been into physical flashcards, and I have always considered it unpractical. I have used Anki extensively to learn vocabulary and grammar, and two years ago, I would probably have created an Anki deck for grammar. But some time ago, I saw someone showing their physical flashcards on Twitter and thought that I could give it a try myself. I have been using this system for a month now, and I can say that it works and that I will stick to it.

This system allows me to reduce the time I spend studying Anki. While I love Anki and could not do without it, I don’t like spending too much time with it. If I were to learn vocabulary, grammar and kanji with Anki, all my study time would be spent adding new notes to Anki and studying one deck after the other.

Physical flashcards vs Anki flashcards

While physical flashcards do not provide a spaced repetition system, they also have advantages:

  • First of all, I like having the cards in my hand and physically touch them. It might sound strange, but I remember a grammar point or sentence more easily if I have it in my hand, written in my handwriting. The physical contact somehow supports the memorising process.
  • I don’t have an SRS (Spaced Repetition System), but I still can create a system to roughly manage my cards. I keep it simple and only have three groups of cards: the new cards that need to be reviewed quickly, the cards I don’t know well and that I need to review regularly, the cards I know well and can review only once in a while.
  • I don’t review grammar every day, so not using Anki is a plus here. Sometimes, I even spend 3 or 4 days without reviewing the grammar. When I do, I just grab some of my cards (the new ones or the ones I don’t know well) and review them. I don’t feel overwhelmed with 200 cards waiting for me in my Anki deck.
  • Sometimes, I have 5 or 10 minutes of inactivity between two things. It is easy to grab a pile of cards and review some of them for 5 minutes. I could open Anki and start a custom study, but I don’t usually do it.
  • I know that there are tags in Anki, but I still find it easier to group and manage the flashcards on paper. Sometimes, I want to keep several grammar points together and study them together because they are similar. It is easily managed with physical flashcards, just group them together in a single pile. I have never taken the time to master tags in Anki.

I am not saying that physical flashcards are better than Anki or Memrise, but it is a different way of studying and while learning on paper is the old method, after years of using Anki it feels quite new. I would never prefer physical flashcards to Anki when it comes to vocabulary (I would end up with thousands of cards!), but as far as grammar is concerned, it is manageable and offers a bunch of advantages.

How I create the flashcards

I have always reviewed grammar through example sentences. I think that it is the best way to remember both the meaning of the grammar point, how it is formed and in which context it is used.

To create my flashcards, I use the example sentences of So-matome. On the front side, I write the sentence and leave a blank space for the grammatical pattern. I also write the equivalent in easier Japanese (provided by So-matome). On the back, I write the answer with the grammatical structure in a different colour.

The underlined part is the answer. I write the grammar (in bold in So-matome) in colour on my flashcard. I use the equivalent given in Japanese as a hint. I don’t write the English translation.
I use rubber bands of different colours to group my cards: new cards in green, cards I need to review regularly in yellow and cards I know well in pink.
I find that Instax mini are perfect to separate the cards I want to study together. I also thought of using a blank card and drawing something funny and encouraging on it.

Track N1 grammar in native resources

The most interesting part of the process is to track the N1 grammar in native resources (mainly novels in my case). For most of the N1 grammar, there is an easier way to convey a similar meaning so it might be frustrating to learn these grammar points, especially for the purpose of speaking. If you already know one easy way of conveying something, why learn another complicated grammar rule?

But N1 grammar is widely used in Japanese media, and this becomes obvious when you start reading in Japanese. While I have been learning the N1 grammar for only a little more than a month, I have already seen several occurrences of the grammar I have learned in books.

To give you some examples, I saw the grammar Nだの…Nだの in a novel the day after I studied it. Honestly, when I learned this grammar, I had this suspicion that many learners have when studying advanced grammar “what’s that? I never saw this structure before?! It’s probably never used! I’m learning useless grammar points!!”. And the day after that, I saw this sentence: 「あんた、本当にカフェだのラジオ局だので、町が蘇ると思ってるべか?」. In the novel, people are discussing several ways of giving a new life to the deserted mine coal town they live in. Someone is dismissing the idea that the town can find vitality again through cafés or radio stations. (『向田理髪店』by Hideo Okuda, p49.)

