Beginning to Understand

I think I may be beginning to understand the Japanese writing system. This worries me, because it's not the sort of thing you really expect to understand. Ever.

There's a bit of necessary background information: I have a Spaced Repetition System, that I use for memorizing vocabulary and stuff. I've had it for, oh, about a year now I guess.

The SRS is cool because it makes review automatic. How it works is, for every active card it tracks two things: when is it due to be looked at next (due date/time), and how long is that since the previous time (repetition interval). When you get a card right without any trouble and click the "Correct" button (after showing the answer to check yourself), it increases the interval geometrically and requeues the card based on the new interval. If you have trouble remembering but do get it, you can click "Difficult", and the interval stays about the same. If you don't quite get it, but almost, "Close" will shorten the interval a bit, and if you just plum forgot or missed outright, there's a button that will cut the interval down to a fraction of its former value. There's also an "Easy" button that increases the interval by a couple orders of magnitude. Anyway, the normal state of affairs, once you get your multipliers tweaked to match your personal learning rate, is that *most* of the time you remember the card and click the "Correct" button, with the result that the interval climbs from minutes to hours within the first couple of days, then from days to weeks, and it just keeps climbing from there. The better you know a card, the longer you can go and still know it.

New cards are introduced as necessary based on how far apart your active cards are spaced. You can also dequeue a new active card any time you want, if you just feel you're ready for a new one, and there's a review-only mode that never gives you any new ones. But usually I just let it give me new ones when it thinks I'm ready. Cards that aren't active yet have a "cue number" that controls the order in which they are introduced.

I've got a number of different kinds of things in the SRS: English words, Hebrew words, Japanese characters and words, Bible verses, geography, US Constitutional amendments, whatever I want to memorize that breaks up into bite-sized pieces. I spend roughly half an hour a day using it, broken up into 5-10 minute segments here and there.

So here's the story: months and months ago, I put the word 七曜表 into my SRS. Since I didn't yet know two of the three characters used to write it, I gave it a cue number higher than either of them. At the time I was putting in a bunch of words just so there'd be something there to dequeue whenever I needed it. I then promptly forgot about the word until it came up.

You also need to know that in the Japanese writing system, each character has multiple possible "readings" (pronunciations). There are also a couple of different major *kinds* of readings, "on" readings and "kun" readings being the important ones for most purposes. In my SRS, I always list on readings before kun readings, and they show up in a different color, so *hopefully* I'm getting at least a general sense of which is which. In my SRS I list the readings in kana (the portion of the Japanese writing system that's strictly phonetic in nature, which makes it perfect for pronunciation guides). Here, however, I shall attempt to render these pronunciations in a manner that will make sense for English speakers, on the theory that some of the people reading this might not know kana.

So anyway, as of a couple of days ago I've now reached the point where I've studied all three of the characters used to write this word. 七 can be pronounced either "she-chee" or "na-na" and means seven. 曜 is "yo" (with the o held for two beats; a rare character with only one major reading) and its basic meaning is day, as in day of the week. The third character, 表, is one that I only started studying a couple of days ago and am still reviewing multiple times per day. It has three major readings. The first one is unspellable in English; the traditional transliteration would be "hyo", but you're going to want to make that two syllables, and it's only one: the "hy" is a blend. (The y sound is pretty much the *only* blend-forming phoneme in the Japanese language. They don't really have l or r, and they don't form blends with s or z or w.) Oh, and the "o" is held for two beats. The character can also be read "oh-moe-tay" or "ah-dah-wah-sue". (That "d" is not exactly a normal d. It's a lateral alveolar flap consonant, often transliterated as "r". It sounds sort of like "l", only different. It's closer to d than r. If you know Spanish, it's said to be more like a Spanish r than it is like an English r.) This character carries the idea of displaying or showing or expressing something or making an annotation the concept of a surface or table. (Oops, got it mixed up with another character I'm still learning.)

So the card comes up, and I look at it, and I guess based on its structure that I should be using the on readings, so I come up with "she-chee-yo-hyo" (with each o held for two beats) as my best-guess pronunciation. Then I think about the meaning. Seven-day display? Showing seven days? What, a calendar or something?

And then I clicked the "show answer" button, and... wow. Both my pronunciation guess and my meaning guess were dead-on. That's... weird. Normally when a new card is first dequeued, I expect to get it at least partly wrong the first three or four times I see it, until I finally start getting it pounded into my thick skull. But this one... well, it just sort of made sense.

And that's a major milestone. Because when I first started studying the Japanese writing system, I did not think any part of it (well, other than the kana) would ever make any sense.


Mark said...

Interesting stuff you're doing there. :)

Jonadab said...

Another example just came up. Besides vocabulary, my SRS also has some geography in it, including the prefectures of Japan. (Each card has a map image, so I can memorize the location of each place. There are also cards for the capitals.) Now, having slight perfectionist (and, arguably, possibly also masochist) tendencies, when I made up the geography cards for the prefectures, I went ahead and used the Japanese names for them, written in Chinese characters the way they would be on a Japanese map.

So, this morning, one that I haven't studied yet came up for the first time: 長崎県. Now, I suspected immediately that it was a prefecture, because that's the only meaning I know for 県. But I also knew immediately, out of the twenty or thirty prefectures that I haven't studied yet, that this one was Nagasaki prefecture.

Bear in mind, I learned three readings for 長 (basic meaning, "long"): ちょう (cho, long o, held; this is an on reading), なが-い (roughly na-guy, a kun reading), and おさ (oh-sah, another kun reading). And I learned 崎 (basic meaning: rough, jagged, or uneven) with two readings: キ (key, an on reading) and さき (sa-key, a kun reading). Theoretically, there are at least six ways to put those together, not counting variants (such as adding voicing to the first phoneme of the second symbol, which is common in compounds). But somehow I just glanced at this thing and said, "Oh, Nagasaki prefecture."

Six months ago I'd have had no idea how to pronounce 長崎県.

So yeah, it's a little thing, but I count it as progress.

Jonadab said...

Incidentally, long and jagged describes the geography of Nagasaki prefecture pretty well.