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Tools of the Trade

Hello again.

As I mentioned last week, I have begun a weekly blog that will give you a look at one of the ways in which I study vocabulary and kanji living here in Japan. While you may not be able to replicate my process if you do not live in a place with abundant exposure to the language, I do hope that you might find the method, or perhaps the tools, of some use.

As I left my keitai (cell phone) at home on the charger today, I am going to start with a brief outline of the tools that I use, and a bit about their purposes. This will also explain why leaving my cell phone has any relevance to this post. So let’s start there.

携帯 (keitai): Short for 携帯電話 (keitai denwa), this is a word that many of you are likely already familiar with. Cell phones are a very prevalent part of life in Japan for most, as they provide a major means of communication, in addition to functioning as televisions, mp3 players, schedule organizers, and more. As for myself, my second most used feature is text messaging/email. The first is the フリーメモ. If you can read katakana, then you can probably guess what this is – simply a blank memo in which you can save any text. This is my travelogue; this is where I document my journey of discovery. If you don’t have a cell phone with this feature, any type of memo will do – digital, or even the old-fashioned pencil and paper of yore.

rikaichan You may have heard this one mentioned in the podcast. In brief, rikaichan is a plug-in for the Mozilla Firefox web browser that allows you to look up the definition of Japanese words on web pages by a simple mouse roll-over. It also includes a kanji dictionary that allows you to access detailed information regarding individual kanji. In addition to Japanese-English, there are optional Japanese-French, Japanese-German, and Japanese-Russian dictionaries, as well as a names dictionary that will provide readings for place names, personal names, and so-forth. This is an essential tool for any serious learner of Japanese, in my opinion, as well as an indispensible part of my method.

スペースアルク SPACE ALC, commonly referred to as アルク, or ALC, is an online Japanese-English dictionary that provides normal as well as eccentric interpretations of words, and often numerous examples ranging from phrases to sentences to fully-translated documents (perhaps we will discuss this feature later). You can also add this dictionary to your customizable search bar in Mozilla Firefox, which I of course have done, as I use this dictionary quite often. ALC is the tool that turns one new word for the day into an abundance of new words, as well as usually providing a better understanding of the actual meaning through numerous examples, as opposed to a single definition lacking context.

These three tools are not the only tools that I use, but are perhaps the most integral in making my method successful (for me). In addition to these, though, you will need a starting point – a source. Living in Japan, I am surrounded by the language, so most of my sources are simply my environment. The poster on the wall, the book that the guy standing next to me on the train is reading, or perhaps a word that I heard uttered as I pass a couple on the street. I also like to carry a book (in Japanese) with me, in addition to picking up free publications, flyers, etc.

If you are not in Japan, be resourceful. Order a book or magazine, surf random Japanese web sites, visit the local asian food market and look for a Japanese newspaper or other publication. I would also like to introduce a mailing list that I subscribe to and find very useful. The Yookoso Kanji-a-Day and Grammar-a-Day mailing lists consist of 16 different mailing lists – 11 providing daily kanji at various levels, and 5 providing daily grammar at various levels. I personally subscribe to all 16 lists, though I rarely get to check them all. The kanji emails provide stroke order animations, readings, and related vocabulary. The grammar emails provide grammar points with brief explanations, example sentences, and discussion in the comments. While the kanji emails are straightforward, the grammar emails community generated in a fashion similar to Wikipedia, and should thus be read with a discriminating eye.

Next week I will give you a look at how I put these tools into play as I take you along my journey from 天命 (tenmei, divine decree), which started with a glance at a nearby book being read on the train, to 接待 (settai, similar to wining and dining clients), encountered on an event poster at a bookstore. See you then.


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