Another example is the grammar point なり. It has different meanings depending on the grammatical pattern in which it is used. Since I learned it, I saw an occurrence for two of its meanings. The first one is the structure Vる+なり which means “as soon as”. I saw this structure in Harry Potter, The Chamber of Secrets (p.132). When Harry and Ron arrive at Hogwarts in Ron’s father’s car, they are first confronted by Snape. Then professor McGonagall comes and “as soon as she enters” the room waves her wand: 「部屋に入ってくるなり、先生は杖を振り上げた。」(spoiler: it was just to light the fire.) 

In another novel, I saw the expression “自分なりの答え”, which would certainly be translated by “one’s own answer”. I find the nuance given by なり hard to explain, but I somehow understood it better thanks to the context of the novel. In the novel, the family members of a murder victim are asked whether they want to choose the retaliation law to avenge themselves on the murderer. They usually start talking about the victim to find their “own” answer. (『ジャッジメント』by Yuka Kobayashi, p. 183.)

Finding N1 grammar in native resources is the fun part of studying grammar. In these moments, I feel that I am not working for the purpose of the JLPT only, but that I am improving my level in Japanese and becoming better at reading.

Conclusion

This is my system to study and review the grammar. I will stick to it as long as I am studying the So-matome textbook. I don’t know it this system will change when I skip to another textbook (probably the Shin Kanzen), but I think that I will keep making and reviewing flashcards until the end of the year!

Book review: 『継続捜査ゼミ』by Bin Konno (今野敏)

Bin Konno’s novel『継続捜査ゼミ』was first published by Kodansha in 2016. The pocket edition I have read was released in 2018.

『継続捜査ゼミ』 is the first book of the series 継続捜査ゼミ and the second volume, 『エムエス 継続捜査ゼミ2 』was published at the end of 2018.

See the publisher’s page of the novel for a presentation of the book and the characters.

The setting

Ichiro KOBAYAKAWA has retired from the police and is now a professor at a women’s university. Kobayakawa is in charge of a seminar called 刑事政策演習ぜみ or more casually 継続捜査ゼミ. Five students are in the seminar. Together, they will study an unsolved murder case that occurred 15 years ago.

Mysteries also happen on the campus and our little group will investigate.

A lot of dialogues

The feature that sets this book apart is its structure: the book is almost entirely composed of dialogues. It makes it easy to read and it is one of the reasons why I have read it so quickly (it took me less than a week).

Despite the lack of descriptions and narrative passages, you get to know the characters well and have a good picture of each student’s personality through their dialogues. The way they talk, what they say and how they react tell a lot about them. Telling a story almost only through dialogues feels very refreshing to me, and I thought it was brilliantly done.

What I love the most in detective stories is the moment when the characters sit down and discuss the case. Well, 『継続捜査ゼミ』 is almost entirely composed of people who sit down to discuss the case. If you are looking for action, investigation and clues, you will be disappointed with this book. On the contrary, if the idea of sitting down at a seminar table and discuss an old murder case with a retired detective is appealing to you, then you must read this book!

Relatively easy to read

I found this book relatively easy to read for a Japanese learner. The beginning is a little challenging because they discuss the 公訴時効 (statute of limitations – thanks Kazen for the translation!). At this stage, difficult vocabulary appears, but it is just the beginning. The rest of the novel is much easier to read, mainly because it is based on dialogues.

Conclusion

I loved this novel, it was easy to read, and it felt refreshing to read a detective novel where discussions are the core of the investigation. I also liked the characters. In the end, I felt like I knew them well and was myself a participant to the seminar. I will definitely read the second volume of the series. I am just waiting for a pocket release!

Language diary #3 monthly review

January is already over and it is time for my monthly review!

Reading goals

My reading goals for January were:

And I am sad to say that I haven’t finished Miyuki MIYABE’s novel 『誰か』… I like the main character Saburo SUGIMURA and I want to finish the book because I want to know what will happen to him. The plot, however, is not very appealing. I have reached a point where a part of the detective case is solved… in what is, in my opinion, a rather disappointing way.

I will continue the book for the sake of its protagonist and because I still want to read the rest of the series. (I am hoping that the following books will be better.)

My other goal was to read at least one other book, and I have achieved it by reading two other novels: 『ボクたちはみんな大人になれなかった』 by Moegara (book review) and 『推理作家(僕)が探偵と暮らすわけ』by Shiki KUZUMI (book review).

N1 JLPT goals

My JLPT goals for January were:

  • Grammar: 2 or 3 lessons per week in So-matome: by the end of January, I must be somewhere between week 2 day 3 and week 3 day 1.
  • Vocabulary: 2 units per week in Speed Master: by the end of January, I must be reaching unit 10
  • Kanji: review N2.

Grammar: I have studied 2 lessons rather than 3 lessons per week. I hope that I can do better in February. I have reached week 2 day 6.

Vocabulary: I have reached unit 8, but I plan to study unit 9 this week. Still, I must have skipped one day without realising it! 😅

Kanji: N2 review done!

Currently reading

I am still reading Harry Potter and of course, 『誰か』! 

『向田理髪店』by Hideo OKUDA (奥田英朗)

I found this book in a bookshop and I bought it because the cover was cute, haha. I have read the first chapter and I like it. It tells the story of a fictional town called Tomazawa 苫沢町 and its inhabitants. Tomazawa is one of these coal mine towns in Japan which have flourished at the end of the 19th Century but have lost their raison d’être with the change of energy policy and the transition to oil.

The first chapter was absorbing!

Goals for February!

This time, I must finish 『誰か』! I also want to finish reading『向田理髪店』and read another detective novel. Last year, my reading goal was to read one Japanese book per month, so I thought that I could aim at two novels per month in 2019. But as things turn out, I am reading 3 per months!

I am not setting reading goals for Harry Potter in Japanese, I am reading it to relax.

As for the JLPT, I will go with 3 lessons of grammar per week (let’s see if I can do it!) and 2 units of vocabulary per week. I am also very excited to start the So-matome kanji book for N1. I will study 2 lessons per week.

JLPT Journal #3: How I study Vocabulary

I am preparing for the JLPT N1 (December 2019), and I thought I would write three posts on how I tackle vocabulary, grammar and kanji. Let’s start with vocabulary!

One textbook only

For now, I am only using one textbook, the 『日本語単語スピードマスター』, advanced (see a review of the book of Japanese Talk Online)

So far, I love this book, and I find it more practical than the So-matome or the Shin Kanzen books that I had used for N2. Both these methods had a tendency to present the new words in groups of words. It was a way to learn several words at the same time and grasp the context in which these words had to be used. But the downside was that I found it very hard to study.

To give you an example, the Shin Kanzen textbook had groups of words like 財務省次年度予算案を作成した or 政府財政的課題取り組む. How do you study such words? Do you only learn the words? or do you learn the whole sentence? I remember that these short sentences were a nightmare to me! 

Plus, there is no real way to review with the textbook, as all the kanji have furigana and, as far as the Shin Kanzen is concerned, no translation. You could hide the furigana to quiz yourself of the pronunciation, but it is not easy.

This is an example of how the Shin Kanzen N2 (on the left) and the So-matome N1 (on the right) presents the vocabulary. The layout might vary depending on the chapter.

In 『日本語単語スピードマスター 』, you only learn one word at a time and almost every word comes with an example sentence. To me, this makes everything easier.

This is a page from 『日本語単語スピードマスター 』(advanced). All units have the same layout.

Apart from layout matters, the main difference between So-matome and Shin Kanzen on one side and the 『日本語単語スピードマスター 』 on the other side is that the latter does not have exercises. Both So-matome and Shin Kanzen have a series of JLPT like exercises that quiz you on the words you have just learned. The Shin Kanzen method is particularly strong on this point, with a good set of challenging exercises in each chapter.

On the contrary, 『日本語単語スピードマスター 』 is just composed of lists of words. I will have to make vocabulary drills separately then!

The method also comes with a CD, but I am not using it.

How I am studying

I am learning 2 units per week. Some are longer than others, but the longer ones tend to have more words that I already knew, so it does not bother me.

First, I read all the words and sentences once. Then I come back on all the words I didn’t know and try to remember them by repeating them several times, and by having a good look at the kanji. I always try to understand how the kanji make sense in the word, why the word is composed of these kanji and not others. It helps me to understand the word and remember it. For example, I had to learn the words 債権・さいけん (credit) and 債務・さいむ (debt). At first, I thought “pff, difficult words to learn”, but then I observed the kanji and realised that the word “credit” is composed of “debt” and “right” and the word “debt” is composed of “debt” and “duty”, which makes sense. These two words are much easier to remember now!

If I stumble across an unknown kanji, I look it up. I personally use the app The Kodansha Kanji Learner’s Dictionary (Revised and Expanded) for iPhone.

Then I make the first review using the red card provided with the book. At this stage, I don’t really expect myself to have remembered all the words. It is just a way to be sure that I am learning actively, and that I am not just staring blankly at the words without making conscious efforts to remember them.

The red card covers the pronunciation and meaning of a word. You only see the word in kanji (or hiragana). My aim is to pronounce the word and give its meaning. I don’t try to write it or learn it in the direction English to Japanese.

How I review the words

First of all, I only review using the textbook itself and the red card. I don’t use Anki to learn the N1 vocabulary.

I am learning 2 units per week, so I work on vocabulary only twice a week. Until now, I have reviewed the previous units before starting my new unit. This means that I only review twice a week.

The problem is to know which words I should review. There are three possibilities:

  • First, I could mark the words that are difficult to me and review these words only. The problem is that I cannot write in a book, even a textbook. I just cannot.
  • Then, I could review only some units. For example, if I review twice a week, I could review the first five units on day 1 and the following five units on day 2. Obviously, I will have to review more than twice a week if I want to review all the units regularly.
  • Finally, I could review all the units that I have already studied twice a week. It does not take so much time. For now, this is what I am doing because I have just started. I will certainly have to set a new strategy when I have dozens of units to review (there are 69 units in the book)

Not using Anki to review feels very fresh and new to me. For N2, I have studied vocabulary in Anki only. Reviewing words directly in the book might be less efficient, but it also has advantages:

  • First, I fully take advantage of the book’s structure. The words are grouped by topics, and each unit is devoted to a theme. If I had added the words to Anki, I would have had lost this structure.
  • It’s refreshing to study vocabulary outside Anki. While studying N2, I had the feeling that I was spending all my study time in Anki (studying Anki took me more than one hour). In the end, opening my deck felt like a painful task.
  • I tend to remember the words more easily when I learn them on paper. Of course, the position of the page helps and I might not remember the words as well as with Anki. But seeing the word on paper rather than on the screen appeals more to me.

I am not saying that this method is perfect, but I am satisfied with it for now!

Native material

To complement the work I am doing with the textbook, I am tracking down N1 words in the novels I read. Every time I see such a word in a novel, I write the sentence down.

I took the habit of having a memo pad with me when I read. I jot down thoughts about the book, characters name, things that I want to write in my review, and so on. If I find a word (or grammar) I learnt for N1, I will also write down the sentence in which it appeared.

While learning words in the textbook can be a little artificial sometimes, seeing them in context allows me to remember them better. It is a slow process, but it is a great way to make vocabulary stick!

Conclusion

This is how I am studying vocabulary for N1. It is certainly not the perfect method, but it seems to be working for me. More importantly, it feels fresh and new, and I feel happy to open my book and study/review N1 vocabulary in it.

Book review: 『推理作家(僕)が探偵と暮らすわけ』by Shiki KUZUMI

This is my review of the light novel『推理作家(僕)が探偵と暮らすわけ』by Shiki KUZUMI (久住四季).

This novel tells the story of Jun TSUKISE, a young author of detective novels, and his new flatmate Seishiro RINDO, a private detective. By the setting only, it is impossible not to think of John Watson and Sherlock Holmes, and the story soon confirms that it is indeed inspired by the BBC series.

If you have watched Sherlock, you will find numerous allusions and hints to it in Kuzumi’s novel. From the personality of both protagonists to the details of their first meeting, the novel keeps echoing the British series.

To be honest, it bothered me a little at first; I had preferred something more original. But soon it became obvious that despite many similitudes, Jun and Seishiro are unique characters, not just copies of Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’ depiction of John and Sherlock. Moreover, the cases they solve are fresh and new.

I found the book very entertaining and almost impossible to put down once I started it. It is easy to feel sympathy for the narrator Jun, and I liked the insights into a writer’s life and work. I also liked the humour in the book and while I was not entirely convinced by the cases, they were intriguing enough to keep me engrossed until the end.

If you like reading light novels and detective stories, or/and if you like the BBC series Sherlock and would like to read something similar but with a Japanese touch, you will certainly like this novel. I found it easy to read in Japanese too, though the second story (there are two chapters and two cases) was a little more difficult than the first one.

This book looks very much like the beginning of a series, and I will definitely read the following volume if, or hopefully when, it comes out!